29/11/2005

Books this Season: Nonfiction

Autumn 2005

The German newspapers have long and (for us) tedious names, so we use abbreviations. Here a key to them

Fiction / Nonfiction / Political Books

Essays

Historian Karl Schlögel has travelled again through Eastern Europe, to Nizhny Novgorod, Bucharest, Krakow, Riga and Brünn – and stumbled across the worlds largest used-car market in the Lithuanian town Marjampole. Here, among the traders and the drivers, he's found real Europeans. The FAZ admires the precise look at the "everyday" which Schlögel brings to his essays and reports in "Marjampole". The NZZ finds the book very refreshing compared to the "smoothness" of typical Europhile discourse. The FR doesn't fully subscribe to Schlögel's saying "Europeanisation is open borders plus automatic mobility" but was nonetheless infected by the author's adventurousness.
(Click here for articles by Karl Schlögel in English, for excerpts of his books click here and here)

"This is what's coming our way!" The taz looks forward to the Eastern Europe that Polish writer Andrzej Stasiuk describes in his essays "Unterwegs nach Babadag" (on the way to Babadag). For seven years Stasiuk has travelled through the "chronically unfinished pig stall of the East", as he lovingly calls everything between the Baltic and the Black Sea: from Albania to Romania to Transnistria. "Reading Stasiuk means extending your consciousness," delights the taz, which is similarly impressed by Wolfgang Büscher's report "Deutschland eine Reise" (Germany: a journey). As with his previous book "Berlin – Moskau", Büscher walked for three months, this time into the "foreign, gloomy, magical world" – along the German border. The SZ praises the book as informative and profound, and recommends ingnoring the great dollops of pathos.
(See our feature "Not a living soul around" by Andrzej Stasiuk)


Memoirs

Critics are nearly rhapsodic about Martin Walser's diaries from the years 1951 – 1962 "Leben und Schreiben" (living and writing). "I have read very few books recently that whisper, crackle and murmur about a fascination with women like this one," rejoices Fritz J. Raddatz in the Zeit, ignoring Walser "the brute speaker", a reference to his speech in which he criticised the "instrumentalisation of Auschwitz" as a "moral cudgel". The FR finds the book extremely astute, written in typical Walser style: "Particularly sharp and soft at the same time." Theatre Director Luc Bondy has deeply moved the critics of the SZ, NZZ and Die Zeit with his childhood memoirs "Meine Dibbuks". NZZ critic Barbara Villiger Heilig suspects that Bondy's "wafting humour" stems from the general difficulty of existence. A Dibbuk is the spirit of a dead person which takes possession of a living one.

"What a book! What a man!" The taz sings the praises of former SPD General Secretary Peter Glotz and his memoirs "Vom Heimat zu Heimat" (from home to home). A "last, brilliant piece" by Glotz, who was in the final stages of a chronic illness when he wrote it. He begins with his family's flight from Bohemia and ends with his move to Switzerland. In between, there's the postwar period in Germany, his career as an SPD politician, intellectual and university rector – and the constantly changing homelands.


History


Gerd Koenen (homepage) is one of the most important historians of the Left in Germany, whose most recent book "Vesper, Ensslin, Bader" investigated the roots of German terrorism. Now he has turned to a seemingly very different topic, the "Russland Komplex" (Russia complex), the long-standing German fascination with the East, which has served as an alternative to its ideologically uncomfortable Western orientation. Strangely, Russia has been seen by both the Left and the Right as a counter pole to the parliamentary system, comments NZZ critic Micha Brumlik, who hails Koenen's "stylistically brilliant research". In Die Zeit, Koenen's colleague and fellow Maoist in the sixties Karl Schlögel, praises his use of biography to illustrate his argument.
(See our feature "Thankmar, the young Krahl" by Gerd Koenen)

Die Zeit calls Jacques Le Goff's "Ritter, Einhorn, Troubadoure" (knight, unicorn, troubadour) a treasure chest, stuffed with all the goodies that the Middle Ages left behind: castles and cathedrals, El Cid and King Arthur, Robin Hood and the sorcerer Melusine, troubadours and Valkyries. While Die Zeit thoroughly enjoyed the book's content and design, the FAZ complained of protracted analyses, while lapping up the pictures.

As both evolutionary biologist and President of the World Worldlife Fund, Jared Diamond seems amply qualified to write a book about endangered species. In "Collapse - How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed", he investigates the causes of our civilisation's downfall – from the Mayas to the Khmer of Angkor Wat to the Easter Islanders. The FAZ assures that Diamond is no radical sectarian and that all his examples are empirically proven. And the NZZ is relieved that the author avoids the "apocalyptic, metaphysical tone" so often used in this field.

"British history writing at its best" raves Die Zeit about Ian Kershaw's new book "Making Friends with Hitler". According to the critic, the book is far more that just a portrait of the reactionary Lord Londonderry, who became an avid admirer of Hitler after his period in office as Air Minister. For the FR, the book is an elegy to the fall of the British aristocracy which was overly and shamefully sympathetic to the Nazis.


Social Sciences


Joachim Radkaus' book on "Max Weber" is among the most talked about biographies of the season. A standard biography of one of the founders of modern sociology has been long in coming. Radkau reveals many an intimate detail about the great man – in particular his masochistic inclinations – and brings this to bear upon his oeuvre. Andreas Anter reports in the NZZ that Radkau had access to generally unaccessible source material such as the diaries of Marianne Weber as well as unpublished letters. Nils Minkmar in the FAZ is fascinated by the "novel tone" of the book, which has successfully freed itself of not only all Weberisms but academic jargon altogether. Robert Leicht in the Zeit describes the book as "a view of an entire era" but, despite the book's entertaining style, the causal connections between Weber's erotic-psychological sensitivities and his work, escape him.
(Robert Leicht's complete review in English here)


Religion

Navid Kermani's "Der Schrecken Gottes" (The horror of God) introduces the "Buch des Leidens" (book of suffering) by the Persian poet Attar. But Die Zeit thinks it does much more: it is a subjective and comprehensive survey of the history of theodicy as well as its opposite, the debate with God "through three millennia and in two parts of the world, the Occident and the Orient". The NZZ also delights in the many connections that Kermani (homepage) makes in his "wonderful" book between the religious sceptics in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The FR praises the "groundbreaking" study as "stylistically and intellectually brilliant" and the Zeit enjoys both its intellectual and aesthetic qualities.
(Feature by Navid Kermani in English here)


Art

FAZ critic Eduard Beaucamp credits Jürgen Schreiber's book on Gerhard Richter "Ein Maler in Deutschland" (a painter in Germany) with providing exactly what the painter fails to: clarity. Schreiber investigates the stories behind four pictures of members of Richter's family who were involved in Nazi crimes. Richter's father-in-law Heinrich Eufinger was head of the gynaecology clinic in Dresden, a SS Obersturmbannführer and active member of the Nazi's euthanasia program. Nine hundred forced sterilisations took place under his direction. One of his victims was Richter's schizophrenic aunt Marianne, who was operated on in 1938 before being sent to various psychiatric clinics in Saxony and finally being killed. Richter painted photos of both of them ("Tante Marianne"). Schreiber interprets Richter's work as "a major study of the conscience and a reckoning with guilt." Beaucamp read the book with "an almost breathless excitement and growing anxiety."

Fiction / Nonfiction / Political Books

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