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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

In Times of Fading Light

Eugen Ruge

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To purchase In Times of Fading Light

Title: In Times of Fading Light
Author: Eugen Ruge
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 308 pages
Original in: German
Availability: In Times of Fading Light - US
In Times of Fading Light - UK
In Times of Fading Light - Canada
Quand la lumière décline - France
In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts - Deutschland
In tempi di luce declinante - Italia
En tiempos de luz menguante - España
  • The Story of a Family
  • German title: In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts
  • Translated by Anthea Bell
  • German Book Prize, 2011

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Our Assessment:

B : solid generational-saga of a(n East) German family

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 12/7/2013 Frederick Studemann
The Guardian . 5/7/2013 Leo Robson
The Independent . 2/8/2013 Rebecca K. Morrison
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 8/10/2011 Angelika Overath
The NY Times Book Rev. A+ 14/8/2013 Adam Langer
The Spectator . 21/8/2013 Aime Williams
Sunday Times . 4/8/2013 Claire Lowdon
The Telegraph A+ 28/6/2013 Ian Thomson
TLS . 22/7/2013 Maren Meinhardt
World Lit. Today . 9-10/2013 Ulf Zimmermann

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ruge uses individual stories and even the mediocrity of daily life to reveal warmth and humour but also suffering, betrayal and lies. Wartime horrors and time in the Gulag, professional lies and private infidelities are not laboured, making them all the more powerful. Some of the domestic details tell you more than a libraryís-worth of dry political and economic analysis. (...) His prose style may not be the most beautiful but the story he tells convinces, vividly evoking that brave new world for which life, as Gorbachev foresaw, had other plans." - Frederick Studemann, Financial Times

  • "By dramatising in consecutive chapters events that take place decades apart, Ruge achieves a saga span while avoiding the saga sloth often displayed by chronological treatments, but he refrains from exploiting the potential narrative benefits, such as the license to postpone detail. (...) The translation demands less virtuosity than some of Anthea Bell's previous assignments (.....) But if Ruge stints the reader on some pleasures, it is because he is devoted to a group of characters who are too busy to serve as vessels for lyrical flights." - Leo Robson, The Guardian

  • "With a deceptively unfussy narrative style, rich in dialogue and some tremendous set-piece monologues, Ruge's "story of a family" delivers a hugely informative, entertaining and thought-provoking panoramic view of Communism in Germany. (...) There is much detail to astound in Anthea Bell's impeccable translation, which captures all the charm of the original. Transience, memory, the sweet sadness of nostalgia, and the human ability to adapt are Ruge's themes." - Rebecca K. Morrison, The Independent

  • "Mr. Rugeís novel is a pulsing, vibrant, thrillingly alive work, full of formal inventiveness, remarkable empathy and, above all, mordant and insightful wit. (...) (T)he lingering sensation on finishing In Times of Fading Light is one not of despair but rather of triumph. You can see that from the ruins of the former Eastern bloc something has emerged with the power to survive and outlast the world from which it came: the art represented by Mr. Rugeís book, which has torn down the wall between Russian epic and the Great American Novel." - Adam Langer, The New York Times Book Review

  • "If this is a novel about self-definition, it is also a novel about where we might draw the line between rebellion and conformity." - Aime Williams, The Spectator

  • "The book is Thomas Mann-like in its sweep, but a good deal funnier. (...) From start to finish, Ruge keeps the pages turning. His gift is to mesh the personal with the political, in an epic tale that alternately delights and instructs. It is not often that fiction of this quality comes along." - Ian Thomson, The Telegraph

  • "In Times of Fading Light employs a cut-and-paste technique that shines the spotlight back and forth across four generations of the Umnitzer family. Key scenes are replayed from the point of view of another character, and sometimes played again and again. The variations in perception are minute, and yet an added detail, a small shift in perspective, often changes the meaning of an event utterly." - Maren Meinhardt, Times Literary Supplement

  • "One reason Fading Light won the German Book Prize in 2011 is the revelatory prismatic portraits we get of these various family members through one anotherís eyes, all in contrast to how they see themselves, as each narrates pivotal years in their lives. (...) These prismatic perspectives thus profoundly deepen our insight into life in the GDR and powerfully illuminate its telling details, making this one of those rare books one is ready to reread immediately." - Ulf Zimmermann, World Literature Today

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:

       In Times of Fading Light tells the stories of characters from four generations of a German family, the narrative spanning 1952 to 2001. The story does not, however, unfold strictly chronologically. Two periods anchor the text: 2001, in which Alexander, the forty-seven-year old grandson has been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and flees his native Germany for Mexico; and the even more specific date of 1 October 1989, when the ninetieth birthday of pater familias Wilhelm is celebrated. The story repeatedly returns to these two periods, while the remaining chapters look back further (these remaining chapters, however, progress chronologically, with stops in: 1952, 1959, 1961, 1966, 1973, 1976, 1979, 1991, and 1995 -- offering snapshots of the family's life in East (and then unified) Germany over the years).
       The first look back, to 1952, finds Wilhelm and his wife, Charlotte, still in Mexican exile -- and then summoned back to Germany by the Party, which they have loyally served for decades. In 1989 a young Markus, their great-grandson, sums up:

Some time or other, ages ago, they'd fought Hitler, illegally, it was the Nazi period -- they'd had that in school, Wilhelm had once even come to talk to his class about Karl Liebknecht, and how they sat on the balcony together founding the GDR or something like that.
       (So much for historical indoctrination or the quality of schools in the old German Democratic Republic -- though it should be noted, Ruge whiffs worst in all his character-portraits with this youngster, who comes across like what a grumpy middle-aged man thinks of the youth of today (or of yesteryear, too, apparently).)
       Wilhelm was an important figure in the East German regime, and hence the ninetieth birthday is also a big event -- but apparently his path hadn't always been the true one, especially in those early years before the Second World War, when he was critical of the Social Democrats (following the Soviet line, which had not yet embraced the party that would then lead the GDR) and supported the idea of 'social fascism' (which meant aligning oneself, at least as a matter of convenience and some common goals, with the Nazis). If not entirely a fraud, Wilhelm was certainly more opportunist than true believer, and his whitewashed personal story did not quite square with the truth. Nevertheless, he had his ideals, and the German Democratic Republic -- under firm Soviet guidance -- was something he believed in -- and so, too, it's at least a devastating symbolic blow that the Soviet empire is on the verge of crumbling around him as he is being fêted. (A few days later that October, Gorbachev, Honecker, and much of the rest of the old Warsaw Pact-gang would celebrate the GDR's 40th anniversary; a few weeks later it had all gone to hell.)
       Of course, in 1989 the now-ancient Wilhelm doesn't register most of what's going on around him any more, as he is fading into senility. He's not the only one, as the novel opens -- in 2001 -- with Alexander visiting his father, Kurt (Wilhelm's son), before he takes off for Mexico, and the one-time historian has now pretty much also lost all his marbles, barely registering who Alexander is or what he's doing. (Alexander is physically compromised -- expecting a death sentence -- but at least mentally remains in decent shape.)
       Already back in Mexico Charlotte was warned (or reminded ...):
Communism, Charlotte, is like the religion of the ancient Aztecs. It devours blood.
       Ruge's book is not one about the worst of the Soviet and Soviet-inspired outrages, but it paints a grey picture of East German reality, a world of petty lies and bureaucracy, and compromises that make for hollow men. Nevertheless, the Soviet specter has left its mark on the family: Wilhelm and Charlotte's two sons were sentenced to labor camps at the beginning of the war, and Werner died there. Kurt was eventually released and sent into internal exile, where he married Irina; after the death of Stalin, in 1956, they were able to leave for the GDR (and years later Irina's mother followed, though she never picked up much German or managed to change her small, Soviet ways).
       The GDR is different from the Soviet Union -- and, for example, in 1959 Irina tells young Alexander that he shouldn't be so fearful about minor transgressions: "We're not in the Soviet Union here !" Still, it is a stultifying place -- as seen, for example, in a chapter devoted largely to Alexander doing his military service. Alexander has trouble fitting in anywhere, abandoning his studies, his wife and young child, a traditional home -- and finally (albeit very late in the day) East Germany itself. And, of course, when he gets his cancer diagnosis he flees even further, all the way to Mexico.
       Although the narrative is disjointed, with its big leaps in time, the two periods which it repeatedly returns to -- 1989 and 2001 -- do help anchor the story sufficiently. Still, the novel has a very episodic feel, and while Ruge offers echoes over time (such as the cooking of the Christmas goose) there's a sense that this was written very piecemeal. Yes, it does fit together, but the artifice of the structure is a bit too apparent.
       Ruge writes his set scenes fairly well, and one can appreciate that he doesn't hang too much on the big events of the various days, instead focusing on the more domestic. It makes for a reasonably engaging story of a German family and the circumstance of that time and place.
       In Times of Fading Light does fairly drip with the author's loathing of the GDR -- fair enough, and it's no surprise it all feels a bit personal, since there's a considerable amount of auto- and biographical overlap here (Ruge is, after all, the son of noted GDR-historian Wolfgang, and, like Alexander, he was born in the Soviet Union in 1954 and came to the GDR with his family in 1956, etc.).
       Still, it all feels a bit simplistic -- all the more so because there's little continuity that would allow reader's to really follow the characters' development; instead, it's all essentially snapshots, across some five decades. Revealing, yes, but also a bit superficial -- not helped by Ruge's limited ability to make real characters out of quite a few of the figures. The most peripheral -- Markus and the Soviet (grand)mother -- fare worst, with Irina's mother reduced to an almost clownish role, but few are in any way fully developed. Yes, Ruge has some fine close-ups, but for a family saga there's much too much that remains unexplored when it's all wrapped up.
       Much of In Times of Fading Light reads quite well -- the pacing works, despite all the back and forth in time -- and it's an interesting glimpse of East German life that rings especially true in its smaller observations of everyday life and relationships (but falls a bit short in any larger-picture efforts). Ruge's approach -- writing an historical novel that doesn't focus on the well-known 'historical' events but rather centers on the domestic -- is certainly welcome, and has some appeal, but top to bottom it feels too constructed -- an MFA-writer's project rather than a truly practiced writer's one. (It comes as no surprise that this is Ruge's first novel -- written when he was in his fifties -- and it has the feel of a much-workshopped piece of writing.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 November 2013

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In Times of Fading Light: Reviews: Other books by Eugen Ruge under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       German author Eugen Ruge was born in the Soviet Union in 1954. He grew up in East Germany, which he left in 1988.

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© 2013-2021 the complete review

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