Shane's Reviews > Clara

Clara by Kurt Palka
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really liked it

On reading this book I wondered whether it was a history of Austria from the 1930-50’s as the author says in his note at the end, or whether it was a novel, or whether it was a memoir with some fictional characters thrown in to drive the narrative. I concluded that it was a bit of all three, and hence this combined treatment ended up diluting the focussed impact of a pure-play history, novel, or memoir.

In many respects, this is a book about women as it is about the impact of war. Clara and her girlfriends, Mitzi and Erica, are part of a cohort of educated women, some with PhDs, who are breaking out of the mould their mothers had been encased in, one of going to university and then going home to raise a family and never work again. Clara majors in literature and philosophy and is exposed to some of the foremost thinkers of the time: Freud, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger, who were her professors. She studies Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and aspires to teach in university. Sometimes the philosophy overpowers the narrative, when Freud postulates at length from the podium, or when Clara’s philosophy professor, Emmerich, waxes eloquent on “In the absence of God, strive to go Up, not Down.” She meets and marries an Austrian soldier on the military career track, Albert. Class tensions surface in the marriage as Albert’s parents are working class and Clara’s are academics loyal to the monarchy. The book has two story lines: one from the ’30s -’50 as we follow these women traversing the genesis, the horror and aftermath of WWII, and the other in the present when an aging Clara has just buried Albert and is revisiting her memories of that previous dark but defining period.

We often read books written by the victors, and, in the case of WWII stories, it is mainly written by authors from the Allied countries. What makes this book unique is that the viewpoint is of a reluctant Nazi. When Austria outlaws Nazism that is rising across the border in Germany in the mid 1930’s, and Albert’s brother, Theo, is martyred for being a Nazi, Clara’s fortunes begin to change. Albert is dismissed from the Austrian army, her father-in-law is imprisoned and Albert’s family assets are lost. Albert however gets a better job in the military in Germany where Nazis are espoused. He spends the entire war as a soldier in General Rommel’s tank regiment. When Austria is overrun by Nazi Germany, Clara’s fortunes are changed again: her father’s museum is shuttered and she is denied her job at the university as the subjects she teaches are considered too liberal. Even though she is the wife of a Nazi soldier, she is unable to escape the misogyny, racism, blackmail, spying and sexism endemic in that regime, culminating in the killing of a depraved SS officer in order to escape being raped.

Scenes of war, especially the bombing of cities, are well rendered in Palka’s sparse but elegant prose. The randomness and suddenness of death caused by a piece of flying shrapnel, a firing squad, a hastily applied bullet, or a marauding mob of thieves in a country where law and order has broken down is a constant companion as we enter the war period. This suddenness repeats in the second storyline as well, when Clara recounts how her friends and relatives also died after the war ended. The cruelty and bestiality of humans in times of war is subtly laid out for our digestion. And the women dust up, suck it up and carry on, trying to restore a modicum of normality where possible while they await their men to return from the war, “when all this will be over.” The post-war period is farcical for the losers, when the de-nazification process involves lengthy tribunals, and when ex-Nazis (including children of suspected Nazis) are forced to visit mass graves and watch war movies with the accent on “You did this! This is your fault!”

Some details are captured at their grainiest: “She held out her hand to let snowflakes settle in her glove, on the stitched ridges of the black leather, and on her fingers as they moved.” And yet there are times when the narrative races ahead recording details of people’s lives as if it is ticking off a family history. While I understood that the “racing” was an attempt to fill in the gaps of a 70 year period, this exposition took away from the dramatic aspects of a novel. I wondered whether Palka would have written a more effective novel if the story had ended circa 1950 and whether the focus could have been placed on describing the tumult of feelings raging during those war days? Despite the minute descriptions of certain events and characters, others were left out. For example, I did not get a clear physical image of either Mitzi or Erica, or of Clara and Albert’s parents—all pivotal characters in this novel.

That this was a book personal to the author is obvious, for he is a product of these female characters that he so poignantly portrays. An engaging read for someone seeking an alternate history of WWII, similar to Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise, where we hear from the Other instead of from the victors.
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Started Reading
February 3, 2019 – Shelved
February 3, 2019 – Finished Reading

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