World War II, aristocracy, a large estate–what wouldn’t interest me about this book? It was a natural pick for me.
The von Globig family is part of the East Prussian aristocracy and their home and estate, the Georgenhof, dominates the local area. Eberhard von Globig, now a Wehrmacht officer stationed in Italy, and his wife, Katharina, do not have much of a marriage. Their young son, Peter, at about 12 is still too young for the Hitler Youth and has been sheltered from the Nazi younger children’s group. He is tutored at home. His sister, Elfriede, died. Katharina is a loner, keeping to herself behind the locked door of her marital bedroom suite.
“No one had ever stuck stamps into a social security booklet for her [Auntie]: life insurance nor burial fund.” (p. 293)
The household is run by a relative, Auntie, who is making due with two young Ukrainian women as maids and a Polish man doing much of the outdoor work. It is the start of 1945 and their part of East Prussia, later to be part of Poland, is the wrong place to be. Not only have other aristocrats nearly succeeded in killing Hitler, but the Soviets are poised to pounce. The pressure is building.
Katharina is bored, a bit too self-centered and bored. Bored by her husband, bored by her life, and wanting some excitement. Along the way we learn what she has done in the past when bored. [No spoilers]. The local pastor has a plan that will cure that. Meanwhile, just as that plan gets going, Eberhard telephones very briefly from Italy to tell her to leave it all behind and go–go West to safety.
All around Katharina’s bored existence of smoking the cigarettes, flipping though fashion magazines, reading her books, cutting out paper silhouettes, and drinking the wine Eberhard sends from Italy, refugees join the household for a night or for several days or a week.
East Prussia is today mostly in Poland
Katharina’s ennui carries over into motherhood, “‘Lovely, dear lovely,’ his mother had said hardly looking up from her book”(p. 76). The local party flunky, living in the subdivision built opposite the great manor house, billets people there, and is constantly lurking, and watching the life of the von Globigs and their uninvited guests. The ranks are swollen by the visits of young Peter’s tutor who lives nearby as well as by the visits of the local doctor. All are listening and watching and waiting–waiting form the the barbarians from the East to come.
As the story reaches its conclusion we begin to understand the enigmatic title.[No Spoilers]. Nothing ends the way I predicted–that, to me, is the mark of an excellent story. There is nothing that would need a trigger warning except the death of a horse and it was only rated PG.
I have read a more recent novel with a similar setting but it was vapid compared to this. A master storyteller crafted this lean work. Fewer words can often convey more meaning–that is certainly the case in this book. I could feel the emotions in Katharina–the fever pitch of nerves on stay or go, the lack of a husband at home, the lost of their money, the loss of her daughter, the needs of the hangers-on and staff, the worry that soon her son would be swept up into it all if the Hitler Youth, in which he would finally have to serve, were called up to actually fight as boy soldiers. Her husband was no use, her past at times haunts her, and her nerves cannot be soothed by alcohol or nicotine now.
The ending, as I said, was full of surprises. I won’t spoil them. We go to the very end of the story mostly through Peter’s eyes. We parents never truly want to know how their children really see them, do we? Don’t worry–Peter doesn’t turn her in or anything like that! That much I’ll spoil. The book just does a great job of showing the experience through everyone’s eyes, not just through the eyes of a narrator or one main characters.All in all this was a superb book.
About German Literature Month
Read all about German Literature Month XI here.
My Past German Lit Month Posts
2020 Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, translated by Jane Billinghurst
For More Fiction and Nonfiction on Germany at this time:
A Castle in Wartime (aka The Lost Boys) by Catherine Bailey
A World Elsewhere by Sigrid MacRae (my review was lost on my old blog)
The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck