The Tin Drum – Gunter Grass (1959)

 

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This is one of the most celebrated works of Post-War German Literature. Gunter Grass (1927-2015) went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1999 and this is really the novel which is at the centre of his impressive reputation. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of this work new translations were commissioned with Grass working very closely with ten translators taking them on location visits to get the flavour of the novel. This English translation by Breon Mitchell is the result and this has very much superseded the translation by Ralph Manheim which served for the book’s first 50 years and which I read as a teenager.

At least I think I did, re-reading it after all these years I’m not totally convinced I ever finished it. Nowadays, I read everything through to its conclusion but I’ve a feeling that the library edition I borrowed back then might have been needed for another reader or that school work got in the way because what seemed very familiar at first, in fact, almost etched into my psyche, got increasingly less familiar as I progressed through this dense, challenging novel. I certainly saw the 1979 film version around the same time and once again images from the film feel exceedingly strong although if pushed I would have no idea how much of the book made it into the film.

tindrumStill from the film

I’d hazard a guess at not much. Grass’ novel is so richly detailed and full of incidents that it would have been overpowering in one cinematic sitting. Originally titled “Die Blechtrommel” this may very well be an allegory for Europe before and after the rise of the Nazis beginning in the beleaguered Free City of Danzig, then under the authority of the League Of Nations shifting to West Germany in the post-war years but for most readers it will be the tale of the boy with the drum.

At the age of three Oskar is given a toy drum by his parents and decides to stop growing. A fall down cellar steps is engineered to explain this. He drums his way through his extended childhood and early adult years as an eternal three year old, who has the power to shatter glass with his high-pitched screams. He drums his way through the growth of the Nazi regime playing under grandstands to disrupt rallies and manipulates situations through his drumming, some so disturbing that by his late twenties he is in a mental institution from where this story of his life is being recorded.

I cannot remember a book so dense in detail (perhaps Paul Auster’s 4-3-2-1 comes close but that has a distinctly different structure) which certainly must have been a challenge for the translator who as well as the details has to get the rhythmic feel of the endless banging of the drum. It is a progression of extraordinary tales, told by an unreliable narrator, rich in characters and events, ranging from amusing to extremely disturbing, even spiteful. I did lose my way a little in the post-war years when Oskar decides to grow a little and becomes a percussionist in a jazz trio where his ability to get listeners at The Onion Club (so named because patrons get an onion to peel which enables them to cry- this to me feels like a novel in itself) to revert back to their childhood through his drumming leads to recording and touring fame. Throughout he does remain the three year old who wishes to hide under his grandmother’s skirts and focus on his obsessions which includes nurses, Rasputin and Goethe alongside the beating to smithereens many tin drums. Still with me?

This is an extraordinary novel which at times I loved and at other times felt frustrated or just plain baffled by but it is incredibly powerful and would benefit from countless re-readings. Having left it close to 40 years since I last encountered the book or the film it might be too late for countless re-readings but I think elements of it will continue to haunt me forever.

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I read the Vintage paperback 2009 translation by Breon Mitchell.

 

The Tobacconist – Robert Seethaler (Picador 2017)

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A novel full of poignant moments and a sense of yearning at a time of great change.  Austrian born Seethaler’s novel is quietly impressive.  It begins in 1937 when 17 year old Franz is sent by his mother from their Austrian Lake District home to Vienna to work in a small tobacconist’s shop.

Here Franz begins to learn about life from the merchandise and the shop’s aromas, from the newspapers he reads each day and from the customers.  These include an aging Sigmund Freud with whom Franz strikes up an unlikely friendship.

But the times are a changing and anti-semitism makes a bond with the Jewish Freud increasingly difficult and the one-legged tobacconist who Franz works for seems a threat to the authorities.  Franz, initially bewildered by the mysteries of love and an obsession for a worldly Bohemian girl finds he has more difficult things to contemplate.

The very likeable Franz is the heart of this novel.  Everything is underplayed, there are few big dramatic scenes yet the drama and turmoil of the times is palpable.  It is clear that for the people in Franz’ circle things can never be the same again.

I like novels where young characters attempt to make sense of the adult world and in Franz’s Vienna there is little that makes sense.  His retreats to analysing his dreams is both as a result of his meetings with Freud and an attempt to fathom out his existence where neither the real nor dream world seem quite right.

Robert Seethaler has written five novels.  His last “The Whole Life” was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize.  This, translated by Charlotte Collins, with its quiet tenderness may slip under the awards radar but it is of lasting appeal.

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The Tobacconist was published by Picador in 2017.

The Little Paris Bookshop – Nina George (Abacus 2015)

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This is the second German novel about bookshops I have read recently (the other being Thomas Montasser’s “A Very Special Year”).  Translated by Simon Pare this has been a big European seller and perhaps unsurprisingly given the title from an author who lives in Brittany and Hamburg it is far more Gallic than Germanic.

It is a novel about moving on and is one that might provoke more response at times in our lives when this feels relevant.  Jean Perdu’s bookshop is on a restored barge and it seems to be a fabulous place.  The owner sees it as his “literary apothecary” and loves to prescribe books for his customers depending on their needs.  I relished this aspect of the story but George is quick to move on and let the books take more of a back seat than I was expecting (certainly more than in the Montasser novel).  Perdu (appropriately French for “lost”) is stuck in his own life from a relationship that ended suddenly twenty years ago.  An attempt to get back into the romance game leads to a discovery and a setting sail for the barge on a canal journey south.  He is joined by Max, a young author struggling with celebrity and a couple of cats together with others with their own issues who they meet along the way.

The experience of the voyage rather than the books themselves provide the stimulus for lives to be put back in order- the books are used as currency and occasional free gifts.  There’s a lot of French food (recipes at the back) and those Francophiles who relish the attitude and way of life of the French (admittedly from a German point of view) will lap this up.  As far as I was concerned it did not hang together consistently.  I was involved, then frustrated, involved then frustrated.  The fact that I did not get wholly dragged into the story did make me feel like a cynical curmudgeon and that’s not the best self-image to be left with after completing the book.

Perhaps if I had read it another point in my life Nina George’s gentle tale of facing up to things which freeze us might have really won me over.  As it is, like the restored barge, it just drifted along.  I wanted the book boat to have a more central role.  I did very much enjoy the main character’s prescription of an Emergency Literary Pharmacy of book titles at the end.

It’s hard not to compare it with the Montasser novel as both are recently published, are on similar themes and translated from German.  I think the Montasser just has it for me, although it is a slighter read.  I think both choices, however, would be good for reading groups or book clubs.

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The Little Paris Bookshop was published by Abacus in 2015.

A Very Special Year- Thomas Montasser (Oneworld 2016)

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Anyone involved with a reading group should take note of this title.  It’s a book about the joy of reading and the exploration of books.  It’s short, accessible and would stimulate much conversation.

Valerie, a business student, arrives to wind up her aunt’s small bookshop, after she has mysteriously disappeared.  Over the course of the year Valerie becomes less sure about closing down the shop as she gets drawn into the world of books.  Referencing a range of titles from across the world, German author and literary agent Montasser, in this translation by Jamie Bulloch, provides us with a whole wealth of titles and authors we might want to explore.

There’s not a lot to the plot.  Valerie spends much of the year drinking tea from an old samovar and exploring the books, occasionally fretting over balance sheets and attempting to find ways to keep the shop afloat.  Fittingly, as this is a book about the magic of books, there is the odd touch of magic.  There is the title that fizzles into nothing after a few pages which becomes such a desirable purchase for one handsome purchaser; encounters with a rodent and the discovery that Aunt Charlotte also had a secret life behind the book counter.

It’s quirky and perhaps a little over-whimsical at times for this reader but I did find myself being pulled in by the power and beauty of books and is a reminder why this reading thing is so important to all of us and why booksellers and their shops should be cherished.

threestarsthree stars from me but much higher if you are looking for a reading group choice

A Very Special Year is published in the UK  by Oneworld in June 2016

100 Essential Reads- Alone In Berlin – Hans Fallada (Penguin 2009)

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This is an important book.  When Penguin first published this translation of a 1947 German novel in 2009 it was issued in their Modern Classics imprint.  Unlike Morrisey’s autobiography which was published as a Classic edition this is appropriate as it is a work of chilling genius.

Just the story of the author presented in the afterword of the book makes for fascinating reading.  In 1911 eighteen year old Rudolf Ditzen killed a friend in a “duel” which was actually a disguised suicide pact, engineered between the two because of their struggles with their sexuality.  Ditzen survived, was tried for murder and committed to an asylum.  There followed years of on and off incarceration in prisons and asylums for various misdemeanours.  He began writing, taking the nom-de-plume Hans Fallada, a combination of two characters from the Tales of the Brothers Grimm.  He married twice, had alcohol and drug addictions and maintained an ambivalent relationship with Nazi Germany where he remained during the war years, moving back to Soviet controlled Berlin after the war where he produced this savage indictment of life in Third Reich Berlin and died before publication.  This is real life and not the plot of his novel!

“Alone In Berlin” has a fascinating history itself.  It was not translated into English until this 2009 version by Michael Hoffman where it was first released in the USA under the title “Every Man Dies Alone”.  This is closer to the German title (“Jeder Stribt Fur Sich Allein).  The British publication went with a direct translation of the 1967 French version “Seul Dans Berlin”.  Its release has been staggered through the decades around the world.  It was published in Russian (1948), Polish (1950), Romania (1951), Czech (1954) and even Alabanian (1975) some decades before the English version arrived.  It would be fascinating to find out more about why this extraordinary work took so long to appear.  Penguin obviously had faith in it as they published it as a “Modern Classic”.  Since its arrival in 2009 it has sold well.

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Hans Fallada

“Alone In Berlin” is based upon the real-life case of Otto and Elise Hempel,  a quiet-living couple who staged their own resistance to the Nazi regime by writing postcards, attacking the Fuhrer and the Government and leaving them in public places.  In the novel this action is given to Otto and Anna Quangel, previously supporters of the regime who are spurred into action when their son is killed in 1940.

This is a world where everyone is truly “alone” – nobody can be trusted.  People are rewarded for bringing any “subversive” action to the authority’s attention and greed and spite are often the motive for whole families being wiped out.  We first meet the Quangels in their apartment block where a Jewish lady resides in fear of her life from the neighbours around her.  This is an existence that is cruel and harsh, where everyone struggles, where it is easier to be evil than kind and where good deeds ultimately seem to have little practical worth.

Fallada does not appeal to our sympathies.  It is quite unlikely that we would be particularly enamoured by Quangel, a sombre foreman at a coffin factory with his harsh-bird like features, although we are rooting for him all the way.  The female characters fare a little better than the males: Anna, grieving for her son and supporting the husband she barely speaks to; Trudel, the fiancée of the dead son and Eva, the postwoman who delivers the fateful telegram to the Quangels, who is one of the few characters to challenge the regime and still manage to escape the fearful solitude of life in Berlin.

This novel is gripping and chilling and at times reads like farce.  A trial is almost “Alice In Wonderland”- like in its twisted logic and sheer injustice but this is not played for laughs.  All of these events were everyday occurrences in Nazi Germany.  It is a tale of individual resistance as impressive as one of my all time favourite novels, “The Book Thief” but made the more resonant by Fallada living through the years.  It is on a par with Gunter Grass’ 1959 German classic “The Tin Drum”.  (This is a novel which blew me sideways when I read it as a teenager but I haven’t read it since- I must re-read this in 2016).  In case we forget what life is like under a totalitarian regime based on mistrust and supremacy this is essential reading.

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“Alone In Berlin” was published in the UK by Penguin Books in 2009.