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Hermann Bürger: Brenner Part 1 Brunsleben (Brenner)

This was to be the first of a tetralogy of novels about the life of Hermann Arbogast Brenner, a not very well-disguised portrait of the author himself. Sadly just three days after it was published, he took his own life. He had started but never finished the second part. The book had a certain amount of success but then, as all too often happens to Swiss German literary works, it faded away. We should be very grateful that the excellent Archipelago and translator Adrian Nathan West have made it available in English.

I read a brief review of the book and the reviewer complained that not much happens. Well, I suppose that not much happens in Proust or Joyce but, as in this book, a lot does happen if you read the book carefully. My only surprise on reading it was that I had not heard of the author before and, after reading it, that it really was a first-class book.

Hermann Arbogast Brenner descends from a tobacco family but, as he will later explain, because his grandfather foolishly died at sixty-one instead of eighty-one, the firm passed to another branch of the family and our hero’s father, instead of being a tobacco magnate, was an insurance inspector. The firm is now in the hands of Hermann’s his second cousin, Johann Caspar Brenner. Hermann gets on well with Johann. Indeed Johann gives him a generous pension and also a seemingly unlimited supply of the finest cigars.

Yes, this book is about cigars as much as anything else. You will learn far more than you ever wanted to about the whole tobacco business: the history, the crop, the harvesting, the processing, the types of tobacco, the huge amount of cigar varieties, cigars vs cigarettes, social customs concerning tobacco products, even the role of tobacco after sex in French films and a lot more. Hermann may never have been very much directly involved in the tobacco business but he has a huge knowledge of it and is an an enthusiastic smoker. His only wish was to be a passionate cigarier.

Hermann is decidedly anti-intellectual. He cannot be bothered too much with art, literature and music. His art form of choice is the cigar. Bürger, however, was a keen devotee of Thomas Bernhard but writers such as Musil, Rilke, Thomas Mann and Proust make an appearance. Bürger gets round this by having Brenner’s friends being the intellectuals. Brenner is writing the book we are reading (in the form of a diary) and is very proud of his anti-intellectual approach.

One of the things he does during this book is visit several, often colourfully named friends: Jerome von Castelmur-Bondo, Bert May, Edmond de Mog, Irlande von Elbstein-BruyerAdam Nautilus Rauch and Fernanda Blanca of Blankenberg. These are not, of course, ordinary people like you and me. They live in mansions and châteaux and do not have 9-5 jobs. Jerome von Castelmur-Bondo is, in fact, Hermann’s landlord and the two get on well. Jerome is also a littérateur and it is he who compares the area to Proust’s Combray (though cannot fully justify it; it is just something he feels). Hermann has not, of course, read a word of Proust. However, it is clear that one of the purposes is to show that (albeit tongue-in-cheek) this work we are reading is Leonzburg’s A la recherche du temps perdu. It is not, of course, but there is a certainly a Proustian element to it as he explores his childhood. His madeleine is not, as one might expect, a cigar but rather a toy car, one given to him when he was a child. He buys another one (at a hugely inflated price) and plays with it while writing.

His life has, frankly, been a bit of a mess. His abiding memory is what he calls a children’s concentration camp. It is a children’s summer camp where he is badly bullied and he does not seem to recover from the trauma. His father does take him round with him on his insurance travels, which he enjoys. He joins the army but gets gastric fever and, to his parents’ disgust – they felt he should soldier on – he drops out. He will study architecture. He has two siblings, Klarli and Kari whom he hates (the feeling is mutual). He marries Flavia and they have two sons ( I never cared a whit for our children) but is he now divorced and estranged from all three and very happy about it. (And, apparently, so are they.)

At the start of the book, we learn that his health worries may well be genuine – he has terminal cancer. He does not seem too concerned. He is going to blow what money he has on a fancy sports car (yes, similar to the toy one- a rossa corsa Ferrari 328 GTS), drive around visiting his friends and write the diary we are reading. And that is just what he does. There is not much plot, except for his reminiscences of his life, his family (his ancestors, not the living ones whom he abhors), his love affair with tobacco and his thoughts on life.

Jerome recounts to him how his life has been enhanced by his reading. Hermann Arbogast Brenner saw the crass opposite of all that his companion has set forth concerning the magic of reading. As for writing, I have never fancied myself a novelist, at best just a prosaist smoking my existence down to the nub and goes on to say Your lowly servant, Hermann Arbogast Brenner, who knows a bit about cigars, but next to nothing about literature.

Adam Nautilus Rauch is apparently based on Swiss critic Anton Krattli and he and the novelist Bert May provide some intellectual focus for Hermann. (Rauch incidentally is the German for smoke). Rauch has a library of 30,000 books. Hermann is friends with them but does not share their intellectual interests, though both will make literary and other artistic references which he will occasionally joyfully claim as being over his head.

While Jerome mentions Proust, it is Edmond de Mog who elaborates. De Mog actually met a relative of Proust and explains to Hermann the significance of the madeleine (I wished to verify whether the principle could be carried over to nicotiana tabacum.)

No, as he says, he does not want to ruin his eyesight reading literature. He has dipped into Broch and Rilke but cannot understand a word of them. Hermann had tried both writing and painting as a career when younger, after his failed military career, but every reader will concur with my diagnosis: thank god the poor bastard put writing aside.

So much of his account is about his not entirely happy childhood. He got on with his father, who was killed in a nasty car crash, but less so with his mother and even less so with his siblings. He recounts the history of tobacco. And we hear his acerbic comments on his friends, family, country, the arts and life.

I am still this same person in my late period at Brunsleben: a smoke-bellowing outsider, a failed tobacco vendor, dispossessed of Menzenmang [his parents’ home] in strict accordance with inheritance law; custodian of castle grounds, companion to Jerome von Castelmur-Bondo, who didn’t want an intellectual, but a robust gardener.

Ultimately, he is just an ordinary man. Frau Irlande has her home and her verses, Bert May his mathematics of darkness, I have only tobacco and a terminal diagnosis, but both are more gratifying to me than your spiritual bounties are to you.

I found this is a thoroughly enjoyable book – witty, cynical, mocking but about a man who by all normal accounts could be considered an abject failure, who is dying and knows he is dying, yet still manages to carry on cheerfully with the one thing that matters to him in life – a good smoke.

Publishing history

First published in 1989 by Suhrkamp,
First published in English in 2022 by Archipelago
Translated by Adrian Nathan West