Schutti, Carolina (2010), wer getragen wird, braucht keine schuhe, Otto Müller
Schutti, Carolina (2012), einmal muss ich über weiches Gras gelaufen sein, Otto Müller
As has become tradition on this blog, as the Bachmannpreis rears its head, I’m reviewing some books by writers invited to perform there, though I never really get around to reviewing all that many. I already reviewed a novel by invitee Meral Kureyshi (click here), a while ago, actually, and here now is a review of two novels by Carolina Schutti. Schutti is a writer with a truly impressive track record. Not only does she have a PhD in German literature (she wrote a dissertation on Elias Canetti), but she’s also won a plethora of awards for her books – novels, novellas and other texts. And yet – to say I felt let down by the two novels under review is to understate how grueling the experience of reading these short books really was. I’ll say this for her: Carolina Schutti has a tonal consistency that is admirable, if maddening. In her very first book she zeroes in on a style that seems derivative, but really isn’t epigonal in any typical sense. She doesn’t echo specific writers as much as a general tone. As a concert pianist she has said in an interview that she always writes for listeners as well – and indeed, from the first line you can hear the voice in these books. And you know, eerily, what this voice is? It’s the typical note struck by the average reader at the Bachmannpreis – this measured pronunciation that situates texts right between light and somber, investing pauses and turns with meaning that they don’t have on the page. Both books use language to tell the story of people who struggle with it – who struggle with telling a story of themselves, and as a result, it is deplorable that Schutti declines to give them that voice. Instead she sets them up with a boilerplate reservoir of phrases that are all too common in books like this. And there are so many books like this. There’s an unpleasant lure to characters who are at the margins of language and society – not the truly aphasic, but the reticent ones, the ones who live between languages, or the ones with mental illnesses that make for dramatic performances.
And so her debut novel, wer getragen wird, braucht keine schuhe, (those who are carried have no need of shoes) focuses on an 18 year old girl who struggles with communication. She manages to work from a limited set of phrases in her work as a server, but once she meets a man and her life opens up, that language is no longer sufficient. There is a sudden turn, as a walk through the woods leads to a confession on the part of the protagonist, and eventually, a complete collapse. It is language, at every turn, that leads her astray, language, that condemns her, and language, at the end, that helps her pull herself together – or apart, depending on your reading. This tendency, to present a text that is primarily about language and not as much about actual lived experience, is a Bachmann cliché, and in some ways, last year’sline-up and results were a confirmation of this tendency, with Ronya Othmann’s autofictional text sidelined, and Sarah Wipauer’s rich, but not myopically self-centered text entirely ignored. It is difficult not to read these texts about mentally marginalized people by those in academia with some suspicion, as an exercise in tone and form. But even formally, this is upsettingly thin. It seems to strive for a switch from a certain simplicity in the early chapters to a much richer set of poeticisms in the last chapter, but nothing in the early chapters is actually simple, per se. These seem like the most mathematically average sentence length, with the typical number of adjectives for books written in German in the 21st century. And while there are more poeticisms towards the end, they veer sharply into Lifetime Movie sententiousness. As a comparison, for simplicity and formal mastery, take fellow 2020 Bachmann invitee Helga Schubert. In her story “Schöne Reise” we find truly reduced sentences, which bloom in extremely specific spots. The narrative, of a state-sanctioned Black Sea holiday, is tense, a story like a tightly wound spring, begging to be read and re-read. There is not a single sentence in Helga Schubert’s story that you don’t feel is crafted for this story specifically, and there’s no immediate comparison, except with her peers among the best writers of her generation. Not a whiff of epigonality.
This has, necessarily, to do with what I consider the most difficult mode of writing: simplicity. Everyday details and sparse language is the most difficult combination to pull off very well. Schutti’s attempts, at least in the two novels I read, from another problem that seems to me particularly German – the overuse of useless detail, particularly around food. The amount of times we are treated to individual bites of food in between thoughts or dialogue, intended to show the banality of passing time, in contemporary German literature is an absolute mystery to me. In the debut novel there’s a whole paragraph involving the serving of soup. Is this the German variety of show, not tell? Who did this to you? It is so pervasive, and such a sign of thoughtless paragraph writing – writing, that is, that’s concerned with what a paragraph is about more than about the individual sentences constructing the paragraph. Not to overuse Helga Schubert as a reference, but after all, she IS invited to this same competition, and her collection Schöne Reise, which contains the abovementioned story, is full of people cooking or eating, and there isn’t a single “biss in sein Brötchen” type of paragraph structure. I’m fine knowing you’re eating your food, carbs and all – do not list individual bites for me. It does not enhance anything.
Another issue with these books about people struggling with language is that the writers of those books tend to be especially highly educated – and so they offer observations that are incredibly complex but are couched in simple situations. Like Schutti, when her protagonist looks yearningly at the windows of rich people and observes that the people inside, unafraid to be robbed, “send out some of their light, it falls hard upon the asphalt, right in front of her. She cannot pick up this light, though she can climb inside, or step over it.” etc. This is highly poetic, if not particularly good, and entirely out of place with the much plainer and banal observations in the immediately preceding sentences. Somehow, and I think we can blame this on writers like Peter Handke, the margins of language have become a playground for these poeticisms toying with the perception of reality. In books like Schutti’s debut, however, it just feels exploitative. Talking about people who are really, genuinely marginalized, and coating their lives with self-serving language games seems dubious. When it’s this badly executed, its worse. There’s also often a racial component to it, and that Schutti’s second novel, einmal muss ich über weiches Gras gelaufen sein, “I must have walked across soft Grass once,” is about immigration and the learning and unlearning of language, and uses many of the same tools and tricks of the first book, confirms this theory. Now, the book is autobiographically inspired. Its protagonist is a woman who has lost the ability to speak the language of the place she came from as a child, Belorussian. Schutti herself is the child of immigrants and has lost the ability to speak their language, Polish. Immediately, these references, and connecting the struggles with language to learning or failing to learn a language gives the typical spiel more heft. The execution though is no better than in the debut novel. The immediate comparisons that come to mind, including Aglaja Veteranji’s brilliant novels, or Melinda Nadj Abonji’s underrated debut novel Im Schaufenster im Frühling, all serve to emphasize how flat, in the end, Schutti’s constructions end up being.
To be clear – these books are both exceptionally competent – but not as novels. They are specific cultural performances, with a specific audience in mind. Schutti, from page one, line one of her first novel, immediately seizes on a tone and style and never abandons it. It’s inconsistent, yes, but consistently so. Open any page at random, and you can hear it spoken slowly into a microphone in Klagenfurt. And honestly, they probably make for great analyses by scholars and judges, just not for particularly good literature. The expectation behind this style is what’s truly remarkable – it’s an inherent expectation of importance, an arrogance of whiteness that is at times breathtaking. An unbelievably fitting writer for Klagenfurt, then. It’s a surprise it has taken so long.