12/12/2007

Books this Season: Fiction

Autumn 2007

Here we introduce the most talked about books of the 2007 autumn season. The German newspapers have long and (for some) tedious names, so we use abbreviations. Here is a key to them.

Fiction / Nonfiction

The literary event of the season is the inexplicably delayed publication of two Russian masterpieces: Vassily Grossmann's historic drama of the 20th century "Life and Fate" and Varlam Shalamov's collection of tales from Kolyma "Durch den Schnee". On the German side, we have seen older novelists flexing their muscles and reaching for the skies, biographers looking up to bygone giants, and the feuilletons rallying to defend religion against the air strikes of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.


The great purge

33 years after his death, Vassily Grossman's "Life and Fate" has been published in a complete German edition. Kruschev had the novel banned in 1961, even confiscating Grossman's typewriter ribbons. Grossman died in 1964, unaware that copies of his novel had been saved. It was only in the 1980s that a microfilm copy could be smuggled to Switzerland with the help of Andrei Sakharov. An abridged German translation appeared in 1984, but aside from Heinrich Böll, no one in Germany seemed to be interested in what Grossman had to say about the battle at Stalingrad, the fight for freedom, truth and dignity in Stalin's Soviet Union, the horrors of the Holocaust, the concentration camps and the gulags, famine in Ukraine and the torture chambers of the NKVD. In Der Tagesspiegel, Katharina Narbutovic explains why the book was considered so dangerous: in a central passage, an SS officer attempts to convince a Bolshevik that in fact their goals were identical. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung celebrates the novel as "an immense stroke of good fortune," and the taz calls it a "sublime monster." For Die Welt, the book is an epic of the "eternal, bitter, human victory over both the sublime and the inhuman."

Also highly commended is "Ein Schriftsteller im Krieg" (a writer at war), edited by Antony Beevor, collecting the reportages written by Vassily Grossman for the Soviet Army newspaper Red Star.

There is no doubt in anyone's mind as to the literary and historical merits of "Durch den Schnee" (published in English as "The Kolyma Tales"), Varlam Shalamov's stories from Kolyma in the furthest reaches of Siberia. The critics are agreed that Shalamov has his place alongside Alexander Solzhenitshen, Primo Levi and Imre Kertesz as a witness of horror. Shalamov spent 14 of his 20 years as a political prisoner in a Soviet work camp in Siberia, yet he never got on with Solzhenitsyn, accusing him of having aestheticised the Gulag Archipelago. For Shalamov, the Gulag can only be recounted in a documentary fashion, without the slightest moralising. Shalamov sought to write neither reminiscences nor stories, but rather "something that would not be literature," as Der Tagesspiegel quotes the author. The FR feels it has been led to the "extremities of cruelty" by the "shock-frosted clarity" of Shalamov's prose, while the NZZ writes that the stories should have been made manatory school reading long ago. The magazine Osteuropa, for its part, has published an outstanding issue on Shalamov and "Durch den Schnee."


Novels from Eastern Europe

Romanian author Mircea Cartarescu has "catapulted himself to the summit of European literature" with his novel "Die Wissenden" (the knowing), proclaims the NZZ. High time, then, that he was discovered in Germay, althought it's not all so easy to say exactly what this book - which takes palce in Bucharest during the socialist era - is about. "Sometimes I explain my book as a mystical butterfly or a flying cathedral," says the author. Critics are overwhelmed by the sheer abundance of content, as well as the variety of genres Cartarescu masters, yet they still can't agree on how to classify the book. The NZZ calls it a "masterpiece of literary mannerism" - "as if de Chirico and Kafka, H. R. Giger and Bruno Schulz had got together and written a novel." The FR, by contrast, is reminded more of Proust, Rilke and Swift. (Read our review feature "Bucharest in a trance.")

Although they sometimes had to swallow hard, the critics have only good things to say about Michal Witkowski's novel "Lubiewo" about the Polish gay scene. In it we encounter the entire parallel queer cosmos of Eastern Europe, from aging queens to young boys to despairing Red Army soldiers. The NZZ sees these protagonists as tragic heroes of the present day, "tossed back and forth between sex, poverty and fate." The Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung calls the book a "lively, naked and unabashed" monument to the queens of Poland, while for the FAZ it's an antipolitical novel par excellence, rendering homage to "bare existence and the intensity of sensation." Which it means as a compliment, regarding Witkowski as a "great hope for Polish literature."


Novels from Germany

Much praise is lavished upon Michael Kleeberg's magnum opus "Karlmann", a novel with a hero who doesn't get up to much. Any notes of displeasure are only voiced in passing. In five episodes, taking place one day per year from 1985 to 1989, Kleeberg portrays his generation in a novel that is reminiscent of Hugo von Hoffmansthal's "Jedermann". The taz heartily commends the book, gleaning from it something of the "mysteries of being human." The FR is reminded of Philip Roth and John Updike, while Die Zeit adds James Joyce and Robert Musil to the list. Many viewers feel that Kleeberg's having recently translated Marcel Proust into German has done wonders for his own style. Yet while there's not a single bad review, Die Zeit, the SZ and the FAZ do say that Kleeberg is often intoxicated by his own powers, and that "Karlmannn" can be too much of a good thing in terms of both content and form.

You have to look far and wide for a critical word on Ulrich Peltzer's novel "Teil der Lösung" (part of the solution). The book's hero, Christian Eich, belongs to the journalistic/academic world of the "precariat", and the newspapers vary between profound appreciation (taz) and cries of jubilation (Die Zeit) for the striking jump cuts between discourses on surveillance and terrorism, everyday observations and a love story. Die Welt is the only paper not to join in the adulation, writing that the problem is not that Peltzer models himself on Don DeLillo, but that he clearly falls short of the mark.

Annette Pehnt receives particular praise for the coherence and precision of her novel "Mobbing", (a German anglicism akin to "group bullying in the workplace") which critics agree benefits from close scrutiny. The book deals with the relatively common fate of Joachim Rühler, an administrative clerk who is bullied by his fellows at work. The real attraction of the novel, however, is Pehnt's choice of narrative perspective, applaud the critics, as the story is told from the point of view of Rühler's wife. The facts only come to light obliquely, so that neither the narrator nor the reader find out what is really happening to Rühler. "A wonderfully told story with exquisite details," writes the NZZ, while the FAZ has high praise for the author's "subtle sophistication."


Catalonia

This year the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair was the Spanish region of Catalonia, and the critics are united in their enthusiasm for the oldest book by far among the freshly released Catalonian titles. Written in Old Catalonian in 1490, Joanot Martorell's "Tirant lo Blanch" has now been fully translated into German for the first time by Fritz Vogelsang. In this excellent translation, the book, which tells the adventures of the Medieval knight Tirant throuout Europe and in the campaigns against the Ottoman Empire and which greatly influenced Cervantes' "Don Quijote," is still "extremely readable" after half a millenium, writes the FAZ.

Also translated by Fritz Vogelsang is the three-volume "Obra poetica" of Catalonian poet Salvador Espriu, published here in a bilingual edition. The critics are thrilled with this publication and with the painstaking commentary, although here Vogelsang's translation receives considerably more flack. "Solitud", by contrast, the anti-heimat novel written in 1905 by Caterina Alberti i Paradis under the pen name Victor Catala, much delighted both the SZ and Die Zeit, even if they don't consider it the long-lost masterpiece of Catalonian letters. Also much acclaimed is Josep Pla's diary "Das graue Heft" (the grey notebook).


Classics revisited

In the 1930s, A.J. Liebling served as Paris correspondent for The New Yorker. In his breviary "Between Meals," which has just come out in German, he takes a cook's tour through French cuisine - then unbeatable for its generosity - with unabashed relish. Die Zeit celebrates this book, dedicated to the art of gluttony, as "downright scandalous" in the times of molecular cookery, citing only Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken as match for its "glorious abandon."

From 1772 to 1775, the German natural scientist Georg Forster accompanied James Cook on his circumnavigation of the globe. Now his report "A Voyage Round the World" has appeared in a glossy German edition. The FAZ is delighted with Forster's "gifted draftsmanship," calling the book a "gesamtkunstwerk". The NZZ, for its part, sees the report as a "classic of enlightened philosophical travel literature," finding Forster's descriptions as colourful and elegant as his drawings. The FR admires Forster's enlightened attitude to the cultures he encounters, which never falls into the colonialist trap.


Fiction / Nonfiction

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