After a rather chilly start to German Literature Month over in Greenland, today we’re heading back to Europe with the bus dropping us off for a brief stop in Berlin. Once again, we’re accompanied by a familiar face, but this time she’s in a hurry – the order of the day is short stories, the shorter the better…
Judith Hermann’s previous books have all been discussed here on the blog, so I was very happy to receive a review copy of her latest work, courtesy of S. Fischer Verlag. After venturing into new territory with her first novel, Aller Liebe Anfang (Where Love Begins), the writer has gone back to her old love, short stories, for her new book, Lettipark. It consists of seventeen stories, the majority set in an anonymous German city (presumably her beloved Berlin), and while there are a couple of longer pieces among them, the majority clock in at ten to twelve pages, with a couple even shorter.
In fact, the first story, ‘Kohlen’ (‘Coal’) runs to less than six pages, barely long enough to get settled into our armchairs. This vignette sees a group of people shifting seven tons of coal for the winter into a shed, an activity interrupted by the appearance of the neighbour’s boy on his bicycle. At this point, the story takes a turn, with the action switching from the coal shed to memories of the boy’s dead mother, a woman those present knew well.
One of the central themes of Lettipark is catching up with old friends. For example, in ‘Rückkehr’ (‘Return’), a woman is trying to get used to the return of her old friend after his years working in the frozen north. They kept in touch over the years via telephone, but picking up where they left off isn’t easy after all this time. ‘Solaris’ sees two flatmates, Ada and Sophia, reunited decades later when Ada comes to see Sophia perform in a play. The actress’ words seem rather apt:
Es gibt keine Brücken zwischen Solaris und Erde, flüstert Sophia neben Ada.
Es kann keine geben.
‘Solaris’, p.34 (S. Fischer Verlag, 2016)
There are no bridges between Solaris and Earth, whispered Sophia next to Ada.
There can’t be any. *** (my translation)
No matter how close the connection once was, she seems to be whispering, it’ll never be the same after so many years.
The effect time can have is shown in several other stories. ‘Zeugen’ (‘Witnesses’) shows two couples at dinner, one with a marriage on the rocks. However, much of the story is taken up by an anecdote about a – possibly apocryphal – meeting with Neil Armstrong, an allegory for the distance travelled by the couples (even if theirs is in time rather than in space). This is also true of the title story, where a woman in a supermarket notices a face from the past, evoking memories of a man who was interested in both of them. While this lovelorn Romeo receives much of the attention, it’s the changes time has wrought upon the woman who once spurned him that occupies the narrator.
Throughout Hermann’s work, from her debut to this collection, I’ve felt a sense of time progressing in her books at the same rate as in the outside world. The bright twenty-something party people of Sommerhaus, Später (Summerhouse, Later) turned into the slightly more jaded adults of Nichts als Gespenster (Nothing but Ghosts) a few years later. Now in their forties, the reality of life has well and truly kicked in for these tired adults, making Lettipark an examination of lives where the gloss has worn off.
A good example of this is ‘Papierflieger’ (‘Paper Planes’), in which a single mother calls on an old friend to babysit while she goes to a job interview. We gradually learn of issues in her past, watching as she looks for a new start:
Sie sagt, manchmal möchte ich alles noch mal zerlegen, neu zusammensetzen. Nicht noch mal von vorne anfangen, das meine ich nicht. Aber mit dem, was da ist, was anderes machen? Naja, und das geht eben nicht. Sieh dir Sammi und Luke an. Ich glaube, ich kann nicht mehr zurück.
She says, sometimes I’d like to cut everything up and put it back together again differently. Not start from scratch again, that’s not what I mean. Do something different with what’s already there? Yeah, but that just isn’t possible. Look at Sammi and Luke. I don’t think I can go back any more. ***
Life has ground her down to the extent that she doubts whether she has the energy to start afresh. At her age, she seems to say, it’s more than anyone can expect.
There are several interesting stories in Lettipark, yet in truth I’d have to say that many are rather slight and unsatisfying, with Hermann’s decision to focus on numerous short pieces backfiring somewhat. I tried to read the book slowly over several days so that the stories didn’t simply blend into one another, but there were far too many which introduce us to a couple of random people, say very little, and then end:
Markovic hatte den Motor laufen lassen, als würde seine Schwester Bojana eine Bank überfallen. Selma hatte hinten gesessen.
‘Pappelpollen’ (‘Poplar Pollen’), p.84
Markovic had left the engine running, as if his sister Bojana was robbing a bank. Selma was sitting in the back. ***
You can see what she’s trying to do, building up a picture piece by piece, but it all gets a little repetitive. Sadly, I was rolling my eyes towards the end as I made my way through yet another story about nothing in particular.
Which is a shame as there are some good pieces here among the weaker efforts. ‘Fetisch’ (‘Fetish’) is an unnerving piece centred on a woman left alone by her boyfriend in a circle of circus caravans. While waiting (and hoping) for his return, she encounters a young boy who shares a secret with her over the small fire she has built to keep her warm, a moment of both calm and foreboding. Another I enjoyed is ‘Manche Erinnerungen’ (‘Some Memories’), at sixteen pages the longest piece in the collection. Here, a young woman sharing a house with her eighty-two-year-old landlady talks about an impending trip to Italy. Surprisingly, this leads the old woman to talk about her own experiences of the region, stirring up unpleasant memories of the past in the process…
Hermann’s latest work is very much a book about the past, and how you can’t really revisit it; which is ironic, as that’s the advice I’d probably give the author. Where Sommerhaus, später caught the Zeitgeist, Lettipark feels like it’s been left far behind the times, There are stories here I wouldn’t mind taking another look at, but I doubt I’d be tempted to go through the whole collection again. This is more a book to dip into than to read from cover to cover, but (as is often the case) you’ll have to take my word for it – at least, that is, until the English version makes it into print😉