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‘Tales of the German Imagination: from the Brothers Grimm to Ingeborg Bachmann’, edited by Peter Wortsman ***

Tales of the German Imagination, from the Brothers Grimm to Ingeborg Bachmann, is a ‘collection of fantastical, strange and compelling stories from 200 years of German literature’. It ‘includes such literary giants as the Brothers Grimm, Kafka, Musil and Rilke, as well as many surprising and unexpected voices’.

9780141198804The introduction has been written by translator Peter Wortsman, who has also edited the collection. In it, he states that ‘fear has indeed proven rich fodder for fantasy in the German storytelling tradition’, and that ‘the darkest German literary confections are such a pleasure to read because they are also spiked with humour – therein lies their enduring appeal’. Wortsman goes on to say that in editing the anthology, he has aimed to include stories and extracts ‘from a span of several centuries and from various literary movements born of crisis and doubt’.

Tales of the German Imagination is split into three separate parts, and includes predominantly male authors. In fact, Ingeborg Bachmann, mentioned in the title, is one of only two females featured in the collection. There are some other famous names amongst the authors – E.T.A. Hoffmann, Heinrich Heine and Rainer Maria Rilke, for example. The anthology begins with three stories by the Brothers Grimm – ‘The Singing Bone’, ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and ‘The Children of Hameln’, which is their telling of a tale more commonly known as ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’. Whilst these stories are relatively well known in the English speaking world, others from the less popular authors feel fresh and add a nice twist to such a collection.

The stories themselves provide a varied mixture of themes and styles. Some are told from the first person perspective and others from the third, and we are immersed into a variety of historical settings where we meet a whole host of diverse protagonists and bystanders. The settings too are diverse, from Germany to Italy and from the Netherlands to the United States. Several of the tales of much longer than others – ‘The Sandman’ by E.T.A. Hoffmann, ‘Rune Mountain’ by Ludwig Tieck and ‘Peter Schlemiel’ by Adelbert von Chamisso, for example, read more like novellas than short stories. The majority are standalone pieces, but several of the tales have been taken from longer works of fiction. Throughout, many different themes and literary elements have been made use of, from magic, the unexplained and the macabre to poverty, war and peace and the concept of madness.

The stories themselves have been nicely varied for the most part, and there is sure to be something to suit the tastes of even the most particular short story connoisseur. All relate to the human psyche in some way, and the most stunning and unsettling are provided by the Brothers Grimm, Georg Heym and Kurt Schwitters. Some of the tales are rather disturbed and the subject matter is not easy to read about at times, but the starkness of their telling and events certainly pack a punch. In Georg Heym’s ‘The Lunatic’, his protagonist ‘pranced about with two skulls stuck to his feet, like eggshells he’d just stepped out of and hadn’t yet shaken off… and then he stamped down, splotch, so the brains splattered nicely like a little golden fountain’. In Kurt Schwitters’ ‘The Onion’, the protagonist tells us: ‘It was a very momentous day, the day on which I was to be slaughtered… I had never yet in all my life been slaughtered’.

In some cases, the year in which the story was published is included below its title, but in others the life span of the author is included. This inconsistency is a little confusing at times, as is the way in which none of the stories have been included in a chronological order. Ordering the stories in such a way would have made it easy for the reader to see how the darker elements of German fiction have progressed as the years have passed. The biographical information pertaining to each of the authors has been tucked away in an appendix at the back of the volume, and it is a shame that these short yet informative paragraphs have not been paired with the stories themselves.

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‘The Lighthouse’ by Alison Moore ****

I purchased The Lighthouse just by chance from the Oxfam Bookshop on Byres Road on my boyfriend’s birthday.  I remember seeing a few copies about when it was published, but have never read any reviews of it; nor did I know anyone in real life who had read it.  I started it out of intrigue on the same day (and read a large portion of it in the dim light of a Walkabout bar in central Glasgow whilst trying to drown out the sounds of very loud football supporters during an Arsenal game), and was immediately drawn in. 9781907773174

On the novel’s front cover, Margaret Drabble calls the prose ‘low-key’, and I think those two words sum it up perfectly.  Moore’s writing is measured and understated.  She has presented her story and protagonist incredibly well, and at no point did I lose interest.  Each character has been intrinsically pieced together.  Some are not given much of a voice, but they all come across as strikingly realistic beings.  The Lighthouse is psychologically rather intense.  The novel is quite funny in places too; acidly so.

I found it rather interesting that our narrator, Futh, was never identified with a first name; to me, the continual use of his surname showed just how influential his parents – and, in part, his extended family – were, both on his life and in the shaping of his personality.  Moore demonstrates, through this technique, the way in which despite his personal growth and independence, he could never quite break away from his past.  The geography of his past has been well but not precisely mapped; we know of a holiday he went on as a youngster to Cornwall, but are not told of the precise location that he called home.  In his present, however, the name of the first town in Germany to which he travels on his week’s holiday, has been named.  The juxtaposition here is interesting; whilst Futh’s present is arguably more alive because he is able to experience things, Moore makes it clear that his past is what is driving him onward.  The Lighthouse is essentially a story about people and things, not places; the characters here are the pivotal beings which drive the story onward.

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The Brilliance of Non-Fiction: Five New Releases

I am a self-confessed fan of non-fiction books, and often find myself gravitating towards them in bookshops.  I have spent several hours of late in Waterstone’s and London’s excellent Skoob, browsing the history shelves for something which will both captivate and educate me.  With that in mind, I thought I would share with you five non-fiction books which I am currently coveting.  For each, I have copied the official blurb to whet your appetite as well as my own.

1. The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson 
“Twenty years ago, Bill Bryson went on a trip around Britain to celebrate the green and kindly island that had become his adopted country. The hilarious book that resulted, Notes from a Small Island, was taken to the nation’s heart and became the bestselling travel book ever, and was also voted in a BBC poll the book that best represents Britain. Now, to mark the twentieth anniversary of that modern classic, Bryson makes a brand-new journey round Britain to see what has changed. Following (but not too closely) a route he dubs the Bryson Line, from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath, by way of places that many people never get to at all, Bryson sets out to rediscover the wondrously beautiful, magnificently eccentric, endearingly unique country that he thought he knew but doesn’t altogether recognize any more. Yet, despite Britain’s occasional failings and more or less eternal bewilderments, Bill Bryson is still pleased to call our rainy island home. And not just because of the cream teas, a noble history, and an extra day off at Christmas. Once again, with his matchless homing instinct for the funniest and quirkiest, his unerring eye for the idiotic, the endearing, the ridiculous and the scandalous, Bryson gives us an acute and perceptive insight into all that is best and worst about Britain today.”

2. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
“Ancient Rome matters. Its history of empire, conquest, cruelty and excess is something against which we still judge ourselves. Its myths and stories – from Romulus and Remus to the Rape of Lucretia – still strike a chord with us. And its debates about citizenship, security and the rights of the individual still influence our own debates on civil liberty today. SPQR is a new look at Roman history from one of the world’s foremost classicists. It explores not only how Rome grew from an insignificant village in central Italy to a power that controlled territory from Spain to Syria, but also how the Romans thought about themselves and their achievements, and why they are still important to us. Covering 1,000 years of history, and casting fresh light on the basics of Roman culture from slavery to running water, as well as exploring democracy, migration, religious controversy, social mobility and exploitation in the larger context of the empire, this is a definitive history of ancient Rome. SPQR is the Romans’ own abbreviation for their state: Senatus Populusque Romanus, ‘the Senate and People of Rome’.”

3. The Great British Dream Factory: The Strange History of Our National Imagination by Dominic Sandbrook 
“Britain’s empire has gone. Our manufacturing base is a shadow of its former self; the Royal Navy has been reduced to a skeleton. In military, diplomatic and economic terms, we no longer matter as we once did. And yet there is still one area in which we can legitimately claim superpower status: our popular culture. It is extraordinary to think that one British writer, J K Rowling, has sold more than 400 million books; that Doctor Who is watched in almost every developed country in the world; that James Bond has been the central character in the longest-running film series in history; that The Lord of the Rings is the second best-selling novel ever written (behind only A Tale of Two Cities); that the Beatles are still the best-selling musical group of all time; and that only Shakespeare and the Bible have sold more books than Agatha Christie. To put it simply, no country on earth, relative to its size, has contributed more to the modern imagination. This is a book about the success and the meaning of Britain’s modern popular culture, from Bond and the Beatles to heavy metal and Coronation Street, from the Angry Young Men to Harry Potter, from Damien Hirst toThe X Factor.”

4. The House by the Lake by Thomas Harding
“In the spring of 1993, Thomas Harding travelled to Berlin with his grandmother to visit a small house by a lake. It was her ‘soul place’, she said – a sanctuary she had been forced to leave when the Nazis swept to power. The trip was a chance to see the house one last time, to remember it as it was. But the house had changed. Twenty years later Thomas returned to Berlin. The house now stood empty, derelict, soon to be demolished. A concrete footpath cut through the garden, marking where the Berlin Wall had stood for nearly three decades. Elsewhere were signs of what the house had once been – blue tiles showing behind wallpaper, photographs fallen between floorboards, flagstones covered in dirt. Evidence of five families who had made the house their home over a tumultuous century. The House by the Lake is a ground breaking work of history, revealing the story of Germany through the inhabitants of one small wooden building: a nobleman farmer, a prosperous Jewish family, a renowned Nazi composer, a widow and her children, a Stasi informant. Moving from the late nineteenth century to the present day, from the devastation of two world wars to the dividing and reuniting of a nation, it is a story of domestic joy and contentment, of terrible grief and tragedy, and of a hatred handed down through the generations. It is the long-awaited new work from the best-selling author of Hanns and Rudolf.”

5. The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin by Steven Lee Myers 
“An epic tale of Vladimir Putin’s path to power, as he emerged from obscurity to become one of the world’s most conflicted and important leaders. Former New York Times Moscow Bureau Chief Steven Lee Myers has followed Putin since well before the recent events in the Ukraine, and gives us the fullest and most engaging account available of his rise to power. A gripping, page-turning narrative about Russian power and prestige, the book depicts a cool and calculating leader with enormous ambition and few scruples. As the world struggles to confront a newly assertive Russia, the importance of understanding Putin has never been greater. Vladimir Putin rose out of Soviet deprivation to the pinnacle of influence in the new Russian nation. He came to office in 2000 as a reformer, cutting taxes and expanding property rights, bringing a measure of order and eventually prosperity to millions whose only experience of democracy in the early years following the Soviet collapse was instability, poverty and criminality. But soon Putin orchestrated the preservation of a new kind of authoritarianism, consolidating power, reasserting his country’s might, brutally crushing revolts and swiftly dispatching dissenters, even as he retained the support of many.”

Which are your favourite non-fiction books, and which newer releases do you hope to read soon?

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Interesting Tidbits: The Man Who Crossed His Arms

Years ago I came across this picture circling the internet and was always so intrigued to find out more about the man behind it with an article to decently detail his life. Luckily, I found one earlier today and wanted to share (hopefully it will restore a shred of your faith in humanity).

(Taken from here; all credit given):

The photo above has floated around the internet for a few years now, popular for one of its subjects’ subtle yet profound acts of nonconformity. There is no telling how many men in that crowd were acting out of fear, fully aware that failing to salute the Fuhrer was akin to signing his own death certificate. Knowing that it was, in fact, Hitler standing before the crowd makes the disobedience all the more admirable, but what may seem like an act of justified transgression was at its core a gesture of love. August Landmesser, the man with his arms crossed, was married to a Jewish woman.

August Landmesser Uniform

The story of August Landmesser’s anti-gesture begins, ironically enough, with the Nazi Party. In 1930, Germany’s economy was in shambles, and the unstable nature of the Reichstag eventually led to its demise and ultimately the rise of the opportunistic leadership of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Believing that having the right connections would help land him a job in the pulseless economy, Landmesser became a card-carrying Nazi. Little did he know that his heart would soon ruin any progress that his superficial political affiliation might have made.

August Landmesser Portrait

In 1934, Landmesser met Irma Eckler, a Jewish woman, and the two fell deeply in love. Their engagement a year later got him expelled from the party, and their marriage application was denied under the newly enacted Nuremberg Laws. They had a baby girl, Ingrid, in October of the same year, and two years later in 1937, the family made a failed attempt to flee to Denmark, where they were apprehended at the border. August was arrested and charged for “dishonoring the race,” and briefly imprisoned.

August Landmesser Ingrid Portrait

Source: Mental Floss

In court, the two claimed to be unaware of Eckler’s Jewish status, as she had been baptized in a Protestant church after her mother remarried. In May 1938, August was acquitted for lack of evidence, but with a severe warning that punishment would follow if Landmesser dared repeat the offense. Officials made “good” on their word, as only a month later August would be arrested again and sentenced to hard labor for thirty months in a concentration camp. He would never see his beloved wife again.

August Landmesser Irma Kids

Meanwhile, a law was quietly passed that required the arrest of Jewish wives in the case of a man “dishonoring the race,” and Irma was snatched up by the Gestapo and sent to various prisons and concentration camps, where she would eventually give birth to Irene, Landmesser and Eckler’s second child.

Both children were initially sent to an orphanage, though Ingrid, spared a worse fate for her status as “half cast,” was sent to live with her Aryan grandparents. Irene, however, would eventually be plucked from the orphanage and sent to the camps, were a family acquaintance not to have grabbed her and whisked her away to Austria for safekeeping. Upon Irene’s return to Germany, she would be hidden again–this time in a hospital ward where her Jewish identification card would be “lost,” allowing her to live under the noses of her oppressors until their defeat.

August Landmesser Irene Foster

Source: Mental Floss

Their mother’s tale is much more tragic. As her daughters were being bounced from orphanages to foster homes to hiding places, Irma ultimately met her maker in 1942 in the gas chambers at Bernburg.

August would be released in 1941 and began work as a foreman. Two years later, as the German army became increasingly mired by its desperate circumstances, Landmesser would be drafted into a penal infantry along with thousands of other men. He would go missing in Croatia where it is presumed he died, six months before Germany would officially surrender.

August Landmesser Whole Family

Source: Senri No Michi

The now-famous photograph was probably taken on June 13th 1936, when Landmesser was working at the Blohm + Voss shipyard and still had a family to return to at the day’s end. During the unveiling of the new Horst Vessel, workers were stunned to see the Fuhrer himself in front of the ship. Landmesser likely found himself incapable of saluting the very man who publicly dehumanized his wife and daughter, and scores of others just like them, only to go home and embrace them several hours later. Landmesser might have been casually aware of propaganda photographers in the shipyard, but in that moment, his only thought was of his family.

August and Irma were officially declared dead in 1949. In 1951, the Senate of Hamburg recognized the marriage of August Landmesser and Irma Eckler. Their daughters split their parent’s names, Ingrid taking their father’s and Irene keeping their mother’s.