Imagine growing up in an old castle in a remote part of Germany, a tiny village huddled in a narrow valley in one direction and the impenetrable forests of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales in the other. This was the experience of the narrator in this tribute to her mother, who fled to the Rhön Hessen area with her two children to escape the bombing towards the end of the Second World War. The book tells the story of her mother’s resilience despite having lost her husband and two children, her ability to adapt to her rural surroundings and community and to survive in the straitened post war years. But this is not just a story of survival and endurance: the mother is a vibrant personality, who loves life and people, and grows to love the beauty of the countryside in which she finds herself. She takes lovers, one after the other, and on her terms: she finishes relationships and discards men when she decides the affair is over and only settles with a long term partner again well into middle age. The story is told by the daughter, looking back after an interval of 40 years, and the awareness of memory and, sometimes, uncertainty of recall, suffuses the book at times with a certain nostalgia. It also means that despite her vivid presence in the book, there are times when we only half understand the mother’s motives for the steps she takes: the reader is in the position of both the child and the adult child looking back, sometimes guessing and surmising at the earlier behaviour of the adults they love. What struck me about the mother’s story is her modernity- as early as the late 1940s she is picking up and discarding men as she pleases and is financially independent, earning a living by weaving and later teaching. This independence and self determination seems to me to herald the gains in terms of equality made by women in the 1960s. A further pleasure for the reader is the wider context of her story. We see glimpses of a rural community getting on with life post war and so are spared the gruelling accounts of bombed out cities, homelessness and violation of some other post war narratives- though homeless characters do drift into and then out of the castle and fleeting reference is made -to the denazification process. Similarly I enjoyed the evocation of the passage of time and the beginnings of the Wirtschaftswunder- one or two characters begin to better themselves and indeed the mother herself is able to retrain as a teacher in her late 40s in the atmosphere of national reconstruction.
This slim book is called a Roman, a novel, and yet, given the overlap with events in Edschmid’s own life, must be at least partly autobiographical. We see a similar device in her later novel ‘The disappearance of Philip S.’ reviewed here. It is a wonderful account both of her mother’s life and of those post war years in the rural community in which she spent her childhood.
I am including a sample translation of one of my favourite scenes- the Faschingsparty thrown by the mother which captures the excitement of the small child at her home being transformed into a desert fort!
Sample translation from ‘Die Liebhaber meiner Mutter’- Chapter V11.
My mother lived like a bird on the wing. She didn’t settle down or lean on anyone for support. What she saw around her held no attraction for her: women standing beside their men, who had returned, emotionally fragile, from the war. She sat at her loom until my brother and I returned from school, calculating how she could raise the money in the next year for the cost of the journey to the grammar school in the local town. When the rugs were finished, she would parcel them up, and carry them to the post office in the back room of the mayor’s office, where they would be weighed, stamped and sent off. Then she would wait for the money, which arrived by postal order, and for the next commission.
In the meantime she had begun to weave rugs using animal skins. An article in the local paper described the remoteness of the long hall, cool as a tomb, like a monastery with its old oil paintings and wooden chests, where the only sign of life was the regular click-click of a loom at one end. My mother, the weaver, is described as a young woman, sitting in the next room with an extraordinarily beautiful view over the Hohe Rhön mountains, weaving a carpet out of skins to complement a pale colour scheme. Little did the journalist know what my mother was feeling: that the steady up and down of the foot pedal, with which she separated the warp thread to insert the pieces of skin, was marking out the irreversible process of her life slowing down.
On that day in early summer, when the open topped cream Coupé came up the Schlossgasse for the first time, it looked like rain. The swallows were flying so low that they were just skimming the two doors of the gate which were standing open. My mother was on her way into the orchard to fetch in the washing, when the car drove into the courtyard and an elegant couple got out to pull the soft top over the car. The surgeon and his wife had been in the valley to remove a patient’s tonsils and had stayed on, waiting until he was out of danger. They then became curious about the castle: since they had driven over the hill it was always within view. Their two-seater, which had been confiscated during the war, was returned to them directly after, and the medical couple were now using it to drive around the neighbouring villages on the instructions of our G.P. to carry out minor operations in people’s homes in return for ham and bacon. It soon became a habit for both of them, once their work was finished, to come up the mountain. The women would drink coffee on the terrace, gazing over the valley as it narrowed down in the distance until the silver ribbon of the river became a dash, eventually disappearing amongst the meadows and alders. The surgeon, meanwhile, would borrow a cushion and take a nap in his open two-seater.
When autumn came and there was a fair in the village, he appeared on the Sunday afternoon and twirled round with my mother on the rudimentary dance floor until evening. Whenever one of his five daughters had a birthday, he would pick us up. My mother sat in front, my brother and I squeezed in behind on a spare brown leather seat. We drove down into the valley, up over the nearest mountain, then over the next one and turned into a park with an alley of chestnut trees and stopped in front of a villa. Close by stood a castle, built at the end of the 19th century in a range of architectural styles, by the great uncle of the surgeon’s wife: the project had driven him crazy.
The surgeon — small, round and a passionate dancer—had the idea of throwing a big party for Carnival. The celebration was to take place in the austere, solitary castle rather than in the roomy, comfortable house with servants, cook and nanny, where they lived: this idea developed out of the feeling of friendship which both the surgeon and his wife felt for my mother after only a relatively short time. They had realised, since meeting her, what it meant to be on your own. A woman like my mother was independent and ‘dangerous’. She wasn’t invited to parties without a man at her side. The only thing she could do was to take the bull by the horns: the surgeon and his wife suggested that my mother should host a party herself and with their help our home was transformed for the first time in February 1949.
The first thing my mother did was to take the pictures down from the walls- a sketch by the practically blind stage designer, a copy of Brueghel’s The Peasant Wedding and a Chinese wall hanging beginning to fade above the couch in the sitting room, which we turned round from time to time to preserve the precious cloth. The hares which had been jumping before from the left side of the moon down to earth into the open kimonos of two Chinese figures, could now be seen plunging from the right down through a washed out emptiness. A canvas with a self portrait of my father disappeared, then the photo of him at his draughtsman’s table was whisked off too, and last of all went the little blurred picture in the oval frame of my brother who died. In their place we hung up wooden cages with chickens made of pâpier maché and rigged up a deep blue sky out of crêpe paper, where we hung our silver Christmas baubles lined up in the shape of the Southern Cross. Next to the stove we set up divans using cushions and rugs. The large recess with the dining table became an oasis, where people could drink what alcohol there was out of rubber tubes. My mother braided sandals for herself from straw, dyed some old curtains pink in beetroot juice and made herself an outfit from them: it revealed her midriff, for she was dressed up as one of the heavenly virgins. In the workshop where I slept with my brother a red tent was put up, made from two sheets of old ticking material donated by a farmer’s wife. My mother cut half moon shapes out of old tin cans and sewed them on to the tent walls. Our mattresses were laid on the floor and my brother and I went to stay in the valley for two nights with a woman who came from the Sudetenland, who told us about the home she no longer had.
Once our rooms had been transformed into a desert fort, the farmers climbed up the road to have a look at it and drank schnapps with my mother till she felt sick. Most guests, who had marked a cross on the invitations against what they could bring by way of contribution- a hundred grams of coffee or tea, seventy five grams of sugar, two eggs, a quarter litre of alcohol or whatever- arrived by train at the little railway station and hiked up to the black cliff with their costume in their rucksack. The guests who had a car battled their way over the hill through the gusts of snow, then came down the mountain into the valley, and after that up the icy twists and turns of the road at a walking pace. Some didn’t arrive until dawn the next morning. The farmers, who had already done the milking and mucking out, pushed the curtains to one side and it was a long time before they stopped talking about the stream of strange figures in disguise heading out of the two guest houses up the narrow village streets towards the bright lights of the castle. Two days later, my brother and I returned from the valley, slept for a few more nights under the red tent, and listened to the soft tinkling of the half moons.
from Ulrike Edschmid, die Liebhaber meiner Mutter, © Suhrkamp Insel Verlag, Frankfurt am Main und Leipzig, 2006.
See Ulrike Edschmid’s webpage at Suhrkamp here
Translation ©Mandy Wight 2014