#tddl, Day Two: The Jurypocalypse

So Day Two of the Bachmannpreis ended. Here is my summary of Day One. Here is my general post about the event. As I said yesterday, I’ll assume your German is not fluent enough to follow along, but if you want, you can read all the texts here. Today was exhausting to watch. Yesterday, we had 4 bad texts and one excellent one. Today we had 3 good texts and two awful ones. But if yesterday’s theme was the one of the adult competing with the children, today was the day of horrible jury discussions. I barely stressed the role of the jury yesterday, but each text is allotted roughly an hour: 25 minutes reading, 30 minutes discussion and a 5 minute short introductory film curated by the writers themselves. Sometimes, the jury discussions are about taste, about interpretation, issues like that. Sometimes, like today, they betray blind spots of the jury. Class and race are such blind spots. The jury, consisting of German, Swiss and Austrian critics had such a horrific performance today that I was embarrassed to be German myself (not that there isn’t recurring occasion to feel such shame). But first things first: the writers reading today were, in this order: Ferdinand Schmalz, Barbi Markovic, Verena Dürr, Jackie Thomae, Jörg-Uwe Albig.

Ferdinand Schmalz opened proceedings and it seemed like the day was going to be much better than yesterday. Schmalz is a nom de plume, and appears to be a character. The whole reading was like a performance. A little pork-pie hat, unwashed hair and an excited voice: a reading that elevated a text that was already pretty good. Everything in it worked as needed, sounds, rhythms, plot. This text wasn’t as good as Wray’s story yesterday, but it was good enough that I wouldn’t be upset if it did win the award. A fantastic, greasy, behatted, positively Bernhardian beginning to day two.

Next up was Barbi Markovic, who I had been looking forward to. Markovic, a writer from Serbia, had been doing interesting things with language and literature for a few years now and I was rooting for her. However, the text wasn’t quite as good as it could have been. It was good, it was interesting, and it was relevant, but it needed a good and gentle editor. The story itself, about a family found dead in an apartment, was clearly a metaphor. For what? Well, maybe the way nation states relate to each other or for the way smaller states are subjugated in larger, vaguely totalitarian confederation. The fact that the author is Serbian and her work circles around Serbian topics, seems relevant here. However, one of the judges, Michael Wiederstein, who comes from the area where I currently live, but lives in Switzerland now, proclaimed that texts should not be seen in any such contexts. “I don’t care that the author is Serbian!” he exclaimed, squinting with Germanic self righteousness.

Rough visual approximation of the jury discussing Verena Dürr’s text.

Lucky for him, the next writer was Verena Dürr. Dürr is, I think, an experimental poet who uses the dry and repetitive language of rules and handbooks. As it turns out, when turned into a prose narrative, this is horrifyingly dull. She offered a text about art dealers that was basically a list of expensive objects and of high culture associations. Everybody I follow on Twitter was stunned by the bland and deathly dull nature of the text. It was well made, I mean truly carefully and very precisely done. It’s just utterly uninteresting. However, the real gem was the jury discussion afterwards. Suddenly, judges who complained about a lack of relatable characters in Markovic’s story barely found enough breath to praise this shiny polished turd of a prose narrative. Michael Wiederstein exclaimed how he had so many art dealers among his friends and he was going to show them this story! Suddenly, the possibility of identifying literature and experience appeared, bright (dare I say white?) and shiny on the horizon. Everybody broke for lunch, and I hoped for a better afternoon.

In the afternoon, everything went from bad to worse and I suddenly found myself running out of white wine. Next person up was Jackie Thomae, a writer of color from East Germany. Her story was light but precisely written. It was about a young man of unnamed background who is read by his environment as a Muslim. It’s not relevant for the story which ethnicity he is, because the story’s theme is how his identity is constructed by the power relations around him. He works for a company called Cleanster that offer cleaning services. This is the seventh time working for the company; he’s got a routine, but he’s not a ‘pro’ yet. As he enters the apartment, a few things go wrong and he ends up only partially cleaning the apartment. Wracked with guilt and shame, he flees, onto the next job. The woman who contracted him to clean is unhappy and slips into a strange discourse about how of course these young Muslim men cannot expected to clean, I mean they learned a totally different set of gender roles in their culture. The text is not subtle about its topics: how whiteness and class intersects and constructs subjects in our society. Thomae is incredibly clear about it. It’s a strong story, very clear, very relevant, the writing unflashy but calibrated perfectly. Well, as it turns out that’s not how the jury saw it.

Reading some of the books by this year’s Bachmannpreis-candidates.

No. The jury collapsed in their own Germanic whiteness to an extent that should be part of a curriculum in a critical whiteness course. It was almost like a performance. Klaus Kastberger, who teaches in Graz, said: “we have to learn how to use servants again properly. They used to have rules for that and how we are lost without the rules.” He also asked to be explained the foreigner’s motivation because it wasn’t entirely clear to him. Why would he be intimidated by a washing machine (the story, again, incredibly unsubtle, says, literally: he didn’t want to break another expensive machine that he could never pay for). Meike Feßmann said we need to have a discussion about his cultural background and how it influences his actions, echoing, partially WORD FOR WORD, the statement of the white woman in the story who, in case that wasn’t clear, wasn’t supposed to provide a how-to of white behavior. The protagonist takes selfies “to impress the girls,” but somehow that didn’t reach Hubert Winkels, who thought it was a picture to impress the relatives “in Bosnia, Senegal or wherever” (IN BOSNIA, SENEGAL OR WHEREVER). TWO different judges used the phrase “clash of civilizations” to describe what happened, and Michael Wiederstein, he with the many rich art dealer friends, thought the ‘moral of the story’ was that people should clean more themselves. Kastberger repeated that this was not how you treated servants, that in the 19th century Austrian monarchy, servants were treated much better and we should learn from that and I think it was at this point that I may have lost my mind, my hearing or suffered some other collapse. As a German poet (and, I guess, critic?) I felt such intense shame for these people of similar overall background, I think I may have had an outer body experience.

Jörg-Uwe Albig then closed the day with a strange masculine fantasy, overwritten and undercooked. It is fitting after all that happened that the day ended with a writer called “Jörg-Uwe.” His story is about a man who was left by his girlfriend, has an exoticizing fantasy sequence in Ethiopia (because for Germans, somehow, going to Africa to find yourself is a thing. Yes, I know, Henderson the Rain King exists but, you know, Bellow, he of the “show me the Zulu Tolstoy” was a racist). In Africa he sexually assaults a church (yes, yes, don’t ask). I’m not sure what happens at the end because I stopped caring.

In summary: after today, I think, by rights Wray should still be leading the pack. I think Schmalz, Markovic and Thomae would all deserve one of the two other awards, but except for maybe Schmalz, they didn’t really challenge Wray’s claim to first place. And after today, I think Wray is damn lucky he’s white.

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#tddl: Day One, the Wraypocalypse.

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: Karin Peschka, Björn Treber, John Wray, Noemi Schneider and Daniel Goetsch. You can read all the texts here, if you are so inclined.

Karin Peschka started the day with a text set in a post-war devastation, with a protagonist just called “Kindl” (“the child”). The writing is intentionally simple and stark, with vast sequences of dull, repetitive description that urgently required culling, and some occasionally very strong images. Peschka’s text was very weak, relying too much on the setting and the protagonist to carry the rest of the text; it was derivative, most of all. Yet, in hindsight, with all the other terrible texts behind me, it wasn’t that bad. At least it was competent and occasionally interesting.

If you’re wondering how to properly watch the competition: like this. On TV, with twitter on the laptop and a coffee mug full of cheap white wine. At least that’s how yours truly does it.

Björn Treber, a very young writer with just a few small publications under his belt offered an unusually brief text, basically a long description of a funeral. It read like an overnight improvisiation before the deadline to hand in the text. There was nothing at stake, nothing interesting, no tension, no direction, no discernable stylistic interest. There were hints of interesting directions, but Treber never explored them. He’s clearly not untalented, but this read more like an early early draft that you’d bring into a writing workshop, to tease out the hints in it of identity, heritage and existentialism. It did not read like a story offered at Germany’s second most prestigious literary award.

John Wray was third, and boy did he save the day. You know, this felt like seeing LeBron playing against a high school basketball team. After Treber’s story that was barely acceptable as homework in a creative writing class, John Wray offered a modulated, shifting story that touched on culture, history, literature, power, gender and race. It told a story that is impossible to summarize, but one that reflects on its own structure, its own language, that touches on realism, science fiction, historical fiction and the current taste for dystopian writing. In it we had a barely-successful writer from Brooklyn, a sister with a mental illness who imagines a story, an ornithologist whose encounter with natives is a paraphrase of turn of the century anthropology, a fascist leader and more. There is a prominent nod (I think) to Alfred Korzybski in there and many other writers. All of this in just a handful of pages that took 25 minutes to read aloud in a slow, somber voice. I wouldn’t be surprised if the story’s movements and turns couldn’t be made to fit the Chaucerian form of the Madrigal (the return of the original rhymes made me think of that). All of this was made without any kind of literary arrogance – you could tell the skill and the exhilaration of the writing throughout but it also reads extremely light. This is not just the best story of the day – but one of the best stories, in the way it is condensed and shaped, I’ve read all year. Everybody broke for lunch and I refilled my coffee mug with white wine and ate some crackers.

This is my cat’s reaction to hearing Noemi Schneider read. I have to say, I agree with her on this!

After the break, 35 year old Noemi Schneider read a text that was, in sound, skill and attitude, a text I’d have expected of a precocious 20 year old. In fact. Young Ronja Rönne read a text in a vaguely similar vein last year. There’s a lot of irony in it, playing with language, expectations etc etc. but it is also just plain terrible. There’s nothing redeeming about the text in any way. Amateurish, flat, and boring, it also left a bad taste in my mouth because Schneider is not above toying with exoticism to flesh out aspects of her characters’ relationship to reality. That’s not new: in her recent novel, she similarly used foreignness as a metaphor, and an asylum seeker as a prop to tell a story about Germany and family relations in this country. Awful, unpleasant and bad. Suddenly, Peschka’s story didn’t seem quite as awful.

The final reader was Daniel Goeltsch, who, look. It was the last reader, first day, maybe that’s why he seemed insufferably dull, but BOY O BOY was he dull. A story about postwar Germany that was so terrible and dull that the discovery that it is an excerpt from a novel made me recoil in shock. Weaponized boredom, is what it was. Lazy imagery, terrible writing about physical intimacy, wave after wave of irrelevant description and, I think?, plot? I don’t think Goeltsch is all bad. I started reading his novel Ein Niemand an hour ago to review it on the blog and it’s not bad? I think Goeltsch needs a loving but mean editor. This story didn’t really go anywhere, it was written in the most plodding dull German I can imagine this side of Martin Walser, and I was so disinterested, I barely paid attention to the jury squabbling over the text.

I don’t know if Wray will win the whole thing. The judges seemed to believe his text was too good (I wish I was kidding) and they still licked their wounds over finding out, post-factum, that last year’s winner, the brilliant Sharon Dodua Otoo hadn’t heard of the competition before. As one judge groused: “at least he’s heard of us before, unlike THAT PERSON last year. He knows there are smart people sitting here.” That person? Exqueeze me? You mean last year’s runaway winner? Anyway, that might count against him. Plus there’s a real heavyweight to come, Barbi Markovic, a genuinely excellent writer. However, Bachmannpreis gives out three awards, and Wray should win one of them easily. Based on the text alone, he should win the whole competition, easily, but with the insurrection of the small minds and literature gatekeepers, one never knows.

#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol

imageIf you follow me on twitter, you’ll see a deluge of tweets this week from Thursday to Saturday under the hashtag #tddl, let me explain. I will be live-tweeting the strangest of events from my little smelly book cave.

Once a year, something fairly unique happens in Klagenfurt, Austria. On a stage, a writer will read a 25-minute long prose(ish) text, which can be a short story, an excerpt from a novel, or just an exercise in playfulness. All of the texts have to be unpublished, all have to be originally written in German (no translations). Also on stage: 9 to 7 literary critics who, as soon as the writer finishes reading, will immediately critique the text they just heard (and read; they have paper copies). Sometimes they are harsh, sometimes not, Frequently they argue among each other. The writer has to sit at his desk for the whole discussion, without being allowed a voice in it. This whole thing is repeated 18 to 14 times over the course of three days. On the fourth day, 4 prizes are handed out, three of them voted on by the critics (again, votes that happen live on stage), one voted on by the public. All of this is transmitted live on public TV and draws a wide audience.

This, a kind of “German language’s next (literary) Idol” setup, is an actually rather venerable tradition that was instituted in 1977. It’s referred to as the “Bachmannpreis”, an award created in memory of the great Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, who was born in Klagenfurt. The whole week during which the award is competed for and awarded is referred to as the “Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur” (the days of German-language literature). Since 1989, the whole competition, including all the readings and all the judges’ arguments are shown on live TV, before, the public was only shown excerpts. The writers in question are not usually unknowns, nor are they usually heavyweights. They are all more or less young writers but they don’t have to be novelists.

Last year’s winner was British expat writer Sharon Dodua Otoo (here’s my review of some of her fiction), who read a text that was heads and shoulders above the sometimes lamentable competition. This year’s lineup, with the exception of an interesting writer here and there seems similar in quality, minus Otoo and Tomer Gardi whose novel I’ve also reviewed.

The great exception is John Wray. John Wray is an American novelist with Austrian roots who writes in English. I’ve interviewed John Wray on Bookbabble years and years ago. See here. Really, listen. He’s luvverly. On this blog I reviewed his debut novel The Right Hand of Sleep and his third novel Lowboy. His second novel, not under review, is also quite excellent! I’m interested in what text he will be reading. Below is the full list of authors. If you check their publications, you’ll see a sad and unsurprising number of white German language writers writing about immigration and/or people of color from a very Germanic perspective. If you’ve read Jenny Erpenbeck’s awful recent novel, imagine that, but worse. And yet…I cannot help but be excited. Follow along! There’s a livestream! You can also read the texts during the competition here. So here’s the full list:

  • Jörg-Uwe Albig
  • Verena Dürr
  • Daniel Goetsch
  • Urs Mannhart
  • Barbi Markovic
  • Gianna Molinari
  • Eckhart Nickel
  • Maxi Obexer
  • Karin Peschka
  • Ferdinand Schmalz
  • Noemi Schneider
  • Jackie Thomae
  • Björn Treber
  • John Wray

Bachmannpreis

Nobel Prize 2016: My picks.

Since I pick wrong every year, I tend to re-post versions of my old picks. There’s a difference this year. I have insisted every year on a nonfiction award (my picks were usually Umberto Eco and Hilary Putnam, both of whom died since last year’s award), and last year, finally, the quite excellent Svetlana Alexievich won a nonfiction award after a decades-long drought. I have read little of her work, my favorite is a book on suicide, Зачарованные смертью, literally “enchanted with death.” A writer who observes a society enchanted with death, with pain, a society frayed from the pressures of decaying or rotten ideologies. A well deserved award, even if the subsequent deaths of my usual picks did make me regret the missed opportunity, so to say, of giving the award to one of those two.

The feeling of a missed opportunity for an award for the same demographic has been a problem, I feel, for this last group of winners. I probably said this before, but if they wanted to give it to a white, female, important, accomplished Canadian writer of short stories, why not give it to Mavis Gallant, who, in my opinion, is significantly better than Munro. Apart from Munro, the award, long criticized for having too many Europeans, has turned, almost defiantly, more European than at any period since the 1970s. For all the talk about not awarding American literature for its insularity – Patrick Modiano is an incredibly insular writer. He draws mostly in French tradition, works within French literary culture, uses French forms and structures. I wrote a longish piece on Modiano in the wake of his win, you can read it here. He’s very good, but he’s just not Nobel material. None of his work really stands out from the larger body of French postwar literature that examines collective and personal memory. A French Nobel prize – how, after the already dubious (but at least interesting) election of Le Clèzio, could it not have gone to Yves Bonnefoy? Or  Michel Tournier, whose worst work arguably outstrips Modiano’s best? Or Michel Butor? Or if French language, why not Assia Djebar? Djebar, Bonnefoy, Tournier and Butor have all died since Modiano won, all of them with more international resonance and importance, more part of international literary culture and conversations. Not to mention that all four of them are significantly more excellent as writers.

And while we discuss whether another white or European writer should win it (Banville, Roth, Fosse, Oates are among the names I heard over the past weeks), we hear nothing about writers like Nigerian novelist Buchi Emecheta, who writes excellent novels about the female experience in a country between colonialism and modernity. She’s smart, good, popular and significant and yet people dare to name Philip Roth as a deserving writer. Or how about Guyanese novelist, poet and essayist Wilson Harris. Harris is 95 years old, and has not won a Nobel prize yet despite having written an important and inarguably excellent (and extensive) body of work that’s insightful, experimental, political and addictively readable. Why wasn’t he picked yet or why isn’t he at least being prominently discussed? There is an odd sense, and Alexievich’s well deserved award compounds it, that the academy is looking only at European discussions of literature, weighing everything according to the small literary atmosphere on this continent. This strange, blind bias mars my joy about Alexievich’s award. These selections have been so safe, so European-friendly that I’m hesitant to be happy about rumors that László Krasznahorkai, a truly, deeply, excellent writer may win the award. He would be more than deserving, but at this point, the award needs to look at other continents, at other cultures, at other kinds of writers. And by that I don’t mean Haruki Murakami. In lieu of ranting about him, I direct you to this piece written by my good friend Jake Waalk on this blog.

So let’s go on to my picks. There are three groups of picks: Poetry, International Fiction and European Fiction, in this order.

ONE: Poetry  My #1 wish every year is to give it to a poet, being a poet myself and writing a dissertation on poetry. I also think the genre is criminally underrepresented. So in first place is poetry, and the three living poets that I consider most deserving, plus a European option. I used to put Bei Dao on the list (and not just because he’s charming in person), but with an Academy that prefers European mediocrity over Asian excellence, that’s not going to happen. My list of poets tends to be headlined every year by John Ashbery who I consider not only to be an absolutely excellent poet, but whose influence both on American poetry of his time, and on our reading of older poetry is importand and enduring. Another good option, given the circumstances outlined in my introduction, would be the excellent Yusef Komunyakaa. However, if an American poet makes the cut, I would vote, much as last year, for Nathaniel Mackey. Mackey is an African-American poet who has just won the Bollingen Prize, the single most prestigious award for poetry in the US. His work is powerful, experimental, moving and important. He draws from Modernist traditions and from postmodern impulses – but really, at this point, he has become a tradition in himself. Jazz, biography, politics and the limits of poetry are among his topics. There are other influential experimental US poets who are still alive, but few can match Mackey for his mastery of language and his inventiveness in poetry and prose. Mackey would be an excellent and deserving pick. A close/equal second for me is Syrian poet Adonis/Adunis (Adūnīs) whose work, as far as I read it in French, English and German translation, offers poetry that is both lyrical and intellectually acute. He is a politically passionate poet whose sensibilities prevent him from writing bland political pamphlets. What’s more, he is critically important to Arabic poetry as a scholar, teacher and editor. In a region, where weapons often speak louder that words, and words themselves are enlisted to provide ammunition rather than pleasure, Adonis’s work provides both clarity as well as lyrical wellspring of linguistic nourishment. His work in preserving and encouraging a poetic culture in a war torn environment is not just admirable and fantastically accomplished, it is also worth being recognized and highlighted. In a time of religious fights and infights, of interpretations and misinterpretations, his work engages the language of the Qu’ran inventively, critically, beautifully, offering a poetic theology of modern man. A final intriguing option would be Kim Hyesoon. I have read her work in Don Mee Choi’s spectacular English translation, but I don’t read Korean, and can’t really discuss her. I find her poetry of the body, femininity and the frayed modernity intriguing and interesting, but there’s no way I can adequately discuss her. Violence, accuracy, beauty, it’s all there in her work. I have a half-written essay on Hyesoon and Tracy Smith that I am tempted to submit somewhere (interest?). Finally, If they decline to award someone outside of Europe, I can see an award for Tua Forsström being interesting, although I suppose her work isn’t big enough. You can read some of her poems in David McDuff’s translation here. McDuff, by the way, has a blog that you should consider reading if you’re interested in translation and/or Nordic literature.

TWO: International Fiction Meanwhile, the novelist that I most want to win the prize is Ngugi wa Thiong’o. There’s his literary skill. His early novels written in English, as well as the more allegorical Wizard of the Crow and the recent, clear-eyed and powerful memoirs, all of this is written by an excellent writer. He moves between genres, changing techniques and eventually even languages, all with impressive ease. So he’s a very good writer, but he’s also politically significant. As the literary conscience of a tumultuous Kenya, he highlights struggles, the oppressed and shines a light on how his young country deals with history and power. In the course of his literary and cultural activism he was eventually imprisoned for a while by Kenyatta’s successor. After his release he was forced into exile. Yet through all this, he continued, like Adonis, to work with and encourage cultural processes in his home country. Starting with his decision, in the late 1970s, to stop writing in English, instead using Gĩkũyũ and translating his books into English later. He supported and helped create and sustain a native literary culture that used native languages and interrogated political processes in Kenya. A cultural, political and linguistic conscience of his home country, it’s hard to come up with a living writer who better fits the demands of the academy. Of the writers I root for, this one is the only one who would also fit the “obvious choice” pattern of recent decisions. Wilson Harris, who I mentioned in my introduction, is a better writer in my opinion, but would be more of a stretch for the academy.

THREE: European Fiction So the third pick I am least sure. If a white/European novelist were to win it, after all, who would I be least upset about? Juan Goytisolo appears to be worthy, but I haven’t read his work enough to have an opinion worth sharing. Similarly, due to accessibility problems, I have only read parts of the work of Gerald Murnane who is unbelievably, immensely great. But older parts of his work are out of print, and newer parts have not been published outside of Australia yet. First book, no, first page of his I read I could not believe how good he is, but, again, mostly not been able to read him. Knausgaard, maybe, who has had an extended moment in literary circles? But another dark European writer of memory and language? It would make the scope of the Nobel prize even more narrow than it already is. The enigmatic Elena Ferrante is an option, despite the slimness of her work, but her anonymous nature may keep the academy from awarding her. Scuttlebutt has it that Pynchon’s faceless authorship is what kept one of last century’s best novelists from winning the award. Mircea Cărtărescu is maybe still a bit too young, and his oeuvre is too uneven. His massive new novel may turn the tide, but it hasn’t been translated yet into Swedish, English or French. There are three German language options in my opinion, but the two headliners of Peter Handke and Reinhard Jirgl are both politically dubious. So let me pick two books, no excuses. One is the third of the German options, Marcel Beyer. In a time when right wing politicians and parties are sweeping Europe, Beyer’s clear and sharp sense of history, writing from the country that has brought catastrophe to Europe twice in one century, is very welcome and important. His fiction is infused with a passionate reckoning with the wayward forces of history, a work struggling with the complexities of knowledge and narrative. On top of that, he has developed a style that is always clear yet powerful. No two novels of his are truly alike except in the most broad of parameters and his poetry is still different. German literary fiction about German history, when it’s not written by Jirgl, is often either clichéd (Erpenbeck), sentimental (Tellkamp) or dour (Ruge). There’s really no writer like Marcel Beyer in this country, and that’s been true and obvious for a long time. His work is widely translated. And then there’s László Krasznahorkai who is pretty much universally recognized for his excellence. He draws on an (Austro-)Hungarian tradition of paranoia and darkness, but spins it into an intellectually brilliant and musically devastating form that nobody else can achieve right now.  His work is so unique, so incredibly excellent, such a pinnacle of literary achievement that it transcends any representational caveats.

Other picks & speculation in The Birdcage.

Marcel Beyer wins award

büchnerMarcel Beyer, one of Germany’s 5 best poets, one of Germany’s 5 best novelists and a damn good nonfiction writer, has just won the Büchnerpreis, Germany’s most prestigious lifetime achievement award. I mean he should have won it a decade ago, especially if you look at some past winners (Arnold Stadler, Sibylle Lewitscharoff, FC Delius and Martin Mosebach all number among past winners of the award), but this is well deserved to say the least. All of his fiction has been translated into English, and it is uniformly excellent. I’ll try to have something new on him up one of these days but in the meantime, I’m a bit perturbed that the only thing on my blog I can link to is my very bad review of his very good novel Kaltenburg. I feel it should be mentioned again for readers who only know his novels that Beyer has always written poetry as well as fiction and he is one of the very very few writers who excel at both. I have read (despite not owning) his last collection multiple times and the constant excellence of Beyer’s writing through the years that never flagged, never got bad or complacent, is just stunning. His fiction is infused with a passionate reckoning with the wayward forces of history, a work struggling with the complexities of knowledge and narrative. On top of that, he has developed a style that is always clear yet powerful. No two novels of his are truly alike except in the most broad of parameters and his poetry is still different. German literary fiction about German history, when it’s not written by Jirgl, is often either clichéd (Erpenbeck), sentimental (Tellkamp) or dour (Ruge). There’s really no writer like Marcel Beyer in this country, and that’s been true and obvious for a long time. This recognition by the German Academy for Language and Literature is long overdue.

Thank you Mr. Setz

Due to the size of my audience and my irregular posting times I don’t get a ton of review copies (last one I got was the new Gila Lustiger novel, read my review here). This arrived last week and it’s lovely. Review forthcoming (after I finish my reread of Die Frequenzen, meanwhile here is my review of his debut):setz2setz1

Günter Grass (1927-2015)

grass buttThere are very few writers in recent decades that have had such a rapid decline in reputation as German titan of letters Günter Grass who died Monday morning. After his death became public earlier this morning, many of my friends, well read students, writers and academics, didn’t manage more than a shrug in reaction to the news of Grass’ death. Grass’ career, since winning the Nobel Prize in 1999, has been marked by a shift in politics, and significantly worse writing. The first volume of his memoirs, Beim Häuten der Zwiebel is, in my opinion, the only truly excellent piece of writing he had published between 1995 and his death this weekend. The rest of it – subpar poetry, atrocious novels and negligible prose – was often popular, but lagged behind even the worst of his earlier efforts. Yet literary decline alone is not enough of an explanation: for most of his literary career, Grass had also been politically active, including active campaigning for the center-left party SPD and its chancellor Willy Brandt. Many of his books bear the marks of a politically active mind. He wasn’t able to keep the politics of his day out of his books, leading to excellent novels like Kopfgeburten or Der Butt, which directly discussed and reflected on elections and policies. However, after winning the Nobel Prize, Grass, never one to eschew populism, increasingly sensed that a certain nationalistic brand of right wing rhetoric had crept into mainstream discussions and had become acceptable in polite company. Like his fellow traveler Martin Walser (not to be confused with Robert Walser, the Swiss genius), Grass played with tropes of nostalgia, nationalism and antisemitism, to an ultimately alarming degree. When he died, the crooked noises of his blaring populist trumpets had drowned out the memory of his much more sublime earlier work, in part because in the minds of many readers, late career Grass reminded them of the populist portions of his earlier work that had always been present. That’s why a shrug and an imprecise sadness was the main reaction among many of my friends and colleagues, despite the death of an enormous writer who was influential not just for German but world literature. Writers like John Irving and Salman Rushdie have acknowledged their debt to Grass’ voluminous oeuvre and among the highly praised writers of today in this country, few are untouched by his influence.

grass gesammeltFor most of my reading life, Günter Grass had been one of my favorite writers. Yet even I had conflicting emotions when I heard the news. despite Grass’ presence in my reading and writing life. Not just Grass the novelist, but also Grass the playwright, and, most importantly, Grass the poet. It’s not as well known or remembered today, but Grass’ first publication in 1956 was a collection of poetry and art, Die Vorzüge der Windhühner. His status as an broadly talented artist came from the place he was in after the ravages of the war. Born in Gdansk, he voluntary enlisted in the army in WWII and later was a member of the Waffen-SS. Contrary to many former soldiers or SS members, Grass (admittedly late, in 2008), was clear about the fact that he was not seduced, that he was a willing, even fanatic participant, but it was an experience that, he also claimed, cured him of all authoritarian impulses for the rest of his life. After the war, he became a stone mason apprentice and more generally an artist. Throughout his life, he had never really stopped being a well rounded artist. He was a painter, sculptor, a poet, a novelist, an essayist and an editor. If you’ve ever seen one of his books on the shelf, whether in German or in translation, the cover picture is one drawn or painted by Grass himself. I keep repeating these things because with Grass, they are not minor details. Grass was an unbelievably talented artist. He was not a novelist who dabbled in other genres or areas. I can’t properly judge his art (not my field of expertise) but I can certainly vouch for his poetry. Throughout his career Grass wrote poems and while his later poetry was never quite as good as his early work (true for many poets), he had kept his gift until the mid-1990s, when it, with his other gifts, slowly left him. I would not be who I am as a poet and writer today without Grass’ early poetry, and its influence was fairly wide spread in German literature generally. His gifts were so lavish that he started to write almost occasional poetry, poetry with lewd or odd subjects, poetry that was incorporated into novels, most notably Der Butt (The Flounder, 1977), which contains poems extolling the practice of going to the toilet as a group activity, among other subjects. I insist on this because writers so profoundly gifted in so many areas are very rare and for many decades, there was good reason to count him among the world’s foremost purveyors of literature.

tin drumIt was Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum, 1959), his very first novel that indelibly established his importance and skill. It’s part of the misleadingly called Danzig trilogy as all three of the books are set in Danzig/Gdansk. The term is misleading because, with a few exceptions, most of Grass work is either set in or refers back to Danzig, which is Grass’ Yoknapatawpha County. In her essential study of Grass’ work, Irene Leonard pointed out that “Danzig was a German microcosm. In Danzig, events in the Reich were repeated in slow motion.” Additionally, Grass makes all his characters into members of the petit bourgeois class, Kleinbürger in German, this being the class with the highest density of Nazi supporters. This obsession makes him give background characters, when they reappear in his later works, more petit bourgeous professions than they were said to have when they first appeared. It’s important to know that this shifting of truths is not an exception, it’s the rule in Grass’ work, starting with his debut novel. Grass is almost obnoxious in his insistence that not only are his narrators unreliable, he himself is not a reliable source regarding his own books and he crafted a prose intended to have a life of its own. I can’t speak for translations, but in German, Grass writes exactly the kind of prose that you’d expect from a masterful poet – he is highly attentive to even the most minute elements of his writing. A Grass sentence is instantly recognizable: Grass has a specific way of using objects and adjectives in his sentences, by omitting pronouns, stacking and shifting adjectives. He paraphrases and dismembers official jargon, figures of speech, commonplaces and sources such as Heidegger or Weininger. His fiction was first written by hand, then typed into a typewriter, then typeset by the publisher. In all these stages, it was continuously edited and refined. In Grass’ work, especially in the latter two novels of the Danzig trilogy, we are made to witness a writing that is highly cerebral and attentive, and yet also compulsively readable. It’s a visceral joy to read Grass, and that’s not just connected to his obsession with physicality, whether that’s young Tulla Pokriefke’s thin body or the rich physical multitudes of cooking, eating and crapping in The Flounder.

nuveau roimanGrass’ influences are complex and varied. The most immediate influences are the nouveau roman for their use of surfaces and objects, the great poet Arno Holz (who almost won the 1929 Nobel prize) for his use of adjectives and Alfred Döblin for almost everything else. Döblin combined for Grass (and many other German writers) the influences of European avantgarde like dada or absurdist literature with the impact of Joyce and Dos Passos, all of which is wrapped in a strong dedication to narrative and readability. Other influences on Grass are Swiss classic Gottfried Keller (especially Der Grüne Heinrich), Goethe and a whole array of novelists ranging from Laurence Sterne to Grimmelshausen. From all these influences, Grass learned how to deal with narrators and reliability, how to use objects in order to fragment narratives of reality into episodes or scenes that are then co-determined by the presence of the objects arranged in the scene. Public language, molded into Grass’ syntax, becomes one more objects among many, all of which often ends up overwhelming the stories’ subjects. Grass as the author is intentionally elusive, pushing the text away even from himself. His is a writing heavy with symbols but on close reading, these symbols tend to shift, displace, elude. To an incredulous American interviewer he once said “Symbols are nonsense – when I write about potatoes, I mean potatoes.” At the same time, he was aware and adamant that as the author, he did not have final authority over the text, especially once the book was written and he got rid of his notes. The author as a dubious witness – it’s more than an application of Tristram Shandy to the shambles of post WWII Europe. In the light of his autobiography, it also reflects a profound mistrust of grand narratives. A writer with a social and humanist conscience who is aware that in his youth and young adulthood, he unquestioningly and voluntarily followed and fought for the Nazi regime in general and Hitler more specifically, this kind of writer can end up with a poetics as Grass’: distrustful of narratives and distrustful of himself. Even in Beim Häuten der Zwiebel, doubt creeps in. Characters from the novels are given a voice, sowing doubt in the memoirist’s mind.

grass krebsAll of these things are already present in his first books. Die Blechtrommel is narrated by Oskar Matzerath, a person of stunted growth, who writes down the book from within a sanatorium, a “Heil- und Pflegeanstalt”, the “cloisters of modernity” as Elias Canetti referred to them. According to its internal logic, Oskar wrote the book between 1952 and 1954, the book ending on the eve of his 30th birthday. There are two levels of story, one, Oskar’s life from conception uo to his 28th birthday, the other, the two years in the sanatorium during which Oskar writes down the book. There is no external authority verifying the truth of the events presented – in fact, it’s Grass’ own oeuvre that ends up factchecking his early books, confirming and denying various ostensible facts told us by Oskar. Oskar’s honesty is not the most importanr part. It’s his insistence, his obsession in marshaling the past to come back and give a record of the small and large crimes and sins that happened. The word “sin” is not randomly chosen here: Die Blechtrommel, is a book suffused with a sense of religion, reflecting Grass’s Catholic upbringing. Even more openly religiously influenced is the second book in the trilogy, the novella Katz und Maus (Cat and Mouse, 1961). Numerous studies have shown that Grass carefully crafted the book to fit quite a few German theories of the form (ours is a nation obsessed with the genre of the novella, cf. Hartmut Lange for the probably best living practitioner of the form). For a writer enamored with excess and the fullness of story, this novella is remarkably strict and lean. It’s probably Grass’ most ‘perfect’ book, the one least flawed (we all remember Randall Jarrell’s definition of the novel). It’s an exceptional achievement, and an unbelievable example of an already fantastically good writer rapidly developing and maturing. Katz und Maus tells a story of characters that we’ve already met. One has to imagine the Blechtrommel as opening a fount of stories that are all interconnected and that correct and discuss each other. The crowning achievement of this early work is Hundejahre (Dog Years, 1963), which examines and interrogates guilt and complicity by putting on a virtuoso display of how to employ and undercut various forms of narration. It’s separated into three parts, using multiple kinds of voices, genres and perspectives, hiding and revealing identities, zooming in and out of smaller stories in order to discuss and illuminate the greater stories at length.

grass tänzeI discussed the Danzig trilogy at length for two reasons. One is the importance of its ideas, characters and methods for Grass’s later work that would continue to go back to this well until Im Krebsgang (Crabwalk, 2002), which is almost indistinguishable from parody. The other reason is that these 3 books, as well as the unexpected but excellent Das Treffen in Telgte (The Meeting at Telgte, 1979) are the most likely to endure. They are least shackled to the political events of the day. I don’t mean to say that those four books are Grass’ best work, but they are Grass’ most accessible work for an audience living at least a decade after the books were published. His very next novel after the trilogy, örtlich betäubt (Local Anaesthetic, 1969), published at the height of student protests, questions ideas of revolution and change, using history as a way to make sense of the present, not as a way to look at and interrogate the past. It’s also the first book not to include the writing situation as part of the story, even though its narrative setup is not dissimilar to Katz und Maus. While that one was constructed as an Augustinian confession in a very narrow sense, örtlich betäubt is basically a confession/rant delivered by a patient to his dentist (one is reminded of Peter Brooks’ precise analysis of the culture of confession). The present in question that’s being examined was the tail end of the Kiesinger administration. Long before Merkel, Germany was once, for three years, governed by a coalition of its two largest parties. The chancellor of that coalition was Kurt Georg Kiesinger, a former Nazi party member (who, like Grass, joined with enthusiasm). Other former members of the Nazi party included the foreign minister as well as the economics minister. This may explain the novel’s sense of gloom and doom, especially since Grass, a typical social democrat, did not believe in radical change either (Wer hat uns verraten? Sozialdemokraten!). The next novel, similar in intent, if differently structured, picks up at this point and ends in the election of Willy Brandt, the great hope of Germans center-left intellectuals.

grass brandWith those two novels a new era of Grass novels begins that use not just the past, but also myth and fairy tales in order to examine a political issue of the day, whether that’s feminism (Der Butt / The Flounder), demographics (Kopfgeburten / Headbirths), environmental concerns (Die Rättin / The Rat) or the German reunification (Ein weites Feld / Too Far Afield). They all have their specific strengths and are often powerfully written and elaborately (and cleverly) constructed. They were not, however, as well received by critics, in part because their political content offered critics an easy way to dismiss the books without engaging with their extraordinary literary power. It’s not until 2002 that Grass scored another major success with both critics and audience. That book was Im Krebsgang (Crabwalk). Now, by 2002, Grass work did not have the same potency as it had even 1995. His collection of short prose, Mein Jahrhundert (My Century, 1999) was uncharacteristically flat, by then, he hadn’t published a new book of poetry since 1993. Im Krebsgang was short, hurried and flat – it turned out that Grass’ high octane style didn’t work when it wasn’t powered by a writer working at the top of his game. It seemed -as I mentioned- like a lazy parody. It’s success -somewhat analogous to the lack of success of the earlier books – was due to politics. In 2002 another important and popular, if deplorable, book was published: Der Brand by actor and historian Jörg Friedrich. In it, Friedrich goes on at length about the hardships of the German populace during the Allied bombing, producing a heated amalgam of facts, fiction and some terrible turns of phrases (like “the bomb holocaust”). Grass’ novel about a German civilian ship, sunk by a Soviet submarine in the last weeks of the war perfectly fit the sudden craving in Germany of narratives of German victims. Starting roughly in 1999, a subtle (though increasingly less so) historical revisionism had created this need for counter narratives that emphasized German victims. Apart from the very good first volume of his autobiography Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (Peeling the Onion, 2006), the rest of his work published in the oughts was similarly bad. His collection of poetry Letzte Tänze wasn’t even a parody any more. It’s just a mostly inconsequential book of newfound righteousness and old man horniness. The nadir, finally, of Grass’ literary production was his poem “Was Gesagt Werden Muss” (“What has to be said”), a poem about Israel that is full of modern antisemitic rhetoric.

grass grimmThe young Grass used to take these phrases and twist them into art and truth. Old Grass just regurgitates right wing rhetoric. In the years between Im Krebsgang and the new “poem”, he had given numerous ill informed interviews. Famously, he invented the fact that 6 millions of German soldiers had died in soviet camps, a number clearly intended to balance the 6 million Jews Germans had murdered. His use of German myth and tradition in connection with present day concerns in his last volume of autobiography Grimms Wörter (no translation yet, 2010) suddenly didn’t seem smart and literate any more as it was in the 70s and 80s and more reminiscent of right wing nationalist nostalgia. As his work and reputations slowly disintegrated Grass pressed on, gave interviews, published more individual poems. More, more. Despite his misguided politics in the last decade of his life and his waning literary skills, he was still animated by an urge to say something, to contribute something, to do something. For me, there’s nothing worse than a writer without obsessions and urges. Günter Grass had both in spades and the best of his work ranks with some of the best literature published in the last century. It’s tempting to judge him in the light of his poor last decade. As someone who has been reading Grass for 20 years, who has read all of his books, most of them multiple times, I don’t want to do that. Today we mourn the passing of a Great Writer. Mourn with me. They don’t come along very often.

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