1960s Books in Translation

The Wall by Marlen Haushofer

 The Wall Translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside

Five words from the blurb: woman, solitude, survival, dystopian, parable

The Wall was originally written in 1968 and is hailed as a feminist classic. I’m a big fan of dystopian fiction so I accepted a review copy, keen to see an Austrian take on this genre.

The Wall begins with a woman waking up to discover that she is surrounded by a giant transparent wall. Her relatives have disappeared and she can see many dead animals on the other side of the wall. She assumes she is the last human alive and sets about trying to survive. As time passes she plants crops and becomes a great hunter; becoming at ease with life by herself.

Unfortunately I had a few problems with the writing style. The first was that it all felt very distant. Everything was observed in such a cold way that I failed to develop any empathy with the woman. She is unnamed throughout and this didn’t help the bonding process.

She knew a great deal about many things, and nothing at all about many others; all in all her mind was governed by terrible disorder, a reflection of the society in which she lived, which was just as ignorant and put upon as herself. But I should like to grant her one thing: she always had a dim sense of discomfort, and knew that all this was far from enough.

The second was that the scientist in me questioned the entire back story. Why was there a wall and who put it there? Why did the women assume everyone in the world was dead? Why didn’t she try to escape?  There was no evidence to back up any of her assumptions and she never questioned the reasons behind her captivity. If someone suddenly trapped me in a giant glass box I would be very upset and be asking a lot of questions. Yes, I’d still get on with things and survive in the same way she did, but I wouldn’t be so emotionless. There were many more elements of the story that didn’t quite add up, especially towards the end, but I’ll leave you to discover those yourself. The feminist aspects of the book also irritated me and I found her hatred of men difficult to understand. 

I can see why this is considered a classic in Austria and the fact it annoyed me so much proves it has power over the reader. Recommended to feminists who enjoy a colder writing style.


The thoughts of other bloggers

 ….one of the most profound reading experiences I’ve ever had. Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

…a wonderful, profoundly moving novel…Crafty Green Poet

I’m sure, men don’t like this novel. Film, Book Tips and Buch Tipps

1950s 1980s Books in Translation Nobel Prize

Two Abandoned Nobels

The Piano Teacher Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel

The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek

Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004

Five words from the blurb: Vienna, emotional, self-destruction, intensity, porn

The Piano Teacher is an unrelenting, intense tale of one woman’s self-destruction.

Erika is a piano teacher who lives with her controlling mother. She begins an affair with one of her young students, but he cannot save her from her destructive cycle of self-harm.

I initially loved the gripping, emotionally charged narrative, but I quickly found I needed space to breathe, wishing there were some breaks from the darkness. I then began to find the narrative style, with its capitalised pronouns, irritating:

SHE only has to glance at this scene, and HER face instantly becomes disapproving. SHE considers her feelings unique when she looks at a tree; she sees a wonderful universe in a pinecone.

As the book progressed it became increasingly dark and sexually explicit. I found the scenes of her self-harm uncomfortable to read and her trips to watch pornographic shows held little interest.

I skimmed over several sections and then decided to give up entirely. This book has a grippingly original narrative voice, but it was too harsh for me.

Recommended to those with a strong stomach.


The Tin Drum (Vintage Classics)Translated from the German by Ralph Manheim

The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

Günter Grass won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999

Five words from the blurb: Germany, Nazis, dwarf, scathing, horrors

The Tin Drum is one of those classics that had intimidated me for far too long. Inspired by German Literature month I decided to set my fears aside and give this imposing chunkster a try. Unfortunately, in this case, the intimidation was justified and I failed to finish this complex, multi-layered masterpiece.

The Tin Drum is narrated by Oskar, a dwarf with learning difficulties who calms himself by beating his toy drum. I’d love to be able to tell you what happens, but I’m afraid I can’t:

a) because very little happens
b) I didn’t get that far into the book

The writing was impressive and I loved Oskar’s character, but the book had very little narrative drive. It skipped from one scene to the next and I struggled to see the connection between them.

I crawled at a snail’s pace through the first 100 pages, becomingly increasingly bored. After another difficult 20 pages I decided to abandon it. I’m sure that this book is a masterpiece and everything makes sense in the end, but I don’t think I’m in the right stage of life to appreciate it. I think I’ll give it another try in twenty years.

Have you tried reading either of these books?