Clara

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
03/03/2014
Palka's fifth novel (originally published as Patient Number 7 in 2012) begins in Vienna in the 1930s. Nazi Germany has not yet tightened its grip on Austria, but the air is rife with differing ideological debates and activities. Clara Herzog is a graduate philosophy student at the University of Vienna, fascinated by "isms", including Zionism, communism, National Socialism (Nazism), capitalism and existentialism. She loves her studies, professors, literature, best friends Mitzi and Erica, and most of all, Albert, a motorcycle-riding captain in the reserve cavalry. Despite objections from her family, Clara marries Albert. He is soon absorbed into the Nazi army machine, rises quickly through the ranks, is decorated, and serves beside the likes of General Rommel in Russia, Europe and Africa. Clara struggles to live life according to the ideals of self-determination, personal responsibility and accountability she has embraced since her youth, in spite of the fear, despair, alienation, loneliness and loss she experiences in the madness surrounding her. With great sensitivity, Palka tells Clara's story, building sympathy and admiration for the strength, courage, unwavering love and compassion she demonstrates in the face of unbelievable challenges. This deeply engrossing and unforgettable novel will leave readers shouting "bravo" for the resiliency of the human spirit. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
“Part love story, part tribute to the women and families left behind and the terrible hardships they faced with great dignity during the war. Palka weaves an intimate tapestry . . . . Unflinching in its realism yet devoid of sensationalism, Clara showcases Palka’s great attention to detail, which enhances an already beautiful and deeply moving story of hope, love, and triumph.”
Booklist (starred review)

"Compelling . . . provides a discerning look at the Viennese and how they coped during the volatile periods during the 1930s, '40s - and post-war years. . . . Palka's book contains wisdom and elegance. He is a literary tour guide taking us into a post-Habsburg culture we could not access on our own."
—The Toronto Star

“With great sensitivity, Palka tells Clara's story, building sympathy and admiration for the strength, courage, unwavering love and compassion she demonstrates in the face of unbelievable challenges. This deeply engrossing and unforgettable novel will leave readers shouting "bravo" for the resiliency of the human spirit.”
Publishers Weekly

"In much the same way as Carol Shields did for Daisy Goodwill Flett in The Stone Diaries, Kurt Palka gives dignity to a life lived in his creation of Clara Herzog. . . . As do John Wray's The Right Hand of Sleep and Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone, it provokes questions about what we would have done if we had lived during the Third Reich. . . . Deals with some of the big themes in literature. But its lasting impression is that of a woman whose life mattered."
—Winnipeg Free Press

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780771071324
  • Publisher: McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
  • Publication date: 3/25/2014
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 531,500
  • Product dimensions: 5.19 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.99 (d)

Reading Group Guide

1. Does the fact that this novel is inspired by true events make any difference to your connection to the story? To the individual characters? Why or why not?

2. Very early in the novel, we read of the older Clara: “Writing had always saved her. It would do so again.” (p. 6) In what ways has writing “saved” Clara during different times of her life?

3. The Austrian experience of World War II, and the years preceding and following it, is not as well known in North America as the French, British, or German. Did reading Patient Number 7 give you any new information or insights into the social, political, and philosophical climate of this period of history?

4. Even though this novel takes place in some of the darkest days of WWII, Kurt Palka’s presentation of the characters’ decisions and their responses to events and to the affects those events have on their lives, is understated, even minimalist: he describes without arguing for either blame or exoneration. Why do you think the author takes this approach?

5. Although it is clear that Clara loves Albert very much, there are a moments in the relationship when she questions whether she should marry him or not. Why does she hesitate in these moments?

6. On pp 296-97, we read some lines that Clara has been trying to recall, from William Butler Yeats’ Purgatory:

They know at last the consequence of their transgressions,
either upon others or upon themselves.
If upon others, then others may bring help,
if upon themselves, there is no help but in themselves
and in the mercy of God.

What events bring on Clara’s memory and what is the relevance of the notion of “purgatory” to her at this point in her life?

7. During her university years, Clara is introduced to the idea of “As-ifness.” What do you understand by this unusual term? What role does the notion play in Clara’s life, and in the lives of other characters in Patient Number 7?

8. Many of Clara’s notes were written to pass on to her children and to those who she says might want to know how small fires ignored can become infernos. Yet she burns some of her notes at the end. Which notes do you think she burns, and why?

9. How does the novel’s epigraph, Abbé Ferdinando Galiani’s reminder to Mme. Louise d’Épinay that: “The important thing, Madame, is not to be cured, but to live with one’s ailments,” relate to Patient Number 7? There could be many levels at which the phrase resonates.

10. Think about the different ways that the major female characters are presented in the novel, in contrast to the male ones: is there a general difference that you can see? If so, what do you think Kurt Palka is saying in presenting his characters this way.

11. For much of Patient Number 7, there is a power struggle of some kind going on, more or less aggressively, as the backdrop to the characters’ lives: how does this fact inform the way key characters (Clara; Albert; Mitzi; Peter) choose to live, and to explain why they so choose?

12. The notion of deserving someone or something appears a few times, in very different contexts, in Patient Number 7. (See pp. 97, 215, and 360.) What does it mean to the various characters who talk or think about it? Is it a notion that resonates with you? Why or why not?

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