Saturday, November 9, 2013

Three German Novellas: Lenz, A Runaway Horse, The Sunday I became World Champion


One of the best parts of reading literature of a particular country dealing with a particular moment of its history is that one gets to know about that time not as a dry report but as a vibrant, lived reality. Recently I read three German novellas, two of which dealt with a specific situation in the country.



Peter Schneider's Lenz deals with the aftermath of the German Student movement of 1968. Part of the world-wide unrest movements of the time, the German Student movement had sought an overhauling of their society. The Students felt that they had carried the burden of their parents' Nazi past far too long, they were horrified by what seemed to be a return to power by the Right-wingers, there were also the concern about the growing gap between the rich and the poor as the economy went into recession. Many of the students thus turned towards Marx.

However, Lenz deals with the disillusionment with the movement as it weakened because of internal rivalries and factions. Lenz, the eponymous hero of the novel has turned away Marx's portrait so that it faces the wall:

For some time he had already been unable to endure the sage face of Marx over his bed any longer. He had hung it turned to the wall once already. In order to let the intellect drip off, he explained to a friend. He looked Marx straight in the eye: 'What were your dreams, old know-it-all, at night, I mean? Were you really happy?"

Still unable to recover from a break-up with his girlfriend, Lenz finds that his old certainties are slowly vanishing. He joins a factory to feel one with the labourers only to be assuaged with guilt since he has taken away the job from someone who needed it badly. He joins a demonstration where a young boy tells him excitedly that he felt full of power when he threw a stone. Looking at his shining face, Lenz recalls his own feeling of exhilaration when he had thrown a stone of protest for the first time. At the same time however he feels that such demonstrations have outlived their use and some new form of protest is needed. Attending a meeting of comrades, he finds the same trite sentences of Mao Tse-tung being parroted. Feeling suffocated in Germany, he leaves for Italy where he finds people more attuned to his way of thinking. However, even as he is settling in Italy, he finds himself deported back to Germany. On reaching back home, he realises that running away is not a solution and for better or for worse, Germany is his karambhoomi.

There were certain passages in the book that I really liked.

Lenz noticed a kind of sadness in his face that characterizes people whose wishes have all been fulfilled and who now ask in astonishment what they have to accomplish in this world that has become a post-world to them. [20]

He wondered what had prevented him all this while from being interested in those changes, and whether conversely the societal changes that had been perceived by him and his friends as great and decisive would be looked upon by those observers as unimportant. [27]

Lenz explained that he was in a terrible state, everything was going to slip away from him, he had the feeling of having fallen off the world. [41]





The second novella A Runaway Horse is more of a psychological drama. A school teacher Helmut is holidaying with his wife. Their lives have fallen in a rut. Helmut, especially, doesn't feel at home with other people. The more he is a stranger to them, the more happy he is:

Helmut did not like people around them to have ideas about himself and Sabina that were accurate. Never mind what people thought about them both as long as it was wrong. To succeed in promoting mistaken conclusions always made him feel good. Incognito: that was his dearest image. [83]

Helmut's intentions of partly living are shattered by the entry of Klaus Buch. At first sight, Helmut takes him for one of his students, so young and handsome does Klaus look. It turns out though that Klaus is a classmate of Helmut. With his young wife Hella in tow, Klaus takes control of the lives of Sabina and Helmut. All the while he keeps on going back into the past and telling anecdotes of their younger days. Helmut doesn't partake in his enthusiasm. It slowly transpires that in his young days, Helmut was seen as a brilliant student and people expected great things for him. Klaus was just an average student who followed Helmut's lead. However, in their adult life it seems it is Klaus who has a brilliant career while Helmut hasn't realised his early promise. This gives way to a lot of heart-burn. However, the dazzling Klaus too has his share of problems and on a wet and stormy night, the insecurities of both men come to the fore.

While I liked the novella overall what I found extremely funny was Hella's habit of removing her top suddenly and without warning. Such a scenario in India - a young woman unclothing herself at a social gathering - would surely cause a number of heart-attacks to occur.:)

Two passages, which brilliantly describes unfulfilled aims and ambitions, stood out in the novel:

Helmut saw only fragments, holes, wreckage, destroyed items. For many years he had done little but prepare himself to live with what had been destroyed. Nothing attracted him so much as things that had been destroyed. Someday or other he would do nothing from morning to night but surround himself with what had been destroyed. His aim was to transform his own present into a condition resembling as closely as possible the destroyed nature of the past. That was his objective. Within him, around him, before him, he wanted everything to be as fragmentary in the past. After all, a person is dead far longer than he is alive. it is really grotesque how tiny the present is in relation to the past. Hence this relationship should duly minimize, grind down, distort to insensibility every second of the present. [91-92]

It gets to me. Depression, I mean, the resentful, self-devouring kind. Because now I'm worth no more than something you throw at the wall to smash it so completely that you can't tell from the pieces what it was or what it was meant to be. That's really the most important part, for the destruction to be thorough enough. If they were to only partially smash us all, there would be a wave of sympathy in which we'd all be sure to drown, and that would be the end of the world. But as people who have been smashed to smithereens, we go on living without feeling. [151-152]




But the novella I liked the best - in fact I absolutely fell in love with it - was the third one: The Sunday I Became World Champion. Narrated by a young boy, who remains nameless throughout, it describes the euphoria that swept the nation as Germany lifted the FIFA world cup in 1954.

Son of a pastor and grandson of a U-boat commander turned preacher, the little boy finds the atmosphere of his home suffocating at times. It is not that he doesn't love his strict father or a mother who is always helping others, it is just that he cannot comprehend some of the passages read out by his father in the church. For example, God asking Abraham to sacrifice his first-born. He often wonders whether his father too would one day take the knife and slay him. The terror that Issac must have felt transmutes to the young boy who stutters and finds it difficult to communicate. And then one magical Sunday, Germany reaches the World Cup final. As the commentary is broadcast, the young boy's emotions go up and down. Will Germany be able to defeat the mighty Hungarians or would they always remain losers, never destined to win? What salvation is there when everything is predestined?

I loved the way, the author depicted the psyche of a defeated nation. There is first the absence:

Above them hung plaques commemorating the dead soldiers of 1870-71, They fought for king and country, and next to it the one for 1914-18, Heroes, fallen in the struggle for Germany's honour and existence, Never shall their names be forgotten, holy shall they be to us.

The soldiers of the second world war, in their very absence, become a haunting presence:

From far up on the hill, I listened into the houses, knew what most of them looked like on the inside. I knew that they had eaten, washed up, straightened up, and sat behind their timber-frame walls in the muteness of early afternoon. There in many of the parlours something dark and damp resided that had little to do with the hard life between stalls and field, dung heaps and pigs, hay making and trailer hitch. In the cold, stagnate air of these living rooms suppressed tales lay hidden - there was always a son or a father or brother fallen n the war pictured in uniform that had become embarrassing and in a picture frame, staring at the survivors, staring accusingly at the crumb cake set out for visitors.

Every house, it seemed to me, had a secret, something about which no one spoke, not just opaque animosities concerning field paths or debts, not just rumours about who was a drunk, who had argued with whom, who had rejected a refugee as son-in-law, who was messing with other women. There was a stagnant rage, there were dark stories that did not belong in the world of a child, somewhere there was a chasm out of which terms like Jew were spoken with a contemptuously long EW and words like Fuhrer with a high pitched U, or Nazi with a rebelliously intoned A turned up, then they were sneeringly and hurriedly swallowed, a fairy-tale world of evil terms and figures, a forbidden, dangerous mixture that one should not touch - but every fairy tale ended sometime, and they lived happily ever after.

That was not the way it really was, so many things were not, the dead men on the commode lived on, although they had died. They made accusations, they spoiled appetites. Amputees hobbled around potholes like living accusations against the healthy ones. Refugees lived crowded and gratefully in small houses or in attics; no one asked who had lived there before them. Again and again I heard the reproach of having been driven to injustice. The war had been a defeat and had left a dormant hate behind. The war was to blame for something with which everyone was involved but wanted to ignore, like the highway bridge behind me deep in the forest, across which no one ever had even driven because they had merely cleared away trees and begun setting up the bridge, which now in puddles and mud stood only as a monument to a wasted former future [212-213].

As Germany heads in the winning goal and are declared world champions, the boy too comes of age:

I had never felt so light, and beneath the pulsing emotion of victory was a deep desperate hint of what it would like to be liberated from the curse of a world divided between Good and Evil, liberated from the occupying forces, from an insatiable god, and perhaps also a hint of the of the limited duration of this happiness at being able to say one time an unchecked Yes!



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First Line: AT MORNING LENZ WOKE UP out of one of his usual dreams.

Title: Lenz

Original Title: Lenz

Original Language: German

Author: Peter Schneider

Translator: A. Leslie Wilson

First Published: 1973

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First Line: SUDDENLY SABINA PUSHED her way out of the tourists surging along the promenade and headed for a little table that was still unoccupied.

Title: A Runaway Horse

Original Title :Ein Fliehendes Pferd

Original Language: German

Author: Martin Walser

Translator: Leila Vennewitz

First Published: 1978

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First Line: THE SUNDAY I became world champion began like every Sunday: The bells pounded me awake, chopped my dreamy pictures asunder, beat on both ear drums, hammered through my head, and flailed my body, which turned defenceless toward the wall.

Title: The Sunday I became World Champion

Original Title: Der Sonntag, am dem ich Weltmeister wurde

Author: Friedrich Christian Delius

Translator: Scott Williams

First Published: 1994

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Publication Details: NY: Continuum, 2001 (The German Library)

Ed. A. Leslie Wilson

Pages: 236

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The book might be available in libraries. I borrowed it from the CPDHE library.

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Submitted for various challenges.

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7 comments:

  1. Neeru - Thanks for sharing this. It's so interesting to have those different perspectives on one country at a particular sort of time in history (even though the stories are set in slightly different time periods). What an interesting multi-faceted look at a culture.

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    1. oh yes, Margot, very interesting indeed. I esp. loved the third one which is a great look at how a country recovers its confidence in itself.

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  2. I wanted to thanks for this interesting internet site. I for sure loved every little of it. I have you bookmarked your web site to find out at the latest goods you write.

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  3. I read the Delius in German for the first German Literature Month a couple of years back (and reviewed it in German too!). I loved the book, and I'm glad someone shares my enthusiasm. This particular World Cup holds a special significance in German sporting and cultural history, similar to England's win in 1966, or the US ice hockey team's 'Miracle on Ice'. Delius is recounting more than just a sporting event, it's a slice of German history...

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    1. Thanks for having a look Tony. The Delius was a real find. The Miracle at Bern really did revitalise a nation. And I loved the commentary.

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  4. These sound marvellous Neeru - I am definitely going to see if I can track it down - thanks very much.

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    1. Oh you must Sergio. The last one has been a real find and my favourite read of 2013.

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