Author: Thomas von Steinaecker, illustrated by Barbara Yelin
Pages: 80 pages
Publish Date: 1 Sept. 2017
Catalog ID: ISBN-13 : 978-3956401350 ASIN : 3956401352
Contemporary German writers and comic artists are tackling some of the most challenging issues humanity faces today. Many of these problems are not to be found on the front pages of the newspapers, but nonetheless play direct and crucial roles in the lives of us and our loved ones. In Barbara Yelin’s 2017 graphic novel Der Sommer ihres Lebens (eng: The Summer of her Life) the illustrator, along with writer Thomas von Steinaecker, takes on themes of ageing and care for the elderly, as well as the consequences of outdated gender roles in daily life and work.
At the beginning of the story we meet Gerda, a woman quietly seeing out her golden days in an old-age home, mind flitting restlessly and nostalgically over events of her past. Walkingperplexed through the darkened hallways of the home, she is trying to remember which floor her room is on when the sight of the floor number by the stairway wall catapults her and us back in time to her school days.
An outstanding student with a particular aptitude for mathematics and physics, young Gerda consistently outshines the other (male) students, despite being surrounded by perpetual teasing and rebuff. The problematic nature of gender bias surfaces quickly; she is offered a job as her male professor’s assistant and he tellingly escorts her to her office in the basement.
Much as medicine proper often takes the forefront in addressing the needs of the elderly, science takes center stage in Gerda’s adult life, until her professional ambitions become overshadowed by those of her husband, and then cast aside completely when she dedicatesherself to raising their child. First later in the story does Gerda manage to liberate herself from the kind but patronising behavior of her male peers through an almost manic workaholism with which she establishes a life of personal autonomy and happiness.
Through narrative vacillations back and forth between past and present, Yelin and von Steinaecker draw clear parallels between the careless and condescending treatment of women by their male counterparts and present-day conventional practices of caring for the elderly. From the story of Gerda’s conflicts with her husband and colleagues, we return to the present-day nursing home, where she resumes the subservient role, this time to the nurses who remain either oblivious or uninterested to her observations and intelligence.
In a scene towards the end of the book where Gerda sits and chats in the garden with an older male resident of the home the gender gap finally seems to close; they stare out into the sky and speak of astronomy and the universe as equal individuals. Sadly, this ostensible gender equality manifests in the staff of the nursing home in resigning the old man to the same meek and childish stature Gerda herself suffered under for so long.
Der Sommer ihres Lebens, illustrated beautifully in washes of watercolour and lively sketch-like pencil contours has a real dream-like quality while taking on universally recognisablethemes with compassion and ardour. Both a contemporary parable and a cautionary tale about aging and feminism, Der Sommer ihres Lebens reflects the rich inner tapestry of the lives of the elderly and the innate and wide-spread systemic problems in caring for them properly, as well as the hazards of familial commitment subjugating women in what is still very much a male-dominated world.
stef lenk (PathoGraphics project, Berlin)
Postscript: An English translation of this comic, entitle “The Summer of her Life” has since been released by SelfMadeHero (https://selfmadehero.com/books/the-summer-of-her-life) The new edition was made possible in part by a Goethe Institute initiative financing translations of German comics to English, more information on that is available here: www.goethe.de/booksfirst