If you follow this blog you are likely not fluent enough in German to have followed the Bachmannpreis livestream (see my post about the event) so here is a brief summary of how day one (of three) went. The writers who read today were, in this order: Raphaela Edelbauer, Martina Clavadetscher, Stephan Lohse, Anna Stern and Joshua Groß. You can read all the texts here, if you are so inclined.
The day began with the writer I was most excited to see. Not because I thought it was the best writer in the competition, but because Raphaela Edelbauer‘s book is such a lovely accomplishment and yet I had no idea how she’d approach the writing of fiction proper. One of her book’s strengths is a sense of how the languages of fiction and science and history are connected – and in her text she achieved much of the same thing. A text that ended up being about the terrors of history implicated both science and the people who partake in it. How we deal with nature and how we deal with our fellow human beings – at the same time, the parts of the text that were fiction proper were not nearly as good as the nonfiction sections. Edelbauer does not have a mastery of the first person narrative yet – indeed most disappointingly, she does not bring the same attention and care to the first person fiction narrative that she brings to the nonfictional work. The prose in the latter is multifaceted and complex, while her first person narrative frequently falls flat. The text overall had a curiously conservative and polished feel despite the author’s young age – the skill in the nonfictional passages still meant that the text ended up being an above average achievement. What a way to start the day!
Particularly since the second author of the day was Martina Clavadetscher, whose novel I loved, and who brought prize winning cachet to the competition. Her text, on the printed page, looked like her novel, short, poetry-like lines, and occasionally poetry-like rhythms and small rhymes even. In the early goings, her text about death and the predicaments of the female experience, was dense with well turned phrases and potential. Quite soon, the text flattened out into – I guess, boredom? As it turns out, Clavadetscher appears lost in the short form – she was unable to impose any kind of real structure on the text, which meandered from paragraph to paragraph. On the way to the end it shed all of the well turned phrases from its beginning and picked up a large assortment of empty clichés. A big disappointment.
Stephan Lohse’s text on the other hand – hoo boy. Lohse’s debut novel, published last year, had an underlying, but underdeveloped queer narrative that was among the strongest points of that otherwise middle of the road coming of age novel. His story is about two poor marginalized white boys – and as in his novel, he has a very good handle on the male teenage experience. The best part of the story is an interesting though underdeveloped queer facet. There’s a twist here though – the main character identifies with Congolese revolutionary Patrice Lumumba – although in a key paragraph of the novel Lohse complicates this and it’s worth explaining in detail: when during a class discussion children pick who they want to be when they grow up, he answers “black.” His teacher – the only non authorial voice of authority in the text – defends him against the derision of his fellow students: being black isn’t about the color of your skin, it’s about how you feel on the inside, whether you are “dem Wesen nach ein Schwarzer” – whether you are a black man on the inside. Like some nightmare James Schuyler had in the 1930s, that’s that in the story. The rest of the story is split between a conversation between the two boys and infodumps about the life of Patrice Lumumba. At its core the story is a story about marginality and struggling with marginality by appropriating the language and experience of another race, but the author never undercuts the basic assertion of the teacher in the story – and is unpleasantly comfortable with giving the boy, who just goes by Lumumba, numerous lines where they boy uses a form of Bantu as a way to fill in the gaps of his white experience.
But while authors can be blind to these kinds of faults in their work, the panel of literary professionals that judged him should have seen and noted the issues. Nora Gomringer came closest by noting that the story is a bit delicate (“heikel”). As for the other judges, they continued their sterling performance from years past by just sailing past the racial or even, really, class issues of the text. New judge Insa Wilke even saw this text as a significant contribution in a current progressive conversation about race – and if you believe that I have a racially dubious bridge to sell you. But as it turns out, her own invitee had his own problems in this regard.
First however, after the much needed break, was Anna Stern. Her first novel was a mess of names and structure, and though her second book was much clearer and more readable, her text was a messy, unstructured chaos that read like a first draft in literally every single sentence. Most of the audience on twitter admitted to being confused, although in text we did not pass, riverrun, past Eve’s and Adam, but merely through the crucible of a text of modest means and no proofreader.
The day was brought to a close by Joshua Groß. I had previously read three of his books though not reviewed here. Groß’s writing is an update on 1990s pop writing, particularly on the German tradition of the writers around Christian Kracht. Groß uses ironically refracted misogyny and an affected lightness of tone and inconsistently applied contemporary references to write a pop cultural tableau without the depth of his forebears. In his 2014 novella Magische Rosinen, his protagonist is a “rapper” who travels to Brooklyn a lot – he’s no Patrice Lumumba, but there’s an uncomfortable sense here of a white bourgeois writer of enormous privilege to use the terms of black culture to fill in the margins of an ultimately meaningless contemporary identity in our social media age. And it’s not just Groß – young privileged white German writers have seized on this moment to explain why they feel so uprooted. Simon Strauß, Botho Strauß’s son, has just published a novel about youthful nihilism that veered – like its author – sharply right. Strauß, like his father, has written a book and essays that align him with the rise of the far right in all areas of German cultural and political life. Joshua Groß’s project – such as it is – appears different, but it’s only different to a point. He’s also very happy to work on shaping white German identity by means of appropriation – and as some of Christian Kracht’s career has shown, the line between this kind of party nihilism and right wing celebration is a precarious one.
I haven’t even mentioned the actual text Groß read yet, but it’s a forgettable riff on American culture, particularly on mechanisms and events surrounding an NBA game in Miami. The text is replete, as all of Groß’s work, with misogynist staples and clichés etc etc etc. The most notable part of it is the defence of the text by Insa Wilke, the judge who invited the author to read. Wilke appears to believe the text is cutting edge, giving a much-needed update on 1984’s panopticon. In doing so, she not only ignores Thomas Mathiesen’s 1997 coinage of the synopticon in his classic essay “The Viewer Society” (and its web 2.0 updates, for example Doyle 2011), but also literally the whole body of pop literature and the body of work of writers like William Gibson and many others. It’s baffling, but it is evidence that the Bachmannpreis, over the past years, has turned into a search for the Great White (literary) Hope, and the racially troubling texts in the last three years are no accident, and the praise for texts like Lohse’s and writers like Groß isn’t either.
Raphaela Edelbauer’s text is the best of the bunch so far, but apparently, Lohse is the frontrunner. I mean who the fuck knows.