“In early autumn the swallows leave the North. They criss-cross the sky in wide sweeping ribbons, drop away, dart side to side in the air, soar up again effortlessly, full of strength for the flight south. […] You could follow the swallows’ path along the dyke when they went south. They always flew over the land, never over the sea. When they went, you knew that autumn was coming.”
These words open Larissa Boehning’s 2003 collection of short stories, Schwalbensommer, originally written in German, published in Lyn Marven’s English translation by Comma Press. The short sentences and vivid description convey a sense of purpose and direction, beautifully echoed by the movement of the swallows.
But such soaring moments of clarity are rare in Swallow Summer in language and in content. The ten stories that follow are not about swallows, whose patterns of flight are observable, predictable and harmonious, but about human beings, whose thoughts, behaviours and interactions are none of those things.
Each story is told in the first person by a thirty-something narrator. Although unconnected in time, place or circumstance, they are all bound by their shared experience of being young, unsettled and full of anxiety. Their paths through life have been erratic and their way ahead is obscure.
The experience of loss has intensified their angst. From the woman who has lost her job and the daughters disowned by their father, to the brother who is mourning his sister and the woman rejected by her lover: they are all grieving.
Boehning offers little hope that her characters will find solace. They try to connect with the people around them and find acceptance, but their attempts to communicate are plagued by the inadequacy of language and by misinterpretation.
In ‘Silent Fish, Sweetheart’, a young woman learns about her Russian grandmother, Mima, who “refused to learn the language of the land she was forced to flee to”. She often got lost “because she couldn’t read the street names”, the narrator is told. Yet the narrator is having communication difficulties of her own. She and her lover Sander share the same language, but expressing their true thoughts and feelings is no easier than it was for Mima in her foreign land of refuge. Unable to say “I love you”, words burdened with significance, the narrator is struck dumb: “‘I want, I want,’ I say once more, then I can’t speak any more.”
In another story, ‘North Star’, a young German woman flies to Arizona after her lover writes a letter inviting her. He is flustered by her arrival, explaining, “Yeah, sure, that’s what I wrote […] it’s just what you say, isn’t it.”
In all of the stories, language is the problem. Words are either missing, unspoken or misused and cannot be trusted. “All words are worn out,” says the narrator of ‘Sealed Sea’. “I said to Hosch, ‘there’s nothing to laugh about,’ but really I wanted to say something completely different.”
The theme of miscommunication is problematic for Boehning herself as the stories themselves, comprised solely of words, are implicated in the suggestion that language always fails as a means of expression. Her simple, stark, concrete language, well rendered in Marven’s translation, is an attempt to tie down meaning and avoid misinterpretation. But it means that her characters remain curiously flat, their inner life invisible – as if we are watching them from a distance.
In the stories, silent gestures often speak louder than words. In ‘Matchstick Cathedrals’, Hübner recalls opening his front door to a policewoman and realising his wife is dead: “he could see it in her eyes and in the faltering gestures her hands made”. Boehning’s awareness that so much communication takes place beyond words is laudable, but she sadly allows it to stifle her own writing.
As a debut collection, Swallow Summer is impressive. Yet, like so many of the characters, I’m left with the impression of a vast gulf between the words in front of me and what was really meant by them.
By Judith Vonberg
Judith Vonberg is a freelance journalist and PhD student at the University of East Anglia. Her thesis surveys the depictions of Britons and Germans in popular culture between 1945 and 1965. She graduated from Oxford University in 2011 with a degree in English and Modern Languages and received her MA from Queen Mary, University of London, in 2013. As a journalist, she writes on European culture, migration and national identity. You can visit her website here.
Read Judith Vonberg’s review of Lakeland by Maureen O’Shaugnessy
by Larissa Boehning
Translated by Lyn Marven
Published by Comma Press