Löwenherz (‘Lionheart’) is the final instalment in Monika Helfer’s trilogy of autobiographical novels, a fascinatingly lucid body of literature that examines individual lives and how to represent them in writing. After taking her grandmother and father under her fictional lens in Die Bagage (‘The Riff-Raff’) and Vati (‘Daddy’), Helfer moves to the tragically short life of her younger brother, Richard.
Cared for as a baby by his adoring sisters, Richard is sent to live with an aunt after the death of their mother. From these intimate beginnings grows an unsettling distance, a wall of cool reserve that makes him seem, on rare visits, like a stranger. As she does throughout all three novels, Helfer narrates these difficult years with her characteristically observant touch, picking out sharp details but aware, too, of how memory works; what we believe we have experienced may not always be the ‘truth’. Later, the siblings find their way back to one another, and it is in this period, Helfer now a young mother extricating herself from a failing marriage, Richard a struggling artist who makes his living as a typesetter, that the novel’s main events take place. Following a bizarre encounter with a young woman, Richard ends up taking responsibility for a little girl known only by her nickname, Putzi – an assumed fatherhood that will have drastic consequences for the entire family.
It is no secret – we are told on the second page – that Richard died by suicide at the age of thirty, yet so tender and vivid is Helfer’s portrait that it is hard to read Löwenherz and not wish it might end differently. For a man who ‘thought constantly of lying down’, Richard’s role in the novel is mainly to wander – he is a restless character, never quite certain of his place in life. Yet the sudden appearance of Putzi (hot on the heels of his beloved dog, Schamasch) brings everything into sharper focus. From this point on, having described their childhood in gently evocative tones, Helfer’s prose takes on an urgent, crystalline, even brittle quality, as the ties binding Richard to her – and indeed his own – life begin to tangle, stretch and, eventually, snap.
A eulogy for the brother she loved, but also an examination of family bonds, fatherhood and what it is to feel responsible for another person’s happiness, Löwenherz is remarkable for the way it pits fact and fiction against one another: a convincing portrait which nonetheless seems blurred by our understanding that the Richard of this novel is not necessarily the one who really existed. Clear-sighted, empathic and realistic about what words can and cannot do for us, Löwenherz is, perhaps, above all an attempt to let Richard live again, to give all the characters who move through these pages – and who so often hurt each other, whether or not intentionally – that most impossible of things: a second chance.
Reviewed by Eleanor Updegraff
By Monika Helfer
Published by Hanser Verlag (2022)
Translation funding guaranteed via New Books in German
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Eleanor Updegraff is a freelance writer, editor and literary translator born in London and now based in Vienna. She holds a BA in English Literature, German and Russian from Durham University. Her translations and writing have appeared online and in print, including in No Man’s Land, Lunate, Panel and Stanchion.