Peter Stamm ‘Seven Years’


—When she finally arrived we greeted each other as though we hadn’t seen each other for ages, we went for a walk in the snow 614205A4-BFD9-4959-A899-A3400720D22Fand talked everything over again we relished the reconciliation of the night by saying over and over what we’d done wrong and how we’d meant to do better in the future and what our life would be like and how much we loved each other, our words were conjurations as though everything would go the way we wanted it so long as we said it often enough.


Alex, the narrator is a shadow of a man, he exists, but has no real substance. Peter Stamm paints us a picture of the narrator, who through a series of discussions with his wife’s friend Antje tells us about their life over the last seven years and in so doing, through his accounts of the conversations with others and through their judgements, tells us about himself in this story read for German Lit Month,

Alex, an architect living in Munich is married to his business partner Sonia, who is beautiful, but whom in Alex’s honest narration he doesn’t love but wants to please. Alex lives throughout this whole time, on and off, an infatuation with a very catholic polish illegal immigrant, Ivona, to whom he doesn’t feel attracted, with whom he doesn’t really talk, but to whom he returns regularly, mostly just for sex but also to forget himself for a few hours.

Alex strings along both women over this time period, unable to make decisions about who if either of the women he wants in his life. The central element in the story occurs when his wife, Sonia, is unable to have a child and then Ivona falls pregnant. Alex persuades himself and Ivona, but without really persuading the reader that he is acting for both Ivona and the unborn child’s best interests taking the child off of her hands and explaining that it would be better if he and his wife bring up the child. What did Ivona really think of Alex who only rarely saw her afterwards? Her cousin tells us some years later:


‘Ivanna’s wasted her life on me’ I thought.
‘For the past fifteen years she’s been chasing the spectre of an impossible love.’
‘You mustn’t reproach yourself’ said Eva as though she’d read my mind.
‘It has nothing to do with you, in her own way Ivona is perfectly happy she has you, she’s been in love these fifteen years.’


As Alex’s life begins to fall to pieces later on through the pressure of work and alcohol and in a moment of symmetry in the story, Sonia’s parents explain to Alex how it would be better for him and the child, Sophie, if they were to take her of his hands.

The views of Alex by others is confirmed during one of the conversations with Antje during a moment of self doubt:


‘Maybe I really wasn’t good enough for Sonia’ I said.
‘It’s not your fault’ said Birgit
‘You’re not the only people in trouble’.
‘But for me Sonia would have had more of a career’ I said
‘She wanted to go abroad and work in a big architecture company’.
‘She knew what she was getting with you’ said Birgit.


Towards the end of the story in a rare moment of self appraisal Alex tells us:


‘The whole time I felt as though I was standing outside myself watching, disgusted by my own heartlessness.’


This was a chilling tale by its everyday easy conversational form, had it have been a confession there would have been some redemption. There really are people out there like Alex with no colour and no texture, beware.

First published in German as ‘Sieben Jahre’ by S. Fischer in 2009
Translated into English by Michael Hofmann as “Seven Years” and published by Granta Books in 2013

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Thomas Melle ‘3000€’


—On Facebook people just post stupid links, they’re supposed to be funny, but Denise just doesn’t get the humour, she thinks about closing her account but B1D32F65-1C09-484D-ACC2-E36CB140C044she knows she’s going to have to look through the thousands of options to find the corresponding function and then get to the end of a procedure where she’d have to answer absurd questions (Do you really? And why do you want to? And so and so will miss you a lot). For the time being she isn’t capable of typing it. Anyway, she doesn’t want to close her account. If the truth be told she keeps wanting to, but she’ll never do it.


This is the story, read for German Lit Month, of two people just trying to get by, Anton who first dropped out of law school and took a job as a taxi driver then went of the rails and spent a whole summer drunk and borrowing money, he’s a fragile person who slips back to alcohol under any pressure. His summer has left him with bank and credit card debt which, for the want of 3000€ will see him slowly sinking into the homeless ranks of people with no access to money. Denise a single mother with a special needs child works the till at a supermarket and like Anton under pressure hits the bottle on a evening, in her attempt to make ends meet she has acted in her first pornographic video, imagining that everyone that passes the till will recognise her and she has been waiting two months now to be paid her 3000€ for the video, feeling the wish to act, to get out of her situation for herself and her child and the immobility characteristic of too much pressure illustrated by the opening quote.

Thomas Melle perfectly captures that moment of fragility where Denise imagines herself looking back at her situation. We’ve all of course done this in our lives, hopefully not from such a difficult situation:


—She tells herself stories about herself, as in a television program switching backwards and onwards between the appalled tone of public service programs  and the flamboyant style of private channels. It’s a story where she herself five or ten years later talks about herself now.
—Yes she says to herself in her head looking at the camera.
—Today I find it difficult myself understanding why I was so depressed back then, at the end of the line…..in retrospect I have to say that my breakdown saved me….I won’t say that I’m happy, but I’m ok and that’s more than I could have hoped for.


Melle brings together these two characters who live at the fringes of society for a short while, but where Denise might just get through, her money eventually arrives, Anton walks away, not wanting to pull her down, as Denise surmises when he doesn’t get in touch:


—He’s just got himself in another situation with no way out, no longer has a cell phone, no credit, no internet access.


3000€, so little and over much at the same time, the price of marginality?

First published in German as ‘3000€’ by Rowohlt in 2014
Translated into French by Julia Sobottke as “3000€” and published by Éditions Métailié in 2017

Sven Regener ‘Berlin Blues’


–Sleep isn’t as important as all that, physically speaking, but lack of it will drive you crazy in the end. That’s why it is difficult to tell the chicken from the egg. Did your friend flip because he hadn’t slept for so long, or did he go without sleep for so long because he’d flipped?46285D58-FF4E-48C0-AFDD-C66F2BB6FC55
–You tell me said Herr Lehmann
–A bit of both I’d say. That’s what we’ve got to find out, but it may also be a dully developed manic–depressive psychosis
–What would that mean? He asked.
–It takes time. In such cases I always recommend that patients be sent back home for therapy. The vast majority come from West Germany.


It’s 1989 in West Berlin, West Berlin is not West Germany and attracts youth from all over West Germany because, amongst  other things, if you lived in West Berlin you were exempt from the 18 month military service in place in West Germany. Frank, who has recently become known wittily by his friends as Herr Lehmann because he will be 30 years old on the 9th November, has been a barman since his arrival from Bremen 9 years earlier, and has no other ambition. His life mostly revolves around working, drinking with his best friend Karl and sleeping. Herr Lehmann is not the sort of person who asks himself questions and then one day when he goes to the Markthalle, where Karl works, for early lunch he meets the new woman chef, who shows her capability to equal him in meaningless disputes, and falls in love:


–Karl : What’ll you have then?
–Frank: Roast pork said Herr Lehmann who never had anything else at the Markthalle….if it’s ok for these imbéciles to breakfast till five in the afternoon, it must be ok to order roast pork at eleven in the morning.
–Katrin: If the world is teeming with assholes who breakfast till five in the afternoon she said why should we need any desperate characters who order roast pork at eleven in the morning?


Thirty has crept up on Frank without his suspecting it and his well oiled no questions asked routine is about to be dynamited, we follow him and his often drunk friends, who work the bars and live at night with no thoughts of the future, through their routines, people come and people go in and around their bars but there is always Frank’s friend Karl, a barman by night with dreams of becoming an artist. As Frank meets Katrin and finally finds some form of acceptance for his life from his parents, he doesn’t notice Karl’s strange behaviour as he slowly drifts towards a crises, illustrated in the opening quote, which then comes to a head as Katrin leaves him. He is then alone as he sets out to celebrate his 30th birthday on the fateful 9th November 1989.

A great book, read for German lit month, if you like your humour dry and  subject matter blue then this book is for you. Some of the incidents Regener describes should remind everyone of those heady days which were our 20’s, it did me!

First published in German as ‘Herr Lehmann’ by Eichborn in 2001
Translated into English by John Brownjohn as “Berlin Blues” and published by Secker & Warburg in 2003

Sherko Fatah ‘Un Voleur de Bagdad’

—The Versailles treaty, that shameful text, the Grand Mufti said one day to those around him, made Germany into a pariah. It’s because of that they have taken the side of the Arabs, the eternal pariahs. IMG_1077May God stop them from losing this war, because then we would lose Palestine to the Jews.***

Sherko Fatah brings us the story of Anouar, a boy from the streets of Bagdad who is swept up in the movements of his epoch, initially moving towards an involvement in an anti-Semitic movement in which he does not really believe. Fatah First paints us a story of prewar Bagdad, Of the growing tensions Anouar slowly discovers between the people and their British rulers and, through an involvement with the Black shirts, the growing hatred towards the Jews living in Bagdad:

—The Black shirts were grouped in front of the building waiting for Fadil’s orders. When I joined them I was accepted as a comrade, and was asked to carry one of the large paint containers…i thus learnt  that the operation we were about to begin was of great importance for the fatherland, that it was aimed at the internal enemy who in association with the British was about to bring down the country’s  rightful gouvernement….Fadil regrouped us around him.
—we will mark all of the shops owned by Jews. You know which ones are concerned. If you have any doubts ask me. Lets go!***

Anouar finds himself, through his links with the Black shirts, a factotum of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who is in political exile in Bagdad and is part of the team of people who accompany him to Berlin in 1941 when after a failed insurrection Bagdad is brought under control by the British:

He wanted to be an Arab partner alongside the Germans and not the lackey without hope that the French see in every Arab, nor the easily manipulated imbecile that the English took him for.***

Anouar describes their time in Berlin where their rallying to Hitler is used as propaganda, here in this second part of the story he is brought into contact with the day to day anti Semitic behaviour and expectations around him and where they spend most of their time just waiting as the war goes from euphoria to despair as illustrated  in the opening quote.

The book then moves into the third and little known phase, where towards the end of the war Anouar is enrolled into the Muslim Legion of the Waffen SS, sent to fight on the eastern front where, during the retreat without hope from the Russian army, the Legion is used for the most dangerous work in the suppression of the Warsaw uprising as the Russian Army halt their advance to allow the SS the time to finish the job.

This book throws open a new window on the events of the twentieth century, seen from an unusual perspective including the tensions in the Middle East at the time. This was a thoughtful read.

First Published in German as “Ein weisses Land” in 2011 by Luchterhand Literatur Verlag.
Translated into French by Olivier Mannoni as ‘Un Voleur de Bagdad’ and published by Métailié in 2014
*** My translation

Gert Hofmann ‘The Film Explainer’

-Oh said Fräulein Fritsche for the last time, who if she’d given up her ‘aldulterous relationship with a married grandfather’ (Grandmother) could easily have become deputy director of the firm of ……img_0973‘The Woman should finally realise the old man won’t marry her, at least not in this life’ (Mother). So the affair dragged on. Grandmother would ‘never ever’ forgive him, but that was all she could do. She had reconciled herself to the fact that he occasionally ‘dropped in on Fräulein Fritsche and gave her a little bit of a shaking’.

This book read for German lit month VI is a true family endeavour, written by Gert about his Grandfather Karl and translated by his son Michael. The picture on the cover depicts  Karl and the young Gert and this is a work of love. The period from the hyperinflation to the rise of Hitler in Germany was a precarious time for many Germans and the first half of this book illustrates this seen through the prism of a young provincial boy brought up in his Grandparents home. Karl’s passion was the cinema and during the silent film era he was a poorly payed artist, a film explainer, he played the piano in The Apollo cinema in a small town in Saxony and explained the film to the audience in his coat tails and his artist’s hat. But in difficult times he earned little and  thus had a strained relationship with his wife:

-He’s not just an artist without any bread, he’s an artist without any art, said grandmother heartlessly. She meant: An art like his can never come to anything. He had the expressive gift of an artist but no particular gift. Or, as grandmother said, So that everyone would understand: It seems something wants to get out of him but there’s nothing inside!

And as the opening quote leads us to understand Karl has a long standing relationship with Fräulein Fritsche and as he takes the young Gert everywhere with him, this includes his regular daytime visits to the Fräulein. In this precarious world, the advent of the talking movie had a devastating effect on Karl who lost his job and Herr Teilhaber eventually replaces as an usher by a young cripple:

-By the time the blossoms were gone from our two apple trees, the sound film had established itself in Limbach…..Now instead of grandfather, you could see Herr Teilhaber at the door counting the audience, but that didn’t make them any more numerous. After ‘a few weeks of sound’, the Apollo was as empty as before.

Karl does not look for work and seems to fall into a drastic state of depression for a long period of time, he only pulls out of this thanks to two other men of his age, Herr Götze and Herr Friedrich who take him drinking  at the Deutches Haus and who like him are poor and have time on their hands and Karl with his WW1 medals is a target for them in this small town:

-Herr Götze and Herr Friedrich…spoke in unison: Our task is to. bring new members into the party. But each of them had to do that on his own. I asked: How many this week Herr Götze, and he said: Two!…
A couple of weeks later I asked again…
Herr Götze said:A half….Actually I haven’t got anyone yet. I’m still looking.

Gert as a boy discovers in a naive way things that the grown ups know and take for granted through throw away phrases such as for instance when he learns about the young cripple who is no longer in town:

-On the other hand, he said, some young ladies were…….
Yes?
Delectable, said Grandfather and smacked his lips. Then they disappeared from our lives. Just like the young cripple who replaced me disappeared too, to Bautzen , apparently.
And why Bautzen, I asked.
I suppose there was a vacancy there for him in the cosmic scheme of things, said Grandfather.

Bautzen was a concentration camp. Or when Herr Teilhaber, a Jew, disappears and his businesses are taken over by a Herr Kunze as Grandmother says:

-There’s no no need to worry about him overreaching himself, Grandmother said to me, he gets it all cheap. Because Herr Teilhaber had been in such a hurry to get out, he let him have the shop for next to nothing, and the Apollo too. F L Kunze took it all over for next to nothing. ‘He should be ashamed of himself’ (Grandmother)

A slow but interesting book of innocence being wound in by history.

First Published in German as “Der Kinoerzähler” in 1990 by Hanser
Translated into English by Michael Hofmann as ‘The Film Explainer’ and published by Secker and Warburg in 1995

Thomas Glavinic ‘The Camera Killer’

-We pricked up our ears when a German commercial station broadcast some dramatic news, it had obtained a leaked copy of the film that the criminal had made of his victims. img_0962After much internal discussion the editorial board had decided to televise excepts from them at some still to be determined time but in the very near future in order to give the world a graphic description of the enormity of the crime in question.

In this book by Thomas Glavinic read for the German lit month VI, and more specifically for, Lizzy’s crime week, a heinous crime is committed at the beginning of the book, followed by a layered study of a group of friends and their reaction to this crime, where two young boys are enticed to jump to their death from trees by a sadistic kidnapper who films the whole event on videotape which is later discovered and there follows a debate as to whether this should be shown on television.

In this book, there are a number of particularities,  firstly we discover the murders of the two young boys through the reaction of a group of friends, the narrator, the narrator’s partner, and their friends Eva and Heinrich and in particular through the compulsive  interest of Heinrich.

-The silence that followed this account was broken by Heinrich’s injunction to watch the special broadcast, Eva refused and remained in the kitchen, the rest of us seated ourselves on a sofa and in an armchair in the living room…….the presenter gave a brief summary of what had happened, largely repeating what Heinrich had already told us, he added that the crime had invoked an incredible response as viewers would shortly be able to see for themselves.

The second particularity is in the language used by the narrator, it is precise and, using a wording of a previous era, maybe even precious, the translator has produced a formidable piece of work in rendering this,  I’ll give here one example:

-Eva immediately betook herself to the bathroom. My partner and Heinrich pushed their way into the living room where they jocularly contested a comfortable seat on the sofa, Heinrich argued that it was his regular place, my partner countered that she was a guest and that her wishes must be duly respected, she wanted to lie down for a brief rest being afflicted with the fatigue which regularly beset her after an ample meal

Where we see the use of words such as betook, jocularly contested, countered, duly, afflicted, beset and ample. This I think, works to make the style impersonal or detached.

The third particularities are the layers, epitomised when a German commercial television channel decides to broadcast the video, we find ourselves analysing the reactions of the group of friends, whose reactions are themselves related by the narrator, the group of friends  are questioning the motives for the television station to broadcast the video which itself shows the murderer manipulating the children that he persuades to jump to their death from high trees in order, in part, to spare their parents from the torture promised by this camera killer.

Austria itself and its reactions to events comes in for a certain amount of ironical criticism, either through Heinrich and his hate for the church and of the pope, the earthly representative of a mythical being, or for instance the friend’s relative view of their country and why a murder should be of importance there:

-My partner objected to that…. injuring robbing and murdering other people was commonplace in the United States so those whose actions transgressed the socially accepted bounds of brutality could not expect to attract much attention there. In a civilised central European country by contrast, any murder was of importance and one such as had occurred in West Styria was correspondingly sensational.

All of the mechanisms in the narrative have their importance in the denouement of the mystery as we are lead down a path by the author so as to be better surprised at the end. I will read more Glavinic.

First Published in German as “Der Kameramörder” by Volk une Welt in 2001
Translated into English by John Brownjohn as ‘The Camera Killer’ and published by Amazon publishing in 2012

Elfriede Jelinek ‘Greed’

-Who wouldn’t like to have at least one little house for themselves alone…..The son of the present country policeman…..In order to consolidate and shield his permanent job the son goes every week without fail to his bank on the main square as if his determination would bring in more than his securities justifyimg_0931….to the bank which gives him credit until he will have lost every security….to be rich depends on a precise knowledge of what one has and what one could still get.

In this book by Nobel prize winning author Elfriede Jelinek read for the German lit month VI, and more specifically and maybe tenuously (well there is a crime), Lizzy’s crime week. Jelinek studies both “sinnliche und weltliche Gier”, that is both material and sexual craving or greed. In this book her characters exist for what they are and not who they are, she uses them to paint a scathing vision of her country, Austria and continually digresses from the “story” to the subject of her book, Austrian society. So in revealing the story in this article the subject of the book remains. Although her characters have names, she chooses to avoid them, for example, Kurt Janisch, the male protagonist, is mostly referred to simply as the country policeman as illustrated in the opening quote.

The story as such is relatively simple, and centres on the mixed desires and greed of the country policeman, she describes him as tall, blond, blue eyes who, through his job has the opportunity to get to know and exploit lonely middle aged women who are drawn physically to him:

-he prefers to note where the supposedly, presumably lowered eyes of the women are wandering from the country policeman’s penetratingly blue irises down to his fly, direct connection these greedy grasping eyes of women.

Janisch’s interest in these women is in the property they own and that they may sign over to him in the event of their death. His real interest is not really with women at all:

-There he is, take a look at how as if by accident he rubs himself up against this younger colleague, stands as if unintentionally close behind him when they’re undressing, his colleague has his shirt halfway over his head and can’t see anything and can’t resist for a moment, which is over all too quickly, he is caught up in his clothes like a fish in a net, his arms are raised, his narrow hips are, Well they’re there and feature some red acne I call something like that flesh precisely in it’s imperfection. Such a pleasure to press the somewhat swollen cock as if unintentionally against the left hip of the younger man 

But I fear that I digress, back to the story, poor old Janisch doesn’t really know what he wants and exasperated by the demands of his current middle aged woman, Gerti, who oblivious to the spiralling violence of their sex, wants more from him than he is capable of, love and marriage. One day he brings back to her house a sixteen year old girl he has been seeing in his car, this is more for the sadistic relationship with the woman than for the girl herself:

-Now he has thrown the older woman in whom he places some hope out of her own living room just because of the girl, she had become quite unbearable with her constant demands for more without even knowing everything she’s got, she doesn’t even have all her wits about her, one is always missing she should go and rub her gusset herself with her own hand so that she sees what that’s like. But when she’s supposed to whack off in front of him then it only makes her all the greedier for him precisely because he wants to watch her, it is one of many variants of the heightening of pleasure all of which she would like to get to know later at her leisure.

Janisch then during sex appears to casually kill the girl and to dispose of her body in a sterile man made lake. Further along in the book Jelinek gives an insight into how this could have happened in today’s society:

-That one can buy dolls in a sex shop whose bodies look in a way unappetising, Well the head’s ok, that while masturbating one can pull a plastic bag over ones head and tighten it at the throat till one almost pops off and then one pops up again the bag abruptly suddenly open, please don’t forget that, and there’s our orgasm which we once had and have missed for some time now, there it is again stronger than ever before, stronger than with any woman, stronger than any arm, we had begun to believe that we won’t get one at all any more but the shelves are full. Every poor man wants to be rich that is just as natural a phenomenon as the fact that one can introduce all kinds of things into one’s ass hole both small and surprisingly large objects that however one has to do with the other hand, one hand is supposed to tighten the bag so one hand always knows what the other is doing

Finally the country policeman is then part of the search team looking for the murderer of the girl and then,he woman, without hope takes her own life.

This chilling examination of  modern society concerns of course more than just Austria, Jelinek presents a vision of the incompatibility of men and women, and the flame of the impersonal at the heart of this book has since been fanned by the Internet era.

First Published in German as “Gier” by Rowohlt Verlag in 2000
Translated into English by Martin Chalmers as ‘Greed’ and published by Serpent’s Tail in 2006