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

Per Petterson ‘Out Stealing Horses’

-People…think they know  you, but they do not, they know about you, for what they are let in on are facts imagenot feelings…..not how what has happened to you and how all the decisions you have made have turned you into who you are

Trond is now an old man,  following his wife’s death he decides to move out from the city to an isolated hut in the countryside. By coincidence he recognises his only neighbour after all these years, Lars, Jon’s brother. And the story of his life bubbles to the surface, how decisions, large or small shape the people we become.

Trond has now become a solitary person, but not an inactive person, a little apprehensive with his choice and living with the shadow of events shaped during his childhood.

-I did not bring a television set out here with me, and I regret it sometimes when the evenings get long, but my idea was that living alone you can soon get stuck to those flickering images and to the chair you will sit on far into the night, and then time merely passes as you let others do the moving.

Two major events in the past are the key to who Trond has become and they are linked by the same seemingly innocuous phrase, the title of the book. Young Trond had gone to spend the summer doing up their country cabin with his father and had made friends with Jon, a young lad of his age living nearby, the book begins with Jon coming to their door early in the morning:

-Are you coming?’ He said. ‘We’re going out stealing horses.” That was what he said, standing at the door to the cabin where I was spending the summer with my father. I was fifteen. It was 1948 and one of the first days of July. Three years earlier the Germans had left, but I can’t remember that we talked about them any longer. At least my father did not. He never said anything about the war.

During their adventure, Trond cannot understand the strange reactions of his friend Jon and we learn of a major personal tragedy is the cause of this, in trying to understand what Trond has heard, his father questions him about their morning and reacts unexpectedly to Trond’s story:

-When you were out this morning, were you with Jon then?
-Yes I said
-What were you doing?
-We were out stealing horses.
-What’s that you say? My father was taken aback.
-Which horses then?
-Barkald’s horses. We weren’t really stealing them. We were just going to ride them. But we call it stealing to make it more exciting.

As the story moves on we learn of the role of Trond’s father during the war, as with many people in this isolated village near the Swedish border, such as Jon’s mother, but not his father, he helped people cross the border from occupied Norway into Sweden. As they worked the escapes their password which he muttered outside of Jon’s parents cabin was of course:

-Are you coming he said we’re going out stealing horses

Obviously heard by the young Jon. One night due to neglect by Jon’s father, he and Jon’s wife were forced to flee to Sweden for the duration. This was the second major event that shaped Trond’s life, his father could never settle down to his previous life after this. Looking back on his life, Trond comments:

-People…think they know  you, but they do not, they know about you, for what they are let in on are facts not feelings…..not how what has happened to you and how all the decisions you have made have turned you into who you are

And I guess this is true for all of us but with a little less drama.
As the book cover says Out Stealing Horses is a poignant and moving tale of a changing perspective on the world, from youthful innocence to the difficult acceptance of betrayal, and of nostalgia for a simpler way of life. 

First published in Norwegian as ‘Ut og stjœle hester’ by Forlaget Oktober in 2003
Translated into English as Out Stealing Horses by Anne Born and published by Vintage in 2006