Friday, 29 April 2011

Anna Blumbach: Kurze Nächte

The Anais imprint does literary jazz mags for girls. I looked at the Amazon reviews for Anna Blumbach’s Kurze Nächte and realised that nobody wants to admit that. They all talk about the character development and the language – which is very much a factor, and I’ll come to it, don’t get me wrong – but what they don’t say is: “This book turned me on.” So to get it over with, yes, this is an effective piece of erotica. It does what it says on the tin.

I was given the book by the author (Anna Blumbach is a pseudonym) because I’d been talking about translating sex scenes. It makes me feel awkward, and I’ve written about it before I think, because in order to translate sex you do have to visualise what’s going on very precisely. If it’s not well written that’s difficult, and if it is it’s titillating and distracts you from translating. I work in a large open office space, and always have to translate sex scenes at home. The sex scenes in Kurze Nächte – and there are many – mean you probably shouldn’t read it in public. I even felt slightly exposed reading it on my balcony. I wouldn't want to translate it.

What worried me to begin with was that the narrator Eva is in exactly the same position as me: what’s called a “semi-single parent” in her late 30s in Berlin. Reading about her life in between her sexual exploits was disturbing because I recognised so many of her emotions. The maternal guilt, the comfort and love a child can give, the frustration, missing your child when it’s not there and resenting it when it is. The fear of aging, the body-related insecurities, all that stuff about having had a child and what it does to you. And that made it hard not to identify with Eva to an extent I didn’t want to go to. On the other hand, it felt so true that the rest of the book seemed searingly honest too. I don’t know whether it is or not.

Plot? Yes, it has a plot, to go along with that cliché about women and porn. But it’s the kind of rambling Berlin-novel plot about bohemians and creative types getting drunk that I don’t particularly enjoy, as a rule. Only with more sex scenes to make up for it. Eva loves Wolf (poet) but he doesn’t love her back, or not properly, not the way she wants him to. So she leaves him but she’s heartbroken. She starts a thing with Tom (DJ), becoming a sort of permanent bit on the side. And then there’s Kolja (Russian artist), an infatuation and one-night-stand who keeps popping up again and rubbing her up the wrong way. In between, Eva struggles with the benefits office and philosophises about how crap life is when you’re expected to combine full-time work with bringing up a child but refuse to do so.

As the Amazon reviewers point out in their own sweet way, Kurze Nächte is a Bildungsroman of sorts. Eva starts off insecure and unhappy but by finding a passion of her own (a miniature architectural project), she grows more confident and finds it easier to deal with the men in her life too. It’s work, then, which ultimately sets her free, to put it cynically. Anna Blumbach seems to have tried to add a political dimension to the lit-jazz-mag format. The message appears to be that a self-determined work life makes for a fulfilling life all round, including sexually. But her narrator Eva veers between describing her own inadequacies and raging against the system – a credible enough character trait – which dilutes that message somewhat. And I’m not sure it doesn’t get lost entirely along the way.

It’s certainly literary enough. I loved the language. I loved the occasional Berlinerisms and sillinesses, interrupting what’s otherwise a plain enough style common to a lot of contemporary German writing. I loved the sex scenes, the feelings of inadequacy gradually making way for more relaxed encounters. I loved the laugh-out-loud “What the…?” moments when the narrator gets up to even more nonsense than usual. It’s very much a novel of now – Eva is not a put-upon ex-housewife or a young girl just discovering her sexuality, she knows very well what she’s doing. I loved the way Blumbach often uses the phrase “as best I can” in the saucier moments, summing up her Eva very nicely.

It made me think about how men and women write about sex in German literary fiction, actually. Maybe it’s just my choice of reading matter, but I’ve a feeling that women writers tend not to bother, or if they do venture an attempt it’s almost always about bad sex, traumatic experiences. In fact I’m struggling to come up with a single example of genuinely erotic writing by women in the genre. A while back I bought a women’s magazine solely because it claimed to feature erotica by biggish names, including Sibylle Berg and Alina Bronsky. It was a big disappointment. Whereas men seem happy to include explicit descriptions of good and bad sex and average sex and frustrating sex and just plain sex sex in their literary novels. Ralf Rothmann, Peter Stamm, Rainer Merkel, Thomas Pletzinger, Selim Özdogan, Finn-Ole Heinrich, Michael Lentz, Jan Böttcher, Helmut Krausser – they all get taken seriously nonetheless.

So are women writers shy about it? Would we… would we still really think they were sluts? Is that why the few exceptions cause such a fuss? Think Charlotte Roche of course, but also Helene Hegemann, although you could argue that in both cases the sex they describe has a traumatic edge to it. Anna Blumbach takes what seems like a more open and honest approach. Although the last sex bit (actually incredibly well done) would fit well into the traumatic category, her protagonist usually enjoys sex, but looks too at what she wants from it, often confirmation and comfort and – oh yes – love.

If there’s one thing I always find fascinating and infinitely puzzling, it’s how on earth other people in a similar situation to me lead their lives. You know the way everyone else seems to be having much, much more fun, no matter how much fun you yourself may or may not be having? I took this fictional example with a pinch of salt, but it was a genuine pleasure to read. And it does for Kaffee Burger what Axolotl Roadkill does for Berghain.


X.Trapnel said...

When you say, "I work in a large open office space, and always have to translate sex scenes at home. The sex scenes in Kurze Nächte – and there are many – mean you probably shouldn’t read it in public. I even felt slightly exposed reading it on my balcony. I wouldn't want to translate it." -- do you think your reasons for discomfort reading it or hypothetically translating it, are basically (one) answer to your question about why women writers are shy about writing sex scenes?

X.Trapnel said...

That came across as perhaps cryptic in a way that wasn't intended. What I meant was: on the one hand, you seem to be viewing this as a distinctly German-lit phenomenon. On the other, you seem to be expressing qualms, not just as a translator but even as a reader, that might translate into a similar writerly diffidence, despite your not being precisely a 'German writer.' Did you mean these two parts of your post to be purely independent of each other, or do you see the latter as possibly exemplifying the former? (And *do* you see this as an unusually German phenomenon, or were you just reflecting on the literature you're most professionally attuned to?)

kjd said...

I don't really feel qualified to compare with other literatures, to be honest. I'd be very interested to find out a) if my feeling is really accurate and b) if other literatures are the same.

I may have been unclear about translating sex scenes in public/private. It feels like a very private thing to do because, to be blunt, you have to imagine two people having sex and that's often quite arousing. And I'd rather do that without other people around me. I do actually enjoy it though. Whether those qualms about translating sex in public are because I'm a woman, I don't know.

I'm not sure you can apply the same emotion to writers, who generally work in private anyway. And readers? I know I've come across unexpectedly steamy passages while reading on public transport and felt embarrassed. But again, reading tends to be a private activity so sexual arousal would be fine.

Or I'm just really uptight.

Anonymous said...

it's helmut fucking krausser

kjd said...

Why thank you, Anonymous, for your kind words. I shall change it right away.

karenmargolis said...

Great review - I shall certainly read this book in a quiet lonely place.

danaghie said...

I shall read this book in public, Katy, and translate it aloud using speech recognition software. Could you give me some tips as to which words I should train the software with beforehand?
Ahem: Despite having read sex-scenes at public readings a number of times now, I still have qualms about doing so, though not as often as I used to. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be a woman reading the same scenes. But I try not to let my imagination run away with me too much if that thought crops up.