Benita Berthmann’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Benita Berthmann (@moodboardultra) Benita studies literature in Marburg, Germany, where she is a full time book enthusiast, part time smoker and existentialist.

Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).

Helene Schjerfbecek, G***y Woman, 1919

In 2021 I read more books than ever before. 175, to be exact. [Ed. – Damn girl!] I could do it because I was in a very relaxed last semester of my Bachelor’s degree with heaps of free time (which I have since finished) and also because we were and still are in a pandemic. Being advised to stay at home does have its advantages. [Ed. – Introverts of the world unite! But not too closely!]

How can I select a number of favorites from all these books? I cannot. I can only offer you a glimpse into my (reading) life, a tiny selection. Of course, there are books from 2021 that stuck with me more than others, that touched or repulsed me differently, that I catch myself returning to in my thoughts over and over again.

When I think about the most memorable books of the past year, DIE WOHLGESINNTEN (Les bienveillantes/The Kindly Ones, German translation by Hainer Kober) by JONATHAN LITTELL immediately comes to mind. Little manages to show us each and every realm, every tiny corner of the Nazi brain of his protagonist and narrator, Maximilian Aue, over almost 1400 pages. [Ed. – Shoulda read it in English, only 992.] He is able to portray a character that is not just a Nazi, not just morally ruined, but a human being, a terrible, guilty, one, but one we do not necessarily dislike. [Ed. – Hmm…] One that allows us to see that even the most intellectual, the most cultivated (however we might define that term) people are not exempt from pursuing the most evil crimes against humanity. Not exempt from committing genocide. It is difficult to find the right words for what this book did to and with me. Yet, it is clear to me that DIE WOHLGESINNTEN is a major work that will continue to make its way into the cultural memory and leave a lasting impact on all its readers.

I am not too big on audiobooks—I listen to the same ones over and over again to help me fall asleep at night because, apparently, I can only sleep when someone basically talks my ear off—but there is one that kept me company throughout the whole year: THE SECRET HISTORY by DONNA TARTT. Probably no surprise that I, a semi-pretentious lit-student, enjoyed the tale of a very pretentious, flamboyant yet secretive group of classics students who decide to kill their friend. The novel has all of my favorite tropes: Dark academia, an obsession with aesthetics, a compelling way of story telling, mystery, and a healthy amount of death and homoerotic subtext. The language is complex and clever, snobby and charming all in the same instant, proving to me that Donna Tartt is indeed the most skillful contemporary American writer. Her talents lie not only in writing, but also in reading her own novel as an audiobook, her southern accent just adds that little extra sprinkle. Also, I have a soft spot for Richard Papen. Fight me. [Ed. — Totally fair.]

A book that has been important for me for years and that I became even more fond of in 2021 was HERTA MÜLLER’S HERZTIER (English title: THE LAND OF GREEN PLUMS, English translator: Michael Hofmann). HERTA MÜLLER, Nobel Prize winner of 2009, is my most revered author—her description of life under Ceausescu’s dictatorship in 1970s and 80s Romania never ceases to leave me in awe of both her writing skills and her personal integrity. It is brutal, relentlessly honest and poetic. In HERZTIER, we get a close view of a group of students trying to evade political persecution, eventually having to escape the government—either by fleeing to Germany or by death.

Why is this novel so important to me? In the summer of 2021, I wrote by bachelor’s thesis on its figurations of death, an experience that taught me how to look at literature even more closely and how to present an argument on my own. I feel lucky I got to have these experiences with my favorite author. [Ed. – Heart emoji!]

It’s not always easy to read a novel by Müller, neither thematically nor stylistically, but I would argue that it is a memorable and most rewarding experience –her unusual prose, the (sometimes jarringly) accurate and detailed descriptions of seemingly minor incidents open up, at least for me, perspectives I would otherwise never have imagined exist. She is a minority writer (German-speaking Banat Swabian, having grown up in Romania), an uncompromising political activist, using her voice and her reputation as a Nobel laureate especially to help censored and blacklisted writers forced to live under dictatorial rule, and someone whom I admire for both their writing and their personal integrity. Safe to say, Herta Müller is my muse. [Ed. – Benita, you are a Herta Müller Ultra!]

A huge and somewhat daunting project of mine was to read UWE JOHNSON’S (pronounced more like Yohn-Zohn in German) JAHRESTAGE (ANNIVERSARIES, translated by Damion Searls): the German version is a whopping 1700 pages. I aimed for 50 pages a day, which roughly worked out. As the title already indicates, the narration follows every day in the life of the protagonist Gesine Cresspahl, originally from Jerichow, Mecklenburg, GDR, now a citizen of New York. Anniversaries is a cleverly interwoven literary montage consisting of Gesine’s current life with her daughter in NY in 1967 and 68, her and her family’s history (fascism in 1930s Germany and such…) and, interestingly, snippets of The New York Times. I recently attended a seminar on Literary Patronage that shed light on how much Johnson was struggling to finish the final quarter of the novel. The first three parts were published in 1970, 71 and 73, but he went through a rough patch health-wise, got divorced and amassed debts at his publishing house Suhrkamp amounting to roughly 250,000 DM (around $105,000 at that time, my quick research reveals), thus, he only managed to complete his main work in 1983, a year before his untimely death from a heart attack (while he tried to open his third bottle of wine that evening). [Ed. – Let that be a lesson to me.] Rumor has it that his publisher Siegfried Unseld, trying to get his money’s worth as he was supporting the author with a monthly paycheck of 3000 DM, pushed Johnson to his breaking point by demanding that the novel be completed by March 1983 or else he would suspend the monthly support. Unfortunately, we will probably never know if this is true, but it’s an interesting backstory to the novel either way.

Thinking about all the other books I also got through, it’s impossible to name, properly review, and shed light on all of them, but there are a few honorable mentions I would like to announce at the very least:

Anything I have read by THOMAS BERNHARD, my favorite angry Austrian. This year, I got around to: FROST (translated by Michael Hofmann), WATTEN. EIN NACHLASS (published in English in THREE NOVELLAS, translated by P. Jansen and K. Northcott), MEINE PREISE (MY PRIZES, translated by Carol Brown Janeway), HOLZFÄLLEN (WOODCUTTERS, translated by David McLintock) and DIE URSACHE (part one of his autobiographical writings, I could not find an English translation for it [Ed. – It’s in Gathering Evidence] – all worth reading. I look forward to discovering even more of Bernhard’s works in 2022.

ANNIE ERNAUX: EINE FRAU (UNE FEMME/A WOMAN’S STORY (English translations all by Tanya Leslie, German translations by Sonja Finck), DIE SCHAM (LA HONTE/SHAME) and DAS EREIGNIS (L’ÉVÉNEMENT/HAPPENING) found their way into my bookshelf and my reading year 2021. The last one especially made its way into my literary heart and memory: It deals with an abortion in early 1960s France—a dangerous and shameful endeavor at that time that Ernaux dissects into fragments of memory showing pain, shame, secrecy and the essential danger of being a woman. Safe to say I am glad was born in a time and a country that makes abortions, should one be needed, at least semi-accessible. Abortion rights are not perfect in modern day Germany, but I have the feeling it’s still better than what the author describes so hauntingly and directly.

For 2022, I hope that SHIDA BAZYAR’S novel DREI KAMERADINNEN (roughly: Three (female) Comrades) will be translated into English. It challenges white majority perspectives on Germany and the country’s ongoing problems with fascism, the rising political right and xenophobia. Bonus point: It is an absolute page-turner.

Balthus, Three Sisters and a Cat, 1965

Ok, now, finally and shortly, a couple of books that were awesome as well:

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld – The Discomfort of the Evening/Was man sät (T: Michele Hutchison/Helga van Beuningen)

Evelyn Waugh – Brideshead Revisited

Anne Weber – Annette, ein Heldinnenepos (English translation forthcoming later in 2022)

Margaret Atwood – The Blind Assassin

Patti Smith – Just Kids

Günter Grass – Der Butt/The Flounder (T: Ralph Manheim (I have read both the German original and the English translation and I can confirm that Manheim did a superb job!))

Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse Five

Maggie O’Farrell – Hamnet

I will probably not manage 175 books again this year (doing a master’s degree and all), but I hope I will still be able to discover new favorites. Keep on reading, folks.

And let’s hope Dorian keeps on giving us the chance to post these, so that I can put even more books on either my wish list or my tbr stack(s). [Ed. – I’ve already penciled you in for next year, Benita!]

Daniel Syrovy’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Daniel Syrovy, his first for the blog. Daniel is Senior Lecturer in Comparative Literature at the University of Vienna, Austria; he tweets at @daniel_syrovy.

Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week and into next. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).

Maria Lassnig, Necessary Understanding, 1998

The last book I finished in 2021 was Milo Dor’s Tote auf Urlaub (called Dead Men on Leave in an out-of-print 1962 translation; some used copies can be found). Despite a number of reprints after 1952, it’s not a well-known novel. Set mostly in Belgrade and the surrounding countryside (and, eventually, in Vienna), it focuses on the Serbian Resistance to Nazi Germany between 1941 and 1945. Its ostensible protagonist, with hints of autobiography, is Mladen Raikow, but a character list included in the 500-page book lists forty characters in addition to “communists, Trotskyists, dreamers, cowards, traitors, real and false heroes, fallen angels, idiots, bootlickers, liars, drunkards, gluttons, whores, blackmailers, and torturers.”

This is not light reading, and despite a good pinch of gallows humor, the novel offers a rather bleak view of humanity. There is not much by way of a plot, but the novel is crammed with short scenes that depict small gestures of solidarity as well as acts of depravity. Dor must have been compelled to put everything into his manuscript, sparing no-one, and it is telling that even my 1992 edition quotes reviews that question whether this should properly be called a novel at all. Of course it’s a novel—but it must have been uncomfortably close to lived experience just after the war.

In fact, I first learned about it in Evelyne Polt-Heinzl’s reassessment of Austrian postwar literature, Die grauen Jahre (2018), which I re-read this past year for a work-related project. One of her central theses is that Austrians in the 1950s mostly rejected realistic texts about the war, but that such texts did exist. I had already spent a summer with a number of books unearthed by this indefatigable scholar, but it turned out there were quite a few interesting titles I had overlooked (including Dor’s collaborations with Reinhard Federmann: a series of crime novels from the 1950s; Federmann’s own novels Das Himmelreich der Lügner and Chronik einer Nacht; books by Hertha Pauli, Dorothea Zeemann, Hans Flesch-Brunningen, Hans Weigel). I’m going to stop naming names in a minute. [Ed. – I hope not!]

With me, such reading projects seem to crop up unexpectedly from time to time, and for the most part they are neither completely work-related (I am a literary scholar and I teach at university) nor exactly spare-time reading. But I do enjoy filling gaps in my knowledge of different literatures, so I follow loose reading lists, for instance on the Celtic Revival: several plays by Yeats, Lady Gregory, Synge, and related material occupied me this past summer. Austrian literature often figures large, too. In 2021, I reread some Thomas Bernhard, and was surprised at the intermittent tenderness of the first half of Correction (1975). I also read Friederike Mayröcker, Helmut Zenker, Alexander Lernet-Holenia and Leo Perutz. Yet, much of this reading follows rather obvious patterns like stepping stones. In preparing these notes, I kept asking myself whether I couldn’t come up with some more interesting observations. [Ed. – Yeah, enough of this boring stuff filled with enticing, new-to-me names.]

It turns out, I loved reading some new old books (a series of newly rediscovered and partly very funny Proust manuscripts published as Les soixante-quinze feuillets in March) and some brand new ones (especially Lisa McInerney’s brilliant third volume of her Cork-based crime trilogy, The Rules of Revelation, Emine Sevgi Özdamar’s autofictional Ein von Schatten begrenzter Raum, and Shida Bazyar’s mindblowing Drei Kameradinnen, reviewed in English here); I also enjoyed some classics – which I would mostly read in bed chapter by chapter over longer stretches of time (from Olivia Manning’s Balkan and Levant Trilogies to Middlemarch to Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh). I took my cues from friends and Twitter-friends [Ed. – Wait, so we’re not like your real friends?], from the LRB, from other books. I was happy to break open volumes I already owned (Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear; Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi; Bely’s Petersburg) and to pick up new ones (Pola Oloixarac’s Mona; Percival Everett’s Erasure). Hopping between languages and centuries was always something of a comparatist’s credo with me [Ed. — Comparatists 4eva!]. But I hesitate to call this a noteworthy pattern.

It does not escape my attention that despite buying new books at a steady rate, I picked up stacks of books from the library as well, often going there twice a week. A reduced social life will do that sometimes. And perhaps it is true that during the pandemic I was a more restless reader than usual. Unsurprisingly, there are quite a few books I did not finish. Looking at my rather disparate and unsystematic notes (I have neither a Goodreads account nor physical lists), I can’t come to any definitive conclusions. I know that I listened to an incredible amount of Grateful Dead live shows in 2021, something I had never done before. But to relate all of my reading habits to the state of the world and my own preoccupations? To quote from a recent read, Anna Wood’s book of short stories Yes Yes More More, “I kn[o]w better than to think for too long about my internal organs after taking acid.”

Helene Funke, Dreams, 1913

Maybe, one day such patterns will emerge more clearly, and I’ll be the wiser for it. In the meantime, I’d rather mention another discovery that is already turning into a reading project. I always liked concrete poetry (well-established in Austria with writers such as Ernst Jandl, seen here performing at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965), and between that interest and preparing an introductory lecture about poetry, I came across a recent volume by the Brooklyn-based publisher Primary Information, Women in Concrete Poetry 1959–1979. Since overlooked women writers are always a high priority, I couldn’t resist, and the volume doesn’t disappoint. It features 50 poets from all over the world (from Sonja Åkesson to Chima Sunada to Rosmarie Waldrop), with a selection that mostly follows a 1978 Venice Biennale exhibition curated by Mirella Bentivoglio. Accordingly, the volume looks very much like an exhibition catalogue, with thick glossy paper. The nature of the poetry lends itself to it, as well, written as it is in many languages, partly in color, with striking visual aspects and often presented as collages with repurposed images. Standing out for me were a few pages by the American Madeline Gins, in particular a page showing layers of text thickly typed over one another with a typewriter that I tweeted about in early December. The page ends with the lines “The body is composed 98% of water. This page contains every word in the book.” So I read on. The passage comes from Gins’s book Word Rain (1969) which is reproduced in full in the 2020 Madeline Gins Reader The Saddest Thing is That I Have Had To Use Words (Siglio Press; ed. Lucy Ives), which I have only skimmed so far. Some of this is not exactly concrete poetry, but it is very appealing, so who cares. And anyway, filling some gaps in my knowledge of the contemporary Austrian writer Ann Cotten (herself a poet, novelist, and translator of Rosmarie Waldrop), especially the wonderful lecture series Was geht (2018), I was alerted to Liesl Ujvary, a Viennese poet who started out with a very funny volume in 1977, Sicher & Gut,some of which would certainly be classified as concrete poetry. These converging patterns are what keep me going. Ideally, two or three of them at once.