The sentences are one of the things I love most about Judith Hermann’s long-awaited first novel. The way they exude calm, their apparently simple structure. As I was re-reading it today – Aller Liebe Anfang is a short novel, only 224 pages – I thought about how difficult it would be to translate, because the sentences are so delicate that I wouldn’t want to change them at all, afraid that even breathing on them would destroy something. But Hermann makes heavy use of the comma splice, something we can’t employ as easily in English, I think. And then she’s very sparing with question marks, although there are many questions in her book, and that makes the occasions when she does use one all the more remarkable. Both of those quirks, or qualities, are things I’d want to retain in translation. Judith Hermann already has a translator, Margot Bettauer Dembo, and I think she does retain those linguistic markers, and I think that’s a wonderful thing. Hermann’s style is much copied by younger writers, in my experience, and not all of them have the confidence or ability to pull it off.
What else? The book is about a woman, Stella. She’s married to Jason and has a small daughter, Ava. They live in a residential area in a place that’s a non-place, and on first reading I found that prickly, I wanted to know where it was, was it Ireland or England or Germany? But it doesn’t matter; they live in an ordinary place with family homes lined up along a road. Stella has a friend who used to look after her but then married, and now she has Jason, who she met on a plane. And she’s a carer, she looks after sick people in their homes and she tries to be patient and understand people. She's often scared of life, apart from when she's working.
And in all this ordinary life, between taking Ava to kindergarten and going to work and sitting in the garden and writing letters and waiting for Jason to come home from working away, in the middle of all this, a man rings at the garden gate and wants to talk to her. The plot will always sound more dramatic than Hermann ever lets it become; although there’s an escalation, although the word stalker is printed somewhere around page 120, it’s a calm one. We see so much of Stella’s everyday life, hear her thinking her not-quite questions and trying to understand the stranger who has become fixated on her – Mister Pfister, scratchily close to Mephisto, someone as devoid of character as he renders Stella herself – that Aller Liebe Anfang is something very far removed from a thriller.
That title, literally ‘the beginning of all love, all love’s onset’, is another itch that wants scratching. Because Hermann is reflecting on the nature of love here, both on the surface when Stella compares her stalker’s possible feelings with a coup de foudre, and more subtly when this reader, at least, is given cause to think about the coincidental onset of Stella’s relationship with Jason. I almost dislike the title because it’s a much more direct gesture than the writing itself.
I’m not sure what happens at the end of the story. On my first reading I understood it differently to the second one. That seems like a good thing for a novel to achieve, even though my first reading may have been wishful thinking. But I do know that Judith Hermann has constructed her novel extremely cleverly, giving us occasional glances into Stella’s future and past, using letters and odd little slips in the narration. As we move through the novel, Stella's clients all end up saying goodbye to her, so we know she's probably going somewhere. And then there's a kind of climax by proxy, which I enjoyed.
I’ve just been reading reviews of the novel in the major papers, partly to tone down my emotional reaction to the book – I found it profoundly unsettling, especially where it touches on things I’ve been through myself. And the reviews are strange because the critics (all male) can’t seem to tap into any emotions of their own; they seem so cynical. There is criticism that the characters are clichéd where I found them believable from first-hand experience (a class issue?), and one man even suggested on the radio that Hermann’s clear and simple sentences are a sign of a lack of intelligence. I was shocked. I wonder whether the coldness of the reviews is because German newspapers wouldn’t print anything more personal or because Aller Liebe Anfang might be a book that speaks to women more than men. Certainly, it made me think about all sorts of issues that might be more pertinent to women: men’s projections of our characters, possessiveness, absent partners, the need for a protector, a child as an anchor – although I’d like to believe that those are universal matters. Oh, I’m still so shaken up by the book that it’s hard to think straight. But yes, it – and the peculiar male reaction to it – have switched on my gender antennae.
Well. Judith Hermann has been getting a lot of coverage and giving a lot of interviews, so perhaps the reviews were just assigned to the wrong critics – Aller Liebe Anfang is very much the book of the moment, a literary event after Hermann’s very successful short story collections, and people do so like to take other people down. I’m pleased to see that Clerkenwell Books will be publishing it in English. I’m convinced it will work just as well in the UK, as long as Hermann’s translator Margot Dembo continues to handle her sentences with kid gloves. I'd recommend it to readers who don't always need rollercoasters, and especially to women who've been at home alone a lot with a small child.