Hahn, Anna Katharina (2009), Kürzere Tage, Suhrkamp
Anna Katharina Hahn is a young writer, born in 1970, who has published two volumes of stories before putting out this novel which, like Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut novel The Namesake, bears the traces of a mind trained on writing in the short form, but it’s most successful in the last third where Hahn pulls together all the threads of the book to make, no, to force it to cohere. Kürzere Tage (Shorter Days) is a bleak book, a dark book that finds hope in the end, but it’s a hope born of death and destruction, a hope for something different, better, new, a hope that is fed by the utter hopelessness of the present and the past. There has to be something better in the future, in other countries, doesn’t it? And even this is a hope that is only available to a few of the book’s miserable characters. It is one of Hahn’s strengths that she can make this dark and utter misery into a light enough read, that she uses a language that does not reflect the pain and desperation it depicts. That may be one of the reasons why some people don’t like to read writers such as Jirgl, whose dark subject matter finds expression in a language that is just as dark and violent. That makes for an amazing, convincing reading experience, but it’s also taxing. Kürzere Tage, in contrast, isn’t.
Reading it isn’t as much of an exhausting emotional and aesthetic experience, but despite being light and readable it is still able to transport content that is serious and important. That is, clearly, another reason for the huge critical success of the book (Ingo Schulze’s strange critical and popular success can be chalked down to similar reasons, although Anna Katharina Hahn is a far, far better writer than the curly-haired hack). The issues it raises, like nationalism, racism, sexism, as well as gender and class issues and the newly popular and, by now, well-explored fate of German refugees after WWII (‘Germans as victims’ is perhaps the most popular new topos in German fiction and non-fiction in this decade) assure it’s ‘significance’ in the wide field of recent publications.To cut a long story short, it is a good book. Not great, certainly, much of the writing is sub-par and the characters are flawed as literary creations, but now and then the writing soars and, after all, the characters serve their purpose, which is illustrating certain ideas, well enough, and the writer’s perceptiveness in regard to the city she writes about is incredible. The major flaw of the book is its cowardice or laziness: almost all of it reads as if the writer held back, tried to keep to a certain convention, to keep her book from any kind of excess, make it dark, but still pleasant, but she’s too good a writer not to show the possibilities of the book, to display what could have been.
One of the most interesting yet also most disappointing aspects of Kürzere Tage is its use of local color. The book is set in Stuttgart, a large city in south-west Germany, the capital of one of the largest and most prosperous of Germany’s 16 states, Baden-Württemberg. Politically and culturally, Baden-Württemberg has a strange mixture of progressivism and conservativism, and it has always been that way. It is the state where the first post-French Revolution revolution in what we today call Germany (Germany is a very young country, first established in 1871) has taken place, but that revolution marks also the birth of a particular insidious and persistent brand of nationalism. It is the only state where regularly mayors are elected who are members of the Green Party (Bündnis 90/ Grüne), but it is also the state that is firmly, on a statewide level, in the hands of the Christian Conservatives and was once governed by a former Nazi judge (who used to sign death warrants for deserters) and, until his death last year was a venerated and well-respected figure in Baden-Württemberg’s political culture. It is the state where rebellious and genius writers like Hölderlin, Wieland and Schiller came from, and it is the state where the staging of a play critical of Christianity raised death threats and such a furor that some cities declined staging it at all, afraid of the public reaction (death threats can have that effect…).
The state is dominated by two different (but very similar) cultural groups who even speak different (but actually very similar) dialects. Stuttgart is part of the ‘Württemberg’ part of the state which is, in many ways, more conservative than its brother, ‘Baden’. As any major city here and in the world, there is a big, traditional part of town, where the established families live, crime rates are low and rent is high, and the abandoned quarters for the poor and the immigrants. Anna Katharina Hahn makes heavy use of this briefly sketched background, and it is one of the strengths of the book that she rarely explains herself, that she uses, uncommented, words only used in the local dialect and local reference, decipherable only to locals. Since I hail from Baden-Württemberg as well, I was rarely puzzled but I tried out a few of her words on fellow Rhinelanders (which is where I live now), who were at a loss as to the meaning of many words. And these words, another strength, are not marked as dialect, either. This subtle, unmarked use of localized language is very interesting, but Hahn displays a very different use of dialect in other places. None of her characters habitually appear to use dialect in their everyday speech except for a few choice times when Hahn, orthographically, marks dialectical pronunciation. Since this is not always used to mark out stressful situations or particular words or anything else, the reader only associates a certain cuteness with it, a nice quirk. This is the first of many instances where Hahn reduces an interesting possibility in her writing, one which she had already been using, to an easily palatable gimmick.
Much more consistently interesting is the way it employs local social structures and how they pattern Stuttgart’s citizens’ behaviors. Anna Katharina Hahn, born and raised in Stuttgart, has a fine sense of how living in the city influences issues of class and gender, but at the same time she manages to elevate these issues to a level that makes them relevant to others as well. Her characters are carefully constructed to achieve this. There is Judith, who studied art history, fell in with a student of medicine, Sören, who took her into his life of parties, debauchery and addiction, from which she tried to extricate herself, which she didn’t manage to do until it was too late, and she was made to drop out. Subsequently, she married a dull neighbor of hers, Klaus, who went on to become a university professor, while she became a stay-at-home mom. She became part of a conservative yet vaguely progressive part of society which is among the biggest support groups for the state’s Green Party. Her two sons are not sent to private nor public school, but to Rudolf Steiner’s Waldorf schools. They are not exposed to television nor are they allowed any kind of excess. Just very few sweets, controlled but wholesome periods of playing in the garden and little contact with non-Waldorf kids, so as not to poison them with the unhealthy tendencies of today’s tv-based education. Those are very happy kids. No irony. It is their mother who has lapsed into a depression that seems to know no bounds. She takes medication but Klaus appears to neither know nor care. Being a housewife and not having any vigorous intellectual exercise and not working devastates her on a daily basis and has done so for the past decade. She is profoundly unhappy, yet, to outsiders, she appears to be the most happy woman on the block.
Another character, living in the same neighborhood, is Leonie, who is a working mother, with two daughters and a husband, Simon, who also works and supports her working (although his support for this is waning fast). Their marriage is interesting in a different way from Judith’s. Her husband, while rich now, is basically nouveau riche, he worked his way up from the bottom, coming from a poor neighborhood. He has since honed his speech and appearances to hide his provenance, but Leonie, who is from a rich and well-established Stuttgart family, aus gutem Hause, is still disgusted by his signs of the proletariat. There are two basic tensions in that family. One is the class tension, with Leonie constantly on edge about signs of her husband misbehaving; the other is her own background, in the sense that she is constantly racked by guilt over her working, not being ‘a good mother’, a worry that becomes even more prominent when she meets Judith and sees her well-behaved kids, which contrast with her own unruly brats. Leonie’s break with traditional gender roles is focused on as such, which already says a lot about how strict and traditional the background here is. The book itself further implicates Leonie in such issues as sexuality, adultery and even, but subtly, pedophilia, thereby casting her in the role of morally unsound, at least potentially.
These two modern women are offered a third woman by means of comparison late in the book, where, for two chapters we slip into the pov of an older woman, a neighbor of the two, someone, actually, whom we’ve already, glancingly, met. In those two chapters Hahn connects the present with the past by telling us the old woman’s story, a story of emigration from the East, marrying different men and the like. She isn’t a working woman nor has she ever been but the issues plaguing her are not much different from modern issues. She, broad-hipped but childless, has also, always, had trouble with gender expectations, she’s every bit as unhappy as the two younger woman. Her chapters are the two best chapters of the whole book. Here Hahn allows herself to indulge in her language and the result is moving, sumptuous, amazing. Although I would have embraced this kind of writing from the start, I understand the effect that Hahn aimed for in pulling out that character so late. At this point, we know so much about the two younger characters and their issues that every info here, every remembrance in from the older woman strikes the reader as a necessary insight, and it speeds up the book in surprising ways. A similar, but more pronounced effect is achieved by introducing a character called Marco, a young German from a poor background, beaten and clubbed regularly by his stepfather, a nationalist, broad-shouldered macho. Since his character and his actions provide a surprise of sorts, a change of pace, that make him a catalyst for this book’s attempt to achieve a resolution, I won’t go into many details here, but it is amazing to what extent the final third of the book calls up many issues of the previous sections of the book and connects them with other issues, like racism, and nationalism, and builds on them by introducing literary references (Sören turns out to be “Dr. Sören Rönne”, clearly a reference to Benn’s immortal creation Dr. Rönne) or by letting some emotional, cerebral issues find a concrete, direct embodiment.
Now, I do think that the last third is the best section of the book, but the end, when it comes, is terribly weak. Hope is a mere gesture for Hahn, at least in this book. The logic of the book doesn’t allow for light, or even hope. This extends even into the language Hahn is using. Apart from the two outstanding chapters I mentioned, the writing is very weak, mostly because Hahn usually employs a third person personal narrator, but shows no intent to make an aesthetically ore realistically satisfying use of this. Instead she lets slip words of a slightly different register, words that in German journalism are frequently supposed to mark colloquial speech, but are actually nothing like colloquial German speech. This lack of aesthetic determination amply reflects the way of life that the two women are trapped in. It fits the book in interesting ways, one could go into further details here, but sadly, this doesn’t make for great reading. This is the lack of resolve to think or work things through I mentioned earlier: the book could be so much better and Hahn demonstrates that she, in fact could do it better, but for whatever reasons, she doesn’t, which is a big disappointment. Language, and the ending, is its weakest point but I’m not awed by the other sections either. The ideas are good, her perceptiveness and her understanding of the milieu she writes about is amazing, but as a novel, Anna Katharina Hahn has not made it work.