Fabia Morger: What I Read (and Liked) in 2014

Reclam

This post is part of a series of posts in which students of the English Seminar present their favourite books they have read in 2014. The lists are not restricted to books that were published this year. If you want to participate as well, send your list to zest.editor@gmail.com.

Today’s list comes to you from the newly appointed ZEST contributor Fabia Morger.

2014 was stuffed with books. I took the German reading list exam for which, in contrast to the English Seminar’s version, you are required to read 52 texts, many of them several hundred pages long (however, you also get 9 credit points for that). As it (unfortunately) usually is the case when you are required to read many texts within a short span of time, most of them tend to fade from your memory as soon as the exam is done. Those in the list are the ones who stayed and, even months after passing the exam, come to haunt me from time to time. And I personally think it’s a good thing when books haunt you. I know that there is only one English book on the list. However, this might give some people the opportunity to rethink their attitude about the inferior status of German literature. An attitude that, sadly enough, can be observed quite often in the English Seminar.

Der Process

Franz Kafka (ca. 1915): Der Proceß

The Trial is certainly not an easily digestible read but an intriguing one nevertheless. It contains one of mankind’s existential angsts – the fear of being condemned for no apparent reason and pushed around by an ominous justice system until, in the end, you start to believe in your own guilt. And given the numerous exonerations alone from the American death row (seven in 2014) and the many innocents that may still face (death) penalty all over the world, that fear is not too far-fetched. Anyway, an awful lot has been said about Kafka already, so I heartily suggest that you give him a try.

Der Steppenwolf

Hermann Hesse (1927): Der Steppenwolf

Well, who hasn’t heard of this legendary masterpiece? As a student of German literature, I’m kind of sad that it took a reading list to get me to read this book. It’s certainly one of the most compelling works I’ve read in my life and I know I’m not the only one who thinks so. I guess what makes the story of Steppenwolf so fascinating is that the novel has so many facets that nobody quite reads the same. To me, Steppenwolf was the story of essential human suffering. The struggle of its protagonist, Harry Haller, who is trapped between his animalistic and his cultivated human self, is the struggle of each and every one of us. It’s a story about despairing over being human and what enables us to bear the pain that comes with it.

Das Gemeindekind

Maria von Ebner-Eschenbach (1887): Das Gemeindekind

I deeply admire this book for its compassionate style of writing and its, for that time, revolutionary criticism of society. In some way, The Child of the Neighbourhood is a biopic of a rural community and their way of dealing with two disadvantaged children. While they encounter the sweet, pretty girl with compassion, her older (less handsome) brother meets nothing but scorn and repulsion in the community. Maria von Ebner-Eschenbach shows how society can foster criminals just by not giving them a chance to thrive and does so with intriguing intensity.

Die Liebhaberinnen

Elfriede Jelinek (1975): die liebhaberinnen

That Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel Prize in 2004 has certainly a lot to do with this book. Written consequently in small letters (a bigger deal in German than it is in English), it displays with merciless preciseness the behaviour of middle-class conservative Austrians in the 1950. It is as an angry and shocking report on how gender stereotypes shaped and still shape society.

Beloved

Toni Morrison (1987): Beloved

The only English contribution to this list is also from a Nobel prize laureate and the haunting of this book can be taken literally as the protagonist, Beloved, is an actual ghost. Set in the aftermath of the American civil war, Beloved tells about the traumas of slavery and the excesses of motherly love. It’s based on the true story of a slave mother who murdered her baby daughter rather than letting her lead a life in slavery. A sublime read.

Engelsfors

Mats Strandberg, Sara Bergmark Elfgren (2011-2013): The Engelsfors Trilogy

This trilogy was the first Swedish text I read in its original language and it might have been a little over-ambitious considering that it consists of three huge books. But, you know what they say, you grow with your challenges and I regret nothing. Even though this trilogy might not be as sophisticated as its companions in this list, it has the charms of a teenage fantasy novel. All of its (mostly female) characters are unique and authentic and the story is just breathtakingly exciting, even if you have to grab the dictionary every other sentence. Plus, there is a love story between two girls, which is portrayed in such an unspectacular and natural way that I really hope it will be a prototype for other youth fantasy novels to come. (It’s also out in English.)

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3 responses to “Fabia Morger: What I Read (and Liked) in 2014

  1. I am rather intrigued by what you wrote about Hesse’s Der Steppenwolf. We read the book in high school and over the years (without ever having read it again which might have been the main mistake here) I have remembered it again every now and again and began to wonder what I would think about it if I had only read it now (and not at the age of sixteen). I came to the conclusion (possibly wrongly) that I would see it as a rather teenager-ish, because highly self-indulgent and rather whiney fantasy. I also came to the conclusion that the book is a great document of its time, documenting a very specific sense of time (and times changing) and aesthetics. Considering your reception of the book as a first time non-teen reader is rather valuable to me, because it makes me question my repeated re-evaluation of a book and how useful it might be, especially considering that I did not re-read the book.
    However, one thing that really struck me back in the day (over all of the whining and back then oddly compelling suicide-plot) was Hesse’s ability to describe in what I’d now call a rather impressionistic way (e.g. the streets-after-darkness scenes, the insane car chase “hallucination”, and well, most of those other twenties shenanigans). To me this was one of the main strengths of the book which I think I was able to see without overly romanticising and personalising. Still, I think it’s a book that speaks very much to (maybe slightly precocious) teenagers, because it seems very much concerned with transitioning phases and transgressions into a world which is not quite understood (or necessarily fully approved of) by the main protagonist, the simultaneity of fascination with and fear of change.
    However, for me, I guess one of the most memorable and salient features of the text was it’s highly visual, almost cinematic quality. In case you feel like responding, I’d be interested in whether you noticed this as well.

  2. That is interesting because I seriously didn’t think of the book as especially visual until you said so. Now that you’ve mentioned it, I’m starting to realize that you really have a point. While reading it, I always had quite vivid images of the scenery in mind but I never connected that to Hesse’s style of writing or even consciously noticed it before you mentioned it. This may be because German authors (and I was overflowed with German literature when I read Steppenwolf) tend to describe sceneries more lavishly and lengthy than English authors do – when looking, for instance, at the works of Theodor Fontane, Theodor Storm or Thomas Mann (which may not be true outside of my subjective viewpoint). So, it might be for that reason that this feature didn’t strike me as so extraordinary at the time. I guess with every book our interpretation always depends on the circumstance that surround us when reading it – age, occupation or generally life situation. Moreover, I discussed Steppenwolf quite intensely with fellow students and was amazed by how much the impressions the book differ from each other. So, thanks for sharing your interpretation of it, you certainly opened my horizon! 🙂

    • Well, I am very glad that you appreciated my little addition to your thoughts on the book. I am not sure whether German authors generally make use of a more visual or cinematic writing style than writers native to author countries (and languages) do, but you seem to be far more of an expert on German literature than I ever could be, so I will simply take your word for it.
      This is not necessarily related all that closely to the above, but I am wondering whether you have read Andersch’s “Sansibar oder der Letzte Grund”. If you haven’t, you might want to consider it. Again, I have not read that book in ages, but it was one I remember quite fondly (apart from one small fact – oddly enough one somewhat related to visuality).
      Anyway, thank you very much for your reply and the sharing of your thoughts on the matter.

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