German Fantasia by Philippe Claudel (transl. Julian Evans): The legacy of war

Cover image for German Fantasia by Philippe Claudel I’m always pleased to spot a new Philppe Claudel in the offing. I’ve read all his books available in translation from Parfums, a strikingly unusual scent memoir, to the achingly sad novella Monsieur Linh and His Child. All of them share a strong sense of humanity and a beauty of expression as does his new one, German Fantasia, a set of five linked short stories which explore twentieth-century Germany.

 Was he guilty? Guilty of having obeyed? Or guilty of not having disobeyed? All he had done was to follow. Did that make him less responsible than the others?

 The opening story, Ein Mann, follows a soldier, escaping the concentration camp where he’s been an administrator, as he walks through his devastated country, soaked and hungry, pondering on the extent of his culpability. In Sex und Linden, the scent of lime blossom vividly evokes the night he lost his virginity, dressed in his dead father’s suit, for a man close to the end of his life, and the memories of the beautiful woman who called him Viktor. Irma Grese sees a seventeen-year-old girl in recently reunified Germany, taken on by a care home to look after the mayor’s ancient father, who finds ways of brightening her dull day with the cook, resenting the old man who sings a Nazi song every day. Gnadentod reimagines a life for the avant-garde artist Franz Marc as a psychiatric patient murdered by the Nazis having given a collection of his work to the institution’s caretaker, Viktor. In Die Kleine, a young girl who escaped a firing squad, clings to the fading memories of her family after being taken in by a woman who has suffered her own losses.

Her mother laughed too, and the little girl kept her mother’s laugh like a piece of bread in a knotted handkerchief, one that holds treasure for those that are famished  

In the note which follows his stories, Claudel describes Germany as the close neighbour who ‘has always been a mirror in which I see myself not as I am, but as I could have been’. Inevitably, given that all five stories are set in twentieth-century Germany, the war predominates and with it themes of nationhood, guilt and culpability, memory and its unreliability. Written in Claudel’s characteristically spare, short sentences, these are richly evocative stories often quietly vivid in their imagery. The extended metaphor of the knotted handkerchief in which the little girl keeps her family memories is extraordinarily effective in the poignant final piece which neatly brings the collection full circle. The only story which didn’t quite work for me was ‘Gnadentod’ with its speculative reimagining of Franz Marc’s life. A thoughtful, often lyrically beautiful collection which will stay with me for some time.

MacLehose Press: London ‎ 9781529417883 154 pages Paperback

27 thoughts on “German Fantasia by Philippe Claudel (transl. Julian Evans): The legacy of war”

  1. I’m somewhat ashamed never to have come across this author. You’ve absolutely sold him to me. My library service, unsurprisingly, doesn’t (yet) have this book, so I may start with one of his others. Do you know Dog Island?

    1. No shame at all. Sadly, you’re unlikely to see Claudel’s books in tempting piles on bookshop tables. I’ve reviewed Dog Island, not one of his best but certainly worth reading.

        1. I’ve not come across Awesome Books! Worth exploring by the sound of it. The two I mention in my review – Parfums and Monsieur Linh and his Child (one of the saddest books I’ve read) – are my particular favourites with Grey Souls close behind. Hope you can track down one of them.

          1. Awesome Books has come good with Monsieur Linh. They’re helpful and efficient and work with global literacy projects, so I tend to go to them first.

  2. I have read a couple of Claudel’s books, a little while back, and to be honest I found them so unremittingly bleak that I’ve never gone back to him! These stories sound good, but I do sense the darkness in them I found in his novels.

  3. These sound interesting. I avoid fiction about WW2 largely – I feel we have a rather unhealthy obsession with it in the UK – but I like the idea of these stories that reflect on the effect of the war rather than being set directly within it.

    1. Couldn’t agree more about the tabloid-fostered UK obsession. Claudel’s comment about seeing himself as he might have been if he’d lived across the border adds an interesting dimension to his stories.

  4. These stories sound excellent, I read a novel by this author, it was Grey Souls though I read it under a different title which I now can’t remember. I remember how evocative his writing was, the novel had a very strong sense of place.

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