Tag Archives: Veza Canetti

#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.

 


Again Women in Translation Month

Incredible how fast one year has passed – another Women in Translation Month!

My modest contribution to Women in Translation Month is an overview regarding the books by female authors (or co-authors) I have reviewed, mentioned or from which I have translated texts (poetry) that I have published on this blog since last years’ Women in Translation Month:

Bozhana Apostolowa: Kreuzung ohne Wege
Boika Asiowa: Die unfruchtbare Witwe
Martina Baleva / Ulf Brunnbauer (Hg.): Batak kato mjasto na pametta / Batak als bulgarischer Erinnerungsort
Veza Canetti / Elias Canetti / Georges Canetti: “Dearest Georg!”
Veza Canetti: The Tortoises
Lea Cohen: Das Calderon-Imperium
Blaga Dimitrova: Forbidden Sea – Zabraneno more
Blaga Dimitrova: Scars
Kristin Dimitrova: A Visit to the Clockmaker
Kristin Dimitrova: Sabazios
Iglika Dionisieva: Déjà vu Hug
Tzvetanka Elenkova (ed.): At the End of the World
Tzvetanka Elenkova: The Seventh Gesture
Ludmila Filipova: The Parchment Maze
Sabine Fischer / Michael Davidis: Aus dem Hausrat eines Hofrats
Heike Gfereis: Autopsie Schiller
Mirela Ivanova: Versöhnung mit der Kälte
Ekaterina Josifova: Ratse
Kapka Kassabova: Street Without a Name
Gertrud Kolmar: A Jewish Mother from Berlin – Susanna
Gertrud Kolmar: Dark Soliloquy
Gertrud Kolmar: Das lyrische Werk
Gertrud Kolmar: My Gaze Is Turned Inward: Letters 1938-1943
Gertrud Kolmar: Worlds – Welten
Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird
Sibylle Lewitscharoff: Apostoloff
Nada Mirkov-Bogdanovic / Milena Dordijevic: Serbian Literature in the First World War
Mary C. Neuburger: Balkan Smoke
Milena G. Nikolova: Kotkata na Schroedinger
Nicki Pawlow: Der bulgarische Arzt
Sabine Rewald: Balthus: Cats and Girls
Angelika Schrobsdorff: Die Reise nach Sofia
Angelika Schrobsdorff: Grandhotel Bulgaria
Tzveta Sofronieva: Gefangen im Licht
Albena Stambolova: Everything Happens as it Does
Maria Stankowa: Langeweile
Danila Stoianova: Memory of a Dream
Katerina Stoykova-Klemer (ed.): The Season of Delicate Hunger
Kathrine Kressmann Taylor: Address Unknown
Dimana Trankova / Anthony Georgieff: A Guide to Jewish Bulgaria
Marguerite Youcenar: Coup de Grâce
Edda Ziegler / Michael Davidis: “Theuerste Schwester“. Christophine Reinwald, geb. Schiller
Rumjana Zacharieva: Transitvisum fürs Leben
Virginia Zaharieva: Nine Rabbits
Anna Zlatkova: fremde geografien
The Memoirs of Glückel from Hameln

What remarkable translated books by women have you read recently or are you reading right now?

 © 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.

The Tortoises

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This blog post is part of the German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzie (Lizzies Literary Life) and Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

Austria 1938. Andreas Kain, a renowned writer and his wife Eva, live in a beautiful villa just outside Vienna. What could be a normal and fulfilled life in the “loveliest city of Central Europe” turns for Kain, Eva, and Werner – Kain’s brother with whom he has a loving but nevertheless troubled relationship – into a nightmare: it is the time of the Anschluss, the Nazis are triumphing also in Austria, and for Jews like the three main characters of Veza Canetti’s novel The Tortoises (Die Schildkröten) a time of growing humiliations and deadly dangers has begun. The bank accounts of the Jews are frozen, those among them who have a regular job are dismissed, and the homes and furniture of Jewish households are being “requisitioned”. And that will be just the beginning.

While Kain and Eva have to leave their home, they have nowhere to go and visas are getting unattainable. Hilde, a Jewish girl from the neighborhood, tries to find a rather grotesque way out of this situation: with her father’s money and her charms for whom one of the new Nazi neighbors falls, she intends to hire or even buy a private airplane with which the whole group could possibly leave Austria (illegally), a project that is obviously doomed from the very beginning.

The Tortoises is a brilliant novel. Not only because of Veza Canetti’s ability to describe her own ordeal – the book is autobiographical – in an elegant, beautiful prose (well translated by Ian Mitchell). If you ever asked yourself how it was possible that the Nazis took hold of the big majority of Germans and Austrians within such a short time and how – at least on the surface – normal and otherwise decent people turned into Nazis or willing followers seemingly out of the blue then you should read this book. It gives a haunting description of the paranoid atmosphere in Vienna after the Anschluss.

Veza Canetti’s language is Viennese – elegant and always slightly ironic. The plays of Johann Nestroy, the prose of Arthur Schnitzler, the satiric furor of Karl Kraus, they all resonate in her writing. And she can write exceptionally well dialogues that sound as if they come directly from a Volksstück of Ödön von Horvath. The Nazis are ridiculous and pathetic figures; the name of the main villain in the book is Pilz (=mushroom), and this gives Frau Wlk (whose Czech name means “wolf”), the cleaner, an opportunity to denigrate this man but at the same time we readers get an insight in the mentality of even good-natured people like the landlady who is suddenly impressed by the Nazis:

“His name is Pilz-Mushroom! Toadstool, Mould, Fungus, Frau Wlk goes through all the variations. He lives down there where she lives, he’s a brownshirt, a bigwig, because he has a low number. Having a low number means he was one of the very first to be in the National Socialist Party….It seems that this low number exudes a fascinating effect. Because Frau Wlk was complaining. Even the landlady, here in this house, who is so kind, for whom she cleans the house, even she has been taken in. She who, after all, goes to church every Sunday. Who puts her last penny into the collection box to pay for a new figure of the Holy Virgin. Here in this house, the right atmosphere reigns to corrupt the landlady. The Mushroom came up and immediately won her over. And, simply because he has promised her South Tyrol, the landlady, who is so persnickety, is letting him move in here.”

Another “horvathesque” element are the dialogues between Pilz and Kain and his wife – on the surface polite (“Herr Ingenieur!” “Herr Doktor!”) and considering the changed circumstances even funny – but there can be no doubt that the new rulers will ruthlessly execute their program of extermination of the weak and of the “inferior” races, particularly the Jews.

While this is at least in the first days after the Anschluss not yet visible in the bourgeois villa neighborhood where Kain – the name is alluding not only to the biblical Kain but also to Peter Kien, the main character of Elias Canetti’s novel Auto-da-fé – and Eva are living, the open brutality of the new regime is evident from the very beginning in less privileged areas of the city. But also in the villa suburb, the signs are clear: a sparrow, and later a dog are killed by one of the new Nazis in front of a group of children to “teach” them that the weak and the useless have to be wiped out mercilessly. And the tortoises to which the title of the novel is referring, are branded with a swastika by another Nazi and sold as souvenirs, but some of them can be saved by the good-hearted Andreas Kain. As Schopenhauer says in The Basis of Morality

“Compassion for animals is intimately associated with goodness of character, and it may be confidently asserted that he who is cruel to animals cannot be a good man.”

The novel is also a book about the relationship between the brothers Andreas and Werner, and is mirroring the relationship between Elias Canetti, Veza’s husband, and his brother Georges. In this respect it is not only interesting to read Elias Canetti’s autobiography (which mentions Veza’s great importance for Elias Canetti’s intellectual development, but doesn’t say a word about the fact that Canetti’s first wife was an exceptional author in her own right), but also the correspondence between Elias, Georges, and Veza Canetti that was published a few years ago.

The Tortoises was completed after the Canettis could escape to England in the very last moment, but never published during Veza’s lifetime. She published very little during her life and in a bout of depression destroyed the manuscripts of most of her unpublished works. During the last years of Elias Canetti’s life, he published/re-published her remaining works. Veza Canetti is one of the greatest prose writers of the 20th century in German language. It is high time to discover her.  

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Veza Canetti: The Tortoises, translated by Ian Mitchell, New Directions Books, New York 2001; Die Schildkröten, Carl Hanser Verlag, München 1999

Veza Canetti / Elias Canetti: “Dearest Georg!”: Love, Literature, and Power in Dark Times, The Letters of Elias, Veza, and Georges Canetti, 1933-1948, translated by David Dollenmayer, Other Press, New York 2010; Briefe an Georges, Carl Hanser Verlag, München 2006

For German speakers I recommend also the performance “Der Herr Karl” by Helmut Qualtinger, a truly revealing portrait of a (fictional) Nazi follower in Vienna – where until today a considerable part of the population views itself – quite in contrast to the overwhelming and frenetic support of the biggest part of the Austrian population for the Nazis after the Anschluss – as “the first victims of the Nazis”.

© 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.

 


Reading Plans – German Literature Month

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These are the books I plan to read and review during German Literature Month:

Friedrich August Klingemann: Bonaventura’s Nightwatches – a classic which I had already on my list for last year.

Alina Bronsky: The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, and Just Call Me Superhero – I won these last year and will finally read the two books by one of the most interesting contemporary German authors.

Veza Canetti: The Tortoises – a work by the first wife of Nobel Prize winner Elias Canetti who was a great author in her own right.

Christoph Hein: Settlement – a major work by one of the best authors from former East Germany.

Friedo Lampe: Septembergewitter (Thunderstorm in September) – Lampe was never translated in English, but in French, Italian and Dutch. Readers of Patrick Modiano’s Dora Bruder may remember the name.

I have one or two more books I would like to review during November, but since I don’t know if I will find the time I prefer not promise too much here.

What are you planning to read in November?

© 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.