There’s German, and then there’s German…

We’re off again, dear reader, but today we’re visiting a new part of the country.  Put on your Lederhosen, and leave your phrase book back at the hotel – it’s not going to help you much where we’re going…

Bavaria, or Bayern in German, is one of the largest states in Germany, and one which is proud of its outsider status.  Differing in religion, politics and footballing allegiance to the rest of the country, the Bavarians also speak a dialect of German which is often accompanied on television in the rest of the country by sub-titles.  You can imagine then my trepidation upon picking up Lena Christ’s autobiographical novel Erinnerungen einer Überflüssigen (Memoirs of a Superfluous Woman)…

Erinnerungen… is a rather tricky book to pigeon-hole: is it autobiographical fiction or a fictional autobiography?  In either case, it’s a well-written description of a young woman’s life in turn-of-the-(twentieth)century Bavaria, borrowing amply from Christ’s own experiences, but altering and exaggerating in parts.  It begins with a few pastoral childhood memories, before the young Lena is torn from the loving arms of her grand-parents to rejoin her Münkara Muatta (‘Munich mother’) in the big city – and this is where her woes begin…

Lena is an illegitimate child, and her mother, who left her in the care of relatives until she had found a husband, is reminded of her shame every time she sees her daughter.  From the moment poor Lena arrives in the state capital, she is subjected to constant psychological and physical maltreatment, with certain scenes making me involuntarily flinch – or even lay the book down for a while.  Lena somehow survives this terrible ordeal, and after a series of dead ends, manages to escape her abusive parent to start a new life with a handsome young husband.  Any guesses how that turns out?

As mentioned above, it’s extremely hard to tell where reality begins and fiction ends, and this makes it hard at times to really immerse oneself in the book.  Also, the style of writing, while pleasant, doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere; the narrative can simply go on and on, leaving the reader wondering what exactly the book is about.  This feeling of disorientation is not exactly helped by the fact that while the description is written in Hochdeutsch, the dialogue is almost exclusively in Bayerisch.  To give you an example of what I mean, here is a sentence from the first few pages:

“I möcht aa amal wieda in d’Kirch geh’.” – Bavarian

“Ich möchte auch einmal wieder in die Kirche gehen.” – Standard German

“I’d also like to go to church for once.” – My Translation

Rest assured, this is a comparatively easy sentence to translate…  If anyone has read anything by Irvine Welsh – and been dumbfounded by his Scots dialogue -, they’ll have an idea of what we’re facing here.

Despite the language problems and the fiction/non-fiction dilemma though, this is a very interesting book, and what makes it especially worth reading is the complex (and skilfully-depicted) relationship between Lena and her mother.  The writer has managed to create a fascinating character with deep-seated issues which prevent her from warming to her child, yet who struggles to show some affection to her daughter in spite of her antipathy towards the supposed source of her shame.  The fact that this character is actually a real person complicates issues somewhat…


…so I thought it might be a good idea to have a look at another of Christ’s works before making any judgements – which leads me to today’s second book, Mathias Bichler.  This is a later novel, again biographical (taking the life of Christ’s grandfather as its inspiration), but slightly more plot driven than Erinnerungen…

Mathias is an orphan dumped on the doorstep of a religious family in the Bavarian countryside, and he grows up to be a slight, physically-weak young boy, content to watch the sheep and cows… and the clouds.  A short pilgrimage to a famous church is the spark which ignites the story, providing both the guiding ambition of his later life and the start of a series of events which will propel Mathias out into the big, bad world.  For on his return, Mathias is attacked and beaten, only waking up months later in a strange bed – attended by a beautiful young girl…

The first part of this novel has undertones of Great Expectations, with the orphan Mathias, his unattainable love Kathrein and his shadowy nemesis Ambros providing neat parallels with Dickens’ novel (there’s even a fiery end for his slightly unusual benefactress..).  However, as the story unfolds, and Mathias begins his wanderings among the stunning backdrop of the Tirol mountains, it is another classic, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, which comes to mind.  Through a series of (mis)adventures and trials of character, the young boy comes through life’s tests and becomes a man worthy of his ambitions, not to mention the woman he loves.  Not that it goes as smoothly as all that 🙂

After reading Mathias Bichler, I’m definitely interested in reading more of Christ’s work.  There’s a definite shift in voice and style from the earlier novel, and the reader is pulled along more by the narrative (which may be just the effect of having chapters instead of one long tale of woe).  Thankfully, there was also less bayerisch in this book too (which was just as well as my brain was about to go into meltdown after almost a month reading foreign tongues).  All in all, a good week’s reading and a new addition to my list of German authors – and almost the end of my reading month reviews…

…I just have one more little morsel to share with you – next time 🙂


3 thoughts on “There’s German, and then there’s German…

  1. Gary – I'd love to visit Bavaria at some point, so this was a nice virtual ramble around the area. I hadn't heard of her either, but before undertaking the trip, I did a lot of self-research to improve my knowledge of classic German-language literature (well, if you can call spending hours on the German version of Wikipedia research!).

    Stu – These books are well worth a try, but I'm not sure that there'll be much in English. Still, libraries often come up trumps 🙂

    Sadly, this particular G-Lit tour only has one more stop. We'll be heading to (German-speaking) Prague in a couple of days – where the long travels appear to have finally taken their toll on me…


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