Wolf Among Wolves by Hans Fallada

This month Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life are hosting their annual German Literature Month. I thought this would be a good opportunity to read a German novel which has been on my TBR for years: Wolf Among Wolves by Hans Fallada. So far my experiences with Fallada’s work have been mixed: I was disappointed with A Small Circus, but loved Little Man, What Now? and Alone in Berlin. I had been putting off reading this book because of the length (800 pages), but now that I’ve finally read it, I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed it much more than A Small Circus, although not as much as the other two.

Wolf Among Wolves is set in Germany in 1923. With the country’s economy still suffering in the aftermath of the recent world war, hyperinflation means that prices are spiralling out of control and the currency is rapidly becoming worthless. As the novel opens we are told that there are currently 414,000 German marks to the dollar; within months this figure has increased into the billions, causing misery and desperation for the German people.

“So many people are running away from their jobs,” went on Studmann. “To work, to do anything at all, has suddenly become idiotic. As long as people received a fixed tangible value at the end of the week or the month, even the most boring office job had some reason. But the fall of the mark has opened their eyes. Why do we live? they suddenly ask. Why are we doing anything? Anything at all? They don’t see why they should work merely to be paid in a few worthless scraps of paper.”

Wolfgang Pagel, our hero (if you can call him that), has never been good at managing money. He is a gambler and at the beginning of the novel we see him lose at roulette, meaning he has to postpone his wedding to his girlfriend, Petra Ledig. When Petra finds herself in trouble with the police after he takes her clothes to be pawned, leaving her on the streets with only an old coat to wear, she decides that this time she’s had enough. Wolf needs to change, and until he does she will refuse to see him or speak to him. And so they separate, Petra remaining in Berlin while Wolf heads out into the countryside to work on a friend’s farm.

I have only mentioned two of the novel’s characters so far, but there are many, many more and they all have fully developed storylines of their own. There’s Joachim von Prackwitz, still referred to by his military title of Rittmeister, who is leasing the country estate of Neulohe from his father-in-law and struggling to cope with his return to civilian life. There’s the Rittmeister’s teenage daughter Violet, whose lover is planning a putsch – a coup – against the Weimar government. There’s the estate bailiff, known as Black Meier, who loses his job and spends the rest of the novel thinking of ways to cause trouble for everyone at Neulohe. And there’s Etzel von Studmann, a hotel reception manager, who agrees to come and work for the Rittmeister following an embarrassing incident with a guest. These, and others, become Wolfgang Pagel’s new companions as he tries to build a new life for himself away from the temptations of the city, only to find that even the idyllic countryside is not free from corruption.

Fallada moves from character to character as he paints a portrait of life in the Weimar Republic and explores the impact of the First World War and the struggling economy on the fortunes of ordinary people. Over the course of the 800 pages we get to know them all very well; however, some are more interesting and more appealing than others, which makes this quite an uneven read. I was sorry that, after the opening chapters, we see very little of Petra – her relationship with Wolf and the question of whether they will be reunited was my favourite of the novel’s many storylines. Of the characters living at Neulohe, von Studmann was the only one I had any sympathy for; I found the others a selfish and unpleasant bunch. To be fair, though, I should have been prepared for that: Fallada warns us at the beginning of the book that his story “deals with sinful, weak, sensual, erring unstable men, the children of an age disjointed, mad and sick. All in all, it is a book for those who are, in every sense, adult.”

Wolf Among Wolves was first published in German in 1937 under the title Wolf unter Wölfen. I read an English translation from 1938 by Philip Owens, ‘with additional translations by Thorsten Carstensen and Nicholas Jacobs’. I found both the translation and the novel itself very readable. It’s probably not the best place to start with Fallada – Alone in Berlin (also published as Every Man Dies Alone) and Little Man, What Now? are my recommendations – but it’s definitely worth reading for the insights into 1920s Germany.

Mata Hari by Michelle Moran

So far my feelings about Michelle Moran’s novels have been very mixed. Cleopatra’s Daughter was interesting, but felt too light and insubstantial, The Second Empress was much better, but I had one or two problems again with Rebel Queen. I had hoped Mata Hari (also published as Mata Hari’s Last Dance) would be another good one, but unfortunately it turned out to be my least favourite of the four that I’ve read.

Before I read this book, all I knew about Mata Hari was that she was an exotic dancer who was accused of spying during the First World War. I felt sure that she must have been a fascinating woman and I was looking forward to learning more about her. And I did learn a lot from this novel. Mata Hari narrates her story (fictional, but based on fact) in her own words and tells us all about her dancing career, her experiences of life in European cities such as Paris and Berlin, and her many romantic relationships, including several with military personnel which led to her being accused of passing secrets to Germany.

However, I wanted to get to know the woman behind the newspaper headlines and the seductive costumes – Margaretha Zelle, or M’greet as she is called in the novel – and although she does confide in us now and then about her childhood in the Netherlands (she did not come from an Indian background, as she tried to claim), her time in Java during her unhappy marriage to Rudolf MacLeod and her heartbreak at the loss of her children, I never felt very close to Mata Hari and didn’t gain a very good understanding of the person she really was.

The one aspect of Mata Hari’s life that Moran does successfully capture is her loneliness; I didn’t like her and had very little sympathy for her as she seemed so immature and selfish, but I could see that she was not a happy person and that her character had been shaped by her earlier experiences. The descriptions of Mata Hari’s various dances are also well done, particularly one that she performs with a live snake while dressed as Cleopatra. The novel is strangely lacking in period detail, though, and apart from the obvious references to the war and to other famous people of the time – her rival dancer, Isadora Duncan, for example – I didn’t feel that there was much sense of time or place at all.

The book is also disappointingly short, with under 300 pages in the edition I read. If you just want a basic overview of Mata Hari’s life and career, it’s perfectly adequate, but for something deeper you will need to look elsewhere. The section of the novel covering her spying activities is very brief and feels almost like an afterthought, which is a shame as this is the part of the story which should have been the most interesting. Even on finishing the book, I’m not completely clear on what we are supposed to assume; was Mata Hari really a spy or was she just someone who had made some poor decisions and been carried along by events outside her control? To be honest, long before we reached this point I had lost interest anyway and had already decided that I would need to look for another book on Mata Hari one day. Has anyone read The Spy by Paulo Coelho?

The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach by Esther Meynell

Magdalena Bach Novels about the wives of famous men seem to have become very popular over the last few years. Books on Zelda Fitzgerald, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Hadley Hemingway, Lizzie Burns (Engels) and Virginia Clemm Poe are just a few that I’ve read or heard about. You could be forgiven for thinking that with The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach, Esther Meynell is following the current trend – until I tell you that this book was published in 1925.

Anna Magdalena Bach was, of course, the wife of the composer, Johann Sebastian. In this novel, Meynell imagines that, following Bach’s death, Magdalena is visited by Caspar Burgholt, a former pupil of her husband’s, who suggests that she write down everything she remembers about him. The Little Chronicle is the result.

“Write,” he said, “write a little chronicle of that great man. You knew him as no one else knew him, write all that you remember — and I do not suppose your faithful heart has forgotten much — of his words, his looks, his life, his music. People neglect his memory now, but not always will he be forgotten, he is too great for oblivion, and some day posterity will thank you for what you shall write.”

Magdalena begins by telling us about her first encounter with Bach in the winter of 1720, when she hears him playing the organ in St Katharine’s Church in Hamburg. Unaware of the organist’s identity, Magdalena is mesmerised by the beauty of his music, but runs away in a panic when he turns to look at her. Her father tells her later that the man whose playing she loved so much is Johann Sebastian Bach, the Duke of Cöthen’s Capellmeister (director of music). In 1721, more than a year after the death of Bach’s first wife, Barbara, he asks for Magdalena’s hand in marriage. Magdalena is overjoyed – and goes on to devote the rest of her life to caring for her husband and raising their children.

And that is the problem with this book. Magdalena’s life (at least as it is portrayed by Meynell here) just isn’t very interesting. Of course, I’m aware that eighteenth century women weren’t usually expected to do anything more than be a wife and mother, and it’s possible that Magdalena was content with that, but I’m sorry to say that I found her story quite tedious to read. The real-life Magdalena apparently shared her husband’s passion for music – she was a talented singer and she also worked as a copyist, transcribing Bach’s music – but the fictional Magdalena constantly plays down her own achievements and gifts, happy in the knowledge that she could never compete with her husband’s genius. On reaching the end of the book, I didn’t feel that I’d really learned anything about Magdalena as a person; I had no idea how she really felt about anything, what she liked and disliked or what her hopes and dreams were. All I knew was that she loved and worshipped her husband, because she told us so over and over again.

I did learn quite a lot about Bach himself (while remembering that, as is stated at the end of the book, some parts of the story are imaginary). Magdalena’s chronicle takes us through all of the key moments of Bach’s career and also spends some time discussing his music. I think, though, that the musical aspect of the book could be too detailed for readers who are more interested in the human side of the story, while not scholarly enough for those who already have a good knowledge of Bach’s music. And again, it seems that Bach didn’t have the most exciting or dramatic of personal lives, which makes me think that maybe he and Magdalena just aren’t good subjects for a work of fiction.

It’s a shame, because there’s nothing wrong with Esther Meynell’s writing; it’s the story itself which lacks colour and vibrancy. I was pleased this was such a short novel because had it been much longer I’m not sure I could have persevered with it. I was disappointed but, if nothing else, reading this book has made me more interested in listening to Bach’s music, which can only be a good thing.

I received a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

Death in Berlin by M.M. Kaye

Death in Berlin Almost exactly a year ago I read Death in Kashmir, the first in M.M. Kaye’s series of mystery novels. I loved it – in fact, it was one of my favourite books of the year – and last week I decided it was time to try another of her Death in… novels. I chose Death in Berlin because it’s the second in the series (although the books all have different settings and characters and all stand alone).

Death in Berlin, published in 1955, is set in a Berlin struggling to recover from the devastating effects of World War II. The city is divided into zones – American, British, French and Russian – and there are ruined buildings and piles of rubble everywhere. At the beginning of the novel we meet Miranda Brand, who is on her way to Berlin with her cousin Robert and his wife Stella. Robert, an army officer, is taking up a new post there and Miranda has decided to come along for a month’s holiday, keen to have a chance to see post-war Germany. During the journey to Berlin, they and a group of other military families listen to Brigadier Brindley tell a story involving a set of diamonds stolen by the Nazis during the war – a story which has special significance for Miranda. Later that night, the Brigadier is found dead in his train compartment and when a murder investigation begins, Miranda discovers that she herself could be a suspect.

This novel has many of the same elements as Death in Kashmir – a young heroine in danger far from home, a romance with a man she’s not sure she can trust, an eerie and atmospheric setting – but this book didn’t impress me as much as the first one. It doesn’t have the stunning opening chapter that Death in Kashmir has and the characters feel less developed, to the point where I had trouble telling some of them apart. I also thought there was a lack of chemistry between Miranda and her love interest, whom I found very bland.

What I did like was the portrayal of a ruined Berlin in the aftermath of war. M.M. Kaye herself spent some time in Berlin when her husband’s regiment was stationed there, so she could draw on her own knowledge of the city while writing this novel. While it isn’t the exotic setting that 1940s Kashmir is, it does provide a great backdrop for a story of murder and mystery. Kaye really excels at creating a sense of unease and writing spine-tingling descriptions of what it feels like to be alone and vulnerable in dark, lonely surroundings – to be the only person awake in the sleeper carriage of an overnight train or to be sitting downstairs in a large, empty house and hear noises coming from upstairs.

I didn’t guess the solution to the mystery, but I did have my suspicions about various characters. I don’t think it would have been possible to work out everything, though, because a lot of information is withheld from us until the final chapters of the book. This information is provided by one of the characters who, in one very long scene near the end, sums everything up for Miranda and the reader. This is something that works well in an Agatha Christie novel, but feels a bit unnatural here.

While I didn’t like this book as much as Death in Kashmir, it hasn’t put me off wanting to read the rest of the Death in… mysteries. Death in Cyprus will probably be the next one I read, but I also have a copy of Kaye’s historical novel, Shadow of the Moon, which I’m looking forward to reading (and should really have read before now as The Far Pavilions is one of my favourite books).

Have you read any of the Death in… books? Which do you think is the best?

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief I know what you’re thinking: how could I possibly have not read The Book Thief until now? My answer is that I really don’t know. My excuse is that I wasn’t paying much attention to new releases at the time when the book was published in 2005 so I missed all the hype surrounding it. Since then I have just never felt like reading it; there has always been another book calling to me more loudly. Now that I’ve finally read it, of course, the next question is: was it worth waiting for? And my answer to that is, sadly, no. Not only am I one of the last people in the world to have read The Book Thief, it seems that I’m also one of the only people not to have loved it.

The novel is narrated by Death, who is experiencing one of the busiest times of his career – World War II. Death is everywhere during the war, but he has chosen to focus on the story of a nine-year-old German girl called Liesel Meminger. Liesel’s parents are communists and as the novel begins in 1939, Liesel and her brother, Werner, are being sent to live with a foster family in the small town of Molching. Werner dies during the journey and this is when Death has his first encounter with Liesel – and when he first witnesses her stealing a discarded book, which happens to be called The Grave-Diggers Handbook.

Liesel can’t read but she is fascinated by books and words and this is what sustains her as she faces the challenges of settling into a new home. Her kind-hearted foster father, Hans Hubermann, teaches her to read and with the help of her new friend, Rudy Steiner, Liesel soon begins to add to her small library, becoming the ‘book thief’ of the title. Despite the atrocities going on in the world around her, Liesel’s life on Himmel Street, Molching, is relatively peaceful until the arrival of Max Vandenburg, a Jew in need of help – and a basement to hide in.

I said that I didn’t love the book, but this doesn’t mean I didn’t like it at all, because I did. My problem was the writing style – or I should say, styles, as there are so many all incorporated into one book. There are some very short sentences, some partial sentences, nouns used as verbs, dictionary definitions dropped into the text, and parts of the story told in the form of illustrations and cartoons. Sometimes Death interrupts his narration to talk directly to the reader, to make an observation or to hint at something that will happen later in the book.

It’s certainly creative and unique – I’ve never read anything quite like it – and I can see that a lot of readers will absolutely love it, but I am just not a fan of writing that feels experimental or gimmicky. I don’t even like it when a book is written in the present tense! I find that when a novel is written in an unusual way I end up being distracted by the writing instead of being drawn into the story and the lives of the characters. While I was reading The Book Thief I felt that I was never quite there on Himmel Street with Liesel and Rudy and the others; I could never forget that I was reading a book.

I did like the idea of the story being narrated by Death. I’m aware that this is not a very original concept and that there are other books that also use Death as a narrator (some of Terry Pratchett’s, for example) but I haven’t personally read any so it was something different as far as I was concerned! There were other things that I liked – the development of Liesel’s relationship with her foster parents; the stories Max writes while he’s hiding in the basement; watching Liesel discover the joys of reading – and by the time I started to approach the final chapters of the book, I found that Zusak had made me care about the characters and their fates. There’s no doubt that this is a very moving book and I was close to tears once or twice near the end.

Despite being a little bit disappointed by this book, I completely understand why it is so popular and why so many people love it. I know I’m in a tiny minority, so please, if you haven’t read it yet don’t let me put you off – try it for yourself and see what you think!

Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie

Gutenbergs Apprentice I think it’s safe to assume that if you’re reading this post you’re someone who likes to read books. You will probably agree that the printing press was one of the most important inventions in history and you’re probably already familiar with the name Gutenberg. But have you ever heard of Peter Schoeffer or Johann Fust and do you know what part they played in developing the art of printing?

This novel, Alix Christie’s first, takes us to the German city of Mainz in the year 1450. Peter Schoeffer, a talented young scribe, has been called home from Paris by his adoptive father, Johann Fust, who is investing in an exciting new project: Johann Gutenberg’s mission to produce the first printed copy of the Bible. Fust has agreed to help finance this new enterprise and is keen for his son to become apprenticed to Gutenberg in return. Peter’s first reaction to Gutenberg’s printing press is one of horror and distrust; as a trained scribe he takes a lot of pride in the beauty of the handwritten word. In the end, though, Fust gets his way and Peter begins his apprenticeship in Gutenberg’s workshop.

What follows is the story of the long, slow process of creating the world’s first book to be printed with movable type. It’s a journey that will take four years and result in the printing of around one hundred and eighty copies of the Bible. Johann Gutenberg’s name will be remembered by history, but Gutenberg’s Apprentice shows us that Gutenberg did not work alone and Peter Schoeffer and Johann Fust are given the attention they deserve.

I was not at all surprised to learn that Alix Christie herself was apprenticed to master printers and can operate a press – I could tell that this book was written by someone with not only an excellent knowledge of printing but also a love and passion for the subject. We are given lots of detailed information on printing techniques, the design of alphabets and the creation and casting of metal type. Because these methods were so new and innovative, Peter, Gutenberg and the other craftsmen in the novel are learning as they go along, improvising and modifying things where necessary. It was all very interesting, but there were times when I would have liked a little less technical information and a little more story. With Peter and the others facing opposition from certain members of the church, the need to enlist the help of the town guilds, and the possibility of their secret project being discovered, this could have been an exciting and dramatic novel, but instead I found it slightly dry and unemotional.

I couldn’t help wondering if a non-fiction book on the same subject would have worked better for me because although I never managed to fully engage with Peter’s story, there’s no doubt that it’s a fascinating subject. Some of the themes the novel covers are timeless and universal, such as the conflict between new technology and traditional methods. From Peter’s perspective, after spending years perfecting the art of hand lettering, he initially sees the use of metal type as soulless and lacking skill and beauty. Gutenberg and Fust, however, insist that the printing press will allow books to be created cheaply and quickly, making them accessible to a much wider readership and Peter gradually begins to understand this point of view.

I learned a lot from Gutenberg’s Apprentice, so despite having one or two problems with it, I still thought it was worth reading. I have come away from this novel with a better understanding of something I knew very little about and an appreciation for the history behind the printed books I take for granted.

I received a special limited edition of this book from Bookbridgr for review.

Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville

Gretel and the Dark One night in 1899, Benjamin discovers a young woman lying on the ground near Vienna’s mental hospital, naked and bruised, and takes her to the home of his employer, the famous psychoanalyst, Dr Josef Breuer. The girl, whom Dr Breuer names Lilie, insists that she is not human, that she’s just a machine. Her mission, she says, is to destroy a monster. The doctor enlists Benjamin’s help in trying to uncover the truth about his young patient, but both men find themselves increasingly drawn to the mysterious Lilie.

Many years later, in Germany, we meet a spoilt and badly behaved little girl called Krysta. She has recently moved house with her father, another doctor, to be nearer his job working with ‘animal people’ at what Krysta believes is a zoo. Krysta’s father is busy with his work, leaving his daughter to entertain herself by remembering the fairy tales she was told by her old nurse, Greet, and making friends with Daniel, a lonely little boy she discovers eating worms in the grounds of the ‘zoo’. When an unexpected tragedy throws Krysta’s life into turmoil, she learns that Greet’s stories can provide an escape from the horrors that are going on around her.

Well, this is proving to be a very difficult book to write about without giving too much away! Gretel and the Dark is one of those books where it is not immediately obvious what is happening. For a long time I was confused. What was the link between the two storylines? Was Lilie a real person or was she a machine, as she claimed? How did she seem to have so much knowledge of the future? And who was Gretel supposed to be?

I think I spent about 300 of the book’s 350 pages trying to figure out the connection between Krysta and Lilie and coming up with theories, most of which were completely wrong. I only started to guess the truth shortly before it was revealed and when everything began to come together in the final chapters of the book, I discovered that the story I had actually been reading was not quite the one I’d thought I was reading!

Despite the allusions to fairy tales and the fact that some of the main characters are children, this is actually a very, very dark novel. Again, I can’t really discuss any of the issues the book raises because it would be best to know as little as possible before starting to read – though I don’t think it would be too much of a spoiler to say that the place where Krysta’s father works is not really a zoo at all, but something much more sinister. And the fairy tales Krysta recalls throughout the book are not the light, whimsical kind, but the dark and gruesome ones. Hansel and Gretel is one of her favourites and she enjoys using her imagination to push various enemies into the witch’s oven! Later in the book, when something particularly horrible happens to Krysta, another of the tales Greet told her takes on new meaning.

I liked Eliza Granville’s writing but I didn’t find this an easy book to read because some parts of the story were so disturbing and unpleasant. Although it was not a book I could describe as ‘enjoyable’ it was certainly very clever and unusual…and I can almost guarantee you’ll still be thinking about it long after reaching the final page.

Thanks to Penguin Ireland for the review copy.