Dorothee Elmiger: Invitation To The Bold Of Heart

Elmiger, Dorothee (2010), Einladung an die Waghalsigen, Dumont
ISBN 9-783832-161941
[translated into English by Katy Derbyshire:
Elmiger, Dorothee (2011), Invitation To The Bold Of Heart, Seagull Press
ISBN 978-0-85742-019-0

This is a curious little book. Dorothee Elmiger’s debut novel Einladung an die Waghalsigen, translated by Katy Derbyshire as Invitation To The Bold Of Heart, is often billed as “postapocalyptic” and many German critics have expressed irritation at its constructed form, an irritation that I think is gendered. Elmiger’s novel sits somewhere between modernism and postmodernism, realism and metatextualism. It uses the tropes of exploration and of rugged reality in the same way postmodern novelists have done for a long time. But she does it without being male. One reads in review after review, the disappointment over the lack of realism, authenticity, of felt, emotional truth. A critic called it “arrogant” – but unless, like Gore Vidal, they reject postmodern literature out of hand, there is no obvious reason to be hostile to this book. Because whatever you might think of what it does, it does what it does with extraordinary skill. Sure, you can see the MLA-schooled writer here, you can see the excitement of a young novelist trying out a new idea, playing with literature, tradition and form, and not always hitting the mark. But of all the authors who graduated from Leipzig and Hildesheim, the awful German MFA mills, Elmiger’s book actually feels like she has something to say. There is a forcefulness to the book that dives deep into our shared sense of cultural heritage, and what it is lacking in emotional immediacy, the novel replaces with the emotional repositories of music, childhood and literary classics. This is on the surface a novel about a vanishing village in the mining areas of West Germany, but it is also a novel about loneliness and selfhood, about the way we as readers and writers need to connect – to reconnect – to a world sometimes burning up around us. And literature is an extraordinary way to do this. The writing is simple and direct, but it doesn’t slip into the shoddiness of style that is apparently taught in Hildesheim and Leipzig as a stand-in for simplicity and directness (see Hischmann, Fabian). Elmiger’s style is always weighed and exact, carefully shaped and directed. The titular invitation doesn’t come until the end of the book, but in a way the whole book is an invitation: to all of us. I’m glad Katy Derbyshire (whose taste in picking translations has to be commended. I already reviewed Inka Parei’s The Shadow-Boxing Woman on this blog, also a Derbyshire translation) accepted the invitation and translated the novel, a mere year after the original translation.

The book’s plot – itself a metatextual device – is swallowed by the many textual references (listed in the appendix), allusions and tricks the text plays with its readers. Like many German writers in the 2010s, Elmiger opts for an apocalyptic scenario (the list of writers to choose a science fictional/postapocalyptic setting includes young writers like Elmiger and Leif Randt, as well as stalwarts of German literature like Jirgl and Georg Klein.), but the predominant, I think, reference for the novel is one not named in its appendix: Arno Schmidt’s Nobodaddy trilogy. Like Schmidt, Elmiger’s scenario draws on the imagery and tropes of the postapocalypse, all while feeding it with elements of the real: there’s a true sense of place, in Schmidt’s case, the Lüneburger Heide specifically, in Elmiger’s case a sense of the Ruhrgebiet, the vast mining areas along the river Ruhr, comparable maybe to England’s north, from Newcastle to Manchester. The Ruhr area is so undertunneled with mining that occasionally streets will collapse. The novel is set in a village devasted by a fire where a coal seam underground has started burning and the burning has started affecting aboveground life. As a Goethe quote in the novel shows, this is not a fantastical invention, this sort of thing can happen – at the same time, Elmiger does not examine a specific event in the Ruhr area (as far as I can tell). Instead, she assembles a dusty, dirty, firm sense of an abandoned village in the area, affected by some real event. The postapocalyptic feeling is fueled by the strange sounding local catastrophe, but also by the images of an industrialized area that’s largely empty of people. There are still normal people beyond this particular village, normal life, but in this village, the narrator, her sister, and some occasional strangers are the only ones left. And this is important: postapocalyptic literature is often too liberal in deploying that metaphor to do a minor point. Elmiger by contrast is exceptionally precise: the very real abandonment of old industrial areas, abandoned by young men, by companies, and by the benevolent hand of the state is recreated here in miniature format. The book’s final invitation for the bold to come back, to join the sisters on their fantastical discovery of an underground river, in a way it is a call against the way capitalism has chewed up and abandoned the working class of vast areas – again, people living in the north of England will understand which social stratum I am referring to.

Another writer whose presence I feel in this book (and maybe that’s just because I am currently re-reading his work) is Andreas Neumeister. This writer, as of yet untranslated into English, is one of the few living German masters of prose, as in, writers from Germany, not writers writing in German. The deplorable fact that Neumeister has not won the Büchnerpreis yet, but Jan Wagner, the Billy Collins of contemporary German poetry, has, explains much about this country’s literary culture. Neumeister’s novels show a steady development towards a sense of how speech and language shapes our perceptions of places and memory in a way that I should write about at length some other time. When I was reading Elmiger’s novel, I got a sense of a similar investment in reality, language and literature from her. Neumeister uses music in interesting ways, employing both cultural connotations and rhythmical implications in his work, and Elmiger, though to a much less experimental and forceful degree, also uses music in her references (she quotes from Godspeed! You Black Emperor) and rhythms. That said, with Neumeister as with Schmidt, there’s always a connection of writer and place. But Dorothee Elmiger was born in a rural part of Switzerland. She’s not from the Ruhr area – and the sense of dedication to and evocation of a specific place isn’t part of an authentic discourse about a specific home. On the contrary: what we encounter is a discourse about home itself. Elmiger draws in her quotes from 19th century ethnologists to evoke a specific view of reality, turning the imperialist gaze of the profession to a piece of European heartland. The search for a secret river interiorizes the mythological narratives of 19th century imperialism without actually needing to overtly interrogate that tradition. Much of what she uses, even when she uses well known texts, relies on us understanding the texts immediately, implicitly. She marks quotes in the text, but some of the sources are obscure and she doesn’t offer a source for each quote (there’s a list of texts in the appendix, but no correlation of quotes and text). What she wants us to see, instead, is what musical and cultural quality each quote adds to the text, with its unique rhythms. We can sort of tell where everything is from, even if we cannot pinpoint the exact source. Elmiger is appealing to our cultural understanding, while making this method explicit in the marking the quotes as quotes.

Let me, finally, return to the question of autobiography and authenticity. I’m not doing this because I have a personal obsession with the topic – it’s because so much of the text is artfully woven around these questions. I just said that sources are marked but not named – that is true except for a small handful of exceptions, three of which are the epigraphs to the novel. Of those three, the longest is from Goethe’s Dichtung und Wahrheit. Now, if you followed me so far, you might think it’s cited here because of the book’s central position in the canon of the classics of autobiographical literature – more than that: Dichtung und Wahrheit moves away from the immediate personal memory as the sole source for autobiography. Goethe in fact makes heavy use of other people’s statements and in his time, the book was criticized by some as too artificial. But the quote in the epigraph isn’t about life writing at all: it describes a coal seam burning and affecting life aboveground. The very “postapocalyptic” description of life in the novel is taken from this classic of autobiography, allowing Elmiger, as the author, to create a complex building of references, and hide herself and her remarkable voice in between the walls. It is, ultimately, the urgency that fuels the eponymous invitation, that makes the book worth reading, that makes it more than an idle game of postmodern chess. Indeed, another reference of the book, marked but not annotated, is from Ferdinand Bruckner’s play “Krankheit der Jugend” (“The Sickness of Youth”) – the play dates back to 1926, but its searing evocation of young love and desperation leads to occasional revivals on German stages. A character in it says “you either become a part of the bourgeoisie or you commit suicide.” This tension, between becoming part of the adult world as it is constituted by capitalism (Elmiger also quotes Engels), and of giving up on life, voluntarily leaving this world, is, in a way, also felt in this book. Trying to fight for their reality, their place, the characters of the novel marshal the magic of myth, of books, of our shared magical memory to save their village, but also to save them. A task that requires, truly, boldness.

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