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Offside by Gisela Elsner


by Gisela Elsner

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In ice hockey, an offside occurs when the puck crosses into the defensive zone of the opposing team before the attacker's skates have crossed the blue line that demarcates that zone. When this happens, the puck is returned to the neutral zone for a face-off.

Gisela Elsner may have known nothing of this, but offside is an apt title for her novel. Lilo Besslein, the main protagonist, is constantly getting ahead of herself in her skirmishes with her parents, her husband, and even her lover. Each time this happens, she must go back for a new face-off.

Lilo lived in the post war planned suburb of Lerchenau. By the 1980s, the time frame of this novel, the suburb had become reasonably desirable, while still maintaining the sterility of 1960s housing estates. She lived there in a seventy square metre apartment with her husband Ernst, a man married to convention, but too tight fisted to achieve even acceptable standards of dress and decor in an appealing way, something which Lilo would not forgive.

The reader first meets Lilo and Ernst on the day their first child is born. The new parents somehow feel defeated by this event. Nothing works out. Once discharged from the maternity hospital with her antidepressants, Lilo begins a slide that will take her into multiple addictions.

There is nothing happy in this novel, yet Elsner somehow manages a savage humour when writing of suburban despair and tedium; a degree of levity that sustains the reader for awhile. Ultimately though, this was like a cross between darkest Doris Lessing and a John Cassavettes film. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie with its interminable rides comes to mind. One of Lilo's displacement escapes was putting on her eye makeup. Even as a teenager who loved the stuff, I don't think I've ever read one and a half continuous pages describing this process. Lilo however repeats the ritual again and again in preparation for her next offside, for Lilo can never play the game in a relatively straightforward manner, the way everyone else in her suburb did.

When the novel reached its inevitable expected climax, I felt a huge sense of relief to have actually finished the book. At the same time, I felt shortchanged, for Elsner is an excellent writer. I would have been thrilled to discover her had the material been different.
3 vote SassyLassy | Jan 2, 2015 |
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Although Lerchenau had literally risen from the ground within the shortest possible time at the beginning of the sixties, it could still be seen, some two decades later, that the planners and developers of this part of the city in the south of M had by no means taken their task lightly.
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Gisela Elsner's alternately tragic and funny novel, published in Germany in 1982, startles as much by its wit as by its insight into the dreadful vacuity of one woman's existence in middle-class urban Germany.  Hailed as a modern counterpart to Flaubert's Madame Bovary, it tells the story of Lilo Besslein, whose marriage to the dull and mean-spirited Ernst proves bleak compensation for the shame of remaining single.  Even when Lilo has a child, the predicted joys of parenthood elude her, and she seeks consolation in the only ways she knows how.  She takes a job, a baby-minder, a lover - and larger and larger doses of tranquilizers; she drinks martinis and spends extravagantly on clothes; she ignores, even renounces, her husband and child.  But each attempt at escape seems to feel her helplessness and only hastens the day when she must, at last, take decisive action.
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