Celan’s friends

I saw today that Stephen Mitchelmore has tweeted about a possible publication of an English translation of Celan’s Collected Posthumous Prose. The book, a thick, dense tome, is indeed wondrous, some of it in French, some in German, some in Romanian. The translator is Pierre Joris. The connection of Joris here is interesting, I find, and I want to say a word or two about Celan, his friends and his published correspondence.

There are so many volumes now of Celan’s correspondence (the only one I’m lacking is the one with his wife, because it is an expensive French “coffret” – and I assume the German version, though much cheaper, is translated and what would be the point of that) – but they all – every single one – have the same shape. Celan meets people with kindness, sadness and enthusiasm. He’s clearly difficult, but an extraordinary and intense person. Then, mid- to late career, fatigue sets in. Everything starts when Yvan Goll’s widow – Claire Goll – starts a public campaign that smears Celan as a plagiarist of her husband’s work. It is enormously untrue, but damages Celan immensely. And it’s not just the publicity and Goll’s loud attacks – there’s also the dubious reaction from his friends.

German critics, then as now, have a complicated relationship to Jewish literature. Henryk Broder has defined it as the difference between dead and living Jews: Germans feel guilty about dead Jews – but they will leap at the opportunity to attack living Jews. As a survivor of the Shoah, Celan straddled the line. When he entered German cultural life, his biography, in connection with his astonishing work, insulated him, gave him praise, protection and a certain status in German culture. But the Goll Affair exposed how precarious his situation was. Celan felt under attack – as a person, as a poet, as a Jew. And suddenly he found himself among Germans. Barbara Wiedemann’s valuable edition of documents around the Goll Affair show that the most engaged of his friends were Jews themselves, like Peter Szondi (a brilliant philologist and survivor of Bergen‐Belsen, who drowned himself a mere year after Celan’s departure, and 7 years before Améry’s ‘suicide, another survivor of the Shoah).

If you look at the letters, you can see the exact point where Celan turns to suspicion. It hams his relationship with Bachmann, whose sometime-lover Max Frisch had no empathy or understanding for someone not as securely ensconced in a country and culture as Frisch was, and it ends several others. Surrounded by Germans, Celan sees how tenuous his sense of home and security is. Like Peter Szondi, he looks towards Israel as a home. There is very little in his work that comments on Israel, but several passages in the collected prose refer to Israel. In his poem “Denk Dir,” written during the 1967 Arab–Israeli War, he describes Israel as “dies wieder / ins Leben empor-/ gelittene / Stück / bewohnbarer Erde.” (~ “This piece of land, suffered up into existence”). Like Szondi, he never moved there. Szondi’s motivations for not doing so may mirror Celan’s – Szondi writes in a letter to Gershon Scholem that he felt “at home” for the first time in Israel and that it was “unbearable,” this feeling. He was no longer able to be comfortable, after 40 years of alienation, genocide, and then living among the people who engineered that genocide. Celan’s relationship with Israel was certainly extraordinarily complicated, but he was clearly, unequivocally, a defender of the Jewish homeland.

Now, to get back to the English translation of the Collected Posthumous Prose. Pierre Joris is, in many ways, a typical representative of the Anglo-saxon left when it comes to Israel. His focus is on Palestine, and he is vocally, loudly, pro-BDS, a virulently antisemitic movement. To see his name next to Celan’s work gives me the shivers, but somehow, it feels fitting. Celan grew to be suspicious of many of his friends, aware that their relationship to the – for him, existential – questions of Jewishness, security, home, was different from his. Joris seems not atypical among his friends. Celan – like Améry, like Szondi – was ultimately dependent on the language of those who, a few years earlier, wanted to murder him and his family, he was dependent on structures partially built by murderers and lived subject to laws carried out by former murderers. The chancellor of Germany in the last years of his life was a former Nazi party member. Living in the language of Germans and among Germans, building a sense of home and language, informed much of his work. It is cruelly fitting that even in translation, he is dependent on the language of people with antisemitic sympathies.

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Marie Kondo Lite

At least in my corner of Twitter, the new Marie Kondo netflix show has caused ripples of upset – less about the suggestions regarding cleaning your apartment she makes, and more about how those suggestions apply to books. To a bookish person, the basic mantra – hold up something and see if it sparks joy, if not, chuck it out – can apply to pillows or knick-knacks (though even there there is resistance), but surely not to books. As Ron Charles notes in his exasperated complaint about Marie Kondo’s show and book(s), she says holding it up does not include reading from that book, because that might muddle your opinion. I mean, God forbid that reading a few sentences might spark joy that seeing a cover might not. Strictly speaking, I share that upset opinion, and my apartment, with all of its walls lined with books, bears witness to that. Similarly, I also understand the other side of this, given that I know that romantic partners may have had a hard time accepting the vast sea of books. Certainly, my decision to hold on to a lot of books is indulging a personal sense of memory, loss, words, a very personal sense of comfort and a quiet sense of pleasure. It ties into other personal habits that are difficult to square with partners, like my penchant for nighttime writing and constant reading.

That said, everything changes eventually. This past year, due to space issues, I had to cull some books. This week, among many others, I got rid of a book I have owned for almost exactly two decades – for some reason, I bought Thomas Lehr’s bildungsroman Nabokovs Katze when it came out in 1999 and have kept it around until today. I carried it from apartment to apartment, from one corner of Germany to another one and finally to Bonn, where I have lived too long already. So this week, I took the book from where it was on my shelf, I looked at it, and considered why I own the book – the answer is: because I own it.  Back when I read it for the first time, I disliked the book, and the one time I reread it since, I liked it even less. As a reader, I never had a ton of patience for these flat autofictional titles where some masculine erotic fantasy is offered as a lazy masturbatory replacement for introspection. And I have less patience for this nonsense today. There’s a well regarded Spanish writer that an acquaintance of mine translated into French that I tried real hard to appreciate, but this writing, particularly with a connection to cinematic knowledge or background, is so common, and boring and dull, and I don’t need that kind of thing in my life. What makes it worse, Lehr is stylistically dull dull dull despite inexplicable critical praise for his style. So out it goes.

This is my Marie Kondo rule adaptation:

  • Did I like it?
  • If not, is it interesting?
  • If not, is the book as an object worth keeping (rare/beautiful book?)?
  • If not, is the book worth keeping as a memory support?
  • Is it part of some collection?

In the case of Thomas Lehr’s voluminous meditation on a masturbatory boyhood and lazy cinema references, the answer to all of these is no. The only reason I own this specific book is because I have owned it for two decades. Which is no longer acceptable given the danger of being crushed by my own books. I own too many books to keep one on the shelves that fits none of these categories. Bye bye.

Paris Bookshops

Last time I was in Paris I went to (and recommended on the blog) a bunch of bookshops. This time I wasn’t there for a conference so I had time to visit more, but I would only recommend three of them. They are from left to right (click to enlarge): the Librairie Vendredi at the top of rue des Martyrs, Le Monte-en-l’air, nestled between a church and the busy rue Ménilmontant, as well as the queer-themed Les Mots à la Buche, just around the corner from tourism hotspot rue des Rosiers. At the bottom, all the books I bought, minus one that I cannot currently locate.

Diversity: #tddl and the Tin House workshop

If you follow this blog, you may have seen my complaints about Anselm Neft’s reading on the second day of TDDL and its aftermath on social media, where Neft defended his use of racist and sexist slurs because of his use of a specific voice. Of course, his “friends” came out in support of literature and against “censorship” and attacked his critic. So far, so German.

But as it turns out, Neft’s awfulness is maybe part of a larger political moment. I recommend the most recent episode (Jul 19) of the excellent Still Processing podcast. To summarize: apparently, during this year’s Tin House Summer Workshop in Portland, Wells Tower, an established author, presented a text which sounds eerily similar to Neft’s: like Neft, Wells Towers appropriates the voice of a marginalized person, a homeless person in both cases, and uses this set-up as an excuse to be offensive and insulting to other margínalized people. Apparently, there was an intervention there, particularly after a night of reflection.

This is also an indicator of the different ways in which the two counties deal with this moment. No such reflection appears to have helped Neft and the various supportive voices in the German-language literary community.

Again, I recommend you listen to the July 19 episode of the Still Processing podcast.

#tddl: the winner is…

On Sunday, the winners of the four prizes plus the audience award were announced. Yes, that’s right, I’m a bit late. Sue me.

If you feel you need to catch up with what’s happened over the three days of readings – and I recommend you do take a gander – here is my summary of Day One., a day about whiteness and the blindness of writers and judges in the face of it. Here is my summary of Day Two, a day mostly about mediocrity and the praise it can elicit if it is narrowly tailored to MFA standards (in this country: Literaturinstitut (see this review). And finally, here is my summary of Day Three, a day which saw the competition’s best text by a country mile, and one of its worst and if you’re still completely lost as to what the hell is going on, here is my general post about this year’s event. If you want, you can read all the texts here, though you should hurry, they won’t be online forever.

The five winners

So on Sunday, the venerable judges voted in a dramatic fashion. The day was full of surprises. You know what wasn’t a surprise? That the best text, a brilliant reckoning with Germany’s post-reunifaction history of violence, Özlem Dündar’s text in four voices, did not win. It didn’t even come in second, not until Bjerg’s MFA-by-numbers meditation on fatherhood and sad white men had its place in the spotlight.. Last year’s decision to sideline the politically interesting texts for Schmalz’s solid, but politically empty monologue was, as it turned out, a sign O’ the times. At least this year’s winner, Tanja Maljartschuk’s text, was very good, and sharp enough in focus and moral clarity, likely the second best text in a field that was, overall, stronger than last year’s.

Indeed, of the five texts I personally considered best, my three favorite texts also won three awards. Only Corinna T. Sievers, whose sharp text about womanhood, sex and the struggles of addiction confounded the judges, and Ally Klein, whose text about anxiety and panic attacks, a text which I would not have properly understood without help myself, went unrewarded.

The five writers as I would have liked them to win

Dündar did win an award – the third place Kelag award. And Raphaela Edelbauer won an audience award. Regrettably, the second and fourth place awards went to Bov Bjerg and Anna Stern respectively. I want to talk about these for a moment: most observers of the voting that led to Anna Stern award saw judges changing their vote, voting tactically – because here’s what almost happened: Joshua Groß’s bad text almost won, because Klaus Kastberger suffered some kind of mental breakdown and kept throwing his hat in the ring for Groß’s text which was politically and literarily dubious.

It was stunnning. I could not believe it – but in the end the explanation is simple enough. Despite women winning the majority of this year’s awards, the structure of the Bachmannpreis favors men. The reason women did well this year (unlike last year, for example) is that Edelbauer, Dündar and Tanja Maljartschuk have written texts that are generally considered among the best texts, across the board. Nobody could have excluded those three texts from awards. But that a mediocre writer of MFA or Literaturinstitut pabulum like Bov Bjerg not only gets praised , but also takes home an award at least three women would have deserved more, is a sign of a certain tolerance of white male mediocrity – or rather, a certain critical appreciation for a tone and style of writing, a nonchalant irrelevance.

Indeed, Kastberger compounded his sad performance when he praised Bjerg as one of the most relevant German writers of our time – which, if true, is a horrible indictment of contemporary German literature. Honestly, I don’t think it’s true, but it’s instructive that this is where Kastberger’s brain went, this is his category for Bjerg – and maybe that also explains his support for Joshua Groß. Important Male Novelist – a category he leaped to defend.

There’s another little nugget that turned up in the award’s aftermath: Anselm Neft, whose text used slurs and appropriated the voice of a socially weaker person with a language of cliché and stereotype that aimed for effect rather than depth, went on a Facebook rant about a critical voice on Twitter. He defended his use of that language and slurs and assembled a crowd of angry Germans who agreed with him. That crowd contained almost every signifcant participant in the #tddl-discussion on Twitter, plus some of the judges. Everybody agreed that it should be fine to use slurs against Roma and stupid, biased or cowardly to complain about this minor matter. Interestingly, among his supporters appear to be people involved in running the award: in the comments, he noted that someone had told him that he had only barely lost out on the audience voting, which Raphaela Edelbauer had ended up winning.

The whole sorry affair both underlined why texts like Dündar’s that critically interrogate German narratives have a steep hill to climb to win an award like this one, and why writers like Neft and Bjerg will for the foreseeable future have a shortcut to such honors. There’s no topic like the vague sadness of adult white men to win awards. That’s been true for decades, and at least on the basis of this year’s TDDL, it still appears to be true.

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#tddl: Day Three: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Things are coming to an end. Day Three closed the active portion of the Bachmannpreis with a thoroughly interesting set of texts. Tomorrow prizes will be awarded. At least one of today’s writers should win one, as we have seen the best text of the competition (as well as one of the worst) but we’ll get to that. Meanwhile, here is my summary of Day One. Here is my summary of Day Two. Here is my general post about the event. If you want, you can read all the texts here. The writers today were Jakob Nolte, Stephan Groetzner, Özlem Özgül Dündar and Lennardt Loß.

It was a short day, and not overall as annoying as some previous days – apart from one very bad text, there were two meh texts, one fantastic text, I did not run out of white wine and also I took a nap which is always lovely.

Jakob Nolte, whose novel I’ll review soonish, started the day with a story that seems a bit boring and written slightly sloppily, but upon reading his novel it appears to be written in – his style, I guess? That does not make it good though – it was mostly boring and uninteresting. A couple of crooked metaphors, odd grammatical choices etc. It’s a perfect middle-of-the-road text. Not good enough or bad enough to create excitement, but after day one started with death, and day two started with anal sex, starting day three with a mostly meaningless story about a woman on a beach wasn’t such a bad change of pace. The racial politics of the text were a bit dubious, but so is Nolte’s work generally. His novel uses various people of color to provide meaning and depth to the tale of ethnically German twins born in Norway, which is the whitest possible constellation. In comparison, the story wasn’t that bad.

In a sense the whole day was slowly building to Dündar’s excellent text, as the second writer, Stephan Groetzner, produced a humorous, clever and satiric text about – look, I’m not entirely sure. The text was partially set in Moldova and in Austria, and in its Moldovan sections it sidestepped the usual German tendency of filling these texts up with local color that always feels at best a bit exploitative (see Nolte, Jacob) and at worst a bit racist (see Neft, Anselm). Instead, the text was filled with Austrian terms – from local Austrian myths to Austrian vocabulary – specifically signposting his intentions by having models in Moldova have vegetable based nicknames, all of which were words that only exist in the Austrian variety of German. Groetzner is German, and this rubbed Klaus Kastberger the wrong way – mind you, this is the same Klaus Kastberger, who last year listened to a story about service personnel of color – and urged us to re-learn how to deal with servants.

Thank God the next text was brilliant. Özlem Özgul Dündar presented a brilliant text. A chorus of mothers, echoing various writers from the German tradition (I particularly heard Jelinek, but I am biased) presented the facts and emotions around an unnamed calamity, where neo-fascists burned down a house inhabited by foreigners. The most likely reference is to the 1993 Solingen arson attack, but other elements appear to be referencing other arson attacks that happened at the same time. I say “neo-nazis” but the people involved in the Solingen attack were largely “normal” young men, some with solid background. And in other arson attacks, like the one in Rostock-Lichtenhagen, which happened around the same time, a whole mob joined the attackers. Dündar’s story touches on many of these beats, and also provides a harrowing and moving account of what it feels like to have been there, to have died there, to have survived it. Her textual means were precisely attuned to the needs of the material – and while the text was presented as prose, it showed the author’s background in playwriting and poetry. An enormous text – slighly marred by some of the reception, as some of the judges, in particular Michael Wiederstein, who grew up near SOlingen, appeared to have no great interest in neo-nazis.

There’s a weird thing in Germany where this country has an obsession with Nazis in the period between 1933 and 1945, but attempts to blank out the topic of Nazis after that period, especially Nazis that were born after the war, or even later. That explains why Wiederstein, Mr. No Historical Memory of Events Happening After 1990, invited Lennardt Loß, whose awful, awful text, an excerpt from a very likely lamentably awful novel, is centered around an old Nazi (a “real” Nazi) and someone who was part of the RAF, the left wing terrorism that was particularly active in the 1970s in Germany. There are so many distasteful things about the text, from the dumb use of parallel guilt between someone supporting the RAF and an actual Nazi – but the text itself, with its stilted dialogue, miserable prose and misshapen structure, was almost as offensive on a purely aesthetic level. Loß, with no particular interest in history outside of Wikipedia entries ended day three on a bad note.

I mean it’s a fool’s game to predict the jury but Dündar’s text was so goddamn good that only a moron wouldn’t vote for it to win, but we’ll see.

#tddl: Day Two: The Unbearable Whiteness of Being Boring

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 two (of three) went. The writers who read today were, in this order: Corinna T. Sievers, Ally Klein, Tanja Maljartschuk, Bov Bjerg and Anselm Neft. . You can read all the texts here, if you are so inclined. For a summary of the first day click here.

The day started with a text about a nymphomaniac female dentist, in a story by Corinna T. Sievers. With a few exceptions here and there, Sievers’s style was exceptionally clear and sharp, mostly, again, with a few exceptions, allowing the writer to modulate events and tone with some ease. Oh, and the story was largely pornographic. The scene ends on a slowly and carefully described blow job, performed by the dentist on one of her patients. This was not a surprise. In the novels I’d previously read of hers, explicit sex scenes were the rule rather than the exception. But it’s worth a closer look. These are novels about child abuse (in fact, two out of three novels broach the topic), crime, alcoholism, dysphoria. Two out of the three feature middle aged female protagonists who are struggling with the pressures and expectations placed on them in some way or another. To note one in particular, the widely acclaimed novel Maria Rosenblatt: it takes up the stucture and language of crime novels, with frightening ease, and inverts many of its assumptions. How does the story change if we turn the boozing detective who fucks around into a woman? How do other elements of the story have to stretch and adapt? Reviews of the book all mention its sexual explicitness – by comparison, just among the books I reviewed this week – I can assure you, despite the incredible flood of penises in Stephan Lohse’s novel, no review focused on the homoerotic or queer centering of male genitalia – we’re used to dick, as described by dudes. So far, each novel makes specific, different use of the explicit sexuality that appears to be Sievers’s hallmark – so if this writer is so clever what’s the point with the story as presented at the Bachmann-Preis? To understand you have to look at the complicated history of the Bachmannpreis. In the very first instalment, in 1977, Karin Struck presented a story involving female bodily functions and was severely upbraided by one of the critics: nobody is interested in the thoughts of a woman who menstruates! By contrast, a few years later, Urs Allemann took an award home with a story about a man who admits his pleasure in sleeping with infants. And there is one more possible contextual allusion: in her introduction, Sievers mentions Martin Walser as a writer she admires. On the one hand, yuck! On the other hand, a few hours after the reading, I had to think of the year Walser’s daughter, Alissa, presented a half-incestuous atory about a woman who uses her father’s money to purchase sex and then talks to him about it. Walser also took home an award – with a story that had possible autobiographical implications. Now, Sievers is, by profession, a dentist, and choosing to present a story about dentistry, when she had not done so in any of her previous novels, seems strategic, implicating her audience in the performance in a way that she could not have done with a written story. Her slow, strangely paced reading contributes to that theory. And there’s more: the reaction to the text, particularly by the male jurors, some of whom, like Klaus Kastberger, joked that they would want to get an appointment at her practice, “though we should talk about the price,” appears to have justified most of her literary choices. The story, much like Raphaela Edelbauer’s story that opened the first day, had significant problems, but, like Edelbauer’s text, on balance more good things than bad things and in my opinion had been the second best text presented at the competition thus far.

This assessment didn’t change after the second text of the day, an excerpt from a forthcoming novel by Ally Klein. Klein’s story did not appear to be any good – bad imagery, a surfeit of adjectives, flabby structure, more like a pile of excited descriptions than a serious piece of fiction. But as I browsed twitter, I came across a series of tweets by Sarah Wipauer, a writer who suffers from periodical and incapacitating panic attacks and as a sufferer of this affliction. She immediately recognized the symptoms in Ally Klein’s text. She was not just moved to tears, but brilliantly explained how the very deficient seeming nature of the text, like its images and adjectives and banal seeming prose was actually further evidence of its literary treatment of specific symptoms, and what seemed vague and imprecise was, in reality a well-made, precise text about this particular affliction.

The morning was brought to a close by a story by Tanja Maljartschuk. Maljartschuk has published multiple award-winning novels in Ukrainian – she has never published a longer narrative originally written in German. That said, her story was absolutely enjoyable. The most classically written story so far, written with professional routine, it is a story about a migrant who is constantly in danger of being picked up by the police, and an older woman with dementia. Their paths cross, as a strange combination of acts takes place, in a scene of biblical and literary allusion, the protagonist steals some money from the old lady, but ends up washing her feet, as he is, at the story’s end, arrested, with certain doom in his future. The benign theft has echoes of two texts in particular – there’s the encounter of Bishop Myriel and Jean Valjean in Hugo’s classic novel – and a sequence of scenes from Clemens Meyer’s debut novel Als wir träumten, where a whole group of impoverished, disillusioned young men steal from an older woman, but also take care of her, in a strange sense of symbiosis between two disadvantaged groups. Much as in Lohse’s racist text from yesterday, this echo connects racial and class issues, but unlike Lohse, Maljartschuk connects the two levels with skill and ease. If anything, the story is too well made, hiding its skill under a clear, startling veneer. By far the best story of the competition so far.

The two afternoon readings were kicked off by Bov Bjerg. I don’t have a ton to say about this one, in part because my initial and also my second impression are/were wildly at odds with the audience reaction on Twitter and the jury’s enthusiastic reaction. I’ll write a review of his bestselling novel Auerhaus one of these days and will use the opportunity to go into more detail. What it is, is a very well made story about a father and a son, about depression and the fear of your child inheriting your own suicidal ideation. I may not understand panic attacks, but boy do I understand that fear. I want no child of mine to grow up suffering as I did and do. And on some days that does translate to: I want no child(ren). That said, the story is incredibly flat and boring and banal – incredibly so. It’s not its simplicity. I love well made simplicity. But I think the right comparison here is with the Maljartschuk story that preceded it. Both texts were well made, but while the achievement of Maljartschuk’s story is that of an experienced writer who has worked on their craft – the “well-made” aspect of Bov Bjerg text is that of MFA-taught well made writing. I have complained about the MFA-taught slickness before, particularly about the two major MFA mills in Germany, the Literaturinstituts in Leipzig and Hildesheim. I believe that the positive reaction to the story and the inability to see the exceptionally formulaic nature of its achievement (in other words, it’s literally institutionally well-made not literarily well made) is connected to the way the literary critical system in this country is set up – with Leipzig and Hildesheim producing a specific kind of writing, influencing the critics’s sense of the literary field – and in turn, the critics’s expectations shaping what is taught as a “well-made story” in Leipzig and Hildesheim. In a sense, this story was made for this stage, in a terribly boring cercle vicieux. This is not a bad story by any means, just an awfully dull one, the wrong kind of well made, with a fundamental expectation of universality that is typical of white men, which is why the lack of diversity this year is such a problem.

At least with the day’s final story, written and presented by Anselm Neft, we were back on more reliably German ground, as Neft appropriated the experience of marginalized people, used racist slurs against Roma, absolutely crowded his text with clichés and sloppy prose, and was generally not so much an embarrassment to the proceedings, but a solid representation of a year of this award with the largest percentage of German writers of recent years (Edelbauer was the only Austrian writer on the list this year). I admit, reader, I fell asleep during the story. I reread it later, but honestly, it wasn’t even offensive enough to keep yours truly awake.

Tomorrow’s group of writers is odd. I have no sense of who I really want to win the award. Tomorrow starts with Jakob Nolte, whose well received last novel is actually pretty bad (review forthcoming), and Stephan Groetzner, who reads exceptionally obnoxiously. God knows.

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