Bitter Lemon Press is giving away 5 copies of THE STRONGER SEX by by Hans Werner Kettenbach....
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5 Winners will be chosen on June 30, 2011; all entries accepted up until then. Contest is open only to U.S. residents. Sponsored by Bitter Lemon Press, "the best crime and romans noirs from faraway places."
“I felt as if he were subject to some uncontrollable urge to offend the proprieties, break the most primitive commandments of morality and decency. Was he under a compulsion to name out loud things and feelings that were taboo according to the rules of civilized society? Or was it maybe just a symptom of senility? More precisely, the randiness of old age that Hochkeppel had mentioned?”
Review by Guy Savage (JUN 17, 2011)
The German novel, The Stronger Sex by Hans Werner Kettenbach is ostensibly about a lawsuit–a very grubby lawsuit, but the story is really about the tangled relationships between the people involved in the case. Lawyer Alexander Zabel, in his late twenties, is rather surprised to find himself pressured into representing the elderly, ailing German industrialist, Herbert Klofft in a case involving his former employee, 34-year-old Katharina Fuchs. Katharina, an engineer who has worked in Klofft’s company, Klofft’s Valves, for eleven years was fired after requesting sick leave. According to Klofft, Katharina’s work had been slipping lately:
“She had repeatedly been late for work, he said, she had taken to leaving her desk for an hour or two in the middle of the day, or went home before the office closed at five. In general she had made it obvious, he claimed, that in contrast to the last ten years she was no longer particularly interested in her job, and considered the work more of a tedious necessity.”
Katharina was warned about her “conduct.” Then came a request for a week off for “private reasons,” and when pressed for an explanation she refused to elaborate. The time off was denied but Katharina took the week off anyway, and according to Klofft, who went to the extraordinary lengths of hiring a private detective to check on her whereabouts, she spent the week in a luxury Swiss spa with her lover. Even though she presented adequate medical documentation upon her return, Katharina was fired. Now there is a hearing scheduled at an employment tribunal, and Zabel will represent the Klofft company against Katharina Fuchs.
Once Zabel takes the case, the circumstances of what should be a fairly straight forward matter immediately become murky. Katharina was Klofft’s long-time mistress for ten years, but their relationship palled due to a combination of circumstances. Zabel asks himself if Katharina was fired by Klofft out of jealousy and spite, and as he pieces together evidence for the employment tribunal, he peels away layers of the Kloffts’ unhappy marriage. Although Klofft is Zabel’s client, Klofft’s wife, an attractive artist named Cilly, becomes a little too involved in the case, and just what Cilly wants from Zabel isn’t clear. When she drops vital information Zabel’s way, he’s presented with a dilemma: he can’t confide aspects of the case without betraying client confidentiality, and yet Cilly provides him with information that will help prepare for the hearing. Why does Cilly want to gain Zabel’s trust? Is she merely feeling pity for a young lawyer who is forced to deal with irascible, autocratic, adulterous husband, or is she, in effect, working against her husband’s desire to squash Katharina?
As the novel continues, an overwhelmed Zabel finds himself drawn into the Kloffts’ unhappy world. Although he’s initially repulsed by Klofft–a man whose fossilized attitudes towards women are offensive and repugnant–gradually the two men form a tentative relationship which unfolds over details regarding the impending hearing and also through a series of chess games. While the male characters are the novel’s power brokers, it’s the women who seem to remain recalcitrant, mysterious and elusive as they move just beneath the surface of the events that take place. Cilly certainly shakes up Zabel’s self-assurance, but there’s another indecipherable woman in the novel: Katharina. Although she’s the catalyst for the novel’s action, she’s seen only from a distance through the eyes of other people, and her motives are difficult to peg. If, by her actions, she set out to drive Klofft to jealous rage, then she succeeded, but perhaps Katharina was just trying to finally escape Klofft’s yoke and suffocating, unwelcome attentions.
For American readers, the novel raises some cultural issues. While Zabel expects a lawsuit to follow the employment tribunal hearing, the phrase “sexual harassment” was absent from the text, and written by an American, this would be an entirely different novel. The Stronger Sex is an exploration of moral choices and moral consequences, and while the males in the novel may think that they have the power that grants them the upper hand, the very elusiveness of the book’s female characters accords them a different kind of strength, and that issue is at the heart of the novel. (Translated by Anthea Bell.)
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