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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Frau Paula Trousseau

Christoph Hein

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To purchase Frau Paula Trousseau

Title: Frau Paula Trousseau
Author: Christoph Hein
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007
Length: 537 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Frau Paula Trousseau - Deutschland
  • Frau Paula Trousseau has not been translated into English yet

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Our Assessment:

B+ : gloomy but surprisingly engaging portrait of a life

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 21/3/2007 Jochen Hieber
Neue Zürcher Zeitung A 9/5/2007 Martin Krumbholz
Die Welt . 24/3/2007 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Zwischen den beiden Kapiteln aber liegen fünfhundert Seiten. Nur ganz wenige von ihnen vermögen das anregende Erzählklima und die verträgliche Handlungstemperatur zu bewahren, die der Anfang verheißt und das Fast-Ende noch einmal gewährt. (…) Dokumentarisch interessant sind einige Szenen über die Künstlerboheme der DDR, über ihre kleinen Freiheiten und ihre großen Feste." - Jochen Hieber, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Diese Paula Trousseau macht einen Fehler nach dem anderen, reiht eine Inkonsequenz an die nächste; und doch wird der Leser die schöne Paula, wie sie gern genannt wird, nach den gut 500 Seiten nicht verdammen, sondern im Gegenteil fest in sein Herz geschlossen haben, weil diese Romanfigur lebt, weil sie ganz und gar menschlich ist. Das ist denn doch ein beachtliches und bewundernswertes Kunststück. Die rätselhafte Schönheit dieses grossen Romans hat aber ursächlich auch damit zu tun, dass man letztlich nicht genau erfährt oder dass man bestenfalls erahnt, warum Paula scheitert." - Martin Krumbholz, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Paula Trousseaus Leben: Ein großes Spiel der Täuschungen und Enttäuschungen, in dem sie Handelnde und Getriebene zugleich ist. (…) Die Sprache Paulas ist direkt, oft umgangssprachlich. Ihre Selberlebensbeschreibung ist im protestantischen Geist verfasst, hier wird Gericht gehalten über sich selbst, Ablass wird nicht gewährt. Mit Paula Trousseau hat Hein eine Figur geschaffen, die in der spezifisch deutschen Verstrickung aus Hass und Selbsthass gefangen bleibt und daran zugrunde geht." - Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Most of Frau Paula Trousseau is narrated by the eponymous character herself, but the novel begins with a chapter describing how a friend, Sebastian Gliese, receives the news of her death, a suicide, and the time shortly thereafter. To his surprise, Paula, an artist, wants him to handle the artistic part of her estate. He has his doubts -- he has no contacts in the business and wouldn't know what to do with the paintings and artwork -- but her son, Michael, asks him to consider it. The choice isn't too hard, though: he says no.
       He's not the only one to distance himself from Paula. Among the things left behind is a thick manuscript, meant for her daughter, Cordula, but she refused to accept the package. It's a manuscript, in which Paula explains her life -- the book that makes up most of the rest of the novel. When Cordula rejects it it's not yet clear why she might be so disinclined to hear her mother's story, but eventually one understands.
       The inability to connect with those who are (or should be) close to her might seem baffling at the outset of the novel, but it's the story of Paula's life, and the story that Hein presents in this novel. From the very outset it's a cold story, and not just because it begins with suicide: when Michael and Sebastian drive away from Paula's legacy at the end of the short introductory chapter they avoid any mention of Paula or her art.
       The bulk of Frau Paula Trousseau is a memoir, though Hein does intersperse chapters in the third person, describing episodes from Paula's childhood that shed further light on her life. In a neutral, fairly simple tone he presents her story, describing a childhood lived in fear in which music and painting are the only escape. Her father is successful but a mean s.o.b., her mother driven to drink and half-hearted suicide attempts and only briefly coming into her own when it looks like he is going to die. Paula's older sister can't wait to get out of the house and finds her sister annoying, while their brother was gravely injured in a workplace accident and is already an invalid, a bum who sleeps late and spends his nights drinking.
       Paulka shows great talent at the piano, but that remains a pipe-dream. Dad will never buy a piano for her, and eventually is even too cheap to pay for her lessons. A second release comes with painting, and it is this that becomes her escape.
       Paula begins her story when she is studying to be a nurse, but has a chance to submit her work to the Academy in Berlin for one of the few coveted student spots there. She's also engaged, and her intended -- considerably older than her, and already a very successful architect -- isn't thrilled about her ridiculous aspirations. And Mom and Dad are worse, belittling her for even going through the motions when all they believe can happen is that she'll be laughed out of the city.
       Of course Paula goes, of course she is accepted -- and highly praised, too. But the marriage also takes place -- making her the Mrs. Paul Trousseau of the title -- and the new husband does everything to dissuade her from really going through with studying so far away now that they're married. He even goes so far as to switch her birth-control pills with harmless placebos, leaving her pregnant. But even that isn't enough to keep her from following her dream.
       The attitude of those at the Academy is much warmer and more supportive, and Paula does find a place there. She has the child, but the marriage doesn't last -- and though she could probably keep custody, she gives it up to her mean husband (who then goes on to make it practically impossible for Paula to have any sort of relationship with their daughter, Cordula, making the hard feelings on the girl's side understandable).
       Before going to Berlin for the entrance examination Paula tries to explain to her parents:

Das Malen ist für mich das Wichtigste, viel wichtiger als Heirat und Liebe. Ich sterbe, wenn ich nicht malen kann.

(Painting is the most important thing to me, much more important than marriage and love. I die if I can't paint.)
       Painting is her obsession -- and her talent --, but for someone who has their priorities so set she does turn to men quite often. At school she takes up with a professor -- again considerably older, and while certainly helpful in making connexions, not vital for her future success. She doesn't seem to like most of the men she gets involved with -- a later live-in companion is more a father-figure to her second child than a partner, for example -- and she's fairly cold and cruel in parting from them. (She also does not tell the father of her second child that the boy is his.)
       And then there are the women, as she is drawn into several sexual relationships with them too. Like Paula, most of these women are bi-sexual, and they also offer only a temporary escape -- but Paula does seem to enjoy herself a whole lot more with them.
       Paula's friend Kathi is the true constant in her life, someone she can always turn to, but even that isn't anchor enough. Paula insists on doing things her own way, and that doesn't get her too far.
       At the Academy the one work she's most proud of is a painting entirely in white. It's not merely a monochrome canvas, but rather a snowy landscape, the bits barely perceivable but there (it took her months to paint). It's her greatest accomplishment, and the kind of art she wants to create -- but it is, of course, also unacceptable (this is still East Germany, after all), and she winds up hiding it away for decades. As is, she barely graduates, not having played along by the rules enough.
       A relationship with a popular actor help her get some business once she's on her own, but ultimately she has the most success illustrating books. Once the wall comes down and East Germany is swallowed by the West even that dries up.
       Paula isn't unwilling to make compromises, but she makes odd ones. Her inability to truly bond with another human being, other than Kathi, is ultimately devastating. She does do well with her son, Michael, but even he outgrows her, and she has no one else to turn to.
       The scenes from her childhood -- there are occasional flashbacks, though Hein almost seems to forget about these for long stretches -- do explain a lot, especially regarding her relationships with men. A scared little child, her father was an ogre -- and blind to, for example, the outrageous behaviour of some Russian soldiers he repeatedly invites into his home towards his two daughters. With siblings that were unable or unwilling to provide that united front except on the rarest occasions, Paula was left to her own devices. Art was her escape, but Hein clearly shows that art is not nearly enough.
       The last flashback is a scene where young Paula once again flees from the oppressive home and comes across a man sketching on a drawing pad. Paula sits on a bench, right in the middle of whatever he is drawing, and she imagines he is capturing her on the page as well. When he invites her to take a look she sees that he has drawn the bench, but that it is empty. Paula's own attempts to escape into art clearly take off from this, from seeing that reality can simply be kept out at will, that even a flesh-and-blood person can be completely ignored. Her tragedy, of course, is that she not only wants to be the artist exerting this selective control, but that she always remains the overlooked child who doesn't figure in the picture: there is none in which she has a place.
       For such a depressing story Frau Paula Trousseau is surprisingly engaging. Hein is amost pedestrian in his approach, yet Paula's story is engaging throughout. Aside from the father, who seems too ridiculously mean spirited and silly, the characters are well presented, and if Paula's actions don't always convince entirely (both the impact of getting rid of her daughter, and some of the scenes where she hops in the sack with another woman are underdeveloped) it feels like a very full portrait -- albeit of a woman who is incapable of finding happiness. It's an interesting picture of East Germany, too -- with unification one of the final pieces to the puzzle that ends in her suicide (the freedom to travel, for example, finally allowing her to see the art she had previously only seen photographs of -- nicely done by Hein).
       Paula is hard to sympathise with, and she's hardly a winning character -- and yet her story is a compelling one. Much longer than Hein's previous novels it nevertheless doesn't drag, and though it feels a bit wordy it can handle the added baggage.
       Flawed, but worthwhile.

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Frau Paula Trousseau: Reviews: Christoph Hein: Other books by Christoph Hein under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of German literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       (East) German author Christoph Hein was born in 1944. He has written several acclaimed novels and numerous plays.

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© 2007-2008 the complete review

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