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Roger Manderscheid: Feier a Flam [Fire and Flame]

This is the third novel of a trilogy but can be read on its own. The trilogy tells the story of Christian Knapp, known by other names but, in particular, Chrëscht. The first book in the trilogy Schacko Klak was written in German, the second book De Papagei um Käschtebam and this one were written in Luxembourgish, with this one being translated into German by the author. The first is about Christian’s childhood and the second one about his teenage years. This one starts just as he is leaving school, unable to go to university as his father cannot afford to send him.

The trilogy is a Bildungsroman, telling of Christian’s growing up and learning. In this book that means life, moving away from his father (his mother died six years previously) and, of course, sex/romance.

The book is told, to some degree, in chronological order, though Manderscheid does jump about. Much of the narration is third person narration but focussing on Christian. However, much of it involves Christian telling Annabel, his wife later in life (they are both in their sixties at the time), what happened, and he spares her nothing, including sexual details. She gives her comments on his narration.

In addition to conventional narration, there are various small sections interspersed throughout the book. These include letters, details of essays done at school, diary excerpts, a run-down of his officers when he is in the military and a host of other seemingly random documents thrown in to explain Christian’s life.

I read the book in Manderscheid’s own German translation. While German is therefore the main language used, there is quite a lot of French thrown in and even mixed in the German, as well as some English. His use of English is interesting if not always accurate. There is an English character in the book, called Mea, who is, briefly, one of Christian’s girlfriends, and while I am quite prepared to believe she would use it’s instead of its in a letter, there are several other examples of misuse of English which I doubt any English-speaking person would use.

The book starts starts after Christian’s final school exams and the first thing he does is get away, though only as far as Brussels. There he stays with Addo, an old friend, who is living with his girlfriend Elodie. He is somewhat surprised to learn that they have an open relationship. Indeed, the first evening Addo goes out with another girlfriend, while Elodie takes Christian to the opera to see Boris Godunov. He misreads the signals and thinks that he is expected to have sex with Elodie but, when they get back home, she tells him that she has to go on night duty – she is a nurse. He thinks a lot about this event during the book.

The next major expedition is a bike ride to Switzerland. He has been specifically forbidden to go to Switzerland by his father but Fras, his best friend, with whom he is going, particularly wants to go to Montreux, as his girlfriend is working there for the summer. We follow their journey and various adventures, till they arrive in Switzerland, where he meets Nadine. However, Nadine comes from a Catholic family and is only interested in kissing and firmly rejects what she calls his groping and he claims is only stroking. She is, he says, water to Elodie’s fire. When they get back, the father learns that they have been to Switzerland and is furious.

He then spends two weeks as a supply teacher in a rural school where he broadens the children’s education compared to the previous, elderly teacher, by having them play football. He also enjoys the countryside. However, he nearly has another sexual encounter when a man starts talking to him and then stroking his knee and it takes a while for Christian to realise what is going on, before running away in the opposite direction. The day before he leaves, he has the children write an essay about him, for which there will be no repercussions, as he is leaving. They are generally favourable and he is particularly impressed with one who compares him to a boxer.

It is now into the army and his accounts there are similar to other accounts: cold, wet and miserable, brutal training, nasty officers and NCOs and so on. He is bald and gets teased about that. He maintains there are two types of people in the army, those that scream and those that knuckle under. Inevitably, he and the other soldiers go to a prostitute, Madame Lea.

While we are reading these accounts we are also learning more about Christian other than his sexual naivety. He has no obvious ambitions, except he wants to meet his great love and settle down and marry. His father tells him he needs a steady job before doing so. Indeed, he tells Fras that he has no ambition, though he does indicate he might like to be a poet or artist. He and Fras do, at one time, consider going green and living off the land, but the plan comes to nothing.

We continue to follow his somewhat unfulfilled life. He becomes an officer in the army but had realised that the army life is not for him. His father urges him to apply for a job on the railways and, to please his father, he does. He is successful and takes up the job, first at a small station and then the main station in Luxembourg. He does not enjoy it and quits to go and work for the Ministry of Labour as an editor. At least the work is not hard and they seem to spend much time eating, drinking and chatting.

Meanwhile, he continues his desultory love life, which is less than successful, in that he does not finds the woman of his dreams. Elodie turns up twice, once seven months pregnant, and while both seem to be interested, nothing comes of it. As regards his intellectual life, his attempts at being a poet and/or and artist do not pan out. He tries to paint but, as Manderscheid comments in the original Luxembourgish Il wullte bien, mais il ne puffte pas [He wanted to but could not]. This is an interesting sentence. German speakers will recognise wullte as cognate with German wollte. French speakers will recognise ne…pas, il and bien. Puffte clearly comes from French pouvoir/pouvait, though it has the German verbal ending. The word is also interesting as, for English speakers (which is almost certainly irrelevant in this context) it recalls to puff as in be out of breath but also poof, offensive slang for a homosexual. For German speakers, however, it recalls Puff which means brothel and could be a reference to Christian’s not too successful sex life. Apparently, the original Luxembourgish text has quite a few word games of this nature.

The book essentially runs the course of the Fifties when life was very different from when he is writing about it and telling Annabel his tale. We see a young man struggling with life: his relationship with his father, with whom he does not get on particularly well, as his father gets more and re morose as he gets older and struggles with being a widower, his loss of his mother, his failure to identify what he wants to do in life, except perhaps write poetry and paint, neither of which he seems to have a talent for and, above all, his awkwardness with the opposite sex. Like many young men, he struggles with understanding the women in his life (and they, of course sometimes struggle with understanding him).

Is the book autobiographical? One clue occurs well into the book when the author himself suddenly jumps into the book and tells us, very briefly, about his life. In particular we learn that he is married to Annabel and is writing this book. He then returns to the story, never to reappear. It is not, in my view a great book, but nevertheless interesting to follow how he (slightly) develops over the course of the Fifties, particularly once he has a steady job. His relationships with women do not seem to any better at the end of the book than they were at the beginning but, then, that could be said of many real-life men.

Publishing history

First published in 1995 by Editions Phi
No English translation
First published in German as Der sechste Himmel in 2006 by Gollenstein
Translated by the author