“One swallow does not a summer make” goes the popular proverb which would have been a fitting epitaph for Larissa Boehning’s debut short story collection Swallow Summer. The appearance of swallows symbolises positive energy brought on by the beginning of the warmer season, but also represents the fleetingness of happiness when the birds congregate again to migrate to sub-Saharan Africa, marking the end of the European summer. They are a perfect metaphor for the outlook on life of most of Boehning’s characters: thirty-somethings stuck between, as the author puts it, “hope and resignation”.
Boehning’s book, originally published in 2003, follows the ground-breaking short story collection Summerhouse, Later by fellow Berlin resident Judith Hermann, the German edition of which came out in 1998. At the time, Hermann’s stories were a breath of fresh air, injecting a much-needed contemporariness into a literary scene perennially preoccupied with Germany’s past. Boehning mines pretty much the same ground as Hermann but unfortunately with a much lower yield than her predecessor.
The protagonists who populate most of the ten stories are characterized by their melancholy detachment, a consistent undercurrent of ennui and an unwillingness or inability to get involved. They work, they travel, have sex, but without passion, drive or purpose. They are observers of life rather than active participants, inward-looking drifters rather than ones engaging with the world.
The opening and closing stories, Melon Belly and Something for Nothing set the tone characterizing the collection.
Melon Belly starts with a gunshot in a Berlin block of flats, but instead of homing in on the violence that had happened behind closed doors, the story focuses on one of the residents and the excursion she joins with her ex-colleagues from a bankrupt IT start-up. While we dwell on the mundane minutiae of the relationships between the day trippers, life’s great tragedies happen elsewhere.
Similarly in Something for Nothing, which provided the inspiration for the cover art of the English edition, the big events are happening outside the narrative frame. The story’s protagonist, Marie, strikes up a tentative friendship with the antique camera dealer, Uli, from whom she buys a used Swallow scooter – a brand of retro-scooters favored by Berlin hipsters. Something for Nothing starts with the death of her father and finishes with her and Uli witnessing a neighbor dying from a heart attack while taking out the rubbish. In between they drift through summery Berlin while vaguely ruminating on the ephemeral nature of existence.
This lack of engagement, this diffuse feeling of alienation might illustrate the mindset of the Millenials, but Boehning fails to successfully tackle the old conundrum of making a book about boredom exciting. While technically adept and able to convey authentic sounding dialogue and descriptions with economy and precision, the tone of her prose is, more often than not, as bloodless and lackluster as her characters.
Ironically, the strongest story moves away from Boehning’s ambition to give voice to the life experience of her generation. Matchbox Cathedrals describes the precarious balance between a widower and his mentally handicapped brother-in-law which is disturbed by the mysterious appearance of a runaway girl in the garden of their dacha. The writing greatly benefits from the distance between author and subject matter. What seems limp and lifeless in Boehning’s other stories transforms here into subtle understatement, registering small shifts in the relationship between the two men brought on by the intrusion of the world into their garden allotment.
Larissa Boehning. Swallow Summer (translated from the German by Lyn Marven). Carcanet Press Ltd.