In this new bimonthly series, “Best of the B-Sides,” critic and bookseller Lori Feathers recommends a new work in translation along with a number of backlist (“B-Side”) titles that you might have missed. The books selected might explore a similar theme, or include various titles from an author’s body of work. With this series we hope to draw readers to timeless works in translation.
I love a novel in which the author imagines a generational home and makes it central to the narrative. In these books the protagonists’ residence is so much more than a dwelling, it is a family legacy—very often a mansion, old and grand (or retaining echoes of a former grandeur). The look and feel of the house sometimes mirrors the personalities of its inhabitants and very often symbolizes the political and social conditions beyond its walls. In this second installment of “Best of the B-Sides,” I look at four novels in which a family’s home is integral to the story. (Read the first installment.)
Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing (NYRB Classics, 2018), translated from the German by Anthea Bell, opens with a description of Georgenhof, the von Globig family’s estate in East Prussia. It is January 1945. Russian troops are at the German border and advancing. Within Georgenhof the rumble of distant bombing is heard, while outside, intermittent columns of German tanks overtake clusters of fleeing civilians, their possessions heaped high onto wooden wagons. The war years find Georgenhof diminished: ill-timed investments by the latest von Globig heir, Eberhard, necessitated the sale of most of the land surrounding the manor house, and many of the mansion’s rooms have been closed to preserve heat. An officer in the German military, Eberhard is stationed in Italy, leaving behind his wife, Katharina; their twelve-year old son, Peter; an “Auntie”; and three house staff.
The enigmatic Katharina abdicates to others—namely Auntie and a local teacher who tutors Peter—all responsibility for administering the household and raising her son. Katharina’s disinterest in Georgenhof and the noble lineage into which she married is so absolute that she even neglects to learn the names of the von Globig ancestors whose portraits hang on the walls. Her ambivalence extends to Peter, to whom she pays little notice, largely removing herself from his and Auntie’s presence by withdrawing to her suite of rooms for hours at a time, reading, making paper cutouts, and clandestinely listening to BBC Radio’s coverage of the war. Auntie believes Katharina to be an incurable daydreamer, incapable of thinking about things in a practical way or doing anything useful.
Auntie kept the household accounts of the estate in the upper compartments of her old desk, which could be locked, and ever since Eberhard had been on active service she had dealt with the official correspondence there, because Katharina von Globig always forgot it, was easily discouraged, and looked so helpless, saying, “Oh, my goodness, yes! I quite forgot.” In the end Auntie preferred to do everything herself.
A hopeless romantic, Katharina’s greatest satisfaction is keeping secrets about herself—one concerns a past tryst; another arises from an episode at the mansion that occurs during the course of the novel.
Like its mistress, Georgenhof’s essence is a puzzle. The house is the object of both reverential respect and envious scorn from neighbors who reside in the modern housing development across the street. For a number of war refugees, Georgenhof becomes a beacon of safety, a transient shelter as Russian troops penetrate ever further into German territory. And while Georgenhof protects the von Globigs from the danger and chaos of the war, it also confines them, facilitating their inertia and jeopardizing their timely evacuation to safer ground.
With Georgenhof, author Kempowski has created a stage for exploring the moral and existential decisions that confront ordinary people when their beliefs and very lives are under siege. And the house proves an ideal setting to examine the inherent tendency to privilege our own personal concerns and preoccupations over crises that are public and shared, no matter how grave or exigent the latter. Kempowski’s writing style is invitingly original, leavening the horrors of war with unexpected irony and wit, and reading Anthea Bell’s translation you feel that she successfully captured all of the playful tone and engaging rhythm of the author’s wonderful prose.
In Portuguese author Eҫa de Queirós’s novel The Maias (New Directions, 2007), translated by Margaret Jull Costa, patriarch Alfonso da Maia decides that he and his orphaned grandson, Carlos, will leave their country estate and move to the family’s long-vacant Lisbon residence so that Carlos, now grown, can experience culture and society. The Lisbon house, “Ramalhete”—or “House of the Bouquet of Flowers”—is so named for the decorative tiles on the portico, where one would normally find a family coat of arms. Alfonso’s longtime friend and administrator warns against the move, fearing an old legend that the walls of Ramalhete always prove fatal for the Maias family.
Although Carlos was educated as a physician, his chief pursuit is having a good time, taking full advantage of his inherited wealth and status. Despite Carlo’s dilettante lifestyle, Alfonso persistently works to instill in his grandson and only heir a sense of the family’s history and honor. Carlos’s amorous exploits come to a sudden halt when he meets a newly arrived, mysterious beauty. Their love affair creates scandal and heartbreak when her past and true identity are revealed, culminating in events that validate Ramalhete’s curse. The Maias is a seminal classic of Portuguese literature, and this translation by Margaret Jull Costa makes the experience of reading it every bit as satisfying as reading one of its nineteenth-century American or British counterparts.
German author Thomas Mann is known for his wonderful novel The Magic Mountain; however, Mann’s first novel, Buddenbrooks (Vintage, 1994), translated by John E. Woods, is a comedy of manners that should be on everyone’s reading list. It is the story of the economic and moral fall of the eponymous Buddenbrooks, a prominent German merchant family. The family patriarch purchases their spacious city residence in Lübeck in 1835 at the apex of his financial and social power. The stone inscription at the mansion’s entrance pronounces Dominus providebit, and the Buddenbrooks indeed believe that God, in his wisdom, elected to grace their family with lavish wealth and prosperity. But not long after the patriarch dies the Buddenbrooks’s good fortune shifts into reverse. A series of poor business decisions, a misguided marriage, contested inheritances, illness, deaths, and lack of enthusiasm for the family enterprise accumulate to the point of precariousness. The Buddenbrooks’s hubris and unwillingness to live within the bounds of their slowly diminishing means eventually result in the family’s selling their city mansion at a considerable loss. These prideful, sanctimonious, and jealous characters come to life in Mann’s vibrant and observant style, full of empathy and subtle humor.
In Brazilian writer Lúcio Cardoso’s 1959 gothic novel, Chronicle of the Murdered House (Open Letter, 2016), translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, the murdered house is the Charcara dos Menezes, the country home of the locally prominent Meneses family. Within its time-scarred walls live the three grown sons of the late Dona Malvina Meneses—Demétrio, Valdo, and the recluse Timóteo. Valdo’s young wife, Nina, is a vibrant beauty with a hyperactive, romantic imagination who adores fancy things. It is principally Nina’s (and the Charcara’s) story that Cardoso unspools in a tale involving extramarital affairs, incest, unrequited passions, and revenge; a heavy mix tinged with touches of melodrama that reveal the author’s droll sense of humor. The village priest, one of the rare visitors to the Charcara, has a theory for why evil pervades the household:
I wondered what made this house so cold, so soulless. And it was then that I discovered the formidable immutability of its walls, the frozen tranquility of its inhabitants. . . . [T]here is nothing more diabolical than certainty.
Chronicle of the Murdered House earns pride of place as a classic of world literature because it is a complete novel: fully realized characters, expressive writing, an exciting and finely plotted story, and enduring reflections on the human condition.