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A Memoir, not a Novel,
This review is from: You Are Not Like Other Mothers (Paperback)
Essentially, this is a memoir of the author's mother, Else Kirchner, a remarkable woman whose life spanned two world wars and was in many ways a pioneer for social and sexual freedom. I read the first 200 pages or so with considerable interest, but admit to skimming more rapidly through the remaining 330. For I bought it in the belief that it would be a novel -- it is clearly labeled as such on the back cover -- and increasingly felt the lack of the focus that a true fiction writer would have brought to it.
Gradually, as when I Googled the name of Else's first husband, the critic and playwright Fritz Schwiefert, I came to realize that all the people in the book were real. But there have been other novels about real people; Bruce Duffy's THE WORLD AS I FOUND IT (about Wittgenstein) and Colm Tóibín's THE MASTER (Henry James) being two examples. Their authors call them novels, I suppose, to give themselves the freedom to invent dialogue, to speculate, to arrange events by theme rather than chronology. But it is a difficult form to bring off, and I don't feel that Schrobsdorff entirely succeeds.
Yet she does bring a lot of interest in the earlier sections, partly through the double perspective of the daughter returning to Berlin from Israel to dig up memories of her mother's life, partly through the intrinsic interest of that life itself. For Else broke all the moulds. Her marriage to Fritz, cultured and fascinating, but a Christian, caused her Jewish parents to break with her completely. When she answered his love affairs with one of her own, and expressed a determination to have a child with every man she loved, she came to epitomize the free spirit of the Berlin Twenties. At one point, she was living in a villa in Dahlem in a precarious ménage-à-cinq: herself, Fritz (still her husband, and the father of her first child), Hans (the father of her second child, and a future Nazi), Erich (an upright businessman, her future second husband, and the author's father), and the Baroness Eugenie von Liebig (Fritz's mistress and her own best friend). One of the best reasons to read the book is the portrait of respectable Berlin society before the first war, and the "grandiose dance of death" that followed it.
But the book as a whole has too much tell and too little show. As the author, Angeli, grows up we have to hear about all her childhood memories also, and the portrait of her mother gets obscured by trivia. Surely Else was not alone among German Jews in downplaying the importance of the new racial laws, but detachment and wishful thinking does not make for a gripping narrative. She gets out by marrying a Bulgarian, and shortly afterwards sends for her daughter to follow her. These are facts, little more, merely amplifying the information on the jacket flap, and finally underlining how much I missed the power of a true novelist. Though the story continues for ten more years, I no longer had any interest in following it.
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 24, 2012 7:25:18 AM PDT
Friederike Knabe says:
Roger, well explained why the book didn't work for you. I looked it up when you mentioned the author's name and I somehow assumed that it was a somewhat fictionalized memoir of the author's mother. Useful maybe as a historical document, but not really in a broader sense of a novel. Friederike
In reply to an earlier post on May 24, 2012 7:30:29 AM PDT
Roger Brunyate says:
Friederike, this crossed my letter to you suggesting you look at this! The one other review on the site suggests that the most interesting thing may be the story of the daughter coming to terms with her feelings for her mother. But if so, it takes a long time for that theme to come into focus. Roger.
In reply to an earlier post on May 24, 2012 7:37:52 AM PDT
Friederike Knabe says:
Roger, I glanced at the comment on the other review rather than the review. However, I am not surprised that this could be the drift of the story... Especially given the mother's life and the times in which she lived and where. Friederike
Posted on May 24, 2012 7:44:49 AM PDT
Now we need a word to combine memoir and fiction.(like we have faction). I would also be disappointed, because memoirs are one of my least favorite forms. Yet, I just recently read a "memoir" (A SENSE OF DIRECTION) that I loved. But, memoirs are too...inevitable? for me (how it is fleshed out).
In reply to an earlier post on May 24, 2012 9:26:41 AM PDT
Roger Brunyate says:
"Memotion," perhaps, Bug? But that would require the result to show some emotion, whereas this is remarkably free of it.
Freiderike, I know where your last comment is coming from, as another such daughter, albeit of a later generation and with different concerns.
I think it may be interesting that Schobdorff married Claude Lanzmann, whose SHOAH set a new standard for Holocaust narrative, entirely eschewing both archival footage and the use of actors. The question of how best to tell the story of the past must surely have been almost breakfast-table conversation. So I don't imagine any failures here were the result of not thinking it through enough, merely the problem of having so much to cover and so many viewpoints to represent. And her husband's nine-hour film would not have given her a role-model for compression!
Thank you both for your comments. Roger.
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