Summerhouse, Later: Stories

Summerhouse, Later: Stories

4.5 2
by Judith Hermann

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In nine luminous stories of love and loss, loneliness and hope, Judith Hermann's stunning debut collection paints a vivid and poignant picture of a generation ready and anxious to turn their back on the past, to risk uncertainty in search of a fresh, if fragile, equilibrium. An international bestseller and translated into twelve languages, Summerhouse, Later

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In nine luminous stories of love and loss, loneliness and hope, Judith Hermann's stunning debut collection paints a vivid and poignant picture of a generation ready and anxious to turn their back on the past, to risk uncertainty in search of a fresh, if fragile, equilibrium. An international bestseller and translated into twelve languages, Summerhouse, Later heralds the arrival of one of Germanys most arresting new literary talents.

A restless man hopes to find permanence in the purchase of a summerhouse outside Berlin. A young girl, trapped in a paralyzing web of family stories and secrets, finally manages to break free. A granddaughter struggles to lay her grandmother's ghosts to rest. A successful and simplistic artist becomes inexplicably obsessed with an elusive and strangely sinister young girl.

Against the backdrop of contemporary Berlin, possibly Europe's most vibrant and exhilarating city, Hermann's characters are as kaleidoscopic and extraordinary as their metropolis, united mostly in a furious and dogged pursuit of the elusive specter of "living in the moment." They're people who, in one way or another, constantly challenge the madness of the modern world and whose dreams of transcending the ordinary for that "narrow strip of sky over the rooftops" are deeply felt and perfectly rendered.

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Editorial Reviews

Die Zeit
“An exceptional debut that gives rise to great hope.”
The Independent
“A master storyteller.”
O magazine
“Daringly lyrical.”
Denver Post
“Powerful… both whimsical and melancholic, at once edgy and moving — the stuff of meaningful literature.”
Times Literary Supplement (London)
“A work of vision, authority and humaneness — something to be savored.”
Le Monde
“One of the great revelations of contemporary Germany literature.”
Elle Magazine
“Judith Hermann’s intriguing debut collection ... offers nine glimpses of post-wall Berlin that shimmer with dark wit and intelligence.”
New York Times Book Review
“Hermann’s writing is spare and literal and achieves a fullness that’s almost magically spun… Arresting.”
“Judith Hermann’s prose has conviction and is utterly of its time.”
O Magazine
"Daringly lyrical."
Sunday Business Post
“Sometimes heartbreaking and always starkly original. Every story here is worth reading. Exceptional.”
Time Magazines Literary Supplement (London)
"A work of vision, authority and humaneness — something to be savored."
Publishers Weekly
Stalled communication and the vagaries of memory are the familiar themes woven through the nine spare stories in Hermann's debut collection. Her characters, mostly youngish to middle-aged Berliners, stubbornly insist on living in the past even if it's someone else's past. In "The Red Coral Bracelet," a young woman, trying to sort out her own relationship with an uncommunicative boyfriend, describes to her therapist her great-grandmother's life in St. Petersburg, where the great-grandmother's lover shot her husband through the heart in a duel. An artist in "Sonja" finds that his unusual relationship with a reticent, mousy chain smoker whom he claims not to desire is far more resonant than his love affair with a bombshell. The narrator of "Bali Woman" addresses an absent-lover while out on a restless all-night odyssey among Berlin's art world denizens, and in "Hunter Johnson Music" (one of the two stories in the collection not set primarily in Germany), an isolated man living in a dilapidated New York City hotel gives an unusual parting gift to a neighbor woman who's stood him up for a date. Hermann's characters are restless, their desires oblique and unfocused, their memories more real than their raucous real-life encounters. Yet in spite of some sharp observations of contemporary German manners and mores, and her generally elegant prose, Hermann's stories often don't transcend the melancholy self-absorption of her characters. (Apr.) FYI: Nearly 200,000 copies of this Kleist Preis-winning title have been sold since its 1998 publication in Germany, and foreign rights have been sold in 12 countries. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The ten stories in Hermann's debut are said to have been a great success at home (Hermann is a Berliner), but to the Yankee ear they seem to consist, for the most part, of youth, pose, and attitude. The exception is the fine opener, "The Red Coral Bracelet," which ought to have been the title story. A German bride, shortly before the 1905 revolution, is taken to St. Petersburg by her husband, a builder of furnaces. Furnaces are so needed in Russia that the husband is away for years-with the result that adultery with the bride occurs, and a birth, but not before a duel, and a death. Years later, the bride's great-granddaughter, burdened with these mixed and exotic origins-and wearing a bracelet from St. Petersburg-unburdens herself to a shrink and loses the bracelet as its string breaks and "the six hundred and seventy-five coral beads were scattered all over the room." This wonderful Babel-esque release from history is the theme also of the title story (a Berlin cab driver buys an 18th-century manor house, repairs it, then it burns down), but the characters-ultrahip young adults-are so shallow, thin, and unprepossessing that the allegory has no emotion to take root in. Likewise, in "Hurricane (Something Farewell"), two young women visit a friend who's gone to live on a tropical island, but the characters are so insensitive and unlikable that the story's symbols are just exercises in air. Other pieces, too, seem more riff than depth: In "Sonja," a strange woman becomes fascinating to a painter; an aging bachelor living in a fleabag hotel in New York meets a girl and doesn't know what to do ("Hunter Johnson Music"); a girl seduces a famous artist, who's a near-dwarf ("Camera Obcsura"); anda hatefully cranky old granny dies by catching on fire from a candle ("The End of Something"). Stories, yes, but without characters a reader can care about, they remain surface only.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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5.00(w) x 7.12(h) x 0.49(d)

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Chapter One

The Red
Coral Bracelet

My first and only visit to a therapist cost me my red coral bracelet and my lover.

The red coral bracelet came from Russia. It came from St. Petersburg, to be more precise, and it was more than one hundred years old. My great-grandmother had worn it on her left wrist; it had cost my great-grandfather his life. Is that the story I want to tell? I'm not sure. Not really sure -'

My great-grandmother was beautiful. She went to Russia with my great-grandfather because my great-grandfather was building furnaces there for the Russian people. My great-grandfather rented a large apartment for my great-grandmother on Vasilevsky Ostrov, one of the islands of St. Petersburg. The Greater and the Lesser Neva lapped at the shores of Vasilevsky Ostrov, and if my great-grandmother had stood on the tips of her toes to look out the window of her apartment on Maly Prospekt she would have seen the river and the great Kronstadt Bay. But my great-grandmother did not want to see the river or Kronstadt Bay or the beautiful tall houses on Maly Prospekt. She did not want to look out of the window at a foreign land. She drew the heavy red velvet drapes and shut the doors -' the rugs swallowed all sound, and my great-grandmother sat on the sofas, the chairs, or the four-poster beds, rocking back and forth, homesick for Germany. The light in the large apartment on Maly Prospekt was dim, like the light at the bottom of the sea, and my great-grandmother may have thought that this foreign place, that St. Petersburg, that all of Russia was nothing but a deep, twilight dream from whichshe would soon awaken.

My great-grandfather, though, was traveling all over the country building furnaces for the Russian people. He built shaft furnaces and roasting kilns and self-dumping reverberatory furnaces and Livermore furnaces. He stayed away for a long time. He wrote letters to my great-grandmother, and whenever one of these letters arrived my great-grandmother would open the heavy red drapes just a little and read by the narrow chink of daylight:

I would like to explain to you that the Hasenclever furnace we are building here consists of muffles that are connected to each other by vertical channels and are heated by the flames of a grate — firing furnace -' you remember, don't you, the retort furnace I built in the Blome Wildnis in Holstein, which you liked so much at the time? Well, in the Hasenclever furnace the ore is also loaded through an opening in the top muffle and . . .

Reading these letters made my great-grandmother very weary. She could no longer recall the retort furnace in the Blome Wildnis but she did remember the Blome Wildnis, the pastures and the flat countryside, the hay bales in the fields and the taste of cold, sweet apple cider in the summer. She let the room subside once more into its twilight and lay down wearily on one of the sofas, repeating, “Blome Wildnis, Blome Wildnis.” It sounded like a children's song, like a lullaby; it sounded nice.

In those years, not only foreign businessmen and their families, but also many Russian artists and scholars lived on Vasilevsky Ostrov. Inevitably, they heard of the German woman, the beautiful pale one with the fair hair who was said to live up on Maly Prospekt, almost always by herself and in rooms as dark, soft, and cool as the sea. The artists and scholars went to see her. My great-grandmother gestured with her small weary hand, asking them to come in. She spoke little, she scarcely understood anything they said, slowly and dreamily she gazed at them from under heavy eyelids. The artists and scholars sat down on the deep, soft sofas and chairs, sinking into the heavy, dark materials; the maids brought black cinnamoned tea with huckleberry and blackberry jam. My great-grandmother warmed her cold hands on the samovar and felt much too tired to ask the artists and scholars to leave. And so they stayed. And they looked at my great-grandmother, and my great-grandmother melted into the dusk and became something melancholy, beautiful, and foreign. And since melancholy and beauty and foreignness are essential traits of the Russian soul, the artists and scholars fell in love with my great-grandmother, and my great-grandmother let herself be loved by them.

My great-grandfather stayed away for a long time. And so my great-grandmother let herself be loved for a long time -' she did it cautiously and prudently, and she made hardly any mistakes. Warming her cold hands on the samovar and her chilled soul on the ardent hearts of her lovers, she learned to distinguish'in that strange, soft language of theirs -' the words “You are the most tender of all birches.” She read the letters about the smelting furnaces, the Deville furnaces, and the tube furnaces in the narrow chink of daylight and burned them all in the fireplace. She allowed herself to be loved; in the evening before falling asleep she sang the song about the Blome Wildnis, sang it to herself, and when her lovers looked at her inquiringly, she smiled and said nothing.

My great-grandfather promised to come back soon, to take her back to Germany soon. But he did not come.

The first, the second, and then the third St. Petersburg winter passed, and still my great-grandfather was busy building furnaces in the Russian vastness, and still my great-grandmother was waiting for the day when she could return home to Germany. She wrote to him in the taiga. He replied that he would come back soon but that he would have to leave again one more time, just one last time'but then, then, he promised, then they could leave.

Summerhouse, Later. Copyright © by Judith Hermann. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Summerhouse, Later 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Each story is captivating in its own subtle way. I was drawn into different vantages and ended up relating to the characters and their obscure situations, whether I wanted to or not. More than once in my life I have found myself suffering the characters' chaos and laughed aloud at the irony. Grossly real [like life], I highly recommend to this to anyone who enjoys tasting other realities.
Guest More than 1 year ago
this book was really good! each story was well written and keep me wanting more