Lange, Hartmut (1986), Das Konzert, Diogenes
All major literatures have writers in the critical spotlight, who reap all the laurels, who command all the attention. As a rule of thumb, you can find all of them on the idiotic lists of people complaining about how (and to whom) the Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded. And each of these literatures also has excellent second-tier writers, writers who are as good or better than those in the spotlight but who, for some reason or other, despite good reviews and decent enough sales never quite broke through. In Germany, one of those writers is Hartmut Lange. The excellence of his work deserves a wide audience, critical and popular, yet ever well-read people can be puzzled when asked about him. In recent interviews, Lange himself has turned to complaining about the critical bias against him and grumbling about his work being simply too ‘bold’ for the success that has been denied to him for decades. This is not to say that Lange has been altogether without success. He started his career as a playwright in the GDR, where he was successful, both with audiences as well as with critics. He won a major prize yet he then fell out of love with the ruling ideology and, in 1965, did not return from one of his trips to West Germany.
For some reason, he stopped writing plays in the early 1980s when he embarked upon his second career as a prose writer. He has since written mainly novellas, short, brilliant pieces on different topics, tinged with melancholy and written with a sleight of hand that would have made Updike proud. His style is always unobtrusive, elegant. It creates the impression of sumptuousness without ever meandering. That’s the case, as well, in his 1986 novella Das Konzert (translated into French by Bernard Kreiss as Le Recital (Editions Fayard, 1988)), ‘the concert’, one of his best works. It’s not a thriller, but sometimes it feels like one, simply due to Lange’s control of genre and language. He intimates horrible things, but shrouds them in glances and elegant turns of phrase. His book is set in baroque villas and dank graves yet he consistently resists excessive indulgence as far as descriptions are concerned. He doesn’t try to evoke the baroqueness in all its glorious details to us, nor the graves. This novella, as many of his books, is concerned with a shadow world, and his style allows the world to retreat, partly, into shadow. We may not see all the details of his places but we see enough to get a good idea.
Another sign of his mastery is his use of the form of the novella. Instead of just putting out a piece of prose that’s too short to be a novel and too long to be a story, and slapping on it the label ‘novella’, he writes, consciously, a novella, a tight piece of prose. Theodor Storm, one of the most important writers in that form in German literature, called the novella “the sister of drama” and “the strictest kind of prose writing”, which is organized through a conflict that’s at the center of the whole construction. I’ve a feeling Hartmut Lange shares that view. Das Konzert is so tight that it’s, as with all books that are written this well, hard to imagine it being any longer despite the fact that the subject could make for quite a long novel. Lange, however, chose a structure and a central organizing metaphor that allows him to write a book of just over a hundred and thirty pages about a topic as vast and expansive as guilt and redemption after the atrocities of the Second World War. Although there are several concerts, the eponymous concert comes at the end, almost unannounced, unexpected, even, but we the readers still see that the whole book’s structure hangs on that concert and its outcome. The book even employs short bursts of violence but although that violence can seem harmless, it has a much more harsh effect on the readers. Again, as with other things, Lange makes the utmost of his use of violence.
But I should mention the plot first, so these remarks make more sense. I’d say the plot is simple but it isn’t. The premise is interesting. It’s the mid-1980s. Berlin is awash with rumor and excitement because Lewanski, a famous pianist, is giving concerts again, forty years after having been shot at the age of 28. Well, not all Berlin. It’s Berlin’s dead who are excited. In a variation of a theme frequently employed in fiction (a recent version can be found in Will Self’s 2001 novel How The Dead Live), Lange imagines dead people living on among ourselves. But they are not part of our society. Their lives are superimposed upon our lives. They live in a different world atop our reality. They have rebuilt houses, eat, sleep and drink in them, although completely different houses have been built in the meantime on the very same spaces. In a premise that reminded me of Miéville’s fantastic recent novel The City & The City, Lange endows his dead with the ability to see both cities at the same time. Although the living are oblivious to the presence of the dead, the same cannot be said of the dead. Unlike Miéville, however, Lange never attempts to explain and finish his concept, which I will call ‘Ghost Berlin’ for simplicity’s sake, fully. He hands us a few facts and expects us to make do with them. We can’t ask questions, because that’s not this kind of book.
Unlike, again, Miéville, he constructs his concept as a metaphor and only mentions or highlights those aspects that make sense in term of the metaphor. One of the most significant omissions that most directly point to the artificial, purely literary, metaphoric nature of the concept, is the lack of any dead that died before the advent of the National Socialists. In his mixture of real and invented characters, Lange parades before us people like the (real) German impressionist Max Lieberman and the (invented) Frau Altenschul, who, one of the first Jewish dead to return to Berlin, opened a salon for the fashionable dead there, the internal dynamics of which strongly display shades of Proust. The writing, however, does not resemble Proust at all, at least as far as his use of memory is concerned. The ghost layer over the real Berlin is a personification, in a way, of memory. Memory as a monument but an invisible and intangible one. Ghost Berlin intersects with the real Berlin in certain places, where the bad things happened, places remembered and avoided by the dead and remembered or used for memorials by the living. In a way, Lange’s ghost layer is a transcendent affirmation of Pierre Nora’s idea of “lieux de mémoire” (of three volumes of that work, two have been published after publication of Das Konzert, so the connection is wholly of my making).
To return to the plot. The young pianist, shot in the Litzmannstadt Ghetto, one of the largest ghettos in the Third Reich, appears and starts to give small concerts in Frau Altenschul’s circle and he’s so good that his performance instils a desire in Frau Altenschul to organize a huge concert to celebrate his return. Halted in his artistic development at 28 when he was shot in the neck, Frau Altenschul attempts to lead him to new artistic heights, to help him become a complete artist. He is, however, clearly a disturbed young man, haunted by his death. At his first appearance before her circle Lewanski breaks off his recital, murmuring the word “Litzmannstadt” and declaring that, to play that particular piece, Chopin’s Douze Études (op. 25), he is too young, that he has been ripped from his life too early. In his struggle to regain mastery over his art he is helped by a satiric writer of novellas called Schulze-Bethmann (who is a melange of different German and Austrian writers, like Tucholsky or the great titan Karl Kraus or maybe even Musil), who generously dispenses advice and, later, precipitates the final events. Schulze-Bethmann also helps him to come to terms with a different group of dead people on Berlin’s street: Nazis.
Basically, for all we know, in Lange’s Ghost Berlin, there’s only dead Nazis and dead Jews (not all of them murdered, Liebermann died in his sleep). Most of the Nazis are deeply remorseful for what they did. Many of them, after all, did it for a higher cause, ‘saving the German race’ and it took death to show them the horrible delusion they were under. The passages dealing with this recognition are potent statements on the longevity (or the lack of it, as it happens) of ideologies, of death canceling out some illusions. The Nazis are the pariahs of Ghost Berlin, ashamed of themselves and shunned by the other occupants of the city. Schulze-Bethmann is one of the few who has regular contacts to them. As it turns out, the Nazis have as much interest in Lewanski regaining his powers as Frau Altenschul. They think that if he manages to mature as an artist despite their murdering him they will be saved, in a way. Art will free them, make them less contemptible. In the end, Lewanski has the choice between attending one of two concerts. One in front of Frau Altenschul and a large audience assembling to hear him, and one in front of an army of dead Nazis, hiding in what used to be the Führerbunker. His failure to play the piece he set out to play dashes the Nazis’ hopes and contains a direct indictment of Germans’ attempts in Lange’s time and the decade after the book’s publication, to extricate themselves from responsibility by erecting monuments and installing rituals of remembrance in schools.
These rituals, as is evidenced by many aspects of German culture, merely pay lip service to remembrance. They frequently evade understanding and try to reduce the topic to guilt and punishment, a reduction that allows then to call for an end to the guilt and the punishment. Any reminder by individual Germans of the historical responsibility, any call for genuine attempts to understand and properly contextualize events is publicly read in guilt/punishment parameters and, recently, tends to elicit that well-worn Nazi trope of ‘self-hating’ Germans. These discourses have been ongoing for decades and Lange manages to compress these issues that have filled shelves full of books, into one brilliant metaphor. At a glance, this metaphor may appear to be of little subtlety, but it’s Lange’s execution of this concept that makes it really work. Actually, as we close the book, it’s Lange’s mastery that stays most with us, and if there is any flaw with this book, this is it. It may not be terribly felicitous in dealing with such a topic to aim to dazzle the reader with your gifts. But it’s a feeble quibble, because while reading the book, we are frequently moved. As Lewanski murmurs “Litzmannstadt” for the last time, we shudder, recognizing the indelible imprint of these horrors on art, history, culture and, what’s more, we see what it means to end a life, to abort a life’s trajectory before its time.
Lewanski is eternally in-between. His is not a life after death. Although he can move, his is a life frozen in the moment of death. As a human being, he cannot develop further, he can just reiterate what happened. In a way, this is a call to the reader to make the utmost of his or her own life. Seeing a life that is stilled, we are reminded of our own lives and of the potential that slumbers within us. And we are reminded of the opportunities to change things and our duty to remember. In an eerie coincidence, the Führerbunker, which had been buried by the Soviets in 1945, was finally unearthed in 1987, a year after Lange published Das Konzert. The Nazis, who, in Lange’s novella, hid beneath Berlin’s streets in the vast bunker, thus lost their habitation. In the final chapter, Schulze-Bethmann tells his murderer “Schuld ist eine große Gelegenheit”, guilt is a great opportunity, and the novella sheds its metaphor as the whole book comes together in the final paragraphs, like Sextus Empiricus’ ladder. This is a masterpiece, written by a master, It’s elegant, moving and thought provoking. As far as I know, this novella has not yet been translated into English. However, Helen Atkins translated a handful of Hartmut Lange’s stories that were published as Missing Persons (Toby Press, 2000).
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