Elective Affinities

I confess I’ve only read one book by Goethe which was Faust because who didn’t try that one as a student? But I don’t remember much of it and I probably raced through it without really thinking about it much. So although I’ve been wanting to try more of Goethe’s novels, I only retain memories of something dark and heavy. So what a revelation Elective Affinities turned out to be. Chosen as my October/November’s book group read, the novel showcased Goethe’s lightness of touch and acute sensibilities which are so finely tuned that you really feel you are in the presence of a master. What could so easily have turned into a heavy, dank romantic tragedy was saved by the relentless self questioning of his characters and their wish to do the right thing.

Elective Affinities begins with Charlotte and Eduard who has been given a second chance at love. No longer in their first flush of youth and having overcome previous life events that were orchestrated by others, they are now happily enjoying the freedom of their simple coupledom. Charlotte’s daughter is away at school and so they spend their days organising and designing their house and land at their pleasure. In fact all their time is taken with pleasure. Happy but getting a little bored of their monotonous life, a visit from a scandalous aristocratic couple embeds ideas of love and affairs which slowly take root in their minds. Their fidelity is tested when Eduard’s close friend, the Captain, and Charlotte’s niece, Ottilie who is unhappy at school, come to stay.

Goethe melds his views on romanticism with the scientific ideals and advances from the Age of Enlightenment that was fashionable in 19th century Europe to create a story which mirrors science. Elective affinities, a concept in chemistry where elements naturally gravitate towards their optimal counterpart, is used here to illustrate the romantic leanings of the four main characters.

Eduard, a dynamic man, begins to feel an affinity for Ottilie who is equally smitten, and succumbs to temptation, albeit platonic. However Charlotte and the Captain are a bit more reserved, battling with their morals even though their feelings for each other are as fierce. The main focus of the novel is the love affair between Eduard and Ottilie, a reflection and dissection of the ideals and reality of what love is.

However there were a few things that perplexed me. For example, why did everyone love Ottilie so much? Because she is young and innocent? Eduard who is actually married sees nothing wrong in his feelings and nor does Ottilie until towards the end of the tale. Only Charlotte and the Captain seem commendable but Goethe seems more sympathetic towards Eduard and Ottilie as though he holds them much higher up as his romantic ideal, that theirs is the great love story with so many obstacles when in fact they could have really gotten together at any point. Ottilie’s refusal of Eduard doesn’t seem to have a moral aspect to it, more as a whim and feels self-indulgent. And personally I felt Eduard comes very close to being the villain of the piece, acting as though his marriage to Charlotte meant nothing. It seems as though he was going through a mid-life crisis and as a result I found it very difficult to sympathise with him. In fact, all the characters felt a little flat, especially the female characters, except for Charlotte’s aristocratic friends who revel in their scandalous lives. At least they don’t pretend to be good. And although there are tragic consequences to the choices these characters make, Goethe’s light touch stops short of making Elective Affinities a tragedy or even a moral tale, leaving the reader feeling rather confused.

It’s been several weeks since I’ve finished the book but I’m still wondering about the characters in Elective Affinities, especially Ottilie and Eduard. I wonder whether Goethe was drawing a parallel to himself and his own choices in life. However, the novella certainly made for an interesting discussion and I most certainly would like to read more by Goethe.

I read this as part of German Literature Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy.

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Why does a girl like Gerti have to go falling in love with a banned person of mixed race, for goodness’ sake, when there are plenty of men around the authorities would let her love? … Before you know it, you may find yourself castrated or in prison, which is not pleasant.

Set in 1930s Frankfurt on the eve of World War II, nineteen year old Sanna is desperately trying to understand her dramatically changing world. Caught between adulthood, love and ever-growing threat of National Socialism, Irmgard Keun paints a portrait of daily life in Germany in After Midnight as the spectre of Nazi control and war draws near.

What is clever about Keun’s novel is that it is set before Hitler wields total control. This is the period when people are just beginning to realise the severity of their social situation, still toying with the notion on informing on their neighbours, saluting the Nazis and openly voicing dissent. As they begin to realise that their actions may have severe consequences, Sanna and her friends slowly begin to feel the tight stranglehold of the autocratic state.

The thing that tempers this growing fear is Sanna’s naïve and yet piercing observations of the people and situations in which she finds herself. For example,

I’ve often noticed how pleased and proud men are at having to knock in a certain way at the doors of perfectly harmless pubs, in order to get in. I expect there are some men who take to politics just for the sake of the secret signals you have to give.

Still nineteen, her thoughts are occupied by Franz, her lover whom she left behind in her home town with his cold, heartless mother. Sanna is staying with her cousin Algin, a famous novelist who is now blacklisted, and his beautiful wife Liska, who is in love with a jaded journalist named Heini. Their circle of friends is bohemian and mixed, an increasingly dangerous cocktail as stringent racial laws are passed. It is a damning time, and yet Sanna sees the absurd and comic side of life, especially the doomed love affair between her friend Gerti and mixed-race Dieter Aaron whose Jewish father is all for the National Socialists.

And then the pair of them sit in a bar looking at each other, the air around them positively quivering with love-sickness. Everyone in the bar must notice; no good can come of it. They just live for the moment, and cause the air to quiver, and don’t stop to wonder what next…

Sometimes I keep them company, so that the impression they make in the bar won’t be quite so dangerous.

But as things grow more tense, Sanna finds herself in a quandary when Franz turns up a hunted man and must make a decision about her future.

After Midnight is a stark yet comic portrayal of a Germany being devoured by the Nazi ideology. But Keun manages to keep the tone light, the novel itself retaining a dream-like quality in a fin-de-siècle style. With hindsight, the reader can see the ever-growing traps laid out for the people, but the people of Frankfurt are bumbling from one trap to another, denouncing their neighbours and friends in an increasingly vicious cycle, unaware of their own doom. It’s a sad testament to the nature of humanity but the absurdity of it all drives home the very human-ness that is being suppressed.

Take the story of little Berta, chosen to present flowers to the Führer on his visit to Frankfurt. Her parents her decked her out in finery, ordered a bouquet of lilac from Nice and her father has composed a poem especially for the occasion for her to recite. But the parade is mistimed and Berta misses her chance, reciting her poem in the pub afterwards, and promptly falls down dead from an allergic reaction to the flowers or a fever. Amidst the chaos and tragedy is the seed of absurdity and you can’t help but see Keun’s genius.

Although I can’t describe After Midnight as a thrilling read, it’s one filled with succinct observations and humour which, on careful thought, may be a little too mature for a nineteen year old. Not much happens and yet Keun’s beautiful prose and excellent translation by Anthea Bell made me reluctant to put the book down. A small book with a big punch indeed.

And don’t you just love the beautifully simple cover by Melville House?

I read this as part of German Literature Month hosted by Lizzy and Caroline.

After I read Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson, I knew I had to read A Woman by Berlin which she discussed in a talk I attended. And by chance, I came across a copy in my local charity shop and snapped it up. I found reading about the rapes by Russian soldiers after the fall of Berlin very disturbing, partly because it was something I knew nothing about even though I’ve read my fair share of history books. It really hits home how things, usually that to do with violence against women, are systematically brushed under the carpet and not spoken of. It’s a disgusting and disappointing habit.

A Woman in Berlin chronicles life in Berlin from April 24th to June 22nd 1946 just as Berlin fell to the Red Army. The narrator is a female journalist, well read, well traveled, alone who tries, together with the remaining people in her block of flats, to get through the terrifying days as the war draws to a close and the encroaching dangers of the Russian army.

What really surprised me about this account was how matter of fact the narrator is in her rendition of these fraught days. Not only is she discussing her own experiences but she is a witness to the experiences of everyone around her. They are her neighbours, colleagues, not necessarily friends. Yet what they all experience is collective trauma, and this makes them strong. Because of this, they are able to talk about the terrible things that have happened to them. She notes down how conversation has broken down, how propriety is no longer observed, how the women greet each other with the questions, ‘How many times were you raped?‘ I cannot think of anything more shocking. And what is most disturbing is that she is aware how in times of peace, a rape would tear a community apart, bring down swift justice and scar the women. But in times of war, where every woman has experienced rape, there is no other choice but to get on with it. Of course, many did not get over it and some even committed suicide so as not to get raped, but the sad thing is that many women had to go through such trauma, get on with their lives and later have to deal with the inability of their men to deal with it. And this naturally leads to a change in how they viewed their men.

I think the thing that is so impressive about this book is that it is written so well, and deals with such a traumatic subject with a light and manageable touch that when you do take pause to think about all that she has discussed, it hits you doubly hard. I don’t think I’ve read an account of rapes quite like this one. It’s unsentimental, matter of fact, the narrator is someone you can’t help but admire, someone with verve, vitality and a will to carry on but one who doesn’t let herself feel sorry for herself.

Of course, I’m aware this has been edited to allow for flow, but it’s an admirable piece of written history that really needs to be read more widely. And by that, I do not mean just by women.

There is also a film adaptation of this book, The Downfall of Berlin – Anonyma, which I’m hoping to watch soon.

Although this isn’t strictly literature, I read this as part of Caroline and Lizzys German Literature Month.

German Literature Month

4 November, 2011

It’s funny how things work out, isn’t it? I was all set to tuck into some German literature for Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life‘s German Literature Month a few months ago when I first came upon some of their posts and then November happened and I got manflu, which I can’t seem to shake, and I’ve also been busy trying to build up my word count for Nanowrimo. It all seems to happen at the same time.

So it’s a good thing that Caroline reminded me that my review of Dark Matter by Juli Zeh was a good starting point for my month of some German fayre and I realised that I also had one more German title I’d just finished which I’ll be posting about soon. So do have a gander at their blogs to see what’s what, participate in one of the readalongs, join some giveaways and, more importantly, check out what everyone else is reading. I particularly enjoyed Caroline’s post on 14 German Women Writers You Shouldn’t Miss and may choose to read a book from that list.

My knowledge of German literature is skeletal as I’ve only read a couple of authors such as Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann and I think I tried some Faust at college. But I’ve always been fascinated by the notion of Mitteleuropa, the fairy tales of the Grimm brothers and the legends and myths drawn upon by Wagner’s Ring cycle. The only thing that probably stopped me from actually diving into all this rich literature was my lack of linguistic skills. As two of my closest friends are now living in Germany and my ears are becoming attuned to German words, I’m actually rather curious about the German language which sounded so rough at the beginning but has slowly transformed into something musical, and I envy those who will be reading in the original rather than in translation. I hear the syntax is similar to Japanese, but hey, what do I know?

So, who’s in?

Dark Matter by Juli Zeh

2 November, 2011

I first heard about Juli Zeh last year through one of Sarah Weinman’s posts (either on her now defunct and sadly missed blog Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind or her monthly crime column, Dark Passages, in the LA Times, I forget which) and promptly put her novel In Free Fall on my wishlist. It turns out Vintage published this novel under the title Dark Matter last year describing it as an existential crime thriller exploring the nature of man, philosophy and science. That ticks all my boxes and I chose it for my book group this month. I haven’t seen much coverage on the web except for Lizzy’s review.

Sebastian and Oskar are both physicists whose friendship goes back to their first encounter on their first day at university. Both tall, enigmatic and with minds like quick-silver, they stand apart from their peers although one is blond and the other dark. Their friendship is intense and touched with a competitive streak that will one day drive them apart as Sebastian chooses marriage to beautiful Maike and a domestic life coupled with a job as a Physics Professor at the university in Freiberg, while Oskar goes on to a glittering academic career and a job at CERN exploring the very fabric of reality. When Sebastian’s son Liam goes missing together with his car, he is given a clear yet enigmatic order. A split second decision will change the course of everyone’s lives and Sebastien turns to the one man who understands him more than anyone else, including himself. And once the course is set, can he and his family come out of it unscathed?

Can I just say how fracking brilliant it is? Juli Zeh’s debut has totally exceeded my expectations. In some ways, reading the blurb led me to believe the novel would proceed in a certain direction and although I sort of guessed the twist, Zeh’s intricate explanation was surprising and something I didn’t really expect. It went beyond the pedestrian and became a novel that is so much more than just a crime novel, or a novel of ideas. There was a perfect mixture of humanity, ideas and feeling. You cared about the characters as well as wanting to know what happens next. She doesn’t overexplain anything, yet gives you more than you expect. Her prose is delicate but robust. And she imbues daily life with the beauty of complex science. It made me want to read more about science just because science is about our world. That’s not an easy feat for a writer. And neither is it for Zeh’s translator Christine Lo who has done a remarkable job here.

The police component of the story was also nicely balanced. There is Rita Skura, the eccentric inspector who is looking into a hospital scandal and murder that may or may not be connected to Liam’s kidnapping. There is her old mentor Inspector Schilf who is brought in from Stuttgart to oversee the investigation and who is the only person who understands Skura. And there is her assistant Schnurpfeil who will follow Skura blindly and is a little in love with her. However cynical and weatherbeaten Schilf is, what I liked was the way he would not let go of hope and what he believed was worth saving.

Apart from the weaving of scientific ideas into the everyday narrative of the tale such as

Seb’s appearance in Maike’s life was – as he would express is – a wave function collapse in quantum mechanics

and

So Oskar is merely a random collection of matter from which the world is formed, containing everything that exists because it is impossible to be otherwise. He knows that the boundaries of his person blur in the enormous whirl of particles. He can literally feel his substance mixing with that of the people around him,

what I really liked about Zeh’s novel is how three dimensional the characters were including all their flaws, their strangeness, their intelligence and naïveté. Although reminiscient of the image of early 20th century scientists a la Einstein, Dirac or Oppenheimer, the fact that they are modern characters adds an edge to their make-up.

Probably the only weak point of the novel is at the end, the tying up of the various threads. But at the end, it’s no longer just about the crime; it’s a metaphysical journey into what is real and what is important and what you would sacrifice for your beliefs. It’s a clever and yet very poignant story about love and one that you may not expect when you start reading the book.

I don’t want to give away anything because I’d like you to read it and feel the sense of wonder I felt as each page slipped through my fingers, not knowing where this story was going, knowing that I will be surprised. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this way about a book and I can’t wait to read more by Zeh.

Everyone at the book group enjoyed the book although the discussion threw up some interesting questions regarding belief, action and free will which made me think I may have to read this book again.

I also read this as part of the R.I.P. VI Challenge.

Caroline who, together with Lizzy, is hosting the German Literature Month November 2011 has kindly reminded me that this qualifies so do go and check out their blogs to see what German treats other participants are reading this month.