Hermine: An Animal Life
Translated from the German by Jaimy Gordon
“Maria Beig’s Hermine is a heartbreaking bestiary, a life told in sixty-four animals. The book’s design is apt, since its protagonist elicits less regard from her farm family than its animals do. Imagine a world in which your first memories are of your ‘father’s bad-tempered scowl and the angry faces of sisters and brothers who were struck and struck back.’ . . . Maria Beig is the preeminent tour guide to the stunningly stark emotional and spiritual deprivations that afflicted German farm folk in the early twentieth century.”
“It is the extraordinary empathy of the protagonist of Maria Beig’s Hermine: An Animal Life that coaxes the reader forward from one fractured fable to the next. Hermine’s ability to be moved and terrified by the plight of the lowliest and most expendable creatures on the farm she grows up on is an empathy in short supply in her family, where Mother threatens to throw a frightened child to an angry sow. Hermine is the pariah of the human as well as the animal brood, but it is the animal life that will eventually hold redemptive promise for her because, as she tells a herd of war-addled deer, ‘There is nothing in the world so wicked as humankind.’ This novel shimmers darkly with the penumbra that haunts the ‘visionary gleam’ of childhood.”
“How Angela Carter would have loved this chimaera—a bestiary and memory book in which creatures take on malefic and revelatory powers. Imagine Bruegel’s rural scenes etched into the blackest of glass and held up to the moon. As our world empties of animals, this extraordinary book raises the question: how can our imagination survive their loss?”
“It’s not just a dog’s life—it’s a pig-cow-rat’s life. In this deftly executed allegorical novel, Beig (Lost Weddings) gives an episodic, animal-centered account of the life of a young woman in rural Germany between the two world wars. Brief chapters—”Horse,” “Cat,” “Pig,” etc.—recount the protagonist’s less-than-idyllic encounters with the natural world. At birth, Hermine resembles a mutant horse; at school, she finds herself unable to write the assigned essay “Hurray, We’re Slaughtering!” As a young teacher, she inadvertently causes the injury of a pupil during a spirited game based on a bear hunt, and she maims a badger with her motorbike. Disowned by her family for killing their pet goose, she is even scolded by her husband: “No one can have an animal with you around.” Granted, “some days Hermine liked well enough,” but most days she loses her battle with the bestiary. . . .This earthy, unsentimental novel is the perfect holiday gift for nihilists with a sense of humor.”
Maria Beig was born in rural Upper Swabia, in the south of Germany, in 1920. Author of eight novels and four short story collections, she won the Alemannischer Literaturpreis in 1983, the Literaturpreis of the City of Stuttgart in 1997, and the Hebbel-Preis in 2004.
Jaimy Gordon’s most recent novels are Bogeywoman and Lord of Misrule, winner of the National Book Award. In 1990, with Peter Blickle, she translated Maria Beig’s Lost Weddings.