Your short story collection Swallow Summer, translated by Lyn Marven (2016. Originally, Schwalbensommer, 2003) made me think of tracks made of air: we might know they have just been travelled by birds, but we cannot trace back the moment immediately before their departure, or the very first movement of their wings. Your stories felt to me as if you were trying to hold that very memory of the wings springing into flight: as we read, something touches us with its wind, yet we can never really touch it back, or get hold of it.
All the stories are inhabited by 30-something men and women caught in the middle of a change of season: they seem to be as erratic as migratory birds. They have lost something somewhere, but are yet to become really aware of their loss. The last swallow has already flown away, but your characters haven’t yet taken notice of it. They are drifting, lost in the in-between. We, the readers, seem to be the only ones who know they will soon be forced to confront themselves with the void left by departing swallows. In many ways, things have turned out differently than what your characters expected.
Somehow, they have failed to connect – with their lives, their family, themselves. They frequently say the wrong thing, they circumvent, they are victims of misinterpretation. The right words seem to be always missing. Your narrative unfolds along the lines of what is left unspoken, as if what really mattered were located outside of the frame of what you are narrating. Like a camera, filming a blank wall, while somewhere out there we know there is someone speaking. We cannot see the speaker, we cannot see where the action is taking place, but we know there is something there, something is happening.
And your characters seem not to be able to see anything, either. Something is happening inside them, but it feels like they are watching it from a distance. Present events mingle with past ones, as rivers flowing into each other, with no clear borders. At times, the characters’ inner landscapes are invaded by the outside – the desert, the summer, the sky, as if in a flood where there is too much of everything – air, heat, stars, water, grief, all spilling from the outside in, and out again. Much remains unspoken, as if the silence could somehow erase loss, or fill the void.
In Melon Belly, former colleagues meet up and reminisce about the bankrupt start-up they used to work for. One of them might have been victim of harassment in the past, or a crush, we don’t know – and she doesn’t know either, the thing is left unspoken. She has just witnessed a gunshot in her block of flats in Berlin, and the two unrelated situations seem to strangely merge together. As violence is happening behind closed doors, we have the feeling that the main events are happening outside of the frame. Or else we might be only imagining them.
In Silent Fish, Sweetheart, we have interconnected stories of three generations of women: the narrator and her love story; her mother, telling the narrator about her difficult relationship with her own mother, Mima; and Mima herself, the narrator’s Russian grandmother, who refuses to speak German, “the language of the land she was forced to flee to”. The three women are connected by their refusal to communicate. “‘I want, I want,’ I say once more, then I can’t speak any more.”
In Full Speed Ahead in Neutral, two daughters disowned by their father are spending some time in Tel Aviv. They go out, they party, they fall in love. One of them is trying to forget their family issues, the other keeps bringing up the topic. One evening, in a bar, an Israeli man recites Paul Celan’s ‘Death Fugue’ to try to impress one of the sisters. It’s an odd situation: a poem evoking the Holocaust, recited by an Israeli to a German girl who cannot really remember what the poem is about.
From Above revolves around two music producers packing up their studio, and their hopes. In Acting, or Walking Around the Island, a former drama student runs into a classmate she has not seen in ten years. As her memories of him crash in the face of what he has become, she tries to replay their relationship, as if in a stage with a new scenario. In A Cat in Hell, a demolition worker is living a private conflict, much like the cat in the story, sitting quietly as his house is destroyed all around.
Sealed Sea is a story told by a woman who had heard it from her brother, and revolves around desire and betrayal. “The sky was exerting a pull on the water beneath, and I got the impression that we were moving on the spot. Pushing forwards, but being pulled back in the undertow.” Again, we have characters who do not communicate: the main action takes place as if behind a veil, a façade: “All words are worn out.”
The basic premise of North Star: Tucson is also a misunderstanding: a German woman flies to Arizona, taking at face value her crush’s invitation to come to visit him, only to find out he did not mean it literally. At a loss, she wanders through the motel where he leaves, and meets an old lady who seems to be equally lost. They both stare at the sky, and find the North Star: an immovable thing, used in the old days by sailors, so that they could always know where they were going. “And where they came from”, added the old American lady, “What I would give for a star like that, honey.”
Matchbox Cathedrals centres around two older men, Jott and Wilhelm, living together in a small dacha. Jott is eccentric, perhaps mentally handicapped, and enjoys building matchstick models as a hobby. He is mourning his sister, Amelie, who was married to Wilhelm. The siblings were inseparable, and the trio lived together even after the marriage. Since Amelie passed away, the two men have been co-habiting. One day, a mysterious runaway girl appears in their garden, disturbing their peace (and their carefully maintained silence) and bringing up to light Wilhelm’s suspicion about the cause of a scar Amelie had on her neck.
Finally, in Something for Nothing, the narrator, Marie, strikes up an ambiguous relationship with Uli, an antique camera dealer from whom she buys a used moped – ‘Swallow’, a brand favoured by Berlin hipsters. We barely notice that, at the same time, she is going through various stages of mourning for her father’s sudden death – as if she were watching it from a distance until the end of the story, when the full reality of that loss strikes her direct in the face. And, in a strange way, it feels as if her father’s death mirrored the end of the GDR, represented by an abandoned factory in East Berlin. Likewise, the departure of the swallows at the end of Summer made me think of the factory: a hollow place after the people were gone for a better life in the West, like swallows in search of a new Spring.
As for the writing, you managed to find a middle-ground between sparseness and vividness: the stories are mostly told in the first person, by a thirty-something German woman, in short sentences and unsentimental language. The writing is also very visual: the background descriptions mingle with what the characters seem to be feeling, so that the outside is made a part of the inside, and vice-versa. “The summer spread out over the city and the dry air turned dusty. (…) I left the window open, even at night. The summer stole into the apartment from outside and made it part of the city.” There is a detachment to your writing that reminded me of that of Judith Hermann: a feeling that the main narrative is pervaded by a cold, melancholic undercurrent.
Nothing really happens, but we feel something is stirring somewhere. We just cannot clearly see where, or what. The narrative tension does not happen in the surface, from the events related in the main plot, but lies just behind those events, in the cold undercurrent.
The reference to the swallows in the title permeates each story in a different way across the collection: as a reference to transiency, to loss, to midlife-crisis and the ‘autumn period of life’, to migration and nomadic life-styles, to rootlessness, homelessness. “In early autumn the swallows leave the North. They criss-cross the sky in wide sweeping ribbons, drop away, dart side to side in the air, soar up again effortlessly, full of strength for the flight south. (…) You could follow the swallows’ path along the dyke when they went south. They always flew over the land, never over the sea. When they went, you knew that autumn was coming.”
As I followed the movement of the swallows, your stories left me right in the middle of the tracks made of air I mentioned at the beginning of this letter – an empty undercurrent, or the void left behind immediately after the wings have flown away. Something I cannot put my fingers on, even though I know it is there. A strange, melancholic, passing feeling.
“I could see Baumann’s expression – the way he had been standing next to me by the lake with the melon for a belly. I ran my fingers over the edge of the window frame, over the patch I had torn off. I saw my own face in the pane of glass. I thought, my face is just a surface onto which my face is projected. The outside only looks like an outside. There’s nothing there.” – Larissa Boehning, “Melon Belly”, in Swallow Summer
“‘(…) Back then, talking became some sort of treasure that I had to protect’, my mother says, ‘by standing silent.'” – Larissa Boehning, “Silent Fish, Sweetheart”, in Swallow Summer
“Just recently, one of the songs that Mima sang came back to me. It’s a Russian children’s song, about a sailor who tells another sailor that he has lost his ship. Both of them are lamenting their ships when an old captain comes along. He follows their conversation. Then in the chorus you hear the captain saying, “Many a sailor has lost his ship, but I – I have lost my sea.” ‘Papulya always went quiet and listened when he heard Mima singing’, my mother says. She shakes her head as she tells me that, as if she wants to shake off the memory. Then she says in Russian, ‘But little Mima, I did understand you, I just never said anything.'” – Larissa Boehning, “Silent Fish, Sweetheart”, in Swallow Summer
“‘And one day I’ll be blown sky high along with everyone else here’, Anna said when they were backon the pavement again.” – Larissa Boehning, “Full speed ahead in neutral”, in Swallow Summer
“They left the shop and found themselves amid the noise of the street again. The flow of people pulled them along; they were drifting rather than walking. That was the way they were here.” – Larissa Boehning, “Full speed ahead in neutral”, in Swallow Summer
“The doors were thin, as if they were made of paper. One day this cardboard landscape would catch fire under the desert sun and burn to the ground, flames darting uo to the sky and reflecting the sun, Tanja thought. The swimming pools would be pale-blue islands in the fire where people would congregate to save themselves. But the water would slowly evaporate.” – Larissa Boehning, “North Star”, in Swallow Summer
“Something with no name was carved onto his face. Perhaps it was just this: life gone by.” – Larissa Boehning, “Acting, or walking around the island”, in Swallow Summer
“He dived head-first down into the colder layers of water, listening to his hearbeat under water. He said to me, ‘The sea swallows everything. All you can hear is your own pulse, the rushing and beating of blood in your ear. It’s as if your body has been swallowed by an immense silence. This last, internal noise is all that remains.’ (…) He said to me ‘What a joke it is, when you want to call out to nature in the middle of this immense silence but just find yourself being swallowed by it. You won’t get anything from nature. All that will happen is you’ll be cast back on being human. That’s what this silence will do’.” – Larissa Boehning, “Sealed Sea”, in Swallow Summer
“In early Autumn the swallows leave the north. (…) When they went, you knew that autumn was coming. They take the light with them, someone once said. When they are gone, it gets dark.” – Larissa Boehning, “Something for Nothing”, in Swallow Summer
“It was only later, much later, that I recalled what my father had once said: ‘Don’t ever wait for the swallows, they only come when you’re no longer expecting them.’” – Larissa Boehning, “Something for Nothing”, in Swallow Summer
About the book
- Comma Press, 2016, tr. Lyn Marven, 140 p. Goodreads
- Original title: Schwalbensommer
- Originally published in 2003
- My rating: 4 stars
- Shortlisted for the Warwick Prize 2017
- I read this book for German Literature Month VII
- This book was kindly sent to me by the lovely Lizzie for GLM