Friday, 23 January 2015

Book Review: Winter Quarters by Evelyn Grill three weeks into the new year it’s high time for Austrian literature again for a change. Considering that mine is a small country, her writers are amazingly numerous and prolific. Their books are also notably present on the German-language book market, but only shamefully few of them are ever translated into English which makes it difficult to come up with something interesting from my country for review on this blog. This time I dug out a short novel from the 1990s, namely Winter Quarters by Evelyn Grill. It’s the story of a woman in her forties who never had a chance to develop high self-esteem because she was always told that with her limp she was a born loser. She has long given up hope for love and marriage, when a construction worker proposes to her. Saying yes to the mere stranger is the beginning of her ordeal.

Evelyn Grill was born in Garsten near Steyr, Austria, in January 1942. After high school she studied law at the University of Linz. She turned to writing full-time only in the 1980s publishing in different literary journals and working for the radio. Her first book titled Rahmenhandlungen (Frame Plots) came out in 1985 and was followed by the much praised novel Winter Quarters (Winterquartier) in 1993. Also her novella On the Phone (Ins Ohr: 2002) is available in English translation. More recent publications of the Austrian author are Der Sammler (2006; The Collector), Schöne Künste (2007; Fine Arts), Das römische Licht (2008; The Roman Light), Das Antwerpener Testament (2011; The Antwerp Will), and Der Sohn des Knochenzählers (2013; The Son of the Bone Counter). Evelyn Grill lives in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany.

The scene of Winter Quarters is a typical provincial town in Austria. Forty-two-year-old Roswitha Mantler runs a home business as a seamstress which provides her with a decent livelihood and gives her lonely existence meaning. The day after scaffolding is put up at her building because the façade is being renovated a middle-aged and passably handsome mason knocks at her door. The stranger attracted her attention already earlier in the day because he watched and greeted her, but she dismisses the idea that he could be interested in her in any way. Apart from having been born with one leg considerably shorter than the other which makes her limp, she considers herself plain and dull. Therefore she is dumbfounded when the dirty man at the door, who introduces himself as Max Leimer, declares that he would like her to become his wife since they are both alone and it is no good for a human being to be alone. Roswitha is afraid of him and at the same time she feels excited. All her life people told her that it was her destiny to end as a spinster and now the chance of a marriage presents itself out of the blue. Her imagination makes her see the good sides of this union and some seemingly insignificant disadvantages, but it never once occurs to her that Max only wants a well-kept home and a submissive woman to take care of his needs. She yearns so much for love and companionship that she accepts to marry him and the same night he moves into her apartment with bag and baggage – unasked to. It doesn’t take long and he shows his true nature resuming his old habits which include drinking with friends after work either in the pub or at home. Marriage is never again mentioned between them and Max increasingly treats Roswitha like a slave without rights, exploiting and abusing her in every thinkable way. He doesn’t even spare her adored and deft hands, the only part of her body that she finds beautiful to the point of deserving to be painted. Ever more often he and his friends also make a mess of her workshop and she realises that she risks losing her livelihood, thus the little that remains of her independence. Nobody around takes notice of the tragedy taking its course under her roof, not even her friends or her older sister Martha. Things get worse every day and Roswitha’s suppressed soul begins to revolt...

It’s the matter-of-fact voice of a third-person narrator that unfolds the plot of Winter Quarters, but it’s told entirely from Roswitha’s point of view. She is depicted as the always enduring victim of a social environment that crushes the weak and defenceless without mercy. Her visible handicap, the limp, always made her an outsider and not even her family could love her for who she was. Moreover punishment and harsh treatment were the only kinds of attention that she could get from her father and her child’s soul naturally mistook them for expressions of love. As the story advances it becomes clear that the constant humiliation and suppression in her childhood crippled her emotionally, too. She hasn’t learnt to trust in and stand up for herself which is much worse than the limp with which she was born. It’s also why she falls into the hands of a brute like Max in the first place. When he turns to be rough and abusing, she truly believes that their “relationship” is the way it should be and that she doesn’t deserve any better. She doesn’t even realise that she is being raped in her late parents’ bed! Caught in the acquired behaviour pattern of physical and psychological violence, she bottles up her anger inside herself and explodes in the end. It’s this inner development alone that drives the entire story. The general tone of the novel is rather misanthropic. Above all men come off badly because they are described as callous brutes who see in women little less than their lust objects and/or work slaves. But also women don’t appear in a good light because superficial and selfish as they are they continue to support established role models and suppression. The author’s language is simple, clear and interspersed with Austrocisms which probably don’t show in the English translation, though. It’s a quick and easy read, but certainly no light one.

It’s true that Winter Quarters isn’t a cheerful and entertaining novel. On the contrary it’s really shattering and sad, but unfortunately many women will find the story alarmingly true to life because violence against women keeps being a reality in the twenty-first century. You may be pleased to know that Max receives his well-deserved “reward” in the end, at what price, though!

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