June 2018 Judith Hermann: Silence Speaks Volumes

Judith Hermann: Silence Speaks Volumes
Cover © Serpent's Tail

She’s long been best known as the creator of the loveable inhabitants of Moomin Valley, but in recent years Tove Jansson has come into vogue for her adult fiction too. Above all her short stories in collections like Travelling Light and The Winter Book are finally gaining the recognition they deserve for their spare, evocative language (exquisitely recreated in English by Silvester Mazzarella). Jansson recognises the power of what is left unsaid: she dips into her characters’ lives to expose a single moment or episode, avoiding unnecessary explanation and any parsing of details of what has gone before.

Judith Hermann has a similar gift for imbuing the unspoken with as much weight as words. Well known in Germany for her short stories, Hermann skilfully immerses the reader in the here and now of her characters. Her most recent collection in English, the starkly beautiful Letti Park, translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo, asks us in each story to move away from certainties and specifics. This is taken to the extreme in the story ‘Islands’, in which the narrator admits to barely remembering the details of her own story:

"In the photograph we’re sitting in front of a house that I can’t remember. … Whose were the dirty towels in the pile of laundry next to me; whose were the things on the wicker chair behind Martha, the shirts hanging on the clothesline above us? They weren’t ours. … And who took the photo; who saw us like that?"

The image of the half-forgotten photo (which in ‘Islands’ sparks the story which follows) is a pertinent one, for the effect of Hermann’s sparse, evocative storytelling has all the joy and the strangeness of sinking into a stranger’s photo album. Details and context stripped away, we are left with a sense of immediacy, as well as a constant awareness of the untold stories behind the ones we read.

At the core of the tales in Letti Park is the moment of connection between two people or the moment that connection fails. This “improbable spark” comes from the most unexpected places and people: in ‘Fetish’, “a little boy with shaggy hair, trousers that are too short, a hoodie and dirty trainers without laces” stares gravely into a fire alongside a woman he has only just met; in ‘Some Memories’ a young woman is surprised to grow fond of her idiosyncratic landlady.

Over the past few years – since Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize and Lydia Davis was awarded the International Man Booker – the popularity of short stories has grown, with collections by authors like Ali Smith and George Saunders gaining more shelf space and airtime, but the genre still isn’t taken quite as seriously as its meatier sibling, the novel. Whether you’re a devoted short story fan, or want to try out whether shortform might be for you, Letti Park is a stunning read: like Jansson, Hermann shows us just what short stories can do that novels can’t. Her stories celebrate the joys and absurdities of the everyday. A testament to the power of what is left unsaid, these tales remind us that sometimes a glimpse can be far more satisfying than the whole.

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