I first came across Judith Hermann some years ago when reading her début short story collection Sommerhaus, später. Imagine how pleased I was then to come across her latest collection, Letti Park, when having the time of my life browsing in Dussmann in Berlin. The delight in her stories comes from the delicacy of her language, the light touch with which she describes a character adjusting to a new truth and conjures up images which linger in the mind.
The stories, unlike those of Jackie Kay, or Jhumpa Lahiri, are not anchored in a particular social milieu depicting characters intensely bound up or challenged by the norms of their group. They will not tell you about a topic in the way that Christos Ikonomu tells us how the Greeks are affected by austerity. Rather, the characters float above social categorisation and the stories are more concerned with showing individuals encountering each other, sometimes unexpectedly, and the small changes which sometimes then occur in their take on the world.
The stories frequently have female protagonists and sometimes, as in the title story and Solaris, involve female friends meeting again after a lapse of several years and a reconsideration of power relations in the friendship. A range of relationships between parents and children are depicted, from the heart melting tenderness between mother and child in Papierflieger to the dutiful coolness in Gedichte. Hermann’s characters span a wide age range: I loved the relationship between Maude and her elderly landlady in Manche Erinnerungen and was moved by the depiction of old age in Mutter.
Men often don’t come off well. Even long and apparently happy marriages end ‘von einem Tag auf den anderen’ (from one day to the next) and in Gehirn Philipp puts his camera between himself and emotion. In Letti Park the friends Rose and Elena, who meet by chance years later in a supermarket, now have men who are definite, practical, commanding.But they are connected by a previous relationship with Page Shakusky, who gave Elena a book of photographs he’d taken of Letti Park, her favourite childhood park. It’s all snow showers, creating drifts and shifts, blurred outlines and uncertainty, as unreliable as memory itself.
These images are powerfully handled in the stories. Like the snow in Letti Park the image of pollen invading the courtyard in Pappelpollen is vividly depicted. Despite being ethereal and insubstantial it seems to fill the yard so thickly the inhabitants mistake it for smoke and call the Fire Brigade. At the end of Papierflieger, Tess stands with her friend and children watching the paper aeroplanes they’ve launched from the window shine white against the darkness.
Though I said the stories are not concerned with social issues, one or two set outside Germany involve the characters feeling out of their depth in a different culture. My favourite is Osten, where Jessica and Ari arrive in Odessa, which she has been keen to visit with her romantic ideas about the Black Sea. Jessica finds the grimy reality and grinding poverty of Odessa completely at odds with anything she has come across before.
Now there are one or two short stories which I found elusive- as if the meaning was just beyond my grasp- but on the whole I enjoyed this collection, as much for the clarity and simplicity of the language as for the content of the stories. A collection to be read when you feel like detaching yourself from the hectic rush to enjoy those images of a yard full of pollen floating and the soar of paper aeroplanes.