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Erhard von Büren: Wespenzeit (Wasp Days)

Our hero is a forty-five year old Swiss municipal librarian, working in the small Swiss town of Wangen. It is summer and his wife, Eva, and his two daughters are away on holiday, Lydia, the oldest one in France and Marie-Jeanne, the youngest, with her mother. Our hero has to stay behind and run the library because his boss is also on holiday. In theory, as he has to do two jobs, he should be working harder but it is warm and he is alone, so he daydreams. Much of his daydreaming revolves around his past. In short, he tells us about his life through his daydreaming, though not in chronological order and often (though certainly not only) focussing on sexual matters.

He starts with what might best be described as a review of his past girlfriends. He starts off with Annemarie, the older woman. He was babysitting, while a student, for his friends the Naefs. They come home with Annemarie, a friend, and she says that she is looking for a babysitter. (She is divorced.) He starts with the babysitting and moves on to romance. Initially, he did not take to her, as she is older (she was born before the war and he after the war.) He already had a girlfriend, Erika, but that did not seem to deter him. Annemarie was familiar with the Kama Sutra and knew not only how to use its techniques but improvise on them. If it had not been for her, he would have become like a Fenimore Cooper hero! (As a librarian, he makes numerous references to books, particularly US novels. Indeed, each section starts with a quote from a US work. Fenimore Cooper and Sinclair Lewis seem to be his favourites.) But she goes off with an older man. He does not seem too concerned.

Other girlfriends are mentioned. He had known Erika at school, lost touch with her and then met her again. As he wittily says, it was love at second sight. They are both virgins when they get together. Their first sexual encounter is one of the many examples of his laconic descriptions. She is eating an apple and is determined to eat it before they have sex. Inevitably, Eve-like, she gives him a bite. Elisabeth he had also met before but has not recognised her as she had aged somewhat. She is the only one of his former girlfriends whose whereabouts he no longer knows.

Cäcilia is a Swissair air hostess, sophisticated, always well-dressed, perhaps too sophisticated for him. And then there is Linda. Who is she? We do not know as she is only mentioned in passing. Finally, there is Dorothea. We will meet her again, unlike the others. He had an affair with her in Paris, when he was already married to Eva. She was a serious philosopher, who rarely smiled and never laughed. He does pay a price with her, as he gets chlamydia, though it is not entirely clear whether he gives it to her (she barely suffers) or she to him. Whatever the source, he suffers from it, not only with an itchy penis but with eye and other skin problems.

Our hero is married to Eva, though Eva does not figure too much in his daydreams. Indeed, they seem to leave separate lives. Not only does she have holidays, while he stays to work in the summers, when they lived In Paris, where he was studying, he seemed to keep well away from his wife and daughters, in order to study (and to see Dorothea). The separate holidays are (partially) explained by the fact that he does not like travel, except for his annual visits to Paris. This changes somewhat when, in the present, Eva proposes going to China, to visit a friend who is there, and he, eventually, suggests that he might accompany her.

His attraction to women is not, of course, limited to his wife and girlfriends. He is attracted to the female students who come to his library, though does not do anything about it. During this holiday period, one of his regular customers, whom he barely knows, Yvonne, becomes more friendly and they see each other, though it appears that nothing untoward takes place. The Swiss do not have a reputation as lovers, as this old joke tells us, but perhaps this is just an urban legend and really not true. Our hero certainly likes his sexual encounters.

It is not all sex. We learn much about his time in Paris and, in particular, his two friends Anderegg, who believes much human development is because of mimicry, and Sommerhalder, who is very much concerned with studying the petite-bourgeoisie. (As our hero says, the Swiss tend to associate with the Swiss when abroad, though this is probably true of many nationalities.) It is Anderegg who introduces him to the technique which partially explains his summertime daydreaming. According to Anderegg, you should sit down for half an hour and write down everything that has gone through your head in the previous two-three minutes. Anderegg does admit that the result is more likely to be the cackling of a petit-bourgeois hen while laying eggs rather than Cartesian meditations (note: my translation from the German) but still considers it therapeutic.

What makes this book an excellent read is the nature of our narrator. He is a keen observer of life around him, what he calls the trivialities as well, of course, of his sexual partners. Above all, he takes a detached but witty view of life around him. He can comment on anything, from the old men who want to poison drug addicts to the problems of bringing up children, all told with a witty, sometimes wise, sometimes (mildly) cynical outlook. He seems remarkably unconcerned, almost indifferent, when his relationships end, and takes something of a detached view of life in general. However, he has a strong sense of humour and this book is one of those books that examine a fairly ordinary life with considerable humour so that what, on the face of it, could have been a mundane existence becomes something much more interesting, and enjoyable for the reader.

The book ends with a more serious self-examination, perhaps, as Eva suggests a mid-life crisis, though that is something he does not really accept. And then China awaits. The story of an ordinary person with a fairly ordinary life, when told with humour, with a certain amount of detachment and with intelligence, can often produce a first-class novel as it has done in this case. And the wasps? Children. Coca-Cola bottles. It is a stage of growing up.

Publishing history

First published in 2000 by Rotpunktverlag
First English publication in 2016 by Matador
Translated by Helen Wallimann