Category: Fiction

Julia Franck
Die Mittagsfrau
[The oonday witch]

Review

Barely a year after its publication this novel, winner of the 2007 German Book Prize, is being translated into twenty-eight languages. How do we explain the overwhelming success of Julia Franck’s fourth novel? What exactly is the fascination of this story of a young woman’s life amidst the fateful changes from the beginning of the twentieth century to the end of the Second World War, as they are traced in the book?

The prologue, described from a child’s point of view, immediately confronts the reader with a startling, even scandalous incident. In 1945, just after the end of the war, a mother sets out from the devastated city of Stettin for the west with her eight-year-old son Peter. As the train stops near Pasewalk, something incomprehensible happens: the mother abandons her child on the platform and never comes back for him. What painful experiences, what sudden reversals of fortune in her own story, could have brought this woman to come to such an apparently cruel and yet deliberate decision, and reject her son? In the main part of the novel, the narrative circles around this question, which has autobiographical relevance for the author herself.

Like the character of Peter, Julia Franck’s own father was abandoned by his mother on a railway platform in 1945, near the Oder-Neisse border. With the aid of a long flashback in which the story of the protagonist Helene unfolds, beginning with her childhood and covering four decades, Julia Franck writes her way, with magnificent linguistic skill, to an understanding of the conduct of a mother who at first glance seems so inhuman:

In Bautzen before the outbreak of the First World War, Ernst Ludwig Würsich, owner of a printing press, and his wife Selma lead what seems to be a full and happy life with their two daughters. They lack for nothing. But there are cracks in the structure of the family: the girls’ Jewish mother never mentions her origins or her faith, and she mourns the loss of four sons who were born dead or died shortly after birth. Her position as an outsider in society and her psychological instability leave her unable to show love for her daughters. Her “heart has gone blind”. The girls make up for the absence of maternal affection by developing an erotic relationship with each other, even in childhood. Franck depicts the theme of lesbian love graphically and in detail. The discrepancy, already evident at this point in the book, between physical sensuality and insuperable psychological withdrawal is a thread running through the entire text.

Later, when the girls’ father returns from the First World War badly injured, Helene and Martha self-sacrificingly nurse him until his death and then, at their Aunt Fanny’s invitation, go to twenties Berlin. Here, in direct contrast to the limited horizons of their provincial childhood in Lusatia, Julia Franck presents a lively and densely atmospheric picture of life in the metropolis, impressively conveying an idea of the times. The vivid description of the lives of the middle classes in Bautzen who have adapted to their environment, and the panorama of Berlin society in the twenties, are both evidence of the thorough research done by the author into the lifestyles and ordinary daily culture of the times.

While Martha explores all facets of the “roaring twenties”, from her passionate love for a woman to self-destructive drug addiction, Helene enjoys the intellectual challenges that she encounters in the upper middle-class social milieu of which their aunt is a part. She is courted by the Jewish philosophy student Carl Werthheimer, who goes to the theatre and the opera with her, seduces her by reading to her from Spinoza, and inspires her with enthusiasm for the intellectual debates and philosophical currents of the time. A romantic and physically ardent love develops between the two of them in Carl’s attic room. But when he dies in an accident just before they plan to marry, Helene is shattered. She does not lose her ability to love or her sensuality, but she can no longer feel any joy in life – and she cannot she communicate with others. She has no more to say even to her sister Martha, whom she loves so much.

Characteristically and unsparingly keeping her distance from her protagonist, Julia Franck traces her progressively cooling emotions as she is deprived of the ability to express herself at crucial moments in her life. It is as if silence becomes her survival strategy. The theme is matched by the austerity of the language in which, during the course of the novel, the author describes the development of a talented and eloquent girl into a silent woman whose life is governed by discipline and self-control. However, Julia Franck leaves psychological interpretations entirely to the reader, always maintaining respect for the autonomy of her character.

Without ever passing judgment, the novel describes the way in which the inwardly frozen Helene yields to the advances of the Nazi engineer Wilhelm, who gets her a certificate of Aryan descent and thus “spotless origins’ by eradicating her Jewish roots from the records. Helene allows herself to be robbed of her identity in silence – on her marriage, Helene Würsich becomes Alice Sehmisch. When Wilhelm finds out on their wedding night that his wife is not a virgin, a marital hell begins for Helene, a marriage full of humiliation, betrayal, rape and psychological violence. Turning a realistic and unsparing light on her protagonist, Julia Franck describes the transformation of Helene, without condemning either her or what she does. We are presented with the psychograph of a broken woman who is abandoned by her husband after the birth of their son.

During the war Helene works to the point of utter exhaustion in the local hospital, and cares selflessly and lovingly for her patients. At home, however, she is no longer capable of showing any feelings. She is merely functioning automatically, and puts herself and her own needs entirely aside. “Patience was all that mattered, it gave shape and form to life.” She never talks to Peter about the brutality and confusion of the war, her rape by soldiers, which he had to watch, the ravaged limbs that she sees daily in the hospital, or the fact that there is nothing to eat. The one way out of this desperate situation, as Helene sees it, is to send Peter to her husband’s brother in the country, where she hopes he will have a better life. Yet she does not tell the boy, who loves her unreservedly, anything about her plans.

The epilogue closes the narrative brackets in which Helene’s whole story is contained: once again it is told from the point of view of Peter, now nearly grown up, who is living and working on his uncle’s farm. He spends his seventeenth birthday hiding in the hayloft from the mother who has come to see him for the first time in all these years. From a safe distance, he sees her come and go again, but he does not want to know any more about this woman. Nothing remains to him of the mother he sees down below but what his uncle, furious with his sister-in-law, tells him: Helene is now living with her elder sister Martha in a small one-room apartment near Berlin and working hard. Nor does the reader hear anything more about the period of nearly ten years since they parted on the station platform. While Peter watches his mother leave at the end of the day, without ever having come out to meet her, he knows for sure that “he never wants to see her again in his life.”

After reading Julia Franck’s novel, we are left with the intriguing realization that incomprehensible decisions and the infliction of injuries in the life of a human being cannot, perhaps, be justified or even understood, but their story can be magnificently and laudably told.
Vorname Name

By Verena Kling, 01.08.2008

Translated by Anthea Bell