In Times of Fading Light: A Novel

( 22 )

Overview

An enthrallingly expansive family saga set against the backdrop of the collapse of East German communism, from a major new international voice

* Over 450,000 copies sold in Germany alone

• Rights sold in 20 countries * Winner of the German Book Prize

• A PW "First Fiction" pick *

In Times of Fading Light begins in September 2001 as Alexander Umnitzer,...

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Overview

An enthrallingly expansive family saga set against the backdrop of the collapse of East German communism, from a major new international voice

* Over 450,000 copies sold in Germany alone

• Rights sold in 20 countries * Winner of the German Book Prize

• A PW "First Fiction" pick *

In Times of Fading Light begins in September 2001 as Alexander Umnitzer, who has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer, leaves behind his ailing father to fly to Mexico, where his grandparents lived as exiles in the 1940s.

     The novel then takes us both forward and back in time, creating a panoramic view of the family’s history: from Alexander’s grandparents’ return to the GDR to build the socialist state, to his father’s decade spent in a gulag for criticizing the Soviet regime, to his son’s desire to leave the political struggles of the twentieth century in the past.

     With wisdom, humor, and great empathy, Eugen Ruge draws on his own family history as he masterfully brings to life the tragic intertwining of politics, love, and family under the East German regime.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Adam Langer
Mr. Ruge's novel is a pulsing, vibrant, thrillingly alive work, full of formal inventiveness, remarkable empathy and, above all, mordant and insightful wit. Yes, this is a serious, ambitious work with the scope of a Russian epic, juxtaposing the disintegration of the Umnitzer family with that of their political system. But the novel doesn't plod forward in a predictable, linear way; with self-assurance and playful erudition, it seems to follow the unreliable chronology of memory, hopscotching back and forth over critical moments in family and world history, displaying an extraordinarily bearable lightness of being even as it describes weighty, tragic events…the lingering sensation on finishing In Times of Fading Light is one not of despair but rather of triumph. You can see that from the ruins of the former Eastern bloc something has emerged with the power to survive and outlast the world from which it came: the art represented by Mr. Ruge's book, which has torn down the wall between Russian epic and the Great American Novel.
Publishers Weekly
Ruge’s evocative family chronicle spans nearly 60 years, moving fluidly from 2001 to 1952, with several stops in between. In the small German town of Neuendorf in 2001, elderly Kurt Umnitzer is paid one last visit, before senility completely overtakes him, by his son Alexander, who himself has recently been diagnosed with cancer. As Alexander sorts through Kurt’s belongings and photographs, he delves into the family’s history. Alexander goes to Mexico to learn more about his father, while the story travels back to the 1950s, which find Alexander’s grandmother Charlotte and her husband, Wilhelm, living as loyal communists in East Berlin, along with Kurt and his wife, Irina. Cuba in the 1960s, Russia in the 1970s, and the fall of the Berlin Wall provide further backdrops and catalysts for the Umnitzer family’s troubled journey through the 20th century. Ruge tends to focus on his scenes, which are heavy on both seemingly insignificant detail (the opening sentence puts Alexander on “a buffalo leather sofa”) and plot, combining dense, full-bodied storytelling with an enlightening sense of modern history. Agent: Carolin Mungard, Rowohlt Verlag. (Jun.)
From the Publisher
Praise for In Times of Fading Light:

"Mr. Ruge's novel is a pulsing, vibrant, thrillingly alive work, full of formal inventiveness, remarkable empathy and, above all, mordant and insightful wit. . . . You can see that from the ruins of the former Eastern bloc something has emerged with the power to survive and outlast the world from which it came: the art represented by Mr. Ruge's book, which has torn down the wall between Russian epic and the Great American Novel." —The New York Times

“An important, highly accomplished debut novel. . . . After reading and rereading we realize how carefully Ruge has placed each part of the puzzle; this splendid, beautifully translated novel becomes richer as it acquires a logic of its own. . . . We must be even more grateful for Ruge’s vision and talent . . . out of that gloomy bleak place and time, he has given us such a unique and evocative novel.” —The Boston Globe

“Not many writers publish their first novel in their late 50s, and even fewer still publish one as impressive and internationally well received as this one. . . . Powerful . . . Ruge has managed to weave the personal into the political in a book that functions as an ethnography of a lost time as much as it does a novel.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“The strength of this often funny, sometimes moving novel is its unwavering psychological realism. . . . With real skill, Ruge shows us historical change through a variety of viewpoints.” —The Barnes and Noble Review

“Impressive. . . . a shrewd and very knowing novel, slippery with the truth and packed tight with compressed tension, and written by a talented new voice.” —Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

"Though Ruge portrays all of his characters—from senile party stalwart Wilhelm to Russian transplant Irina to straying professor Kurt—with great tenderness, his story is at its core a depiction of a family's dissolution, the consequence of intergenerational conflict and bleak historical circumstances. There isn't any nostalgia here, just a deeply plaintive examination of personal and political tragedy." —Booklist, starred review

"[An] evocative family chronicle . . . full-bodied storytelling with an enlightening sense of modern history." —Publishers Weekly

"In Times of Fading Light is a generational saga like no other—an East German perspective on half a century of history. As the dreamlike details of each interior life unfold, we become intimate with characters who are scarcely intimate with themselves.  We get to see their scorns, hopes, and habits of denial, as the ground beneath them shifts. A haunting and eye-opening book." —Joan Silber, author of Ideas of Heaven and Fools 

"Ruge takes full advantage of the varying viewpoints to display, impressively, the density of family life." —Kirkus Reviews

“A novel full of the wisdom of experience.” —Die Zeit

 

“Ruge’s characters have a fully rounded existence beyond their own period. Perhaps for that very reason, he tells us more about the GDR and the difficulties of life there than all the books analyzing its ideologies and the harsh reality. The time is ripe for this clear, humorous, and understanding look at the subject.” —Die Tageszeitung

“Outstanding . . . A fascinating inside view of the GDR.” —Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

 

“The real miracle of this novel . . . lies in how he does each of his characters justice, in precise, unpretentious language, based entirely on observations and the importance of things, smells, [and] gestures. There is no reason to mourn the GDR as a state, but there are a lot of reasons to tell the story of successful or wasted lives with fine black humor.” —Die Welt

Kirkus Reviews
A multifaceted look at four generations of an East German family with roots in the Communist Party; this debut was a commercial and literary success in the German author's homeland. The action moves back and forth over 50 years, beginning in 1952, but the central event, witnessed by six different viewpoint characters, occurs in 1989, shortly before the Berlin Wall comes down. The occasion is the 90th birthday party of Wilhelm, the patriarch, an unrepentant Stalinist and Party bigwig. Family members present include Charlotte, his imperious, mean-spirited wife, and his stepson Kurt, a respected Party historian and timid reformer. Conspicuously absent are Kurt's Russian wife and his rebellious son Alexander, who that day has fled to the West. Though ideology is a crucial element of the novel, first and foremost come the domestic concerns that affect any family. Thus, the climax of Wilhelm's party will not be his receiving one more Party honor, nor the news of Alexander's defection, carefully concealed by Kurt, but the collapse of the old folks' dining table, inexpertly assembled by Wilhelm, whose powers are failing. And it is typical of the oblique narration that you might even miss the act that ends his life that same day. Mysteries abound. We first meet Wilhelm and Charlotte in Mexico, refugees from Nazism, ending their 12-yearslong exile. Has Wilhelm been a secret agent for the Soviets? The possibility dangles. Why is there just one tiny reference to Charlotte's first husband, the father of her sons? Those sons were sent to the gulag after Kurt's veiled criticism of Stalin in a private letter to his brother. Kurt did 10 years; his brother was murdered, circumstances undisclosed. Most important, how did Kurt keep his faith in communism after his ordeal? A case of self-deception? His son Alexander believes "everything is deception." It's a grand theme, but it's left undeveloped. Ruge takes full advantage of the varying viewpoints to display, impressively, the density of family life, but a thematic cohesion is lacking.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Throughout the violent twentieth century, the region that might have undergone the most unsettling political transitions is the land formerly known as Prussia. The center of the German Empire at the outbreak of the First World War, it became, in turn, the hub of the Weimar Republic; the heart of Hitler's Third Reich; a Soviet satellite, dubbed the German "Democratic" Republic; and finally, reunited with its capitalist Western twin, half of the new Federal Republic of Germany. How many shifting political systems and orthodoxies has it had to accept, or pretend to accept, during that time! Enough to induce a schizophrenic outlook even in the sanest person.

Eugen Ruge's darkly comical novel, In Times of Changing Light, captures this schizophrenia as it works its way through three generations of a suburban Berlin family. The middle-class, unremarkable Umnitzers have been at the center of radical political change throughout much of the century, participants — often unwilling ones — in the inevitable cultural hypocrisy. Even the family home and its furnishings reflect this strange century of German history: when the Umnitzers take possession of the house after World War II, all they throw out is "the cutlery with the tiny swastika engraved after the owner's initials, with the result that guests in this house ate their cake off Nazi plates — but with spoons made by nationalized industry."

The Umnitzer patriarch, Wilhelm, born in 1899, is a Communist Party hack; despite a thoroughly undistinguished career (he spent years exiled in Mexico as a mechanic, a bodyguard, and, it is hinted, a hit man) in his old age he has through sheer force of personality made himself an object of reverence to the toadies that flock about him. His ninetieth birthday, celebrated only weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall, is a great comic set piece in which these grotesques proliferate. Wilhelm's wife, Charlotte, on the strength of four terms at a domestic science college and on the unspoken condition that she will always uphold the Party line, is awarded a sinecure as head of the Institute for Literature and Languages at the Academy of Political Science and Jurisprudence. "Only the Communists, whom she had originally taken for bandits of some kind-had seen her talents, had encouraged her to study foreign languages, had given her political tasks," she reflects. Her loyalty does occasionally waver — she is haunted by the thought that she should perhaps have stayed in Mexico and married the man she fell half in love with there — but her fealty to the system has been bought and paid for, and she doesn't allow herself any regrets.

Ruge's idea of making Wilhelm and Charlotte's son Kurt a historian — in fact "one of the most productive historians of the German Democratic Republic" (note the adjective) — was an inspiration, for of all the species of intellectuals who must prostitute their craft before the demands of totalitarianism, the lies of historians are the most obvious. As George Orwell wrote in 1946, "The organized lying practiced by totalitarian states is not, as is sometimes claimed, a temporary expedient of the same nature as military deception. It is something integral to totalitarianism?. [A liberal historian] believes that the past cannot be altered and that a correct knowledge of history is valuable as a matter of course. From the totalitarian point of view history is something to be created rather than learned?. Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth." So it is with Kurt, who spends a thirty-year career toiling away to fill a meter of shelf space on German history as "created" by Soviet fiat, and wakes up one day to find that it is nothing but wastepaper.

Kurt is in many ways a ridiculous figure, but Ruge is not gratuitously cruel to his characters, and in the end we find him more tragic than culpable. As an idealistic young Communist during the Nazi rise to power, he went to the Soviet Union to fight for socialism, only to be packed off to the gulag after an unguarded remark about the Hitler-Stalin pact. There Kurt suffered and his brother died; later, exiled in the Siberian village of Slava, he met his Russian wife, Irina, whom he eventually brought back to Germany when he was rehabilitated. Who can blame him, really, for giving in before what appeared to be an ultimate power? And to his credit he does finally, at the age of eighty and safely after the collapse of the Soviet regime, write one honest book: a memoir describing his time in the gulag. Although it does not become an international success (it might have if Kurt had been brave enough to write it twenty years previously), "it was still, like it or not, an important, unique book, a book that would 'live.' "

Kurt and Irina have one son, Alexander (Sasha), born around 1955 — Ruge's own birth year, not coincidentally. By the time he has reached manhood, during the transformative 1970s, generations of lies, of shifting party lines and orthodoxies, have eaten away all remnants of true political faith. Performing his military service at the age of eighteen, the hapless Sasha feels hopelessly isolated from everything exciting that is happening out there. "[H]e would never hear the Rolling Stones live, he would never see Paris or Rome or Mexico, would never see Woodstock, never even see West Berlin with its nude demos and student riots, its free love and its Extraparliamentary Opposition, none of that?because between here and there, between one world and another, between the small narrow world where he would have to spend his life and the other big, wide world where real true life was lived — because between those two worlds there was a border, and it was one that he, Alexander Umnitzer, would soon have to guard."

History is on his side, but not quite soon enough, and he makes his inevitable escape only weeks before the fall of the Wall — on his grandfather's birthday, in fact — an irony that is not lost on Kurt. "He really ought to be told, thought Kurt, trying to imagine Wilhelm's face: today, on your birthday, he'd have to say, your grandson has decided he's fed up with the whole gang of you, many happy returns."

The strength of this often funny, sometimes moving novel is its unwavering psychological realism. None of the Umnitzers is any better than he or she should be; then again, none of them is any worse. Unheroic, all-too-human, they do the best they can in harsh circumstances, and while most of them are at some point both laughable and despicable, one realizes that few of us would do much better in their place. With real skill, Ruge shows us historical change through a variety of viewpoints. Kurt, whose cynicism has been hard-earned, sees all German history reflected in his father's strange trajectory:

In fact, thought Kurt, still clapping away, Wilhelm, objectively considered, was one of those personally responsible for the way the forces of the left had torn each other apart during the twenties, allowing fascism to emerge triumphant.... Even after the 'seizure of power' by the Nazis, of which no mention was made in the story of his life, Wilhelm supported the idea of social fascism, which was not to be officially corrected until 1935, only to be outdone in stupidity and obscenity a few years later by the Non-Aggression Pact between the Soviet Union and Hitler's Germany: lies, all of it, thought Kurt, carrying on with the clapping. The 1920s as a whole had been one huge lie — and the 1930s after them as well.
This is the analysis of an intelligent, educated man, one who has not been entirely corrupted by a lifetime of lies and who, in spite of everything, has retained a kernel of the socialist idealism that inspired him as a teenager in the 1930s. The foggy ideas of an uneducated peasant, in this case Irina's Russian mother, Nadyeshda Ivanovna — Baba Nadya — are just as telling. The life story of Baba Nadya, who was born around 1910, encapsulates the twentieth-century history of her country just as Kurt's does his: she lost her father in World War I, endured starvation and arctic cold during a four-year flight across Siberia during the subsequent civil war — both her sisters died of the hardships she somehow managed to survive — and made it through decades of bare subsistence living in grindingly poor Slava. Her ignorance, even in old age and living comfortably in the GDR, is astounding: she confuses West Germany with America, knowing only that both are rich, capitalist, and unutterably alien. Her memories of Slava, told in internal monologue form, come as close to poetry as anything in the novel.

In Times of Fading Light has been spectacularly translated by Anthea Bell, so well that it doesn't seem like a translation at all. Only one thing is missing from this fine edition, and that is an introduction with some sort of historical background. Americans "of a certain age" will understand the references, but those under forty, who grew up in the post-Soviet world, will probably be lost unless they have some sort of explanation of what was happening in East Germany between 1910 and 1990. It would be a pity if this book were only enjoyed by older people and specialists, for it is an important novel that gives the reader a far more vivid picture of life in this strange, now-lost Neverland than any amount of historical or sociological prose could do.

Brooke Allen is the author of Twentieth-Century Attitudes; Artistic License; and Moral Minority. She is a contributor to The New York Times Book Review, The New Criterion, The New Leader, The Hudson Review, and The Nation, among others. She was named a finalist for the 2007 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.

Reviewer: Brooke Allen

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555976439
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press
  • Publication date: 6/11/2013
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 655,123
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.12 (h) x 1.12 (d)

Meet the Author

Eugen Ruge won the 2011 German Book Prize for In Times of Fading Light, his debut novel, which became a bestseller in Germany and has been translated into twenty languages. Anthea Bell is a prizewinning translator.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 22 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 22 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 2013

    In time if fading light

    Slow read at times. Story skips around and often is hard to follow. Book tends to be slow near the end and should have ended about 100 pages sooner than it did.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2013

    Firegod to dawnsong

    Listen, blood does NOT hesitate at all. Do you know where blood last was?

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2013

    Twilight

    Can everyone forgive me please? Im really sorry

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2013

    Silverlife

    *is at the new camp*

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2013

    Twistedheart

    Nevermind. I don't really like what i see so far. -Good bye

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2013

    To silverlife

    Its severely

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2013

    Frostbite

    "Dawnsong, I'm sorry I left last night, that really wasn't the best way to make a good first impression on you." He meowed.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2013

    Ashstar

    Continues to wait

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2013

    &starf /// &star

    They both remain confused and at the old camp.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 2, 2013

    Grassblade

    Leaves at the rudeness

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2013

    Nitehawk

    He looked for any other cats needg help before going to the new canpi

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2013

    Icepaw

    Where's the new camp?

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2013

    HoneyBlossem and CoalBlaze

    HoneyBlossem licks a honey colored paw.<p>
    CoalBlaze meows,"Hello". His tail flicks calmly.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 8, 2013

    Starpaw

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 2, 2013

    Bloodpaw, Scourgepaw and Bonepaw

    Are you from GoldClan? It's us, Bryce and Cameron!)) "Of course!"

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 3, 2013

    Oceanbreeze

    She pad into camp, her tail twitching.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 1, 2013

    Skybloom

    Barely registered the other cat's presence. Her amber eyes were glazed and she was breathing heavily.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 1, 2013

    The tom

    So russetkit?)) *licks them up then purrs quietly*

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2013

    Leopardbreeze

    Leopardbreeze padded to the warriors den.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2013

    To below

    New camp is at 'blue button' all results

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