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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Giraffe's Neck

Judith Schalansky

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To purchase The Giraffe's Neck

Title: The Giraffe's Neck
Author: Judith Schalansky
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011
Length: 211 pages
Original in: German
Availability: The Giraffe's Neck - US
The Giraffe's Neck - UK
The Giraffe's Neck - Canada
The Giraffe's Neck - India
L'Inconstance de l'espèce - France
Der Hals der Giraffe - Deutschland
Lo splendore casuale delle meduse - Italia
El cuello de la jirafa - España
  • German title: Der Hals der Giraffe
  • Translated by Shaun Whiteside

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Our Assessment:

B : impressive tone but harsh stuff

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ A 10/9/2011 Felicitas von Lovenberg
The Independent . 30/4/2014 Flemmich Webb
The New Yorker . 12/5/2014 .
The Times . 5/4/2014 Fiona Wilson
Die Welt A 9/9/2011 Elmar Krekeler

  From the Reviews:
  • "Alles an Judith Schalanskys heute erscheinendem Roman Der Hals der Giraffe ist ungewöhnlich. (...) Die gewollte sprachliche Unscheinbarkeit und Nüchternheit, in denen sich Inge Lohmarks Charakter spiegelt, wird durch den Reichtum der Natur gesprengt, der bei Schalansky nicht nur ein stofflicher und optischer, sondern auch ein begrifflicher ist. (...) Es ist ein umgekehrter Bildungsroman, den Judith Schalansky hier präsentiert, ein kleines antidarwinistisches Manifest." - Felicitas von Lovenberg, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Schalansky's short, choppy sentences, expertly translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside, add to the sense of Lohmak trying to keep control of a changing world around her and her place within it (.....) An unusual, distinctive novel that informs as well as entertains." - Flemmich Webb, The Independent

  • "(A) relentless and darkly humorous internal monologue that links ideas in evolutionary biology and genetics to socialist and capitalist notions of progress." - The New Yorker

  • "Dieses Buch ist ein Bildungsroman, ein doppelter, dreifacher. Ein Roman über Bildung und Bildungssystem. Und der Roman der Bildung und Verbildetheit einer Frau, die sich an den Grenzen ihres eigenen Weltbilds blutige Schrunden am Gehirn und an dem holt, was von ihrem Herzen übrig ist. Unser Buch des Herbstes, wir wiederholen uns da gern." - Elmar Krekeler, 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:

       The Giraffe's Neck centers on Inge Lohmark, who teaches biology at the Charles Darwin Gymnasium (high school) in a god-forsaken corner of the former East Germany that has not done well in the post-reunification transition. The school is running out of students, with Lohmark's ninth-grade class of a dozen students set to be be the last to graduate from it in four years time. Indeed, a lot in this book tends towards being last-of-the-line -- including Lohmark, who has a daughter, Claudia, who has settled in far-off America, and who shows little sign of having a child of her own. Yes, there's a feeling of extinction heavy in the air: "Everything eventually was finished" is a sentiment that applies to her career as well as her marriage (and a great deal else), not yet abruptly terminated but with an overwhelming sense of impending doom hovering ever-nearer.
       Lohmark is one tough teacher -- and not necessarily a dedicated one. She takes her job seriously, performs it dutifully -- but she's no idealist:

'You could finally provide the essentials that you miss at the moment. I mean, that's why you became a teacher. To teach the children something.'
     That certainly wasn't why she had become a teacher.
       She believes in Darwinian principles and figures there's little purpose in providing support to what's doomed to fail anyway; she doesn't step in when one her students gets bullied, because that's just the way of the world, the strong having their way with the weak. That's always been her philosophy, as we shockingly (but not surprisingly, by that point) come to discover. Her attitude is reinforced by pretty much everything around her, as well as by her scientific background: after all, considering the long-term big picture, most everything is doomed, biologically speaking; certainly: "Man was a fleeting protein-based phenomenon" and nothing more. Few species are in it for the long run (though there are some, like those gingko trees, drawing attention to themselves with their unbearable smell ...).
       Her husband, Wolfgang, has made the transition to ostrich-breeder, a desperate attempt to find a new way in this new world (and economy). They're not particularly close -- "She and Wolfgang barely noticed that they didn't talk to each other any more because they didn't see each other for days at a time" -- and, indeed, practically this whole narrative is on the coldness level of:
He'd once told her he liked second-rate women., Even before they were married. It had never been a great love affair. They hadn't needed that. She'd always liked the fact that he was good with animals. And what was love anyway ?
       Weighing on her throughout, however, is the lost connection with her only child (complicated by the fact that she could have had another, but chose not to). Her daughter's physical distance clearly also rests on some emotional distance, but it's only towards the end of the novel that readers come to fully understand why Claudia might have been moved to move and remain so very far away. Yes, Lohmark is as tough as nails, and saw her role as teacher very clearly defined, with not the slightest room for any human sort of sympathy. (And, yes, Lohmark is not a likeable character.)
       The classroom is, of course, a perfect example of Darwinian struggle, but the lessons of evolutionary inevitability extend to practically everything else in this novel too. It's also effective in showing how the East-West transition has failed -- or rather how Eastern (that particular Marxist-Leninist interpretation) ideology and its ideas about community and society have failed. The locals, including some of the old-hand educators, have a tough time adjusting to these new ways; so does Lohmark, who has become ever more a fish out of water (all the more obvious because she does not play well with others -- any others -- including because there is no room for any sort of 'play' in her life ...).
       Strikingly, the explanation Lohmark gives for why giraffes have long necks -- central to the novel, as the title also suggests -- isn't Darwinian but rather Lamarckian (i.e. by and large wrong). She, a person who is stunningly incapable of adapting to new and different circumstances, comes to argue:
Adaptation is everything. And habit changes man. And if the environment changes, the organisms that live in it also change.
       She's half right (changed environments lead to changed organisms), but all wrong when she suggests species can adapt through sheer will -- "the giraffe's ancestors tirelessly sttretched towards the leaves of the acacia trees, that had an effect too" -- as, of course, that's not the way it works. Darwinism is crueler: the effort of a parent is not passed on, genetically, to the child (for better and worse). Elsewhere she's clearer about that, but her own desperation clouds her judgment, as she wishes her life could be bettered by sheer determination: "Anything's possible as long as we really make an effort" she mis-informs her students, lying to herself: biologically and long-term, you can make an effort until you're blue in the face, it doesn't mean a damned thing. But of course on the personal and social level a lot can be changed, and Lohmark hasn't even managed that.
       The style of The Giraffe's Neck is striking, complementing its harsh protagonist, but it's a lot to swallow. There's little room for any sentimentality here -- but the cold, clear reason can seem so warped that it doesn't feel lucid either. The book also includes numerous illustrations -- biological textbook-like black-and-white drawings (including Haeckel's jellyfish -- "Nothing surpassed radial symmetry", Lohmark swoons in admiration) -- which also are a fine fit: technically accurate representations of reality, yet at a distant remove from 'life'.
       Technically impressive, both in writing and structure, The Giraffe's Neck is admirable but, as such a dark portrait, can also be an uncomfortable read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 October 2014

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The Giraffe's Neck: Reviews: Other books by Judith Schalansky under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       German author Judith Schalansky was born in 1980.

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© 2014-2021 the complete review

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