Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Two Very Different World War II Novels. . .

I've just read a great pairing of two very interesting novels, completely different in style, but both written by Germans, both containing short narratives compressed into just a few days, and each ostensibly - but not exclusively - about the Second World War, with one set just before, and one taking place during its end. I've previously read and enjoyed two novels by Irmgard Keun: The Artificial Silk Girl (reviewed here) and Child of All Nations. So I was thrilled to see that the inaugural book in Melville House's exciting new imprint, The Neversink Library, was Keun's 1937 novel After Midnight, translated by Anthea Bell.
After Midnight is far more political than the other two novels. It's the late 1930s and Sanna is a young woman living in Frankfurt with her older stepbrother Algin, a writer who has had some previous fame with one of his novels having been turned into a movie, but whose work has drawn the ire of the Nazis. Sanna who admits she is uneducated and ignorant of the world, is trying to enjoy an ordinary life, gossiping about men with her friends, hanging out in bars drinking, and helping Algin's wife Liska plan a party. But inevitably politics dangerously intrudes, most obviously in the appearance of Hitler himself, as the city makes preparations for his visit. Her best friend Gerti is in love with a man who is half-Jewish. Liska is in love with Heini, a writer who openly and cynically criticizes the new regime. They have Jewish friends who are trying to escape the country. Like Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone, this is a world full of the paranoia of not being able to trust your neighbour, grudges turning into denunciations, and the fear, and isolating loneliness of trying to live up to principles in a crazy world. It's a place where wives go out to buy lots of alcohol for their husbands, hoping to entice them to drink at home instead of in a bar where one loose, intoxicated word could lead to an arrest. But Keun has a lighter touch than Fallada; her female narrators are always young, naive and vulnerable but with a cynical toughness at their core and an ability to apply the hypocrises of daily life to the larger historical events. Sanna is learning as much about the pain and complexities of love as she is about politics and she states her discoveries - such as her thoughts about Gerti's predicament - very directly, if somewhat innocently:

It's hard enough to know your way around all the rules the authorities lay down for business - business as we all know, can be very trickily organized - and now we have to know the rules of love too. It isn't easy, it really isn't. Before you know it, you may find yourself castrated or in prison, which is not pleasant. Love is supposed to be all right, and German women are supposed to have children, but before you can do that some sort of process involving feelings is called for. And the law says no mistakes must be made in the process. I suppose the safest thing is not to love anyone at all. For as long as that's allowed.

The novel depicts a couple of days in Sanna's life as she interacts with various self-absorbed characters who later appear as guests at the party, while trying to wrestle with her own feelings of love and pity for a cousin who has turned up unexpectedly. There is so much wonderful imagery, dialogue and disillusionment packed into this novel's brief slice of Weimar life, along with a poignant commentary on the plight of German writers during this time, struggling with their conscience to make a living in an atmosphere of censorship. As Heini remarks: "A writer who is afraid is no true writer." I really loved this novel; it was both gutsy and poetic. I'm sure there's a PhD thesis out there on the role of parties as precursor to death or disaster in 20th century literature - think Mrs. Dalloway or Joyce's "The Dead" - and while I wouldn't quite put Keun in that tight circle of masterpieces, I do think she's owed a spot on the guest list.

Heinrich Böll’s 1949 novel The Train Was on Time, translated by Leila Vennewitz, is also published by Melville House as part of their Essential Heinrich Böll series. This was his first novel, and the first writing of his that I've read. It follows a few days in the life of Andreas, a twenty-four year old German soldier, as he travels by train towards the Eastern Front, during the last year of the war. He becomes convinced that he will die shortly - this coming Sunday - and it will be somewhere en route between Lvov and Cernauti. He becomes obsessed with the word "soon"; a rhythmic mantra that both soothes and drives him crazy as the train carries on:

Soon. Soon. Soon. Soon. When is Soon? What a terrible word: Soon. Soon can mean in one second, Soon can mean in one year. Soon is a terrible word. This Soon compresses the future, shrinks it, offers no certainty, no certainty whatever, it stands for absolute uncertainty. Soon is nothing and Soon is a lot. Soon is everything. Soon is death. . .
The reader could replace "soon" with "war" or even "this novel" and you would have the thematic gist of this story. Certain of his predicament, Andreas engages in both the ordinary - eating, drinking, playing cards with two fellow soldiers in the corridor of the train - and the philosophical. He thinks back to a pair of enigmatic female eyes he briefly saw as he was wounded. He thinks about his chaplain friend Paul and tries to pray, not only for all the people he has hurt or insulted in the past, but also the millions of Jews who have been murdered by the Nazis. His last night is spent in the company of a Polish prostitute and spy, in one last attempt to grasp some meaning out of life, to find some human connection of commonality and empathy, and perhaps to even contemplate escaping his fate. This was a novel with far more claustrophobic interiority and existential, almost nightmarish angst than Keun's, but no less urgent in its tale of inevitable despair and the yearning for life's beauty and humanity.

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