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?


Books in Translation

The Death of the Adversary – Hans Keilson

The Death of the Adversary Translated from the German by Ivo Jarosy

Five words from the blurb: masterpiece, dictator, Germany, Jewish, tyranny

Hans Keilson wrote this book whilst hiding from the Nazis during WWII. The narrator is a Jewish boy who witnesses a dictator rising to power. We see the way his life is changed by the increasing influence of this evil man. Although it is obvious he is referring to Hitler, the dictator is never named, giving the book a universal relevance.

The Death of the Adversary is so well written that I quickly gave up noting every profound quote that I found – there are original, powerful statements about the human psyche on almost every page.

People who ask what they should do had better do nothing at all. That is exactly the great misfortune, that they don’t know what to do but think they ought to do something. Those who know what they have to do and where they stand, act at the right moment; they act spontaneously, without having to enquire in advance what on earth they ought to do.

As you can imagine, the book gets progressively darker and more painful to read as the dictator’s power becomes greater. Some of the scenes were heartbreaking – the simplicity of the words a stark contrast to the complexity of the surrounding text.

They took the old people away.
My father carried his rucksack on his shoulders. Mother wept. I shall never see them again.

This is the kind of book where I wish I didn’t give ratings. It is clearly a masterpiece, containing powerful statements about evil, hatred and human endurance, but it is a book to appreciate rather than to enjoy. It contained very little plot and at times I found it difficult to motivate myself to read it. This is a book that requires effort and concentration and I have read so many books about WWII that I often struggled to focus on the complex sentence structures.

This is clearly one of the most important pieces of writing to come out of this period and if you are willing to put in the effort you will be rewarded with new ways of looking at the world.

Recommended to fans of deep, dark literary fiction.


I read this as part of German Literature Month. Head over to Lizzy’s Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat to find out about a wide range of German literature.

Books in Translation Novella

Chess – Stefan Zweig

  Translated from the German by Anthea Bell

Five words from the blurb: chess, stranger, disturbing, obsession, genius

In the 1920s and 30s Stefan Zweig was the most translated novelist in the world. His work is very popular in continental Europe, but few people in the UK have heard of him. I have to admit that I was one of those people until blogging introduced me to his name last year. Since then he has been high on my wish list, so when Penguin offered me a copy of his novella, Chess, (to celebrate the launch of their mini modern classic series) I jumped at the chance. I can see why people love his writing so much – Chess is a wonderful little book.

Chess is set on a cruise ship; on board is an elusive chess grand master who finally agrees to play against a group of passengers. The passengers are easily beaten, but then a mysterious man suggests some moves and the tables are turned. The secret behind this man’s skill at the game is slowly revealed in a shocking, but gripping display of the capabilities of the human mind.

I have always been interested in any kind of monomaniac obsessed by a single idea, for the more a man restricts himself the closer he is, conversely, to infinity; characters like this, apparently remote from reality, are like termites using their own material to build a remarkable and unique small-scale version of the world.

I know how to play chess, but have no special interest in it and so before reading this book I was a little worried about whether or not I’d enjoy a whole book on the subject. I needn’t have worried – this book is beautifully written and no knowledge of the game is required. It is hard to explain the real magic of this book without giving away the entire plot, but I’ll just explain that this book investigates the power of human endurance when faced with some of the atrocities that a war brings.

My only criticism of this book is that the darker elements are all written as reflections, explained to an enquirer many years after the event. This means they aren’t as intense as they would have been if we had experienced them as they were happening. I know a lot of people will find this to be a positive, but I prefer to feel the emotion and fear instead of just having the situation explained.

Recommended to anyone who enjoys reading books that deal with the darker side of human nature.


I couldn’t find a negative review for this one:

….it is difficult to find just the right words to explain the wonder of Stefan Zweig’s words. Fleur Fisher in her World

Zweig’s ability to carry the reader along through summarised lives, stories within stories and long monologues is remarkable….. Asylum

…..the novella is as well-nigh perfect as might be expected.  A Common Reader

Chess is one of the Penguin Mini Modern Classics (a series of 50 books launched on 15th February). They can be bought individually for £3 each or as the beautiful Penguin Mini Modern Classics Box Set

2009 2010 Books in Translation Chunkster Historical Fiction Other Prizes Recommended books

The Dark Side of Love – Rafik Schami

 Shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2010

Translated from the German by Anthea Bell

The Dark Side of Love is epic in every sense of the word.

  • The 850 pages are imposing.
  • The writing quality surpasses the ordinary.
  • The narrative encompasses an impressive period of time, following three generations as political change forces their lives in different directions.
  • There is a hero who battles against adversity, capturing your heart.

The Dark Side of Love is set in Syria and follows two feuding families from 1907 through to 1970. The central characters are Rana and Farid, a couple who fall in love, but are unable to be together due to the generations of hatred between their rival clans.

The gulf between the Mushtak and Shanin families was deep. Later, no one could say just how their hostility had begun, but even the children of both families were convinced that they would sooner make friends with the devil than one of the enemy clan.

The first 300 pages of this book were slow going. New characters seemed to be introduced on each page and I found it almost impossible to keep track of who everyone was. In the end I gave up trying to work it out and approached each chapter as if it were a short story. This worked really well and I found myself treated to numerous Syrian myths and legends. I found the details of their lives fascinating and so although I couldn’t tell you who half the people were I never lost interest in the book. It took me over two months to read the first 400 pages, but I’m pleased that I took the time to absorb their world as I think it made the second half of the book even better.

At the centre of the book the narrative became more conventional and the focus shifted to Farid. This increased the pace of the book and I managed to complete the second half in just two weeks. Farid finds himself in many terrible situations, both political and personal, but the lengths that he goes to to try to be with Rana are heartbreaking. Their love was so strong and realistic that this has become one of my favourite romances.

Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a happy book though – there is a lot of violence and suffering. I’d describe it as a cross between A Fine Balance and Palace Walk. The complex political and religious situations in Syria are woven with more personal stories of families trying to arrange favourable marriages for their children or find appropriate jobs. I learnt so much from reading this book, but I’m going to re-read it as I’m sure that would reveal many more layers.

This isn’t an easy read, but it is well worth the effort. I think it is a literary masterpiece and that everyone interested in Middle Eastern literature should ensure they read it.

Highly recommended. 


German Recommendations

German DVDs

I recently noticed that three of my favourite films are German.

If I was able to force people to watch one film then it would be The Lives Of Others; with the possible exception of Shrek and Jean De Florette/Manon Des Sources,  The Lives Of Others is my favourite film. It is a thought-provoking, emotional film set in Eat Berlin during the 1980s it shows how small acts of human kindness can make the world a better place. It has fantastic acting, brilliant plotting and everything else you could possibly want in a film. I highly recommend it. 

Run Lola Run is a bit like Sliding Doors in that it shows how small differences in your actions can produce several versions of events. It is fast paced, clever and amusing. I recommend it. 

Goodbye Lenin! shows how East Germany changes after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I loved the way it combined humor with serious political issues. Recommended.

Do you know any other great German films?

German Books

I tried to think of my favourite German books, but was shocked to discover that I couldn’t actually remember reading anything translated from the German. I have read lots of books set in Germany (ie WWII books) but none actually written by a German. I seem to share the German’s sense of humor, so would particularly like to read something that combines serious issues with lighter moments in a similar way to the films above.

Can you recommend any books which have been translated from the German?