Showing posts with label German. Show all posts
Showing posts with label German. Show all posts

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck | Review

I will admit, I first tried to read Visitation several years ago. There was so much buzz, so much praise, I was so excited for this slim novel. I started reading it and had to set it aside within six pages. "It's unbearable," I remember telling my father. "So stop reading it!" he responded, pointing to the towering stack of additional library books I had next to the couch. I followed his advice, and moved on to better books. It was my second negative experience with Erpenback, having read (and disliked) her novella The Book of Words a year earlier. I concluded, rather reasonably, that Erpenbeck simply wasn't a writer for me.

I would buy Visitation a few years later, after reading (and adoring) The End of Days, a book I can both admit to have loved and one that I think is a true masterpiece. The End of Days is such a brilliantly written novel - innovative, but not a slave to its innovation, clever, but not frustrating, emotional, but not tedious. Reading it felt like a revelation and a suggestion that perhaps I could love Jenny Erpenbeck's work. After all, I read The Book of Words at a time when I had little patience for more experimental fiction, and after all, I never actually read Visitation...

So I bought Visitation. It would take me almost a year and half before I could bring myself to read that book which still left a bitter taste in my mouth, only from those first few pages. And guess what? I couldn't quite figure out what specifically had left such a strong impression in those early, vague pages, but oh my goodness did I have the exact same sensation throughout the entire book.

What a shame.

And here's the thing: I'm not the same reader today as I was even three years ago. Every book I read adds to my consciousness and changes how I experience the books that follow. I read Visitation during a reading slump; I imagine this impacted how I interpretated the book. It felt clunky and slow, as though I was reading through tar. Even though it took me so long to get through it, it left no impression. It's been a month since I finished it, and I can hardly tell you a thing about it.

Oh yes, I can vaguely recall the novella's concept, and there is a plotline and a half that I recall. But the book felt so thin (content-wise, not just in terms of length) that not a speck of it remains. I formed no emotional attachment to any of the vaguely described characters. I didn't enjoy the loose sketching of post-war Germany. The politics felt distant and meaningless. And the book itself, for something so short, dragged. It was like a road cutting through a forest, that instead of taking a straight, logical line, twisted around itself as many times as possible before reaching the end.

I didn't like Visitation. I feel like a bad reader for admitting this. I feel like I've failed the book blogging community that adores Erpenbeck, that constantly praises her writing for its intelligence and depth. Goodness, I feel like I've failed as a reader, that somehow the problem is - again - that I didn't understand the book. Maybe I'm not clever enough, maybe there's a cultural context I'm missing here... And here's what's incredible: I wrote pretty much the exact same thing when "reviewing" Erpenbeck's The Book of Words five years ago.

Maybe, as with many books I've read in recent months, I have lost patience with books that are all style over substance. The End of Days worked, in my mind, because Erpenbeck found an excellent balance between the two; it's a creative exercise that works, crafting a character the reader can grow attached to and spinning a story that manages to both entice and challenge. The End of Days did more than just tell five versions of a character's life, it managed to make each the absolute focus. It managed to make each feel utterly consequential. Visitation fails in large part because it doesn't ever find its emotional hook. Like The Book of Words, I am left with absolutely nothing to say about it. The book has left no impression. There is only the concept and clever as it may be, concept just isn't enough for me. If that makes me a bad reader, so be it.

Monday, August 15, 2016

WITMonth Day 15 | Transit by Anna Seghers | Review

My father recently told a story about how my grandfather's name came to be spelled the way it is. As he told the story, he referenced my grandfather's papers. "You see," he turned to explain to me, "your grandfather didn't have a passport at that point, what he had were transit papers."

But of course, I knew all about transit papers. I had, you see, just finished reading Anna Seghers' Transit (translated by Margot Dembo), a book so thoroughly steeped in the bizarre and complicated politics of transit papers that the book is literally named for them.

I feel like Transit was too hyped for me. Or perhaps this is another NYRB classic that isn't entirely to my taste. It's not that I disliked Transit or even that I struggled with it especially. I didn't. The book ambles along pleasantly and certainly has what to say. There were moments in the book that felt thrilling, almost. The writing generally worked and I managed to polish the book off in two fairly long sittings.

It's just that I didn't understand at any point why I should care for the narrator. Or any character, for that matter. The book is - by design - representative of a sort of time-suck, with the narrator frozen in place as he navigates a bureaucracy that he has little interest in. The book loops lazily, purposefully, cleverly, but it was hard for me to appreciate the technical chops when I just couldn't care about why I was tracking this story.

The descriptions of the book as one dealing with "boredom" and "anxiety" seem a little off to me as well. Yes, there was plenty of boredom here (some of it mine...), but it's a lazy sort of boredom. The narrator is ultimately not interested in leaving. His anxiety - while real - is backstage and a bit passive. Weirdly - or perhaps intentionally? - the main set of characters in Transit are actually the ones with the least explainable motivation for wanting/needing to escape. It's the small stories that Seghers' introduces alongside the narrator's that display the urgency of fleeing, of refugees, of desperation and anxiety. While the narrator has some aspect of this in his legitimate refugee status, his personality seems to erase any urgency.

I'm simplifying things here a bit. After all, the narrator's identity drama is actually quite funny (in a somewhat tragic way). Then there's the almost breezy comfort in the writing, which makes the dull sections slightly easier to read. There's the powerful, real-time description of the war and its many tragedies (though its main victims seem oddly erased from the narrative...), the masses of refugees fleeing in hopes of life (a message that still, sadly, resonates today), and occasional quiet moments of contemplation that display warmth on behalf of the narrator.

But as always, I read books first and foremost with my heart. How did the book make me feel, did I relate to the characters, did I walk away with the sensation that the book contributed intellectually and emotionally? All metrics fell short in some form or other. Even intellectually, I felt as though the "boredom" aspect (as the blurb calls it, though I think it's more "laziness") didn't quite live up to its potential and there was little to actually justify this being a "literary thriller" - a few thrilling moments do not a thriller make. And emotionally, the book felt like we never clicked. Transit is far from a bad book, but it didn't quite work for me as I expected.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Summerhouse, Later | Review

It's a rare thing to enjoy a short story collection without particularly liking any of its actual components. Judith Hermann's Summerhouse, Later essentially falls into this category, though my appreciation of the book was certainly limited and I'm hesitant to recommend it.

Summerhouse, Later comprises of nine short stories, each of which looks rather distantly at a set of damaged, fairly unhappy characters. Despite the distance, however, Hermann manages to bring each character close to the reader, leaving the impression that though there's a certain coldness surrounding everything, we're not entirely disconnected. The distance seems to have much more to do with the story setting than as some sort of accidental flaw on Hermann's part - a coolly calculated move by an author who is in perfect control of her writing.

And so these nine stories take our damaged characters and present them to us at that crucial pivot - the moment when things change. Or rather, the moment when things can change.

This thematic idea is evident from the first story - "The Red Coral Bracelet". The narrator, rather like all the characters in the book, is not particularly likable, nor is she very substantial; meanwhile, nothing really happens in the story. What we get is that shift, a moment in which the status changes and the story gets nudged along its tracks. This might leave a lot of readers cold - the distinct lack of characterization or plot can make these stories feel a bit incomplete or shoddy. But the calm focus on those pivots proves to be an interesting storytelling technique and though I certainly felt empty after reading them, something lingered nonetheless.

Two stories seem to shy away from this model, one successfully and the other not so much. "The End of Something" is easily the weakest, most forgettable story in the collection, mostly made up of a blurry monologue that starts nowhere and ends nowhere, with nothing in between - an utterly pointless story.

But the story that immediately precedes it - "Sonja" - manages to do the exact opposite, leading to a significantly more successful story. We get a narrator who is actually sympathetic, or at least as close to sympathetic as a guy in a series of weird relationships and relative ambivalence can be. His baffling relationship with the bizarre Sonja (who is distinctly not a manic pixie dream girl) is both interesting and oddly touching (in a very weird and even somewhat unsettling way), and we also get to see the story from start to finish. I'm not sure I could call it my favorite story from the collection (indeed, I'm not sure any story qualifies for that...), but it certainly stood out in a positive light.

All in all, Summerhouse, Later is a fairly uniform, interesting read. I'd even call it pleasant, were it not for the distinctly dark and rather depressing undertones that occupy the collection from start to finish. As I said earlier, I'm not sure I'd necessarily recommend it nor do I think readers should go out of their way to read it, but if it comes across your radar, it is an interesting book. And I'm definitely curious to see what Hermann does with a full-novel canvas.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

No comment | The Book of Words

You know that feeling, when you read a book that someone has told you is brilliant? And you know to go in with low expectations, because obviously people have different tastes. And then... nothing. You have no opinion of the book; you are left with nothing from its writing or its characters. Neither like nor dislike, just an empty, gaping hole of no-opinion.

So that's what I had with Jenny Erpenbeck's The Book of Words.

There may be a cheap explanation: I was heavily distracted when I read the second half of the book. I had to stop midway through the week, picking it up again over the weekend, and to say that I gave The Book of Words my full attention over said weekend would be a complete and utter falsehood - I didn't. I flitted in and out of the book, using it as a means to pass the time. Not exactly a stellar way to read.

But I don't really like this "distracted" explanation for one main reason: a good book manages to displace a reader from his/her distracted state and engage them. The Book of Words just didn't engage me. And it's not the first time, either. I've been trying to review Yoram Kaniuk's Sapir winning 1948 for weeks now, but I realized that part of my struggle with it has been that it left little to no impact on me. These are books that I spent time reading, yet they have not affected me in the least.

I hate this situation because it always feels as though I'm the one who's in the wrong. I'm the one who isn't clever enough to understand all the references and subtleties of Erpenbeck's story (if there is one). I'm the one who didn't understand the strength of the writing (even it didn't leave much of an impression). I'm the one who's wrong for not understanding why this is a good book. Having no opinion is worse than having a negative opinion. If I didn't like a book, I can explain why. When I leave a book like The Book of Words, however, I'm emptied of all opinions and thoughts. I have nothing to say.

There you have it: I have nothing to say about The Book of Words, only that I didn't understand it. Whether or not this is because of everything else that's going on right now is irrelevant. The fact is, I read a book. It made no impression. I won't recommend it. End of story.