Time for a little fanfare as my newest NYRB subscription book came in the mail yesterday. I knew I would not be finished with the January selection, Eileen Chang's Little Reunions, but I am actually quite pleased with my progress in it. I was a little apprehensive about the book, as it seemed a little formidable when I first picked it up. The story comes with an eight page index of characters and while not especially chunky, those 320 or so odd pages are filled with dense print. It is a novel that requires, for me at least, steady concentration and is not a book that is especially dippable--one to read a little and set down for a few days.
To that end I have very religiously been reading about six pages daily. I realize that sounds like very little effort, but that is what has made it so manageable. Sometimes facing a difficult or long text makes me not want to pick it up until 'I know I will have a chunk of time to spend with it'. As my reading is done mostly in small daily doses here and there throughout the day, there never seems to be a time where I get unlimited free reading. So six pages is eminently manageable. And now I am nearing the halfway mark. Often I want to spend even more time with the story and look forward to the next six pages, so with continued dedication I will finish it (even if it takes me longer than the month between NYRB books that arrive in the mail).
I am hoping that works the same with Walter Kempowski's All for Nothing (Alles Umsonst, translated from the German by Anthea Bell). Actually I have the UK edition of this book, which I started to read a couple of years ago for Caroline's Literature and War Readalong. I quite liked what I read, but it was a case of too many books and not enough time. I meant to get back to it, and now I will. In length it is about the same as the Chang (but with no extensive character list), but there are shorter chapters and lots of text breaks so I hope to read more in each sitting and will be starting today.
All for Nothing was Kapowski's last book and was only published in 2006, so a fairly recent one compared to many other NYRB selections.
"In East Prussia, January 1945, the German forces are in retreat and the Red Army is approaching. The von Globig family’s manor house, the Georgenhof, is falling into disrepair. Auntie runs the estate as best she can since Eberhard von Globig, a special officer in the German army, went to war, leaving behind his beautiful but vague wife, Katharina, and her bookish twelve-year-old son, Peter. As the road fills with Germans fleeing the occupied territories, the Georgenhof begins to receive strange visitors—a Nazi violinist, a dissident painter, a Baltic baron, even a Jewish refugee. Yet in the main, life continues as banal, wondrous, and complicit as ever for the family, until their caution, their hedged bets, and their denial are answered by the wholly expected events they haven’t allowed themselves to imagine."
Walter Kempowski was a boy of fifteen when he witnessed this mass exodus of German population in 1945. His own father had been conscripted by then and died in battle on the Baltic coast. It sounds as though Kempowski used autobiographical material in his writings. He had spent eight years in prison for being found guilty of collaborating with American intelligence and when he was released he was deported to the west as by then the Iron Curtain had fallen. In her introduction Jenny Erpenbeck writes, "he developed an unsentimental, strikingly precise style that leaves it up to the reader to assess and evaluate what is presented."
I'm really looking forward to reading this. He sounds like an important writer who was quite prolific, though I don't think much of his writing has been translated into English. Hopefully there will be more to come.
If I accomplish one reading 'goal' this year it is to get through all my NYRBs! They can be substantial reads, but they are worth all the time and effort and in the end the most rewarding, too.