Archive for the ‘World’s Most Difficult Books’ Category

Welcome back to my reread of the Guardian’s list of the world’s most difficult books. Previous entries can be found here. This is the third part of the No Place on Earth review in which I’ll be tackling pages 25-50.

What happens:

When we left them, Kleist and von Gunderrode were both attending an afternoon tea party, neither of them particularly enjoying it. They are aware of each other, sensing a kindred spirit, but have made no move to speak.

In pages 25-50, Kleist eavesdrops on a conversation between von Gunderrode and Clemens Bretano, the brother of her friend Bettine in which they discuss von Gunderrode’s character. This causes Kleist to reflect on his own relationship with his ex-fiancée Wilhelmine and how he did not have romantic feelings for her. He notes that he has a bad habit of reflecting on the past, or looking to the future rather than living in the present. Despite his sharing his dreams of death with his fiancé, they shared no emotional intimacy. Once again, Kleist touches on his feelings of depression and the choice he faces of allowing it to overpower him, or to deal with it and live a hum-drum boring existence.

Kleist is distracted by his friend Wedekind from falling into a panic attack. To distract him, they talk about Friedrich von Savigny, a man to whom, in Kleist’s opinion, everything in life falls easily. He thinks of an as-yet unwritten work which will offer a damning critique of his society.

They break for tea which leads into a von Gunderrode section. She, also, thinks of von Savigny, to whom she was once engaged to be married, and who is now married to her friend Gunda. Von Gunderrode feels as if the three of them are involved in a relationship, although in her view it is not she who is the third party, but the legally married Gunde. She discusses her writing with Clemens, saying that she writes what she feels as truth and expresses her feelings through writing. She speaks of these feelings as being loneliness and a sense of not belonging, but notes that her readers have not connected the feelings expressed in her poetry as being her own feelings. As she looks around the party, it becomes apparent to her that Kleist is looking isolated, that nobody other than Wedekind is making any attempt to draw him into the conversation.

Switching back to Kleist, he thinks on his friendship with Wedekind and how the latter’s care had helped him recover after his most recent nervous breakdown. Kleist makes it clear that despite the treatment, he still has suicidal feelings, and determines to end his own life.

As von Gunderrode walks across the room, a knife is let fall from her bag, which catches Kleist’s attention. He hands it back to her and notice that her friends are concerned that she always has it with her. Kleist’s friend, Wedekind, wishes to confiscate it as a threat to life, but von Gunderrode firmly but politely refuses. She thinks again about her relationship with von Savigny as is frustrated that in his eyes she should not approach him as intimately as she would like.

She sees Savigny start a conversation with Kleist and feels she must intervene as Kleist may be upset by Savigny. She approaches and they start to speak.


So, finally, our two protagonists speak! What strikes me most about their thoughts is that both value expressing their emotions through writing, although at this point von Kleist seems to be suffering writer’s block. Both are prey to deep, dark thoughts and have active thoughts of suicide.

During these pages both Kleist and von Gunderrode express frustrations with the expectations that society puts on them; Kleist is embarrassed by his inability to share intimacy with his fiancée as would be expected (an indication of his homosexuality as many scholars believe?), Gunderrode by being denied the right to express her feelings for Savigny publicly because he is married. In both cases they seem to experience this as almost a physical dissociation from the place they find themselves in.

This novel was first published in 1979, a time when Christa Wolf was feeling increasingly frustrated by the situation in the former East Germany. She was particularly affected by the revoking of the citizenship of writer Wolf Biermann a year or so prior to writing this book. The themes of literature and society and dissatisfaction with one’s society are beginning to come through here.

Well, that’s all I’ve got for this week. See you back next week for some more!

So, my copy of No Place on Earth has finally arrived, and I’m ready to make a start on my blog challenge to read the World’s Ten Most Difficult Books as defined by The Guardian. I plan to follow a similar format to Leigh Butler’s wonderful Ice and Fire reading blog; that is, I will read a few chapters each week, note what happens and my reactions to it. I hope to post once a week.

Before I get into No Place on Earth, some background information. Christa Wolf was born on March 18, 1929, in Landsberg, which is now Gorzow, Poland. Her father joined the Nazi Party and she became a member of the girls’ version of the Hitler Youth. In 1949, she joined the Socialist Unity Party and studied German literature at universities in Jena and Leipzig. She wrote numerous novels during her lifetime including The Divided Heaven, The Quest for Christa T., A Model Childhood, and Cassandra. She won several awards including the Heinrich Mann Prize in 1963 and Thomas Mann Prize for literature in 2010. She died on December 1, 2011 at the age of 82.

Published in 1979, No Place on Earth describes an imaginary meeting between the poet and dramatist Heinrich von Kleist and the poet Karoline von Gunderode. At a gathering of literary friends in the early summer of 1804, the two slowly come together, allied in that they cannot accept the world in which they must live.

This book has been a personal nemesis of mine ever since it was set as one of the books for my second year German university course. Now, this course was very well thought out. It paired a piece of classic German literature with a more contemporary work. We had studied Heinrich von Kleist’s play Penthisilea, and, as No Place on Earth has Kleist as a main character, the two seemed a natural pairing. We were expected to read it in the original German, Kein Ort. Nirgends. There were 25 of us in my class, and all of us struggled with this book. One unexpected advantage was that it bonded the class in loathing of this book like no other, a bond which lasted the rest of our university careers and beyond.

This was before the age of Amazon and the Internet, and despite tireless research by the entire class, we were only able to locate one copy of the English translation in the whole of Edinburgh. This, naturally, was in the possession of the tutor, the wonderful Dr Karin McPherson, who guarded that copy as a dog guards her bone. Eventually, one of my classmates managed to pry it from her, and immediately distributed it to the rest of us. Sadly, the English translation didn’t make getting to grips with the novel any easier…

So, please join me next week when I will tackle pages 3-25 of No Place on Earth to see if, twenty years later, I can start to conquer this Everest.

Recently, the UK’s The Guardian posted an article on the world’s most difficult books. These are:

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes;
A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift;
The Phenomenology of Spirit by GF Hegel;
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf;
Clarissa, or, The History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson;
Finnegans Wake by James Joyce;
Being and Time by Martin Heidegger;
The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser;
The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein;
and Women and Men by Joseph McElroy.

Now, I’ve not read any of these so I cannot comment on their level of difficulty. However, I did think this sounded like an interesting blogging challenge. There is also one book I will personally add to the list: No Place on Earth, by Christa Wolf. This was one of my set books at university and I could never get to grips with it. Maybe after, um, quite a few more years of life experience I may find it easier.

I will not be starting this blog challenge straight away – I have several books I’m reading currently, and ones I’m waiting to read so the challenge will have to wait a bit. It’s unlikely I’ll read the books quickly; most probably I’ll read a few chapters a week and try to blog once a week on what I’ve read. I also make no promises of completing this, but I’m willing to have a try.

Wish me luck!