Friday, February 08, 2013

German to leave you squirmin'

Someone must be spying on me. I've been posting about Robert Musil and Joseph Roth, and the good folks at Penguin must be paying attention because a package of books that arrived yesterday included, in addition to crime novels and thrillers, a collection called Tales of the German Imagination.

The book includes "tales of melancholy and madness, nightmare and fantasy" going back 200 years from the Brothers Grimm, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Heinrich von Kleist, Peter Alternberg, Rilke, Kafka ("In the Penal Colony"), Paul Celan, and many more — including Musil.

Kafka and Celan certainly have much to teach crime writers about atmosphere and grim, grim humor. Your question: What can crime writers learn from tales of nightmare, fantasy, and angst?

(Find the table of contents of Tales of the German Imagination here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

25 Comments:

Blogger Dana King said...

Wow. Any book titled, "Tales of the German Imagination" must be a lugh a minute.

The biggest thing crime writers can learn such tales is not to be so graphic all the time. Learn what occupies nightmares and fantasies, and give enough description for the reader's imagination to take over. No one can scare or arouse you like your own imagination.

February 08, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana: You're right on both counts. I've read a couple of the book's shorter pieces, and they are both funny in a surreal, deadpan, absurd way, and creepy precisely because they avoid graphic dismemberment and torture of the kind so common in crime novels these days.

February 08, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Poe, the widely claimed "father" of the detective story, knew a thing or two about nightmares, fantasies, and angst. Modern crime writers ought to return regularly to reading Poe, and they will be reminded that terrors are born in the mind rather than in explicit violence. Of course, German tales of imagination involve the Romanticist mindset, and that makes them kindred spirits of Poe, America's most frightening Romanticist (with the close contenders for that title being Nathaniel Hawthorne and H. P. Lovecraft). BTW, Kafka's "In the Penal Colony" is one of the most terrifying stories ever written. Enjoy your immersion in German Romanticism and terror!

February 08, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Postscript: We must be on the same mailing list. The UPS fellow just dropped off a package containing two LeCarre's, one French, and (drum roll, please) Tales of the German Imagination. Weird, huh?

February 08, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yep, that was the same package I received. Nothing uncanny about that, though. It's just modern marketing in action.

February 08, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Interesting that such a resident of the darker recesses of the imagination was also such a prolific innovator in crime fiction. Crime stories were thus linked to nightmare and fantasy from their very beginning as a genre, at least in the West. I wonder when and why that connection was severed.

Cripes, but America's Most Frightening Romanticist sounds like another spin-off of American Idol. One can almost picture the earnest, well-scrubbed youths on stage acting out Poe and Kafka.

February 08, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

I haven't read all that many tales of the German imagination. Or I maybe did as a kid without distinguishing them as such.

I have been watching the television series Grimm on and off though. It relies or seems to rely a lot on such Germanic imaginings, although I gather they are largely the writers' reconstruction of their idea of such characters. Still, it reminds me of my sense of the, well, grimness of Grimm when compared to some other fairy tales.

I don't know if the show is really all that good, but they do put a lot of work into it,and I find myself coming back to it. And as sometimes happens, the best character is a supporting character, Munroe, the well-intentioned werewolf.

February 09, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I didn't know there was a Grimm series. As much as I enjoy the description "Munroe, the well-intentioned werewolf," I'm unsure such benevolent creatures turn up in any of the tales I've read so far.

I haven't read enough either in the tales or in the introductory matter to be able to judge what, if anything is especially German(ic) about the stories, but the ones I have read are creepy. all right, and without the easy resort to death or bloody endings. That, too, is something that modern-day crime writers could learn from.

February 09, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

I'd be curious what the introduction has to say about all that.

February 09, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

As would I. But I decided that it was best to immerse myself immediately in the madness and the angst without erecting too much of a scholarly apparatus--a Romantic attitude, I admit, and appropriate to the stories.

February 09, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

I try never to read introductions first either. Not because of the scholarly apparatus but because they invariably give something away. I do enjoy reading them afterwards, though.

February 09, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Introductory and other supplementary material can be interesting, though. You'll know that I've reading Musil and Paul Celan. I read and liked a tale in the collection by Ingeborg Bachmann, who turns out to have been born in Musil's hometown and to have been a lover and friend of Celan's.

February 09, 2013  
Blogger Dave Whish-Wilson said...

I agree with Dana. But a question - not having read much scandinavian crime fiction. Do writers such as Nesbo, with a focus on weird serial killers tap into nightmare fears more capably than other crime writers? I saw him at a writers festival talk about a character who, having murdered his girlfriend, embalmed her in alcohol inside his (no longer) water bed. He liked to go to sleep, and dream, knowing that she was dead beneath him, knowing that other women he slept with were unaware. The image of a couple making love above the floating corpse of a murder victim seems to me pure Poe (for a modern age.)

February 10, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dave, I think that was from Devil's Star. If I recall correctly, though, we don't get the big revelation about the body in the water bed until fairly close to the end. So it's not as if the story is a nightmare from the beginning. What Nesbo does in incorporate horror or ghost stories, among several other elements, in his books.

Once again, I have to thank you for getting me onto this German/Austro-Hungarian thing. I finished all of The Man Without Qualities published in Musil's lifetime, am a couple of chapters into the material from the posthumous papers, and am falling over myself figuring out what to read next.

February 10, 2013  
Blogger Dave Whish-Wilson said...

I'll have to go back and reread The Man Without Qualities. In the meantime, and heading back to Germany rather than Austro-Hungary, for a blast you could leap into Berlin Alexanderplatz, or for something more thoughtful, some Elias Canetti perhaps?

February 10, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I read the first few chapters of Hermann Broch's Sleepwalkers a few weeks ago and found it distinctly Musil-like, but with a more conventional plot. I thought, "I'd have liked this very much if I had not read Musil first." Them I picked up a volume of Cantti's memoirs that had been sitting in my desk at work for years. I looked up "Musil." Though Broch was a big fan and supporter of Musil's, according to Canetti, Musil thought Sleepwalkers was nothing but a Musil rip-off. So I regard Canetti as man of sound views because his views are in accord with my own. What should I read by him? All I know of his work is one title: Auto da Fe.

My between-Musil reading is An Ermine in Czernopol--post-Austro-Hungarian, pre-World War iI mileu, but a lot funnier, and a nice change.

February 10, 2013  
Blogger Dave Whish-Wilson said...

In the interests of pursuing matters of German identity, Crowds and Power is an interesting read, even if its thesis might be seen as another product of the German imagination rather than a matter of fact.

February 10, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, though the occurrence of German, crowds, and power in the same sentence is bound to make anyone cringe. I don't even like the slogan of my city's program under which the public library builds a year of programs around a single book. "One book, one Philadelphia" has an unfortunate echo.

February 10, 2013  
Blogger Lauren said...

Sleepwalkers gets much weirder later on, but I can sort of see what you mean. Anyway, the following is something of a stream-of-consciousness set of suggestions: feel free to ignore them if you want!

On Canetti, he thought the pinnacle of novel-writing was Don Quixote, so you could always read that! Otherwise, I prefer Canetti's memoirs to most of his other writing, to be honest.

Otherwise, it depends what you're after in your German-language writing. As Dave said, Berlin Alexanderplatz, without a doubt. Schnitzler, possibly - I prefer his shorter works and plays to anything longer. Heinrich Böll if you want postwar (The Clown, perhaps), although he's a matter of taste, and tolerance for overladen Catholicism. From the table of contents of Tales of the German Imagination, more Kleist (underrated); Hoffmann (the short stories but not Kater Murr, which I like but is a completely different genre); Tucholsky's Germany, Germany, perhaps in tandem with more Heine; possibly Robert Walser, who had some interesting pulp influences.

Most of the authors would be worth your time. Based on what your blog says about your general taste, I wouldn't really recommend more Ingeborg Bachmann, though. As much as suggesting Max Frisch instead is possibly in bad taste, he's good if you want to read some Swiss writing that's not Glauser or Dürrenmatt (the latter is recommended if you haven't read him).

*Blinks* OK, gets off soapbox. Perhaps I need my own blog - random literature in German from the great to very dodgy modern police procedurals?

February 13, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Feel free to mount that soaxbox any time and let your listeners subsume their indivisuality to the power of the surging crowd. Let me know if you start that German High und Low blog.

I bought a volume of Kafka's diaries today, and I thought I might look into Rilke's letters on Cezanne because I, too, fell under Cezanne's spell a few years ago. I think he may represent a pivotal point between the old and the new in painting the way writers such as Musil and Joseph Roth do in literature.

To update you on my progress, I am very close to finishing The Man Without Qualities through the twenty chapters that Musil withdrew after they were in galleys, which is probably as close as one can get to "finishing" the book. (I'd have got through it faster but for the occasional need to read and write about a crime novel.)

Some of Robert Walser's Berlin Stories seemed a bit precious in a way that Joseph Roth's pieces in What I Saw did not. And it's good to hear that Sleepwalkers gets weirder.

You once tentatively attributed you impatience with The Man Without Qualities tou your prior familiarity with the novel’s philosophical ideas. Here’s an opportunity for you to read or even write about those ideas.

February 13, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Looks like you missed the deadline for submissions. I've read a bit of Dürrenmatt. He's like Glauser but without a sense of humor.

February 13, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I thought I had not heard of Tucholsky, but he has a story in Takes of the German Imagination, "The Time Saver," written under the name Ignaz Wrobel.

February 13, 2013  
Blogger Lauren said...

Yes, Dürrenmatt isn't exactly known for his humour, at least not in his crime novels, although I find the play Romulus the Great pretty funny. The Visit is supposed to be a tragi-comedy, but I've both read it and seen it staged and on TV, and never actually found myself even slightly amused.

On a tangent, Leif GW Persson, who isn't really a favourite author otherwise, riffs nicely on some of Dürrenmatt's ideas in The Dying Detective (which isn't available in English, alas.) Frisch, however, did write with a sense of humour. (Just don't mention him among Bachmann fans - that will not win you any friends.)

A lot of authors of this period come across fantastically well in their letters, diaries and autobiographies, so it's nice so much is available in English.

(Oh, and regarding transitional authors, I always find it interesting that so many of the Viennese greats never managed it, despite living well into the 1930s.)

For short stories that you might like more than Walser I can pass on a recommendation of Peter Altenberg. Some of his material is pretty odd (as was he!), but I *think* the translated snippets fall into the more readable category. "Reader beware", because I haven't checked this.

On crime and what one reads in-between, I'm currently rereading the James Bond novels. Interesting juxtaposition...

February 13, 2013  
Blogger Lauren said...

Yes, that's why I mentioned him. To confess: I don't know that story, but seeing the table of contents reminded me that Tucholsky was a fantastic satirist. It's sometimes hard for me to judge what works out of context, but I think he definitely does.

February 13, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lauren, I found Dürrenmatt's The Pledge dreary and obvious, which is not to say it would not have been much less obvious when it appeared. Its subtitle, however -- Requiem for the Detective Novel -- is unpromising, however.

Peter Altenberg is in the German Imagination book. Maybe I'm just beginning my reading with those Viennese/Austro-Hungarian writers who recognized the transition, so I assumed they all did. I've been saying that The Man Without Qualities is the twentieth century in an easily portable package.

Hmm, you could invent a mid-century German spy named James Bund.

February 13, 2013  

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