I’m rounding out our nonfiction week of Novellas in November with a review that also counts towards German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzy Siddal.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian, was hanged at a Nazi concentration camp in 1945 for his role in the Resistance and in planning a failed 1944 assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler.
The version I read (a 1959 Fontana reprint of the 1953 SCM Press edition) is certainly only a selection, as Bonhoeffer’s papers from prison in his Collected Works now run to 800 pages. After some letters to his parents, the largest section here is made up of “Letters to a Friend,” who I take it was the book’s editor, Eberhard Bethge, a seminary student of Bonhoeffer’s and his literary executor as well as his nephew by marriage.
Bonhoeffer comes across as steadfast and cheerful. He is grateful for his parents’ care packages, which included his latest philosophy and theology book requests as well as edible treats, and for news of family and acquaintances. To Bethge he expresses concern over the latter’s military service in Italy and delight at his marriage and the birth of a son named Dietrich in his honour. (Among the miscellaneous papers included at the end of this volume are a wedding sermon and thoughts on baptism to tie into those occasions.)
Maintaining a vigorous life of the mind sustained Bonhoeffer through his two years in prison. He downplays the physical challenges of his imprisonment, such as poor food and stifling heat during the summer, acknowledging that the mental toll is more difficult. The rhythm of the Church year is a constant support for him. In his first November there he writes that prison life is like Advent: all one can do is wait and hope. I noted many lines about endurance through suffering and striking a balance between defiance and acceptance:
Resistance and submission are both equally necessary at different times.
It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.
not only action, but also suffering is a way to freedom.
Bonhoeffer won over wardens who were happy to smuggle out his letters and papers, most of which have survived apart from a small, late selection that were burned so as not to be incriminating. Any references to the Resistance and the plot to kill Hitler were in code; there are footnotes here to identify them.
The additional non-epistolary material – aphorisms, poems and the abovementioned sermons – is a bit harder going. Although there is plenty of theological content in the letters to Bethge, much of it is comprehensible in context and one could always skip the couple of passages where he goes into more depth.
Reading the foreword and some additional information online gave me an even greater appreciation for Bonhoeffer’s bravery. After a lecture tour of the States in 1939, American friends urged him to stay in the country and not return to Germany. He didn’t take that easier path, nor did he allow a prison guard to help him escape. For as often as he states in his letters the hope that he will be reunited with his parents and friends, he must have known what was coming for him as a vocal opponent of the regime, and he faced it courageously. It blows my mind to think that he died at 39 (my age), and left so much written material behind. His posthumous legacy has been immense.
[Translated from the German by Reginald H. Fuller]
(Free from a fellow church member)
A year club hosted by Karen and Simon is always a great excuse to read more classics. I appear to be getting in training for Novellas in November – both of these were notably short at under 100 pages, particularly the Rilke, which is little more than a pamphlet. (Both: )
Passing by Nella Larsen
By the time of her death in 1964, this Harlem Renaissance author had mostly fallen into obscurity, but she has received renewed attention in recent decades. I learned about Passing in connection to Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, which it partially inspired.
Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry grew up together in Chicago. Both are light-skinned African American women, their features described as “olive” or “golden.” Irene has remained within the Black community, marrying a doctor named Brian and living a comfortable life in Harlem. However, she is able to pass as white in certain circumstances, such as when she and Clare meet for tea in a high-end establishment. Clare, on the other hand, is hiding her ancestry from her white husband, Jack Bellew, who spews hatred for Black people. “It’s such a frightfully easy thing to do. If one’s the type, all that’s needed is a little nerve,” she insists.
Clare and Irene’s relationship could be characterized as that of frenemies, though critics have posited repressed homoeroticism based on how Larsen describes Clare’s beauty from Irene’s perspective. This is very subtle – I only spotted potential infatuation in the letter from Clare that Irene reads in the opening pages. Most of the time, Irene appears to disapprove of Clare for her recklessness, knowing that there could be dire consequences if Jack discovers her deception. She also starts to suspect that Clare is having an affair with Brian, and for these reasons, as well as her own discomfort and guilt, she avoids Clare as much as possible.
The trouble with Clare was, not only that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too, but that she wanted to nibble at the cakes of other folk as well.
Things come to a head in the final six pages, turning what had for much of its length been an ambling read into something of a shocker. Apparently scholars feel that Larsen flubs her endings, but I thought this one was fantastic, giving a Gatsby-esque tragic weight. Comparing Black women’s strategies of coping with a white world was also fascinating. My experience with African American classics is limited, so I was happy to increase my repertoire.
My secondhand copy – a dual volume with Quicksand, which I’ll plan on reading next November – came from the much-mourned Bookbarn International.
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
[Translated from the German by Charlie Louth]
I’d long wanted to read this and couldn’t find it through a library, so bought a copy as part of a Foyles order funded by last year’s Christmas money. I’m not clear on whether the Penguin Little Black Classics edition is abridged, but the 1929 preface by Franz Xaver Kappus, Rilke’s correspondent, only mentions 10 letters, which is how many are printed here, so I have at least gotten the gist. Most of the letters were sent in 1903–4, with a final one dated 1908, from various locations on Rilke’s European travels.
Kappus sent Rilke his early poetic efforts and received in reply a frank letdown – “the poems are not yet anything in themselves” – but also much kind, general advice about creativity, confidence, post-faith life, and thriving in spite of suffering. Even so tiny a book is almost endlessly quotable, with many self-help-oriented phrases I’d read in other contexts and found wonderfully reassuring:
Go into yourself. Examine the reason that bids you to write; check whether it reaches its roots into the deepest region of your heart, admit to yourself whether you would die if it should be denied you to write.
To be an artist means: not to calculate and count; to grow and ripen like a tree which does not hurry the flow of its sap and stands at ease in the spring gales without fearing that no summer may follow. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are simply there in their vast, quiet tranquillity, as if eternity lay before them.
be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart and … try to love the questions themselves
I also got this 1929 autobiography out from the library. While I much admire the tone in the first paragraph and final pages (especially that last word!), I find I don’t have enough interest in the WWI poets to read what’s in between. It put a Sufjan Stevens song in my head, though.
As literature in translation week of Novellas in November continues, I’m making a token contribution to German Literature Month as well. I’m aware that my second title doesn’t technically count towards the challenge because it was originally written in English, but the author is German, so I’m adding it in as a bonus. Both novellas feature an insular perspective and an unusual protagonist whose actions may be slightly difficult to sympathize with.
The Pigeon by Patrick Süskind (1987; 1988)
[Translated from the German by John E. Woods; 77 pages]
At the time the pigeon affair overtook him, unhinging his life from one day to the next, Jonathan Noel, already past fifty, could look back over a good twenty-year period of total uneventfulness and would never have expected anything of importance could ever overtake him again – other than death some day. And that was perfectly all right with him. For he was not fond of events, and hated outright those that rattled his inner equilibrium and made a muddle of the external arrangements of life.
What a perfect opening paragraph! Taking place over about 24 hours in August 1984, this is the odd little tale of a man in Paris who’s happily set in his ways until an unexpected encounter upends his routines. Every day he goes to work as a bank security guard and then returns to his rented room, which he’s planning to buy from his landlady. But on this particular morning he finds a pigeon not a foot from his door, and droppings all over the corridor. Now, I love birds, so this was somewhat difficult for me to understand, but I know that bird phobia is a real thing. Jonathan is so freaked out that he immediately decamps to a hotel, and his day just keeps getting worse from there, in comical ways, until it seems he might do something drastic. The pigeon is both real and a symbol of irrational fears. The conclusion is fairly open-ended, leaving me feeling like this was a short story or unfinished novella. It was intriguing but also frustrating in that sense. There’s an amazing description of a meal, though! (University library)
The Appointment by Katharina Volckmer (2020)
This debut novella was longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize – a mark of experimental style that would often scare me off, so I’m glad I gave it a try anyway. It’s an extended monologue given by a young German woman during her consultation with a Dr Seligman in London. As she unburdens herself about her childhood, her relationships, and her gender dysphoria, you initially assume Seligman is her Freudian therapist, but Volckmer has a delicious trick up her sleeve. A glance at the titles and covers of foreign editions, or even the subtitle of this Fitzcarraldo Editions paperback, would give the game away, so I recommend reading as little as possible about the book before opening it up. The narrator has some awfully peculiar opinions, especially in relation to Nazism (the good doctor being a Jew), but the deeper we get into her past the more we see where her determination to change her life comes from. This was outrageous and hilarious in equal measure, and great fun to read. I’d love to see someone turn it into a one-act play. (New purchase)
A favourite passage:
But then we are most passionate when we worship the things that don’t exist, like race, or money, or God, or, quite simply, our fathers. God, of course, was a man too. A father who could see everything, from whom you couldn’t even hide in the toilet, and who was always angry. He probably had a penis the size of a cigarette.
Two rather different books to start off #WITMonth: a brief (c. 70 pp.) account of a mother’s decline with dementia; and a haiku-inspired novel of the quest for life and death in disorienting modern Japan. Both are admirable but detached – a judgment I seem more likely to make about work in translation – so don’t earn my wholehearted recommendation. My rating for both:
I Remain in Darkness by Annie Ernaux (1997; English translation, 1999)
[Translated from the French by Tanya Leslie]
This is the second short, somewhat harrowing autobiographical work I’ve read by Ernaux this year (after Happening, her account of her abortion, in March). A collection of mostly present-tense fragments, it’s drawn from the journal she kept during her mother’s final years, 1983–6. “I Remain in Darkness” were the last words her mother wrote, in a letter to a friend (“Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit,” which more literally means “I have not left my night,” strikes me as cryptic and poetic, though maybe I’m missing a colloquialism). Slipping into Alzheimer’s, her mother spent these years in a long-term hospital geriatric ward. Ernaux could see her mother becoming like a child again:
This morning she got up and, in a timid voice, said: ‘I wet the bed. I couldn’t help it.’ The same words I would use when I was a child.
Now her room is on the third floor. A bunch of women circle us, addressing my mother with the familiar tu form: ‘You’re going to be in our group?’ They are like kids talking to the ‘new girl’ at school. When I take leave of her, she looks at me in panic and confusion: ‘You’re not leaving, are you?’
—and herself becoming like her mother: “It’s crystal-clear: she is me in old age and I can see the deterioration of her body threatening to take hold of me – the wrinkles on her legs, the creases in her neck”. Ernaux vacillates between guilt, fear and cruelty in how she approaches her mother. She tenderly shaves the older woman’s face every week when she visits, and buys her all manner of sweets. Food is one of her mother’s last remaining pleasures, though she often misses her mouth when she tries to eat the cakes her daughter brings.
Superficially, this is very similar to another book I’ve reviewed this year, Be With by Mike Barnes, a series of short letters written during his time as a caregiver to his mother, who also has Alzheimer’s. But where Barnes is reassuring and even humorous at times, Ernaux refuses to give any comfort, false or otherwise. This hospital is a bleak place that reeks of urine and is hiding excrement everywhere (really). A lazier reviewer than I generally try to be would brandish the word “unflinching.”
The entries from a few days after her mother’s death explain what the author is trying to do with her work, whether memoir or autofiction: “I am incapable of producing books that are not precisely that – an attempt to salvage part of our lives, to understand, but first to salvage … I’ll have to tell her story in order to ‘distance myself from it’.” That dual purpose, saving and distancing, makes her work honest yet unemotional, such that I have trouble warming to it.
This is easily read in a sitting. I may try again to get into Ernaux’s novel The Years, which, like the Poschmann (below), was on this past year’s Man Booker International Prize shortlist.
I Remain in Darkness will be released on September 18th. With thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for the free copy for review.
The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann (2017; English translation, 2018)
[Translated from the German by Jen Calleja]
(Though I read this mostly in July, I finished it on August 1st, so I’m including it in my WIT Month coverage. It’s the first of the author’s books to be made available in English.)
A man wakes up from a dream convinced that his wife is cheating on him, and sets off for Tokyo on a whim, where he embarks on a Bashō-inspired pilgrimage to the pine islands of Matsushima. This Gilbert Silvester, a beard historian, acquires an unlikely companion: a young man named Yosa, who’s looking for the best place to kill himself and takes Gilbert along to cliffs and forests famous for their suicide rates. Although there are still cherry blossoms and kabuki theatre, Gilbert soon learns that this isn’t Bashō’s Japan anymore.
From the haikus he composes and the letters he writes to Mathilda back home, we track his inward journey as it contrasts with the outward ones he undertakes. I enjoyed the surreal touches – Yosa says he once dated a woman who was actually a fox – and the Murakami setup (the wife’s adultery and the hair patterns are reminiscent of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle).
Somehow, though, for me this is a book that succeeds more in its ideas (searching for the essence of a place but only finding the clichés; coniferous versus deciduous trees as a metaphor for what lasts in life versus what fades) than in its actual execution. It never all quite comes together, and the inconclusive ending makes you question how much of this has been a dream or a fantasy. It’s ambitious and intellectually impressive, but something about its dignified aloofness is hard to be enthusiastic about.
Do watch Lost in Translation, one of my favorite films, afterwards…
And a DNF: The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante. The time has come to admit that I simply do not appreciate Ferrante’s work. I could only make it 25 pages into this one; I’ve read a different short novel of hers (The Lost Daughter), and skimmed another (My Brilliant Friend). While I enjoyed the narrator’s voice well enough, and loved the scene in which her errant husband finds broken glass in his dinner, I found that I had no interest in how this seemingly predictable story of the end of a marriage might play out.
Up next for Part II: The Wind that Lays Waste by Selva Almada, on its way from Charco Press, and The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmarin Fenollera.