Archive for the ‘North Sea’ Category

Creative Writing Critique (Satis Shroff): Fire in the Blood

Creative Writing Critique (Satis Shroff): FIRE IN THE BLOOD

Review: Irene Nemirovsky Fire in the Blood, Vintage Books, London 2008,

153 pages, 7,99 Sterling Pounds (ISBN: 978-0-099-51609-5)

Denise Epstein was 13 when her mother Irene Nemirovsky was deported to Auschwitz, where she eventually died in 1942. The daughter is now an octogenarian and was instrumental in helping her mother attain her place in the world literature. Irene Nemirovsky was a writer who could look into the souls of humans and make music with words. Her masterpiece Suite francaise was published in France in 2004 and was immediately awarded the Prix Renaudot.

The characters of Fire in Blood are  drawn from a rural French town in Burgundy, a wine-growing area where people are simple and stick together, want to retain their ‘peace’ and don’t like the police and the authorities. A place where all people show conformity and keep their mouths shut. Peace is a synonym for not wanting to be involved in the affairs of other people. The author’s attitude towards the characters has a universal appeal, for it could happen anywhere in the world in a closed-circuit society where outsiders are shunned and not generally accepted. Nemirovsky shows not only what people do to others but also what the passage of time does to us all. The characters aren’t flat and every character bounds into life and you an imagine the world that she creates in her 153 page novel still goes on with its own pace without much changes. The community itself shows a predatory behaviour of extreme cunning.

The major theme of Fire in Blood is love, poverty, arranged marriages and extra-marital affairs that lead to complications and new story developments. The protagonist Sylvestre also called Silvio tells the story in the first person singular and recalls stories in front of the fireplace about his beautiful, graceful cousin Helene and her daughter Colette, Brigitte Delos and Francoise, their marriages, happiness and boredom and the seasonal changes of the Burgundy countryside. Silvio speaks about impatient young people and the perfectly balanced older people at peace with themselves and the world, despite the creeping fear of death. The book is replete with the truths, deaths, marriages, children, houses, mills, dowry, haves and have-nots, stinginess, love-affairs, hatred, deception and betrayal.  Nemirovsky is an excellent story-teller and reveals her tale of flaws and cruelties of the human heart in an intricately woven story. She builds up suspense and you feel the catharsis when an innocent-looking protagonist tells her version of how a man was murdered.

The theme is traditional and familiar and is psychologically and socially interesting in intent.

Silvio tells about his childhood and about children asking their parents how they met, fell in love and married. He also mentions past loves, former grudges, inheritances, law suits and who-married-whom and why in the French provincial setting. The story plot is slow at the beginning but gathers momentum, and the climax is not the murder but how the author unfurls the story of the confession. In the end Silvio confides to the reader how much he still loves his dear cousin Helene, who’s married to Francoise.

The intellectual qualities of writing of Nemirovsky are her cheerfulness, sudden twists and power of observation which flow into the story making it a delightful read. She gives you the impression that her tale is linear, only to show you that there’s a twist that takes narration in another direction. Silvio, the Ich-Erzähler, says to Colette, who wants to involve him in her family drama: ‘Tell them you have a lover and that he killed your husband.. What exactly did happen?’

wit and humour and there’s rhythm in the tale.

Nemirovsky employs the stylistic device of symbolism to characterise the farmers and their hypocritical nature, how they mob people they don’t prefer to have around them and how they indulge in backbiting. A stingy 60 year old farmer marries  a lovely 20 year old woman and the gossips begin. Silvio remembers how Colette had once told him he resembled a faun: ‘an old faun, now, who has stopped chasing nymphs and who huddles near the fireplace.’

This is the confession of a man who had once fire in blood, and a meditation on the various stages of life, the passing of time, in which youth and age are at odds. A recurring theme is the seed from which problems grow: ‘Imagine a field being saved and all the promise that’s contained in a grain of wheat, all the future harvests…well, it’s exactly the same in life.’

Nemirovsky’s use of dialogue is very effective and takes the story forward.

Her literary oeuvre ranges from an extraordinary collection of papers,  Fire in the Blood, Suite francaise, David Golder, Le Bal, the Courilof Affair, All Our Worldly Goods.

The Germany titles are: Die Hunde und die Wölfe, Feuer im Herbst, Herbstfliege, Leidenschaft, Die Familie Hardelot, Der Fall Kurilow and Irene Nemirovsky: Die Biographie.

* * *

Irene Nemirovsky: COLD BLOOD (Satis Shroff)

Subtitle: Moaning in All Eternity

Six decades ago,

My life came to an end,

In Auschwitz.

I, Irene Nemirovsky, a writer

Of Jewish-Russian descent,

Died in Auschwitz.

I live now in my books,

In my daughter’s memories,

Who’s already an octogenarian,

Still full of love and fighting spirit:

For she fights against

The injustice of those gruesome days.

I was thirty-nine,

Had asthma,

Died shortly after I landed in Auschwitz.

I died of inflammation of my lungs,

In the month of October.

That very year the Nazis deported

Michael Epstein, dear my husband,

Who’d pleaded to have me,

His wife, freed from the clutches

Of the Gestapo.

They also killed him.

My daughters Denise 13,

And Elizabeth 5,

Were saved by friends

Of the French Resistance,

Tucked away in a cloister for nuns,

Hidden in damp cellars.

They had  my suitcase with them,

Where ever they hid,

Guarding it like the Crown Jewels.

To them it was not only a book,

But my last words,

That I’d penned in Issy-l’Eveque.

I wanted to put together five manuscripts

In one: Suite Francaise,

That was my writer’s dream.

I could put only

‘Storm in July’ and ‚Dolche’


I passed away early in August 1942.

Too early.

In my two books I’ve written

About the flight of the Parisians

From the victorious Germans,

The awful situation in an occupied hamlet.

Small people and collaborators,

Who’d go to extremes

To save their skins,

Like ants in a destroyed ant-hill.

It’s sixty years hence,

But my work hasn’t lost its glow,

Like the lava from an erupting volcano.

You can feel its intensity,

When an entire nation

Was humiliated and had to capitulate,

Losing its grace, dignity and life.

I was born in Kiew,

Fled to Paris via Finnland and Sweden,

After the Russian Revolution.

I was a maniac,

When it came to reading,

Had a French governess,

Went often to the Cote d’ Azure and Biarritz.

I studied literature in Sorbonne in 1919.

Shortly thereafter,

I began to write:

About my Russian past,

My wandering years.

The colour of the literature I wrote

Is blood from an old wound.

From this wound I’ve drawn

The maladies of the society,

Human folley.

I was influenced by writers,

From Leo Tolstoi to Henrik Ibsen.

An unhappy childhood,

Is like when your soul has died,

Without a funeral:

Moaning in all eternity.

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Thomas, a burly, bearded botanist turned IT-specialist in Basle, and I decided to make a Herrnnachmittag out of a sunny day, despite the clouds in the vast horizon of the North Sea Isle of Langeoog, where we were spending our holidays with our near and dear ones. There we were, two croonies spending the afternoon, after an extended walk along the shore’s shrubby dunes on our way to the traditional East Friesian tea-house.


In the isle of Langeoog they call the houses ‘Hus,’ so you have a Teehus (tea-house) a Spöölhus (a house where kidddies can play). Since we were both avid tea-drinkers, we decided to go the “Ostfriesische Teestube am Hafen,” and I must say I found it delightful. They even had self-baked cakes for diabetics, not that we had insulin problems, but I do remember that my diabetic Creative Writing Professor Bruce Dobler would order a sandwich, weigh it on his portable Waage meticulously. Every gram seemed to count. It was like a ritual after his Creative Writing lectures at the University of Freiburg and we went to an Irish pub called O’ Dwyers, behind the university library for a swig of Guinness stout, as we talked about literature, poets and writers.


The tea was excellent and the butter cakes delicious. Through the white painted windows we could see the blue North Sea and the boats. Trawlers were approaching the harbour bringing in their haul. Our table had a glass case filled with Darjeeling tea leaves.


Thomas asked if it was the First Flush or the Second? I told him that it was certainly the First Flush because the ‘two leaves and a bud’ were distinctly visible. After the excellent Fresian tea we went for a walk along the dyke to the harbour. To our left was the Watt, which had been laid artificially, and which had become a habitat for all sorts of birds among them naturally a numerous sea-gulls.


Behind us we could see the bunkers built during the Third Reich, td been constructed though the iron-door leading to it was closed. Where the tarmac had been constructed for the German Luftwaffe, was now a dense forest, but the impeccable landing area was still intact. Private twin-motored planes took-off and landed now and again.


On August 3, 1941 some 450 Soviet prisoners of war were brought to Langeoog. The island chronist and teacher Richard Windemuth described them this way: ‘ We were all excited to know whether they looked the way the magazines and weekly shows described them. What we saw were figures in rags and uncouth due to the imprisonment, a very depressing picture. According to the SS-guards the POWs had rebelled and didn’t want to board the ship at Bensersiel. They were scared that they’d be left to drown in the icy waters of the North Sea.


The POWs, according to an observer from Wangerooge, were put up in a barrack in the Garden Street (today it’s House Meedland). The youngest POW was 15 years old, and they had to work at the airport of Langeoog. 113 of them died due to the inhuman treatment meted out to them, and buried in mass-graves in the outskirts of the dune-graveyard. After the krieg the island community is said to have created a passable memorial.


On August 26, 1941 came the French prisoners of war to Langeoog. They were soldiers who’d tried to escape from the Lagers (prison-camps) in Germany’s mainland. The treatment was harder than usual in the Isle of Langegoog, but not comparable to the treatment of Soviet prisoners. The chronicler says: ‘ They got the same food, even tobacco and Schnaps (German alcohol) like the German guards.’ Not so the poor Soviets who were called ‘Ivan’ in those days.


It might be noted that the Führer (Hitler) in his big speech demanded from the German public to pray for the blessings of the Almighty for the German Waffen (soldiers) in the Eastern Front. The population statistics of 1939 show that 95 % of the Germans belonged to one or other of the Christian religious societies: evangelic and catholic.


Just before midnight on September 7, 1941 Langeoog was bombed again. To the south of the airport 200 incendiary bombs were counted. One of the exploding bombs destroyed the Meider’s Bridge at the harbour. A ship under construction received 15 splitters and the harbour building was completely destroyed.


At the dune-graveyard you could visit the grave of the famous chanson singer Lale Anderson, who’s haunting, melodious song ‘Lili Marleen’ woke longings in the hearts of the U-boat crews, Luftwaffe pilots and German destroyers and other battleships, away from their Heimat and the danger of being blown to pieces by the US, RAF and Allied airplanes, depth-charges and artillery and flak.


No one knows the secret of freedom, unless you are a prisoner,’ said Dietrich Bonhoffer in 1944 when he was imprisoned by the Nazis. He knew through his own suffering and experience what freedom meant, and he also knew what personal freedom one had to sacrifice to achieve freedom for all, for freedom is not only a word. Freedom means words and deeds, as is evident in the Tibetan issue where people around the world are reacting and agitating for the fundamental rights of a country called the Roof of the World.


Meanwhile, you could discern a hoot from an outwards bound ship or the red catamaran which commutes between Langeoog and Benzersiel, and the incessant cries of the sea-gulls vying with each other to get a morsel of fish from the trawlers that were coming to their home-harbour.


The 2500 inhabitants of Langeoog are facing a tough time battling against Nature. The sea, which is washing away the island is one factor, and the influx of people with a lot of capital from the mainland is the other factor. The dunes are very important for the islands and coasts just as the wind, water and sun. Like the Watt and salty meadows, the dunes and other habitats also underlie special dynamic changes and some flora and fauna need these changes. Strandhafer, Strandroggen and Stranddistel live here. Brandgeese and sea-gulls breed primarily in the dunes.


The dunes serve as a protection for endangered animals and also for the inhabitants of Langeoog because there’s no need to build dykes, where there’s a protective shield of dune-chains around the island and along the coast. The dunes are much higher than the dykes and a lot broader. Every year, the west-wind and west-waves bring thousands of tons of sand from the East Sea to the North Sea. The protection of the coast and nature conservation go hand in hand. And visitors to the isle are admonished to walk only along the prescribed paths to the benefit of humans and Mother Nature


Even I’d contemplated how wonderful it would be to build at least a holiday-houses at Langeoog. Instead we’ve decided to build one in the Black Forest right below a hill with pine trees, with an excellent view of the hills in the vicinity of Rosskopf.


The old fashioned Tante Emma shops are dwindling, giving way to supermarkets—like in France’s Atlantic Isle of Oleron. One remarkable feature of the Isle of Langeoog is that it has been long declared a car-free zone. The main means of communication in the Isle is with an old, gaudy diesel-driven train that brings you to the town from the harbour. After that you can hire a horse-driven taxi, bicycle or go on foot. The cars remain in Bensersiel (mainland). And unless you know someone in the island who has a plane, everyone is obliged to take the ferry.


We walked along the north-west beach into the small town. The beach was littered with churned sea-shells, sea-weed and plastic garbage of the tourists. A team of workers who belonged to a jaw-breaking measure (Arbeitsbeschaffungsmaßnahmen ABM) came with a tractor and a trailer to clear the beach.


Ordnung muss sein, even on the beach!” remarked Thomas. The people of Langeoog have to separate their garbage and put them in the respective bins—as everywhere in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Green bins for paper, brown for biological or organic garbage and yellow plastic bags for PVC and plastic garbage.


Watt n’ Erlebnis: The walk along the North Sea Wattenmeer, along the shore of Langeoog was interesting and strenuous and the local guide Uwe G. turned out to be a bearded, blond East Friesian bloke with a gift of the gab. He introduced us to the dangers and secrets of the Watt, which is typical for Germany and Scandinavian countries. We walked every 100 metres into the sea, and Uwe dug his fork into the sea-bed and showed us the wonders of the North Sea Watt: crustaceans and molluscs, crabs, shrimps, worms and their habitats. How the heart-mussel and clams live, and how to get a glass full of shrimps swimming in water. He loved to tell you about the peristaltic of the worms in comparison to humans, their reproductive and digestive systems. It was what you might call a marine biology lecture carried at a hilarious, non-scientific level and the people loved him for it.


An elderly Germany couple thought the Uwe had a “Bundeswehr tone” to his talk. Another German said that he was definitely “Analfixiert” (anal-fixed according to Freud’s theory, wherein he speaks about people being ‘fixed’ in the oral, anal and oedipal phases of human development). But Uwe was very self-conscious and he went on candidly comparing humans with molluscs. The children and grown-ups had a good time.


By the time we’d reached the outer periphery of the Watt, the tide started coming in. And it got difficult to pull out the gum-boots out of the Schlack (dark, sticky, muddy water). It was a moment when I thought it would perhaps be better to leave my gum-boots behind. But I somehow managed to walk on. The Wattwanderung along the shores of the Isle of Langeoog was interesting and strenuous and we learned quite a lot about the wildlife and acquatic animas on the shores of the North Sea Wattenmeer.


Another day it was a chilly, and we could feel the gusts of wind blowing to the island from the North Sea. Although we had our pullovers, jackets and gum-boots on, as we trudged along between the beach and the waves, busy gathering sea-shells, a woman in the autumn of her life, wearing a one-piece bathing suit in anthroposophical orange pastell colours, walked to the sea and began swimming in the cold, wind-swept water. Brr! She was very courageous, disciplined and trimmed for a hard life, I thought.


Downtown Langeoog reminded me of a sea-town in Britain with those neat brick-houses and white-painted doors and windows, cobble-stoned streets and sea-man’s kitsch on the windows. I couldn’t help it, I had to buy some of it: cards, Langeoogs water-tower in miniature with two sea-gulls and a red-white painted trawler, complete with fishing nets on two sides. Sigh!




Longing For Langeoog (Satis Shroff)



Were I a sea-gull

I’d fly to the north,

To Langeoog,

Where I spent my holidays.

Ach, how wonderful.


I think of the colourful

Wicker beach-chairs with hoods,

And the small island train.


I think of Flut and Ebbe,

Of time and tide,

Clams, starfish, seaweed.

The shores full of shrimps,

Sea-urchins and jelly-fish.

The fun of bathing

In the North Sea,

And the fear of the Qualle.


Grandma Else’s porcellain Stube,

A warm cuppa East Friesian

Candy sugared tea

At the harbour Teestube.


I remember ‘Watt’n Erlebnis’

What an experience,

During the Wattwanderung,

Along Langeoog’s dark, slicky shores,

Searching for mussels, clams and crabs in the water.

And in the endless sky,

Like an inverted cobalt bowl,

Swarms of Rotschenkel

On their way to Africa.



Flut und Ebbe: flood- and low-tide

Qualle: jellyfisherman

Rotschenkel: red-legged island birds

Watt: banks of sand, flats

Watt’n Erlebnis: what an experience, with a pun on Watt

Stube: store, shop

Teestube: tea-shop

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