Heyoka’s Workbench

My Best Reads in 2020

Für meine deutschsprachigen Leser gibt es diesen Artikel auch auf Deutsch (PDF, 109 kB).

While last year I struggled with the difficulty of finding more than three books that had really impressed me, I am facing the opposite problem this year: I read a lot in the last twelve months, and almost every book I touched was good, some even overwhelmingly so. Thus it is not easy to pick a selection and not get too verbose here.

If I was to name not more than a handful of favourites I should choose Irmgard Keun’s »Gilgi«, Erich Kästner’s »Der Gang vor die Hunde«, and Harper Lee’s »To Kill a Mockingbird«. – But I would do so only under protest and with a headache.

Fortunately, this is my blog and I can do what I choose. And I choose not to cut it short. ;-)

A Discovery

My literary discovery of the year has been Irmgard Keun, a German writer who lived from 1905 to 1982 and had her greatest successes in the years right before the Nazi takeover. I only became aware of her because of her relationship with Joseph Roth in their years in exile in the 1930s. And that’s what I find rather odd.

In the last months, I devoured every line she had written until she returned from her exile to Germany in 1940 to live there under a false name: novels, short stories, even poems – and I liked everything. How could such an extraordinary writer like her become so utterly forgotten in her mother country? Noone I told about her had ever heard her name. Maybe, one reason is the old deep-rooted shyness of the German Bildungsbürger (no matter of what political hue) for anything that is not grave and not unambiguous. Keun’s writings are anything but grave. And they are multi-faceted. They offer an oscillating mixture of jauntiness and despair, of beauty and filth; they show a keen eye for the hidden everyday tragedies of the urban human being, for modern society, for the ludicrous and at the same time invincible idiocy of totalitarianism and for its depressing bestiality; Keun’s stories are surprisingly candid about sex and relationship. And perhaps most important: Keun writes without stale, grandiose gestures but with a humour and self-irony that one can only love.

Some Classics (or Should-be Classics)

Let me continue with Erich Kästner’s »Der Gang vor die Hunde«. (It’s an edition – from 2013 – of the original manuscript while the book published in 1931 under the title »Fabian« is a rigorously bowdlerized version.)

I admit that I’d associated the name Kästner only with (great) children’s books like »Emil und die Detektive« (»Emil and the Detectives«) or »Das fliegende Klassenzimmer« (»The Flying Classroom«) before. But then, prowling around the letter K in the public library (looking for Keun …), I stumbled upon this novel. Definitely not a children’s book. With its ironic and at the same time very melancholic tone and its description of the forlorness of urban life (against a background of quite a merry nightlife and lots of juicy details) it was really a perfect follow-up for my readings of Keun’s »Gilgi« and »Das kunstseidene Mädchen« (»The Artificial Silk Girl«).

Another novel that blew me away and that shares the undeserved obscurity of the aforementioned books is »Die Blendung« (»Auto-da-Fé«) by Elias Canetti. A narration like a feverish dream. It starts off at a leisurely pace, seemingly the tale of an odd, secluded scholar. Then we notice that this scholar might be somewhat more than just odd. And by and by the novel draws us into a maelstrom of ever new quirky (or outright mad) characters and their strange views and apparitions that amalgamate into one big hallucination, irresistibly gripping in its intensity and its meticulously kept consistency. It’s a pity that this is Canetti’s only novel.

I need not bother my readers with verbose eulogies on the next novel because it’s a world classic: »To Kill a Mockingbird« by Harper Lee. I rushed through its pages in a frenzy. Thanks to Saeid for having urged me to read it! Neither need I say much about Joseph Roth’s »Die Rebellion« (»Rebellion«) and »Wallenstein« by Alfred Döblin. Fascinating reads though the second one demands some perseverance because Döblin’s style of writing is rather – peculiar. It’s as if he’d invented some mutation of the German language: complex and simple at the same time, weird and straightforward, and at any rate colourful and powerful. (I wonder how translators deal with this …)


Among the most compelling books I read last year, I must list three biographies. Two of them are about writers of world fame: David Bronsen’s »Joseph Roth« is like a good novel in its own right. As is Robert Ferguson’s »Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun«. This latter book is especially noteworthy because its subject, the Norwegian who was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1920, is anything but easy to tackle. Hamsun was the man who gave humankind the novels »Hunger«, »Mysteries«, and »Pan« (impressing and influencing dozens of other writers) and at the same time the man who sent Joseph Goebbels his Nobel Prize medal as a gift … Robert Ferguson handles the tricky endeavour to tell the life of a man of such extreme discrepancies with brilliancy and manages to show why Hamsun’s bright and black moments were not so unrelated in the end.

Another biography – or rather collection of biographies – I want to mention is »Churchill: Four Faces and the Man« that I read for the second time last year. It’s a booklet comprising five short biographical essays on Winston Churchill viewing his life and his person from different angles: Churchill as a statesman, as a politician, as an historian, as a military strategist, and as the human being he was.

And Some History, Too

Speaking of history – time to come to a close before my readers get weary. History is one of my pet issues, not to improve myself or to impress anyone but just out of interest. Last year, however, history was not so prominent among my reading matter. I read only two strictly historical books – but these two were a lucky choice and so I close the review of my literary 2020 with them.

In »Die geglückte Demokratie«, Edgar Wolfrum recounts the history of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland from 1945 to the reunification in 1990 (with a short summary of the subsequent years and an outlook). By far the largest part of the book covers what I consider the best state or polity that has ever been created by the Germans (or their forbears): the small Bonner Republik (or West Germany) that ceased to exist together with the GDR though a lot of people did not notice at the time. A compelling and illuminating book!

And finally another one by Norman Davies. His »Trail of Hope« tells the story of the hundreds of thousands of Poles who were deported by the Soviets after the latter had invaded Eastern Poland while the Germans were ravaging the west (remember the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact?). Those Poles, many women and children among them, were sent to prisons and labour camps in Siberia and other remote places in the Soviet Union.

Only in 1941, they were released. Hitler’s »Operation Barbarossa« made Stalin join the Alliance against the Axis Powers and, though reluctantly, accept the Poles under their government-in-exile in London as partners. With British support (and later under Britsh command), a Polish army was created from those Poles (men and women) who had survived Soviet captivity. It was later declared the Polish II Corps, colloquially called the »Anders Army« (from the name of its commanding general). The army together with their families but also those who could not get into its ranks (including many orphaned children) continued their breathtaking odyssey – through Iran, Irak, Palestine. The civilians were then brought to camps in the remotest parts of the world (British Africa, India, New Zealand, Mexico), the military went to Italy and supported the Allied cause there, storming Monte Cassino and moving farther north.

The book is not so well narrated like other works by Norman Davies. This might be due to the many quotations from reports or memoirs by members of the Anders Army that are inserted. But this lack of smoothness is more than counterbalanced by the vividness of the cited sources and the many photographies Davies and his team collected in this heavy tome.

Well – that’s it. For now. ;-)