“In Other Words” is Bradley Babendir’s bi-monthly column exploring new works in translation.
There’s a lot going on. I read three books about other times when there was also a lot going on. Maybe there is always a lot going on. I didn’t feel particularly soothed or distracted by these books—not particularly certain that is a reading experience I relate to—but they are beautiful and they are moving and they are very good.
Marrow and Bone by Walter Kempowski, tr. By Charlotte Collins (Published by New York Review Books)
Some background: Walter Kempowski was born in Germany in 1929. During his childhood he was made to serve in a penalty unit of the Hitler Youth and was later sentenced to twenty-five years in prison by a Soviet Military Tribunal on espionage charges. He is perhaps best known for his ten volume collection of diaries, letters, and other such artifacts from World War II, Echo Soundings, published between 1993 and 2005.
Charlotte Collins won the Goethe-Institut Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize for her translation of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life.
Some thoughts: Marrow and Bone is a story of societies in flux via the experiences of a freelance writer named Jonathan Fabrizius. He lives in West Germany and the novel is set just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Kempowski’s writing is reflective but rarely solemn. The tension and fear that permeated all aspects of life at that time created a somber world but through his lens it is the absurdity that shows through.
Early on in the novel Jonathan is eating dinner at a Turkish restaurant with his girlfriend, Ulla. It is described, in some sense, like the perfect restaurant: “Maximum performance at minimal expense, plus extremely friendly service” and as an establishment that “wasn’t only inexpensive, it was also fast.” There is something nearly soothing about the matter-of-fact manner in which this is described and the way it could be part of the setup for a bad joke in a commercial of some kind. But in Marrow and Bone the punchline isn’t a quip to encourage you to sign up with a cell phone carrier or insurance plan. Instead, a rock flies through the window. “People leapt to their feet and ran outside to grab the perpetrators; the cook even brandished a knife, yelling something about fascists and how their bellies should be split open and boiling oil poured inside.”
The novel feels on the verge of descending into chaos but in an unsettling turn, the opposite happens. After a few minutes, things die down. People go back to their meals. Later, in their apartment, Ulla in the bed, Jonathan in the room, she whistles to signal to him that she would like to have sex. Afterward, he returns to his separate room. The workmanlike obligation that he has to her at times feels very sweet and at other times sad and pointless.
Marrow and Bone reaches another register when Jonathan embarks on a calamitous tour across East Prussia, where he is tasked with writing promotional materials so that other journalists might set out to cover the region. They encounter difficulty after difficulty and things are constantly getting worse, but in these sections too, even at their busiest, there is a pensiveness that pierces. A particularly memorable section has Jonathan reflecting on Claus von Stauffenberg, the man who tried but failed to kill Adolf Hitler. He wonders about the precision, the courage, the effort that such a plan required. The conclusion of that arc:
“Jonathan also wondered whether his father might ever have had business [at Hitler’s hideout]; and Stauffenberg’s face superimposed itself on his father’s, and he thought: If he had to die anyway, why didn’t he just gun Hitler down then and there?”
What is so effective about Marrow and Bone is the way that it hums along with a series of mishaps and action before stopping in its tracks with something like that.
Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist, tr. by Michael Hofmann (Published by New Directions)
Some background: Heinrich von Kleist was born in 1777 in Frankfurt and died in 1811 in Berlin. Over his short life, he wrote a number of works that would later establish him as one of the finest writers to have ever lived. This includes his plays like The Broken Jug and Katie of Heilbronn or The Trial by Fire and his prose, The Marquise of O and Michael Kohlhaas. He took his life as part of a suicide pact with his terminally-ill love, Henriette Vogel.
Michael Hofmann, alongside being an accomplished translator, is of one of the best living literary critics. That work can be found in places like London Review of Books, New York Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, and elsewhere. His latest book of poems, One Lark One Horse was published last July by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Some thoughts: Michael Kohlhaas’s story is a well-known and transfixing one. He’s a horse breeder who would like very much to go about his business as usual. First he is not allowed passage toward Saxony, then he finds his horses mistreated. After those injustices, he finds his servant beaten within an inch of his life and his wife is killed. Such a series of heartbreaks. What could Kohlhaas do but set out for justice?
His impulse to right these wrongs, of course, does not only appear after the wrongs against him have compounded. Early on, after he has not been allowed passage, he reflects on his impulse to let it be. There is wisdom in it, however:
“Countering that was another feeling, just as distinct, which took ever deeper root within him, that, as he rode on, making the occasional stops, and hearing everywhere of the injustices that were daily practiced on travelers at Tronkenbrug: that if the whole incident, as seemed to be the case, was a conspiracy, he with all his strength was duty bound to obtain satisfaction for the insult he has suffered, and the security of future citizens.”
That passage, an appealing mix of stirring and matter-of-fact, sets the story off toward its unfortunate conclusion.
Kohlhaas embarks on a brutal campaign of violence that escalates and escalates. Early on Kohlhaas threatens that if one who has wronged him ceases to surrender, Kohlhaas will “proceed to demolish [the town] so that there be not two stones upon one another for him to hide behind.” This bluster is ramped up shortly following this:
“Kohlhaas in the meantime, because of the odd place he occupied in the world now found himself at the head of some hundred and nine men; and since he had come upon another store of weapons in Jassen, and was now able to outfit and equip his men fully, informed of the twin forces that were coming his way, he took the decision to meet this twofold threat head on, and with the speed of the wind, before their joined forces were able to destroy him.”
Kleist accompanies Kohlhaas’s boldness with a reminder that all of this is happening in a somewhat haphazard way, that Kohlhaas is not operating with the expertise or resources that his adversaries are, and all of this is unfolding somewhat by accident. The proximity of these two things is what makes Michael Kohlhaas something of an irresistible text. Once he sets on this path, Kohlhaas always seems a little bit doomed. The question on the table is what he can win for himself in the meantime. This tension is remarkably compelling, both narratively and morally .
Letters from Tove by Tove Jansson, ed. By Boel Whestin & Helen Svensson, tr. by Sarah Death (Published by the University of Minnesota Press)
Some background: Tove Jansson was a Finnish artist and writer. She was perhaps best known for her “Moomins” comic strip, which gained notoriety in North America when it was collected by Drawn & Quarterly in the mid-2000s. Her excellent short novels Fair Play, The Summer Book, and The True Deceiver have been reissued by New York Review Books, alongside The Woman Who Borrowed Memories, a collection of short stories. The collection was edited by Boel Westin, author of the biography Tove Jansson: Life, Words, Art, and Jansson’s last editor, Helen Svensson.
Letters from Tove was translated by Sarah Death, a prize-winning translator with nearly forty translations.
Some thoughts: Jansson’s letters are of course of great memoiristic value to readers interested in the arc of her life. Readers searching for that will find much to chew on in this remarkable collection of letters which spans over 50 years. The arc, though, was not what stood out to me as much as isolated sections or incidents. The book is organized by the recipients of the letters. This means times in Jansson’s life are repeated, which often produces a wonderful effect.
This is most true in the case of her in-letter marriage proposal to Atos Wirtanen. His section of letters is fourth. Preceding him are the letters Jansson sent to Eva Konikoff. In a letter to Konikoff dated 12/16/47, she writes:
“Now I’ve done something and (as with everything else) I don’t know if it’s brave or just the opposite, exceptionally cowardly. I wrote to Atos and asked if he thought it would be a good idea for us to marry each other. If he didn’t fancy it, we could simply talk about other things when he came home…I think I’m hoping Atos will feel like marrying me. We could have separate homes the way we do now, and not change how we live at all. Probably he wouldn’t even alter his attitude to me – though perhaps he might lose his vague sense of guilt.”
This passage, in its own right, is striking for how simultaneously coy and vulnerable it is, the nervous anticipation she feels filtered through an effort not to get her hopes up. It also created a sense of nervous anticipation in me, as I looked forward to seeing what the proposal would look like once I arrived at his section of letters. And it does not disappoint. In an undated letter likely from December 1947, she writes to him:
“And then I wonder whether you think it would be a good idea for us to get married. It wouldn’t change our way of life, I don’t think. If you don’t want to, we can talk about something else when you get back. There’s plenty, isn’t there.”
There was something very exciting about reaching the actual proposal, if that’s what one would call it, and finding out it was as, if not more, casual and understated than her account of it to Konikoff was. Reading it, I did not feel that it was cowardly all, to put herself out there and see what happened.
It reminded me, in a certain way, of something she writes to her family in a letter postmarked 5/8/33: “This is a time of great difficulty and doubt, but I believe, though I’ve no grounds for my conviction, that everything will be so much better very soon.” Anyone who knows how the next decade unfolded in Europe will find this very sad, and rightly so. But I found it rather moving, too.
Bradley Babendir is a fiction writer and critic. His work has been published by The Washington Post, NPR, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Boston.