There have been several reviews of new(ish) German-language releases on the blog over the past few months. There was Jenny Erpenbeck’s timely novel about refugees, Gehen, ging, gegangen (Go, Went, Gone), and last week saw my look at Yoko Tawada’s Etüden im Schnee (Études in the Snow). Today, I’m looking at another recent book, one by a writer I’ve covered several times before. While the format (a novel) may be different, the tone is very familiar to anyone who tried her previous work. The writing may be simple, but the emotions run rather deep…
In her most recent translation into English (Alice), Judith Hermann went to some rather dark places, and this continues in her latest German-language release Aller Liebe Anfang (The Start of Love). The book is set on the suburban fringe of an unidentified provincial town, where Stella lives with her husband Jason and their young daughter Ava, balancing domestic duties with her part-time job as a carer for the elderly and disabled.
With Jason’s work as a house designer and builder taking him away for long stretches of time, Stella is left to fill her days as best she can, spending hours reading and making phone calls to her best friend Clara, whom life has taken a thousand miles away. It’s a situation she’s grown used to, even if there’s a sense that her life has slowly come to a halt in the sleepy suburb.
These days of quiet dullness are interrupted, though, in an a rather unexpected way:
Drei Tage später ist Stella mittags alleine zu Hause und sie wäscht das Geschirr ab, als es an der Tür klingelt.
p.22 (Fischer Verlag, 2015)
Three days later, around noon, Stella is at home alone doing the washing up when the doorbell rings. *** (my translation)
She goes to answer the door, but something doesn’t feel right:
Sie will die Tür aufmachen, aber dann nimmt sie die Hand vorsichtig von der Klinke; auf der Straße vor dem Tor steht ein Mann, den sie nie zuvor gesehen hat. (p.22)
She is about to open the door, but then she carefully takes her hand away from the handle; on the street in front of the garden gate there’s a man she has never seen before. ***
When the stranger asks via intercom if she has time to talk to him, she declines, politely, and he walks away. However, he soon comes back, and this first encounter is merely the start of a long, tortuous experience which will change Stella’s life.
If this sounds like the set up for a Hollywood thriller, rest assured that this is far from the case. While there are elements of the woman alone facing a stalker in Aller Liebe Anfang, the book is less concerned with the danger Stella faces than with the effect the event has on her dull life. With her husband away, Stella has nobody to turn to, a fact she only realises when she has something she really needs to get off her chest; despite being a working mother, she lives a rather solitary life, and Hermann captures this mixture of boredom and tranquility beautifully.
However, Stella isn’t the only one living like this, and the novel seems constructed to show how modern life can cause people to become isolated. The suburban location, with scattered houses dotted between empty lots (and backing onto wasteland and small woods), is a far cry from the big city where Stella and Clara spent their youth. Stella doesn’t really know her neighbours and traces the same path each day, cycling from home to her daughter’s kinder, then on to the house of one of her three clients, then back again, to put her daughter to bed before spending an evening watching darkness draw in…
Stella’s conversations with her clients add to this sense of world weariness. Each of the three (an elderly lady, a man with multiple sclerosis and a woman with terminal cancer) have retreated into their own world, and the sleepy suburb seems an appropriate place for them to have been marooned in. As the elderly lady remarks:
Nun, sagt Esther, das ist hier eine tote Ecke. Eine tote Ecke der Welt. Ich weiß gar nicht mehr, was mich hierher verschlagen hat, wie in herrgottsnamen ich mal hierhergekommen bin. (p.173)
Well, said Esther, this is a dead spot. A dead spot of the world. I can’t really remember what brought me here, why in God’s name I ever came here. ***
In a sense, the stranger’s intrusion into Stella’s life comes as a distraction from her usual routine – finally something which makes her reflect on the life she’s living.
Overall, Aller Liebe Anfang paints a bleak picture of modern life, showing how in a compartmentalised life communication can suffer and eventually disappear entirely. It’s no coincidence that Stella’s husband is absent; even when he is at home, there’s a sense that the couple rarely talk, spending much of their time in their own worlds. The more Stella does talk to other people (her boss, a neighbour she asks about the stalker), the more she realises how much she’s missing warmth and friendship in her life.
My review has glossed over the stalker aspect of the novel somewhat, mainly because for me it’s more of a catalyst for Stella to reflect on what’s happening in her life than the main feature of the novel, yet this strand of the story is also well developed. Hermann introduces ‘Mister Pfister’ suddenly, before allowing him to gradually intrude more and more into Stella’s life. Another reader could easily focus more on the psychological drama of the distant confrontation, one which eventually becomes more sinister, and the gradual build up to the inevitable confrontation is excellently handled.
Stark and simple, easy to read (in a way which reminds me of Peter Stamm), Aller Liebe Anfang is nonetheless a thought-provoking novel, one which should work well in English (no doubt Margot Bettauer Dembo is on the case, or will be soon). It’s a story which looks at the dull nature of everyday life, but one which always has a glimmer of hope on the horizon:
Stella gießt die beiden Gläser voll.
Randvoll, sagt Esther, zögern Sie nicht. Zögern Sie nie! Das ganze Leben ist ein Abgrund, und je weinger Sie sich fürchten, je länger Sie hineinschauen, desto mehr haben Sie davon. (p.200)
Stella fills both glasses.
To the brim, says Esther, don’t hesitate. Never hesitate! Life is one big abyss and the less afraid you are, the longer you look into it, the more you’ll get from it. ***
Carpe Diem? Possibly. The message of the novel might be less about seizing every moment, though, than realising that possibilities are there if you want them. Nothing lasts forever, but that goes for the bad times just as much as the good…