Saturday, 16 August 2014

Judith Hermann: Aller Liebe Anfang

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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.

8 comments:

Tony Malone said...

Can't wait to read this (although I might well wait until the paperback come out...). Interesting that you mention gender issues - I've just been writing a review of the latest Knausgaard which posits that women may not be as enamoured of the book as men are...

Hella Eckert said...

How wonderful to hear such notes on Judith Hermann`s novel! I`ve been reading the book once, in German, and I shall do so again, again in German, and while reading I`ve been thinking of an empty space which is not really empty if we start to love. I`ve been thinking of Camus and Arundhati Roy. The story tells me something from the bottom of a soul. Pure literature.

Anonymous said...


Women do have problems with Hermann's prose as well.

Here's what Dorothea Dieckmann writes:

https://www.freitag.de/autoren/der-freitag/marmorkuchen-in-vager-gefahr

What do you think about this review?

kjd said...

I'm not sure, Tony, I really don't know. It just jumped out at me that all the major reviews were by men.

Anonymous - yes, I read that new review this morning. It didn't tally with my reading of the novel, but hey. The word that occurred to me this morning was "ambivalence" - Hermann seems to be good at creating that. Not everyone has to like it though.

MB said...

Thank you...

ProfReader said...

Thank you for this review - I am looking forward to reading the new book upon my arrival in Germany next week! I'd like to add that the critics have always been really harsh with Hermann - I think it's because many felt that Sommerhaus, später was too hyped and that they had to take Hermann down a notch after that. Critics were really in a tizzy after she won the Kleist Prize.
I was fairly critical of her myself for a few years and frankly, tired of her topic of youthful inertia after Nichts als Gespenster. But then I recently read Alice, and it reminded me of her qualities. Hermann's style is sparse yet stark, giving her prose indeed a has a very unique "sound" (to quote what Karasek said 15 years ago about Sommerhaus).

kjd said...

Thanks, MB & ProfReader. You know, I'm not one to launch conspiracy theories but I do think people find it very easy to criticize the work (and life choices, behaviour, etc.) of young women. And I think Aller Liebe Anfang shows a very mature side of Judith Hermann, which is no great surprise because she's a mature woman. But maybe she's just become a legitimate target in some people's eyes, someone about whom it's fine to make insulting comments on national radio.

Tony Malone said...

Just posted my own review of this. I really enjoyed it, and (for the most part) it really worked, rarely falling into cliché. I was very happy it didn't really turn into a stalker story and continued to focus on Stella :)