Life is Elsewhere – “Swallow Summer” by Larissa Boehning


“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.  Continue reading “Life is Elsewhere – “Swallow Summer” by Larissa Boehning”


Link of the week

IMG_8850_resizedTo round off my two recent postings about Stefan Zweig, here are two pieces about the Austrian author who died 1942 in exile in Brazil.

The first article is an insightful portrait originally published in The New Yorker, revealing the man behind the public persona Zweig created for himself.

The Escape Artist – The Death and Life of Stefan Zweig by Leo Carey

The second text is a conversation  between Wes Anderson, who has credited Zweig as the inspiration for his movie The Grand Budapest Hotel, and George Prochnik, author of  the biography The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World.

‘I stole from Stefan Zweig’: Wes Anderson on the author who inspired his latest movie


Exile on Main Street – “Ostend” by Volker Weidermann

ostend-pushkin-pressThis week’s instalment is following up on my review of Stefan Zweig’s novel Impatience of the Heart with a book examining Zweig’s and a group of fellow writers’ early years in exile.

The year is 1936. The Nazis, in power for a mere three years, have orchestrated the infamous book burnings and driven the vast majority of German literary intelligentsia out of Germany. For the time being, most have settled in adjoining countries such as France or the Netherlands, the latter home of the famous Querido publishing house, one of the very few publishers left for this group of writers. They are writing for an ever diminishing readership, waiting for news from home and hoping, against better judgement, that the Nazi spell will soon be broken.

In Ostend, Volker Weidermann provides us with a masterful snapshot of these times. He re-imagines, not without some sepia-coloured nostalgia, some sepia-coloured nostalgia, the travails of early exile placing a coterie of writers for one last summer at the swish Belgian seaside resort of Ostend, where they spend their time writing, having affairs, gossiping and talking politics. The writers, who are congregating by the sea, cover the whole spectrum of intellectual resistance against Hitler: there is the bourgeois humanist Zweig, the nostalgic monarchist Joseph Roth, his lover Irmgard Keun, a prominent proponent of what the Nazis derogatively labelled “asphalt literature”. They are joined by the communist faction around famous journalist Egon Erwin Kisch and “red media baron” Willi Munzenberg. Notably missing, though, are the two giants of literary opposition to Hitler-Germany: Thomas Man and Bertold Brecht. Continue reading “Exile on Main Street – “Ostend” by Volker Weidermann”

The Pity Trap – “Impatience of the Heart” by Stefan Zweig

Zweig Cover smallContinuing with my mini-series of German books published in English translation this year, this week’s pick is Impatience of the Heart by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (1881 – 1942).

Zweig has been undergoing a minor renaissance recently after being credited by film director Wes Anderson as the inspiration behind The Grand Budapest Hotel as well as being the subject of a well-received biography by George Prochnik dealing with his years in exile after the Nazis came to power. Prior to being forced to flee his homeland, Zweig was one of the most successful authors working in the German language. His popular histories and novellas, many of them adapted for the screen, became bestsellers and afforded him a life as a literary celebrity in the 1920s and early 30s.

Impatience of the Heart, also published in an earlier translation by Anthea Bell under the title Beware of Pity, is Zweig’s only novel to be published in his lifetime. It was released in 1939, three years before he and his wife committed suicide in Petropolis, Brazil where they lived in isolated and materially modest exile. Continue reading “The Pity Trap – “Impatience of the Heart” by Stefan Zweig”

Weekenders – “Montauk” by Max Frisch

montauk-193x300Having spent the best part of August holidaying in Germany, I decided to choose a few German books recently translated into English for my next reviews. First cab off the rank is Montauk by Max Frisch.

In the 1960’s and 70’s, Swiss writer Max Frisch belonged to the group of post-war “uber”-authors which included Nobel Prize winners Gunther Grass and Heinrich Boell. Whilst famous at the time for his widely popular allegorical political plays and three novels: Homo Faber, My Name is Gantenbein and I am not Stiller, his works have somewhat faded away in the minds of the reading public since his death in 1991. Not even an international film production of Homo Faber under the title Voyager starring Sam Shephard and Julie Delpie could trigger a sustained renaissance of his work. This is a great pity given that Frisch was always the more international, outward looking writer among his peers, whose prose in particular has remained fresh and relevant. It is thus admirable that the small Portland-based publisher Tin House Books has decided to republish Montauk which first appeared in 1975 in German, and then only a year later the now out-of-print English edition. Continue reading “Weekenders – “Montauk” by Max Frisch”

Link of the week

IMG_8850_resizedFollowing my recent review of “The Vegetarian” I have chosen Tim Parks’ controversial critique of the translation and by extension Han Kang’s novel itself as this week’s first link. Although I thoroughly disagree with the premise of Park’s polemic,  particularly with his notion of global literature, he nevertheless makes a couple of interesting and entertaining points about the issue of voice in the novel.

“Raw and Cooked” by Tim Parks s from the New York Review of Books

Always worthwhile to listen to is the Three Percent Podcast with Tom and Chad, the latest edition of which features a segment on the Tim Parks article (32 minutes into the podcast).

Three Percent Podcast #116

Hunger Games – “The Vegetarian” by Han Kang

The Vegetarian 600 x 400Han Kang’s slim novel, which won this year’s Man Booker International Prize, is an engrossing, gothic tale of radical refusal, told in a cool, detached and precise prose. Structured like a classical drama in three acts, each told from the perspective of a different character, the novel charts the withdrawal of its heroine from the cold, emotionally stunted and predominantly male world in which she finds herself.

The Vegetarian describes a process towards complete negation of what a woman’s role in society ought to be. Firstly through the reduction of the physical self, then, more drastically, through the erasure of the human body itself. Continue reading “Hunger Games – “The Vegetarian” by Han Kang”

Link of the week

IMG_8850_resizedHaving called Sade an unlikely poster boy for women’s liberation in my review of “Khomeini, Sade and Me” last week, I thought this week  might be a good time to look at the Marquis a little bit more closely.

First up, a longer feature on the man from the Smithsonian Magazine, for which the author also visited the descendants of the controversial libertine.

Who Was the Marquis de Sade? by Tony Perottet

Next, a text from The Independent examining Sade’s influence on 19th and 20th century thinkers and contemporary French philosopher Michel Onfray’s withering critique of the Marquis.

Marquis de Sade: rebel, pervert, rapist…hero? by John Lichfield




The Marquis and the Ayatollah – “Khomeini, Sade and Me” by Abnousse Shalmani

Khomeini, Sade and Me cover

Abnousse Shalmani’s childhood as the carefree daughter of a leftist, educated, bourgeois family in Tehran ended with her starting Primary School in the early 1980s. Iran had just undergone a fundamentalist Islamic revolution forcing the Shah into exile and installing Muslim cleric Ayatollah Khomeini as Iran’s supreme leader. For Shalmani, being suddenly forced to wear the headscarf and cover up for the classroom triggered what would turn out to become a lifelong rebellion against Islam’s denial of the female flesh. Continue reading “The Marquis and the Ayatollah – “Khomeini, Sade and Me” by Abnousse Shalmani”

Link of the week

IMG_8850_resizedFollowing my review of Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan, this week’s link is about  Indonesian literature. Louise Doughty gives us an overview of recent literary works from the world’s largest archipelago and wonders why it is that not more books from Indonesia are translated into English.

“17,000 islands of the imagination”: discovering Indonesian literature