Posted by: jbwuk | June 17, 2009

Germans, Americans and Three Woman Writers

I found myself at the Goethe Institut for the first time ever. I felt a little guilty that it was the first time ever.blindside
The event which drew me there was a conversation between A.S. Byatt and Julia Franck, a German novelist whose new book, The Blind Side of the Heart has just been translated into English (along with 28 other languages). There are two kernels to the story, the first pertains to the book’s German title, Die Mittagsfrau, or ‘The Midday Witch’, a dark folktale about a mother who warns her son that if he does not behave, the Midday Witch will take him away. He is frightened into good behaviour but the witch comes anyway and takes both mother and son away. The other narrative propellant is the abandonment of a small boy by his  mother in a train station in Eastern Germany shortly after WWII, an event which occurred within Franck’s own family. From there the story spirals backwards, unravelling the mother’s own troubled childhood. As Franck spoke, it became apparent that not only the book, but also her life possessed a fairy-tale quality of being simultaneously enchanting and totally terrifying. Read Norman Lebrecht’s review of the book.
children'sbookAS Byatt’s latest novel, The Children’s Book also mines themes of enchanted childhoods, this time Edwardian, an era sometimes considered the golden age of childhood.The book draws on E.T.A Hoffman’s classic tale, The Sandman and the protagonist, Olive Wellwood writes fairy stories and so gives rise to an imaginative cast of children who enact the stories in their puppet theatre.  You can read a review of the book from The Spectator.
It was a fascinating event, and both books jumped to the top of my enormous  ‘must-read’ list. It was also interesting to be at an event where I wasn’t privvy to the subtext. I’m sure many events at JBW also have this quality; a secret language referred to, which may baffle outsiders but reinforce a sense of identity to almost everyone there. My knowledge of German language and folk tales not re-told by the Grimm brothers is barely discernable.  Last year I went to a launch of a book on Kafka. In his introduction, the writer of the book explained that Jewish and German Culture were symbiotic and synonymous with High Culture at that time. All educated Jews, including Kafka, used German. After the talk I introduced myself to the writer, telling him I was from Jewish Book Week. He proceeded to tell me an anecdote from the time spent doing research on his book. Quoting a newspaper editor, he stopped and asked if I spoke German. I opened my mouth to say ‘No, not at all’ but, suddenly thought, I would appear less-than-educated, or even less-than-Jewish and found myself nodding, saying ‘Yes, of course.’ And I got what I deserved; a five minute anecdote entirely in German (with an added Yiddish joke at the end.)  I say ‘joke’ because the intonation suggested it, and I , appropriately, or inappropriately laughed. Since then, I’m quite open with my lack of German at these sorts of events.
I had another first this week, a Royal Literary Society event. This was with Elaine Showalter, jurywho has just written A Jury of Her Peers, a study of American women writers. The event was a little tense at first as all the speakers were stuck in the tiny lift on the way up to the lecture theatre. The fire brigade came and rescued them and Professor Showalter, unshaken, talked wonderfully, and funnily about American women writers and the Brontes. We discovered that although Jane Eyre revolutionised the female literary community in the US, and of course made a great impact here in Britain, American men never read it, or if they had, never mentioned it, disregarding women’s writing in general as frivolous. Even now, women’s writing in the US is still not taken as seriously, whilst two male writers who share a writing style will frequently call themselves a school or a generation, something she wishes female writers would do more. You can listen to an interview of Showalter talking about her new book on Radio 4.
Now, how to get them all to the next JBW…

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  1. […] done by the East German sculptor Ingeborg Hunzinger, the grandfather of Julia Franck we recently blogged about, author of The Blind Side of the […]


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