Apologies everyone for a long silence - I have been checking out the book scene in the States! To my astonishment [and chagrin given the quietness of our bookshops here], the bookshops in New England, at least, are hopping and, particularly, the independents. One store I visited reminded me of Christmas Eve in the old days here when there was barely room to move!
On the plane over, I read The Blind Side of the Heart by Julia Franck, translated by Anthea Bell. This is one of the titles on this year's Impac Award Longlist. Published originally in Germany in 2007, it was the winner of the Deutscher Buchpreis and was published in English in 2009.
The narrative covers the first half of the last century, opening in 1945 in Stettin railway station, crowded with Germans fleeing west and where Helene, the protagonist of the book, abandons her eight year old son. The author then takes us back through Helene's life in an effort to justify this inexplicable action.
Helene and her older sister, Martha, grow up in a small town in Saxony, their father an invalid from the lst WW and their mother, a Jew, quite mad. They escape from this unenviable background to live with their aunt, a prominent socialite in Weimar Berlin. There are shades of Christopher Isherwood here in content, if not in style. Martha falls easily into the decadence and dissipation of partytime Berlin becoming a victim of drugs and dubious sexual behaviour while Helene strives to equip herself with some kind of education and career. She becomes engaged to an upright and kind young man, Carl, but [and bit of a spoiler here I'm afraid], following his death, she becomes entangled with and married to a rather nasty, sadistic Nazi - are there any other kinds? The narrative then follows the events of the late thirties and the war years as they affect Helene culminating in the scene in Stettin railway station and its aftermath.
Essentially, the narrative deals with questions of identity, emotional deprivation and generational conflict. Helene is uncomfortable with the loose morality of Berlin especially the bisexuality into which she is drawn. Later she deals with her husband by absenting herself mentally. She yields herself to the point of losing her first name and in her apparent subservience to her Nazi husband, the author attempts to portray Hitler's Germany in microcosm.
Carl reads Spinoza to her, quoting, 'Happiness is not the reward of virtue, virtue is its own reward. We are not glad of it because we rein in our lusts: but because we are glad of it we can rein them in'. Much as the author might like, it is hard to identify these sentiments with either Weimar Berlin or Nazi Germany - but maybe that is her very point.
This book is not a challenging read and the author avoids reiterating scenes well known of the rise of Hitler in the thirties by concentrating entirely on Helene and her progress, physically and mentally as a political innocent, quite disinterested in her country's doings except insofar as they concern her personal life and its disintegration. How successful Franck is at doing this, one can only judge by one's reaction to the epilogue. At times, she seems to labour too hard to make her point but it does represent a useful addition to the growing body of literature by German authors about Germany in those divisive years.