Three German novels form new imprint V&Q

V&Q is an new imprint launching in the UK this month, it’s parent company, Volland and Quist, are a major independent publisher on the continent. V&Q will be publishing German fiction and non-fiction titles in English but the first titles are all novels, I’ve reviewed all three for this feature:

Paula by Sandra Hoffman

We all have those moments when we don’t say the important thing to our loved ones, or ask the right questions of them. We revert to a silence or we talk about something trivial instead. Afterwards, sometimes a long time afterwards, the significance of that missed moment/opportunity becomes apparent – only by then it’s too late. Hoffman opens her novel by explaining there’s a word for that ‘deliberate silence’ in German – schweigen; the things that are unsaid, unexplored, unexplained. Suddenly when someone dies we realise that there are so many things about them we don’t know. Things we could have asked about in the past, if only we had spoken to them and encouraged them to open up. The absence of talking, of understanding others through their own memories and thoughts, creates a disconnect, a void. While the person is alive the deliberate silence is a weight that drags on relationships in the family; that absence is at the heart of this novel. Schweigen is perhaps more understandable for a generation that survived/lived through WWII as with Paula, the mysterious grandmother here, a reimagining of Hoffman’s own distant grandmother.  The narrator is obsessed with finding out more, understanding more, about her grandmother. Paula never spoke about her life, about the past, about what she thought or what she felt while she was alive. Across three generations – grandmother, mother and daughter/granddaughter so many things were left unsaid. Of course, the narrator has her own memories of her grandmother, her physical presence, trivial encounters, but the overriding image is one of the woman who sat silently in the room as the family got on with life.

Paula was born on All Hallows in Catholic north Swabia in 1915. The same year as Edith Piaf, Franz Joseph Strauss, Ingrid Bergman, Pinochet and Frank Sinatra, the second year of WWI, the year of the International Women’s Peace Conference in the Hague, of Virginia Woolf’s debut novel, this much is context. A first step in grounding her grandmother’s story. Paula had two sisters and a brother who died during WWII. She lived through two wars, the worst of times and the post war boom that followed, Paula was a cleaning lady but what does any of that say about who she really was? The granddaughter searches for the woman behind the bare facts, inevitably, this story has huge gaps between the things that can be established. Since childhood the granddaughter has been filling in the blanks in her knowledge of Paula by imagining scenarios and people, guessing at the reason for her silence. We are warned she’s an unreliable narrator. Now, after Paula’s death and for reasons that are apparent in the novel, the narrator seeks to fill in her biography. Boxes of photographs are a starting point; Paula was born in Assmannshardt, she was religious, she prayed, hated jokes, did not tell stories but some of her beliefs rubbed off on her granddaughter. The life constructed is as much fantasy as reality but it serves a purpose, it completes a story:

‘Fiction is the only way to close the gaps between image and image, fragment and fragment.’

What do we ever know of another person? What does that tell us about ourselves? What the narrator tells us about Paula is most revealing about herself. This is about the connection between Paula and history but it’s more fundamentally about what we can know about the people we love as we filter their story through our own prism. Paula is a beautiful novel, an exploration of grief, of sadness, and, of course – schweigen.

Translated by Katy Derbyshire, who brought this book to the publisher, having read the original text when it won the Hans Fallada Prize in Germany.

Personal read 4* Group read 4*

ISBN 9783863912581, paperback, 15/9/20

Journey through a Tragicomic Century by Francis Nenik

‘Memory, as every child knows, is the basis of history. Ideology, however – it will become clear later on – is the form in which history is expressed.’

This fictional biography of real German writer, Basso Grabbed, has a very different take on some of the same themes as a public life is examined. Nenik is more about interpreting the known facts rather than investigating the unknown. The subject has no direct connection to the author, Nenik tells us he was almost chosen at random. The author was looking for a suitable subject, he wanted to write about a writer, someone famous in his day who had slipped into obscurity, despite having made his mark in his own lifetime – he found Grabner. Nenik sets out to tell us about him, enveloping the man in his times. Everything is connected; the writer to the past, the imprint of his life to the future. The pasting together of moments and events in Hasso Grabner’s life creates a credible character, this is a fascinating read, particularly if you have an interest in the more obscure but significant details of twentieth century.

Grabner was born in Leipzig in October 1911, by necessity his mother was present, the men in the family were less likely to have been there, more obsessed with the written word than the drama, life, in front of them. His political roots were well established, his uncle transcribed the second volume of Das Kapital for Engels from Marx’s spidery, enigmatic notes. The family fell on hard times, Grabner was sent away, he grew up with foster families;

‘…where he perhaps finds a roof for his head, if not a home.’

He did not complete school, eventually returning home to Leipzig 1926, fifteen years old, his mother was dying. Grabner later embellishing his role in spying on the Jungstahlhelm, youth paramilitaries, and stealing ammo for the Communist cause – his contribution to the 1918-23 struggle. He joined the book trade, became a German Booksellers Academy apprentice, graduating in 1930, then declining a trip to Brazil for fear of missing out on the revolution. This was depression era Germany, a time of high unemployment, beggars in the street. The Reichstag elections that let in the National Socialists, Grabner’s reaction was to join every left wing organisation that would have him. He trained at the Rosa Luxemburg KPD Communist school, he read Nietzsche, Maeterlinck, Luxembourg ignored Thälmann, supported militancy in the workers.

‘Essentially, at the end of the Weimar Republic, everyone is fighting everyone else, and the only thing capable of creating clarity seems to be violence.’

The Nazis fought the SPD and the Communists and vice versa. Grabner was on the fringes of the violence. By 1934 he was taken by the gestapo and imprisoned, his wife too. He came out in 1938 only to be immediately sent to Buchenwald. Eventually released he played an heroic part in the war against fascism, he survived. Grabner returned to what was then the DDR only to once again fall foul of the authorities for his lack of Marxist Leninist principles. This is when he becomes a writer, a novelist, playwright.

The portrait of the man that emerges is one of a rebel, a committed communist but a man who always had his own take on events. A brave character not afraid to suffer for his beliefs, but an egoist, too individualistic to make his master’s comfortable. This is a very political biography, there is very little of the personal here, there simply isn’t the information available but it’s also not the point. The life of Grabner is painstakingly constructed from the records. He was a man of his century, a part of the clash of ideologies that defined the age. This is a powerful and thought Provoking novel that speaks to how we view our place in the world. How our times define us, how we define them. A fragmentary and yet satisfying story.

Translated by Katy Derbyshire

Personal read 5* group read 3½*

ISBN 9783863912574, paperback, 15/9/20

Daughters by Lucy Fricke

This unsettling piece opens with a description of Rome: rats in the alleys, tourists at the Trevi, which is preferable to the narrator Betty isn’t clear. Betty’s descriptions of the city are edgy and cynical, she appears unhappy, complaining of the security on the street and the need to book a visit to the Vatican, there’s no joy to be had from this place. She often leaves her home in Germany to travel, it’s cheaper because she can let her own place on Airbnb. Betty’s decision to stay in Rome, in a budget hotel was a spontaneous one, she was heading for the mountains south of the city with purpose but got diverted. She’s lost but it’s unclear what she’s trying to find. Then her friend Martha calls, Betty is in the Pantheon, already irritated by the crowd she heads outside to chat, she knows her friend, knows she will have to return home. When she reaches home Betty is equally disdainful of the tourists in her own place:

‘It took me two hours to clean the flat, to purge it, to scrape Spanish youth out of the cracks.’

Martha asks Betty why she was in Rome?

‘No reason really,’ I lied. ‘Just, every couple of years I think it might help if I found religion.’

Martha’s dad was not a good father, for the first thirty year of her life he was absent. Years later he got back in touch, he had been diagnosed with cancer. He told Martha he was ill, discussed the past and even offered an apology and a declaration of love. How Martha feels is revealed in the novel but she does come to understand Kurt came from tough background himself. Now he’s asked Martha to come with him, one last road trip to a clinic in Switzerland. Henning, Martha’s husband hates her father and he dislikes Henning. So Martha pleads with Betty to come along instead of Henning. The two women muse on their own situation, their friendship, practicalities, they even contemplate their own end in the light of Kurt’s illness. Betty would like to end it all with a drive off a coast road. They collect Kurt and his beatup 1996 VW Golf. Kurt seems pleased he is leaving no debt, in fact Martha will inherit his twenty year old car and a Kenwood cd player and tale deck, (top of the range), who wants those? Betty knows Martha well, she knows she drives to avoid thinking about things. They set off with an end in mind, only the road trip doesn’t work out that way. The divergence from the expected makes the novel much more intriguing. The road trip results in bearing of souls and self discovery. Daughters is loaded with wry humour, gallows humour and sardonic wit, if ever a novel disproved the prejudice that’s Germans don’t have a sense of humour this is it. Betty and Martha bicker, discuss feminism, men, money, drink and life. The themes of sadness, longing and family loss are sharply observed, all the more impressive as this is a blackly comic, quirky, novel, (congratulations to the translator for rendering that so well in English). At times life is farcical this road trip is that but more…

Translated by Sinéad Crowe

Personal read 4* group read 4*

ISBN 9783863912567, paperback, 15/9/20

Reviews by Paul Burke