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Verlassene Zimmer: Roman (suhrkamp taschenbuch)

Verlassene Zimmer - Hermann Lenz I shall keep the form of my consecutively updated (and later somewhat revised) review, since it reflects the very unusual reading experience I had with this book. When I learned that one of my favorite authors, Peter Handke, admired Hermann Lenz, I had to acquaint myself with his work. Verlassene Zimmer is the first of a 9 volume (!) cycle of autobiographical novels. It is set among the petite bourgeoisie in southern Germany (Swabia, to be more precise), and the first part of the novel runs from the end of the 1880's to 1907, the second part until some time in the 1920's. I can see why Handke perceives a relationship with Lenz. Both write minute descriptions of the outside world leavened with the internal monologue of the main character, although I find that Handke's German is more flexible and sensitive than that of Lenz. In addition, both authors have little interest in plot or in engaging in events of significance in the outside world. However, Handke's main characters usually have a more interesting internal monologue than that of Lenz's Julius, the character closely followed in the first half of the book. But Julius has just died of a stroke (related in an extremely indirect manner), so one can hope that the next mind to be explored will be a bit more interesting... Update: No such luck! The story is now being told from the point of view of Julius' wife, whom I shall call "Mother"; the story has become even more (excruciatingly) domestic in its focus. Mother (now a grandmother) has an even more limited vision of life than her husband. The characters have passed through the First World War, but the only reason the reader knows of this apparently insignificant series of events is that it was reported that the son-in-law came back home twice to recover from serious wounds. And the subsequent "November Revolution" was memorialized in the text by Mother observing a placard trumpeting "something about unrest or revolution" and by a firebombed banker's house down the road, briefly observed. There are, of course, many unreliable narrators in literature, but here we have a narrator without a single clue! On the plus side, I now know the appearance and the use of every single household item of a typical bourgeois home of those times... (groan) This is a very slow slog - the next books in the series cover the times of National Socialism and the postwar years. Is Lenz going to continue in this vein? Stay tuned for an update, though I am tempted to toss this book and the entire series into the wastebin (well, at least return it to the library). Mother's grandson, Eugen Rapp (the character around whom the entire series is said to turn and Lenz's alter ego), is now around 8 years old. Update: All of Mother's attention is focused on Eugen. The hyperinflation in Germany during the 1920's is noted solely through the remark that Eugen took a ten million Mark bill to pay for a violin lesson. Nothing is reported that does not directly involve the now 10 year old boy. Final update This is a most unusual book, and I see that I came to it with hopes and preconceptions which became obstacles in properly appreciating it. (Let's face it, this is not the first time for me to do that, and it is evident to me from many sources that it is rather common in most, perhaps all, readers. Could it be true of you, as well?) I am not sure I will be in a position to properly appreciate the book until I have read most, perhaps even all of the cycle. So, what do I know now? At the end of the second and last part of this book, Mother (as I have been calling her), who is Eugen's (Hermann's) grandmother, dies. This is not reported indirectly, as was done for his grandfather's death; instead, her final failing and decease were related from the inside in a rather touching and lovely manner. I also know the stylistic relations between Handke and Lenz (see above), at least on the basis of this one book. I know that Handke said that Lenz' work is "poetischer Geschichtsunterricht" (poetic history lessons), and that this is simply not true of this book unless one understands "history" in a very limited sense. But it may well be true of later volumes in the cycle. I know that Lenz loves the slow motion life, the clothing and the daily implements of pre-World-War-I German provincial life. I now conjecture that this first book was written to evoke that for which Lenz is most nostalgic about his boyhood and that the little bit of outside events he allowed Mother to report was precisely the little he himself noted when he was a small boy. I'm not sure if I approve of his being his grandmother's and grandfather's ventriloquist, but I'll let that go for now. So, I tentatively assign a rating of three stars to this book, reserving, as always, the right to revise my opinion in light of further thought and reading... (Not that such a rating actually matters to anyone except, possibly, me.) Final final update? After reading Czesław Miłosz' The Issa Valley , which is another nostalgic resurrection of a remembered boyhood, the limitations of Lenz' book have become more apparent. Whereas Lenz places the reader directly into the minds of his grandparents, where very little room is to be found, Miłosz tells his story in omniscient third person (though sometimes he plays the game of pretending to be not so omniscient), giving the reader the benefit of much more variety. Lenz' prose is much less appealing than Miłosz', and it manifests none of the imaginative flights and wry humor Miłosz brings to his story. So, only 2 stars for Verlassene Zimmer .