Tag Archives: German contemporary fiction

The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells (transl. by Charlotte Collins): Death and how to survive it

Cover imageThis may sound obvious to seasoned readers of literature in translation but one of the things I’ve learned to look out for is the name of the translator as well as the author. The penny dropped when I noticed how many of the translations I’d enjoyed were by the late Carol Brown Janeway. Now I’d point to Jamie Bulloch and Anthea Bell as favourites but top of my list is Charlotte Collins for her beautiful translations of A Whole Life and The Tobacconist. That said, the premise of Benedict Wells’ The End of Loneliness, which follows three children into adulthood after an accident leaves them orphaned, was always going to attract me. Collins’ name was the icing on the cake.

The novel opens with forty-one-year-old Jules in hospital, recovering from a motorbike accident and looking back over his life, much of which has been spent daydreaming about how things might have been. In 1984 his parents were killed in a car crash. The children were sent to a state boarding school where they were immediately separated. Jules is the youngest of the three each of whom deal with their loss in very different ways. Liz, the oldest, takes to promiscuity and drugs long into adult life. Already a misfit, Marty loses himself in study, finding solace in a lifelong friendship and a lover who understands him. No longer the fearless seven-year-old he was before his parents died, Jules becomes a dreamer, trying his hand at all sorts of work but unable to settle at anything, always yearning for Alva, his fellow pupil who seems to understand his pain but carries her own and disappears from his life. When these two eventually find each other again it seems that all is set for a happy resolution.

Wells narrates his novel through Jules’ voice, unfolding the family’s story through his memories and dreams, from the years before his parents died to his recovery from his own accident. Jules’ loneliness and pain is sensitively portrayed, the happiness of his early childhood tempered by the adult knowledge of his father’s depression and his retreat into fantasy and daydream painfully real. His writing vividly evokes loneliness and grief – And now here we were, sitting at the table like three actors meeting again after a long time who can no longer remember the script of their most famous play – but Wells neatly avoids the maudlin. As Marty tells Jules: From the moment we’re born we’re on the Titanic. Death cannot be ducked; it’s what we choose to do with that knowledge that helps shape our lives, along with chance and circumstance. All this may sound somewhat gloomy but it’s not: The End of Loneliness may well explore what many of us would rather not think about but the clue’s in the title.

Letti Park by Judith Hermann (Transl. by Margot Bettauer Dembo): Quiet and thoughtful elegance

Cover imageThis is the third book I’ve read by Judith Hermann. Like Alice, the first, Letti Park is a collection of short stories comprising seventeen pieces, some just a few pages long. All three books are characterised by the delicacy of their writing but unlike the stories in Alice which are linked by the theme of loss and grief, these stories don’t lend themselves to easy analysis which is not to say they fall short in comparison, just that they’re harder to describe.

Hermann’s collection ranges from a group of people storing a delivery of coal, wondering about the precocious motherless four-year-old who arrives on his bicycle, to a daughter reluctantly visiting her father caught up in his own mental illness and unable to express an appreciation of her thoughtfulness, to a woman whose relationship with the therapist a friend has recommended long outlasts the friendship. In ‘Some Memories’ a lodger is disquieted by her elderly landlady’s tale of a long ago swimming accident on the eve of her holiday, worried about her landlady’s decline  A woman catches a frightening glimpse of another world when on a holiday her partner has advised against in ‘The East’. In ‘Mother’ a woman takes on the duties of a daughter when her best friend dies prematurely and becomes part of a distant family much to her children’s annoyance.

These are not stories in which a great deal happens. Memories are examined, epiphanies are experienced, encounters with strangers or people from characters’ pasts quetly change lives. Much is left unsaid, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions: a man mentions video footage of a trip taken with a friend; a woman observes the controlling behaviour of the partner of someone who was once lively and in charge of their life. All this is expressed in elegantly understated prose: The champagne is ice-cold, and for Ada it turns the afternoon into something that hurts behind the ears, hurts in certain places in her body where, she suspects, happiness is hiding. This is a fine collection, thoughtful and thought-provoking. It’s one that I’d been looking forward to very much and it didn’t disappoint.

Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel (transl. Jen Calleja): Down but not out

Cover imagePeirene’s novellas come with a brief foreword from Meike Ziervogel, a short personal comment explaining why this particular book caught her eye. The one prefacing Kerstin Hensel’s Dance by the Canal ends ‘This book will make you think’. I’ve yet to read anything published by Peirene which hasn’t done that. Hensel’s book is the story of how Gabriela von Haßlau became homeless, fitting neither into the old GDR nor the new unified Germany.

Gabriela is the daughter of a surgeon, a man who reached the heady heights of Chief Medical Officer in an East German town only to lose his reputation to drink and a vocal disillusionment with the state. Her mother sacrificed her own career for her husband’s, frantically cleaning their mansion-like villa until he hires some illicit help. These two embark on hosting raucous parties packed with artists and the more exciting of Ernst’s colleagues but never the obedient plodders. When Ernst rumbles his wife’s affair with one of the actors he’s so delighted with, he divorces her and takes to drink with an even greater vengeance. On top of all this, his daughter is a disappointment to him, failing at her violin lessons, cavorting with the grubby Katka and only keeping her place at school thanks to his influence and the red ‘I’ on her records denoting a child of the intelligentsia. By the time she leaves school, university places are reserved for the children of workers. Instead, she finds herself assigned an apprenticeship as a mechanical engineer at which she fails dismally. When she pushes her boss into the canal, two mysterious men arrive eager to help her fulfil her dreams of becoming a writer. In the summer of 1994, Gabriela  scratches out her story under the bridge across the canal she and Katka once danced naked alongside. She determinedly separates herself from the filthier vagrants but as the winter sets in survival becomes harder. Then things take an unexpected turn.

Henshel’s novella begins with a vividly drawn word picture as Gabriela delights in acquiring a blank piece of paper on which she can write her story. From her disappointed father to the two be-suited individuals, nefariously intent on employing her writing skills, we learn that the men she meets either want to contain or exploit her but Gabriela refuses to play ball. Henshel’s writing is often striking – Gabriela’s mother’s grief is ‘a siren [which] wailed from inside her’ – and her characters vividly realised. Katka is a particular delight. There’s a good deal of humour in this novella but there are also moments of melancholy as winter drags Gabriela closer to ‘the last hole’. I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of the ending but the journey that led to it was certainly a rewarding one.