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Oskar Maria Graf: Das Leben meiner Mutter (The Life of My Mother)

This book was first published in English translation in 1940 by a small publisher in the United States, where Graf was living. It had little success. The publisher soon went bankrupt. It has not been republished in English and is very difficult to obtain. It was not published in German till after the war, in 1946, where it had and continues to have success. The title, to a great degree, tells us what the book is. It is an autobiographical novel about Graf’s mother, Theres (but always known as Resl) née Heimrath. However, though Graf clearly obtained many of the details from his family, there is much that is clearly invented. As the young Oskar does not appear on the scene till almost half way through the book, we must assume that a fair amount is invented, though there is a considerable amount of historical data in the book, insofar as it relates to the area where the Graf and Heimrath families lived, namely Berg on Lake Starnberg, in Upper Bavaria, about fifteen miles south-west of Munich.

As Graf tells us at the beginning of the novel, Resl Heimrath lived through a tumultuous period. She was a contemporary of Ludwig II, Bismarck and Hitler and saw the War of 1870, the Weimar Republic, the Industrial Revolution and World War I. She had a hard life, living in a rural community, mothered eleven children, eight of whom lived to adulthood. She had nine sisters, two who died young, and a brother, who also died young. But Graf starts by telling us of the recent history of the region, including the two invasions of the Swedes, followed by the plague, two years later. Berg was located by the famous Starnberg Lake and the castle there was the summer residence of Ludwig II. He will appear throughout the early part of the book, from his visits to the area, to his brief discussion with the mentally handicapped sister of Maxl Graf, later Resl’s husband, to his purchase of bread from the enterprising new baker, Maxl, and, finally, his insanity and his early and mysterious death.

The Heimrath family were traditionally farmers, while the Graf family were cartwrights. They both live in Berg and both know each other well. Graf tells us in detail the stories of both. Resl, being one of nine sisters, tends to help her mother in tasks traditionally assigned to women. When her father dies, her mother, initially, carries on without any male help. However, she is persuaded that she does need to take on male help and appoints a foreman – Jani-Hans. He is efficient at his work. Resl is teased about him as a potential suitor but he is really interested in a Joseph marriage, i.e. a marriage where both parties agree to have no sexual relations and where their assets, on death, are left to the church, with Resl’s mother. Eventually, after some time, he puts the idea to Resl’s mother and is immediately sent packing.

During this period there is considerable political upheaval. Ludwig II became King of Bavaria when he was only eighteen, after the premature death of his father, and is ill-prepared for the task. His main interest is the arts – he is a keen patron of Wagner – and he is not politically savvy. In the war between Prussia and Austria, he sides with the Austrians and, when the Prussians win, Bavaria essentially comes under Prussian control. In the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, the Bavarians have to side with the Prussians even though the natural instinct of both the King and the people is to side with the French. After the war, Bismarck proceeds to the unification of Germany and Bavaria loses its independence, with a Prussian Kaiser and a Prussian Chancellor ruling them. The people are bitterly opposed to this, as it means substantial change, including a change of currency but also an influx of people from elsewhere, including the hated socialists. Ludwig was engaged to his cousin, Duchess Sophie Charlotte, but the marriage never took place. All of these events have a profound effect on the area, not least because many of the men are called up for the Franco-Prussian War. The Heimraths lose farm labourers and Maxl Graf, Oskar’s future father, is called up but shot in the hand.

We follow the Grafs for a while, where there is some dispute within the family (also a large one). Maxl eventually decides to become a baker. His family mock him but he persists and makes a success of it, not least because of his gregarious nature and willingness to go out and sell his bread, including to the King. Eventually, as we have known for some time that he would, he proposes to Resl, though it is not very romantic. He first tells her that, as a successful businessman, he needs a wife but, when she asks him whom he plans to marry, he replies that he has not yet decided. She mocks him but, eventually, he does say that he wants to marry her. Her mother is not very enthusiastic but does agree to the marriage. They move to his house – he still lives with his family – but she is not happy there. This is not helped by the fact that her first baby dies when six months old and her mother dies soon after. She will go on to have ten more children.

The second half of the book tells of Oskar’s life with his mother. We follow the history from the death of Empress Elizabeth of Austria up to the rise of the Nazis. But we also learn about the construction of a new house for the ever-expanding Graf family. We read about family disputes, war, family deaths, the dispersal of some of the family and Maxl’s affair. We also follow Oskar’s development and his growing love for books, which leads to a huge dispute with his father and his fleeing to Munich, aged seventeen. He struggles in Munich, but becomes involved with left-wing organisations. However, the rise of the Nazis affects both him but also Berg and, eventually, as we know, he flees to Austria. His beloved mother dies when he is abroad.

I must admit that I enjoyed the first part of this book more, no doubt, in part, because I was less familiar with the history but also because Graf can be more inventive, as he is not reporting on the events of his own life, but, overall, it is a very good autobiographical account of his mother’s and his own life in Germany during a turbulent period. I generally enjoy autobiographies less than imaginative works but this one is very well-written and fully deserving of its reputation in Germany. Graf says of his mother Von Kindheit an war ihr Alltag vor allem harte Arbeit und Mühe. Das änderte sich nicht, als sie den Bauernhof ihrer Familie verließ und den Bäckermeister Max Graf heiratete. [From childhood on, her daily life was above all hard work and problems. That did not change when she left the family farm and married the master baker, Max Graf.] However, the historical background, the changing family fortunes and Resl’s determination and acceptance of her life make this much more than the story of a woman burdened by cares.

Publishing history

First published 1940 by Howell, Soskin (in English translation)
First German edition by Desch, Munich, in 1946