Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Destination: The Darkest Night of the Year

I have spent the last two Christmases away from family. While I am grateful to be flying home this year, I'm also glad to have experienced a solitary holiday, as so many do every year. Last year I had dinner with a few other "orphans" away from home, but the year before that, it was just me. Just me and a few books.

Because not everyone gets to be with who they'd like to be with over the holidays, I want to recommend a few good winter reads to take you through those dark, cold nights. After all, December 22, the darkest night of the year, is only a few nights away. Winter solstice festivals traditionally fought off the night with bonfires and festivities, and many of us today still light fires, light candles, light up houses and trees to show our holiday cheer. It's the perfect time of year to curl up next to that fire with a good book. For me, the most satisfying reads are those that reflect my surroundings, echo my thoughts, stories that identify what has been a vague and uncomfortable state of being and help me explore and express it—bring it to light.

That's why I'm going to mention a few books you aren't likely to find wrapped up in bright colored paper this year. I've been reading from the Germany shelf in Destination Literature, books that are not exactly filled with holiday cheer. What they do contain is a darkness so deep you'll think the winter night came right out of the page. This isn't a gratuitous or brutal darkness, but rather, a beautiful one. A darkness which, if you look deep and long enough, makes the lights that are around you, and that maybe had grown dim, or that maybe you had stopped seeing altogether, shine just a little brighter.
For anyone anticipating a Blue Christmas, pining for loved ones far away, the new translation of Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther by Stanley Corngold is the perfect tale in which to wallow. Werther's passion poignantly expresses the deepest woes of unrequited love. 
Jenny Erpenbeck's The Visitation is set on one property outside of Berlin. The story is told through the perspectives of various residents who inhabit the property across the decades, painting a fragmented, dark, but rich portrait of German history.
The capricious young narrator of Irmgard Keun's Artificial Silk Girl will keep you company on a lonely night as she attempts to climb the social ladders of the Weimer Republic through a series of love affairs.  In Keun's After Dark the ideals of two young girls come in direct conflict with the reality of a less-than-innocent age, when one night, out a romantic escapade, the girls are stopped by Hitler's motorcade.
I am currently in the middle of the subtle darkness that is Christa Wolf's The Quest for Christa T. Christa T. is a mysterious young woman whose quest for individuality in the midst of the growing uniformity of East Germany is narrated by a friend trying to pick up the pieces after Christa T.'s death. The first image we are given of her character is as a young school girl. Christa T. is in the street, blowing trumpet noises triumphantly through a tube of  rolled up newspaper. That "hooohaahooo" continues to sound throughout the encroaching darkness of the rest of the narrative, a sound that harmonizes nicely in the darkest night with the hark of herald angels, the Yuletide carols being sung by a fire, the silver, the jingling bells.

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