On three novellas by Hartmut Lange

Lange, Hartmut (2009), Der Abgrund des Endlichen, Diogenes
ISBN 978-3-257-06715-6

Among living German prose writers, Hartmut Lange is something of an oddity. He is what you’d call a writer’s writer, not really appreciated by critics, except in what must be described as a glancing way, not particularly successful with the public, but adored by writers such as Monika Maron and many other heavyweights. But, and here’s the odd thing, he doesn’t read like many other ‘writers’ writers’ do. He is a smooth, highly accomplished writer, a creator of taut and incredibly focused little works of art, texts that, at the same time, are light as feathers. There are few writers out there than can wear their erudition and their technical finesse this lightly and at the same time stun the reader who realizes what it is that has fallen into his lap there. Hartmut Lange should be one of Germany’s most celebrated writers, he’s one of its finest writers anyway, and Der Abgrund des Endlichen (~ The Abyss of the Finite), his most recent publication, certainly confirms this. Lange, these past decades, has become primarily a writer of stories and novellas, mainly novellas, and not since the days of Paul Heyse has this country known as dedicated a writer of novellas as Hartmut Lange and in his new book, he publishes three of them.

These three novellas are very different in length, structure and even writing. While they are all excellent, they are also different in terms of quality, as well as tone. The first, and longest novella is arguably the best of the bunch, the most finely crafted of them, unlike the other two, it doesn’t need the context of the book, and could have been published on its own without a major loss. It’s called “Mathilde oder der Lichtwechsel” (“Mathilde or The Change of Light”) and is about a middle-aged school teacher, Johannes Feldmann, who suffers an existential crisis. His sense of who he is just up and vanishes. It all starts with a fin de siècle plaster head on an old gable above a modern garage. The novella is narrated by a third person personal narrator and through his, i.e. Feldmann’s eyes, we see the ugliness of that construction, of this vast area with cars coming and going, alien noises screeching, and in the middle of it all, this serene, female head, which the workers in the garage, the mechanics and even the owner, call “Mathilde”. None of the people there know or care why there is a head above their garage, what house used to occupy the grounds before that, and no-one thinks Mathilde is worth saving, it’s there, that’s all.

No-one, except Feldmann. Feldmann used to be married but they filed for divorce when she found out he was homosexual, something he hadn’t known himself for too long. Feldmann isn’t introspective, apparently, he never was, as a rule, he just does what’s expected of him, until that doesn’t work anymore, then he slinks away and tries something else. That’s the story of his life. Early in the novella, his father asks him: “Well, are you happier now?” Feldmann answers honestly: “No.” Happiness as a result of finding his ‘true identity’ is not available for him, because he has never tried to see himself as he is, he has never tried to come to terms with himself, he’s driven by anxieties, scurrying to and from work, home, to a bar and home again. Until, that is, he encounters Mathilde. He is suddenly gripped by the urge to do well by her, phoning up the owner of the property, calling the public authorities, marshaling his students in front of the garage, taking photographs and holding forth, in a strident voice. We don’t get to hear what he says, and since we hear it from him, I don’t think he hears it either. This is a gesture, an action, the details are unimportant enough to be swept under the rug. In trying to save Mathilde, Feldmann tries to evade having to hear himself. Or rather: see himself. Seeing, I think, is the central trope of that first novella, and not just seeing the head, seeing himself, as the novella progresses, the story starts to turn upon many more moments of seeing.

Such as an odd change of light in his apartment that unsettles Feldmann, and ultimately leads to his moving out and moving into a pension across the street. Or seeing people as homosexuals, for example, as desirable, as worth saving. The more we read on, the more Feldmann gets lost in observations, his life is less and less in focus, until, in one of the final scenes, we see him, observing his own house from the pension, holding his breath, looking at his own apartment, not being able to move, to act, even to think. Earlier, we learn, he had lovers, people who even visited him, stayed there, lived, for an unknown length of time with him, he had, in short, what we call “a life” and what Lange’s masterful novella chronicles is the loss of that life. There is, for the reader, at this point, a conflict between the title of the book and this novella. There is nothing finite here, on the contrary, what we see is a constant, eternal regress, the sad story of a man retreating ever further inside, away from himself, from his life. But there is, in fact, a limit involved, a consequence that Feldmann isn’t capable of considering, because he would have to consider himself first, alone and in relation to others and this he’s fully incapable of. Unlike Alexander Friedrich, the protagonist of the second novella in the book, and the shortest text overall.

This novella is called “Hinter der Brücke” (~ “Behind the Bridge”) and it’s protagonist is obsessed with Hildegard von Bingen, a Catholic mystic and polymath, who contributed to almost every area of knowledge of her time and died in 1149. Friedrich is mainly concerned with her music, he listens, compulsively, almost, to recordings of her music, the door opened, letting the music glide out and onwards over the bridge behind his house. He’s not just enamored with her music, on an emotional level, but he also starts to write a serious book about her, researching her life and her work. His life is completely dedicated to her, and everyone who wants a piece of him, will also have to deal with hearing incessantly about the Blessed Hildegard. Inexplicably, his girlfriend has not left him yet, even accompanies him to a conference he’s been invited to in order for him to hold a speech about his project, and his ideas about Hildegard von Bingen. In this, very brief novella, one event quickly follows another and suddenly, exclaiming the unknowability of historical truth, Friedrich breaks down in the middle of what clearly was an impromptu speech.

Subsequently he’s diagnosed with a serious, lethal illness, and his girlfriend entreats him to take medication, to do something, anything, to save himself but he slips, like Feldmann, in the preceding novella, in a kind of trance, instead of seeing, the sense he engages is hearing, he drops like a stone into the sea of Bingen’s music. It’s a strange kind of Dionysian ecstasy, one that makes him recognize the closeness of death, and makes him come up with ideas about, basically, the synchronicity of history, ideas that imply direct, full knowledge about historical subjects. While his critical faculties made him doubt the veracity of historical narratives, in his trance, the music in a way makes him bypass these faculties, but, as with Feldmann, this doesn’t make him happy, just different. Like Feldmann, he experiences a kind of loss of self, and like him, he is at odds with those around him who represent different approaches. Feldmann’s kind of seeing is exposed, in an interesting scene, as indirect, and unclear. Friedrich is confronted with the deficiencies, the harmful qualities of his knowledge, or his use of it, by his girlfriend who, as a trained physician, tells, explains and elaborates for him the abyss that he confronts, forcing him, finally, to make a decision between death and live. All this is part of a very simple-seeming story, with echoes of Fontane, but, again, everything fits, every detail, name, it’s all perfectly arranged, as is the whole collection.

You can’t but admire the whole structure, how the sequence itself tells a story, how it makes the reader relate each novella to the title, trying to contextualize everything as he goes along, looking for connections, and similarities start to accrue, and we get an idea of how this might work – and then the final novella, “Der Abgrund des Endlichen” changes the game significantly. It’s this novella that’s given the whole book its name, and at first glance, it seems highly dissimilar from the others. It’s also closest to a genre exercise, taking its cues from mystery novels, which means I can’t disclose a lot, less than in the previous stories where I veiled the ending, but explained lots of other aspects. The basic story starts with a middle-aged man, who has, as a boy, lost his brother, who was murdered and buried in a bomb crater near some allotments that belonged to his family. The word allotments doesn’t quite fit the German equivalent Kleingartenanlage, which is an important part of German culture, signifying a petty bourgeois life style, which Germans have elevated to an art form, with an elaborate set of rules and hierarchies. While locations in the other novellas could be overlooked (but are important), this is immediately and directly significant. The hardcover edition also carries a picture of these kinds of gardens on the cover. For a German reader, this combination likely creates a series of associations, including the German reception of Baudelaire through a curiously Nietzschean lens.

Having mentioned that, let’s continue with the story. Well, that murder near the Kleingartenanlage resurfaces as the protagonist starts getting letters by a man claiming to be his brother’s murderer. The would-be murderer is adamant that the protagonist, who narrates the story from his own perspective, meet with him. The ensuing story is dominated by the protagonist’s doubts, his hesitation, and the great urge that drives the stranger to batter the speaker with letters, requests and odd looks. He’s on a search for redemption, and in a strange feeling of entitlement, he doesn’t ask, he expects the protagonist to provide him. Or maybe he’s so desperate to get deliverance that he needs to believe that the surviving brother can, indeed, deliver him. There is a point where we start to realize that the person that has most in common with Feldmann or Friedrich is the alleged murderer, and in his quest we see a distortion, and a mirroring of the previous two protagonists’ projects, hang-ups and obsessions. The third novella connects other important strands as well. As I pointed out in my review of his masterful novella Das Konzert (direct link here), Hartmut Lange’s often concerned with memory, and monuments, and history as it is reflected in objects and landscapes.

In Der Abgrund des Endlichen, he adds the dimension of individual lives, but it is not until the last novella that we recognize how deftly, and, ultimately, subtly, he has tied these curious lives to a broader cultural history. Plain names, as “Glienicker Brücke”, as the bridge in the middle novella is called, give way to more symbolic places. The Kleingartenanlage, for example, a refugee camp, and a bomb crater. In between these three, Lange summons an enormous canvas of German history, with small and peculiar touches, some glaring, some subtle, and demonstrates how the lives in the foreground and the background are interdependent. And this, if nothing else, reminds us to have a look at other, similarly significant objects and places in the other novellas. There’s Mathilde, of course, and while you may have read her as a stand-in for Feldmann’s identity crisis (or crises), it’s equally true that his search for an identity also correlates with Berlin’s search. Berlin is a city in uproar, constantly changing, moving; these days, cars are being bombed, Roma are discriminated against. It’s a city between east and west, with a beautiful and problematic past. Mathilde is representative of what is constant in that troubled and enchanting city, and the individuals exemplify change, and the traumatic and difficult nature of it.

During the past weeks I have heard many summons to translate this or that author, this or that book into English, in some lists, hacks like Georg Klein or Thomas Brussig were named, and other hacks like Ingo Schulze have already been translated. Hartmut Lange deserves be be read around the world. He writes small, readable masterpieces. He’s committed to his craft like few other living writers, and what’s more, Lange’s light, and complex narratives are imbued with a difficult tone, a difficult, spry spirituality. There’s a certain conservative moment at the heart of it, but Lange, despite being a deeply moral writer, is also a generous one, who allows his material to breathe, to develop. He constantly prods his reader, controls his material exactly, but that doesn’t hurt the stories, or their impact. It’s hard to explain. He’s a wizard. Read him, translate him, get him out there, he deserves it, and what’s more: you deserve his books. Der Abgrund des Endlichen, his most recent book, is not even his best (that might just be Das Konzert), but it’s still a remarkable work of art.

(revision pending. I wrote this while watching The Proposal, so anything the matter with the piece is not my fault, they’re all Sandra Bullock’s!)

A short personal note. As I am trying to finish two manuscripts and getting back into reviewing books, I have a hospital bill to pay off, which means all kinds of issues for me. If you have a buck or two to spare, I would be more than thankful. There is a paypal button on the right hand side of this page. That’s just in case you feel charitable. As it is, I am happy enough about every single one of my readers. There are more of you than I ever expected, even through the dry months in the past year, and I am thoroughly humbled. Thank you all.

4 thoughts on “On three novellas by Hartmut Lange

  1. Pingback: Hartmut Lange: Der Abgrund des Endlichen - World Literature Forum

  2. Pingback: Translatables! (Part 1) « shigekuni.

  3. Pingback: Clemens J. Setz: Soehne und Planeten « shigekuni.

  4. Pingback: Werner Bräunig: Rummelplatz « shigekuni.

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