Posts Tagged ‘German fiction’

Patrick Süskind: Perfume

December 5, 2021

     Spoilers ahead!

I’ll have to admit to being vaguely disappointed with my return to this novel, and I’m not sure yet that I’ve completely worked out why. I read it nearly twenty years ago, liked it, watched the film and really enjoyed that, and remember it as a really good version of the story, which clearly lends itself to the visual medium. I can see I will have to watch the film again.

The novel focuses on the sense of smell, and this marks it out as very different from any other: this was why it was such an international bestseller. A baby is born, who has no personal odour, and this marks him out as different: both imperceptible to others, and also a source of discomfort or alarm to them when they perceive that there is something unusual about him. And anyone who has any close relationship with him at any point in his life, meets a disastrous end. Monstrous by nature, repelling others, he has a strong sense of self-preservation, and the world’s most powerful and sensitive nose, in that he can identify and remember any odour he encounters, filing it away in his memory.

There’s a lot of straining with the language, at first as the writer strives to describe the indescribable, both in terms of the appalling odours of seventeenth-century Paris where the story begins, and the olfactory experiences of Grenouille, the hero. We have to be convinced just how special he is, and at times the language is just over the top, I’m afraid. Conceptually, Süskind’s single idea is astonishing, and he does marvellous things with it at times, but in the end it’s also a limitation.

At an early age the boy is apprenticed to a tanner, then insinuates himself into a post as a perfumier’s journeyman. Having mastered the craft, he sets off and isolates himself from all human contact and odour and lives in a cave for seven years, before making his way to Grasse, the centre of French perfumery. Here he creates a series of personal smells for himself, and gradually realises the power he has over people in terms of manipulating their responses to him through the scents he chooses to use.

He then, via the secrets of the craft and a series of murders, creates powerful human scents capable of overwhelming the rational behaviours of crowds, ultimately succeeding in preventing his own execution for murder, and eventually driving a demented crowd to tear him to pieces.

That bald summary in a way fails to do justice to Süskind’s achievement, but also shows its limitations. It’s both a tour de force, woven from a single original idea, and a story that doesn’t hold that convincingly together when looked at too closely. Just suspend disbelief for a while and enjoy, then move on…

Irmgard Keun: After Midnight

June 4, 2021

     Here’s a novella set in Germany between the time of the Nazis taking power and the start of the Second World War, by a German woman writer who lived through those times. I was often reminded of Erika Mann’s When The Lights Go Out, which deals with the same times and experiences, those of ordinary Germans who can’t quite comprehend what’s changed and what’s going on around them, and happening to them. There’s a lot of avoidance – understandable, perhaps – in evidence.

There is a deliberate naivete in the young female narrator, which shows us clearly how the new regime affects so many small details of the everyday life of the average citizen, the minor adjustments and compromises they choose to/ have to make in order to continue with their lives, and how this all creates a deepening atmosphere of fear which serves to keep almost everyone in a permanent state of uncertainty and obedience: there is no rechtstaat any longer. The narrator’s evenness of tone reflects her unthinking acceptance of the changed circumstances. Ordinary citizens are in survival mode, and have quickly taken on board the idea that resistance is both dangerous and futile. People inform on each other all the time, for all sorts of reasons.

Yet in her thoughts she’s awkward and dangerous, and pretty savvy in her behaviour in lots of ways, especially at avoiding potential trouble, and keeping her more insouciant friend Gerti out of it. There is the feeling that, in these relatively early days of the Nazi regime, many people are partying and drinking and avoiding admitting that the real, old world is falling to pieces around them. There is still time to get away for those who can, and, although at times the narrative became a little tedious and predictable, the ending is both hectic and powerful.

Fiction such as this and recent history and social history texts are both fascinating and alarming, as they enable us – who haven’t been there yet! – to see just how things can and do change without many of us realising it before it is too late, and I experience a grim sense of warning and foreboding when I read them. Often the fiction is more telling, I feel, and more effective, as we try to understand the mentalities of those who lived through such times, the accommodations and compromises so many of them made, and, most of all why they did so. There are important messages for us here and now.

August favourites #15: German novel

August 15, 2018

I’ve read a fair amount of German fiction – in translation, I must admit; although I can get by passably enough in the spoken language, I’m not up to reading novels – but it’s probably the very first German novel I ever read that is still my favourite: Gunter GrassThe Tin Drum. Partly it’s the setting, the vanished Free City of Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland, and a city I know quite well), and partly the writer’s lifelong quest to understand and come to terms with his, and his nation’s appalling behaviour during the Nazi era. Historians have tried with varying degrees of success, and exposed the facts, but writers of fiction are those who can attempt to take us inside the heads of those who lived then. It’s surely significant that Oskar, after his experiences, is the inmate of a mental institution… Grass takes us inside a warped and twisted world that nevertheless feels normal in the pages of the novel, and perhaps that is one of the keys to the insanity of those times. A stunningly powerful read from a writer who – for me – never stopped wrestling with his troubled conscience.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

Hans Fallada: A Small Circus

March 3, 2016

41Yw4NA2ZJL._AA160_ 51XRh+98YIL._AA160_51Yw6uWt7nL._AA160_One of the problems, when a long-lost novel is rediscovered and re-published, is that publishers then want to cash in. This happened when Hans Fallada’s brilliant novel of protest in wartime Berlin, Alone in Berlin, was rediscovered. It has recently been filmed, to not very scintillating reviews. The novel portrays the tribulations faced by an ordinary Berlin couple whose son is killed on the Eastern Front and who decide to protest against the war, by leaving anonymous postcards in public places: eventually they are tracked down, tried and executed. What works well in this novel is the suffocating atmosphere of the wartime city, and the characterisation not only of the hero and heroine, but also of the detective in charge of the investigation.

So publishers have duly dredged through the archives and found all Fallada’s novel and published them. Wolf Among Wolves I found quite interesting, but I really think that A Small Circus could have been left undiscovered, and I have been thinking about why.

It’s set in the late twenties in a small Pommeranian town, and deals with small-town politics, corruption, the sleaziness of the local press and the utterly chaotic times leading up to the rise of the Nazis – for 550 pages. There are one or two interesting characters who are developed in a little detail, but there are so many characters that the book needs a listing and explanation of their roles – like War and Peace! – and the majority are cardboard cut-outs.

You get – perhaps for the first time in my case, and this is to Fallada’s credit – a clear and detailed picture of the total chaos of those times, and the struggles of the Weimar Republic to achieve any sense of legitimacy or loyalty from many of its citizens. Everyone seems corrupt and out for themselves and it seems like cats fighting in a sack. And yet, the sheer length of it, the minute details, the petty squabbles, which perhaps might have seemed illuminating to readers in the forties when it was written, are ultimately rather dull… it wasn’t that I didn’t actually dislike this novel, but that it was such an effort to read it; it didn’t grip me, but I persevered to the end. I don’t see myself re-reading it, yet I’ve already read Alone in Berlin twice and will be going back to it.

What’s the problem? I think that it’s dated in the detail, and although I learned a couple of things about those times through being immersed in the details, it wasn’t really worth it. I was also irritated by the translation at times – it’s a new one, presumably the only one into English – because it used too many anachronistic words and phrases, that are of our day and times and could not have been said then…

Digressing a little, I do read about and reflect on those times a good deal. I have always subscribed to the idea that if the Allies hadn’t been so brutal and revengeful towards the defeated Germany, we might have been spared Hitler and the consequent evils. But more recently, having spent time in those parts of France devastated and occupied during the Great War, I have more understanding of why the French were so vengeful…

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