Sasha Marianna Salzmann: Ausser Sich

Salzmann, Sasha Marianna (2017), Ausser Sich, Suhrkamp
ISBN 978-3-518-42762-0

This was not, strictly speaking, the next review I wanted to write, but after I finished it this morning I was so impressed, so genuinely stunned by this book that I decided to review it right away. This is one of the best books I read all year, and almost certainly one of the best three books I read that were published in 2017. Sasha Marianna Salzmann wrote a torrential novel about abuse, history, identity, sexuality, family, I mean God knows what. So it has a few edges that could be sanded off, and maybe it’s a 600 page novel trapped in the body of a 400 page novel, with the author maybe rushing things too much at times, but those are minor complaints faced with such accomplishment on so many other levels. In Ausser Sich, Salzmann tells a story of fluid identities, of twins who lose each other, of gender and sex, of what it means to be Russian, Jewish, German, Turkish. She sketches, with extraordinary skill, the Soviet past of several couples, offering a view of identity that is both broad and delivered with narrative aplomb, and at the same time focused on specific faultlines, lines that connect and disconnect the families. It’s a fantastic book about language, and how language shapes our sense of self, of culture, of history. And all of this written in a style that is just the right amount of uncontrolled, provides just the right measure of disjuncture and madness. This is a book you want, you need to read. And translate.

This is Salzmann’s first novel, but she’s no novice at writing. Her background is in theatre, and it shows in the roiling volcano of language here. The majority of the book would work extremely well as a theatrical monologue. Salzmann wrote most of the book from the perspective of Alissa, twin sister of Anton, children of Jewish Russian immigrants, and that voice basically explodes on the page. The author isn’t as good when switching points of view, other characters don’t sound appreciably different or different enough, but then, the book doesn’t aim for realism, as much as it dances circles around the idea of simple representational realism. In fact, Salzmann masterfully zooms in and out of ideas of realism, and metafiction and magical realism. This becomes clear towards the end. Early in the book, a character reads a novel by Aglaja Veteranyi, and I have noted the importance of that excellent writer for German-language immigrant literature before. Later, we meet a character called Aglaja in Istanbul who gets injured during the Gezi riots. That Aglaja shares many biographical traits with the real Aglaja, but we are never invited to speculate about some overlap – Aglaja Veteranyi killed herself in 2002, while the Gezi Park protests took place in 2013. And yet – the novel connects this Aglaja to all its major characters, and goes out of its way to describe her biography. This comes after a lengthy exploration of gender fluidity, and is in a sense the final nail in the coffin of reading the novel as plain, if energetically told, realism.

At the same time, there’s no doubt that some parts of the novel rely on, and, really, specifically demand of us to read them as realism. Those parts mostly concern the historical portions of the book. Salzmann is very clear about the limits that patriarchy, sexism and antisemitism played in limiting the possibilities of her characters in Soviet Russia. Her history is not disinterested recounting of chronology – almost as a kind of contrast to what she describes in the book’s present, her history is one where paths have to be followed, where roles do not allow for any divergence. And the limits placed on people are twofold – limits we place on ourselves, as men, as women, as gentiles, as Jews. And limits others place on us, in the same roles. There are small shifts that are allowed, brief respite from pressures. There is a kind of lecturing here, or an implied one, and this would not work unless we can rely on the book’s accuracy, broadly speaking, in matters of historical realism. And yet at the same time, Salzmann doesn’t shy away from toying with fictionality. She connects her characters to the broader movements of history, offering snippets of discourse on history as narrative, rather than as iron-clad fact, including the Grand Narrative of Stalinism. What’s more – Salzmann ties in her constant discourse on the role of language on the construction of identity in these sections, suggesting, for example, that the lack of gendered professional nouns helped usher in generations of hardened, tough women in postwar soviet Russia.

All the historical diversions and the comments on language, they are all incidental to the main storyline, they broaden and buttress its concerns but they are not pe se part of it. Sometimes, Ausser Sich reads like a pond of invention. And that fits the main storyline. Alissa and Anton are twins, Jewish-Russian immigrants in Germany. The book isn’t enormously interested in the Russian immigrant experience in Germany, we just get a few broad sketches here and there, mostly about the difference between being seen as Russian or Jewish, and about the barriers thrown up by language. What we do get is the immense sense of isolation the twins feel, and the violence they undergo at the hands of their fellow high school students. This isolation and violence then pushes them to embrace each other in a way that eventually turns sexual and towards incest. Salzmann’s language is at its very best in describing violence and sexuality, enormously so. Another book I read this weekend that I considered reviewing (and still might) is Leslie Jamison’s The Gin Closet, a very mixed kind of book. In it there’s also incest, and it’s noted almost in passing: in a flat tone, using the heavy weight of the term “incest” itself to ground the situation. Salzmann never uses the word, but she describes an unusually tense connection between two people.

And of course, all that leads into the present of the book and Alissa’s search for her twin, a desperate, grasping search that lands her in Istanbul. Indeed, most of the book’s plot is set in Istanbul, which is maybe not what you’d expect from a Russian immigrant writing a novel about Russian immigrants to Germany. Istanbul, pre-Gezi park crackdown, is portrayed as a place of possibilities, of fluidity. This is the present – and it contrasts with the past’s rigidity. Salzmann is very clear that gender is not something inherent, it’s something external, a role that you can take or leave, although in most oppressing situations, you are not, indeed, free to take or leave it. But the Istanbul, as portrayed, does have this possibility, of changing pronouns, of transforming gender. There’s a Turkish man who comes out as being in this process of transformation, and Alissa herself, deprived of her brother, starts taking testosterone shots and take on masculinity. Salzmann shows us the process as a process, as a transformational moment, chosen as an encounter with pressures, with the outside, a negotiation of identity. At the same time, it is no light switch back and forth. It is a transformation of the body into something new, something different. At some point, Alissa discusses her fluid identity as a weakness, her inability to take up a perspective that is truly, unmistakably hers. Identity, she tells us, involves reading – and reconstituting-  signs and narratives. Negotiating reality, narrative and imagination.

And that is what literature does, good literature that is, isn’t it. This brings us back to the way the book uses Aglaja Veteranyi’s name and biography. Veteranyi’s complicated life and heritage are offered as representative of a certain kind of cosmopolitan fluidity, of the way all our heritages are mixed, or not all our heritages, but the heritage of those of us who are immigrants, complicated people, fluid, searching, maybe lost. My own heritage is mixed Russian, Kazakh, German, Hungarian, and Ukrainian. I’ve been writing about my own family for a few months now, and it’s sometimes difficult, and complicated. Who are you, when you’re in between languages and nations? Maybe my own fluid identity is why I find Salzman’s book so compelling. But even outside of personal bias and preference, Salzmann’s novel packs a punch. This is a book about identity and nationality that evades easy answers, or rather that offers multiple answers, complicated by the reality of our bodies and limit. It was up for a German Book Award and it’s honestly inconceivable why it didn’t win. There are minor flaws here, certainly, but this is one of the best books I read all year, and the only way for this author is up. What’s more, it should be a shoo-in for translation. Salzmann’s language is literary and skilled, but almost without any specific Germany idiosyncrasies that would make it harder to translate. Jirgl, among German contemporary novelists, would come to mind as the opposite of that.

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Klaus Cäsar Zehrer: Das Genie

Zehrer, Klaus Cäsar (2017), Das Genie, Diogenes
ISBN 9783257069983

Sometimes, when I look askance at a book I dislike, I ponder the question of what makes a bad book. I don’t mean going down the Bourdieu/Herrnstein-Smith path – I mean it in a simpler way. My gut feeling as I read Klaus Cäser Zehrer’s 600 page debut novel was: this is an awful book. And yet, it’s also entertaining, but not because of Zehrer’s literary skills. It’s primarily entertaining because Zehrer takes a real person with an exciting life, and tells that biographical story with very few adornments. For those, like me, who had not known of this person’s life, reading the book was quite a rush and led to me looking up other biographies and studies. Zehrer’s main accomplishment is that he takes the life of William James Sidis and stays out of the way as it unspools on the pages of his novel. If you want to read literature – you won’t find it here. If you are a fiction reader who enjoys seeing a mind thinking as you follow the trail of words – you will be disappointed. If you want a streamlined biography without footnotes and told with the verve and speed of an adventure novel, this is probably for you. William James Sidis’s brief life became more and more complicated the older he got, but Zehrer is entirely untroubled by the possible complications. He picks a style and sticks to it, and nothing stops him. The style is 19th century bildungsroman, but without the baggage of symbols and interior life. It’s a tale of the rise and fall of a genius, told without any interest in women, minorities or, really, any other issues that would stop the rollicking speed of this book. Here’s the kicker: I cannot possibly recommend this book. But I might give it as a present to some people in my life who aren’t great fans of difficult literature. Das Genie is William James Sidis as re-imagined by Ayn Rand: a tale of heroism and failure that fails to do justice to its protagonist. There’s no critical distance or thinking involved in the book at any point, which is the most frustrating part. Zehrer’s style is competent and unremarkable, but at least it’s usually tight and sharp enough for his purpose. So is this a bad book? Or just mediocre? I don’t know.

Das Genie has three distinct sections. The first section is about Boris Sidis, an immigrant from the Ukraine who lands in the US to make it big. It’s written for an audience who already know that Sidis will become an important figure in 20th century psychoanalysis, and it’s the most Ayn Randian part of the book. We find that Sidis is a capital H Hero of intellectual prowess. He picks up English with ease, he starts working in a factory and after a handful of days is ready to lecture the factory owner about how to run that factory. He’s an Ivy League Hank Reardon: proud, uncompromising, and going from success to success. He goes to Boston where he teaches English to other immigrants, he impresses William James and Charles Eliot Norton into giving him a spot in Harvard, and he finds himself a wife. In a scene that could be straight from Atlas Shrugged, Zehrer explains to his future in-laws how useless emotions like love are and that it is not relevant whether he loves his future wifé, but whether she will be useful to him. And indeed, she becomes his biggest supporter, earning a PhD herself, and fighting for his vision and legacy for the rest of her life, inheriting even his struggles with empathy, as her interactions with her son show. Eventually he sires a boy, who he names after his benefactor William James and immediately tries to turn that boy into John Stuart Mill 2.0. He endows that boy with a lot of knowledge, but also with his Objectivist disdain for other people and authority. Why follow rules when those rules are stupid? The tale of the boy is the second chunk of the book, and the story of adult William James Sidis, called Billy, is the third. Even before getting into the meat of the book around the “Genius” of the title, Billy Sidis, the book becomes hard to take.

There’s no doubt – the book reads like a breeze, exactly like an adventure novel. But unlike modern takes on the 19th c entury adventure novel (I might post a review of Christian Kracht’s work here one of these days), there’s no sense of the author understanding the problems inherent in framing narratives this way. Zehrer doesn’t just present Sidis’s misogynist disregard for women, he mirrors it in his book. Sidis doesn’t have time or space for women – and Zehrer doesn’t either. That first section reads like a male fanboy. The two other sections are easily summarized: Billy gets into Harvard at 11, graduates with a Bachelor’s degree and leaves Harvard, disinterested in a formal education. Goodwill gets him teaching gigs here and there, but public attention, bullying and the oppression of gender roles and expectations lead to Billy trying to hide from the limelight, ending up as an anonymous accountant, hiding from journalists and his own family. He ends up writing three different books under pseudonyms, all three about his own strange obsession, like languages and train tickets, gets involved in communist activism, founds not one but two revolutionary societies and dies in his early forties of a stroke. I mean that last sentence alone should make your mouth water. What material! And you close the book almost heartbroken about this waste.

It’s true, the eventual failure of Sidis’s education philosophy in his son’s demise complicates the picture without Zehrer’s intervention, all by itself, but that’s not enough. And it’s true, the heroic tale of Boris Sidis very cleverly puts the failures of William Sidis in stark relief – but is it really clever? As the story of William James Sidis starts taking up speed and a sense of tragic inescapability, one always feels that Zehrer shares Boris Sidis’s lack of empathy. Zehrer’s biography of Billy Sidis is told from the outside, accepting all facts about his life as a given, and then chronicling his downfall with a cool distance. I’m not saying the book should have focused on Billy’s inner life. But Zehrer also never really pans out to include society or other people. His disinterest in people not named Sidis is carried over from the first section. Sidis’s life crosses that of Norbert Wiener, but the book isn’t interested at all in these two different versions of child prodigies. Does have Sidis’s disregard for authorities and his unease with less-than-brilliant people an equivalent in the famous mathematician’s life? There are women, activists and writers crossing Sidis’s path. A famous New Yorker essay on Sidis was written by none other than James Thurber. Zehrer mentions all of these things, with an almost blasé disinterest in expanding or even just thinking about these issues.

Late in life, William James Sidis wrote a long history of the United States from the point of view of Native Americans. The text is available online – Zehrer mentions it but barely deals with the interesting aspects of it. William T Vollmann built a whole career on working on American history from that angle – what are the intellectual aspects of Sidis’s book? How does Billy Sidis’s disregard for rules and mediocrity connect to his ideas about nations, narrative and history? How does he fit in the broader context? Was Billy Sidis truly as brilliant as his family claimed? I’ve listened to a talk about Norton’s tests for prospective Harvard students and there’s a lot of material there about what cultural expectations mean in that time. Zehrer has no doubt, never stumbles, never stops to think, consider or complicate. He is also completely disinterest in literary form. The book is written strictly chronologically, in the plainest structure imagininable. Closing the book, one wishes the life of William James Sidis had been told by a writer like E.L. Doctorow, for example. Or a writer interested in other voices. Zehrer’s book is almost offensively male and white, intellectually incurious, a journeyman work.

This is not what I expected when I saw that an older writer, who spent his life in journalism, published a debut novel this late in his life, and a thick, 600 page slab of a book to boot. I mean this brings me back to the initial question. Is this bad? I feel that much of what I would call bad (rather than mediocre) is colored negatively by my disappointment. This story could have been a better book. It should have been a better book. We rooted for you!

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Tomer Gardi: Broken German

Gardi, Tomer (2016), Broken German, Droschl
ISBN 978-3-85420-979-9

Gardi1This novel is German – its author is not. This helps, I think, explain why its author is one of the most vital German literary voices to emerge in 2016. Like Sharon Dodua Otoo, Gardi read a portion of his book at this year’s Bachmannpreis, and even more than Otoo, his reading caused the jury to debate questions of nationality and language. How German is it? What does it mean to write in German – what are the limits of nationalism when it comes to languages? Overall, Gardi’s text was one of the four or five best ones read at the competition, and so I was genuinely excited to read his novel, called Broken German – and I was not let down. Broken German is written in, indeed, broken German, and Tomer Gardi’s mastery of his invented idio/sociolect is profound and impressive. The writer that comes to mind most readily as a comparison is the Scottish master James Kelman. Like Kelman, Gardi is interested in the way language reflects on the personal, social and ethnic background of its speaker/writer. And like Kelman, Gardi eschews overly artificial literary games for the sake of literary one-upmanship. Despite all the metafictional comments scattered throughout this little novel, and the games with literary allusions, Gardi never loses sight of the inherent importance of using language in a social context. I suppose I must sound like a broken record at this point, but German literature has grown so dull in the last decade, repeating old patterns of self satisfied literary masturbation over and over that without the influx of immigrant literature, it would already have died a dull and boring death. Tomer Gardi and Sharon Otoo, neither of whom are German, are in the process of injecting this threadbare literature with a much-needed shot of urgency, awareness and stupendous literary skill. There is a joy in writing in this book, a sense of the worth of words, which almost made me applaud as I was reading its final sentences. Broken German is a deeply flawed, imperfect novel, and one of the best German novels of the past decade.

Tomer Gardi is an Israeli writer, usually writing in Hebrew. This is not, as far as I can tell, the beginning of a career of writing in German, and one supposes that part of this novel’s extraordinary power is derived from the author’s imperfect command of the language. To be clear: nobody really knows, as far as I can tell, how good Gardi’s German really is. When questioned, Gardi tends to tease his interlocutors, toying with them, giving us a performance that underlines how silly the question is, to begin with. Everything is inscribed into the book itself, which is never 100% serious about almost anything. There is a passage towards the end where Gardi gives his book to a friend who remarks that as Gardi’s German improves, the book suffers. I mentioned Kelman as a reference, but, really, I’ve never in my life read anything ressembling Broken German. Gardi’s novel is not written in a well-defined sociolect. There is no immigrant or deviant grammar underwriting it. No “Kanak Sprak,” to cite Feridun Zaimoglu’s famous book which invented a term for a turkish-German sociolect. The book is not written in Turkish (or Hebrew) German. It’s written in “broken German” – Gardi invents a language of mistakes. We are aware of two levels in his work: the spoken level, the broken language of immigrants, a mixture of deviations due to language of origin, and deviations aligning with certain sociolects common among German immigrants. What makes the novel such a success, however, is the second level: the writing. Intentional or not, the novel is wildly inconsistent when it comes to spelling German words. There is no consistent way mistakes are made, and any given word can be misspelled in a variety of ways throughout the book. What’s more, Gardi will sometimes misspell simple, short words, yet get more complicated grammatical and orthographic constructions perfectly right. The effect of this sort of randomness is an emphasis on the process of writing, highlighting the author’s social and political contexts even further.

poopGerman literature, with the advance of writers graduating from the MFA mills in Leipzig and Hildesheim, has increasingly moved away from acknowledging these contexts. Increasingly, German writers will produce literature as oblivious to contexts as some of the more laughable post-war writers did. Well-off, middle class writers creating a nationalist literature of Germans touring the world, uninterested in anything but navel-gazing. One of the most egregious examples is Fabian Hischmann’s debut novel. It was largely reviewed negatively in Germany, but it reached some shortlists and its author won multiple fellowships. It is impossible to overstate how bad Hischmann’s novel is. I’m singling it out here because, when it was published, it became a focal point for some frustration with MFA-style writing, exemplifying an écriture unconnected to experience for some critics. The book’s main flaws, however, are not unique to Hischmann or even to MFA writing. In it we find the sloppy prose that is a characteristic of a lot of contemporary writing, some of it award winning, and in it we also find the aforementioned insouciant treatment of countries other than German. Of course, this is not unique to Germany. There is plenty of French literature or American literature that treats foreign places with an unpleasantly ethnocentric condescension, but German literature has had a difficult to define quality about it that somehow made it worse. The best summary of this is a short essay by Rudolf Borchardt, an early 20th century conservative German writer, who published an anthology called “Der Deutsche in der Landschaft” and wrote an introduction wherein he claims that Germans have a particular knack for analyzing other countries, when, really, German literature, with a few notable exceptions, is full of strange phantasmagorias of the abroad. In Hischmann’s book, we are treated to an unpleasant trip to Greece, and an even stranger trip to the US, at the center of which is some odd fantasy of shooting up some drug dealers in New York with a gun purchased on the black market. The book is a mess, but the idea of Germans traveling to other countries to sort out the less rational, less intelligent, less literate citizens of those countries is incredibly consistent and common. Hischmann’s bad luck is that he’s a shit writer, but Bodo Kirchhoff, winner of this year’s German Book Prize, is a much better author and his awardwinning novel(la) is basically the same chauvinist fantasy.

This is the context in which Tomer Gardi’s book appears this year, exploding all these conventions and ideologies. There is no certainty here, and no concession to German expectations of order and hierarchy. It’s not clear what’s intentional and what isn’t, and this is written into the substance of the book itself. Tomer Gardi’s German turns on itself. He uses, like Jelinek, idioms and clichés in order to subvert the ideologies inscribed into German. He references Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz in a novel that has a lot in common with that masterpiece, which both undercuts the seriousness of his plot, and reinforces the sense of density, urgency and determination. Early on, Gardi states that language is the focal point of his novel (but by stating this, instead makes the discourse about language and novels the focal point, of course), and laments it. And indeed, 1200 words into this review I haven’t even mentioned the book’s plot, because the language’s power appears to overwhelm the plot. What a plot it is, though! It includes mistaken identities, buried knives, lies, dead bodies shoved into closets and the question of whether a Jewish visitor to the Jewish Museum automatically becomes an exhibit in said museum. It includes history, truth and memory, it includes butchers with their arms up to the ellbows in the blood of murdered Jews. It includes a disquisition on authorship that may or may not be related to works like Philip Roth’s knotty Counterlife or the more sombre Operation: Shylock. And as I write all this I worry about over-analyzing this book – it is, apart from being dense and brilliant, also just a ton of fun. I marked 2/3rds of its pages. It is endlessly quotable and readable and rereadable. So it is all that. But it is also important.

gardi 2In this age of Trump and Le Pen and the German AfD, immigration has become an object of suspicion, and language (or rather: the correct use of language) has become one of the battlegrounds of the immigration debate. The disorderly language of the book, the “broken German,” is an attempt, I think, to decline to perform otherness without also assimilating. When Gardi read his excerpt at the Bachmannpreis, the jury asked him: do you really speak German this badly? Is this language artificial or is this just how you speak? At issue was Gardi’s ability to write otherness, perform it, make it palatable, rather than just being other. Being other is no art, it is a deficiency in an age of chauvinism, racism and nationalism. Gardi declines an answer. He gums up the works. Being a Jew in today’s Germany is complicated. Gardi places his protagonist in the heart of the German memorializing complex, complicating the simple narratives. He declines to take part in the literary and political games. Broken German – that title sounds like a deficiency. Yet maybe in a time of resurgent racism in a country that committed two genocides in the 20th century, German needs some breaking. Tomer Gardi’s book is necessary. It is also very good.

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to mytwitter.)

Line Hoven: Love Looks Away

Hoven, Line (2008), Liebe schaut weg, Reprodukt
ISBN 978-3-938511-66-4

[Translated into English as Love Looks Away (2014)
Blank Slate Books
ISBN: 978-1-906653-18-7]

Hoven1The great medievalist Jacques Le Goff, in discussing memory, posits that what we call memory is really an “intersection” of various practices and discourses. Orality, testimony, historiography, and the symbolic structures of what Pierre Nora called “lieux de mémoire” are all part of the process that Le Goff envisioned as being constitutive of ‘memory.’ Photographies have, from the beginning, been part of that process. In a Baudelaire poem, the act of photography is connected to more ancient liminal moments, particularly rites of death, and photos have been part of examinations of witnesses and testimonies throughout the next century, from American agrarian classics of photography to the complex way text and photography interact in WG Sebald’s novels. In the debut graphic novel Love Looks Away by the young artist Line Hoven, there is a complicated representation of truth, personal memory and, to the extent that any public examination of history contributes, of cultural memory, or rather, following Marianne Hirsch, “postmemory”.

_20160827_010057Line Hoven’s art, consisting of stark black-and-white scratchboard or scraperboard art, exquisitely blurs the lines between representations of narrative memory, and between ‘found objects’ like photographs and ticket stubs and other things. The drawing of photographs, thus introducing them into the visual grammar of the artist’s vision, is not part of a Gerhard Richter-like interrogation of representation. On the contrary. I think the book is incredibly disinterested in questions of representation qua representation. Line Hoven’s focus is, almost obsessively, on memory and how getting a family memory ‘right’ can have an impact both on personal as well as collective identities. Hayden White has drawn attention to the way “imagistic” historical representations are “a discourse in its own right” which tells us things “that can only be told by means of visual images.” Love Looks Away is, I think, attempting to do just that, provide a doubly refracted “historiophoty” and the result may be a short book, but reading and rereading it can take a while. It’s been translated into English, but I cannot ascertain the translator’s name. I strongly recommend you acquire and read this book. It is very good. I am personally greatly looking forward to whatever Hoven produces next, given how patient and mature and intelligent -not to mention gorgeous- this first offering is. This artist is going to high places. Get in on the ground floor. Read this book.

The English cover features different script from the German one; the result is so much more anodyne. An inexplicable decision. It makes me worry about the way the book's been translated.

The English cover features different script from the German one; the result is so much more anodyne. An inexplicable decision. It makes me worry about the way the book’s been translated.

So over the past years I’ve consistently reviewed comic books of all stripes. None of those books, however, were German even though Germany has a fairly vibrant comic scene, plus I’m German, so it would stand to reason they would turn up on my shelves at some point or another. The reason for this absence is that until this year I’ve just never read any. A big loss, as it turns out. Love Looks Away is, as you can probably tell from my very laudatory first paragraph, one of my favorite German comic books, a small, but carefully crafted, powerful graphic memoir. It’s been translated into English in 2014 and published by Blank Slate Books, a publisher who also translated other major German comic book creators like Uli Oesterle or Mawil. Love Looks Away is a book about Line Hoven’s family history, and unfolds, in spare imagery and well spaced episodes, a story that’s more than just one family’s tribulations during and after WWII. It actually ends up providing a convincing picture of a whole generation, despite the unique family circumstances. The story is rooted in Hoven’s grandparents who came of age during the 1940s, and I think this connection allows us to see in the work a kind of exploration of what Marianne Hirsch famously (and importantly) called “postmemory” – a memory of a generation that did not experience historical traumata, but creatively and imaginatively invests in a kind of cultural landscape, a memory created from testimony, but more importantly from objects like photographs, documents and the like. Hirsch’s theory, like many in the area of memory studies, was written to deal with the aftermath of the Shoah specifically, but “postmemory” can really apply to any retroactively created memory of events that are hard to explain or comprehend, usually traumatic. There are things that defy easy channels of recollection, and the process of “postmemory” is one that deals with that, I think, fairly well. I think Derrida referred to the material objects that precede us as the “déja là” – the already here. Hoven’s book starts with what’s already there and her art fills the gaps with a subtle, prodding imagination that stops short of filling in all the psychological questions. This is why I said that her book is primarily about memory: it is not about the “why” of history, personal or political. What it attempts to do is give an artfully heightened account of the things that happened, creating a memory in art.

_20160827_010112The gaps are nowhere as obvious as in one of the first sets of family pictures. Throughout the book, the painted copies of photographs are arranged on pages that look like photo albums, with hand written labels, and more. In one of the early “family album” pages, the amorous history of Hoven’s paternal grandparents is represented in four labeled and dated photographs. They met in a Hitler Youth summer camp. That specific photo however is missing, and whether the real photo is genuinely missing, the marked and labeled absence of that photo, shown as a blank space in a photo album, is symbolic of the difficulties of German cultural memory dealing with the more thorny aspects of the nation’s past. Even today, so many year’s later, the events of the time are papered over, guilt is deferred or projected elsewhere. Hoven does not condemn her grandfather, yet neither does she wash him clean of his past. Drawing a blank half page is an indictment of the shame in a suppressed memory. We owe to Martha Langford’s excellentr studies our understanding of how family albums work – as an ersatz oral tradition. Moreover, Hoven’s art in the narrative sections dealing with the past are careful, but sharp. In them, we see a dreaming boy walk proudly and smilingly in his Hitler Youth uniform, and we see a wedding picture where the now young man smiles in a uniform that should not give him reason to be joyful. In a later scene we see that uniformed portrait hanging in a family living room. Hoven’s work consists of scenes with little connecting tissue except for the drawn pages from a family album. It depends on her reader’s sense of history, on our sense of contexts and motivations. According to Martha Langford, reading family albums is an interpretative performance. We all, strangers or actual family, create narratives around the arranged photographs, as Langford found. If we understand this to be part of the underlying oral structure of photographs, then Hoven’s sparse illustrations, low as they are on explanation, have a very similar effect. We get more story than we would from photos, but the isolated effect is very similar.

DSC_2504This style of memory and writing is further emphasized by the book’s use of language. Hoven’s father, Reinhard is German, but her mother Charlotte is American, and the family history offers us both sets of grandparents – who do not, obviously speak German (in fact, Charlotte’s father has an almost pathological hatred of Germans, which is partly rooted in his inability to enlist in WWII due to health issues). Charlotte herself frequently speaks English in the book. Hoven does not translate or annotate any of the English dialog. The book is, in this sense, completely bilingual. Anything that was German when it happened, is rendered in German by Hoven, and everything that was English is rendered as English. This only further emphasizes the near-documentary narrative ethos of Hoven’s work of “postmemory.” The documentary effect does not, however, really extend to backgrounds. I mentioned Nora at the outset, but the book isn’t incredibly concerned with places of memory. I am not entirely sure how strong even the sense of place is? Much of the book is set in Bonn, the former capital of (West) Germany, and since I also live in Bonn, I recognize the vast majority of facades and buildings we see, but I am not sure that for someone who does not intimately know this cooky little West German city, the sense of place is particularly strong here. Hoven does not connect her visualization of memory, or postmemory, to commonly shared buildings. Evading obvious landmarks that are understood across a shared culture is done so thoroughly that it seems almost intentional. One of the “family album” pages shows a foto of family members standing in front of the Cologne Cathedral, which is one of Germany’s most famous buildings, yet the angle only includes part of the front door, as you would in a family picture. There is no wide pan to include the whole building and unless you have been there a few times and will recognize it even from this small snippet, the building will, at best, say “some big cathedral.” The exteriors of Bonn, similarly, are obvious to me (and extremely carefully and precisely rendered), but evade some of the most obvious landmarks.

_20160827_010125I mean, all of this seems hyperfocused. I have not really discussed the smaller stories here because there is so little narrative that I think you should let yourself be surprised by it. I assure you, you’ll like this book, if you like this kind of stuff at all. And I haven’t even mentioned the art at all. Like all the content aspects, the art also contributes to the book’s theme. The art consists of black and white scraperboard etchings (see wiki for details). The effect is really interesting. It creates an interesting dynamic that strongly interacts with the static structure of the book, the photographs and all that, and it also allows us to read the book in a certain German artistic continuum. There is a lot of historically and politically heightened art with similar effects – I mean, it strongly echoes some stark 20th century woodcuts, and in many pictures here I think has a conversation with German expressionist woodcuts (think Ernst Barlach). Another well known/excellent contemporary German cartoonist who employs this scratchboard technique (and hews closer to the German expressionist tradition) is Thomas Ott. Look, I know this review discusses memory studies a lot, and it seems as if I am less interested in the art, but everything I described hinges on Hoven’s art. Fundamentally, the biggest and most entrancing aspect of the book IS the art. Hoven has been working on that art in the years since the publication too, picking up awards, exhibitions and I will read whatever book comes next. It is also the art that sets her apart from many of her German peers. Much of German art is influenced by American underground comix, with some extremely notable and excellent exceptions (the unbelievable Peer Meter comes to mind, who also, incidentally, works on memory and history). Line Hoven is in the process of carving out a space of her own.

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Sharon Dodua Otoo: Synchronicity

Otoo, Sharon Dodua (2015), Synchronicity, Edition Assemblage
With Illustrations by Sita Ngoumou
ISBN 978-3-942885-95-9

Otoo, Sharon Dodua (2012), The Things I am Thinking While Smiling Politely, Edition Assemblage
ISBN 978-3-942885-22-5

otooIs this German literature? Sharon Otoo is not a German writer. She is, according to her page and the book cover, “a Black British mother, activist, author and editor;” and both books under review are written in English. There is a German version of both, published more or less simultaneously by the same publisher, who is headquartered in Münster, in North-Rhine Westphalia in West Germany, but they have both been translated by a person other than the author (Mirjam Nuenning). Otoo lives and works in Germany and is involved in German debates on racism and refugees. She moved to Germany in 2006 and immediately became involved in activism involving blackness in Germany. I recommend reading this interview. This year, she won the Bachmannpreis for a brilliant story, written in German, which was clearly, to pretty much any competent observer, the best text in the competition, despite some excellent work by the other competitors. The two novellas under review are a cultural hybrid, written in English by a writer with English education and sensibilities, but set in Germany and informed by the sharp observations and brilliant details of a critically observant person living in this country. German literature written by Germans of German descent is pretty dull these days, with a few notable exceptions. Too much of it has been nurtured in the two big MFA mills, too much of it is blind, privileged pap with nothing at stake. Otoo’s books are brilliantly aware of traditions and contexts, of how assumptions and narratives intersect. Synchronicity is a near-allegorical tale of migration, community and adulthood and extends the promise of Otoo’s debut. The Things I am Thinking While Smiling Politely, a book about heartbreak, racism and migration. Both books are written with a sharp stylistic economy that never lapses into flatness, a skill that is as rare as it is commendable. If German literature is to have an interesting future, then it is not young writers writing clever postmodern 1000 page books with nothing at stake or MFA mill products with their self-congratulatory emptiness. It is writers with a migratory background who inject fresh energy and purpose into a literature that has grown rather tired. Otoo does not identify as a German writer but it is German literature that most stands to profit from her growing body of work.

otoo doppelSynchronicity is a multi-layered, but straight-forward story of community and family. Everything else, all the magical realism, all the bells and whistles, are woven around this core. Blackness and migration is a tale of fighting to belong. In the much more knotty and fragmented Things I am Thinking…, the protagonist explains that, being “the only black girl in a London suburb” she “quickly leaned that trouble could be avoided if [she] acted white.” This thinking is continued and expanded upon in Synchronicity – while the first novella used the personal as a mirror and medium to reflect (and reflect upon) political aspects, combining heartbreak with thoughts of alienation, this second novella is more deliberate and careful in discussing migration by offering us a set of metaphors on the one hand, and tableau of characters who all relate to the protagonist along an axis of power and nationality. The more streamlined nature of the second book derives to a great part from the genesis of the book as a Christmas tale written in 24 daily installments and sent to friends and family. The idea of turning it into a book came later, which explains why the two novellas are so different in construction. Things I am Thinking… is written in fragments, with a narrator who keeps going back and forth in time, to reveal some things and hint at others. The chapters all start mid-sentence and each chapter is preceded by a “shrapnel,” an emotionally charged quote. The book only makes sense as a complete construction, there’s no way to write that kind of book by coming up with daily installments. And yet the linear nature of Synchronicity is also not a sign of Otoo’s development, because her Bachmannpreis-winning story is exceptionally well constructed, with cultural, historical and theoretical allusions coming together to create a story that is deceptively simple, a story that needed to be mapped out in advance. I suspect when we look at Otoo’s work in a few years, after she has written the novel that she’s writing now (and won the Chamisso-award that she’s practically a shoo-in for at this point) and edited some more books, that Synchronicity will stand out as a unique part of her oeuvre. An unusual work by a writer of uncommon talent.

glossaryIt is important to note what an incredible progress the author has made since her first novella, despite that book’s high quality. Things I am Thinking… is a dense realist book that is fairly low on allusion and high on clarity of observation. The prose is lean but effective throughout, sometimes leaning a bit towards the journalistic. The real achievement of the book, however, is not the writing or the observations, per se, it is the author’s skill of connecting various elements of her narrator’s life in meaningful but subtle ways. I am sure the author is aware of various aspects of political philosophy, from Foucault to Critical Race Studies, but she wears that knowledge lightly. This is the philosophical version of “show not tell.” The book’s story is about a Black woman who lives in Germany. She has broken up with her husband Till, who is also the father of her child. She has friends of various ethnicities and origins, among them refugees. She has increasingly become disillusioned with the reality of Germany, which is expressed particularly well in the narrator’s attitude towards her husband’s name

So it was a matter of great inspiration to me, meeting Till on my year abroad in Germany. Someone with a surname so unambiguously of the country he was born, raised and lived in that I thought: how sexy is that? And I knew I had to make it my own. This however didn’t stop other officially suited white ladies in cold offices from saying “Wie bitte?” and asking me to repeat myself – like they were disappointed because they had been expecting me to be called something resembling Umdibondingo or whatever. Several months after we were married, I discovered that “Peters” was also the surname of a German colonial aggressor and although I didn’t begin to hate it then, I stopped adorning myself with it.

Otoo pulls off a rare trick – her book is dense and cerebral, but it has a story to tell, as well as a narrative and political urgency. Everything in the book has a purpose and is connected to everything else, but it never feels like Otoo is simply having a postmodern game on. This is not the place to unravel all the book’s plotlines and trajectories, but suffice to say that she manages to see how the different ways power shapes and controls us intersect and collaborate. And her protagonist, who has learned to accommodate various demands of power, is now crashing against the walls of the well-built house of German racism and economics because her personal life implodes. The word “shrapnel” is well chosen for the quotes preceding the chapters because the impression I got reading the book was that heartbreak, a fundamental personal emotion, functions like a bomb that explodes in the middle of a lifetime of accomodation and struggle. The book itself, while not framed explicitly as a text written by the protagonist, feels like an attempt to assemble the shards of a life, where one betrayal has damaged personal, professional and social relationships.

otoo innen1The aspect of migration is not central to Things I am Thinking…. We learn that the protagonist is British, but migration is experienced more through the eyes of the refugees we encounter in the book like Kareem, of whom the author remarks that he “has this matter of fact, nothing-to-lose air about his person. Years of being an illegal immigrant in an unwelcoming country will do that to you, I guess.” Much of the alienation that we learn about is the kind that happens when you look foreign and live in a racist country:

Berlin is a place where anything goes, and you can wear whatever you like, but if you are a Black woman in the underground, be prepared to be looked up and down very very slowly. I cannot tell you how many times I have glanced down at myself in horror during such moments to check if my jeans were unzipped or if my dress was caught up in my underwear. White people look at me sometimes like I am their own private Völkerschau. Staring back doesn’t help. It counts as part of the entertainment. Entertainment.

We get hints sometimes as to how a hybrid identity can develop with migration, such as when the protagonist recounts the criticism her “auntie” leveled at her: “she was truly shocked when she first realized that I had not raised Beth to hand wash her own underwear every night.” The reason for “auntie”’s outrage is the question of identity: “just because she has a whitey father, doesn’t mean she’s not Ghanaian!” The protagonist is not so sanguine about these matters, more interested in negotiating a Black identity in Germany, dealing with the shifting fortunes of being married to someone named Peters, and with the difficulties of establishing trust and loyalties in this country when you’re viewed as foreign.

otoo innen 2Synchronicity, on the other hand, is primarily dedicated to these questions of heritage and migration. There are basically two stories, layered one above the other, in the book. One, the surface-level story, is the one of Charlie Mensah, known as “Cee,” who is a graphic designer who, one day, starts to “lose” her colors. This is meant quite literally. For a couple of days, she stops being able to see certain colors, with one color absconding per day. Blue, red, green, etc., until just gray remains. The beautiful illustrations by Sita Ngoumou provide a lovely background to this contrast. This is challenging to Cee, who is a freelance designer, with a big and well-paid project coming up, and who has suddenly lost the use of one of her most important faculties. Eventually, however, the colors return, one by one, albeit in a different form. This, so far, is the story as a realist narrative would describe it. There are smaller plotlines woven into it, such as Cee falling in love, and her conflicts with her client, but basically, this is it. The other story is the one concerning heritage and identity. This loss of colors is not some disability, not some virus or sickness, it is a process of maturation that happens to all the women in her family. The “different form” that colors are regained in is what the author calls “polysense,” a special form of synesthesia. And this is not all that is different about the women in Cee’s family. They are also all women who don’t reproduce sexually. They are parthogenic, which, as Cee explains, “means we have children alone – that our bodies are designed to become pregnant completely by themselves.” This is not some science fictional theory, although it echoes such science fictional worlds as the planet Whileaway in Joanna Russ’ feminist classic The Female Man. Otoo, beyond the term, never goes into details, because this strange genetic heritage serves primarily as a metaphor for migration and alienation. The people in Cee’s family live alone. They raise their daughters to be independent and then, once they are adult, they push them out of the house and then let them fend for themselves. The maturation process to polysense, and the insistence on independence makes it hard for these women to establish personal bonds; thus, Otoo found a metaphor to reify something that has been part of immigrant experience for a long time.

4EdA_Day-by-Day_CoverA better way, I suppose to frame it, is Axel Honneth’s innovative take on the subject of reification, where the process of recognizing the other is fundamental to the way our subjectivity is constructed and yet that recognition, which, as Butler writes, “is something achieved” that “emerge[s] first only after we wake from a more primary forgetfulness,” can be abandoned. The forgetting of recognition is, in Honneth’s reading, what. In classic terminology, we called reification. What does migration to to emotional recognition? How do we react when we migrate into places that see us as a constituting alterity, that use us to create their national and personal narratives. In Otoo’s slender and careful book, the answer, given for many generations of immigrants, is to retreat to a specific kind of subjectivity that rejects recognition. The parthogenetic reproduction is a perfect metaphor for that. But the tone of the book isn’t dark. Otoo, who works as an activist, imbues her novella with confidence in the future. Her migrants break free of this mold. Cee’s daughter refuses to accept the ways of her family and Cee herself sees changes in her and the world around her. She falls in love with a policeman who isn’t white, representing a fusion of her horizons with that of the country she migrated to. The most powerful description of the policeman is not the first time she sees him, it is a moment of recognition, which, for Honneth, is something that is part of maturation:

That policeman. I recognized him straight away this time because he had a particular kind of walk. Like he was happy to be walking at all. In fact, if I had to choose one word to describe his body language it would be: gratitude. That really fascinated me. I stared at him for quite some time as I walked towards him – he was in deep conversation with his white colleague. I could tell the colleague was white because his walk was altogether more sturdy and authoritarian. He placed his feet firmly onto the ground, each step conferring a heritage of legitimacy and ownership unto him.

The book is a Christmas story, which explains its optimism and lightness, but it also offers a literary third way between assimilation and rejection. Critical optimism, if you will. It is a unique quality that appears to be emerging in Otoo’s work. Things I am Thinking… is a much darker work, but the story that Otoo read at the Bachmannpreis walks the same line as Synchronicity does. I don’t think I’ve ever read quite the same kind of story in this country and I don’t think I have ever read a writer quite like Otoo.

tddl16-532x200At the Bachmannpreis (I had a short post on it last year here) the jury discussions of Otoo’s text and the one of Tomer Gardi, another exciting text read at the competition, as well as the contrast to the bland terrible awfulness of the texts read by Jan Snela, Julia Wolf, Isabelle Lehn or Astrid Sozio (who, slotted directly behind Otoo, read a spectacularly racist text) maybe shows where literature written and published in this country needs to turn. The comfortable and unnecessary tales of migrancy from a MFA-educated German mind do not add to the conversation and they do not produce good literature. That is a dead end, and nothing demonstrated that dead end as well as the comparison of the field with Sharon Otoo’s excellent text, and Otoo’s work in general.

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Brecht on Döblin

As a kind of followup post to this brief text (textlet?) I posted earlier, I wanted to share my translation of one of my favorite literary oddities. In 1941, at his 65th birthday party, Döblin told his guests of his recent conversion to Catholicism. Many famous writers, exiled like Döblin, attended the event. Bertold Brecht wrote a poem about what happened, called “Peinlicher Vorfall” – “Embarrassing Incident.” For those interested in it, here is the poem in my (awful) translation. I tried to make it scan a bit like the original but I’m not sure it worked. The long lines are there in the original, as well.

Bertold Brecht: Embarrassing Incident

When one of my most cherished deities celebrated his 10.000th birthday,
I came to honor him with all my friends and brightest students
And they danced and sung before him and recited verses.
The mood was emotional. The celebrations neared their end.
It was then that the celebrated deity stepped onto the artists’ stage
And declared with a booming voice
Right in front of my friends and students who were drenched in sweat
That he’d just had an epiphany and had henceforth
Become religious und he put on with unseemly haste
A moth-eaten priestling hat,
And then he kneeled lewdly and intoned,
Shamelessly, an impudent Church hymn, thus grievously insulting
The irreligious feelings of his audience, among whom were impressionable youths.

For the past three days
I have not dared to meet my friends and students
face to face, so great
was my shame.

DADÖBLIN

[Somebody asked me to write a quick ~2000 characters on Döblin and Dada and then they didn’t need it any more, so fwiw, here it is]

whatisdada

DADA visionary Tristan Tzara famously called upon writers to do a negative, a destructive work, and within early 20th century avantgarde writing, a surprising amount of left-leaning writers followed his calling. The situation is particularly interesting with regards to Alfred Döblin, whose career both preceded and followed what anglosaxons view as the typical modernist prose. Döblin contributed to various expressionist journals and developed a poetics of expression and erasure, of memory on the one hand and suspicions towards what Lyotard later called ‘grand narratives’. The main reason we understand Döblin’s work in a DADA context today is Walter Benjamin’s famous defense of Berlin Alexanderplatz, a novel which some critics viewed as a copy of preceding novels by Dos Passos and James Joyce. Benjamin reads Döblin’s early expressionism as influenced by and influential for DADA writing. The negative programme put forth by Tzara is one such example.

Whether it’s the dense collages of Berlin Alexanderplatz, created by literally cutting and pasting pieces of writing to create this untranslatable masterpiece, or the more fluent expressionalist epic Berge, Meere und Giganten, Döblin managed to bridge the gap between Marinetti’s nihilism, and the grand projects of fascist writers like Pound who “tried to write Paradise.” Döblin’s work that preceded WWII is interested in, and frequently electrified by questions of self and authorship. Döblin’s deep sense of tradition was a fractured, a doubtful sense of how modern narratives conspire to create individuals who are then stamped with the imprimatur of one of many grand narratives. It is Döblin’s compassionately negative work on tradition that shines most brightly among the writing of his contemporaries because he, a trained doctor and conscientious writer, managed a luminous exactness of political and personal expression.