Subscriber OnlyBooks

Translated fiction round-up: A German philosopher shunned by society

Reviews of Veilchenfeld; The Madness; Daughters; Farewell, Ghosts; and The Family Clause

"Reality as gruesome rumour" is critical in Gert Hofmann's novel Veilchenfeld, translated by Eric Mace-Tessler (CB Editions, 143pp, £8.99), first published in Germany in 1986 and available now in English for the first time.

The “reality” imposed on Veilchenfeld – a reserved, principled philosopher – is one which he is helpless to oppose. He is the wrong sort of person and in 1930s Saxony, that means being shunned and ostracised by both society and those in positions of power.

The novel is narrated by the son of a doctor who, together with the boy’s mother, appear to be the only people to befriend the philosopher and to be aware of how merciless their community has become: “Everything taught to me about the world and humanity, the entire remainder of Christendom, is shamed by the person of Herr Veilchenfeld.” His deeply reflective inner world and the outer world cannot co-exist. Knowledge is weakness and “What one does not absolutely have to know, one can live without knowing”, as the father says, bringing Wittgenstein to mind.

Hofmann’s writing has a pleasing formality and subtlety (in an excellent translation), which brings us through both depths of thought and violence with the same patient clarity.


The Madness by Narcís Oller, translated by Douglas Suttle (Fum D'Estampa Press, 125pp, £9.99), was first published in 1899 and is also being made available for the first time in English, by a press dedicated to Catalan literature. Set at a time of considerable upheaval in Spain, the author presents us with an idealistic young man called Daniel Serrallonga, whose progressive political involvement develops alongside a worrying tendency towards emotional and mental instability.

Our knowledge of him is gleaned from the observations and gossip of the narrator and his acquaintances and much of the significance of this very fine, realist novel is borne by the narrator’s understanding of the malign impact he and his friends may have had on Serrallonga. This understanding advances – in a novel which reflects the attitudes of its time – an enlightened awareness of serious mental health (“a mystery as deep and unfathomable as the essence and function of reason itself”).

For the two women central to Daughters by Lucy Fricke, translated by Sinéad Crowe (V&Q Books, 199pp, £12.99), life has failed to give them what they want, in part because they are unsure of what exactly it is they want: "we had to do what we wanted, which in turn meant we had to want something. That's what our mothers had fought for."

A request by the father of one of the women, Martha, to be brought to a clinic in Switzerland where his much-deteriorated life can be ended leads to a road-trip in which, with a great deal of humour, they challenge one another to explain and justify their approach to relationships and their dealings with father-figures.

The energy in the exchanges dissipates when Betty, the first-person narrator of the novel, goes to Greece on a search of her own. There, a series of coincidences leads, not to fulfilment, but rather to the realisation that updating one’s memory files can only lead to disappointment. People will always be as they are, not as we might wish them to be. By the time Martha joins her on the island the dilemmas that have accumulated around both their pasts seem surmountable and the ending is unexpectedly poignant.

A departed father is also a continuous presence in Nadia Terranova's Farewell, Ghosts, translated by Ann Goldstein (Seven Stories Press, 218pp, £12.99). For Ida, the narrator, "memory has sturdy shoes and implacable patience", an impression intensified when she returns to her birthplace in Sicily to help her mother while building work is carried out on her home.

Ida’s father – his life burdened by depression – disappeared when she was young, leaving an unresolved void which becomes a source of dreams, visions and deeply reflective thoughts on the connections that we need to sustain us if we are to continue with our lives.

It’s beautifully done, casting shadows on the past and illumination on the present as she argues and reaches accommodations with her mother. She realises too that the greatest difficulty is talking to those we know best. “How many people know this story?” she asks one of the builders when he opens his soul to her. “Only strangers. The only ones you can tell things to.”

Another father is central to The Family Clause by Jonas Hassen Khemiri, translated by Alice Menzies (Harvill Secker, 308pp, £16.99), an exceptionally well-constructed novel in which this detached and bellicose man makes one of his occasional visits to Stockholm, where his son and daughter now live.

Like all other characters in the novel, he is never given a name, just his position within the family, so that at all times we are acutely aware of the knotty connections between these people. There is a side-on aspect to the telling of often mundane details that gives them more heft than might be expected and each character – even a one-year-old child and a dead daughter – is allowed passages of personal observation.

The tedium of parenthood – as well as the awareness of how upbringing affects children – is handled exceptionally well. This is not a plot-driven novel but there are times when the anticipation of a character’s fate becomes a matter of intense interest. This is especially so during a series of humiliations suffered by one of the characters which becomes cruelly compelling. But, in the end, Khemiri is kind to his characters and allows them the chance to learn from their mistakes and then, in all likelihood, repeat them.