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Memoirs of a German-Jewish Painter

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim was an important German painter of the 19th century. He was probably the first Jewish visual artist to gain world renown. At an advanced age, he wrote an autobiography intended as a memoir for his family; it was not published during his lifetime. In 1924, his grandson Alfred Oppenheim, who was also a painter, published the manuscript as a book; it was reprinted in 1999 and 2013.

According to family memories, Oppenheim was born in late December 1799 in Hanau, a town east of Frankfurt am Main. (Wikipedia and other sources report a date of birth at the beginning of January 1800.) His Jewish family lived in economically relatively secure conditions, even though the Hanau Jews still had to live in the ghetto at that time and had to face a variety of discriminations. Although the legal betterment of the Jews in Germany at this time made progress in the wake of the emancipatory efforts of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing or Moses Mendelssohn, and especially after the French Revolution, it should nevertheless take decades before the legal equality of Jews in Germany was realized. Oppenheim’s autobiography is so interesting because it not only traces an individual artist’s life, but because it is also a practical example of how this process of Jewish emancipation in Germany in the 19th Century progressed: slowly and characterized by numerous setbacks.

A relatively big part of Oppenheim’s autobiography is devoted to his childhood and youth. Loving and caring parents who focused on providing their children with a good education evidently laid the foundation for his well-balanced character and for being knowledgeable about many subjects, not only about those necessary for a later career. Oppenheim attended the local Talmud Torah school, but received also private lessons. Later he went to a regular high school, together with Christian students. In addition, he and one of his brothers received permission from the father to attend the local drawing academy, where his artistic talent showed early; but young Moritz Daniel didn’t initially plan a professional future as an artist – he originally wanted to become a doctor. From his mother, the young Oppenheim inherited his love for literature and theater – the mother read for example Goethe’s Hermann and Dorothea and attended sometimes theater performances together with her son; these visits inspired Moritz Daniel to set up a puppet theater in the attic of their home (this feels a bit reminiscent of Wilhelm Meister).

What follows are the years at the Hanau and later at the Munich Academy, in which Oppenheim trains his talent as a draftsman and in oil painting. In retrospect, Oppenheim remembers his teachers and supporters of that period with warmth and gratitude, but he also peppers his memoirs with a few humorous anecdotes. The self-portrait, which he created as a 16-year-old, is already proof of his considerable talent and self-confidence.

Self-Portrait, 1814-1816, Oil on canvas, 98.3×83.5 cm, Jewish Museum, New York City

To broaden his horizons Oppenheim studied afterwards in Paris and later in Italy, the country for which so many German artists of his time were yearning. In Paris, he seems to have been a frequent visitor of the legendary Café de la Régence; in his biography he mentions the meeting with Aaron Alexandre there, a rabbi born in Germany, who emigrated to France during the French Revolution and who is remembered today mainly as the author of the monumental chess problem book Collection des plus beaux Problèmes d’Echecs. Alexandre was considered to be one of the world’s best chess players of his time.

More productive in artistic terms was for Oppenheim his subsequent longer stay in Italy. He attached himself looseley to the circle of the Nazarenes, an art movement that exercised a certain influence on him, but which he quickly outgrew. Particularly valuable was in addition to his contacts with Friedrich Overbeck in Rome especially the friendship with the then already famous Bertel Thorvaldsen. The senior Danish sculptor and draftsman was in Rome something like Oppenheim’s artistic mentor, and he provided artistic guidance as well as contacts with potential customers who would be interested to buy Oppenheim’s works.

If Oppenheim had expected that he would not experience any anti-Jewish resentment among fellow artists in his Italian environment, he was wrong. Both among his colleagues and among Italian acquaintances, he experienced frequently more or less open exclusion as soon as he was recognized as a Jew. In order to avoid this exclusion, several painters of Jewish origin converted to Christianity at that time (as did also the writers Heinrich Heine and Ludwig Börne). Oppenheim, who was obviously much more deeply rooted in Judaism than many others, did not follow this path. He managed to gain broad recognition and success in his later life as a Jewish painter in Germany.

One can attest Oppenheim an excellent sense of the social position of his clients and other people important for his advancement. He almost effortlessly won major Jewish art collectors, such as those from the Rothschild family, as buyers for portraits. When the still rather young Oppenheim visited Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Weimar in 1827 – the visit was preceded by an exchange of letters in which Goethe apparently obtained a positive impression of the young man’s talent and character -, he was awarded at Goethe’s request with an order and a paid professorship with no teaching commitments. From that moment on, Oppenheim was a man who became known in important circles also outside the Jewish community.

What followed was a very successful life as an artist; Oppenheim presents himself as a man for whom a fulfilled family life was very important and he also seems to have lived in great harmony as a husband (after the early death of his first wife, he married a second time) and father of six children. I found this second part of the autobiography – apart from the sections on the 1848/49 revolution – a little less interesting, although all in all this brief autobiography is an important and instructive document.

Here are a few more of Oppenheim’s works. He was particularly popular as a portrait painter, as the following three portraits of writers illustrate:

Portrait of Heinrich Heine, 1831, Oil on paper on canvas, 43×34 cm, Kunsthalle Hamburg
Portrait of Ludwig Börne in his study, 1827, Oil on canvas, 120×90 cm, Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Portrait of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe with illustrations from his works, after 1828, Oil on canvas, Goethe-Haus, Frankfurt am Main

Scenes from Jewish life in Germany were another frequent subject of Oppenheim’s artworks. Prints based on Oppenheim’s paintings were a frequent adornment of many Jewish homes in the 19th and 20th centuries. They not only showed the everyday life of Jewish families who succeeded to leave the ghetto behind, but would also provide a clear message – particularly in the next painting -: that it is possible to be a Jew, following the religious norms of the forefathers, and at the same time to be a German patriot, fighting as a volunteer in the War of Liberation:

The Return of the Jewish Volunteer from the Wars of Liberation, 1833-1834, Oil on canvas, 86.2×94 cm, Jewish Museum, New York City
The Bleach Garden, 1842, Oil on canvas, Museum of History, Hanau

While Oppenheim’s autobiography seems to be untranslated, the following bi-lingual catalogue contains not only a detailed biography and essays about his art, but also reproductions of most of his works and is therefore highly recommended for anyone with an interest in this important German-Jewish artist.

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Erinnerungen eines deutsch-jüdischen Maler (Memoirs of a German-Jewish Painter), Manutius, Heidelberg 1999

Georg Heuberger / Anton Merk (eds.), Moritz Daniel Oppenheim. Die Entdeckung des jüdischen Selbstbewußtseins in der Kunst /Jewish Identity in 19th Century Art, Jüdisches Museum Frankfurt am Main 1999 (bi-lingual German/English)

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-20. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Transylvanian Speaking Exercise

Poetry is a genre that is rather neglected by the book blogging community. And I think that’s a real pity. Therefore I didn’t want to let this year’s edition of German Literature Month pass without including one or two posts about German-language poets.

One of the best German poetry books I picked up in the last years is the collection Transylvanian Speaking Exercise (Siebenbürgische Sprechübung) by Franz Hodjak. The book collects the best poems of several previous poetry books by him and includes also a few that were published in journals only. An instructive afterword by the poet and editor of the volume Werner Söllner gives additional valuable information on the author and his background.

Hodjak was born 1944 in Sibiu (Hermannstadt) in Romania and lived later for many years in Cluj (Klausenburg). Transylvania and the Banat are home to a German-speaking minority since hundreds of years; also a Hungarian minority lives there. The number of native German speakers is dwindling, migration to Germany has reduced the minority considerably in the last decades. Especially in the villages very few Germans have remained until today and it is not clear if this minority will survive as such the next generation, despite the fact that the President of Romania, Klaus Iohannis, is a prominent member of this ethnicity.

Romania has had a thriving German-language literary scene until recently; Herta Müller is the most prominent author among these, but there are plenty of other important writers. In Communist Romania there was a period from the mid 1960s to approximately the mid 1970s when Romanian literature written by ethnic Hungarians and Germans was promoted, and the censorship was for a few years relaxed to a certain extent. During this period, Franz Hodjak published his first poems and worked as an editor in a publishing house that would publish also Romanian-German literature. Hodjak, who publishes also prose, is additionally a congenial translator of Romanian literature. In 1992 he emigrated to Germany. He lives in Usingen near Frankfurt am Main. 

Below you can read two of his poems in the original German and in my translation. Hodjak is an author whose work I like a lot and I am publishing this post in the hope to make a few more people aware of this poet who deserves to be read and also published in other languages. I would love to see a collection by him in English translation or any other language one day.

small elegy 

ignorant were even then 
those who went along. snow dug them in  
or a blooming torrent of words.  

the socks are hanging on the balcony, it 
is march. 

up in the cemetery,  
the blackbirds are conferring. 

is there a death that grants death   
a meaning? 

posterity beckons from the train. 


kleine elegie 

unwissend waren schon damals 
die, die mitgingen. schnee grub sie ein 
oder blühender wortschwall. 

die socken hängen auf dem balkon, es 
ist märz. 

oben, im friedhof, konferieren 
die amseln. 

gibt es einen tod, der dem tod  
sinn verleiht? 

die nachwelt winkt aus dem zug. 




Kelling 3

about ten die per year,
eleven wander off to the city,
twelve drive off to the brother.

the acacias, small and crippled, bloom
with the courage of despair.


Kelling 3 

zehn etwa sterben im jahr, 
elf wandern weg in die stadt, 
zwölf fahren zum bruder. 

die akazien, klein und verkrüppelt, blühn 
mit dem mut der verzweiflung. 

(Kelling/Câlnic is a village near Alba Iulia.)

Franz Hodjak: Siebenbürgische Sprechübung, Suhrkamp 1990

© Franz Hodjak
© Suhrkamp Verlag, 1999
© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-9. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

      


Magic Hoffmann

West Germany, a short time before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Fred, Nickel and Annette are three young people from the South Hessian provincial town of Dieburg. They dream of the big wide world, more specifically of Canada. They do not have any real ideas about this distant country, only that there everything is much nicer and more interesting than in their godforsaken hometown. Fred “Magic” Hoffmann, the one of the three who has a reputation of being a prankster, wants to plant an apple orchard there and produce apple wine (Eppelwoi), the signature drink of their home region – a project that seems almost as realistic as growing pineapples in Alaska.

What distinguishes this youthful dropout fantasy from many others is simply that the three go one step further than many peers in a similar situation. They are planning a bank robbery, which should give them the necessary seed capital. And they are not stopping at the planning phase: astonishingly, their robbery of a bank branch in a neighboring village is successful; the 600,000 marks, are not a gigantic sum, but enough to build an existence in Canada. But Fred gets caught – planning and executing the bank robbery is dealt with in the novel in a few lines only – and sentenced to four years in juvenile jail, which he does with stoic patience and without betraying his partners in crime – finally he has one goal: when he gets out, his share of 200,000 and his friends are waiting for him, and then: off to Canada! (After all, he uses the prison time to teach himself some English, which he then uses in every appropriate and inappropriate opportunity in his dialogues.)

How great is his surprise when his friends do not pick him up at the prison gate and their postal addresses turn out to be no longer correct. It must have come something in between and the friends also did not want to make themselves suspicious and therefore had little contact with Fred during his detention. Finally, the unsuspecting Fred finds out that his friends are now living in Berlin and he is soon on his way to meet them there. But in Berlin he experiences one surprise after another, and most of them are not at all pleasant …

We are in the novel Magic Hoffmann (that’s the title in the German original) by Jakob Arjouni, who has become famous for his books about the German-Turkish private detective Kemal Kayankaya. If you expect Kemal to appear here as well, you will be disappointed; however, what works quite similar to the Kayankaya novels is Arjouni’s art of developing a character, his often witty dialogues, his eye for the absurdity of certain things and situations, and his unsentimental view of Germany in the late 1980s and early 1990s, his seemingly cynical remarks and his sympathy for his main character, who, despite everything, is quickly taken to the heart of the reader.

The book is also largely a Berlin novel – whereby the city’s description pleasantly differs from many works that want to sell us the old-new German capital as the navel of the world. When Fred comes to the city for the first time, he is quite disappointed: Berlin looks the same way as Frankfurt, Darmstadt or Wiesbaden, except that the Berlin people obviously do not understand Fred’s special kind of humor; Berliners are regularly rude and unfriendly in this novel, a fact with which Fred has difficulty to cope with. And then there are things that are completely new to Fred: the reunited Germany, the frequent talk of the nation, the anti-Semitism, the presence of violent neo-Nazis in the subway, the police, who are not too eager to do their job and to protect the law, Russians who are doing all sorts of illegal business behind a legal cover, petty criminals and extortionate taxi drivers to watch out for, young people like Nickel and Annette, who think of themselves as progressive and hip, but who behind this façade, often have reactionary opinions and extremely conservative ideas about their aims in life. And everywhere it smells bad and the sky is gray in this city. Berlin can not really impress a Magic Hoffmann. Maybe it’s because he’s just passing through.

He realizes that his friends have changed a lot. Nickel studies to become a teacher, he has a family and the money of the robbery well-hidden in an investment scheme in Luxembourg. Fred has a lot of patience with him, but then he has to use some serious pressure to get his share. And Annette works on film projects that never get beyond the planning and discussion stage, otherwise she lives in her bubble of pseudo-artists who are looking down on someone like Fred with contempt; it is telling that both of them are very surprised when Fred asks them when they will be leaving for Canada, since neither for Nickel nor for Annette, this has been ever a serious plan.

But luck seems to embrace Fred nevertheless. He encounters the freaky dancer Moni, who does not bother with his completely unfashionable clothes, his strange look or his crime “career”. The two are getting closer and Fred is forging plans for a life together with Moni in Canada before fate is striking mercilessly.

A great novel in my opinion: it has a high pace, interesting characters and dialogues, it has wit and it allows the reader to take an unusual but very revealing look at the reunited Germany. Unusual because the reader identifies very quickly with the main character Fred Hoffmann. Fred is a modern literary relative of Eichendorff’s Good-for-nothing; he is an outsider for various reasons: bank robber, small town boy, traveler, a person without exaggerated artistic or intellectual ambitions, he is everything that would be described in Berlin as the opposite of hip. But unlike his fake friends, Fred has remained true to his dreams and ideals, with a mixture of naivety and mother wit that makes him very likeable.

The German edition of the novel I read has almost 300 pages; I read the book in one sitting. Highly recommended! What a great loss that Jakob Arjouni died relatively young!

Jakob Arjouni: Magic Hoffmann, Diogenes 2012; Magic Hoffman, Old Castle 2000, No Exit Press (Tr. Geoffrey Mulligan)

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-9. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

In Times of Fading Light

IMG_0106 In Times of Fading Light is the debut novel of Eugen Ruge (b. 1954 in Sosva/Ural). It is loosely based on the fate of Ruge’s own family and tells the story of the four generations of the Umnitzer family. The book was very favorably reviewed after publication; it was awarded the Deutscher Buchpreis (German Book Award) in 2011, and sold more than half a million copies on the German-language market. In the reviews it has been sometimes compared to the Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann. Foreign rights have been sold to 28 countries so far.    The book has, as I understand it, two central themes: the slow disintegration of the Umnitzer family, whose story is told in the book, and the change of attitude by the four generations of the family toward the big experiment of communism, as applied in the GDR.  Wilhelm Powileit, the family patriarch whose 90th birthday celebration in October 1989 is one of the central events in the book, was a communist from early age on. A metal worker, party member from the time of the foundation of the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) in 1919, later involved in fighting the Kapp putsch, and during the first years of the Nazi era busy with illegal work for the party that included smuggling of people and propaganda material, but also the liquidation of ‘traitors’, felt always to be a man with a purpose and without doubt. The hardships of exile in Mexico, later a short stay in Russia and return in 1952 to East Germany even strengthened his belief in the Stalinist ideas. As a so-called Westemigrant he was viewed with suspicion by the people in charge in the Party in the GDR, and therefore he was not able to rise to a higher rank in the party hierarchy. But he develops a kind of grass root activism that earns him year after a year a new medal of honor and a visit of the party secretary with rather boring speeches. It suits the party to showcase a man like Wilhelm Powileit, with such an exemplary resume, even when some of the events mentioned in it are somehow blurred, and it is fairly obvious that the official CV is more a legend than the truth. But the most important is anyway always missing in official resumes – a truth that Wilhelm discovers surprisingly once his memory becomes very weak as a result of beginning dementia (or is it the medication that his wife is supervising?). Contrary to Wilhelm, his wife Charlotte (divorced Umnitzer, hence the different family name of the following generations) made quite a career after returning to the GDR, in the newly founded Academy. Her marriage of convenience was based mainly on the shared belief in the communist ideal, and their long life together was always submerged to the fight for an allegedly brighter future for the working class. But for Charlotte, who had a very unhappy and abusive childhood and difficult first marriage with two children, the communist ideology was also a kind of escape, an idea that filled in a void in her life, something to stick to with all her might, because it provided the stability that was lacking in her life.  While the oldest generation seems to have no doubt about their political convictions and beliefs, the same cannot be said for Kurt Umnitzer, Charlotte’s son and Wilhelm’s step son. Kurt is an academic, one of the leading historians of the country, and a very productive one. While he is convinced that the ideals of socialism are worth fighting for, and also that the experiment of its practical implementation is a historical major achievement, he is not blind for certain unpleasant truths. As an adolescent, he and his brother Werner were growing up in the Soviet Union to be trained as a part of the future post-WWII elite in Communist Germany (Wolfgang Leonhard or Markus Wolf come to mind), but a letter in which they voiced doubt regarding the wisdom of the Molotov/Ribbentrop pact changed their lives dramatically: as a consequence of the discovery of the content of this letter, they were exiled to different camps in Siberia; Werner didn’t survive this punishment in Vorkuta, but Kurt who was exiled to another place did, later to return with his Russian wife Irina and their son Alexander to the GDR; Irina’s mother Nadjeshda later joins, but she never feels at home in Germany and dreams to go home to her village in the Ural. Alexander, Kurt’s and Irina’s son, is in some way the central figure of the novel. This is obvious from the fact that the book starts and ends with a chapter following his fate. The book’s first chapter describes how Alexander, just diagnosed with an obviously incurable form of cancer, takes care of his father who suffers from an advanced form of dementia. In an attempt to re-connect with the story of his family and in making sense of his life, he travels to Mexico, a place he knows from many conversations at home. But it’s not the real thing, a touristic experience with a bit of nostalgia. Alexander, who left the GDR shortly before its complete collapse, thinks about his failed career in West Germany, his inability to feel at home anywhere, his failed relationships with the women in his life, his complete failure as a father. The socialist ideal was never something that appealed to him, but he wasn’t able to find something else to occupy this empty spot in his life. For Markus, the youngest Umnitzer, and representative of the fourth generation, the political ideas of his grandparents and great-grandparents are already history only. It’s something about which you read in the history book but with which you have no connection, despite the fact that once great-grandfather Wilhelm visited the school to tell the students about his early years in the KPD and his acquaintance with Karl Liebknecht, the party founder.  There are other interesting elements in the book; particularly the role of the women in the family as opposed to the men. They are not just some kind of ‘sidekick’, but occupy a prominent role in the novel, and have to struggle with their own tragedies. Also the structure of the novel is very interesting and elaborated: while several chapters, including the first and the last take place in 2001, the one central event in the book is Wilhelm’s 90th birthday, a day in which almost the whole family comes together and in which the open and hidden conflicts are revealed; no less than six chapters focus on this single day; in between them there are several flashbacks – starting from 1952, the year of return of Wilhelm and Charlotte – and also returns to the present time (2001); additionally, there are various flashbacks that recount certain events in the past, so that the novel covers over all a period from 1919 to 2001. This structure is rather elaborate and may sound confusing, but I had no problem to follow it; one of the advantages of this structure as compared to a linear and chronological account was for me that it was clear from the beginning that Alexander is the main hero of the book – although as a reader you can make also a different choice. There are a number of comical situations, and also humour in the book. The language is unpretentious and doesn’t try to impress you. Maybe that was one of the reasons why this was such a successful book: it is easy to read. No long and winding Thomas Mann sentences, no polished prose as in Uwe Tellkamp’s The Tower, the novel with which Ruge’s book has sometimes been compared.  The title of the book is a reference to the potato harvest in the village in the Ural in early fall in which Kurt lived, but it is also a metaphor for the fading light that the communist ideal shines on the Umnitzer family and that gets weaker with every generation. Overall this is a well-crafted novel I really enjoyed. I read it in German; therefore I cannot say anything regarding the quality of the translation.  Eugen Ruge: In Times of Fading Light, translated by Anthea Bell, Graywolf Press 2014  This review is published in the framework of the 2017 edition of German Literature Month, organized again by Caroline from Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. A list with links to all published reviews by the participating bloggers can be found here. #germanlitmonth2017 Other Reviews: Lizzy’s Literary Life  MadabouttheBooks  James Reads Books love german books Tony’s Reading List ausgelesen Kultur oder Wissenschaft
© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-7. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Master of the Day of Judgment

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Automn 1909 in Vienna. The famous actor Eugen Bischoff has invited a few friends to his villa for a Hausmusik evening (a tradition in many cultured German and Austrian homes). Together with his wife Dina, her brother Felix, his friend Doctor Gorsky, and the narrator Rittmeister von Yosch the amateur musicians play several pieces from the classical repertoire. A rather late arrival, the engineer Solgrub interrupts unintentionally the music performance, and the friends are starting to ask Bischoff about his new role, Shakespeare’s King Lear. Bischoff retires briefly to a garden pavilion pretending to need a short preparation time for giving his friend a short performance to show them how he understands this role. Suddenly, two shots are heard from the pavilion. When the alarmed company rushes to the place, they find Eugen Bischoff dead.

Was it suicide? Was it murder, as Solgrub believes? But then, the door of the pavilion was locked from the inside…Had the narrator a hand in it? After all he had a motif: four years ago, he had an affair with Dina and was madly in love with her. While Dina and Felix suspect at least an indirect involvement of von Yosch in the death of Eugen Bischoff, Solgrub points at several similarly mysterious suicide cases in the recent past. While all four male characters start – sometimes individually, sometimes together – to investigate about what’s behind the mysterious death of Eugen Bischoff, it turns out that more shocking events are going to happen. The key to resolving the mystery seems to be an old manuscript from the 16th century that tells the tale of an Italian painter, known as the Master of the Day of Judgment, a tale that gives an uncanny explanation to the mysterious events unfolding in the Vienna of the year 1909.  

It would spoil the fun to read this book if I would give away more details here regarding the plot. I enjoyed this book tremendously, for several reasons.

Perutz writes a very elegant prose, and this together with his ability to depict situations, people and the few unexpected twists and turns in the story made me devour this book in one sitting. I found it unputdownable (I like this English word!). Perutz knew the milieu about which he was writing very well, and I had the impression that he had a fine ear also for social differences and how they affect the way how people speak in the book – the use of dialect of a taxi driver; the switching to the familiar ‘Du’, but adding the for non-Austrians funny ‘Herr Rittmeister’ by a former army officer unknown to von Yosch when he is talking to the narrator, based on the simple fact that they served in the same military unit; the servile approach of the people working in the pharmacy; the extremely polite way of speech of the Sephardic money-lender; these are just some of the pleasures of this book.

Another thing that I liked: it is difficult to say to what genre this somehow hybrid book belongs, and I think this is one of its strengths – it so unlike most of other genre books you will read. It borrows elements of the mystery genre; it is also a variation of the locked door mystery; there are elements of horror that let me think of E.T.A. Hoffmann, Edgar Allan Poe, or even Stephen King. And it has also elements of a historical novel. Additionally, the narrator is a character with more facets as meet the eye in the beginning. Below the surface of the cultured, book and music loving man with a rich emotional life, is also someone who is strictly following the military code of honor, and to him the killing of a man in a duel for a rather trifling matter is not a big deal, a fact about which even his friends have no illusion.

And one more thing: the novel is also to be read in the tradition of the literary sub-genre “The Perpetrator as Investigator” that is quite popular in German literature: the main character is investigating a crime that he himself has (possibly) committed – Heinrich von Kleist’s Broken Jug, Heinrich Spoerl’s The Muzzle, or Heimito von Doderer’s Every Man a Murderer come to mind.

The last chapter, the remarks of the person who found von Yosch’s manuscript, give the text again a new possible interpretation. The story can be read as a mystery or fantasy novel; but the biggest mystery, as the novel advances is hidden in the souls of the characters of this book, and their obsessions with the horrors they faced in a certain moment of their lives, and with the feelings of guilt they experienced in traumatic situations. To quote a word by Edgar Allan Poe: “I maintain that terror is not of Germany (or in this case: Austria – T.H.), but of the soul.”

I read the book in German, therefore I can’t say anything regarding the quality of the translation.

Leo Perutz was born in Prague in 1882; he attended the same school as Max Brod and Felix Weltsch, two close friends of Franz Kafka, who were slightly younger than Perutz. Later he worked in Trieste (in a time when James Joyce and Italo Svevo lived there) as a mathematician for the same insurance company as Kafka. A compensation formula he worked out was for a long time used in insurance business all over the world (the ‘Perutz’sche Ausgleichsformel’). Just like Robert Musil, who left a mark outside the literary world (he invented the ‘Musil color top’), he was a man with more than one talent. Perutz was very successful as an author in Vienna in the 1920’s and 1930’s, but his Jewish origin made publication after 1938 impossible, and his emigration to Palestine where he felt cut off from the culture and language to which he belonged, made his life difficult. Additionally, he was opposed to the creation of the state of Israel and was supporting a bi-national solution for Palestine as a home for Jews and Arabs as well. In the 1950’s he started to travel to Austria again frequently. He died in 1957 in Bad Ischl, while visiting his old friend Alexander Lernet-Holenia.

If you haven’t read anything by Perutz, I can heartily recommend his books. And if you don’t trust me, trust Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino or Graham Greene who loved his books. Also Theodor W. Adorno, Ian Fleming, F.W. Murnau and Alfred Hitchcock were fans of Perutz. My personal Perutz favorite is By Night under the Stone Bridge, but also The Master of the Day of Judgment is excellent in my opinion.

Leo Perutz: Master of the Day of Judgment, translated by Eric Mosbacher, Pushkin 2015

This review is published in the framework of the 2017 edition of German Literature Month, organized again by Caroline from Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. A list with links to all published reviews by the participating bloggers can be found here.

#germanlitmonth2017

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-7. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Memoirs of a superfluous woman

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“Once, when I looked out of the window during the Lord’s Prayer instead of looking at the crucifix, my mother hit me in the face, so that the blood was running from my mouth and nose, and I did not get anything to eat and had to kneel on the ground during the meal.” (Als ich einmal beim Vaterunser statt auf das Kruzifix zum Fenster hinaussah, schlug mich die Mutter ins Gesicht, dass mir das Blut zu Mund und Nase herauslief, auch bekam ich nichts zu essen und musste während der Mahlzeit am Boden knien.)

This is a comparatively mild form of physical abuse and violence that Lena Christ, the author of  Erinnerungen einer Überflüssigen (Memoirs of a superfluous woman) had to endure during a big part of her childhood and youth by her mother. Verbal abuse of the most aggressive and malicious form, savage beatings not only by hand but with all kind of instruments at hand that resulted in several hospitalisations and suicide attempts; this is what Lena Christ received from her mother instead of love and care. Even more than a hundred years after the publication of this book, it is difficult and heartbreaking to read these memories of a woman that had to endure so much rage, hatred and violence from her own mother.

Lena grew up at the end of the 19th century in rural Bavaria and had a comparatively carefree early childhood in the home of her grandfather and step-grandmother. The illiterate grandfather, a kind and emotionally supportive person, and also the grandmother who was also taking care of several foster children, gave the young Lena obviously enough space to develop herself. Christ is describing the typical village childhood with pranks of children, village and church festivities, almost idyllic. Like most children, she has a keen eye for what’s going on around her and gives interesting characterisations of villagers she knew and anecdotes from this happy period of her life. The parents of Lena are absent: the father dead – his ship sunk when Lena was two -, the mother in Munich, who turns up only very rarely and who speaks not at all with her daughter when she comes for a short visit.

Lena was born out of wedlock, a so-called illegitimate child. The fate of such children was frequently rather sad. They were – like Lena – seen as a shame, and what is more: a permanent living reminder of this shame. Frequently they were subject to verbal and physical abuse, and had usually a very hard life. But while Lena’s fate may to some degree be considered as typical, the sometimes insane hatred of her mother is extraordinary.

After the first years with the grandparents, Lena’s mother sends a message that will change Lena’s life forever: she has married and from now on, Lena is supposed to live with mother and stepfather in Munich. But while the stepfather, a few years younger than the mother, shows a certain kindness and understanding for Lena on several occasions, the mother knows no limits for her rage directed at Lena, which almost costs the girl’s life. No wonder that she is running away on several occasions. Once, she convinces the bigoted mother to allow her to enter a convict, but also this experience was not a lucky one. (The Catholic church and their representatives had their fair share in Lena’s suffering, and the author mentions on more than one occasion the bigotry of priests and nuns.) Surprisingly, Lena is homesick. And who knows, maybe things have changed at home at least a little bit…but that’s an illusion as she has to learn very soon the hard way.

To avoid a wrong impression here, I should mention that Lena is despite all her bad experiences described as a quick-witted and rather self-confident young person who rules efficiently over the cuisine of the restaurant that her father is managing with growing success. Lena’s family is not poor and well-respected and a growing number of (legitimate) children is also proof for a seemingly “normal” family which is slowly climbing up the social ladder. From a certain age on, Lena attracts also a considerable number of suitors, but when a young man from an allegedly wealthy family proposes to her, she accepts although she doesn’t know the boy; she is just happy to get away from her mother – who not surprisingly curses her in even by her standards very harsh words.

Lena’s marriage is described only in comparatively summarily form: the husband turns out to be a drunkard who is permanently abusing and raping his wife (because as a husband he has legally “the right” to do so…). He is going bankrupt and becomes mentally insane, and leaves Lena with several children alone and homeless. Lena finds a temporary shelter and work as a secretary. With a slightly optimistic note that Lena tries to prove that she is a more than a superfluous, unwanted person, the book ends.

Lena Christ wrote this book in 1911 and published it after she got a very positive feed-back by the author Peter Jerusalem, who read the manuscript. Jerusalem became her second husband. Other Bavarian authors, like Ludwig Thoma and Korfiz Holm encouraged Lena Christ and helped her to find publishers for several volumes of stories and two novels she wrote. But it seems that she was haunted by nightmares and that her childhood abuse by her mother left her soul scarred for life. She left her second husband for a much younger man, started to forge paintings and got in conflict with the law. She committed suicide in 1920, only 38 years old. The cyanide was provided by her estranged husband, who later lived mainly from the royalties of Lena Christ’s writings. It seems that he more than a bit distorted the image of her personality, giving the impression that she was insane. He created a kind of legend and it took a very long time until serious research had a second look at Christ, whose work could as well be considered as an early example of feminist writing in difficult times.

The book has to my knowledge never been translated into English. One reason might be the language. Lena Christ’s book is written in a language very close to the real, spoken language of the people among whom she grew up. The Bavarian dialect that is present on almost all pages of the book may be a real challenge for any translator. But these memoirs have also a tremendous charm; Lena Christ had a great natural talent to tell her story, and the book is not only valuable as a witness of a certain historical period but is also proof that someone with comparatively little knowledge regarding literature can be an excellent author.

Emerenz Meier, Franziska Reventlow, Elisabeth Castonier, Marieluise Fleißer – these are some more remarkable female writers from Bavaria from that period. They should not be forgotten and should be read more frequently. And why not in English translation?

Lena Christ: Erinnerungen einer Überflüssigen (Memoirs of a superfluous woman)

The short quote in the beginning was translated from the German by me.

This review is published in the framework of the 2017 edition of German Literature Month, organized again by Caroline from Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. A list with links to all published reviews by the participating bloggers can be found here.

#germanlitmonth2017

Other Reviews:
Tony’s Reading List

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-7. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 


The Seventh Well

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The Seventh Well by Fred Wander is a book in the tradition of the works of Primo Levi, Imre Kertesz, Elie Wiesel or Julius Fučík about the Holocaust. Although it’s a novel, it is an only slightly fictionalized account of experiences of its author as an inmate in no less than twenty Nazi concentration camps in France, Poland and Germany.

The book consists of twelve comparatively short chapters. The chapters as well as the events reported in them are not always in chronological order. The book – and this was a wise decision in my opinion – does not aim at being an exhaustive report of all the sufferings of its author/narrator; it rather focuses in each chapter on one or a small group of inmates, their characteristics, background, bits of information about their life “before” – when they were just ordinary people with all their strengths and defaults, dreams and obsessions, family life, political convictions, religious creeds, with their love of money, sex, alcohol, or literature and story-telling. And indeed, the title of the opening chapter is How to Tell a Story, and I must quote the very first sentences here:

“In the beginning was a conversation. Three weeks after the conversation, Mendel died.”

What follows this almost Biblical entry is a portrait of the above-mentioned man, Mendel Teichmann, a middle-aged Jew who would tell every other Sunday afternoon stories to the other inmates who gathered to listen to him. These first eight pages set the tune for the whole book. The other vignettes in the book are similarly impressive.

While the SS guards and their willing local helpers are indiscriminately called “jackboots” throughout the whole book and almost none of them is identified by a name or some individual characteristics (contrary to many recent books and movies about the Holocaust that are indulgent in their portrayal of sadistic, demonic and somehow charismatic Nazis, while the victims don’t play an important role; the most extreme case that I know of is Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, a book that I find highly problematic – but I digress…), the prisoners of the camp in these approximately 150 pages gain an individual stature and profile. While many things we know about the camps – the selections, the arbitrary violence and killings, the role of the Prominenten and Kapos, prisoners who made themselves useful to the SS guards and became part of the system that kept the work in the camps going, the hasty evacuation and Todesmarsch (death march) from one KZ to the next, the slow physical and psychological decline of the inmates, the permanent exhaustion and starvation to name just a few -, there are several reasons why The Seventh Well stands out in comparison to other works.

The Holocaust was such a monstrous crime, the number of victims so huge, and the extermination was organized in such a bureaucratic, industrialized and cunning manner that there is a danger that the individual victims are easily forgotten. By remembering a few of them, the author/narrator gives them a face, a fate, a story to remember. These are not anonymous victims, these are people from different countries, Jews, Christians, Jehova’s Witnesses, Atheists; there are communists or other leftists; homosexuals and Russian POW’s; people with a working-class background and intellectuals. And they all struggle to keep their human dignity against all odds by acts of resistance: for example by forming a literature club, by singing an Italian opera aria or Spanish songs from the Civil War, by protecting a fellow prisoner who is in bad physical shape from discovery, by not committing suicide, by fighting to keep their younger brothers alive (the last chapter Joschko and his Brothers is particularly touching), or – by telling stories.  

The episodic character of the chapters makes it easier for the reader not to get overwhelmed by the subject matter. While some of the chapters could be stand-alone stories, others have more the character of essays. The translation of Wander’s sparse, but beautiful prose by Michael Hofmann is excellent.

I cannot say that I “enjoyed” this book – for obvious reasons.  But I am very glad that I read it. The Seventh Well is a truly humanistic book, because it helps us to remember the humanity of at least some of those who perished and suffered in the Holocaust.

A post-scriptum: In Germany, Fred Wander is probably less well-known than his (second) wife Maxie Wander, author of the celebrated interview book Guten Morgen, du Schöne (Good Morning, Beautiful), and her posthumously published diaries. He wrote also an autobiography Das gute Leben (The Good Life), which I plan to read as well – maybe for next years’ German Literature Month, who knows?

The Seventh Well

Fred Wander: The Seventh Well, translated by Michael Hofmann, Granta Books London 2009

This review is published in the framework of the 2017 edition of German Literature Month, organized again by Caroline from Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. A list with links to all published reviews by the participating bloggers can be found here.

#germanlitmonth2017

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-7. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

#germanlitmonth 2016 – Robert Seethaler: The Tobacconist

The Tobacconist (Der Trafikant) is after A Whole Life (Ein ganzes Leben) the second novel by Robert Seethaler that was published in English translation. I read it in the original German, therefore my review cannot do justice to the English translation.

The year is 1937. Franz Huchel, the main character of the book, is a 17-year-old from the Austrian countryside, who grows up as a single child of a single mother. At the beginning of the book, Franz is very much a protected child, a namby-pamby, but after the unexpected death of his mother’s wealthy lover, the days of dreaming are over: he is sent to Vienna for work. His employer, Otto Trsnjek, is also a former lover of his mother from pre-WWI days, and is running a trafik, a shop where people can buy tobacco, newspapers, stationery. Otto Trsnjek lost a leg in the war and with his shop he is a well-known presence in the neighborhood; he is teaching Franz how to properly read and understand the newspapers, but also the psychology of the different customers of the shop, and the characteristics of the different varieties of cigars they are selling (although none of the two is a smoker); and a few lessons about life in general. Otto’s tobacco shop becomes the new home of Franz, and it is from there where he learns to adapt to the big city.

With his mother Franz stays in touch via the picture postcards they are writing each other; it is from these postcards his mother learns about the major changes in Franz’ life: Franz falls in love with Anezka, a girl from Bohemia, and he gets acquainted with an old gentleman who is a regular customer of the tobacco shop: Sigmund Freud who is living nearby in the Berggasse, is buying cigars from Otto Trsnjek.

While the buxom Anezka with the charming tooth gap is awakening Franz’ sexuality and lust, the professor, who is taken in by the persistence with which the simple country boy is asking him for advice regarding his sorrows related to love and lust, is reassuring Franz. The frailness of the old professor, his fight with old age and the illness from which he is suffering since many years – the permanent pain and the problems with his jaw prosthesis are a recurring theme -, but also his frankness about how little he actually knows about the human psyche, impress Franz very much and the moment when the professor teaches him how to enjoy the smoking of a cigar on a park bench belong for sure to Franz’ most happy moments.

What would be in other times a normal coming-of-age story gets a twist because of the political events that are taking place in Austria at the time the story of Franz unwinds: 1938 is the year of the “Anschluss”, Austria is uniting with Nazi Germany, a development that is changing things forever in the lives of many people. Professor Freud is emigrating in the last moment (thanks to the organizational skills of his daughter Anna), socialists and other leftists are arrested or forced into suicide, and the tobacco shop is vandalized, and finally Otto Trsnjek is arrested by the Gestapo, a development that is seen by some neighbors with obvious glee, particularly by the rather disgusting butcher from next door, a sadistic figure as if from a play by Ödön von Horvath.

And Franz? He is still in doubt about Anezka, who appears and disappears without note on various occasions, and who displays her naked body in a “Varieté” (a kind of music hall), finally starting a relationship with a young SS officer for whom she is deserting Franz. When Franz is arrested in the tobacco shop which he is running after Otto’s death in the hands of the Gestapo, he locks the doors of the trafik because “you never know”. But when Anezka passes by the shop in March 1945, briefly before a major bombing raid, all that is left from the previous tobacco shop are some chairs and a note on which Franz had noted a dream he had, a habit he developed after Freud convinced him of the usefulness of this practice. Obviously, Franz never came back after his arrest, and it is easy to guess why.

Did I like the book? Yes, very much! There are a number of reasons for this. Seethaler writes a beautiful, elegant, effortless prose, and I hope that also the English translation will give a good idea of his stylistic abilities. As a professional actor (you can see him here in the movie Youth), Seethaler has obviously a good ear for dialogues and for the individual way of expression of each of his characters. He succeeds with very simple means to give the reader a clear indication about how each of the major figures in the book is speaking. Anezka for example comes from Bohemia, a region whose people were famous for their problems with the German umlauts, and a very few examples are already enough to have her voice practically in your ear. Another beautiful element are the postcards between Franz and his mother which in the beginning are full of platitudes but which develop into a real correspondence parallel to the process of Franz’ intellectual and sensual awakening. The atmosphere of the growing paranoia after the Anschluss, the outbursts of personal violence and sadism on a large scale of otherwise “normal” citizens that was without precedence even in Nazi Germany; the seemingly im-probable and “impossible” friendship between the simple Franz and the sophisticated Professor Freud; and the fine characterization of the inhabitants of Vienna – all this made me enjoy the book.

Franz is a hero in the typical German tradition of the simple, good-hearted, noble fool (“reiner Tor”); but contrary to Eichendorff’s Good-for-Nothing, The Tobacconist has no ending in which “everything, everything was delightful” – the exact opposite is true in this case. A Happy End is not possible in the time of Nazism.

It was particularly interesting for me to read this book for this year’s German Literature Month after I reviewed last year The Tortoises by Veza Canetti, a work that covers the same period in Vienna. Considering the recent very strong support of right-wing extremists by the voters of those political forces in Austria who represent the ugly side of the Austrian national character in the latest elections in the country, the book had also sometimes a chilling effect on me. The mentality that showed its ugly face after the Anschluss in 1938 is still existing and very widespread in Austrian society; however, the wave of successful political movements which are based on hatred of certain groups within a society is unfortunately not limited to Austria alone these days.

 

 

Robert Seethaler: Der Trafikant, Kein & Aber, Zürich 2012; The Tobacconist, Picador 2016, translated by Charlotte Collins

#germanlitmonth

(This review is part of the German Literature Month, again hosted by my two blogger colleagues Caroline@beautyandthecat, and Lizzy@lizzysiddal, who are doing a great job promoting German literature in translation since years.)

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 


German Literature Month 2016

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Recently I have been not very active on my blog but this is going to change again very soon.

One of the reasons is the upcoming German Literature Month 2016, hosted again by Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat), and Lizzy (Lizzy’s Literary Life) in which I will of course participate with a few books – which ones I will decide at a later stage. 

I will also try to post some reviews from the past Bulgarian Literature Month which are still missing, and I have read also a few other interesting books which I may review here, if my time budget will allow it.

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

German Literature Month 2015 – wrap-up

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German Literature Month in November was again an extremely interesting event, just like last year. The two unfatigable hosts Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) and Lizzy (Lizzy’s Literary Life) once again created an event with plenty of opportunities to join in. In the end 44 bloggers had published 166 posts, mainly about fiction and poetry, but also including some featured articles and several non-fiction reviews.

Over the years, this event has become increasingly popular and the index on the website that links to all articles that were published in all editions of the German Literature Month has become a major resource for anyone who wants to get informed about German literature. Check it out, the variety of authors and opinions is truly amazing! (Thanks, Lizzy!)

Interestingly, the most reviewed author this year was Stefan Zweig (14 reviews of 12 works), followed by Schiller (10 posts related to Schiller’s works and books about Schiller). Goethe on the contrary was ignored by everybody – maybe we should include a Goethe week next year?

After several months of being not very active, this event has brought me back to blogging on a more regular basis. I discovered plenty of new books, got reminded of some others I should re-read again in the future and I also discovered a few book blogs which I hadn’t known before but will follow in the future. It was fun to read the comments and to comment myself sometimes. I read literally all reviews, but time restrictions prevented me so far to comment on all of them.  Just like last year  I thoroughly enjoyed this event, and just like last year, I won a giveaway, Ulrich Plenzdorf’s Werther novel which I will review one day of course. (Thanks, Caroline!)

This year, I published ten posts – compared to eight last year. Beside a featured anecdote about Jean Paul, nine of the posts were reviews:

Veza Canetti: The Tortoises

Thomas Kling: Collected Poems

Schilleriana (9 publications of Deutsche Schillergesellschaft)

Hans Magnus Enzensberger: New Selected Poems

Walther von der Vogelweide: Poems

Detlef Opitz: The Books Murderer

Jean Paul: The strange company at New Year’s Eve

Joseph Roth: Letters from Germany

Gertrud Kolmar: Poems

Several of the books I had intended to read for German Lit Month, I had to postpone for the time being, while others popped up in the last moment. I reviewed/presented more poetry than last years and a bit less prose by contemporary authors. Who knows what I will be up to next year?!

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.