Wednesday 3 June 2015

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

So, how are you getting on with reading only in German these days, I hear you ask? After all, it was only a few months ago that I decided to buy four books in the original German by the same author (three novels and two novellas) and immerse myself once again in the beauty of the Teutonic language. I have not been disappointed at all. The writer, Marlen Haushofer, has turned out to be better than I expected. I must admit that I still struggle a bit with certain words and phrases but on the whole the experience has been very enjoyable.

One of the reasons for the switch from my perennial English- and sporadic Spanish-language reading to German is the way syntax is built in the latter. I mean that almost literally. Sentences in German, at least in the literature I have read so far, seem to have been put through a very effective cement mixer in order to have a good, long-lasting product to lay across the bricks that make up the edifice. What you end up with is page after page of pure poetry in prose.

The two novellas are included in the same volume. Wir töten Stella (We kill Stella) is narrated from the point of view of a housewife. She uses a weekend when her husband is away to put down on paper all the events of the past few months. This involves the eponymous Stella, a teenager who comes to stay with her family and who is shamelessly seduced by the narrator’s husband. Stella gets pregnant and is forced to have an abortion. After attempting and failing to kill herself, Stella accidentally steps in front of a passing lorry and gets run over.

The shortness of the work belies the intensity of it. Wir töten Stella stays long with the reader, her (almost silent) voice echoing down the corridors of one’s mind.

I found similarities between this novella and the novel I am reading now, Die Wand (The Wall), which incidentally was turned into a motion picture. Both tales are written in the first person singular and both feature female narrators. Also, although not stated explicitly in Wir töten Stella, both women write about their experiences in order to stay sane. In the case of the protagonist of Die Wand, she is invited to go on a hunting trip by a couple with whom she is good friends. Once at their hut, the couple decide to take a walk around the forest before setting off on their expedition the next morning. However they fail to come back at dusk. The woman decides to look for them the next day. After walking for a long time without much success she finds the couple’s dog sitting in the middle of a path looking afraid. The woman ventures forth but the dog refuses to follow her. She carries on down the path herself and all of a sudden bumps into an invisible wall. From then on an internal monologue takes place. A monologue that leads us into a world (the woman’s internal world) full of questions but with very few answers, other than those about survival.

Heute, am fünfsten November, beginne ich mit meinem Bericht...

I mentioned that one of the reasons why I had gone back to German was to remind myself of the beautiful syntax this language possesses. The other reason was the actual author I am reading. Marlen Haushofr was a post-war writer who had to fight, first her own lack of confidence and, secondly the hostile world in which she lived. As someone not familiar with many Austrian, German or Swiss (those from the German-speaking part) post-war works of literature I was curious to see what they were like. One of the comments I often heard when I began to learn German all those years ago was that in the wake of Hitler’s defeat and the demise of Nazism many German-speaking writers decided to carry out an act of self-censorship in relation to the war. They stopped mentioning it. Marlen’s works might validate that theory. Certainly Wir töten Stella, Das fünste Jahr (the two novellas) and so far Die Wand stray from any mention of World War II. This begs the question: should writers who happened to be born in countries where atrocities were committed by brutal regimes have to confront these demons of the past? Should a Russian (Stalin), a Cambodian (Pol Pot) or an Italian (Mussolini) writer always or at least most of the time have to reference their country’s past as a way of acknowledging former misdeeds?

I do not think so. If I move swiftly from literature to cinema I remember watching Argentinian films many years ago and pondering whether they all had to mention the terrible dictatorship that South American nation suffered in the late 70s and early 80s. Do not get me wrong. Many movies of that era, especially the ones that came out in the immediate aftermath, were top-notch. But I also recall some whose plot had nothing to do with the dictatorship and yet it felt as if by not mentioning the “disappeared” and the “junta”, these film-makers were betraying some kind of secret agreement.

Back in the world of literature, I am of the opinion that any pressure on a writer to approach or acknowledge a certain subject, chiefly in relation to their country’s past, and even more specifically one on which their homeland might not come out a in good light, risks placing shackles on both reader and writer. It hinders development, not only at an individual level, but also nationwide. What I have enjoyed about Marlen Haushofer’s writing so far is that she was more concerned with equipping her main character in Die Wand with a credible internal voice than with Hitler’s ascension to power. The main beneficiary? Culture. And of course, yours truly, for I have reconciled my long-term affair with the German language.

© 2015

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 6th June at 6pm (GMT)


  1. Interesting post, and I love the way you express yourself. I love to read but I prefer non-fiction books. I read a very good book entitled "Under Two Dictators: Prisoner of Stalin and Hitler by Marguerite Buber-Neumann. I thought she did a great job in capturing what it was like in the concentration camps during WWII.

  2. Lo importante que hayas hecho una buena compra que te ha dado un placer de lectura y a la vez poder practicar otra lengua extranjera.
    Un abrazo.

  3. Some writers can sure pull it off, weaving in the past, with ease.

  4. Both books sound fascinating. I am in awe at your language skills.
    Demanding that writers, or indeed artists of any type include things is as much censorship as demanding an exclusion. Both make me uncomfortable. Self-censorship is equally dangerous.

  5. You ask some good questions here. No I don't think a writer should be bound to the history of his/her country, bu then again we are all colored by the culture from which we come. When I read a German writer it is impossible to separate the author from all that happened in the 20th century. "Die Wand" sounds compelling.

    I am deeply respectful of your ability to read German, which is not an easy language.

  6. Wow. That's quite an ambitious goal. I'm impressed! I can't imagine reading entire books in another language.

  7. Writers of fiction rightfully do as they please within the boundaries of their conscience and the margins permitted by their editors. I suppose the manner of fiction they are writing, consequently the type and the degree of the readership they enjoy, influences story lines, as well. Otherwise, the point seems moot to me.

    Happy reading, CiL.

  8. Such an interesting post. I agree that writers from countries that we (from our smug corner of the west) associate with atrocities shouldn't feel a need to reference the past in their work. Nevertheless we are all framed by our histories. Trauma doesn't need to be explicit to be explored effectively.

    Yet I'd like to see more writers from the UK explore the impact of our affluence/capitalism/greed (use which ever word makes most sense to you) on our psyches. I'd argue that it takes exceptional writers to rise above our materialism and reconnect with the needs and feelings that make us all human.

  9. I'm afraid I read for escapism rather than dwell on historic events that make me sad. However, I do enjoy reading your posts - in English, of course.

  10. first - kudos on learning german - not an easy language - and you speak already two widely spoken languages - so i'm really amazed
    i think everyone carries their history with them and it will be visible in what you say and what you do - no matter if it's writing or politics or painting or leading a company..
    have never heard of marlen haushofer before - need to check her out - though the books both sound like not so easy reads

  11. Well done you for reading German! Spanish is my favourite language... The premise of Die Wand sounds fascinating and intriguing.

  12. This makes me wish I could read sounds a really intriguing read.
    I do have the impression that this particular novel would prove to be a tad too disturbing for one as sensitive as me though...still, I really do admire you for managing to read entire novels in a foreign language. Not at all a mean feat!

    Have a Great Weekend.:))

  13. How wonderful. Reading a book in translation is never as fulfilling as reading it in its original language. No matter how good the translator is, some things simply don't translate well from one language to another. I'm very impressed with your choice of reading material. (Maybe YOU should consider being a translator?)

    I agree with you about the foolishness of suppressing mention of any country's hand in atrocity. Ignoring it doesn't make it go away, and I think all countries bear some blame for ill-advised actions of the past. To deny them risks repeating them.

    Happy weekend!

  14. Cubano--I am so impressed by your German. I once spoke a teeny bit, but have never learned it. This is such an interesting post; I am inspired, but I doubt if that will be enough for me to study! Still, I appreciate that you do. I think it must be very hard to be German, American and Cuban too. Thanks. k.

  15. I am very impressed. I can only read in French (my native language) and English. I can sort of speak some other languages but could not read in them.
    I do not think authors should necessarily refer to the (awful) past of their countries. Writers are artists and should write on what they feel comfortable with. For some it might include their national past, for others it won't. I do not think it matters as long as, as human beings and citizens, they realize and are aware of this past.

  16. Die Wand is one of my favourite novels and Haushofer is a great writer and one who I find accessible enough to fully enjoy reading in the original German. I hadn't even heard of Wir töten Stella so I'll need to look out for that one.

    Although Die Wand doesn't explicity say anything about the 2nd World War i think it ias many messages in it about international relations, seen through the context of individual isolation.

    Actually you've made me want to read it again, though i have several other foreign language books on my to-be-read pile.

  17. Thanks for your comments and great to read that someone else has read the same book. The book is fairly accessible. I'm halfway through it now and enjoying it more than ever.

    Greetings from London.

  18. Hi ACIL - the film "The Wall" was recommended by another blogger (irritatingly I can't remember who!) ... and it's been one I want to see ... but reading the book in its original language must have been fascinating ... I can't speak another language ... I can touch on words and pronounce some of them .. but the rest I regret it's not a talent I possess. I'm pretty hopeless at my own language and its grammatical nuances ... I probably should start with English! I admire your abilities .. cheers Hilary



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