Berit Glanz: Pixeltänzer

Glanz, Berit (2019), Pixeltänzer, Schöffling
ISBN 978-3-89561-192-6

I have reviewed a brilliant recent German novel for World Literature Today. It’s an inventive novel that pushes the envelope creatively but it holds back on the political implications of her story. It is by far one of last year’s best novels by a German author. It should be translated as soon as possible. You can read the whole (too short) review here.

#tddl, Day Two: A Privilege Sandwich

If you follow this blog you are likely not fluent enough in German to have followed the Bachmannpreis livestream (see my post about the  2019 event) so here is a brief summary of how day two (of three) went. The writers who read today* were, in this order: Yannic Han Biao Federer, Ronya Othmann, Birgit Birnbacher, Daniel Heitzler, Tom Kummer. You can read all the texts here, if you are so inclined. For day one click here. For a German summary of the whole thing, which I also wrote, for Faustkultur, click here.

There was a strong sense on Tuesday of what the gatekeepers of culture want to be written and published and what they would rather wasn’t. Yesterday had two excellent texts, Sarah Wipauer’s story, which is clearly top of the class this year, and Julia Jost’s. There was one mediocre story by Andrea Gerster, as well as one badly executed, but interesting story by a very talented writer and then, there was a mess of historical revisionism, with a dose of literary cliché. There was no clear sense, as there often is during Bachmannpreis-competitions of texts that fit a mold and texts that don’t. Day two had it in spades.

The first text was written by Yannic Han Biao Federer, a writer with a perfect biography, who has won several literary awards, and has very quickly become part of the cultural gatekeepers himself with his work at the Literaturhaus Köln. Biographically, he appears to be straght from central casting: academical background. work in journalism, work in cultural institutions, awarded some key prizes, and debut novel with one of the leading literary publishers in Germany. No wonder his story, taking almost no risks, offers such a flat take on personal narrative. There are small metafictional twists, slow, detailed observations, and just enough relevance to save the story from utter blandness. It’s not that Federer’s text is bad – it is not. It reads like a chapter from his novel (review likely forthcoming here) – a consistency which points to strong literary control and skill. The blandness is not accidental: Federer’s story is carefully, and skillfully designed to be bland. One is tempted to read the story and the environment its read in in terms of Bourdieu’s theory of practice, in that the (sub-)field of Bachmannpreis is a very specific field. The judges, as well as the audience consists of people of varied background. Academics, successful writers, journalists, people who have or are working as gatekeepers in various cultural institutions. It’s a big field, but also narrow in that they all share a similar sense of references. They have all read this kind of text before. This is like New Yorker poetry, where, dependent on who is editor of the poetry section, the kind of poetry that gets published almost becomes its own genre which you then can see turn up in all kinds of other journals and places. Reading and rereading Federer’s story, it becomes clear that its very specific kind of dullness – it’s a kind of writing that develops when you write a lot of submissions for places, and have to be aware of word count. There is no description that is wrappped in one, two fitting phrases, it’s all extended to the point of maximum ennui. Despite the author’s Asian heritage, which is also mentioned in the story, there’s also a sense of whiteness about the whole thing – or rather: privilege. This was highlighted by two things: the enormous praise by the judges, and by the next story to be read.

Ronya Othmann was on the mound next and immediately hit us right between the eyes with a fastball. A story that couldn’t be more different. Not drowning in descriptions, she used the names of places and people to carry a lot of the descriptive weight, it is a story about how a young yazidic woman who lives in Germany comes to terms with the genocide committed against her people by the IS. Othmann, trained in an MFA, uses this training to make sharp observations about what temporal and geographic distance means. What language means. How do you speak about something that has never been widely or fairly represented in the media of the languages you use to speak or write. The violence against the Yazidis has often been framed in terms of a broader war against the IS – the complicity of the Turkish government, clearly stated by Othmann, never really plays a role in these narratives. What’s more, there is an obsession with particularized, sexualized violence in the media – what does this mean for a young woman, whose family is only alive due to a quirk of personal history. Without being able to migrate (or having a car), her family would have suffered the same fate as all teh murdered and raped people of her ethnicity who stayed behind. Witnessing survival has a long and harrowing literary history, and has perhaps been best described by Primo Levi. There are many survivors of the Shoah who did not really survive – they stayed alive, until they couldn’t any more. People have been writing about this for decades and it is remarkable and laudable that Othmann found new and fresh literary ways to examine this same issue. She discusses quite specifically the question of how to comprehend the fact that she and her family are alive. Are they alive or have they merely survived? Othmann struggles with the binary language between life and death. It is not an accident that one of the best and clearest books on suicide, which attacks the morally freighted binary of life and death has been written by a survivor of the Shoah, Jean Améry. Whereas Federer’s text turned on a metafictional chuckle of bourgeois life in Cologne, Othmann’s text turned on the question of identity. Othmann uses several layers of writing: there is the typing up of recorded conversations, journal entries, and of real actual travels. The story ends with the narrator seemingly shedding the ambiguity of language, coming up right against questions of reality and speech. A remarkable story – not without flaws, but executed with enormous skill. The first sign that Othmann might be in trouble was the Twitter commentary. The twitterati, among them people with some cultural influence, reacted – oddly. There was a worry (yes, worry) that one would be guilted into…what? praise? attention? I feel that if you read a story about genocide and your primary comment is – “Oh no, I’m being morally blackmailed” – I feel I cannot help you. What is this “blackmail” you speak of? Blackmailed into caring? That’s such a remarkably white statement – and it was sort of echoed by the judges. Hildegard Keller felt she couldn’t properly criticise the text’s deficient grammar with a Yazidi survivor sitting right there. I mean, how dare she just turn up and tell a story that is unpleasant. What happened to the long meandering descriptions of mint-colored walls? I mean, the nerve! Other judges decided to re-open the very well trod paths of debates on witnessing and fiction, on truth and literature. There are literally hundreds of thousands of books on the topic. Frankfurt, for example, has a whole frigging professorship dedicated to the topic. What’s the need to re-legislate the topic? I mean literally yesterday, for inexplicable reasons, a judge decided to use Imre Kertesz’s searing work as a comparison for Silvia Tschui’s German nonsense – Imre Kertesz addresses the topic in his work! To be honest, I am not sure it’s plausible NONE of them were aware of this. The longer this discussion went on, the more it seemed like they needed an excuse not to engage with the text. The unwillingness to have a literary discussion about a text, which is written with such excellent literary skill (if anything, one of its flaws is that you can see the MFA training a bit too clearly in it) struck an unpleasant note this fine Friday morning.

The final text this morning combined two things: being palatable to the judges and exquisitely written. A absurdist-but-relatable story about a woman who’s relatively poor, struggles with a life that is less than she and others hoped for. She takes smaller jobs to not preclude the possibility of writing A Novel, but what sounds like depression, family struggles and other issues prevent her from giving her life a shape that she would be satisfied with. It’s a ramshackle, unfinished, unformed life, like many people still lead it today. Suddenly, a cabinet appears mysteriously. Birgit Birnbacher, already one novel under her belt, writes this story with enormous skill – it is much funnier than I made it seem, it is cleverly structured, addressing racial, gender and other concerns, even metaphysical ones, without ever having to strain. It’s not quite as flawless as Wipauer’s tale, but that’s in part because where Wipauer sticks the landing perfectly, Birnbacher stumbles in the last sentence. If this was a poem, every reader would tell her to just strike it and be done with the whole thing. That seems like a minor flaw in a major, excellent story, and it is. Birnbacher joins Wipauer and Othmann among the favorites to win it all. The judges, meanwhile, agreed. Praise was unanimous and detailed. There was no sense of “we have a thirty-something woman in front of us, how can we discuss a story about a thirtysomething woman,” meanwhile. One wonders why.

Birnbacher’s story concluded the morning readings and the good portion of the event. The two afternoon readings – hoo boy. The first, a story by Daniel Heitzler, is hard to talk about. I mean you’ve all heard of Poe’s Law, right (definition here) – this was a perfect literary equivalent. On the surface, this is just a very bad story. A very bad story, structured badly, drowning in adjectives and adverbs, mindlessly run through a thesaurus, like that high school essay we’ve all seen (“Students: Stop. Halt. Discontinue. Terminate. Cut it out with all the thesaurused smart-person words in your essays.”). I remember, on a literary forum that I’m not entirely sure still exists, someone once explained to me that Julian Barnes’ novel The Sense of an Ending wasn’t a cliché-riddled mess, but specifically invoked the clichés involved in talking about death. There was nothing in the text that suggested that, except that forum member’s goodwill. I mean, the books Barnes has published since have disproved that theory, but as an approach, it stuck with me. It’s a literary Poe’s Law: an awful literary text is indistinguishable from a very good parody of an awful literary text, if there’s no wink in the parody. Sometimes the sheer skill involved provides the wink: Robert Coover is probably the best example: his parody and homage to Louis L’Amour-style WEesterns, Ghost Town, or his homage to Noir novels in, uh, Noir, are written with enormous skill. On the “wink” side of things is maybe John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, which is hilarious. Not his best book, but Barth incorporates winks into the style he parodies. There is nothing, nothing of the sort in Daniel Heitzler’s story. The best we get is a comment in the intoductory video that he’s a fan of American postmodern literature, especially Beat and David Foster Wallace. Sure, nothing bad has happened with young devotees to DFW’s work. Sure. You know I was once at a meeting of the DFW society at a conference where they had a roundtable dedicated to salvaging the bad reputation of DFW’s work, created by his acolytes and the unsavory facts that had come out about DFW’s own misogyny. So faced with a young man, essentially subscribed to a problematic literary tradition, the judges decided that the text could not possibly be this bad – it had to have been done on purpose. i have thought long and hard on the fact that all the judges except one insisted on reading the text this way and I think this goes back to the assumption, shaken by Otoo’s nonchalant interview after her win: “we are smart and important people. A writer wouldn’t dare come here with a text this bad. Ergo, it has to be good.” That this judgment appears to be solely a creation of the subfield of Bachmannpreis thinking becomes clear once you look at the unanimous rejection of the text on Twitter.- there wasn’t a torn opinion. Nobody read the text and thought: oh this is intentional. Personally, I have limited patience for intentionally bad writing anyway. If you make me read ten pages of bad prose that you artfully and cleverly shaped to be this friggin bad, I still have to read ten pages of bad prose. There’s a masturbatory quality to this kind of writing, and let me tell you, I have never seen it practiced by female writers. I feel that says something right there.

I don’t know what to say about the final story that I didn’t already suggest even before he read. Read my original TDDL post for notes on who Tom Kummer is. Kummer is a kind of inverted mirror of Federer, the first guy to read today. Kummer is also a production of gatekeepers’ goodwill, but not by following all the rules and pleasing all the right people. He did it by projecting an image of being “the last Gonzo writer” (snort), a literal quote. The bad boy of literature. He turned up, and read a story in a kind of faux-Clint Eastwood drawl that sounded sleazy and unpleasant. His story, about a limousine driver was unpleasant and bad. For someone, who became infamous faking exciting interviews with celebrities, his dialogue was dragging and boring. The story was entirely without ambiguity or tension. Everything was stated plainly and then, for the people in the back, re-stated. The story is unpleasant start to finish, from some lazy racism to literary and explicit misogyny, as well as the weirdest description of a father caressing the naked body of his child i have ever seen. The protagonist’s dead wife re-appears as an octopus-like monster, the only other woman, an accomplished researcher, is, wait for it, an antifeminist who produces a drug to further male sexual enjoyment, because, no kidding, we have too long been interested only in female lust and pleasure – which, I mean, she has never seen any porn or TV or movies, I assume? Or commercials? I mean, what? And for some reason, this turns the protagonist on to the point of considering sexually assaulting his passenger, a thought that he discards after a long struggle. There are no, zero, zilch redeeming qualities in this story, but its invitation shines a light on what’s acceptable and what’s not. Writing a story about genocide gets the judges to equivocate and stay distant. Writing indirectly about rape, on the other hand, raises no red flags. Tom Kummer and Yannic Federer, each in their own way, offer a take on what privilege means in German-language literary culture.

So it’s a day where two of the competitions two best texts so far get sandwiched by an odd duo. At the end of the day, the four best texts are, in this order. Sarah Wipauer, Ronya Othmann, Birgit Birnbacher and Julia Jost.

Below is my list of all my posts about this year’s award:

#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol, 2019 edition.
#tddl, Day One: Holes In Space
#tddl, Day Two: A Privilege Sandwich
#tddl, Day Three: Mollusks and Nazis


*this post is about a week late, let’s pretend it IS “today”

#tddl, Day One: Holes In Space

If you follow this blog you are likely not fluent enough in German to have followed the Bachmannpreis livestream (see my post about the  2019 event) so here is a brief summary of how day one (of three) went. The writers who read today were, in this order: Katharina Schultens, Sarah Wipauer, Silvia Tschui, Julia Jost, and Andrea Gerster. You can read all the texts here, if you are so inclined.

Ah, what a day, what a day! Five women, two science fiction stories, murder, Nazis, and divorce proceedings. I’m telling you, things were on fire! Well, maybe not so much on fire as occasionally slightly warm. Tepid maybe? Look, honest to God, a clear favorite emerged today, reading a story without any recognizable flaws, and a runner up turned up as well, also very well executed, mostly, and the rest, well, tbf, there are five slots to fill every day, not everyone can be a winner.

The first reader was Katharina Schultens. Schultens is an exquisite poet, and what’s more, a poet of the kind that should be easily transferable to prose – long, looping sentences, complex rhythms, all of that. What’s more, there is a strong vision behind the text she read. Not everything became clear – it is an excerpt from a novel, but it appears that the text is a Ballardesque vision of a future (it is set two hundred years after 1984) after some ecological collapse. Regrettably, one would have, given the very real ecological threats today, hoped for a more relevant kind of catastrophe, say, speaking of Ballard, something like The Drought; instead her vision veers towards the post-human, with Vandermeeresque landscapes threatening deformed or changed descendants of humanity. She’s not just somewhat apolitical regarding our very real ecological crisis, which is a bit problematic – but in addition, completely (apparently) randomly, she uses the heat of Africa as a metaphor, which seems a bit tone deaf given that any ecological disaster would hit countries in Africa harder than, say, Germany, so if you are steering clear of politics, maybe not lean into the Africa-as-metaphor too much, yes? I mean, it’s white blindness, I suppose. And then there is the confusion and dullness of some of the fiction. Speculative fiction that takes such a big leap needs a proper story telling backbone – which this text, very specifically, does not have. There are great, meaty descriptions of situations and things, and there are rail-thin, meandering sections of what you’d have to call plot? It is very odd, how strong talent and strong vision somehow leads to a mediocre text.

The second reader was Sarah Wipauer. Wipauer’s text, almost irritatingly, has no flaws that I can see. Last year, a hole was discovered in the ISS – seemingly drilled from the inside though it wasn’t clear who drilled it and why – it necessitated an unscheduled spacewalk to plug it from the outside. As far as I can tell, it is still entirely unclear what happened. As a writer, Wipauer is intrigued by space stories, and by the quirks and oddities of small news stories, and she took this event and turned it into a ghost story set in Austria. There’s everything in it that  you could possibly fit – provincial history, medical oddities, and Wipauer appears to be able to manipulate syntax at will to fit the story and the individual voices in it haunting these events. Towards the end the story tightens even further, including social pressures regarding class and gender. There is not one word too much, and the story wraps up beautifully. No matter what the rest of the days bring – this has to be one of the five best texts.

It is with text three that things started going off the rails. The author, Silvia Tschui, appeared to present at first a bucolic story (an excerpt from a novel), written with tight craftsmanship – oh how I was mistaken. It became clear real fast that #1, she pursued a kitsch kind of writing, offering a cliché depiction of a childhood on a farm, with mild doses of violence, lessons, and the kind of dialogues that someone who grew up in the city assumes are spoken in the countryside. So far so dull, but then the story took a bad turn. I mean, excuse me, for not immediately assuming the worst – but it’s true: bucolic clichés have a special function in literature, especially German literature. Farmers are often used to show a nation’s real backbone, and attacks on farmers are the way the political right tends to frame foreigner invasions. In Germany, the so-called conservative revolution was particularly enamored with that figure – the work of Hermann Löns – in particular the 1910 Wehrwolf – was used as inspiration (Löns died in 1914), and many books in the 20s, and particular 30s, repeated and enlarged these motifs. In the early-to-late oughts, German literature added another trope, that of Germans-as-victims. The Germans in today’s Poland and the Czech Republic and Hungary fled the approaching Soviet army and often lost everything. Tschui’s text connects the bucolic motif with those revisionist stories of victimization. They are all the rage in German TV shows and movies. In Tschui’s text there are German farm boys scared of an Enemy who is sudden, cruel, mean, and is connected, in the broader narrative of the novel, to a East European mythical figure, that the Germanic boys have been told to be afraid. The (post)colonial aspects of German/Prussian occupation of Poland have not been discussed as broadly as they should have, but this text reads exceptionally exploitative, with an almost archetypical and racialized sense of an Other. As a result, the text was both literarily bland and politically dubious. Did this come across in jury discussions? Except for Hubert Winkels’s fairly clear words, the other judges steered fairly clear of the text’s issues. Honestly, what would you expect?

The afternoon readings were less eventful overall – the first story, a story from the Austrian countryside by Julia Jost, was very well done – mostly. A story about an Austian childhood, with pedophile priests, knives, Nazi heritage and more. The story is written with enormous energy and humor, clearly, CLEARLY the second-best story of the day, magnificent in many ways – though the ending is a bit of a dud – the writer had to tie up all her plot points so it becomes plodding real fast.

And finally, the final story – a banal tale of child custody and motherhood – the story itself isn’t necessarily banal – we are quick to label women’s stories as banal because they don’t conform to masculine hero narratives. And indeed, there are issues in the story here and there that piqued my interest – but the story is told with no literary energy, no skill beyond the routine of a prolific novelist. She needs to get from one end of the story to the other – and by Jove, she will get there. Choice of words seemed almost random in its banality.

On Friday the readers will be

10.00 Yannic Han Biao Federer
11.00 Ronya Othmann
12.00 Birgit Birnbacher
13.30 Daniel Heitzler
14.30 Tom Kummer


Below is my list of all my posts about this year’s award:

#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol, 2019 edition.
#tddl, Day One: Holes In Space
#tddl, Day Two: A Privilege Sandwich
#tddl, Day Three: Mollusks and Nazis


#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol, 2019 edition.

If 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 book cave. Read on for Details on the event in general, what happened in the past years and what’s happening this year. CLICK here if you want to read a summary of Day One.

So what is happening?

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, 4-5 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 usually more or less young writers (but they don’t have to be).

So what happened in the past years?

The 2016 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. And you know what, the German judges were still slightly upset about it the following year, which explains why 2017’s best writer by a country mile, John Wray, didn’t win. It’s the revenge of the Bratwurst. The 2017 winner, Ferdinand Schmalz, was…solid. A good example of the performance based nature of the event – having one effective text can win you the pot. It was overall not, you know, ideal.

Given the issues with race in 2016 and 2017, it was interesting that the 2018 lineup skewed even whiter and much more German. It was thus no surprise that the best text, a brilliant reckoning with Germany’s post-reunification history of violence, Özlem Dündar’s text in four voices, did not win. But the overall winner, Tanja Maljartschuk, a Ukrainian novelist, produced a very good text, and was a very deserving winner. And Raphaela Edelbauer (whose brilliant book Entdecker I reviewed here) also won an award. Three out of five ain’t bad folks, particular with people like Michael Wiederstein in the jury.

So what’s happening this year?

Michael Wiederstein is a bit of a caricature, it seems to me. I noted his invitee Verena Dürr and the dubious discussion of her text back in 2017 (go read it here), and this year he really, REALLY brought his F game. In the most dubious field of writers since I started writing about the award, he made the…ah, just the most exquisitely bad choice of all. His invitee, Tom Kummer is famous. Now and then there’s a famous writer – John Wray is an example. Tom Kummer isn’t famous for being a good writer. Tom Kummer is famous for being a plagiarist. Caught not once, but multiple times. For falsifying interviews first. For cobbling together texts from his own and others’ older texts. For falsifying quotes and using incorrect details. He was given chance after chance after chance.

German and Swiss tastemakers have decreed: this man deserves more chances. He is precious. He is our gonzo hero. The usually very good Philip Theisohn called Kummer’s elegy to his deceased wife – like all of his work of questionable originality – “moving.” What it is, most of all, is fucking awfully written. There’s a bad tendency in German literature to look at some American writers – Thompson, Salter, Hemingway – and see their simplicity as simple. All of this is facilitated by translation, of course. I love Hunter Thompson’s work. Thompson was a fantastic writer. Not always, not in all of his texts, but his stylistic sharpness and moral clarity are rare in literature. Philip Theisohn cites Kummer’s admiration of Thompson in writing that “Kummer, the last real gonzo, was led by the conviction that a world of lies doesn’t deserve truth either, only more lies, which led to his infamous fake interviews in Hollywood.” – #1 there are still New Journalist writers out there, and the masculinist veneration of “Gonzo” has always been suspect to begin with. and #2, if you ever read Thompson with dedication and care – he primarily cares about the truth. Post 1974-Thompson is a bit complicated in his approach to the self in his work, but the use of fictionalized self, and using your own perspective as a distortion to better see the truth has a profoundly moral impetus with Thompson, whatever other faults he had (he had a lot) – there’s none of that in Kummer, and even Theisohn knows better than to claim otherwise. Kummer, his deceptions, his toying with truth and originality never had a goal beyond the celebration of one Tom Kummer. This navelgazing white masculinity is all too common in literature, and at least half of the TDDL field often suffers from that; and Michael Wiederstein, the juror, is the perfect embodiment of this white male navelgazing element in German literary culture. Da wächst zusammen was zusammen gehört.

The rest of the field is also a bit dubious. Among the writers I have read in preparation, Ines Birkhan is very original but very bad, Andrea Gerster and Yannic Han Biao Federer seem flat and dull. Lukas Meschik is prolific, somewhat interesting, but boring. And then there are the three writers I have the highest hopes for. Ronya Othmann and Katharina Schultens are very good poets – Othmann in particular writes exceedingly well and should be immediately seen as a favorite, based on potential. And there’s Sarah Wipauer, who has not published very widely, but she has a blog here which contains short, exquisite prose, and I have read texts unpublished on- or offline, which are similarly exquisite. Wipauer, Othmann and Schultens, in my opinion, lead the field here, by quite a solid margin.

I have misgivings about the field! 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, which I posted below, sorted by reading days/slots. You’ll see the whole thing kicks off with two of my favorites on day one, in the two first slots.

10.00 Katharina Schultens
11.00 Sarah Wipauer
12.00 Silvia Tschui
13.30 Julia Jost
14.30 Andrea Gerster

10.00 Yannic Han Biao Federer
11.00 Ronya Othmann
12.00 Birgit Birnbacher
13.30 Daniel Heitzler
14.30 Tom Kummer

10.00 Ines Birkhan
11.00 Leander Fischer
12.30 Lukas Meschik
13.30 Martin Beyer


Below is my list of all my posts about this year’s award:

#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol, 2019 edition.
#tddl, Day One: Holes In Space
#tddl, Day Two: A Privilege Sandwich
#tddl, Day Three: Mollusks and Nazis


Mawil: Kinderland

Mawil (2014), Kinderland, Reprodukt
ISBN 978-3943-143904

The Western discourse on Socialist literature has always been ideological in the sense that we as readers expected something from the literature coming out of the Soviet bloc, and imbued that with literary value. This has at times led to the promotion of mediocre but very critical writers. Wolf Biermann is one of them, and the charade that the continued literary life of Monika Maron is should be filed in the same category. Sometimes, the way these expectations are dealt with is entertaining: I can highly recommend reading Heiner Müller interviews from his middle period of work – he is constantly, as a writer known to be at odds with the leaders of the GDR cultural establishment, prodded to please say something critical, and instead he goes on and on about the problems with capitalism, savagely critical of leftwing “symbolic” criticism and endorsing violent change. Another example is Rummelplatz, a novel that was not allowed to be published in the GDR, and the rejection of which had sent its writer, Werner Bräunig, into an early grave. The rejected manuscript is literally a museum piece now: in the German History Museum in Bonn, it is presented among other articles of “proof” of socialist repression. As I point out in my review on the blog, Rummelplatz is an odd candidate for such a hallowed spot in the museum of Why Socialism Is Evil: Bräunig’s novel explicitly and at length points to the many acts of exploitation that happened in West Germany and how East Germany had risen from a couple of potato fields to an industrial nation, against the threat of Western sabotage. It’s critical of some mechanisms of the GDR without endorsing the alternative. Like many writers of his time, like Müller or Wolf, Bräunig favored a change in the system, rather than a change of system. These books, half in and half out of discourses on socialism, are in my opinion the most interesting of the bunch. But it is a careful balancing act that isn’t so easy to pull off. Mawil’s thick brick of a graphic novel, Kinderland (named, I think, after this 1986 song), doesn’t quite manage this. That said, it’s certainly a more worthwhile addition to the body of literature about the GDR than many widely praised fictional statements on Why Socialism Is Evil.

Kinderland slips in and out of discourses. It is a story of life in the last years of a country heading towards dissolution. There are different books in it: a paint-by-numbers book about socialism as fighting dissent and being in favor of conformity, a book about growing up in the GDR, a book about isolation and growing up abandoned, a book, strangely, about alcoholism, and finally, an exciting tale of a boy who discovers his table tennis talents and mounts a school-wide table tennis tournament. Not all of these books fit extremely well together, and when I read it for the first time, I felt let down and disappointed. But upon rereading the book a few times, I have found it to be quite interesting. The combination of disparate elements works in its favor – life at the tail end of the GDR was confusing and complicated, as I, who started elementary school in the GDR and ended it in a united Germany, can personally attest. The book’s greatest strength is its careful attention to details. The slang, words, objects, the rhythm of life under the socialist regime are written with the vividness of memory, and I think it is the exactness of the book that leads to some of its complications and problems. I cannot vouch for most of it – but there’s a curious echo in my reader’s memory here. As a boy I read many of the books in my father’s library. And since my father lost his reading appetite when he became an adult, those books were largely young adult books, some of them exciting tales about being a teenager in the GDR. In my head, when I read Kinderland, the details I knew about through family stories, the details I personally observed, and the details I remembered from YA books written for GDR youth come together to create a feeling of verisimilitude. And one wonders how much of the plot and structure of Mawil’s book can be tied to his own reading, and his own indirect knowledge.

Mawil’s art is the real deal – he manages to slow down and speed up his story at will, provide a genuinely exciting table tennis game even for people who have never played or followed a single complete game of table tennis. As an artist he is not necessarily what I would call an original artist – most of his techniques can be attributed to examples from Belgian comics to Chris Ware and in particular Seth, though it’s the latter association that makes me think the art’s roots are a bit deeper, like Seth’s own are. But if you have read Seth, and Ware, and maybe Rube Goldberg, you’re not surprised by anything the book does – but it is entertaining. Mawil has full control of moods, speed, and humor in a way that I always greatly enjoy in comic books. He also uses the art to tease the reader with possibilities. The story, ultimately, is a low key story, which ends in a low key way, with two boys trying to seal a friendship. But it is presented to us immediately under two different auspices: the cover, with a sea of pioneer-blouse wearing kids and one dissenter in their midst, suggests that the story is about political dissent. The first page on the other hand presents a number of toys and childhood objects that anyone who grew up in the GDR can readily identify – there’s no other function of these panels than to signal to the reader a sense of nostalgia – or ostalgia, as it is often called. Neither impression is true for the direction the novel will take. All the working class misery, all the many, many characters who are clearly alcoholics (alcoholism was specifically a scourge of the GDR), that precludes a safe nostalgic reading. Similarly, a character in the book, a conformist girl called “Angela Werkel” is clearly an allusion to Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor. It’s not true – in the sense that Mawil, as a boy, did not meet Merkel who was much older at the time of the events described. But the inclusion of someone who did well under socialism, and did very well after socialism, who is shown to be intensely conformist, but also kind-hearted, is a suggestion that what really counted was not the content of one’s party allegiance but the content of one’s heart, bland as that may sound.

The main character, called Mirco Watzke (Mawil’s real name is Markus Witzel), is also one of the least interesting ones. His childish excitement, anger, frustration and happiness is well rendered, but is drowned in all the typical generic discourses on childhood which Mawil makes no attempt to break or criticize. The really fascinating character is a boy named Thorsten. He is the boy on the cover who does not wear the uniform (Mirko Watzke is the boy to his right). He’s not ideologically opposed to the GDR, he’s just a misfit. His father has left the family to pursue worldly riches in West Germany, which has turned his mother into an alcoholic. He basically lives alone, and his abrasive character means he has difficulties making friends. It is hard not to see the disillusioned, broken teenagers in Clemens Meyer’s novels about the period after reunification (very well translated by Katy Derbyshire) in Thorsten’s future. In fact, one could argue that the whole book takes on Thorsten’s shape. The contradictions in his character and the contradictions in this wild ride of a novel seem to fit. The biggest weakness of the book is Mawil’s apparent decision not to jettision his autobiographically inspired protagonist. The genre of coming of age book, where the protagonist plays straight man, and mostly narrator and observer to a wild friend or acquaintance, would have been a better fit for the material in this book. But then one has to wonder about the politics of writing this book. In a world where a novel of not-quite-dissident writing gets a spot in a museum, where the memory of the not-so-distant past is intensely politicised, Mawil’s stops and starts.


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Jakob Nolte: Schreckliche Gewalten

Nolte, Jakob (2017), Schreckliche Gewalten, Matthes & Seitz
ISBN 978-3-95757-400-8

So I complain about translation a lot here, and if you’re following this blog, I’m sure you’re a little bit tired of it, but among the whining about infidelity, and cheating the reader etc. there is another effect that is a bit underrated. Jakob Nolte’s subpar but interesting sophomore novel Schreckliche Gewalten is a good example of that. Here’s the thing: I love Thomas Pynchon’s work to a frankly upsetting degree, but his work suffers from the same problem that other Americans also have in German translation. It’s depth of style. Somehow, in the 1960s, German translators decided that in order to give German audiences a real feeling of “Americanness” in style, there had to be a certain ease of style too, a certain “Americanness,” if you will. Which leads to some writers like Saul Bellow or Philip Roth to read much less stylistically complex than they do in English. I’m not here to debate the literary value of Bellow or Roth, but, missteps aside, it’s inarguable that they were, on a sentence by sentence level, quite excellent prose writers. They don’t read like that in German, on a sentence by sentence level. And postmodern writers like Barth and Pynchon fared even worse. Pynchon can be quite a knotty writer of prose, and for a long time, translations did not reflect the complexities of his style. But generation on generation of writers grew up on his books in translation. Gravity’s Rainbow, for example, was translated by none other than Elfriede Jelinek – Pynchon’s books had the imprimatur of literary royalty, whatever the details of style. But if you are a young man whose literary proclivities lead him down the path of postmodernity, there’s a chance you won’t just have structural debts to the writers that inspired you – you’ll also have stylistic debts. And while Jakob Nolte is clearly a well read author who very clearly has a solid command of English, the most striking thought I had while reading his novel was – how it read like a poor man’s Pynchon in terms of structure, but nothing in any way like Pynchon in terms of style – and honestly, I think I blame translation for this.

But to get to the actual book at hand. Schreckliche Gewalten did very well when it came out, it was longlisted for the German Book Award, and, given the slightness of the text he read, it was likely on the strengths of the novel that Nolte was invited to the Bachmannpreis this year. And I will be honest – I did not go into the book wanting to like it. The first pages were such a drag, after the explosive early events that I dreaded reading the whole thing. But I did – and it wasn’t such an awful torture. It never improves regarding the quality of its prose, but Nolte does a few very interesting things with – not structure per se, but the way he sequences narrative passages. He moves in and out of pastiche, half the text is metafiction, the other half mixes other kinds of narrative. There’s a fascinating energy in this novel, and this may sound strange but while I don’t know that I would recommend the actual novel to anyone, I strongly recommend a translator have a look at the text and consider translating it. There is something captivating about Nolte’s book, its turns and twist keep you engaged as a reader – and while I advocate fidelity in translation, a less ethical translator could shift the quality of Nolte’s prose a bit upwards and the result would be an absolutely solid book. Honestly, Schreckliche Gewalten is quite a ride, a messy book, but I do enjoy messy books, this just isn’t, au fond, very good. In many ways, this is “precociously brilliant young man” territory, flirting with the so called polymath novelists like the late David Foster Wallace or the great Joshua Cohen. But both Cohen’s and DFW’s prose is excellent – and Nolte’s isn’t, which keeps bringing me back, like a bad-taste boomerang, to the first paragraph. What’s more, the prose is so low-key that despite the plethora of voices and quotes and paraphrases populating the novel, there’s a sense of a single specific voice behind the text – and it’s like that dude at the party who needs to explain to you why Star Trek: TNG was the best Star Trek and why Star Trek Discovery isn’t a real Star Trek show, and then he explains to you why The Wire was the pinnacle of prestige TV and why Elon Musk is right about [fill in any social issue]. That dude, you know, who begins most of his sentences with “well, actually” and appears to know a lot, but it’s mostly surface level sub-wikipedia chatter, with blind spots that you can attribute to specific bias fairly easily.

I mean, I don’t know. Maybe I should first say what the book is about: a mother turns into a werewolf, eats the father. She tells her children that once a generation, a gene carrying this disorder activates. So that would mean one of the children is doomed – except they are twins. They then deal differently with the issue – the sister stays at home while the brother travels abroad. In the end – sorry for spoiling you, both turn. My primary association was with Tournier’s masterful Les Météores (incidentally, how did the academy hand out TWO Nobel Prizes to French novelists while Tournier was alive and did not give one to him?) – but Nolte has less interest in the human condition. For Nolte, everything has a metafictional tie to narratology or typology. But he doesn’t stop there in his structuring – his twins, a boy and a girl – are separated on a gendered basis. There’s a good and a bad reason for that. The good reason is a discoursive one. It allows him to discuss feminism, by having the girl become part of a radical feminist group, and be engaged in mild acts of domestic terrorism, before getting caught up in other parts of 1970s radicalism and upping the ante. The boy meanwhile travels to Afghanistan, following typical male narratives of adventuring. While both children are sexually active, this, too follows typical patterns. There is a metadiscursive, critical element here – the gendered structure reflects and spotlights the gendered narratives that so many of the texts the book is built of are filled with. At the same time, Nolte keeps on doing this page after page, chapter after chapter to the point where you’re wondering how critical this is. He invents a female killer who is out to kill the mother, but instead begins an affair with the female twin. He writes sex scenes that are badly written porn manuscripts, and then “flips” them to show us clichés embedded in them, but these “flips” which he does a few times are so ineffective, and so transparently “clever” in a self satisfied way that they begin to grate.

Everything about the novel begins to grate at some point. There is a clever use of ethnicity, and a similar narratological use of problematic discourses on race and imperialism, but after a hundred pages of the same patterns repeating again and again, one tires of this too, and becomes maybe a tad suspicious of this blonde white young man who revels in his amusing games with fictionality and race. Particularly since he’s such a bad writer. There’s another thing. Pynchon’s best books are not just written in a dense, erudite prose, they are also endlessly inventive. Of the 350 pages here, Nolte manages to keep about 150 at a greater pace. Those 150 pages, in the middle, are where the book is most entertaining – he switches perspectives suddenly, moves in and out of characters and narratives, explains historical or invented literary facts, with just the tiniest hint of Vilas-Matas to make it just enjoyable enough – but he takes a bit to get going and runs out of steam towards the end. Everything, truly everything about this book screams “debut novel by precocious 19 year old Wunderkind novelist” – but while he’s young (*1988), he’s not that young, and this is not his debut.

And if he’s not a 19 year old Wunderkind novelist with his debut novel – what is this? My gut feeling early in the book that never really left me blames German translations of and reception of writers like Pynchon, DFW or Barthelme. This is what happens if an influential book or writer is only partially presented to their readers – as a maker of plots, say. I am sure that some of the influence of Dostoevsky, whose uneven, rough style is not always translated accurately as uneven and rough (again, German translations may be among the worst) can be charted similarly. I have also wondered whether the way Japanese and Latin American writers of late postmodernist periods have been translated into English has shaped certain stylistic pecularities of very literary young contemporary writers. But that’s only tangentially related to Schreckliche Gewalten. The book is too enjoyable in the middle to be really bad. But nobody in their right mind would call it good. At best, in its best moments, it is an interesting mess. At its worst, it is boring and boorish. Those two sides of it are not well balanced – which, in a novel about twins is, possibly, its own metafictional commentary. It doesn’t improve the book, however.


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Stephan Lohse: Ein Fauler Gott

Lohse, Stephan (2017), Ein Fauler Gott, Suhrkamp
ISBN 978-3-518-42587-9

In my loose series of reviews of books by participants in this year’s Bachmannpreis, I continue to not necessarily pick the cream of the crop for review, by accident. Stephan Lohse is an accomplished actor – surely something that will help him in this competition that requires of its authors to perform the text. He’s also a novelist and the 2017 novel Ein Fauler Gott (~a lazy God) is his debut novel. He’s not the first German-language actor to turn to novels. Particularly notable among the recent actors-turned-novelists are Josef Bierbichler with his good novel Mittelreich, and Joachim Meyerhoff, with his ongoing, slightly dull, series of autobiographical novels. It is Meyerhoff that Lohse most resembles. There is very little heightened literary attention given to structure and characters in Lohse’s book, which relies mostly on theme, and the power of nostalgia and recollection. And sadness, I suppose. There are two protagonists in Lohse’s novel, one is a 11 year old boy, whose interior life is treated with detailed empathy and care – and his mother, who, as she unravels psychologically, is ushered through a series of scenes all of which might as well be subtitled “this is supposed to be sad.” Maybe it’s because I also read some books by fellow Bachmannpreis competitor Corinna T. Sievers, but the flat and frankly flippant way Lohse uses the mother’s psychological struggles didn’t sit right with me. It doesn’t help that the boy’s story, after a somewhat interesting beginning, slips into the most typical kind of adolescent boy’s coming of age tale imaginable. I know they are common in all the languages, but my God there’s maybe something especially dull about the German version, however widely they’ve been praised. If you have read any of these books, say Thomas Lehr’s Nabokov’s Katze, or literally any other book in this vein, you will not be surprised by Lohse’s book at any point. What’s more, his lack of empathy towards the mother is also mirrored in the odd way he treats the occasional racism of his characters. Saying “this happened in the 1970s, that’s just what people thought” is no excuse, my good dude. It strikes me as additionally dubious that the only other text I found online is a very very brief text about African child soldiers on the Suhrkamp blog, which, in its absolute inability to transcend its sources and add something to the material, seems appropriative more than anything else. In a way, after last year’s readings, Lohse seems to be a fitting candidate for the Bachmannpreis stage.

The novel is set in 1970s Germany, and spans one year in the life of Ben and his mother Ruth. The book opens as Jonas, Ben’s brother and Ruth’s son, suddenly dies of a mysterious illness. Stephan Lohse makes excellent use of this situation at the beginning. In fact, the first 50 or so pages of this book made me very excited. Too bad the rest of it is largely about penises and the disorderly mind of a slightly off-kilter boy of medium intelligence and observational skills. Jonas is an absence in the lives of boy and mother – and in the beginning, Ben imagines his brother around him, something his mother expresses jealousy of. This set-up is so rich with literary potential. Using the narrative of adolescent confusion, but lacing it with a non-supernatural imagined absent presence? It works extremely well for a handful of pages, until Lohse just drops it, and moves on to much more conventional tools and tales. I don’t understand this choice – the only way it makes sense to me is the author’s unwillingness to jettison the autobiographical connection. In fact, I don’t know to what extent the book is indeed autobiographical, but the choices seem to indicate such an inspiration. Why did the boy at some point replace his absently present brother with friends? Because…that’s what happened! It’s an awful excuse in a novel, but seems the best excuse for the choices here. The majority of the novel is a pretty straightforward year in the life of a slighty odd boy. He has odd neighbors, a grandmother with dementia, kisses a girl for the first time, and explores his own penis and the penises of several other boys, though apparently non-sexually. On a trip his accommodation burns down, and it ends on a mother-son roadtrip into the sunset, as if to say: look, look, this IS the kind of book you thought it was. The lack of a will to shape and push his material is never as clear as when, towards the end of the book, for no good reason, we find ourselves in a ten page summary of one (in numbers: 1) inconsequential game of football (or soccer, as you prefer) played among school boys. It leads to a revelation for the protagonist: he wants to become a goal keeper, but why should the reader care? These kinds of scenes are so common in young adult novels, or novels by adult men about their childhood that we’d recognize the scene and its emotional and literary significance in a two page summary, but God beware that Lohse restrict his – at this point – slightly unfocused ramblings.

Indeed, it’s not just the book that is chronological, it feels like the writing of it was too. The last things we read in the book strike me as the last things written for the book. All the ideas and structures that seemed to be interesting at the beginning fall by the wayside as the mother flattens into a caricature and the boy’s life paradoxically rounds into type. Some of this appears to be due to – to be fair – the writer’s inexperience or lack of skill. This is, after all, a debut novel, although Lohse isn’t a spring chicken any more. Here’s another aspect: the switch of perspective, the first two or three times it happens, is revelatory. The book’s first pages are written in the style of a child, and as a reader, I was immediately worried about the gimmickiness of this mechanism, but the first time we read the mother’s perspective, it beautifully balances out the boy’s language, and adds additional elements, like the jealousy of his imagination I mentioned earlier. This, too, passes. During this year of mourning, improbably (and unevenly), the boy’s language, almost like a literary mirror of his voice, changes, becomes more adult, and at the same time, some clusters of words that appear to be tied to the boy’s language, reappear in the mother’s perspective as well. For an actor, whose life is focused on words and voice, Lohse shows a curious disinterest in either of those elements. I think for debut novelists, the flow of words is something that is typical – indeed, beautifully contained debuts like Clemens Setz’s excellent Söhne und Planeten are more rare than you’d want them to be (but then, also, look at his second book). The untamed river of words also swallows up some interesting and some troubling aspects that you’d wish the novel made some more conscious use of. One is the mother’s past, who came to Hamburg as a refugee after the war. Some of Lohse’s comments about the GDR appear to be factually challenged, and some just biased. Similarly, the book contains off-hand references to Africans, to “Czech greediness” and to “drunk Russians in the woods.” It makes occasional fun of people for their disabilities (a woman’s harelip makes the boy think of a hippopotamus, for example) – none of which, I’m sure, is meant maliciously. The author just doesn’t particularly care.

The same is true for the question of queerness. I have always wondered about the penis-centric nature of male adolescent literature, which are full of cock, but even for the genre, this book quite overflows with teenage boy’s genitalia. There’s a constant tension of queerness throughout the book, which, after everything, is the most interesting part of it. A chaste, “accidental” kiss is reciprocated later. The boy, somewhat inadvertently, jerks off his best friend. Another boy, a bully, ends his beating of him by rubbing his crotch on him until he comes in his pants. Twice the author goes out of his way to mention that the male protagonist feels an unease with terms for female anatomy, and in the early parts of the book he also tries on make-up. The way the book deals with the protagonist’s queerness is maddening, because gay or not (the book doesn’t commit on this), it does inscribe a queerness into his adolescence, but it doesn’t quite manage to structure it into the narrative. It just keeps coming up. Again and again. The reason the boy starts playing football is so people won’t consider him “a gaylord” – but after the absolutely overdetailed account of the game, the author doesn’t return to it. It’s like seeing someone start a line of code without ever closing it, and you keep going down the code and – nothing. The way he ties some of his childhood to reading Karl May doesn’t help because the reader can’t help but think of the way Josef Winkler’s masterful autobiographical studies examined what being a reader of Karl May has meant to his adolescence – and how the sometimes difficult nature of it ties into his later obsession with Jean Genet, whose work on queerness and death could have provided the same clarity for Ein Fauler Gott that it provided for Winkler’s prodigious oeuvre. But it didn’t, and so what we are left with is a book both filled with good ideas and bad executions, a muddled book that is curiously self-satisfied. I don’t know.


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 my twitter.)

#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol, 2018 edition.

If 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.

The 2016 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. And you know what, the German judges were still slightly upset about it last year, which explains why last year’s best writer by a country mile, John Wray, didn’t win. It’s the revenge of the Bratwurst.

This year’s lineup, with the exception of an interesting writer here and there, seems similar in quality, but whiter and more German than any recent line up. Although they did, similar to 2016 and 2017, invite a writer who hasn’t published anything originally written in German yet, which is always an intriguing proposition. It’s Ukrainian novelist Tanja Maljartschuk. Her fiction has already been translated into English and published by Cadmus Press – you should have a look.

Outside of this – there’s a bestselling novelist this time, some dubious looking male writers, Martina Clavadetscher, whose most recent novel I absolutely loved, and Jakob Nolte, who uses science fictional elements in his very interesting work. I have a weird gut feeling about who the judges might gravitate towards this year, given last year’s dubious choice, but since I’m awful at predictions, I’m not going to go all out here.

The real change this year is a shift among jurors. Nora-Eugenie Gomringer, whose most recent collection of poetry I reviewed here, joins the jury, as does Insa Wilke. Regrettably, they do not replace any of the lamentable jurors that made last year so frustrating (see particularly my account of Day Two of the competition). They do bring “the heat” – as they say. I read some of Corinna T. Sievers’s novels, an author invited by Gomringer, and they are excellent.

There are many bad signs. I had to put away a book by Joshua Groß after three pages due to its 1950s style sexism. It’s an overall very male, very white and very German list (the best German-language writers are not – in fact- German). 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 (I have written some comments or reviews for some of these writers, you can find those linked directly)

Bov Bjerg, D
Martina Clavadetscher, CH
Özlem Özgül Dündar, TUR
Raphaela Edelbauer, A
Stephan Groetzner, D
Joshua Groß, D
Ally Klein, D
Stephan Lohse, D
Lennardt Loß, D
Tanja Maljartschuk, UA
Anselm Neft, D
Jakob Nolte, D
Corinna T. Sievers, D
Anna Stern, CH

A Note on Özlem Özgül Dündar

Dündar, Özlem Özgül (2018), Gedanken Zerren, Elif Verlag
ISBN 978-3-946989-07-3

After a review of Anna Stern, who will read at this year’s Bachmannpreis, I want to turn to another very intriguing writer, similarly young, also slated to perform in Klagenfurt at the same competition. Özlem Özgül Dündar writes poetry, prose and drama. She’s roughly from where I currently live, and she studied philosophy in Wuppertal. Then she went on to study literature at one of our two dedicated MFA universities: Leipzig. She’s a translator, which is an excellent training for any writer. But of her own work, she has not as far as I can tell published anything in book form beyond this thin little collection of poetry, which came out earlier this year.

But what a poetry it is. Despite many many dissimilarities, the writers she immediately made me think of, in terms of poetry, are Wolfgang Hilbig and Said, but mostly the former. Dündar’s interest is not in an interlocutor, not in a playful encounter with music and tradition. In her poems all lines appear to be the same length, but that’s a trick – indeed, it’s an artifact of printing: they are all fully justified so that words line up evenly on left and right margins. The poems themselves are narrow, and the author sometimes breaks them up as if she was counting syllables or letters or some other Moore-esque approach to form, but I’ve gone through multiple poems now and I cannot get a consistent syllable length within the poems. What it is is a conversation with that kind of writing.

What’s more, her poetry almost monomaniacally obsesses over the distance between the self an others, about the way we move through space and how we limit our own spaces and how others limit our spaces. Words, in some poems become just as much of a spatial gesture as physical gestures do. And in her poetry, the way she treats line breaks, it mirrors that same interest or obsession. For a first collection, it’s an astonishingly smart and careful effort. The connection, to me as a reader, to Hilbig’s poetry is the interest in the self and its delimitations, the self and its necessities, and the many ways those necessities are broken up. In contrast to Hilbig, however, the language itself throughout Gedanken Zerren is fairly simple – the complexities of Dündar’s poetry, to my mind, come from repetition and her management of breath and speed. Hilbig made heavier use of pathos inherent to word choice, I think

Özlem Özgül Dündar has done well in open mic competitions, and she has also won serious literary awards – which suggests her work works well on the written and the spoken level. Since I have read this book in anticipation of her participation in a prose competition, there are limited ways in which this very impressive book can help me do that. She has written essays that share her poetry’s breathlessness, and there’s a chance her performance will similarly arrange simplicity against a complexity of structure and rhythm. Whatever happens, I am already intrigued.


Two novels by Anna Stern

Stern, Anna (2014), Schneestill, Salis
ISBN 978-3-906195-17-9

Stern, Anna (2016), Der Gutachter, Salis
ISBN 9783906195438

This coming Thursday, the Bachmannpreis will begin again and I will, again, follow along, glued to the TV screen. Excitement, excitement, excitement. I will write a separate post listing this year’s changes and authors, but this time I have read some of these writers in advance. One of them is Martina Clavadetscher, whose most recent novel I have reviewed quite enthusiastically here.

Another is Anna Stern. Anna Stern is a German writer who lives and studies in Switzerland. She has published, as far as I can tell, two novels and, most recently, a collection of short stories. To assess her performance in Klagenfurt reading those stories would have been most fitting, I did not, however, have enough time and money to purchase the complete oeuvre of Ms. Stern. Instead, I read her two novels. While I didn’t particularly like either of them, there’s an obvious, sharp progress between novel one, the 2014 Schneestill, a puzzlebox novel drawing on noir, on Auster, and probably also on Simenon, and novel two, the 2016 Der Gutachter, a more grounded, urgent book about a murder and people living off the Bodensee. There is more authorial control, depth, and narrative sharpness in the second book compared to the first. That said, both books live, in my opinion, in the boring wasteland between the fetid depths of “awful” and the airy heights of “great.” Both books are…ok. Difficult to distinguish from many other middle of the road crime novels published in Germany, and hardly among the more interesting.

Schneestill is set in Paris, and you can tell the author is very excited to share that with us, because there are occasional French words, dropped into the text for local color. People meet in cafés and while there’s a long noir tradition in German fiction connected to Chandler, Goodis and Hammett – this novel’s atmosphere seems specifically French. There’s the shadow of Simenon over everything in this book, with a postmodern admixture of Modiano – and his American progeny, Paul Auster. Simenon’s dense but short book live off a sense of absolut clarity, even if things are obscured, there’s always a sense that if you find out the right facts, or can shift your position to a more advantageous one, you can see how it all connects. There’s a moral imperative to that kind of structure in Simenon, or at least that’s how I remember his work. Modiano, whose masterpiece is a surreal alterative history of the Third Reich in France, destabilizes this clarity. In the trilogy immediately following his debut, he destabilizes the certainty of seeing clearly, of being able to remember clearly, of there being an obvious truth, and not just the muddle of history. And while his later work would work this search for a truth to a finer, clearer point, giving his whole oeuvre a certain urgency and direction, it is this trilogy that influenced a young American writer named Paul Auster, who stripped Modiano of the sense and weight and responsibility of history, and turned it into a career of writing clever, navel-gazing novels, often built like a puzzle, with mostly lamentable prose. While Anna Stern explicitly names Ian Rankin as one of the pillars of her work (in Der Gutachter). I cannot help but see Simenon, Modiano and Auster in Schneestill.

There are two different melodies woven through the book, something that Stern retains in Der Gutachter. One is a story about obsession, about gazes, about seeing, watching, interacting with people. A young man sees a mysterious woman in a café, immediately falls for her. As he comes home, he finds that she has just been released from prison where she had been sent for a murder a few years earlier. This does not dampen his ardor in the least – on the contrary, much as it would any of the five hundred indistinguishable protagonists of Auster’s novels, it increases his obsession. He tries to find her again, creates a web of gazes to trap her. In the end, and under curious, complicated circumstances, he meets her – and she tells him her story, like a charming Parisian Scheherazade. This melody is refracted in different ways, among them the obsession of another character which complements – and complicates – the original protagonist’s obsession. This search for the truth through an examination of the streets of Paris and the faces of its women, this is where the novel retains the closest ties to Simenon, as well as in the moral question that dominates this part of the book: what is a murderer – and can we trust, engage with, understand, and ultimately, forgive a murderer – even before we ever met them? Can I balance the evidence of my eyes and my heart – with the rational, bleak truths offered by the world around us? Stern’s protagonist, in his quest to find that woman, becomes a creep, and this is by far the most interesting part of the book, because Stern acknowledges this, though not for long. There’s a short period, just a handful of pages towards the end of the book, where you can almost read it as a criticism of not just the male-centric narratives of Simenon, Modiano and Auster, but also of the many many writers that followed in their wake. But regrettably, that’s not what Stern is interested in.

She’s more interested in memory and guilt, which is the second melody woven throughout the book, and this is sort of where we lose Simenon, and enter into Modiano territory, but it’s Modiano as seen through the lens of Paul Auster. I have to repeat: she mentions Auster nowhere in the book, but it’s hard not to see him as being an influence here, maybe indirectly, since Auster’s influence is felt in a lot of fiction, regrettably. The question of what happened, who is at fault in the murder case, and how does what happened change those involved becomes the most dominant one as the book rushes to a finish. Unlike Simenon, or some of the crime novels specifically cited by the author, the book isn’t really interested in the circumstances of what happened, it isn’t really interested in the awfulness of guilt and the way it deforms those that live with it. All of the book, including the knotted conclusion, seems to be more of a literary game with the various ways to express all these themes. It’s a riff on a couple of different writers, with the only thing that distinguishes this book from its predecessors being the flat writing, that sometimes morphs into a very poetic register, but without giving us a feeling of authorial control or interest. A smart, well-read writer, but a bland, not very well written novel, was my initial impression upon finishing it.

By contrast, the tone of Der Gutachter is much more consistent, and the novel is faster to summarize. It is not a complicated puzzlebox of conflicting melodies, it does not draw on a smorgasbord of writers. Instead it is something more simple: a crime novel with an environmentalist’s conscience. It begins as a story about a Gutachter, an evaluator, who suddenly goes missing, presumably murdered. The book’s protagonist is a police officer who takes roughly a week to find out what happened, and structurally, it shares the same weak ending that a lot of crime novels have – having a long explanation at the end that collects all the ideas and leads that we picked up along the way in a sufficiently dramatic way has always been a crutch for crime novels, and their main weakness. But as the detective finds out who killed the evaluator, he also takes the time to find out about what his last evaluation was about – giving expert testimony on the ideal phosphorus levels in the local lake. That seems simple, but as the police detective collects evidence, he also collects information about the complexity of the topic. Anna Stern has studied Environmental Science in Zürich, which explains why the detective’s enlightenment takes the form of didactic info dumps which we as readers cannot escape either. That said, the topic of what grounds one’s life, how livelihood can become more than just a job, but something ingrained in one’s identity, all of this gives an urgency and moral clarity to Stern’s second novel that the first one lacked. The style of the book, while still nothing to write home about, is much more consistent, a much better read overall.

There are no longer Simenon, Modiano or Auster in the background here. Au contraire, the writing has turned to much more Germanic sources. Although – sources less connected to her German origins and more to her present Swiss background. There’s a long tradition of Swiss (and Austrian) writers using a slightly distant, objective-seeming style, using the protocols of institution and office to create their stories. Despite the detective protagonist, Der Gutachter is not written in the style developed by German noir writers. Instead, I hear echoes of writers like Max Frisch, Hermann Burger, Albert Drach and Adolf Muschg throughout the book. I mean, obviously I mean no comparison – these four, particularly Burger and Drach, are absolute masters of their craft, but it’s impossible not to hear them here. Stern herself takes care to mention Ian Rankin here, and there’s absolutely a sense in which Rankin and the tradition of Scottish crime writing more generally (for example Denise Mina) have left their fingerprints here as well, though not necessarily stylistically. The Scottish tradition of crime writing strikes me, who hasn’t read that much of it, as being particularly interested in social backgrounds and social motivations, and these end up being essential to understanding the novel’s murder case. But it is the contrast between the institutional, careful tone of the detective’s narrative, and the wild, angry complaints from the local fishermen, that really encapsulates the book’s conflicts between disinterested analysis, and modern science and economy on the one hand, and one of the oldest professions on the other. Usually, especially reactionary writers will use peasants as a foil to criticize modernity, often with anti-Semitic overtones (think Hans Fallada). Anna’s use of fishermen is smart – it removes certain connotations and increases the connection to the land. That said – the style of Burger, Muschg or Frisch is hard to pull off. Burger is one of last century’s best German-language writers, and Frisch isn’t far behind. It’s hard to write like this without slipping into a certain blandness – and Stern does not succeed in evading this fate.

But all criticism aside: honestly, I am curious about where this writer is going. If I could do it again, I would read neither of these two books and I cannot see myself recommending them to anyone. But at the same time, I can see many readers who like these kinds of novels enjoying them, and as far as I can tell the books have been published to good reviews – and indeed, the author has been invited to participate at this year’s Bachmannpreis, after all, one of German-languahe literature’s most prestigious awards. There’s absolutely a good, solid chance that I am way off on this.


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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!


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 my twitter.)

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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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.


[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]


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.

Olga Grjasnowa: All Russians Love Birch Trees

Grjasnowa, Olga (2012), Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt, Hanser
ISBN 978-3-446-23854-1

[English translation: Grjasnowa, Olga (2014), All Russians Love Birch Trees, Other Press
Translated by Eva Bacon
ISBN 978-1-590-51584-6]

birch3In reading and reviewing books I have certain recurring interests, which may lead to similarities in my introductions to the books I’m discussing. So stop me if you’ve heard this before. But do read on. Because this writer and this book is definitely worth your attention. I have never had a great love for German postwar literature, with a few notable exceptions. I have found, consistently, that between 1945 and 1990. the best literary work in German came from Austria or the GDR, and it’s not particularly close, in my opinion. There is a third group that has produced exciting work for decades and that’s immigrant writers to Germany. Many of the standout immigrant writers are easy to look up if you are so inclined. They have received the Adelbert von Chamisso award, a prize in honor of the German writer who was born in France. The prize is awarded to the best immigrant writer producing their work in German (not necessarily exclusively). Since the GDR group of writers slowly dried or died out (again, with notable exceptions), there has been a bit of a hole to fill. Consistently, that hole has been filled with young immigrant writers. I do feel like many of the best ones do not choose to settle in Germany. In this review I discussed the mysterious attraction of Switzerland to young Romanian writers. Other writers settle in Austria. Still, a few settle in Germany, and of those, there are some truly admirable writers. Some are of Turkish origin, like the spellbinding novelist and playwright Emine Özdamar. A surprisingly large section of writers, however, sprang from the carcass of the former Soviet Union. Artur Becker is one of them. Katja Petrowskaja has won a few prizes last year. And then there’s Olga Grjasnowa. Younger than most of the writers I admire, my god, younger than me, she wrote a debut novel that is unfinished, jumbled, a novel that screams “debut” too often to count. But it’s also a magnificent novel. I I read it twice cover to cover just to really take it in. I have sometimes high expectations of novels dealing with certain topics, and for female Soviet Union emigrés writing about love and loss in Germany, the high water mark is the scintillating and frequently brutal work of Natascha Wodin, whose best novel has been translated into English many years ago and which you should pick up immediately. Olga Grjasnowa manages to write a book that is so deeply suffused with brilliance and talent, with emotion and thinking, with historical ambiguity and emotional clarity, that she promises to eventually be among our best writers. All Russians Love Birch Trees is already one of our best books. Write her name down. You’ll need to remember it.

birchIn just under 300 pages, All Russians Love Birch Trees offers us a story that is attempting a whole lot at once. She doesn’t have the density of writing that, for example, Grigorcea showed in her debut, and so much of it is slightly underdeveloped. Yet at the same time, Grjasnowa has an unteachable knack for understanding how many political, personal and historical issues are interconnected and she offers us these connections with clarity and purpose. It’s hard to describe what kind of book it is, if that requires us to summarize it in a single sentence. That’s due, in part, to the book’s frequent pivots. The book starts out as a story of personal grief in a German hospital and ends up in a field in Israel. Blood, suffering and confusion are the only connections. And we get there from here not with labored cuts and jumps (although these happen occasionally), but through a cohesive sense of how identity works for someone who has to constantly fight to maintain hers. Like Grjasnowa herself, her protagonist Mascha was born in Azerbaijan, fled during the upheavals in that country and settled in Germany. Like the author, Mascha is Jewish and ends up spending some time in Israel. Mascha’s full name is Maria Kogan. If that sounds like a simple name to you – it doesn’t feel that way to some of the German characters in the book, like a doctor early on who says “your last name is a bit complicated – may I call you Maria?”(note: I read the book in German, any quotes are rough translations, not quotes from Eva Bacon’s much more considered work). Grjasnowa herself, with a last name sporting many more syllables, must have had similar problems. That she chooses to have her two-syllable protagonist run into this problem very early points to an important discussion that will re-occur througout the book and that is maybe closest to what I was looking for in terms of what kind of book it is. It’s a book about translation and understanding, and how openness and willingness are important elements in the way to achieving them. On the one hand, you have the Germans who run on pure closed-minded condescension. There’s the doctor who refuses to understand that simple name. There’s a a professor at her university who loves his ideas of multiculturalism and poverty porn, and whose idea of support for someone who appears to be “foreign” is to be condescendingly generous to them. There is a lady from Germany in Israel who jumps at the opportunity to criticise Jews (“If you see the news, it’s quite natural to start hating the Jews”). In contrast to all them is Mascha, who speaks multiple languages and trains to become an interpreter.

birch1If these examples made it seem like the book can be a bit heavy handed, your eyes did not deceive you. Indeed, subtlety is not one of Grjasnowa’s strengths even though she does a great job at undercutting easy readings by interesting juxtapositions. Her main achievement is the way she wove personal and political story into the fabric of the same story. There is, I think, no doubt that the first half of the novel is significantly better than the second. And that’s because that half is not as plot focused. Before she knuckles down and really digs into Mascha’s present life and lets her plot run free, she spends half the book telling us who that woman is and what happened to her. We learn about her German boyfriend, Elias, and how his death devastates her. We learn about her childhood in Azerbaijan and the way it corroded her sense of family and safety and the trauma she suffered there and hid away for years. Grjasnowa makes us understand how cruelty, desire, lust and sadness can be sides of similar coins. There is a small episode early in the book, where she kills a rabbit in an attempt to improvise some pagan ritual to have her boyfriend survive a difficult operation. Before smashing that rabbit’s head with a stone, she speaks a Jewish prayer, asking God to exchange lives. When that fails, she takes things into her own hands. Throughout the book there’s a definite sense of history being both hard on individuals, and kind of malleable, depending on one’s action and view. Grjasnowa’s protagonist does her utmost to fight and battle loss. Her personal and family history is one of devastation and melancholy. Her parents, well educated and with good jobs in Azerbaijan have to settle for alienated (and alienating) poor existences in Germany. Mascha is a driven woman, and her achievements, by all accounts, are considerable, but she is consistently and tragically alienated from her surroundings herself. Trying to find a connection in sexual liaisons with men and women, trying to find accepting communities, all of these are doomed and complicated by Mascha’s thorny sense of pre-determined alienation. She pushes the world away from her at the same time as she longs to be embraced by it. And none of this is helped by the omnipresent bigotry of people around her.

Admittedly, Grjasnowa doesn’t always choose the best way to express these things. Believe it or not, at some point, Mascha looks her mother in the face and says “everything and everyone around me dies.” I am not a supporter of the “show not tell” school of thought, but some young novelists do need to do less telling, especially when the telling is as trite as that. Much less of a cliché is Grjasnowa’s treatment of Jewish issues. Having a Jew travel to Israel to connect to her heritage may seem like something we’ve already seen (too) many times, but Grjasnowa’s book is very explicitly a German novel written by someone from Germany in German. Grjasnowa uses contrasts judiciously, but she is particularly interesting when she shows how Jewishness triggers various German cultural mechanisms, including those of Muslims in Germany. She has ill-informed philosemites in the book who, at the drop of a hat, turn antisemites in later portions of the book, she shows how Germans are involved in Israel itself, and most of all, she shows how her own conflicted heritage leads her to challenge, change and adapt assumptions about herself and the communities she’s a part of. Much of this, while interesting, is not thoroughly worked through in her writing, much of it is more idea than finished literary product, and now and then, she settles for too simple phrases instead of working out her thinking more thoroughly. It is too rarely that we can see in her work, as Bishop said about Hopkins, “a mind thinking” – instead, we see the thoughts in the ideas and tableaux rather than in the actual writing.

514qGj9igGL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_At the same time, her writing is never actually bad, unlike some others, much more praised writers I could think of. It’s frequently inventive and always clean and well considered. Moreover, we are shown an awful lot and it should affect all but the most closed-minded of readers. In fact, the seared and searing emotional core or the book compared well to Natascha Wodin’s masterpiece Einmal Lebt’ Ich, translated into English by Ian Galbraith as Once I Lived, published by Serpent’s Tail and currently tragically out of print. Get yourself a used copy now. Seriously. Wodin’s short but powerful novel, the best book of her absolutely extraordinary literary achievement (I can see at least one more review on this coming up) is a searing hot story of a Soviet immigrant to Germany who struggles to find connection and support in this strange and condescendingly hostile country – all of which isn’t helped by her father’s alienation that has pushed an already cruel man to punish, police and violate his daughter. Published in 1989, this novel and novels like it are the wellspring from which mediocre books like Katerina Poladjan’s deplorable debut feed (I discussed it a bit here). But it has also fed and empowered writers like Grjasnowa, whose sense of sexuality and violence, of immigration and alienation, and especially of the way that being a woman puts you in even more difficult situations than you’d be as a first or second generation immigrant alone, I can’t help but feel to be in Wodin’s debt. That second point, of feminity and how it feeds into the general malaise is interesting. Another topic she brings up, and a topic that Wodin similarly connects (but in a different novel, the strange and melancholy Erfindung einer Liebe) is homosexuality. Grjasnowa is clear on the fact that being a woman, and being gay allows for power to be projected on you in additional ways. There’s a term invented by African American theorists that’s called intersectionality and it describes the way that people are often touched by different vectors of oppression and that this creates a more complex picture. Now, I don’t think Wodin, or Grjasnowa, really, would have all that much patience for this terminology, but both are insistent on looking at the way individuals move through society and note that the path for immigrants is a harder path, and that being a woman – or gay – makes the progress even more difficult.

birch2I will say that, in contrast to Wodin, Grjasnowa’s protagonist is nor mired in a slough of despond. Indeed, while she cannot quite muster Wodin’s formal or linguistic qualities, in some sense, despite the book’s ending, she offers a more confident path. There’s a purpose to Mascha’s sexual misadventures that seems like it would not have been possible to offer in a book published in the 1980s or before (although some female GDR writers would be an exception, possibly). Mascha declines to offer us the suffering and complaints we may have come to expect from a certain kind of narrative. Mascha looks at her losses and moves on, pushing on, trying to deal with an increasingly heavy psychological load, until her troubles finally just take over. Maybe this is Grjasnowa’s greatest achievement in her book: offering us a character that’s both suffused with literary tradition and bucking it at the same time to explore new territory. There’s a lot about this book that’s good and lovely and even sometimes great and I already own her sophomore novel even though I have not had an opportunity to look at it. Purpose, urgency and intelligence are lovely things in fiction and they cover up many flaws. All Russians Love Birch Trees has all three in spades and Olga Grjasnowa is one of the young German novelists I most readily admire. Get this book, but also, get Natascha Wodin’s novel (and maybe bully Serpent’s Tail or the NYRB imprint to get it back into print). That is all.


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Gila Lustiger: Die Schuld der Anderen

Lustiger, Gila (2015), Die Schuld der Anderen, Berlin-Verlag
ISBN 978-3-8270-12227-2

lustiger1Have you ever read a book and wished its author was a better prose writer? By which I don’t mean, have you ever read a bad book and wished you’d read a good one instead. No, have you ever read a book that was genuinely interesting and good in many ways, but hampered by mediocre prose and/or strange ideological biases? They turn up now and then in my reading, these books. I guess, Paul Auster is an example of that, Richard Powers is maybe another, in some of his books. I have, however, never encountered as tantalizing a case as Gila Lustiger’s new novel Die Schuld der Anderen. In almost 500 pages, she creates a rich panorama of modern France, tied into not one but two crime writing narratives that draw from different traditions. Jewishness, history, corruption, murder, sex trafficking and other themes are woven into a book that never feels overburdened by these heavy topics. It’s a difficult balancing act that she manages well. All of this comes on top of a deft job at turning a real life case of dozens of workers at a chemical plant who, in the course of their work, came down with kidney cancer, into a riveting narrative. The skill and research involved could have made for a very good book if it had not been for an unbelievably pedestrian prose and strange obsession with Islam. I liked the book so much that I kept hoping it was some kind of pastiche, I looked up sources that I assumed were referenced stylistically, but no such luck. The prose is derivative, but not artfully so. It’s flat and dour, dragging the story down with it. That said, I strongly recommend a translation. It’s not on the level of the books that I listed as “Translatables” elsewhere, but many of its faults should vanish in translation, if written by a translator with a nimble enough pen. The rest of it, the history and characters and the sense of a France with a complicated and dark past and an uncertain future, these elements would remain. It’s a hard book to review, because the prose was so unpleasant to read, but at the same time, the book’s other aspects were enough to keep me reading. With its writing, I can’t really recommend it, but I do think it would fare very well in translation.

lustiger4Die Schuld der Anderen, which can be translated as “The Guilt of Others”, is Gila Lustiger’s fifth novel. Lustiger is the daughter of the vastly more famous Jewish historian and entrepreneur Arno Lustiger, who was born in Poland in 1924 and was interned in multiple concentration camps during the Third Reich. After the war he settled in Germany where he became a founding member of the Jewish community in Frankfurt, as well as a prolific and outspoken scholar on the topics of Jewish history as well as Jewish resistance during the Third Reich. Gila Lustiger, his daughter, grew up in Frankfurt, then spent much of her early adulthood in Israel until she moved to Paris in the late 1980s where she’s still living. Her very first novel Die Bestandsaufnahme (1995) is an examination of Jewish lives during the Nazi era, in a way a direct continuation of her father’s intellectual project. It’s very unevenly written, but contains some striking observations and contextualizes the almost incomprehensible horror of the Jewish fate with all the skill of a well educated debut novelist. Contrary to what one would expect, there is more good writing in this early book than there is in Lustiger’s new novel. The cumulative effect of the lives unfolded in its pages is truly powerful. It’s also the only book of hers that has been translated into English (by Rebecca Morrison) as The Inventory. Her real breakthrough didn’t, however, come until her third novel, So Sind Wir (~That’s how we are), which was on the 2005 shortlist for the German Book Award, the most prestigious award for new novels. So Sind Wir is again a novel with very pronounced Jewish themes: this time, she takes a long look at her own family history, in particular her father’s life. It’s an interesting take on the family novel, playing with the idea of truth and fiction, victimhood and persecution, self and history. It’s not just a simple sentimental retelling of her father’s difficult life. Driven by a craving for normality, the book’s narrator makes it clear that she’s not angry at the Germany who murdered her family or looked away while others did it. Paradoxically, she expresses anger at the victims. She does not want to be the ‘daughter of a holocaust survivor’ and at the same time it’s impossible to ignore the culpability of the parents and grandparents of her fellow students. It’s only in the second half of the novel that she attempts a synthesis between those impulses.

lustiger5So Sind Wir is an interesting novel that keeps referencing the act of remembering, of creating and opposing common narratives around the Shoah. Objects like photographs are examined and contextualized. The book strongly reminded me of some later texts by this year’s Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano (cf. my review here) – interestingly, her new novel, set in France, made me think of Modiano once again, but this time of his debut masterpiece. As I pointed out in my review, much of the book’s impetus seems to be provided by the inextricable nature of French literature, history and culture, with French strains of Antisemitism and, indeed, with French Jews. In Die Schuld der Anderen, Gila Lustiger presents to us a protagonist who, in his personal heritage, combines this mixture: he is half Jewish and half gentile, and his non-Jewish family are industrialists whose power reaches deep into the highest strata of French and European politics. A character that serves as a metaphor: French Jewish history and French history proper are so closely intertwined as to make it impossible to separate them. In this, she anticipated the French prime minister Manuel Valls’ dictum that “la place des Francais juifs, c’est la France”, which he offered in reaction to Netanyahu’s suggestion that Jews should all emigrate to Israel. Lustiger, who in her earlier books had interrogated the place of Jewish communities in Germany and among Germans, is doing the same for France in Die Schuld der Anderen. But unlike those earlier books, she makes it part of the general background for a story that has nothing to do with Jewish history or identity. It is truly impressive to what extent she has managed to debate questions of Jewish identity as part of her work on the personal background of her characters. This explains why Die Schuld der Anderen is her longest novel to date: it’s more than just one novel. It’s three different ones, expertly merged into a single narrative. If only the writing itself was better.

lustiger3The novel’s main narrative takes a look at one of several French scandals centered around France’s chemical plants and workplace toxicity in general. Her protagonist, journalist Marc Rappaport, decides to investigate an old murder case that appears to be fairly clear cut. 30 years ago a young sex worker was murdered and now all of a sudden, evidence appears to surface that implicates a bank teller who could not seem less of a murderer if he tried. Rappaport immediately distrusts the case brought against this man and sets out to find the real killer. In the course of his investigation he dives deep into a France that appears to be rotten with sex trafficking, corruption and rape, and pretty much everyone in power is implicated in one way or another. This part of his investigation reminds the reader of the stark 1970s noir novels and films where the rot in society’s foundations ends up overwhelming even the most well meaning of investigators. The colors Lustiger uses are strong, almost garish. Many of the scenes involving this case leap right off the page, with characters that are very flat, but highly engaging. There is a feeling that for all the research Lustiger has done, not an overwhelming amount involved active sex workers. Many of the characters and scenes are reminiscent of similar characters or scenes we know from TV or movies. For a book that starts and ends with finding and punishing the murderer of a prostitute and discusses the terrible things that happen to sex workers, she is not greatly interested in their plight. That’s not, however, to the detriment of the novel. Lustiger spends less time fleshing out this case, so she depends on its characters being vivid and memorable. Working with grays would make it much harder to cram everything into the book she wanted to put in and still be clear and comprehensible. The other case, one that Rappaport uncovers while following up on that murder, is much less spectacular in the usual ways. It’s about workplace safety and kidney cancer contracted by dozens of factory workers. Rappaport discovers the scandalous practices of Nutrissor, a company providing nutrition enhancements like Vitamin A, in the process exposing its workers to carcinogenic substances. Rappaport, a sleuth who is part Maigret, part Philip Marlowe, manages to juggle both investigations, uncover sources and evidence, all the while filling us in on modern French history.

InventoryGila Lustiger did not pull her topic out of thin air – she references a problem that is very present in contemporary French discourse. Two excellent books have recently come out that take a long, hard look at French practices when it comes to poisoning its populace and workers. One of them, Les Empoisonneurs (2005) by Vincent Nouzille, takes a broader view and discusses the myriad of different ways that French policies put French citizens in danger. France ranks, according to Nouzille, near the bottom of European countries when it comes to protecting its citizens from various poisons. Nouzille, not adverse to polemic exaggeration, nevertheless has strong research backing up his strong claims. He predicts 40,000 deaths per year until 2025 that are directly traceable to neglectful policies. More specifically, in relation to Lustiger’s novel, he suggests that over 60% of French workers will have been exposed to asbestos at some point in their lives, compared to 25% of the general populace. Nouzille points out how fears of irradiation and general issues connected to nuclear power are discussed much more frequently than other poisons. And he (as does Lustiger) raises awareness of how normalized it has become to endanger your workers, if the economic gain appears to vindicate such policies. In this, he follows Bruni Mattéi’s landmark essay on the invention of professional risk. A book that’s more specifically interested in the fate of workers is Annie Thébaud-Mony’s cleverly titled Travailler Peut Nuire Gravement À Votre Santé (2007). Resembling a fictional article that’s discussed in Lustiger’s novel, at least in form, it looks at different fates and workers and at the way companies are mainly concerned with ways to hide what they are doing to workers. That hiding can come from reclassifying poisonous materials as safe, or, as in Die Schuld der Anderen, by making sure intermediary materials are not checked for toxicity at all, or even by contracting out all the truly hazardous work. A worker quoted in the book expresses the trust that many workers have in their company. It may not be their best friend but surely they won’t let us die here, right? Someone would have said something at some point, right? But company doctors are mostly concerned with getting you back to work, not getting you healthy. Nouzille and Thébaud-Mony both chart the loss of that trust in French politics to succeed in the basic job of not killing its own people in the workplace.

Gila Lustiger is not just broadly inspired by a series of events. In fact, she uses a very real case. The company she calls Nutrissor is called Adisseo in real life and it’s one of the three largest producers of animal food in the world. In 1981, Adisseo used something called Chloracetal C5 in order to produce Vitamin A for animal products. At least 10 workers contracted kidney cancer due to exposure to it. The first case was discovered in 1994, but the company had known since at least 1991. In 2007, the rarest of rare events happened: a French court declared Adisseo, one of France’s chemical titans, guilty of negligently causing the cancer of those 10 workers. It was spectacular due to how rarely these things happen, but it did not change France, or even Adisseo. That’s why Lustiger describes the actual case, but she chooses a different ending. Her France is a France of violence and power struggles. It’s a country where you don’t get redress in court, where you don’t really take recourse to the police or politics. The book, I will say this much without spoiling the ending, does not ‘end badly’, several problems get worked out. In the end, the reason Lustiger sidesteps the courts and police procedures can be found in the title of the novel.

lustiger2Die Schuld der Anderen is a novel about guilt. Everybody, it turns out, is complicit in how the system works, how it’s allowed to function. By pointing to other people’s guilt we are blinded to our own guilt, to our own contributions to the suffering of others. Lustiger makes this point astutely and repeatedly, and, despite herself, the point turns out to be bigger than the book, because it points at the novel itself as well. One interesting thing that keeps happening is that Rappaport listens to people talking around him and tells us about it. He overhears discussions and phone calls and the author rarely ties these observations into the larger plots of the book; it seems a minor detail, but it reflects something about the way the novel works. By inviting voices, history and facts into a book that also contains a sensational murder mystery and traces of conspiracy thrillers, Lustiger dissolves some of the borders between the book and the world, and some of its failings become functional as further examples of complicity. In the middle of the book there’s a two page rant about Islam. It has nothing to do with anything else, but as various interviews and articles show us, it’s a personal obsession of the author, who, in this way, becomes another example of righteousness blinded to its own complicity. Blurring the lines between fact and fiction, between the book and the world, between the author’s examination of her characters and the way that examination turns a spotlight on the author herself, it makes it genuinely difficult to look at the book’s numerous flaws and not consider them somehow a functional part of the book. I’ve genuinely reread particularly badly written passages multiple times, trying to figure out whether they were intentional pastiches of genre writing in German or whether they just showed, as many other genre novels in this country do, the terrible influence of decades of bad genre translations from English and French. In the end it doesn’t matter. Bad writing is bad writing, but much of the book is compelling enough to recommend the book. Maybe not as a book to read, but definitely as a book to translate.


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 my twitter.)

Ilija Trojanow: The Lamentations of Zeno

Trojanow, Ilija (2011), EisTau, Hanser

ISBN 9783446237575

[translated into English by Phillip Boehm as
Trojanow, Ilija (2016), The Lamentations of Zeno, Verso Books

ISBN 9781784782191]

ZenoA special subcategory of the writers who write great books and then leave their readers hanging (as discussed in my last review) are the writers who write one great novel and then just stop writing fiction altogether. Some, like Harper Lee, stay silent, some, like Arundhati Roy, continue writing prolifically, but just not fiction. That second category often contains activists, who, as they age, find that their time is better spent writing essays and speeches rather than novels and stories. Ilija Trojanow (sometimes inexplicably spelled “Iliya Troyanov“ in English) is a recent example of this. Between 1996 and 2006, he published several exquisite travelogues, as well as 3 novels. A debut about arriving in Germany or rather coming to terms with life as a migrant (1996), a second novel using the languages of Science Fiction (1997, see my review here) and finally, Der Weltensammler (2006), his breakthrough achievement that won him a multitude of prizes and sold a large amount of copies. You can not only read my review of it, you can even read it in English translation, as it has in fact been translated into English and many other languages. That last book, a monumental novel about Richard Burton combined his interests in cultural exchanges with his recurrent topics of migration and identity. Even his companion nonfiction volume about Burton sold well. Trojanow seemed to have arrived. And since then – nothing. Or rather: no new fiction. He has been publishing copiously on the surveillance state, on ecological issues, on racism; plus, he has edited a multitude of books. Trojanow, all in all, has to be considered one of Germany’s leading public intellectuals. And yet, selfishly, I was upset that he did not write fiction. Until, that is, 2011, when a slim new novel came out. And what a good novel it is! Published in German as EisTau (~ice thaw), it is a short but dense novel about global warming and one man’s outrage and obsession. It does not contain long diatribes about the state of the world, but at the same time, it’s just as much polemic as it is a novel. If not for Trojanow’s prodigious literary talent, this novel could have sunk like a stone. Instead, we’re offered a complex and very literary book that is highly recommended and deserves to be read carefully. And 2 years after I wrote this review, it has finally been published in English translation by Verso Books as The Lamentations of Zeno.

The Lamentations of Zeno is the story of Zeno, a depressed geologist who has spent the last few years of his life so far offering lectures to tourists on a cruise into the Antarctica. The cruise apparently features experts from areas like geology and biology who help tourists to contextualize the events they see and learn about that cold part of the world. We learn about his life story from himself: most of the novel is framed as being entries in his notebook. Not only does he tell the story from his point of view, but the notebook as an object itself, as well as the writing process is references throughout. It’s not a diary. These are literary, reasoned accounts written by a man who is tired of being a human being, as he says near the end of the novel. They follow two timelines. One follows in strict chronological order the events on the ship in the present tense, the others are memories of his relatively recent past. About halfway through the novel we learn about the catastrophe in his life that leads him onto his current path: a glacier specialist at a university in Munich, he finds out one day that the glacier he’s been monitoring almost obsessively, is irrevocably dying. And subsequently, the same happens to his life because he stops caring. He drops out of the university, gets left by his wife, and finally signs up for this stint on the Antarctica cruise. He has been known to be cranky on the ship, but this time, something snaps and the trips slowly but surely steers into a disaster. I am not spoiling this book because we are apprised fairly early of events on the ship by another kind of chapter in the book. Alternating with Zeno’s notebook, we are given short two-page chapters that are a cauldron of voices. TV ads, snippets of songs, etc. But they are not just random cutups of cultural noise. They also contain snippets of conversations with former passengers as well as, at the bottom of each of these ‘noise’ chapters, a bolded “breaking news” section that tells us of the dramatic events onboard the ship.

DSC_0226The noise chapters have a function in the narrative by foreshadowing the events of the notebook, but they also have a different role: in their noisiness they contrast with the quiet of the ice, offering us a human counterpart to the serene elegance of nature. It reminded me of nothing so much as Jelinek’s mastery of voices and allusion, especially in Die Kinder der Toten. Jelinek blends this noise into her own prose, while Trojanow’s method seems close to montage. It would seem that these alternating chapters introduce the city-scape noises of Dos Passos’ trilogy or Döblin’s Berlin novels into a kind of pastoral novel, but I think we would be mistaken about Trojanow’s aims here. Jelinek is a critical writer, not of a specific issue, but of the hate-filled structures of Western societies, skewering targets from misogyny to racism and ecological catastrophe. In The Lamentations of Zeno, we get a similar sense of broad disappointment with the direction of mankind. Critics have dismissed Trojanow’s novel as an ecological screed that has no literary value, but this is a superficial reading. Even without defending its literary value (which I will in a moment), even its polemical intentions far exceed just ecology. In the very first chapter, in an aside, we meet Filippino workers; we learn, with the deployment of just a few sentences, how much the globalized economy is built on the exploitation of poor and third world workers, a topic that Trojanow comes back to. We also get a sense of how globalized narratives are built, how people travel, and how knowledge is dispersed. When Zeno expresses his unhappiness with being human, he doesn’t merely refer to humans as those who subjugate and destroy nature – he also refers to the way mankind treats its disadvantaged and oppressed members. His criticism is global and personal. It’s important to note that all the events are motivated by Zeno’s personal unhappiness, his personal obsession and disappointment. We are not supposed to read Zeno as a relatable everyman whose opinions we should emulate or admire. Zeno has lost all regards for the fate of the human race. In one of the most memorable passages, he describes himself rooting for avalanches in news reports that show the cascading ice and snow swallowing a village.

EistauWith this personal nature comes a narrative that is increasingly unreliable. After all, what we read is basically Zeno’s manifesto, a way to describe how he arrived at doing what he did. We are clearly supposed to read this book as being set in the tradition of Italo Svevo’s La coscienza di Zeno. Svevo’s book poses as the life story of Zeno, a middle aged Italian, one of modern’s literature’s most famous unreliable narrators, written by Zeno himself during/for psychoanalytic treatment. In his book we are offered accounts of his life, his marriage, his relationship to his father. Zeno’s ruminations on his life and his illness lead to the observation that his illness mirrors or corresponds to mankind’s sickness. This step from sentiments like Lowell’s “I myself am hell” to the idea that the narrator’s mind is not the only one that’s ‘not right’ is inherited from Svevo. Additionally, there’s a German-language (though mostly through Swiss writers) tradition following Svevo of novels which offer psychoanalytically prompted ‘autobiographies’, but this time the goal is to explain a crime or catastrophe that has happened. Of this tradition, Max Frisch is probably the writer most well known to non-German audiences. This referential pattern suggests that Trojanow’s Zeno, even though we only learn of his intent to do something out of the ordinary halfway through the story, must have intended something of the sort all along. There’s a second way in which the two Zenos, the one from Bavaria and his Italian predecessor, are connected, and that’s their relationship to women. Anyone who’s read Svevo’s book is left with the impression that Zeno’s relationship to the female gender can be a bit arduous at times, and significantly contributes to his malaise. There’s a certain amount of misogyny written into the novel, which helps us nail down the slippery character of Zeno a bit more. With Trojanow’s Zeno, we have a similar situation and just as with Svevo’s counterpart, we can’t but feel that his explanations and descriptions are a bit self serving.

There are two women we get to know at some length, and then there’s the female tourists on the ship. The first woman is Zeno’s wife Helene. She is painted as a superficial, spiteful woman, interested in material values beyond everything else. She’s portrayed as unhappy: unhappy about Zeno’s obsession, unhappy about his academic income, unhappy about the cheap trips abroad they take together, unhappy about the apartment and possessions they can afford. On a trip to Spain, Zeno and Helene cannot be happy about the same things, and the narrator Zeno puts his now ex-wife into her place by placing a lesson on humility at the end of his account of the Spain trip. There’s no intimacy or passion between the two. The other woman we get to know is Zeno’s current girlfriend Paulina, who works on the ship and with whom he has a torrid relationship that lasts just as long as the cruise. Am attempt to continue the relationship beyond the ship has failed because Paulina and Zeno find each other boring when exposed for a long time. His treatment of her is a bit condescending and it somehow includes awkwardly written sex scenes, just to somehow drive home the image of her as a loving but temporary sex kitten. Zeno’s discussion of the female lecturers and tourists are similarly condescending. He may be aware of a broad swath of social issues, but his own sexism clearly escapes him. It is due to the masterful art of Trojanow that our attention is directed towards that subject. It’s implicit in the descriptions but his narrator is not aware of it. Without broaching the question of intentionality, it’s still not clear how central this aspect is to the book, how much it is supposed to tie into its other questions and concerns. I have a tendency to assume that books I generally like use prejudice as active elements rather than say that these books are racist or misogynist. In this case, the background of antarctic exploration justifies, I think, this charitable reading.

GetImageIn The Lamentations of Zeno, I think, there’s a broad discussion of masculinity and destruction. Exploration and destruction, we learn are connected, and Zeno himself, once pushed hard enough, decides on being destructive. The history of antarctic exploration, for a long time, was a history of men doing manly things. Men enduring pain, men persevering, men rivaling other men. The first woman to set foot in the Antarctic didn’t do so until 1935, and she was the wife of the captain of a whaling ship. This is not due to a lack of interest of women in exploration. In fact, women wrote a rather famous letter to Shackleton in 1914 and Shackleton declined because there were “no vacancies for the opposite sex”. As in many other areas dominated by men, women’s absence is not due to female disinterest, but due to men imagining and enforcing gender roles, something that continues to this day, as the harassment of female participants in the programming and gaming culture proves. This separatist mindset also fits the broader mindset regarding nature. As the great ecologist William Cronin suggested, we live with the cultural paradigms established by nature writing, including travelogues, which provide an account of nature as something separate and apart from human beings, and this criticism includes ecologists as well as writers celebrating the use and exploitation. The novel, by offering us a closed, fixed (in the page of a notebook) story, which it undercuts, asks us to establish alternative narratives. There’s a quiet line that connects Trojanow’s work to stories like Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Sur”, her story about female adventurers who reach the south pole before Shackleton in a privately finded expedition in 1909. Their “desire was pure as the polar snows: to go, to see – no more, no less.“ The lack of such counter narratives in the book itself contributes to the desperation. Zeno has no solutions, only anger and frustration and at no point does he manage to look past his known points of reference for other ideas. This, one suspects, is the call to arms of Trojanow the activist. Write and think solutions, offer counter narratives, understand the urgency of the desperation and challenge it. Trojanow’s writing is full of ellipses, and he uses every part of the novel to his advantage, creating multiple narrative spaces. Ilija Trojanow is a very good writer and The Lamentations of Zeno is a very good novel. Go read it, but do it carefully, look into the spaces between and below the language.


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Inka Parei: The Shadow-Boxing Woman

Parei, Inka (2011), The Shadow-Boxing Woman, Seagull Books
Translated by Katy Derbyshire
ISBN 9781906497958

Parei, Inka (2011), Die Schattenboxerin, Fischer
ISBN 3-596-14869-3

Last week, at a conference I spoke at, I spent two days with two roomfuls of translators and of people academically and privately interested in translation. It reminded me of the fact of how embattled a field the arena of literary translation is. Translators get paid terribly little, and they often get less respect. At the conference, half of them were German, and in Germany, at least we have an enormous amount of translations coming out each month. In the US, only three percent (an almost proverbial number, by now) of overall publications are translations. What’s worse, for every Every Man Dies Alone, i.e. translations that sell reasonably well, and are read and reviewed seemingly everywhere, there appear to be ten worthy novels that are translated only to vanish again into obscurity. Although it’s quite tragic when it happens to fantastic masterpieces like Beautiful Days by Franz Innerhofer, which was translated by Anselm Hollo and seems to have disappeared almost instantly. The same happened to Katharina Hacker’s The Have-Nots (see my review here), translated by Helen Atkins, which appears to be in print, yet has not been broadly reviewed, not has it sold particularly well, and this despite the fact that Hacker is indisputably one of the major German novelists. It’s tragic when it happens to the heavyweights, but it’s worse when it happens to a younger writer. Innerhofer is bound to be picked up again, if only by NYRB’s excellent imprint, Hacker might well win a major prize again. But yloung writers might fall into a hole and never crawl out. So let’s hope Inka Parei’s debut novel The Shadow-Boxing Woman, originally published in 2000, does well. The translation has been undertaken by Katy Derbyshire, translator and blogger at Love German Books, and it was published by the University of Chicago Press this February and Seagull Press this May. The Shadow-Boxing Woman, called Die Schattenboxerin in German, is an excellent debut. It may suffer from small flaws typical of debuts, but overall, it’s a marvelously executed novel about a young woman in 1990s Berlin, who is trying to get her bearings in a disintegrating, malevolent city. The book tells a harsh story, yet it is never downright depressing, a balance which is due to Parei’s clever structure and to the distinctive voice of her wary protagonist, the Shadow-Boxing Woman of the title. In its imagery and use of the cityscape, the book draws on a tradition that includes Alfred Döblin’s Berlin novels and Gottfried Benn’s early poetry. It is firmly placed in a thorough sense of history as it’s ingrained in the everyday lives of Berlin’s inhabitants. It also draws on the rhythms and anxieties of crime writing, producing a novel that is suspenseful, dark, funny and bleakly elegant. If you can get your hands on this book, read it. Parei, who’s currently writing her third novel, is surely one of the better writers of her generation. A German critic called this book a “promise” and what a beautiful promise it is. It is also a damn good novel, and thanks to Katy Derbyshire, you can all read it now. So please do. You will find one of the better books published this past decade, a book that won’t leave you cold. Here is the amazon link.

Initially, the book appears to be a mystery with noir stylings. Hell, as the the book’s protagonist is called, notices that her neighbor has gone missing, and takes it upon herself to investigate. Before the book is over, we’ll have found out that it is in fact, a mystery, and that, in fact, a crime has occurred, but the crime and the victim are different ones than we thought. With a wondrous sleight of hand, Parei manages to tell a story that is both tightly knit, and mysteriously loose and baggy. At exactly the right points in the story she manages to hold on to details and events so much that we feel the gray soil and the gray bricks of Berlin and the gray breath of her characters as we ourselves had found ourself stranded in the same dirty streets and among the same hard-up characters. At other points, she steps away from events, not attempting to explain, to fill us in or her heroine. I think that it’s this rhythm of clarity and nightmarish obscurity that makes the whole novel work, because this rhythm is tied directly to the disorderly mind of Hell. Small objects cause Hell to remember episodes from her past, with a sharp, hurtful clarity that is not the clarity of Proust’s mémoire involontaire, but the clarity and sharpness of trauma. The change between present-day reality and past memories can be disorienting at first, because the whole novel is narrated in the present tense, no matter what period of Hell’s life the episodes are set in. The more we read on, the more we notice that the memories, like the present-day events, follow one particular story, but the two stories are differently structured. The present-day story starts to develop according to the genre rules of mystery. We learn that someone has vanished, and then we start accumulating clues. We find a mysterious stranger in the missing person’s apartment, and he tags along in our attempt to make sense of it all. It is not until late in the story that it all unravels, as first improbable things happen and events as diverse as a mysterious fire and a bank robbery start cluttering a heretofore clear and clean storyline. The story starts to go completely off the rails as the past, remembered in short intense flashes, starts to bleed into the present.

The remembered story works exactly the opposite way. The first few times the past intrudes on the present-day story, we are slightly confused, because the past events do not fit precisely; they are small shards of a larger mosaic, although they are largely arranged in chronological order. While the present-day story works its way towards a climax, the cataclysmic events in the past, the ones that traumatized the hell out of Hell, they come pretty early in the sequence of memories. Her memories, arranged chronologically, are nevertheless broken into small bits, and the most destructive, central event is the most horribly broken part. Something has been broken, and in a way, these memories are like an attempt to mend that which has been so thoughtlessly, so awfully carelessly destroyed, but like a beautiful vase that has been thrown from a high place, there are still bits and pieces missing, no matter how much care you invest towards making the vase whole again. And there is another thing we notice. The more we read on, the clearer we see that her whole life after what happened in the past is an attempt to deal with that past, or at least all of her current life that we are told about. After all, we can’t forget that it’s the narrator framing the story, telling us of both past and present events and creating a narrative link between them. And as the book draws to a close, both story lines run into one another and we see how skilfully we were led there. The Shadow-Boxing Woman is a small book, both in terms of size and in terms of scope, but at the end, after the climax, after the whole novel’s structure has collapsed, the book suddenly opens up as its heroine takes a deep breath, allowing us to breathe, as well. Paradoxically, in the one moment when darkness literally and figuratively enters the frame again, the novel feels most replete with light and relief. If I seemed to repeat myself these past few lines, it’s because the book is very adept at using its structure to be both very exact and very imprecise. The moment, where the book’s events make the most sense, the moment where we see how everything, past and present, fits, is also the moment when we most realize how unreliable the narrator is, when we see to what extent this book is a literary artifact, a literary creation. This is something that both the constant use of the present tense, as well as the naturalistic-seeming descriptions of the environment have suggested to us.

The novel is full of an obvious and a less obvious symbolism. The obvious symbolism is so direct and upfront that it paradoxically does not detract from the naturalistic impression. In fact, this obvious brand of symbolism, which Parei seems to have an attachment to, is probably the novel’s biggest flaw, and it is one we are apprised of early on. I’ll be honest, I almost stopped reading the book, because I was slightly annoyed by it, as by the book’s other flaw, Parei’s handling of the present tense, but I am glad I didn’t, and I suggest you persevere, as well, should you feel a slight irritation at the way the novel is written or at the book’s intense use of a set of very transparent-seeming symbols and allegorical scenes. It is part of the book’s excellency that, upon finishing it, we are considerably less sure we can see through the novel’s oh so obvious signifying. This begins with naming things. The book’s protagonist is called, as I said, “Hell”, which is German for “light” and her neighbor, the one who goes missing, is called “Dunkel”, i.e. ‘dark’. Mind you, the allocation of properties to symbolically named person is not straightforward, in fact, Parei is rather clever in her use of two sets of morals, one complex and intractable, the other strong and more or less Manichean. Impressive, too, is how insistently everything in Parei’s book is rooted in the embodied reality of Berlin and her protagonist. We are not asked to believe in or subscribe to something based on abstract ideas. Parei grounds everything in a set of experiences, some of them incredibly painful. On the other hand, the web of symbolic references is undeniable. As I said in my first paragraph, there is a strong tradition in Berlin for this kind of writing. The novel’s closest literary relatives are the 19th century plays by Gerhart Hauptmann and the 20th century novels by Alfred Döblin. Hauptmann’s relationship to this book is largely established through his plays Vor Sonnenaufgang (1889) and Die Ratten (1911) dark, naturalistic portraits of a society both coming together, growing into a new century, a new millennium, into modernity, and at the same time, these part portraits of society falling apart at the hands of its greedy, poor, desperate individuals. There are few manifestations of literary realism as densely accomplished as these plays by Gerhart Hauptmann, a towering writer who is surely among the most deserving winners in the 111 year history of the Nobel prize.

In German literature, it’s mainly Hauptmann who has taught us how menacing and desolate Berlin can be, and how the city can visit horrors on its inhabitants wholly absentmindedly. Within his best plays, there is no moral instance, no salvation, no hope. Things just happen, people are just allowed to be themselves, as we look on in helpless terror. Döblin added something else. Coming from the tradition of modernist surrealism, his most famous novel Berlin Alexanderplatz shows us a human being falling through the gaps, seemingly abandoned by the Moloch Berlin like Hauptmann’s unbearable pitiful protagonists, but the book is at the same time a whirlwind of insanity, of strange events, prayers and otherworldly experiences. Döblin’s mistreated protagonist Franz Biberkopf is briefly saved by his fellow human beings again and again, but tragedy (and his own odd head) keeps dragging him into the maelstrom of life, murdering him on the spokes of modernity. I am very insistent on the debts owed to these writers and books, but the similarities are not as obvious as all that. The texture of the atmosphere, the apartment building and the way Parei paints her characters, all this is highly reminiscent of Hauptmann-style naturalism, and on the other hand, the stranger, less straightforwardly realistic moments that veer off into trauma and an odd kind of distortion, these reminded me personally of Döblin. All of this is held together by the place, dirty, scruffy, lovable, horrendous Berlin. Parei has set her novel in a decaying Berlin, a Berlin falling apart. If you look at the cover of the German edition, you can see the facade of a house that looks empty and abandoned, windows smashed, walls crumbling. Mysterious Hell takes it upon herself to live, well, almost squat in such a house, creating a no-man’s land of sorts for herself, as the other tenants do. Far from the bourgeois chic that Auster evokes in a similar scenario in his most recent novel, in Parei’s book the decrepitude of the house, the outsider status of the squatters in the house and the helpless souls of its inhabitants complement one another. If I have to repeat myself, I’ll do so gladly. This is an absolutely stunning and original book, well made, well crafted, well imagined. And the book is so much better than I have made it sound, additionally to all the things I mentioned, the book is set in the period directly after the wall came down, and one could write at least as long an essay as this review about the historical dimensions and intricacies of this fantastic novel. There’s just not enough time and space.

Finally, a few words on the translation. As I read German books in German, I am not usually able to comment on the translation. In this case, I am, because seagull books published an excerpt from the book on its site. I was very nervous reading the translation, because Parei’s style, however simple it appears to be, can’t be easy to translate. Parei opts for a simple syntax, and simple descriptions, and yet every other sentence contains an interesting word or turn of phrase. It’s a constantly intriguing delight to read this book, without ever becoming challenging. It’s both absorbing, and drafted with a calculating pen. From the excerpt, the translation manages to recreate the a very similar impression, while managing to sound more elegant and readable than Parei, who seems awkward sometimes. The present tense is not always easy to maintain in a novel, and Parei sometimes struggles a bit. From what I’ve seen of the translation, this cannot be said for Katy Derbyshire’s excellent translation. I’m intrigued to find out how she solved the Hell/Dunkel names thing, though. Readers, buy this book, and then run and tell me.


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Werner Bräunig: Rummelplatz

Bräunig, Werner (2007), Rummelplatz, Aufbau Verlag
ISBN 978-3-7466-2460-0

Generally, I’m fond of complaining about fine German books that have not been translated into English yet, especially those that have been out and available for a while. It’s somewhat different with Rummelplatz, Werner Bräunig’s famous novel, written 1965. True enough, Rummelplatz is a fine piece of work, one of the best books to come out of the tumultuous environment that was the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the 1960s; although Bräunig himself can scarcely be called one of the best writers of the period. Written in different voices, with varying degrees of success, this 600 page novel seems to be carved from a wealth of raw material, barely ordered and refined. To the unsuspecting reader, Rummelplatz can seem like a heavy freight train, full of impressions and ideas, full of precise observations and broad essayistic reflections, its characters flawed archetypes, ripped roughly from the thread of German literary tradition rather than sympathetically drawn and vivid literary creations. The whole of Rummelplatz seems to cohere only because of the immense will of its author. It is Bräunig’s vision that holds it all together, the whole vibrant, violent, passionate, amazing mess that is Rummelplatz, Bräunig’s first and only novel. Its achievement is all the more stunning, given how small, quiet, unimpressive Bräunig’s short stories are. Although their flaws are present in the novel as well, it succeeds on account of the energy and power that pulses through it. So why has it not been translated yet? Largely, one would have to say, because it has not been published until 2007. Excerpts circulated, rumors abounded, and in discussions of early GDR literature, Bräunig’s work always had pride of place because of the central role he played in the development of the so-called Bitterfelder Weg. Due to politically nocent developments, Bräunig’s manuscript for Rummelplatz had been suppressed in 1965, and subsequently swept under the rug, a lost, unpublished masterpiece. Until, that is, Angela Drescher and the East German publisher Aufbau Verlag decided to resurrect the book, edit and publish it prominently. The author never found out about the renaissance of his critical and popular reputation: he died in 1976 of a disease related to his alcoholism.

In the end, Bräunig fell victim to policies that he himself helped create, an aesthetic that is clearly instrumental in the way Rummelplatz was written. These policies are, as I just mentioned, commonly referred to as the Bitterfelder Weg, i.e. the ‘Bitterfelder way’, so named after a writer’s conference in Bitterfeld, a drab and dreary industrial town in Saxony-Anhalt (an eerily fitting place). The Bitterfelder Weg, a set of official directives, was a complex of ideas that sought to bridge the apparent gap between writers and workers. This was coupled with an appeal, which Bräunig was instrumental in writing, called “Greif zur Feder, Kumpel”, which could be translated as “Miners, take up the pens!”. In accordance with the tenets of the Bitterfelder Weg, dozens of writers went to work (or were made to work) in factories and in mines, in order to better understand the workers’ reality. The basic idea was that too many writers writing ‘what they know’ (to echo the old writing advice) led to a literature concerned with upper-class concerns, drawing-room intrigues, and elite discussions, in short, a body of work that workers could not relate to. The best way to amend this, officials thought, was for writers to get to know real workers, to understand how hands-on work was done (Ayn Rand’s odd phantasmagorias are a gruesome example of not understanding what modern day industrial work looks like on the factory floor). This generally sound idea was undermined by two things. First, the fact that it was often implemented by force, and second, the fact that instead of merely enlarging the ‘what they know” part of the formula (and thus encouraging writers to include everyday work experience in a meaningful and correct way in their prose), officials soon rather emphasized the ‘what’ part. The Bitterfelder Weg turned into the GDR version what has been known as socialist realism since the 1930s, an aesthetic that demanded of writers to only (or at least predominantly) write realistically (although that term isn’t defined as you’d think it’d be) and about everyday life. It was buttressed by the directives that were encouraging workers to write (which is the “Miners, take up the pens!” part of the whole construction). Within a few years, every sizable company had a writing collective and writing workshops.

These workshops were often held by some of the leading writers of the time, and could, sometimes, produce intriguing results. Traces of that interaction can be found in all kinds of works, but perhaps most noticeably in Brigitte Reimann’s brilliant novels (also, sadly, inexcusably, untranslated, including her masterpiece Franziska Linkerhand). The Bräunig-penned appeal was published in 1959, and on the plus side it led to a plethora of art from unexpected places. Details and descriptions connected to the everyday reality of workers came up in novels, stories and plays of the period. Quickly, however, the negative aspects of the doctrine were felt, especially two of them. One was the rising amount of indoctrinated literature. Workers in their writing workshops were gently guided in how to properly write, how to talk about workers, power and the bourgeoisie, how to talk about the party, and which theories to use, implement and cite. That was because those workshops that were not held by genuine writers, were held by people loyal to the socialist party, and they had a very definite idea of what kind of literature was worth writing (and reading) and which wasn’t. As a result of these indoctrinated workshops, professional writers were suddenly asked to also do as the workers did. After all, in the GDR, workers and peasants were, in theory, on moral high ground. They did the right thing because they were workers. Of course, this theory had little to do with actual workers, but party officials were often blissfully unaware of contradictions like that. In time, these contradictions and the ideological pressure on what kind of content was considered appropriate for literary production led to a very difficult situation. While officials said that they wanted writers to pursue a brand of realism, this realism did not in fact include intransigently negative depictions of everyday life on the factory floor. Literature, it was officially maintained, needed to teach people something, and help them understand their life, their country and most of all the revolutionary process better, but most of all, it was educational, supposed to make everyone involved into a better, more useful citizen. Being a communist was a good thing only if it meant you were uncritically useful. Books like Rummelplatz, with its searing (but fundamentally communist) criticism of the status quo, were deemed corruptive.

In the West, we like to read opposition against socialist regimes along anti-communist lines, which explains in part the perennial popularity of a royalist like Solzhenitsyn. But the sad truth was that the GDR government targeted passionate communists as well as the anti-communist opposition. Passionate communists like Heiner Müller, Christa Wolf or Werner Bräunig decried what they saw as perversions of a noble and magnificent ideal, and they were punished accordingly. One of the best examples of the line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ communism is the difference between the novel Spur der Steine (~ Traces of Stones) and its film version. The novel, written by Erik Neutsch is a long, and ultimately dull affair. It starts off well, telling the story of an outsider and his adventures, but ends in a long coda of basically educational remarks. In the end, Neutsch’s protagonist sees the error of his ways and becomes a useful cog in the GDR machine. This doesn’t happen in Frank Beyer’s fantastic film version, also entitled Spur der Steine. The film is a stronger work of art because it’s more coherent and more loyal towards its protagonist. It was however this realism unsupported by an educational finish that earned the movie the ire of GDR officials, so that it was eventually banned, a ban that in the end included Neutsch’s novel. Both Neutsch and Beyer were passionate and outspoken communists and supporters of the German Democratic Republic, yet they failed what GDR officials saw as the main function of literature. If you look at the process that eventually led to such bans, you are likely to be surprised by the almost random nature of it. Sometimes writers appeared to be equally surprised or even blindsided by the sudden onslaught of official criticism and the subtle and not-so-subtle ways of repression that ensued. Writers like Bräunig did not write oppositional literature against a dictatorial regime. In 1965, before the erection of the Berlin Wall, many writers believed the party line which proclaimed that debate was integral to the young socialist republic. What they forgot was that the other party line was “the Party’s always right” (there’s actually an official hymn, the refrain of which is “the Party, the Party, the Party’s always right.” click here to listen and cringe) and highlighting mistakes impudently suggested that the Party may not, in fact, always be right.

This is a rather long introduction that leads us to Werner Bräunig’s excellent book, large portions of which take place among miners and in a paper factory. in the years leading up to 1953 Bräunig was not himself a miner or a paper factory worker by profession, but he did work as a miner for a year, and in a paper factory for two more years. Although he had embarked on a career in literature and academia when the Bitterfelder Weg directives were given out, Rummelplatz closely reflects the ideals that were behind the cultural policies decided in Bitterfeld. It is a story about the everyday reality of miners in the Wismut AG in Saxony and of paper factory workers in Chemnitz, and it’s painstakingly accurate about all kinds of details. My own grandfather had worked in mines for most of his adult life, two years of which were spent with the Wismut AG. I talked to him after reading the book and he corroborates all the details, down to even the smallest observations, of life in the Wismut mines. The Wismut mines were uranium mines, and thus of central strategic importance not just to the GDR officials, but also to the Soviet occupying forces. Daily life in Wismut meant having a Russian military officer as a boss, and seeing Soviet soldiers everywhere. Every miner leaving the mines at the end of the day was closely controlled and information about the mines operated by the Wismut AG, was slow in coming. On the other hand, of all the mining work in the GDR, the Wismut mines offered the best wages by far, and thus attracted workers from all over the Republic. A 1958 movie by Konrad Wolf, Sonnensucher (unreleased until 1972) is enlightening if you want to understand the heated atmosphere in the uranium mines where all kinds of people came to work. Bräunig’s potent mixture of characters is less a feat of imaginative invention than a reflection of the torrid reality of the uranium mine work. In his book, he assembles, among many other colorful characters, a brawler and misfit, a Party official, an alcoholic Soviet engineer, and a young man who works in the mines in order to ‘make up’ for his non-working-class background and be allowed to study at a university later on.

The central image of the Rummelplatz (~ fairground) is the place where the miners meet with the community around them; it is also the place where rules carry less weight, and people behave differently. The fairground acts as the outlet for all the trouble and annoyance and pain that accumulates during work. People drink, fight, fuck and socialize on the fairground. In essence, within the novel, the role of the Rummelplatz is similar to the role that Bakhtin attributed to the carnivalesque. The sobriety, accuracy and somber nature of the main narrative dissolves into a sensual, desperate frenzy on the fairground. This is also true for Bräunig’s writing. Mostly, Bräunig’s style is indebted to the Neue Sachlichkeit, a style current in 1920s Germany. Unlike the great new writers of his age, i.e. Uwe Johnson, Irmtraud Morgner, Günter Grass, Wolfgang Koeppen or Christa Wolf, Bräunig cannot escape the shackles of the style that dominated German literature up until the end of WWII. The moments of madness, of the carnivalesque, are the only instances of Bräunig giving his language freer rein, touching on something bigger; but even this loose, jacked-up language lacks originality: at his best, Bräunig (infrequently) manages to sound a bit like the Döblin of Berlin Alexanderplatz (which is of course high praise). On the other hand, since the whole novel is a mix of registers and voices, the style, which vacillates between Johannes Pinneberg, Hans Fallada’s hapless hero, and Franz Biberkopf, Döblin’s, does fit the overall structure of the novel very well. It is split up into smaller bits of story, each of which follows one particular character in his odyssey through post-war socialism. Some characters have two pages of text, others turn up all the time. This makes for a very fragmented, lively and exiting read. As the editor, disingenuously, explains in the afterword, the manuscript was actually even more fragmented, because it wasn’t arranged chronologically. Assuming this to be a mistake the editor re-arranged the chapters (only one of many questionable editorial decisions). But it’s not just the characters that alternate, it’s also the places. The three main places of action are the Wismut mines near Chemnitz, the paper factory in Chemnitz, and a paper factory in West Germany.

The part of the narrative that takes place in the Wismut mines especially follows the fates of three particular characters. There is Peter Loose, a disaffected, confused, but capable miner who likes girls, alcohol and bar fights. Eventually, his carefree ways will get him into conflict with the law, until his imprisonment for politically motivated reasons in the last third of the novel. There’s, Christian, the aforementioned young man who wants to study. He comes to mining wholly innocently, and his first weeks in the mine almost break his back, but through hard and conscientious work he eventually becomes a fine miner, earning more money than most older or established miners. The third is Fischer, an old Party official, who’d been imprisoned by the National Socialists during WWII, and who’s a thoroughly likable character, a ‘good’ communist, who believes that Marxism is supposed to serve the people rather than the other way around. His tragedy is that his reading of Marxism is on the way out, while mindless bureaucracy is in. His daughter is the main character in those sections that focus on the nearby paper factory. This factory lacks workers, because every able-bodied man on the factory floor is trying to get a job in the mines, and early in the book, she suggests that they could let women operate the machines as well. Eventually, she’s allowed on the factory floor and despite several struggles, she prevails, and earns the respect of her fellow workers. There are two noteworthy aspects about these stories. One is the absolutely soapy quality of these story lines. If the background had been drawn less urgently, and if the overall vision and coherence had been even just a tad less powerful, these stories would have sunken like stones into the muck of literary irrelevance. The other aspect is that all of these story lines can be used to extrapolate harsh criticism of the GDR. There are repressive bureaucrats, there is rampant sexism, and discrimination against white collar children. But it would be a mistake to jump from this criticism to an indictment of communism. As one character says:

[J]a freilich, das ist bei Marx nicht vorgesehen. Es ist vom Kommunismus das genaue Gegenteil. Aber leider sehen wir ja immer mal wieder, was einer in Marx’ Namen aus Marx machen kann, sofern er nur rechthaberisch und unfähig genug ist.

(~ Of course, this has not been intended by Marx. This is the exact opposite of Communism. But regrettably we keep seeing what people can turn Marx into in Marx’ name if they are dogmatic and inept enough)

It’s quite important to remember that socialist writers in the 1960 were faced with a disintegrating dream, as communism was slowly subverted, dismantled and destroyed by brutal, dull and single-minded officials. As I said, there is an easy narrative in the West that dissident literature in East Germany was engaged in a struggle against Communism – not so. Many of the people treated harshest by the system were ardent communist, struggling in a system that perverted an ideology these writers considered to be liberating. And Bräunig highlights this predicament with a sharp eye.

Although Christa Wolf’s spectacular literary work (see my review) is probably the best literary indictment of this change in German literature, Rummelplatz shows us what Bräunig might have achieved, as well, had he finished his work. Rummelplatz is the first book of a two-part work, and the most cogent remarks about communism crop up in the later sections of the book; one assumes the second volume would have explored that direction further, especially given Bräunig’s remarks about West Germany and its role in the predicament of the GDR after the Soviet occupation. Throughout much of the book, Bräunig’s imprecise with his criticism, preferring to explore individual stories and what they have to say about the relationship of individuals vs. society. The only exception, except for the portions about communism near the end, is his treatment of West Germany. Both in the way he describes events in West Germany as well as in the way he mentions it, we are witnessing a no-holds-barred approach to the topic. Big corporations, we hear, left the GDR and tried to entice capable talents of moving into the West, as well. He makes clear that people with Nazi pasts saw West Germany as a safe haven and tried to pool their funds into that country where they could continue to cohabitate with fellow Nazis. We might want to remember that, however problematic, negligent and complex the Nazi purges were in the GDR after the 1950s, West Germany had Nazi governors, chancellors and judges. In fact, as we learned late last year, the ‘Butcher of Lyon’, Klaus Barbie, hiding in Bolivia, had been on the payroll of the German government in the 1960s. Also, as if he’s been prescient, Bräunig has a reply to all those who today claim that socialist economics are bound to fail, using the GDR economy as an example (and comparing it with the West German one):

Nun, nach fünfundvierzig habe es in Westdeutschland 120 Hochöfen gegeben, auf dem Gebiet der DDR aber […] nur fünf. Und mit anderen Dingen sei es ähnlich. […] “Wissen Sie, sagte Bauerfeld, “bis fünfundvierzig war dieses Ostdeutschland nichts weiter als ein großes Kartoffelfeld.”

(~ Well, after forty-five, West Germany had 120 blast furnaces, but the GDR only five. With other issues, it was similarly. “You know”, Bauerfeld said, “until forty-five East Germany had been nothing but one big potato field.”)

That said, Bräunig cannot be read as an apologist for the status quo. He’s well aware of the problems. The bureaucracy, inherited from the Third Reich, and a country full of Germans, who clung to old stereotypes, old prejudices, old kinds of hate and resentment. At one point he has a character say: this country is bound to fail unless we pull together, unless we change, unless we move forward.

It would not be surprising if it had been this kind of criticism that caused the book to be banned. Alas, that was not the case. Bräunig found himself at the center of a large campaign against ‘wrong’ kinds of books, after an excerpt from his novel-in-progress was published that contained fairly little such criticism. It was one of his carnivalesque scenes. In it, he wrote about the hunger and despair of these early years, he wrote about sexual appetites, about small fry violence and large scale binge drinking. These scenes are among those that ring most true in the whole book, but despite asking for realism in the Bitterfelder Weg doctrines, this is not the kind of realism that was demanded. These workers were not brilliant noble creatures, they were flawed, sweaty, horny men and women. Ultimately, this was unacceptable; what made it worse was the fact that Bräunig wrote about the hallowed uranium mines, which were quite generally a thorny subject. The above-mentioned Sonnensucher had also been banned immediately. It was released later in the brief period of artistic liberalization between 1972 and 1976, but by then Bräunig had fallen apart as writer and man. He published an ok collection of stories in 1969 and worked on another novel, but according to his editor, there wasn’t much to be excited about in these drafts. The tragedy of Bräunig’s squandered talent is brutal. My grandfather, who worked in various mines in the area that Rummelplatz is set in remembers a time of excitement, of hopes, of possibilities. Workers often felt empowered, and skill was often more respected than seniority or clout. This is the time that Bräunig portrays and this is the energy that suffuses this incredible book. There are countless flaws, inconsistencies etc. in it, but it’s only a draft, after all, never readied for publication. Bräunig’s not one of the great writers of his time. But he could have been. Translate this book! I provided but a very poor summary of the book that crawls with ideas and teems with life. Rummelplatz has similarities to books by writers like Anna Seghers and is historically fascinating, but above all, it’s a feast of a book. Read it, translate it, buy it. Translation rights are listed here.

Update (Feb 25, 2011): Apparently, the book’s rights have been sold and it’s being translated as we speak. How’s that for great news?


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Jakob Arjouni: Happy Birthday, Turk!

Arjouni, Jakob (1987), Happy Birthday, Türke!, Diogenes
ISBN 9783257215441

[English translation: Arjouni, Jakob (1994), Happy Birthday, Turk!, No Exit Press
Translated by Anselm Hollo
ISBN 1874061378]

From Raymond Chandler to Georges Simenon and Jean-Claude Izzo, the hard-boiled detective novel and the noir both have occupied an interesting place within literature. Their clean brethren, police procedural, regular mystery or detective novels are, at best, highly entertaining reads, cleverly structured maybe or elegantly told. There is a reason, however, why critics, even snobbishly inclined ones, are more likely to accept noir or the hard-boiled detective as Literature (note the capital ‘L’) than their less dark or gritty cousins. I think that these genres capture an idea or a feeling for a certain section of society, and manage to create a competent and cunning image of problems troubling the whole of society. The best books written in these genres can provide an impressively accurate idea of the socioeconomic tensions that run through the society of their time, whether it’s Chandler’s Californian wastelands, Simenon’s post-war France or Izzo’s sweaty, bitter Marseille. Instead of using a figure of authority as a way of handling a story, they tend to pick criminals, or private investigators who are little better than criminals and frequently resorting to criminal means. The connection of sexual and political deviation with life as a criminal is probably most often associated with Jean Genet’s magnificent novels, but in the best of hard-boiled detective and noir novels, it has always been present. Thus they often manage to furnish a sharp commentary on the current situation in their countries, via the dark underbelly of the society’s sinners, those who serve as scapegoats and victims, sources of exploitative practices and thought. This is what makes these genres endure, what turned their writers into literary legends and influential figures even within the mainstream literary canon after a while.

During these writers’ lifetimes, their work is often seen as merely entertaining, however, which is one of the reasons why writers like Jakob Arjouni are not fêted and showered with prizes for their genre writing. After all, Arjouni, who is a bestselling writer of genre fiction (although he’s increasingly been publishing more blatantly ‘literary’ books), writes work that is often as perceptive and incisive as that of political writers and literary giants like Heinrich Böll or Günter Grass. His 1985 debut novel, Happy Birthday, Türke! (translated into English as Happy Birthday, Turk! and into French as Bonne fête, le Turc!) is the first of, so far, four books modeled on Chandler’s novels about private eye Philip Marlowe. It remains as vital and interesting as it was the very year it was first published. But despite the fact that Happy Birthday, Türke provides as cogent and focused a comment on the state of Germany in the mid-1980s, as regards race, sexuality and history, as any other book written that decade, Arjouni’s book and its followup volumes are primarily perceived as “great reads”, “pleasurable”, “intriguing entertainment” or “suspenseful”, to quote randomly from reviews. One of the reasons for this is the fact that the books are crammed with adventure and violence. Happy Birthday, Türke is chock full of stuff, full, of fights, exposures, sex, and an awful lot of drinking. There is little thinking, events just keep piling up, people get punched, stabbed and shot, conspiracies are uncovered, people are blackmailed, gassed and run over by cars. Prostitutes and pimps, policemen and drug dealers, Turks and Germans, all play a role (or several) in this eventful little book. Arjouni wrote it at the tender age of 22, and the speed, the impulsive, playful, angry quality of youthful writing streams from every pore of this book and is one of its strongest points.

Less strong is the actual writing, although it’s more correct to call it less literary. Happy Birthday, Türke! is written in a wild melange of voices. There are different dialects, various registers, all warring for domination and there is no narrative voice that is careful and literary enough to tame the diverse sounds into one coherent soundscape, into a hierarchy of sounds. This aspect is perfectly fitting for the lack of hierarchies and authoritative instances in Arjouni’s novel and is one of many instances where his choices as a writer are surprisingly spot-on for such a young man. Happy Birthday, Türke! is set in Frankfurt, the capital of the German state Hessen, in west-central Germany, and he does a great job of conveying the local dialect to his readers. Arjouni, who went on to write plays as well as novels, seems to have a knack for finding the right register, the right tone for each of his characters. He rightly recognizes that even regiolects are indicative of diastratic varieties and the moment a character, no matter how minor they might be, opens their mouth, we have a clear sense of their place in the social order of 1980s Frankfurt. There’s no need for Arjouni to spend hours explaining histories and contexts to his readers: by grabbing his characters by the tongue, so to say, he nails down their situation in an uncannily precise manner. That said, the language isn’t perfect or even particularly great in the book, despite Arjouni’s instincts and insights. One problem, and this is not a small one, is that he seems, far too often, stiff and artificial when rendering dialogue that does not contain regiolects. As many, many other German writers and reviewers, Arjouni, too, seems incapable of rendering colloquial language in a lively and believable manner. That need not be a strong disadvantage, but his book relies so much on the descriptive and narrative power of colloquialisms that a lack of skill in that department is an enormous problem for the book.

Another problem has to do with the fact that the book’s narrator is its protagonist, the private detective Kemal Kayankaya. He is Turk “by birth” but, orphaned early, he had grown up with German parents, went to the Gymnasium, and then, for fun, started his private eye business. He doesn’t speak Turkish, and he is untouched by other aspects of Turkish culture, as well. His horizon, as far as culture and education is concerned, is that of a moderately well-off German, who has recently fallen on hard times. That conflict, between the level of education, his current standing in his society and a clear wish to be somewhat cool, produces his language, which is the only constant voice in the book. It is itself, however, not ‘constant’. The uneven flow of his voice is oddly uncomfortable. Cheap jokes, hard-boiled asides, reasoned remarks and observations and a generally uncouth attitude are taking turns in Arjouni’s book. Except for the fact that he never lapses into local dialect, his voice seems less his own, than a mixture of other people’s voices. This impression is exacerbated by the fact that there are few deliberations, a decided lack of sentimentalities or interiorities, in keeping with the genre of the hard-boiled detective novel. As readers, we are often left with what feels like a patchwork of quotes, pastiches and homages to Chandler, Hammett and much lesser writers. The very character of Kemal Kayankaya himself is less of an autonomous character and more like a new coat of paint on an already very familiar model. All this, while interesting in concept, can make for slightly annoying reading, because, no matter how fitting, how smart or well thought-out that kind of language is, it’s always teetering on the brink of trash. Quoting and paraphrasing trashy writing, as Arjouni frequently does, has the downside of introducing that trashy quality into one’s own pages. Arjouni’s decision not to use a dominant and overarching artistic frame or narrative means that the trashy writing, irregardless whether its quoted or not, keeps jostling its ways to the forefront of the book.

As I already mentioned, the titular Turk, Happy Birthday, Türke!‘s protagonist Kemal Kayankaya is a paint-by-numbers hard-boiled detective. He drinks a lot, is not hesitant to beat people with a fist, random objects or his hand gun, he keeps his cool with girls, with such a tried-and-true mixture of condescension and flirtatiousness that we almost expect him to call them ‘dolls’. He is tough on the outside but has a hard of gold, hidden somewhere in his battered body. Because not only does he hit people a lot, he also gets hit a lot, in the face, in the stomach, on the head and elsewhere. For most of the book he is nursing the bruises from the first beating he receives in the course of this investigation, reminding this reader of Jack Gitte’s injured and bandaged nose. Like many heroes from the books and movies that served Arjouni as inspirations, Kayankaya is fully engaged, with his body, life and, in a way, his whole existence, on the line. This has always been one of the most interesting differences between the dark and the light kind of mysteries. Despite the occasional threats to regular detectives and police officials in the light mysteries, these are easily categorized threats, usually reducible to one specific hostile party. There is never that utter, tantalizing precariousness of noir and hard-boiled detective novels. Even Marlowe, white and male, with the confidence and swagger of the privileged prick, is balancing there. The fears of the privileged, sexual, violent and political, which often form literary subtext, are palpable, endangering forces in these works. It’s Arjouni’s genius that his protagonist’s very identity is informed by such a balancing act. Culturally, he is a (white) German male, but the Other, which in Germany is more often the Turkish immigrant than Gilroy’s blacks, is also part of his identity, since his outward appearance betrays his Turkish ancestry.

This is Arjouni’s innovation, this is what he added to the long tradition of the hard-boiled detective novel. In 1985 Frankfurt, we learn, Turks are despised even by street hookers, traditionally viewed as pretty low on the ladder of social hierarchy. Turks, Kayankaya’s interlocutor’s often assume, can’t speak German, are stupid, criminal, greedy, or sexual perverts. He is an outcast, often literally, as his skin alone is reason enough to have himself thrown out of various houses and establishments. He is paid to investigate the murder of a Turkish worker (the plot, convoluted though it is, is just as hard-boiled-by-numbers as the protagonist himself), and is soon almost submerged by a wave of hate. The racism, both popular and institutional, is mind-boggling, and makes Happy Birthday, Türke! often an especially dark read. The language and the narrative is so quirky and often at pains not to dwell on the dark aspects, but the Kafkaesque nightmare of living in a city the main inhabitants of which despise you because of how you look, often breaks through. As the book progresses, we quickly find that the cheap jokes and puns are often stabs at gallows humor. In only two quick, almost unremarked, asides, Arjouni points to the historical continuity of all that hate, by having one retired policeman help Kayankaya, a policeman who had occasionally disobeyed orders during the Third Reich, as well, in order to help Jews. The vision of Germany here is unremittingly bleak, but what shines are Arjouni’s instincts. Arjouni himself is German, his real name is Jakob Bothe, he’s the son of Hans Günter Michelsen, a reasonably well-known German playwright. The novel shows us that he’s marvelously aware of the problems that writing from a privileged angle involves and all the evasive, non-dominant aspects of the novel suddenly appear to be geared to create a writing that can narrate a Turkish story without exploiting, exoticizing or Othering Turks or foreigners in general. The protagonist’s voice itself represents a retreat from narrative privilege. That does not usually make for better reading, but it does add layers of intrigue to the whole book.

That level of awareness and conceptual clarity is rare enough in experienced writers, but in a 22 year old, it’s wondrous. As is the longevity of his insights into German culture and politics. Today’s resurgence of racism is similarly patterned, although it’s often coated with claims of ‘religious criticism’. The same thing that appears to power politics in southern US states, where Chicano studies have to battle absurd accusations of anti-white racism, is slowly taking over discourses in Germany as well. For a few years, resentment at the difference of Turks has been mounting. Germans expect Turks to not speak with a dialect, to not speak Turkish, to dress properly, and be quiet with their religious beliefs. Germans have settled into a feeling of resentment, whether towards Turks or Jews or other minorities. For decades, this was complicated and tempered by a slow-burning guilt over the Third Reich and its atrocities. This has changed. Germans are now expecting those who aren’t German to assimilate, to come to heel, and any kind of cultural or ideological independence is viewed almost as an act of treason. The atmosphere, and the rage that fuels it, has an almost Wilhelminian (the Second) air about it. Arjouni’s novel, published 25 years ago, manages to provide such a cogent vision of the dark underbelly of the Germany of its time, that its implicit conclusions and indictments are still valid, still bleak and the book is still worth reading. This is a crime novel that demonstrates why that genre is so vibrant, powerful and important, to this day. With hesitations, with caveats, I nevertheless recommend this short and harsh little book.

A short personal note. As I am trying to finish two manuscripts and getting back into reviewing books, I have a hospital bill to pay off, which means all kinds of issues for me. If you have a buck or two to spare, I would be more than thankful. There is a paypal button on the right hand side of this page. That’s just in case you feel charitable. As it is, I am happy enough about every single one of my readers. There are more of you than I ever expected, even through the dry months in the past year, and I am thoroughly humbled. Thank you all.

Pyrite: Why you shouldn’t read Ingo Schulze

Anybody reading this blog will know that I have little love for Ingo Schulze, whom I tend to refer to as the “curly haired hack”. During the past months I have received a couple of emails (~ 10, which is half my readership) inquiring about my frequently communicated dislike for a writer they keep hearing good stuff about. I answered two of these emails personally, but am too lazy to keep it up. Well, here are the goods:

Ingo Schulze must be one of the more famous living German writers. He sells well domestically, has won a wide variety of prizes and every new book is sure to receive broad attention and a nomination for one of the major German literary prizes. Additionally, he’s also widely translated into different languages, and has received positive write-ups in Anglophone and Francophone newspapers. In a climate where many readers and critics are concerned about the lack of attention accorded to translations and translators by major journals and publishers, writers like Schulze are a success story. And he’s the best examples that they shouldn’t always be, because Schulze is a deeply mediocre writer, and the attention he receives arguably takes away time and space from better contemporary writers in German, whose voices should be heard, like Thomas Stangl, or Clemens J. Setz, or Reinhard Jirgl.

While its true, and quite sufficient to point out, that Schulze is quite simply a pretty bad writer, on many levels, it should nevertheless be mentioned that, first and foremost, he fails on the level of the actual writing, his style. This is a failure that isn’t just due to a lack of talent, but part of a broader malaise in Ingo Schulze’s writing. It’s actually quite often true that style cannot be divested from content. Brilliant writers with a careless style like Philip K. Dick (my apologies to fans of Dick’s writing) are the exception. More often, a lack of care, attention or sensibility to the rhythm, music and depth of language is revealing of other defects as far as the structure, thinking or characters of the particular piece of prose are concerned. True, great writers are born with a certain modicum of talent, but I am convinced that everybody, with enough care and effort, can be good. Reading is about encountering minds, good writing isn’t tethered to a specific level of intelligence. Every writer can be decent.

Why bad writing is often so frustrating is that bad writers, I think, in order to be bad writers, need to be less than attentive or careful about their writing, something that you can see in all or most aspects of their work. With a good enough plot, interesting enough characters, sentiment and a subject matter that is either politically pleasing or controversial, one can hide mediocrity well enough. Paolo Giordano’s problematic, but oddly well-received bestseller The Solitude of Prime Numbers (my review) is a case in point. This lack is least easy to hide in the actual writing, the style. This is why I stress Ingo Schulze’s execrable writing so much. This defect may not be as perceptible to Americans, who get to see him through a distorting lens (though after having spent some time with Helen Lowe-Porter’s crude manhandling of Thomas Mann, I can’t muster the energy to criticize any competent translator, whose work is difficult enough), after all, Portuguese friends assure me that even Coelho is much, much worse in the Brazilian original, and is saved by his translators in other languages.

To best describe Schulze’s stylistic deficiencies, it’s appropriate to say, I think, that there’s a kind of linguistic complacency in his style, it’s more than just bad writing, and what’s more, it had not always been as bad and complacent. Schulze’s best work of fiction, for several reasons, is his 1995 debut, 33 Augenblicke des Glücks, indebted as it is to E.T.A. Hoffmann and even more, I think, to Leo Perutz. In this book, Schulze delights in his writing, like these two role models, he delights in the mechanics of literature, delights in using his own voice. But in his first book, Perutz is the stronger influence, I think. Unlike Hoffmann he is very reluctant to be overtly political; his work is also more open to violent images, and stark contrasts and conflicts than Hoffmann’s subtle prose. There is a youthful power in this book, Schulze constantly playing to his strengths. In an ill-advised move, Schulze will, in the further trajectory of his career, move away from Perutz and toward the Hoffmann of Meister Floh or his masterpiece The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr (my review), without offering as much thought, brilliance or generosity as the Prussian genius.

33 Augenblicke des Glücks, translated by John E. Woods into English as 33 Moments of Happiness, is not great literature, but it’s quite entertaining and not embarrassing, something that is increasingly less true as his work develops. Schulze is and remains competent, but has quickly become complacent and weak. His first book won the Döblin Förderpreis, and if you didn’t know that, I’ll tell you that the Döblin Prize and the Büchner Prize are the two German literary awards most worth monitoring. When he published the book, Schulze was primarily a journalist, writing for and founding several newspapers. There is an energy in that part of his life, and an intelligence that stayed, diluted, with him. After his debut, Schulze was accepted more fully into a literary mainstream, publishing, to date, 5 books, among them two novels, Neue Leben (2005) and Adam und Evelyn (2008). His past, however, never quite left him.

On the plus side, the Döblin prize was, as he himself kept stressing, strangely apt for Schulze’s burgeoning poetic sensibilities. Schulze’s best book in any genre, is his 2009 collection of essays, Was Wollen Wir? (~ What Do We Want?), collecting essays written over the course of several years. It’s not good literary criticism, not good political journalism, Lord knows. What it is is a wonderful memoir in fragments, and Döblin and his work is front and center in it. There is no influence of Döblin on Schulze’s writing or his commitments or the quality of his thinking, but as Schulze continued writing, moving from stories to speeches and novels, it’s clearly Döblin’s specter who was behind the changes, whether it’s Schulze’s increasingly odd characters, the influx of political pathos or the grandiose literary gestures, complete with gargantuan 18th century narratives (Neue Leben), vague mythical underpinnings (Adam und Evelyn) and Hoffmannian satire (Handy, Neue Leben)

The obsession with Döblin, plastered all over Was Wollen Wir?, isn’t flattering for Schulze’s work, since the reference invites comparisons, and apart from his debut book, his work just doesn’t even remotely measure up. So while Döblin has expedited Schulze’s artistic development, this development has actually moved Schulze away from him who was arguably, with Jahnn, the best German novelist of the 20th century. Responsible for this discrepancy is the other remnant from his past, his training as a journalist. A few paragraphs ago, I started into this disparagement of Schulze by citing his stylistic awfulness, calling it ‘complacency’. To be more exact, his style’s weaknesses correspond to a kind of writing that has taken over German journalistic writing sometime in the 1990s, with the advent of women’s and men’s magazines (titles like Amica or the German Men’s Health come to mind), characterized by a curiously assertive use of language, an intense quirkiness, so to say. The point seemed to be to convey an insouciant, slightly erudite, individualism. This kind of writing was instantly recognizable, and eminently mockable.

It developed so quickly and completely, sprung upon German readers like a tasteless Athena, in full, talentless armor. What is annoying, but also entertaining in journalist writing, seems little else but sloppy in fiction and it was there where it stuck and developed into full bloom and convention. In the late 1990s it stopped being ‘journalese’ and started to be a hallmark of mediocre, careless prose. There are certain turns of phrases, narrative structures, stereotypical characters which can be directly traced back to the peculiarities of this journalistic style. In my reading experience with regard to contemporary German fiction, this kind of writing almost never turns up in bits here and there. It’s usually an infestation with it, an either/or situation. This writing is an easy way out, recognizable, and relying on a certain consensus among the reading public. To use this style is to appeal to the lowest common denominator among a vaguely educated readership, and it’s indicative of other sub-par literary decisions. The work of many writers who decided to go down that path bears witness to the inextricably joined level of content and style.

Thankfully, many writers remain who refrain from writing this way. Ilija Trojanow would be one of them. Even in his weaker books, such as his dystopic SF novel Autopol (my review), he stays clear of it, but many others can’t. There is this year’s winner of the Leipzig book fair prize, Georg Klein (although his prize-winning book, Roman unserer Kindheit (~Novel of our childhood) is a departure of sorts), or the author of last year’s sensational surprise hit Paradiso, Thomas Klupp. Schulze, however, is worse, because in his case the stylistic complacency corresponds to an intellectual one. Like Paul Auster, Schulze uses complex narratives without any stylistic or intellectual backbone, but while Auster’s work is like a reader’s digest of postmodern theory, amusing and quite harmless, and mostly not particularly political, Schulze’s purview is larger- he aim for both the political and the historical, which makes him much more insufferable than his competent and incompetent co-hacks. His major topics are the German reunification and its fallout in the private and public lives of Germans.

Schulze writes about these topics as if he were pressed for time, under pressure to produce an anniversary op-ed. The complexities and problems of the situation, raised time and again in countless excellent German novels and novellas, barely make a dent in his lukewarm sentimental hodge-podge of platitudes and truisms. Open any popular news magazine at random, find a story about the particular topic at hand, and there you’ll find Schulze. I’ve talked to young journalists, some of whom have spent time at university with me, and they tell me that you can’t afford to alienate your readers, that you need to write for them. If you challenge them, you also need to flatter them in return. They need to be motivated to buy your paper once a day or once a week and spend a considerable time reading it, so you need to give them a narrative for political events that they can accept. A novelist has more liberties. But Ingo Schulze seems to have decided, at one point in his career, to not use these liberties.

So his work reads tediously unsurprising, like the gloss of a pamphlet. It’s really dull in its own right, as all the magazines and newspapers who perpetuate the same thin narratives, are. But it’s when I remember that he’s a writer of fiction, one who sees himself in the line of Döblin and Hoffmann, that I have least patience with his childishness. His work suffers most when compared to books like Günter Grass’ Far Afield, a novel that draws both on Grass’ heavy polemic streak, on Hans Joachim Schädlich’s acidic and powerful novel Tallhover and on the continuity of the Grotesque in bourgeois realist fiction in Germany. Its politics are odd, but gloriously so, it delights in its literariness and doesn’t shy away from taking risks. Grass, by the way, is one of the most vocal and most able heirs of Döblin in post-war German fiction. An heir of Brecht, and writer of several books that make Schulze look bad by comparison is Volker Braun, especially, with regard to the topic of the German reunification, his collection of stories/novellas Trotzdestonichts (my review). A third book that provides a unique (and masterfully written) account of the complexities of these turbulent years in Germany is Marcel Beyer’s 2008 novel Kaltenburg (my review), which shows that even contemporaries of Schulze can and do rise far above him and that’s just the parts of it that deal with the upheavals and the changes.

There is another aspect to his work, the east/west relationship, i.e. the relationship between the two Germanies. Again, Schulze comes up short, again, he fails to rise to the possibilities, well established by writers such as the great Uwe Johnson, whose books like Das Dritte Buch über Achim (~ The Third Book about Achim, 1962) or Zwei Ansichten (~ Two Points of View, 1965), helped create an interesting and complex discourse about this topic, one further developed by writers such as Reiner Kunze or Günter Kunert. I realize that it might be unfair to compare Schulze to great writers, but the sad truth is that neither Kunze nor Kunert are, in fact, great writers. But both have put a lot of thought into their works and both developed a distinct idea of how these issues work. Schulze hasn’t really. He riffs on sentimentality. His satiric streak took over during the early 00s, and his writing, modeled on Döblin but influenced mainly by Hoffmann, at this stage in his work, never achieves the level of insight, and acidic analysis that most great satire manages. There is a seriousness even to the light late works of E.T.A. Hoffmann, a seriousness of purpose that drove him to write satires that endangered his livelihood and even, arguably, his life, in a repressive climate. In a far less repressive climate, meanwhile, Schulze, the former NVA (the army of the GDR) soldier, takes no such risks, politically.

He does, however, feign literary risks by writing Neue Leben (translated by John E. Woods into English as New Lives) an enormous slab of a novel, mimicking in style (partly) and structure the great epistolary novels of the 18th century. I said that good writing is about care and attention. Great writing, however, is about risks. Attacking great writers for diverging from grammatical conventions, for using a style that departs from the norm that we would teach in creative writing workshops or encourage as editors, is utterly beside the point and borderline moronic. This Schulze understands completely and every page of Neue Leben screams out: yes, I indulge, but I am an artiste, I am a great writer. I am Döblin, Hoffmann and Thomas Mann rolled up in one. Only, he isn’t, of course. The followup novel (with a forgettable collection of stories sandwiched in between the two) Adam und Evelyn is dominated by dialogue, and half-hearted references to myth and religion. As a reader, there’s a certain morbid interest in following Schulze’s career, which has turned into a wild romp, drunk on Romanticism and Modernism, without a thought to spare for the history nor the language he is abusing here. His writing has, by now, reached an all-time low; a level that, however, he was effortlessly able to sustain for his last two books. Neither of these are Schulze’s main failings, though. It’s rather the fact that the books bank so much on being perceptive and insightful that the revelation that they aren’t, almost completely destroys them.

The book needs a reader who is comfortable with reading the watered-down, palatable version of his own history, a reader who doesn’t care about style and who is thrilled that he’s reading a writer who writes ‘daringly’ elaborate and cerebral books that suggest Thomas Mann-ian literariness without actually having to read Thomas Mann. He needs a reader who will proudly produce an unread, but creased copy of Berlin Alexanderplatz, but has a lot to ‘say’ about the book, because he is so educated. This, in a nutshell, is Schulze’s audience, and he’s lucky that German critics (see my rant here) are happy to provide just that for him. He’s the prince of mediocre literary writing. Understand this: Ingo Schulze isn’t really a terrible writer, just a terribly mediocre one. However, there are so many great writers writing in this language (I have mentioned 8 writers in dire need of translation here and here) that it’s quite a shame that his work gets a spot in the limelight (and I’m not happy about Andreas Maier’s being translated, either), especially since his main job is to gently caress the egos of vaguely educated Germans who don’t like their writers or their thinkers to drag them out of their comfort zone, so a weak, derivative and complacent writer like Schulze has snatched a spot near the top of contemporary writers, one he doesn’t deserve, while even we forget writers like Thomas Strittmatter (who’s also been translated into English, see my review), and many others, like Dietmar Dath (excellent thinker, bad stylist) or the great, great Reinhard Jirgl (my review) never get translated.

But the worst thing, by far, about Schulze is that he was able to convince an Anglophone readership, who are naturally less well informed than natives as regards German history, that he is, in fact, the real thing, that there is something to learn or an insight to be gleaned from it, when that isn’t actually the case. Schulze in English borders on misinformation. He has, most recently, started to place himself and his writing at the crossroads between tradition and a new writing. He subtitled Handy, his hardly bearable collection of stories “Dreizehn Geschichten in alter Manier”, an explicit reference to 18th century fiction as well as to Jahnn, his protagonist in Neue Leben is called “Türmer”, an undisguised reference to the tradition of the Bildungsroman in general, specifically to Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister novels. This suggests more substance to his work and thought than there is. History and culture is important, and buffoons like Schulze shouldn’t be relied upon to spread knowledge of it. There is so much unmined gold in German literary fiction. Don’t waste your time with Schulze’s pyrite. (ISBN)

Thomas Strittmatter: Raven

Strittmatter, Thomas (1990), Raabe Baikal, Diogenes
ISBN 2-357-22507-5

[English translation: Strittmatter, Thomas (1997), Raven, Chatto & Windus
Translated by Ian Mitchell
ISBN 9780701147938]

[French translation: Strittmatter, Thomas (1994), Le Corbeau du lac Baïkal, Albin Michel
Translated by Nicole Casanova
ISBN 2-226-06634-9]

This is an odd book, by Thomas Strittmatter, a writer who has been almost forgotten by now, but who, upon publication of Raabe Baikal, this strangely beguiling novel, was on the cusp of becoming one of Germany’s most famous and most praised writers. Between his first play, published when he was only 20 years old, and his premature death at 33, he wrote several plays, a novel, short prose, and won 7 prizes. His first play, Viehjud Levi, remains one of the sharpest, best written texts about the Third Reich by a writer of his generation and it was made into a critically acclaimed movie in 1999. Praise and acclaim for Strittmatter’s work was loud and persuasive enough to engender a translation of Raabe Baikal into English as Raven (by Ian Mitchell, published by Chatto & Windus, paperback published by Vintage) and into French as Le Corbeau du lac Baïkal (by Nicole Casanova, published by Albin Michel), and it died down quickly enough for both translations to fall out of print almost immediately. This is a shame, because Raabe Baikal is a great book, which borrows from all corners of literary history, but is convincingly original in its own right; it is a generous, fair, compelling read, suffused by clear thinking, but at the same time not a difficult read at all. It’s inconceivable for me why this book isn’t more famous or more widely read. I urge each and every one of you to read this book. It may be out of print, but second hand copies are available, and there’s always the chance of the NYRB classics imprint taking pity upon this languishing masterpiece, and getting it back in print, onto shelves and into the hearts of a multitude of readers. Because that is where this book belongs.

If you heard me yap on about Raabe Baikal at the end of this episode of bookbabble, please accept my heartfelt apology. I misrepresented it. It had been some time since I’d read it, and only retained a very distorted memory of the book. It is nothing like I made it sound, but it is a very good book nonetheless. A better book, actually, than I made it seem. Now that I reread it, I was struck by the marvels of subtlety that Strittmatter accomplishes in this book. They are marvels partly because the book, at times, seems rather raw and a bit crude. Strittmatter makes heavy use of repetition, not necessarily of words, but of motifs, and as we move from page to page, we sometimes get the feeling of jumping from one thick slab to another: the book’s dynamic is established less by its plot and more by these slabs of motifs, that keep recurring in flimsy disguises. But, we soon find, these are slabs of ice, rather than anything else and below them gapes the ice-cold death. Strittmatter, despite the funny, picaresque mood of most of the book, is fundamentally serious about his ideas, and his narrative is propelled by necessity rather than whimsy. If he keeps returning to the same ideas, it’s because they matter, because they constitute identities, and a sense of self, of belonging, of personal dignity. Behind every character of Raabe Baikal, an abyss gapes, and this imminent destruction, the looming shadow of nothingness informs all of their actions. Fear, unconsciously, compels them from day to day, from word to word, and from one action to the next. Some sit still, they rest, and we see how they are swallowed up by a diffuse darkness.

That the book doesn’t feel dark, that it is actually a funny and entertaining read, is due to the protagonist of the book, the eponymous Raabe (Raven), who gained this nickname because he looks just like a raven and because “there’s something dark about him” (his fellow students think). Raabe is a wide-eyed innocent, who believes all kinds of lies and tales, who takes everything in stride, whether it’s death, sordid sexualities or serious crime. The openness of his gaze opens up the world of Strittmatter’s novel. The book isn’t narrated by Raabe, but the narrator often leans heavily either on Raabe’s view of the world or on Taubmann’s, another innocent. While Raabe’s innocence is that of a boy, and can, at times, give way to small cruelties and pettiness, to the irritations and the irritable demeanor of the young at heart, Taubmann is an older man, who is much more serene and more thoroughly innocent. While Raabe’s journey in the book is one of discovery, an attempt to understand the world and his role in it, Taubmann doesn’t attempt to bring order to the world, he is content to state its mysterious and complicated nature. Raabe isn’t averse to retaliating against one of his fellow students by taking a dump in that student’s bed, whereas Taubmann accepts other people’s cruelty as one of many odd facts of the world around him, and offers a deep gratitude for every kind act accorded to him. Loss and sadness will overwhelm both in the end, and both will seek means to cope with it. Raabe’s act is an act of emancipation, at the same time a fulfillment of his education and a step away from his past.

It is this final act, this stepping out into the world of adults, that tells us, more than anything, that Raabe Baikal takes up position smack in the middle of the tradition of the Bildungsroman, fusing different kinds of references, from classical sources like Goethe and Gottfried Keller to more modern ones like Jean Genet’s work. I called the book ‘odd’ and it does contain a lot of unusual elements, but the basic structure is quite strict and traditional. It is, without a doubt, a Bildungsroman, or rather, it’s one long Bildungsroman, with numerous smaller specimen of the genre assembled to form a more complex image of his time and society, like a prism. The story starts in a boarding school; once an élite establishment, now full of mediocre students (“Raabe der Mittelmäßige!”, (Raven the mediocre!), one of Strittmatter’s characters calls the protagonist at one point), it tries to keep its students safe and attempts, if not to make of them future scholars and genii, then to enable them to take up with the world without getting hurt. After school, the kids will all take jobs in the real world, becoming hairdressers, stone masons and cooks. But the longest section by far is the one dealing with the school. The surrealistic, dense atmosphere of the boarding school owes much to Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten, but transposed into a context where Walser’s pervasive irony is out of place, and Walser’s fine, subtle, dreamy sketches are supplanted by crude (yet complex) images. In the first chapter, the students are made to watch a cow give birth. Unfortunately, the mother dies in the process, in a lake of blood, deeply traumatizing all the students. Death, often violent, is shown to be part of the fabric of growing up, as killing animals and hurting other people becomes inevitable and a necessary part of all the student’s future experiences. In this, Strittmatter’s book shares links with many other texts, specifically, I think, with books like Beat Sterchi’s Blösch (translated by Michael Hofmann into English as The Cow), and in many ways, with Franz Innerhofer’s debut Schöne Tage ( translated by Anselm Hollo into English as Beautiful Days).

But Strittmatter takes care not to stage this violence as a rite of passage, it is not enshrined as socially sanctioned ritual and the necessity isn’t inescapable. Raabe learns to use violence, as he learns to use other tools. In Raabe’s journey, structural violence, and metaphorical become palpable and real, they have to, because Raabe is unable to comprehend structural violence, he needs to be shown, it needs to be demonstrated to him. Thomas Strittmatter makes it impossible for us to mystify and to intellectualize deeply invasive and violent processes of the moderns world, as they are reflected even in words and art. We cannot evade cruelty and the darkness by moving into the realm of words. Strittmatter, through Raabe’s wide-eyed experience, drags it out into the open, where it is now endowed with shape and color. Red blood, the odd sound of a breaking neck, the soft fur of a shaking victim, these are real. Raabe Baikal‘s characters are all living on the periphery of society, and the impact that this status has on their experiences is encapsulated in these small episodes, which combine actual violence, i.e. violence that can be experienced by everyone, with the representative, slightly surreal kind of violence that has a very real impact on the book’s characters. This is a difficult balancing act, but Strittmatter never lapses into pathologizing his characters, or exoticizing their experience on the margins.

The danger of doing that is particularly strong in a work like this one, which makes heavy use of the surreal, of the magical realist mode of storytelling. Drawing both from the Döblin tradition that ran strong in post-war fiction in German, and from the popular and populist kind of writing of 19th century realist fiction (especially the early work of Wilhelm Raabe (click here for a review)), his characters always seem more like caricatures, like oddballs, rather than real, flesh-and-blood people. This is exacerbated by the fact that they are almost never referred to by their names. Instead, we know them largely through their nicknames. A deaf man is called Taubmann, i.e. “deaf man”, a fat boy who likes to pretend he’s sick and feverish is called Fieber, i.e. “fever”, a girl who looks like a stereotypical bimbo, soft-spoken and handed around by men like an object is called Opfer, i.e. victim. But, the dark undercurrent of the book is about identities and popular prejudice, as well as hierarchies of power, and Strittmatter is incredibly careful in his use of these crude (or seemingly crude) elements. His characters are never really defined as persons, they gain substance through their actions, and through a juxtaposition of different kinds of characters who might seem to share a common identity vis-à-vis socially accepted prejudice. The way he fleshes his characters out and lends them some definition, within a clearly defined and understood cultural framework, in order to outline their role, place in society as it is (while clearly critical of the static nature of this situation), is an interesting contrast to the Bildungsroman antecedents of Raabe Baikal.

The Bildungsroman is notorious for cementing the status quo. The most important and most famous novel of the genre, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, has always been criticized for supporting a bourgeois class, inimical to real art, blind to any kind of fringe, a club that does not accept any but those who are born into it. Even shortly after publication, the novel spawned a great amount of books and texts written to oppose Goethe’s ideas and writing, from Novalis’ only novel to Robert Walser’s aforementioned one. It is in this critical tradition that Strittmatter writes as well, but he makes more use of the basic tropes and structure of the genre than many of his predecessors; this novel displays a deep understanding of the inevitability of some structures, of dichotomies. He doesn’t turn a blind eye to these realities and the reason for that may be that he writes in the wake of Jean Genet’s stunning body of work. For all the books and references I mentioned, Genet is probably the most important and defining one. Strittmatter’s connection of themes like criminality, sexuality, especially homosexuality, of the obscurity of desire, cannot be read divested from Genet’s work, especially the prose. In Querelle de Brest, Genet writes “À l’idee de mer et de meurtre, s’ajoute naturellement l’idee d’amour ou de voluptés – et plutôt, d’amour contre nature.” This book is written at a turning point in his work, where the sexual openness of the debut changes into a brutal embracing of stereotypical depictions of deviant sexuality and associations of it with crime and violence. As Genet’s work increasingly reflects pressures and dominant social narratives, his language starts to pick up phrases and clichés, and his work, both novels and plays, grow increasingly darker.

This is one of the legacies that Raabe Baikal attempts to live up to. It’s crudeness represents the attempt to precisely render the dominant discourse without falling for it, without buying into it, or letting his readers buy into it. If the explanations above seem a bit confused, it’s because the novel is full of paradoxes, adopts paradox as an artistic principle, which makes it hard to say anything about the book that isn’t also wrong. This is an ambitious kind of writing, and Strittmatter isn’t, at this point in his life, quite ready to pull it off perfectly. There’s much that strikes an off note, much that seems a bit labored, and we the reader are, at times, exasperated with this young, pressing writer, so obsessed with death, desire and darkness. But the book is never less than entertaining and fascinating. If it falls short, it falls short of its own potential. It’s still a masterpiece, a very, very good book that you’d be a fool to miss. If you’re easily offended by frank literary depictions of boyish sexuality, shitting on the bed or murder of innocent animals and people, maybe you should give the book a pass. If not, don’t hesitate. And tell me what you thought of it.


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Gert Ledig: Payback

Ledig, Gert (1999), Vergeltung, Suhrkamp
ISBN: 978-3-518-41064-6

[English translation: Ledig, Gert (2003), Payback, Granta
Translated by Shaun Whiteside
ISBN 1-86207-565-4]

Gert Ledig’s second novel, Vergeltung, originally published in 1956, is about the destruction that German cities knew at the hands of the Allied bomb squads, about the terrors, the fear and the vast devastation that some of these cities and their inhabitants experienced. It’s an portrayal of senseless destruction and surprisingly devoid of any explicit guilt. This is surprising because in the German and Austrian literature after the Second World War, guilt played an important role, and there was a budding recognition of the horrors that this country’s government had unleashed upon the world, supported by a great deal of the population (actual National Socialists only represented a portion of those who had, in these respects, similar convictions). Jews were largely absent in early post-WWII literature, though, although sometimes they were used as a trope, sometimes as a small curiosity (as in the Tin Drum) in very forthright works of literature. Even as conscientious and careful a writer as the great Uwe Johnson changed Hannah Arendt in his literary homage to her in the Jahrestage into a Prussian noblewoman. While this absence is understandable, it can be odd, and even produce and uncomfortable rhetoric. In some cases, it’s even more understandable, as in books about the bombing of German cities. After all, these cities were judenrein, they didn’t really contain any Jews any more. The inhabitants had made sure of that. But Ledig doesn’t refer to that absence, except in a twisted symbolism, either. Ledig’s world in the book is a world without Jews, a world where senseless destruction reins on a people that, at least according to this book, appears to have done nothing wrong. Invasions of other nations, bombs and rockets aimed and shot at other cities, and genocide, none of this really has a place in the book, which is about the “other” victims, the Germans. The kindest term I’d bestow on this kind of narrative is ‘dishonest’.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Even morally, Ledig’s novel isn’t a bad book by any measure, muddled though it is by Ledig’s odd thinking, but we’ll return to that. Before we dirty the water with morals, however, it’s important to mention and explain that Vergeltung is an incredibly written and impeccably constructed work of art. It was translated into English by Shaun Whiteside as Payback with an introduction by Michael Hofmann. Gert Ledig has only written three novels, the first of which, Stalinorgel (translated as The Stalin Organ by Michael Hofmann (Granta)) is a harrowing look at the war as soldiers at the front experienced it, and must be read in connection with canonical war books like Ernst Jünger’s troubling In Stahlgewittern and Remarque’s Im Westen Nichts Neues. It was universally praised upon publication and quickly translated into several languages, despite the drastic language and the brutal images it contained. Vergeltung, Ledig’s second novel, however, was largely panned by critics and unsuccessful commercially, although it is probably his best book, and, aesthetically, one of the best books of its time. Faustrecht, his third and final novel, was even less successful, and is clearly the weakest of the bunch. It’s also concerned with a time that has been amply explored by German novelists: the situation after the war has been immortalized by countless canonical writers ranging from Siegfried Lenz, Günter Grass to Heinrich Böll and Wolfgang Koeppen. Vergeltung, though, pursues a topic that has not been thoroughly and openly examined, especially not in German literature.

This lack has been mentioned by W.G. Sebald in 1997, in an essay and a lecture (published as Luftkrieg und Literatur) that provoked scholars, critics and writers to seek out and discover bits and pieces of literature about the Allied bombing scattered all over German literary history. Gert Ledig’s book is the most famous re-discovery that emerged from that debate. Ledig’s work had been all but forgotten, and his renaissance, that he barely lived to see (he died before the new edition of Vergeltung was published) was enormous. The book was immediately elevated into the ranks of canonical German literature and its author almost became a household name. Critics in the 1950s were too put off by the gruesome details, and the off-kilter descriptions of carnage to give the fine writing and the meticulous construction its due, and now, with blood and mayhem possessing little shock value to contemporary readers, the work was suddenly accessible, and swamped with critical admiration. Rightly so, at least from an aesthetic perspective. Politically, it is a fraught as Sebald’s own work. Vergeltung follows the stories of a handful of characters in an unnamed German city (several details seem to point to Munich as the model for that city). It’s taking place in all of 69 minutes, between 13.01 and 14.10 CET. Vergeltung‘s narrative, while strictly chronological, is disjointed, with the stories chopped up into small scenes (resulting in ca. 59 scenes)and spliced together anew to form a turbulent, riveting stream of violence. There is no redemption, no hope in the book, which mirrors on the formal level the raw, incoherent experience that allows none of the characters to plan ahead. At the mercy of fate they need to make do with now, to try to live as carefully and as responsibly as possible without being able to overview more than the tiny bubble of time that clings to them. Every second could be their last, and how they react to this limitation, to the imminent danger, this illuminates the characters more aptly and incisively than a sentimental interior monologue ever could.

And the revelations are dire. What looks and feels like a descent into hell from the outside, seems to contain sinners aplenty, but Ledig does not stoop to condemn people. He states what happens, and in which contexts, and leaves us to sort out the connections and meanings. And we can’t help, but feel the fear enveloping every single of these characters. For them, these are the end times, and they all prepare to die, eventually. An older couple declines hiding in the cellar or a bunker. They stay in their house and await what things may come. The description of their relationship reminds the reader of Philemon and Baucis’ mythic marriage, more specifically perhaps of Goethe’s rendering of the myth in his rich Faust II. In what’s almost certainly a direct allusion, Ledig has his couple resist attempts to move them. As they tumble into a darkness at the end of the book, they do so because they chose to. They don’t want to die, but they willingly accept that death is a possible outcome. Something similar happens to a father who leaves the safety of a bunker to walk to the train station in search of his child. He has to fight to be let out on the street and run and elude and resist soldiers repeatedly in order to be allowed to continue his search. In his commitment, he has no thought for his own life or his safety, and the book, in a way, accepts his sacrifice, having his death occur off-screen, suddenly, unceremoniously. We don’t need to see him die, because his death isn’t as important as his indifference to his own fate.

Ledig has created a greedy book that seems to soberly recount events, but, in fact, interweaves its events in a way that creates a symphonic music, with each character serving a purpose, contributing a note; it’s often read as realistic and documentary, when it’s actually not, it’s a recreation of the events by re-constructing the events in a way to enhance the emotional impact. The closer one looks the worthier of admiration the book appears. There’s not one accidental detail, neither as far as the good people of the city are concerned, nor as far as the bad guys are concerned. The difference between the two does not consist in different levels of evilness (or goodness) but in different susceptibilities to fear. There’s one man, who, trapped in a cellar after a portion of the house he hid in breaks down, decides to rape a dying young woman, his only companion. A German critic, inexplicably, talks about “lovemaking that starts as a rape”, but it’s not, it’s straight rape, and the woman cedes to his urge. When he, with the intensity of someone plagued by a bad conscience, starts to pester and bother her afterwards, she tries to get him to relent by trying to relieve his conscience, telling the man that she won’t tell anyone about it, and that it’s fine, really. Since they are both trapped and doomed, as both of them know, this does not reference an actually possible action, it merely demonstrates the two different kinds of behavior, the two different decisions taken in view of the impending death.

Other characters, especially soldiers, faced with the fear of their own extinction, take to drinking, and, drunk, harass civilians. Overall, the portrait of German soldiers is more nuanced and more realistic than that of civilians (or American soldiers). Several kinds of soldiers are depicted, among them, for example, young soldiers, literally shitting their pants, but also captains, ensigns and lieutenants. Questions of obedience, of patriotism and Jingoism are raised within a context that is just as limited as that of the civilian characters’. The soldiers know that they are likely to die soon, especially when and if they show their heads outside, but many of them have joined the army for a reason, and so, an order to assemble a unit of soldiers to hunt for a shot-down US pilot triggers interesting responses. The lieutenant finally manages to corral a group of very young gunners by handing them an Iron Cross. Giving them that cross to bear (it’s one of numerous uses of the cross motif in the book, which is, in general, suffused with religious allusions in general with biblical quotations and references), he convinces them of their duty. With these events, Ledig manages to capture something that happened widely in the last days of the war: young people, some fanatic Nazis, many not, were thrown at the advancing enemy as a last reserve. That many were willing to be thrown doesn’t lessen the magnitude of what happened to a whole generation in 1945, and without an expansive explanation, Ledig condenses that particular moment of history into one of many small stories in what’s a surprisingly short novel. It’s a technique he applies quite a few times. Every event, even though it may be based on reality and even though it is narrated as if in a documentary manner, is actually symbolic of something, or representative of a piece of cultural or historical context. Everything in this highly accomplished book wears a pathos of artifice. Ledig is fond of that pathos, like most of his contemporaries. And it wears it well.

That artifice is also found in Ledig’s language. Although much of it is very in tune with the writing of his time, he manages to make a remarkably original use of much of it, so much, indeed, that the reader can’t help but gasp at some of what Ledig does. Ledig uses very short sentences, a technique that was popular at his time, and that, a few years earlier, was eulogized by Wolfgang Borchert, arguably the greatest writer in the years immediately following the war (in his “Manifesto” (“Das ist unser Manifest”, 1947) he claims, with the pathos of the survivor, and the anger, arrogance and pride of the very young writer, that the time for using hypotaxes was long gone, that now was the time for parataxes). Short, breathless sentences, loaded with ire and theatricality, knew a great popularity in the decade after WWII, but the mastery that Ledig puts on display in Vergeltung is rare. He rapidly slips from focus to focus, subtly but quickly adjusting his lens all the time, so that a brilliant, horrifying dynamic develops that pushes the reader from one brutal image to the next. And another remarkable aspect of Ledig’s language is his off-hand vocabulary, his use of vocabulary that conveys an odd plasticity to the violent events he depicts. His language, both in the vocabulary he uses and in his use of short sentences and swiveling foci, makes the world he created come alive for the reader.

When he tells us about a pilot who has to drag the carcass of a fellow soldier from the turret of his plane, bit by bloody, soaking, squishy bit, or when he shows us a man who is “grilled” in the bubbling tar of the asphalt, we shudder. It’s not the violence that shocks us, its the immediacy of the depiction. And we know that immediacy is an effect that has to be created, it’s not a question of authenticity, it’s a question of craft and artistic commitment. This may perhaps read like a paradox, but this apparent paradox makes the book so readable and re-readable. You can read the book on a purely intellectual level, as well as on an emotional, gut level, and it works equally well on both. On the intellectual level you can’t help but be stunned by Ledig’s meticulous work, most impressively, his use of religion. In the short biographical notes that he sent his first publisher he proclaimed to be a staunch atheist, and the book, including the devastating, sweeping last chapter, can be read like a long theodicy, written by a nonbeliever. There’s however a kind of appreciation of belief as a cultural phenomenon in the book: almost all the good characters are quiet, peaceful Christians, drawing strength from their beliefs. In Ledig’s world, they are still crushed, maimed, and shot, but that’s because in that world God doesn’t exist. It’s a thin line that Ledig walks, between individual beliefs and a denial of God’s existence, but this, too, works reasonably well. Vergeltung depends upon its evocation of (good) individual belief because contrary to general reception, it posits a positive, model society in order to better offset all the things that have become awry in this war. When the American pilot is killed, most of the Germans present try to keep him from harm, it’s just an evil spirit, embodied by a small boy with pimples on his chin, who tries to whip up a lynching mob. The fundamentals are ok, but war, and the bombing have knocked Ledig’s model society over.

And this is what I really take issue with. In a book this artificial, a book which tries to seem documentary but is actually fraught with allusions and references, a book that does not shy away from including explicit references to contexts, literary and historical, a book that tackles more than just the 69 minutes it depicts, if in such a book the attacks are completely de-contextualized, depicted as senseless and “useless”, then there is a problem. Ledig confronts his readers with an unexplained, irrational, sudden explosion of violence, victimizing everyone, mostly white male characters. There is not a smidgen of guilt there, Ledig is loud and clear about his complaints. It may be argued that some images, some plot strands are covert references to the Shoah or Germany’s invasion of its neighboring countries (according to noted historian Frederick Taylor, German air raids on Soviet cities alone accounted for at least as many dead people as were killed in all air raids on German cities), but this is very little. Yes, Sebald was right to complain that German writers glossed over German suffering a lot, but there was a reason why Germans were so uneasy about this. I think that there was an understanding of the danger in talking about German victims: Germany’s actions might be relativized, made less important, seem less of an astonishing, singular, horrific tragedy than they actually were.

And boy were they right. Hacks like German ‘historian’ Jörg Friedrich, and aging writers like former SS member Günter Grass did exactly that, append to every mention of German crimes a “but we also need to consider…”. It’s not a surprise that in this climate, Ledig made a comeback, and it’s not a surprise that it would be his second book that first leaped back into the limelight. It’s not a surprise that this comeback was championed by the likes of Friedrich and Volker Hage. Reading the book made me uneasy and it reminded me of something that Hans Meyer, possibly the best and most important German critic post-WWII wrote in his wonderful, acidic, magisterial history of German post-war literature. He noted that even earnest anti-fascist tracts and texts of the period were suffused by fascist diction and structure. “Man spürt genau, daß hier Neophyten der Demokratie das Wort ergreifen”, he wrote memorably. But this uneasiness is tempered by Ledig’s extraordinary achievement as a writer, and even morally, his denouncement of war and violence is admirable, if dishonest. If we were counting points, Vergeltung would win hands down. But we are not, and I wouldn’t and won’t give or recommend this book to anyone who isn’t reasonably well read on German history. If you are, buy this book. If you are not, stay away from it.

On three novellas by Hartmut Lange

Lange, Hartmut (2009), Der Abgrund des Endlichen, Diogenes
ISBN 978-3-257-06715-6

langeAmong living German prose writers, Hartmut Lange is something of an oddity. He is what you’d call a writer’s writer, not really appreciated by critics, except in what must be described as a glancing way, not particularly successful with the public, but adored by writers such as Monika Maron and many other heavyweights. But, and here’s the odd thing, he doesn’t read like many other ‘writers’ writers’ do. He is a smooth, highly accomplished writer, a creator of taut and incredibly focused little works of art, texts that, at the same time, are light as feathers. There are few writers out there than can wear their erudition and their technical finesse this lightly and at the same time stun the reader who realizes what it is that has fallen into his lap there. Hartmut Lange should be one of Germany’s most celebrated writers, he’s one of its finest writers anyway, and Der Abgrund des Endlichen (~ The Abyss of the Finite), his most recent publication, certainly confirms this. Lange, these past decades, has become primarily a writer of stories and novellas, mainly novellas, and not since the days of Paul Heyse has this country known as dedicated a writer of novellas as Hartmut Lange and in his new book, he publishes three of them.

These three novellas are very different in length, structure and even writing. While they are all excellent, they are also different in terms of quality, as well as tone. The first, and longest novella is arguably the best of the bunch, the most finely crafted of them, unlike the other two, it doesn’t need the context of the book, and could have been published on its own without a major loss. It’s called “Mathilde oder der Lichtwechsel” (“Mathilde or The Change of Light”) and is about a middle-aged school teacher, Johannes Feldmann, who suffers an existential crisis. His sense of who he is just up and vanishes. It all starts with a fin de siècle plaster head on an old gable above a modern garage. The novella is narrated by a third person personal narrator and through his, i.e. Feldmann’s eyes, we see the ugliness of that construction, of this vast area with cars coming and going, alien noises screeching, and in the middle of it all, this serene, female head, which the workers in the garage, the mechanics and even the owner, call “Mathilde”. None of the people there know or care why there is a head above their garage, what house used to occupy the grounds before that, and no-one thinks Mathilde is worth saving, it’s there, that’s all.

No-one, except Feldmann. Feldmann used to be married but they filed for divorce when she found out he was homosexual, something he hadn’t known himself for too long. Feldmann isn’t introspective, apparently, he never was, as a rule, he just does what’s expected of him, until that doesn’t work anymore, then he slinks away and tries something else. That’s the story of his life. Early in the novella, his father asks him: “Well, are you happier now?” Feldmann answers honestly: “No.” Happiness as a result of finding his ‘true identity’ is not available for him, because he has never tried to see himself as he is, he has never tried to come to terms with himself, he’s driven by anxieties, scurrying to and from work, home, to a bar and home again. Until, that is, he encounters Mathilde. He is suddenly gripped by the urge to do well by her, phoning up the owner of the property, calling the public authorities, marshaling his students in front of the garage, taking photographs and holding forth, in a strident voice. We don’t get to hear what he says, and since we hear it from him, I don’t think he hears it either. This is a gesture, an action, the details are unimportant enough to be swept under the rug. In trying to save Mathilde, Feldmann tries to evade having to hear himself. Or rather: see himself. Seeing, I think, is the central trope of that first novella, and not just seeing the head, seeing himself, as the novella progresses, the story starts to turn upon many more moments of seeing.

Such as an odd change of light in his apartment that unsettles Feldmann, and ultimately leads to his moving out and moving into a pension across the street. Or seeing people as homosexuals, for example, as desirable, as worth saving. The more we read on, the more Feldmann gets lost in observations, his life is less and less in focus, until, in one of the final scenes, we see him, observing his own house from the pension, holding his breath, looking at his own apartment, not being able to move, to act, even to think. Earlier, we learn, he had lovers, people who even visited him, stayed there, lived, for an unknown length of time with him, he had, in short, what we call “a life” and what Lange’s masterful novella chronicles is the loss of that life. There is, for the reader, at this point, a conflict between the title of the book and this novella. There is nothing finite here, on the contrary, what we see is a constant, eternal regress, the sad story of a man retreating ever further inside, away from himself, from his life. But there is, in fact, a limit involved, a consequence that Feldmann isn’t capable of considering, because he would have to consider himself first, alone and in relation to others and this he’s fully incapable of. Unlike Alexander Friedrich, the protagonist of the second novella in the book, and the shortest text overall.

This novella is called “Hinter der Brücke” (~ “Behind the Bridge”) and it’s protagonist is obsessed with Hildegard von Bingen, a Catholic mystic and polymath, who contributed to almost every area of knowledge of her time and died in 1149. Friedrich is mainly concerned with her music, he listens, compulsively, almost, to recordings of her music, the door opened, letting the music glide out and onwards over the bridge behind his house. He’s not just enamored with her music, on an emotional level, but he also starts to write a serious book about her, researching her life and her work. His life is completely dedicated to her, and everyone who wants a piece of him, will also have to deal with hearing incessantly about the Blessed Hildegard. Inexplicably, his girlfriend has not left him yet, even accompanies him to a conference he’s been invited to in order for him to hold a speech about his project, and his ideas about Hildegard von Bingen. In this, very brief novella, one event quickly follows another and suddenly, exclaiming the unknowability of historical truth, Friedrich breaks down in the middle of what clearly was an impromptu speech.

Subsequently he’s diagnosed with a serious, lethal illness, and his girlfriend entreats him to take medication, to do something, anything, to save himself but he slips, like Feldmann, in the preceding novella, in a kind of trance, instead of seeing, the sense he engages is hearing, he drops like a stone into the sea of Bingen’s music. It’s a strange kind of Dionysian ecstasy, one that makes him recognize the closeness of death, and makes him come up with ideas about, basically, the synchronicity of history, ideas that imply direct, full knowledge about historical subjects. While his critical faculties made him doubt the veracity of historical narratives, in his trance, the music in a way makes him bypass these faculties, but, as with Feldmann, this doesn’t make him happy, just different. Like Feldmann, he experiences a kind of loss of self, and like him, he is at odds with those around him who represent different approaches. Feldmann’s kind of seeing is exposed, in an interesting scene, as indirect, and unclear. Friedrich is confronted with the deficiencies, the harmful qualities of his knowledge, or his use of it, by his girlfriend who, as a trained physician, tells, explains and elaborates for him the abyss that he confronts, forcing him, finally, to make a decision between death and live. All this is part of a very simple-seeming story, with echoes of Fontane, but, again, everything fits, every detail, name, it’s all perfectly arranged, as is the whole collection.

You can’t but admire the whole structure, how the sequence itself tells a story, how it makes the reader relate each novella to the title, trying to contextualize everything as he goes along, looking for connections, and similarities start to accrue, and we get an idea of how this might work – and then the final novella, “Der Abgrund des Endlichen” changes the game significantly. It’s this novella that’s given the whole book its name, and at first glance, it seems highly dissimilar from the others. It’s also closest to a genre exercise, taking its cues from mystery novels, which means I can’t disclose a lot, less than in the previous stories where I veiled the ending, but explained lots of other aspects. The basic story starts with a middle-aged man, who has, as a boy, lost his brother, who was murdered and buried in a bomb crater near some allotments that belonged to his family. The word allotments doesn’t quite fit the German equivalent Kleingartenanlage, which is an important part of German culture, signifying a petty bourgeois life style, which Germans have elevated to an art form, with an elaborate set of rules and hierarchies. While locations in the other novellas could be overlooked (but are important), this is immediately and directly significant. The hardcover edition also carries a picture of these kinds of gardens on the cover. For a German reader, this combination likely creates a series of associations, including the German reception of Baudelaire through a curiously Nietzschean lens.

Having mentioned that, let’s continue with the story. Well, that murder near the Kleingartenanlage resurfaces as the protagonist starts getting letters by a man claiming to be his brother’s murderer. The would-be murderer is adamant that the protagonist, who narrates the story from his own perspective, meet with him. The ensuing story is dominated by the protagonist’s doubts, his hesitation, and the great urge that drives the stranger to batter the speaker with letters, requests and odd looks. He’s on a search for redemption, and in a strange feeling of entitlement, he doesn’t ask, he expects the protagonist to provide him. Or maybe he’s so desperate to get deliverance that he needs to believe that the surviving brother can, indeed, deliver him. There is a point where we start to realize that the person that has most in common with Feldmann or Friedrich is the alleged murderer, and in his quest we see a distortion, and a mirroring of the previous two protagonists’ projects, hang-ups and obsessions. The third novella connects other important strands as well. As I pointed out in my review of his masterful novella Das Konzert (direct link here), Hartmut Lange’s often concerned with memory, and monuments, and history as it is reflected in objects and landscapes.

In Der Abgrund des Endlichen, he adds the dimension of individual lives, but it is not until the last novella that we recognize how deftly, and, ultimately, subtly, he has tied these curious lives to a broader cultural history. Plain names, as “Glienicker Brücke”, as the bridge in the middle novella is called, give way to more symbolic places. The Kleingartenanlage, for example, a refugee camp, and a bomb crater. In between these three, Lange summons an enormous canvas of German history, with small and peculiar touches, some glaring, some subtle, and demonstrates how the lives in the foreground and the background are interdependent. And this, if nothing else, reminds us to have a look at other, similarly significant objects and places in the other novellas. There’s Mathilde, of course, and while you may have read her as a stand-in for Feldmann’s identity crisis (or crises), it’s equally true that his search for an identity also correlates with Berlin’s search. Berlin is a city in uproar, constantly changing, moving; these days, cars are being bombed, Roma are discriminated against. It’s a city between east and west, with a beautiful and problematic past. Mathilde is representative of what is constant in that troubled and enchanting city, and the individuals exemplify change, and the traumatic and difficult nature of it.

During the past weeks I have heard many summons to translate this or that author, this or that book into English, in some lists, hacks like Thomas Brussig were named, and other hacks like Ingo Schulze have already been translated. Hartmut Lange deserves be be read around the world. He writes small, readable masterpieces. He’s committed to his craft like few other living writers, and what’s more, Lange’s light, and complex narratives are imbued with a difficult tone, a difficult, spry spirituality. There’s a certain conservative moment at the heart of it, but Lange, despite being a deeply moral writer, is also a generous one, who allows his material to breathe, to develop. He constantly prods his reader, controls his material exactly, but that doesn’t hurt the stories, or their impact. It’s hard to explain. He’s a wizard. Read him, translate him, get him out there, he deserves it, and what’s more: you deserve his books. Der Abgrund des Endlichen, his most recent book, is not even his best (that might just be Das Konzert), but it’s still a remarkable work of art.


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The Enzensberger/Johnson Correspondence

Enzensberger, Hans Magnus; Uwe Johnson (2009), “fuer Zwecke der brutalen Verständigung” Der Briefwechsel, Suhrkamp
ISBN 978-3-518-42100-0

DSC_1543In Das Treffen in Telgte, his tribute to the literary circle Gruppe 47, Günter Grass celebrates that group and its leader, Hans Werner Richter, in depicting a meeting of writers and critics from all over Germany, Austria and Switzerland. It is a meeting of writers that in his book becomes a virtual meeting of Baroque poets from different points within that period, writers who never actually met. This transcending of time and place is a fitting tribute to a group that was able to contain very different kinds of writers and thinkers, and that let conflicts run its course rather than try to excise them. One of the youngsters at these meetings was Hans Magnus Enzensberger, one of the leading poets of his time, who published his first collection of poetry, verteidigung der wölfe in 1957, to strong acclaim, a collection which has since remained part of the post-war canon, and its writer among the leading public voices of German literature. Another was Uwe Johnson, who published his debut novel, the staggeringly amazing Mutmaßungen über Jakob (translated into English as Speculations about Jakob), which still stands as one of the best German novels written after WWII, in 1959.

That same year (incidentally also the year that Grass published The Tin Drum), these two writers encountered each other for the first time at a meeting of the Gruppe 47, where Enzensberger read a poem (“Schaum”) from a manuscript that would eventually become his second collection, landessprache (1960), and Johnson attacked the poem, with the full force of an education received in the GDR, and the conviction that criticism that doesn’t lead to change or indicate where change might be, is empty and useless. This ensued in a lengthy discussion, that was vigorously led, but in a friendly way, and it left both writers with fond memories of each other. So when, out of the blue, December 3rd, 1959, Johnson wrote Enzensberger to acquire a copy of a high-profile article the latter had written, Enzensberger replied in amiable terms.


My meagre collection of 60s and 70s Kursbuch editions.

Thus the correspondence between Uwe Johnson and Hans Magnus Enzensberger begins. It ends, with the exception of a couple of tossed-off notes, in June 1968, less than 9 years later. In between, the two share one of the most fascinating dialogues I have ever had the privilege to listen in on. It has been published this year under the editorship of Henning Marmulla and Claus Kröger as “fuer Zwecke der brutalen Verständigung” Der Briefwechsel and must surely be one of the best and most worthwhile books published in 2009. It is mainly marked by their differences in outlook, although they are very similar, in so many ways. Both young writers, just starting to make a name for themselves, both, politically, leaning towards the left, both with a highly distinctive style as far as their writing is concerned. In this light, it’s all the more surprising that it is their differences that dominated their acquaintance and their friendship, and its these differences that have led to their falling out. The basic nature of their difference can be found as early as that fateful meeting of the Gruppe 47, when Johnson took Enzensberger to task for not being more obliging, direct, useful, in his criticism. Throughout the next nine years this kind of criticism will return time and again, although its appearance varies.

Johnson acts as a voice of reason sometimes, drawing attention to the effect that his friend’s speeches or essays may have or, more to the point: not have. As a writer, Johnson is always highly aware of himself, of roles enacted in societies, of how norms and pressures work. Fear is a very important part of his work or rather: anxiety. And in these letters we see a mind at work that has learned to deal with his fears and anxieties, that has become careful and measured, and in his comments to Enzensberger, at least not until their big falling-out in 1967/8, he doesn’t reprimand his friend or lecture him, he offers suggestions, alerts him to possible misreadings that may not benefit Enzensberger’s goal, a goal that Johnson doesn’t necessarily share (and Johnson is himself much less of a political and public writer), but one that he understands and he keeps pointing out how Enzensberger fails to comply with his own aims. This kind of thinking, of talking, it manifests itself in a style of writing that seems to have been taken from one of his books, it’s so complex, and so full of his strange and idiosyncratic music.

DSC_1542As Eberhard Fahlke, editor of Johnson’s correspondence with Max Frisch, pointed out, Johnson writes his letters carefully and understands them as an autonomous literary genre. He’s afraid to embarrass himself, so he drapes his writing, and the carefully woven net of his thinking over the letters, making each of them, however irrelevant the subject, a small literary gem. In contrast, while often interesting, the only artifice that Enzensberger’s letters display, is his obsession with writing everything in small type. In German nouns are usually capitalized, not so with Enzensberger, who, throughout his work, has often insisted on not doing that. The writing itself is usually readable, but never as taut as Johnson’s. This superficial mark by which Enzensberger’s letters distinguish themselves, is in line with his political and literary thinking which, while passionate, is too often occupied by paraphernalia. The political gesture, standing the right way, being perceived in the right way seems to carry more weight than saying or writing things that work, that have an actual effect. And Enzensberger quickly acquires such a clout that mere words, such as Johnson might offer in criticism, cannot sway him from his course. Enzensberger, in these letters, is righteous, he is an actor, and as such not a perfect fit for someone like Johnson, who appears to be immensely earnest.

But to focus on these differences is to overstate the weight and importance that these issues have in the short-lived correspondence of these two powerful writers. Unlike the above-mentioned Frisch/Johnson exchange of letters, which mainly focuses on questions of editing and textual criticism, Enzensberger and Johnson, at least in the first few years of their friendship, talk shop about organizing magazines and journals. Driven by the seemingly inexhaustible energy of Günter Grass, quite a few magazines are proposed, discussed and, finally, discarded. In these letters we learn about how power was distributed in the European publishing scene or at least in a part of it. We learn how these writers, prize-winning, bestselling writers at that, bargain with money, time and texts, how publishers scheme against each other and how everyone denies responsibility, passes on the buck, until everything collapses or threatens to collapse. Grass is the silent but recurring presence in all this, rallying his colleagues for ever new journalistic projects and trying to organize them to support the Social Democratic Party.

This area, i.e. editing, organizing and publishing, turns out to be Enzensberger’s strong suit. Whereas, at the beginning, Johnson was the more active of the two, who had to coax Enzensberger into doing organizational work, as the years go by, Enzensberger grows into this role as editor. When he has to close down a huge international project with French, Italian and German contributions it is, paradoxically, this decision that appears to energize him, galvanize him into action. Soon, more projects come up, and now Enzensberger is always part of the inner circle of each of them, until, in 1965, he finally succeeds, and creates the Kursbuch, a literary and political quarterly, that was to become one of the most important publications in Germany after the war. The Kursbuch unites all of Enzensberger’s areas of interest, in it book critics, philosophers, poets and prose writers found a place to voice their misgivings with the course the country was taking.

Two or three pieces of Johnson’s found their way into this publication, as well, but at that point, at the height of their friendship, where the longest and most open and eloquent letters are exchanged, the shadow of what will mean an end to that exchange, is already visible. In 1966 Johnson and his family moved to New York where they stayed for over a year, during which time Johnson’s two Berlin apartments remained empty. Trusting his friend Enzensberger, he allowed his brother, Ulrich Enzensberger, to move into one of them, and Hans Magnus’ former wife, Dagrun, to move into the other. These were turbulent years in the development of the young republic, with strong and violent conflicts between angry and impassioned students and the state which, at the time, was full of former Nazis and repressive, in many ways. Dagrun and Ulrich took part in these upheavals, the center of which was Berlin, the former and future capital of Germany, divided and surrounded by the GDR. Their engagement, so at odds with Enzensberger’s kind of thinking, led to their becoming part of a commune, and opened the doors of Johnson’s apartments to the famous Kommune I, home to a few of the most well known faces in the left wing movement of the time.

When Johnson learned that his apartment had been thus misused he was angry, not because of the commune per se, but because no one had asked him, no one had told him, and because Ulrich and Dagrun’s transgressions and behavior imperiled his apartment. The anxiety in Johnson’s life and his work made it impossible for him to forgive such a heavy breach of trust, all the more because Enzensberger evaded all responsibility and kept shifting blame on his ex-wife, his brother and even Johnson himself. In what can, at best, be described as an aloof manner, he is unfazed by Johnson’s increasingly furious and disappointed tone, and keeps trying to wash his hands of the whole matter. This conflict is exacerbated by Johnson’s obsession with doing things the right way, cleanly, transparently, in order. Increasingly, what started out as a means to deal with personal fears, and what helped him to create his complex, difficult and artful style, turns into a liability for him. In later years he will make life impossible for both his wife and his daughter and cut both from his testament. He will be so plagued by his obsessions, his increasingly paranoiac suspicions towards friends and family, in short, he will feel so driven into a corner that, when he died alone, bloated from drinking and smoking, his body will not be found for almost a month since no-one, for weeks, came looking for him, no-one cared enough.

DSC_1541This darkness, however, isn’t part of these letters, which end when the Johnson family returns and cleans up the chaos left behind by Enzensberger’s relatives.  The bitterness that seeps from these last letters and notes is sad since the bulk of the correspondence is inspiring and full of interesting information. A formative decade in literary Germany unfolds in front of our eyes, and the spectacular editing skills of Henning Marmulla and Claus Kröger, two literary scholars who wrote a commentary section that is longer than the exchange itself, have a lot to do with this. It cannot be praised highly enough what the two editors achieved here. Their letter-by-letter commentary contains extracts from speeches, poems, it contains dates, names, information and it is, above all, readable. You can go through it before or after the letters and just read it front to back. The writing is always accessible, never just matter-of-fact. Whatever your background, however well you’re read, you will learn something from this wealth of knowledge that Kröger and Marmulla have dragged up here.

As a whole the book manages to be several things at once. The letters are a great, even suspenseful read, as they chart the beginning and the end of a friendship, they depict two writers at the height of their powers, with their ideas, preoccupations and insights, and, through them, shed new light on a whole period, on debates within the literary world. It stresses a feeling of community, a shared sense of necessity, of belonging. The optimism, the idealism that Grass stressed in his Treffen in Telgte, it shines through these letters, despite (and even because of) the conflicts.

There are many more small gems that cannot all be mentioned here, like Enzensberger’s views of Johnson’s books and texts, which are invariable interesting; the half that contains the letters is short for a letter exchange, especially one that Johnson once joked would extend over two thick volumes, but this also means there is little drag here, as a reader you want to read on, to see how all this works out, and as for the second half, the one that contains the commentary, it is just as readable, but the informative aspect gains more traction here. If you are interested in the period at all, this is a book you shouldn’t miss. Johnson’s letters alone are worth the price of admission, and, unlike his longer exchanges with Unseld or Frisch, they follow, almost, a narrative here. This is, I think, what distinguishes this correspondence from many others: it reads like a well written, well constructed epistolary novel. What more could you want?


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Siegfried Lenz: Landesbühne

Lenz, Siegfried (2009), Landesbühne, Hoffmann und Campe
ISBN 978-3-455-04282-5

DSC_0274Siegfried Lenz is one of the least well known, most important German postwar writers. A few key books of his have been translated, such as his 1968 masterpiece Deutschstunde (translated by Kaiser and Wilkins as The German Lesson (New Directions, 1986)), but in general, he is not as highly regarded or even as much read as contemporaries like Günter Grass or the infinitely less competent Martin Walser, which is a shame. Lenz’ work is rich and offers brooding, long and insightful novels about German history, as well as short, suspenseful novellas and even shorter stories. In fact, many critics have proposed the view that Lenz is a better writer of short stories than of novels, just like Heinrich Böll. His novels are usually written in a tradition that includes Thomas Mann’s good works and Raabe’s last novels, i.e. books that are as adept at individual psychology as at a sweeping (if often harsh) social analysis and criticism. These novels are often as dark as the history they are grappling with, but not outright judgmental. Lenz is a generous writer, writing with a love of the people and the country he enshrines in his work, however negative these books may sound at a first glance. There is a certain weakness that comes with this approach; in his novels Lenz never seems quite as concise and focused as he could be.

The_German_Lesson_300_477This is amended by his stories, which are far more indebted to Gottfried Keller’s stories about the simple people of Seldwyla (I think there is a translation of those published by J.M.Dent in 1929). He channels the same love and generosity in these stories but the economy of his writing is frequently flabbergasting. It’s no surprise that many German schools use Lenz’ stories as model examples of what a well-executed story should look like. And unlike lukewarm writers like Paul Auster, Lenz is upfront and direct, as far as his convictions are concerned. The character in his most well known novel, Deutschstunde, is driven by a need to tell his story, to make it known, to explain himself and the culture that produced him, and while, as a whole, books like Deutschstunde can seem meandering, that urgency is always part of Lenz’ work. Or it used to be. Recently, the formerly prolific writer, who, after all, has published some fifteen novels and numerous collections of stories as well as about ten novellas, has started to write less and less and what he does write frequently seems like a complacent exercise more than a novel that needed to be written. But they are still very good books that show us a writer at the height of his powers as a writer, as far as technical prowess is concerned.

DSC_0278In his most recent books, like the 2008 novella Schweigeminute (which will be published in English translation as Stella in 2010 by The Other Press (Random House)), Lenz is nothing short of stunning. Within a handful of words, Lenz evokes ambiguities, characters, whole histories. Lenz manipulates his readers at will, without pushing himself on them. A friend recently remarked of a different book that it made her feel “supervised” (which is a great expression), and although Lenz certainly controls and supervises his readers, it is part of his mastery to never let them feel that. In addition to this, he’s also creating subtle, very readable and elegant books that are wearing their importance and the thought and the ideas that went into them lightly. It is this quality of his work that makes such an, ultimately, difficult writer sell so well. His 2003 novel Fundbüro was printed with an initial print run of 100.000, which isn’t too bad for a slightly solipsist novel set in a lost-and-found. Fundbüro is interesting in still other ways. In it we can also see Lenz, who made German history the theme he pursued most obsessively (but not exclusively!), starting to play with geography and history, with the tyranny of facts. Many readers and reviewers have been irritated by contradictory details that make the novel (that appears to be highly realistic) difficult to pinpoint historically.

DownloadFor lesser writers that kind of writing can be an excuse to be sloppily sentimental in their treatment of historical or social issues (I’m currently accruing notes on Auster’s treatment of Bertran de Born), but with Lenz it’s one more acknowledgment of the kind of control he exercises over his material. In the same vein, he approaches literature and geography in his most recent book, Landesbühne, which, according to Lenz’ labeling, is neither a short story, nor a novel or a novella; however, the length of it (~120 pages) and the condensed, inward structure of the whole book do suggest a novella, but who am I to argue. Whatever else it is, Landesbühne is a quick read that seems to be easy to comprehend at first but offers several puzzles and complications when you look closer at it. The book is largely set in the Isenbüttel prison. It is narrated (a third person personal narrator) by a former university professor, who has been locked up (the details remain sketchy) after he was suspected of sleeping with some of his female students and giving them the best grades in exchange for the sexual favors accorded to him. The professor is fairly well known in his field; one of his critical works on the Sturm und Drang epoch has become standard reading in schools and universities, and the superficially read prison warden, priding himself on his education, accordingly venerates his most well known prisoner.

DSC_0277Other prisoners include a former referee whose corruption was his ticket to a period behind bars and Hannes, who used to impersonate policemen and, in that costume, fine traffic offenders (who were surprisingly quick to shell out the money). Unusual as this group may seem, the professor, the referee and Hannes are not accidentally chosen, each of their fates provides a comment on how a certain kind of authority works within German society (authority and obedience, and their role in German culture and history is a standard theme in Lenz’ work, as well as the interconnectedness of political (punitive, even) power, with the control and dissemination of knowledge); the book as a whole can be said to be about a crisis and a prevalent strength of these kinds of authorities. But on a more direct level, it is a clever little story with lovable characters that is set up as an allegory, as cold trickery, but that, in the end, transcends these simple categories. It is equal parts realism and playing games with symbols, structure and intertextuality. The former is most visible in Lenz’ treatment of his characters who practically fly from the page, even smaller characters that have a walk-on role at best are sufficiently fleshed out to leap to life the second one reads about them, to which Lenz’ writing contributes a great deal, although in a different way than I expected.

The_Selected_Stories_Of_Siegfried_Lenz__300_441Lenz’ style is rather unique in that it can combine an almost classical diction and elegance with an intriguing contemporary style that shines through not just in the odd pop cultural reference, but also in very specific phrasings that are not restricted to the characters’ speech. In fact, Landesbühne has a very intriguing patterning as far as different registers of language are concerned. Instead of playing off the professor’s elevated diction against other characters’ diatopically or diastratically diverse speech, Lenz uses divergences to further characterize the professor, who, early in the book is shown to be writing a diary. With this simple tool, unobtrusive and not very noticeable at first, Lenz creates a protagonist who is so believable, so warm and present, that the reader believes anything he says. It is the professor vouching for his fellow prisoners’ existence, I think, that lends them such a presence in this book without Lenz having to invest in creating divergent patterns of speech, that often, when it doesn’t work so well, further alienates the reader from the characters; personally, I get this impression from David Mitchell’s work, and even more from that of a writer like Auster, who seems to me to be engaged in a constant project of disavowing his own characters. I accept that this is a peculiar preoccupation of my own, but in a case like Lenz’ book, the utter success of a method can be stunning, even if your interests lie elsewhere. And he makes it look so easy…

DSC_0279That ease is particularly marked by the fact that all this is at the background (or rather: grounding) of a book that appears to be preoccupied with wielding complex concepts and grand ideas. This is what I earlier announced as playing games. Spoiled on critical and postmodern theory, my mind immediately leaped into action as I comprehended the book’s premise: one fine day, a bus from a large local theater visits the prison to put on a play. “Landesbühne” (roughly translatable as “State Stage”) is what’s written on the side of the bus in clearly visible letters. In that premise and the first third of the book, where we watch the company unpack and perform the first act of a play, there are echoes from all kinds of texts and theories, most prominently perhaps Kleist’s essay “Über das Marionettentheater” (“On the Marionette Theater”) and the work of Borges and Kafka. Quotes, paraphrases and other allusions abound. The play that is put on is an invented play by an invented writer called “The Labyrinth” and the portion we are told about is about two old ladies who own a labyrinth that doesn’t allow anyone to escape who enters it. There is no interpretation, discussion or explanation; instead, during the intermission, a few prisoners, led by Hannes, and including the Professor, capture the bus and break out of the prison, only to stop in a small town close to the prison, where people assume that the prisoners are actually actors.

I’m not spoiling anything if I tell you that they are, in the end, re-captured and end up in prison again two thirds into the book, because any reader will have expected that. In a very transparent way, the play they all, partly, saw, prefigures, in a very broad sense, what will happen. They won’t ever really escape. In the meantime, they are sweet-talked by the local mayor into helping the town to build a museum, create adult evening classes and, occasionally, provide a choir. They are ratted out by a local journalist who turns out to have been one of the Professor’s students in the old days, one of the plain ones, with the bad grades. In the passages concerned with their life in the town Lenz almost becomes his old self, creating sentimental, but well-turned vignettes of small town life, spiked, among other things, with references to his own work. And this is part of the point in this section. It is, to a large extent, about writing about this kind of scenery. Unlike his earlier work that was grounded in a precise sense of place, set in cities that anyone can find on the map, Landesbühne is set somewhere unspecified in the state of Schleswig-Holstein. The prison is named after a town that is almost certainly in a different state, and with Lenz’s dispensing of diatopically recognizable speech there is no direct connection to a place. Instead, Lenz connects his setting to old German history and the migration of the Saxons (through the name Isenbüttel) as well as to more direct topical issues connected to East Germany in general and the state of Schleswig-Holstein in particular.

9781590513354All this is, as I said, prefigured by the play, which can serve as a foil with which to interpret the episode. After the poor prisoners are captured and returned to the prison again, the Landesbühne, not to be outdone, returns and puts on a different play, this time, it’s Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. If you groaned just now, you grasped the situation well. Of course, Godot is used to describe the situation the characters find themselves in and Lenz would not be the first (if only!) to use Beckett like that. However, this time, the play serves a subtly different function than the first one, “The Labyrinth” did. During the production of the play, Hannes, devastated, leaves the room, unable to bear any more of it. He recognizes himself in the play and this sets in motion a self-reckoning. Hannes’ life, his thoughts, his experiences and emotions are used here to make sense of the play. This is not as reductive as it sounds. At this point, all the character building I previously mentioned is put to good use. There is no overt interpretation, although some hints and parallels are not very subtle. But in Hannes’ coming to terms with his life and his fate and his reading the play, a kind of symbiosis, for lack of better words, between experience and reading emerges. There is a deep ambiguity in the book’s ending that feigns a resolution but doesn’t, in fact, present one.

And one of the reasons for this is the absence of an interpretative stance. The Professor is the master reader in the book. He has even written a book of criticism, a book about books, and in his role as teacher at Universities, he is directly involved in shaping others’ understanding and reading of literature. As Nietzsche in one of his best known aphorisms points out, life is filled with contradictions and we streamline them at our own peril; applied logic is a constructed reading of all the material available (it even structures the very perception of the availability, one might say) and the Professor is part of the machinery that provides the parameters (and even details) of such a construction. In a very odd way, the book is both critical and affirmative of certain hegemonial practices. By divesting the professor, as the arbiter of critical reasoning, of the authority to continue to administer that interpretative practice (he is basically thrown into the work, in the first two thirds of the book, without being afforded a vista that would allow him to reflect upon his situation) , authority is handed over to events, to experience, to plays he does not know and fellow prisoners whose lives supply interpretations that he can’t readily supply himself.

DSC_0280Similarly, his former female students launch, in the last third of the book, a defense campaign for him that provides an interpretation of his own case, of his own life and his own person that he’s similarly incapable of providing himself. None of these ‘rogue’ interpretations is legitimized as true, but why should they, with the (almost archetypal) authority jailed and confused. On the other hand, the fact remains that he still narrates everything, that he’s still the focus of every perception and that people still come to him. I think that the changes, the apparent slipping down the hierarchal rungs is part of a crisis, maybe the crisis of a particular model of society, but Lenz is unable or unwilling to go further in this small book. This is part of the readability of it all, I think. It’s an old man’s book, registering and subtly describing a crisis but not going all out, not lashing out at a system that he’s, after all, a part of. He cares more than about himself. He cares for his characters, for his story and for the issues that are at the roots of both. Stylistically he’s quietly dazzling, a writer who doesn’t brag to his readers like Paul Auster in his recent work, who demands more of them than Philip Roth in his (whom he resembles in many ways, though) and who is able to give more to his readers than either of them. Lenz was always a writer worth reading and while I prefer his earlier work, and the urgency and richness of it, Landesbühne, like much of his recent output, is the work of a master who hasn’t lost his touch, who merely writes with a finer pen, weighing his words.


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Herta Müller, Nobel Prize Winner

For many, including many Germans, it was a complete surprise when Herta Müller was announced as another writer in the German language to win the highest international literary award, the Nobel Prize for Literature, which has increasingly focused on European writers. Did she deserve the honor? Of course she did. Herta Müller is among the best and most important writers in German today, with a work that never shies away from trying new things, a writer who is smart yet not unreadably difficult. On the contrary: her writing, while complex, is frequently buoyed by a pleasurable language, which is warm and is driven by a kind of verbal plasticity that I have not encountered since Günter Grass. One of the defining characteristics of Grass’ style is the surreal quality of his words, his use of nouns is especially interesting and significant in this regard. But where Grass frequently drops off into a surreal plot, opting for a rich stew of a book instead of sharp criticism (which is why his shorter books frequently fall so short of the mark), Herta Müller is always on point, always engaged and worth engaging with.

Herta Müller was born in Romania in August 1953, she fled the country in 1987, with her then-husband, a novelist, as well. Her work is largely concerned with Ceausescu’s dictatorship and the trauma that it left on its citizens. She is a German-Romanian, not because she’s a German citizen now, but because she was a member of Romania’s German community in the region called the Banat. The group she belongs to are the so-called Banater Schwaben (~ the Swabians from the Banat, a region that is part of three different countries, Romania, Serbia and Hungary) and today she’s that community’s most prominent member. She has always, however kept its distance to the Banater Schwaben, mostly because she was always resistant to Nationalism and the community, like many ‘exiled communities’ have engaged in a strongly nationalistic discourse that tended to border on racism (a statement by the community talks about a “deutsches Bauernvolk von hoher Kultur (…) inmitten einer fremdvölkischen Umwelt”). The complexities of being ethnically a Banater Schwabe in Romania are frequently explored in her fiction, as the group has always, on the one hand, enjoyed privileges, especially economic ones, and it also was part of the fringe, the dispossessed, in the context of rising Serbo-Yugoslavian and Romanian nationalism.

This story of ethnicity is frequently combined with a history of being oppressed by and resisting a totalitarian system, a history of violence. As is the case with many of the best German language prose writers of the latter half of the 20th century, among them genii like Elfriede Jelinek, Thomas Bernhard and Siegfried Lenz, violence, as a force, is threaded throughout her work. Violence is always present and Müller is highly adept at constructing situations that are structured by violence or by relationships of power. Recently I have read a few misguided comments comparing her to Jelinek, but Jelinek detects and exposes violence in language and culture, her subject is language, whereas Herta Müller writes about people and cultures. Her awareness of language serves a completely and utterly different purpose: it’s secondary to people but it helps to identify and define situations, contextualize acts and actions within cultural and historical frameworks. What’s more, Herta Müller writes to move people. If her work is so often read autobiographically (which does a disservice to the work), it’s because so much of it feels heart-felt. It’s hard not to see Bossert’s real-life suicide as one of the driving forces in the structure of Herztier (translated, puzzlingly, as The Land of Green Plums by the wonderful Michael Hofmann (Metropolitan/Henry Holt, 1996)) which, after the new masterpiece and opus magnum Atemschaukel, is her second-best novel and an extraordinary read all told.

Violence, in turn, is connected to fear and darkness and the progression of her work could be read as an attempt to climb out of it, but it shouldn’t. She herself has said that writing doesn’t help or mitigate the darkness. Instead, her work is the work of a teacher. Writers like Jelinek have been suspicious of teaching, as it can be said to reproduce and execute power inequalities and similar issues, but Müller doesn’t share these misgivings. Like Grass’ oeuvre, Müller’s work is a continuation of traditional storytelling. She, too, is aware of the structure of myth and folk tales but her use of them is constructive. She uses tradition as a tool in constructing and building a story. Memory is important, so are intercultural connections. In this she is, if anything, the antithesis to Jelinek. She teaches us to remember, to look not for repression in words (although we are reminded of its presence) but for the past. The eponymous Herztier (‘Heart Animal’) can be read as a mythical figure in the tradition of Gershom Scholem’s, a mythical symbol of the hidden life, a conflation of the individual (Herz) and the collective (Tier).

I return to this book because, until her latest was published, it represented the fullest artistic statement Müller had published so far. It is a magnificent combination of storytelling and of a poet’s sense of the weight and richness of words and symbols. It’s also the best statement on her stance as far as her Romanian past is concerned. In a speech, Müller differentiated “soziale Angst” (social fear) which is a collective fear, something that is visible in a society’s tendency to, for example expunge and attack foreigners and minorities, and “existentielle Angst”, which is the individual’s fear. Whereas books such as Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet (translated as The Appointment (Metropolitan/Picador, 2001), her least great novel so far) concentrate on the latter, her writing is at its best when she combines this with a strong focus on the former. In the protagonists of Herztier and their fears, she’s achieved just that and highlights the connections between that fear and tradition, memory and storytelling. The first sentence of the novel is legendary:

“Wenn wir schweigen, werden wir unan genehm,” sagte Edgar, “wenn wir reden, werden wir lächerlich.”

It can be translated as “’When we’re silent, we become awkward/displeasing’, Edgar said, ‘when we talk, we become ridiculous.’” That awareness is important. To talk is to risk ridicule but how will we provide testimony without talking? Here’s where we return to what I said earlier, about her use of language. Sometimes her criticism is plain and direct, especially if its the easy criticism of dictatorships. Sometimes she evades from harsh language into poetical and mythical, as when she, in an essay, explains why she so frequently uses the word “king” instead of “dictator”: because it’s softer. Soft-spoken, her novel carry big sticks nevertheless. Often, Müller is concerned with the access (der Zugriff) that a repressive system has on the individual. In a very nice appropriation of the feminist discussion of how hair or fashion can demonstrate the access that society has on women in society, she maintains in one of her many great essays that a man’s hair demonstrates the access of the (totalitarian) state on him. Movingly, she recounts how Bossert, a friend and writer who killed himself weeks after having been the target of repressive measures (apartment searched, manuscripts confiscated and he was beaten to a pulp) started to cut random pieces of hair out of his beard and hair, a motif that also comes up in Herztier.

These kinds of topics make many of her books seem bleak, especially ones like Der Fuchs war damals schon der Jäger or Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet. The harshness of many descriptions in her books, filled with desolation, terror, suicide, with cut-off thumbs and the solace of having a mother-of-pearl button that takes away the fear momentarily, this harshness is not part of a bleak, one-sided attack on a dictatorship, although that is certainly an important and central part of her work. The brilliance of Müller’s work is that her language and her way of structuring, contextualizing situations means that she interrogates the very point of view of her narrators, for example by letting them spout nonsense about history, or by creating situations that are no longer structured by political repression but by other power relationships, as the one between men and women. Repression is something that can be passed down and refocused and Herta Müller is amazingly aware of the intricacies of these relations. And she finds that many of them can be found in the mirror that is language, but her language is not cultural or social language, like Jelinek’s. Her language is the individual’s: “Sprache … lebt immer im Einzelfall.” and “Sprache … läßt sich von dem was Einer mit dem Anderen tat, nicht trennen.” Müller is a dedicated writer, a writer committed to the responsibility that we have as human beings. Hence the remark about teaching.

Before publishing her amazing new novel, which is very different from much that she has previously put out, she started to write poetry. But not just any poetry. Collections such as Im Haarknoten wohnt eine Dame contain poems that are not written, they are assembled, they are collages. Each page contains an image of a poem assembled of phrases and words (even just letters) cut out of books and newspapers, which is perfectly logical for a woman who is interested not just in language, as an abstract medium, but in language as something that people use. Language as part of actual, printed books and pages, which, in turn are read again by people. By individuals. Another application of this technique can be found in the anthology Vorwärts, ihr Kampfschildkröten, where different poets translate some well-known Ukrainian poets, frequently offering different versions of one and the same poem. Herta Müller’s contribution to that is not a translation or a poem of her own. Instead, she creates collages out of the translated versions, thus creating fascinating new poems. This last is interesting and intriguing, but slight. Her proper poetry, in Im Haarknoten wohnt eine Dame, however, is actually very good, light, well written, musical. I cannot recommend that book highly enough. Accomplished novelists who are also accomplished poets are very rare and it remains to be seen whether poetry really is a direction she intends to pursue in the future, but that book is an extraordinary accomplishment, on many levels.

And in Atemschaukel, her most recent book, (proper review on this blog forthcoming) her return to fictional prose, she writes about memory. Memory has always been important in her books, which frequently employ flashbacks. It is these flashbacks which are most responsible for the fractured narratives that had people incorrectly complain that she puts style before plot. These are not willfully fractured narratives in the sense of of a postmodern fragment for fragment’s sake. Müller is interesting in that, although clearly postmodern, she doesn’t write in 1970s/1980s traditions of postmodernism, but in 1950s traditions. I mentioned Lenz and Grass, but equally noteworthy are writers like Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann as well as, in a later vein, Walter Kempowski. All of those three are relevant to matters of memory, because the aforementioned flashbacks are but the tip of the iceberg. In her use of words she appears to me to pursue a kind of hunt for the memory that is in words, that hides in the words’ history, cultural and linguistic. This makes for a fascinating language, for a use of words that can appear to be overly poetic, which some German critics have accused her of in the reception of Atemschaukel. It is that aspect of her writing that connects her to writers like Paul Celan whose literary project contained similar attempts.

With, on the other hand, Kempowski (who isn’t likely to be a direct influence), she shares an interest in the power of stories to make or become part of history. That had always been boiling under the surface, but the autobiographical connection had overshadowed it. Her books always appeared to be descriptions of her experiences under Ceausescu and her escape from that. That is a worthy topic and the reasons that I have heard her name in discussions about last year’s Nobel prize as well, but what she did with the new book is amazing. She stepped out of the autobiographical framework and explicitly told other people’s stories. Her mother, as well as many other people from her village were deported after the war and set to work in a USSR labor camp, which happened to my grandmother, coming from a German community in Hungary, as well. Like my grandmother, many of the Romanian survivors of those camps rarely talked about these stories, so, starting in 2001, Herta Müller sat down with some of them and recorded their stories. Her help in this endeavor was the great, recently deceased poet Oskar Pastior, who is himself a survivor of these camps and who contributed most significantly to the stories thus assembled. Together they traveled to the Ukraine to visit locations where once camps were. After Pastior died in 2006, Müller decided to make a novel out of the reams and reams of material they had assembled together, most importantly, his own story.

Without wanting to anticipate my own proper review, let me just say that Atemschaukel is a great achievement that combines many of her strengths outlined in this piece, but applied them to a completely different topic. It can be said to round off her work. I didn’t expect her to win the prize because her work hasn’t had, to my mind, a definite shape yet, which may well be the reason that she did not yet receive the most prestigious German literary prize, The Büchnerpreis, but the longer I think about it the stronger I approve of the Swedish Academy’s decision. I think that this book can be like a capstone to her work, it exemplifies many of her powers and demonstrates that they aren’t just restricted to one topic, that she is not a one-note writer, although her poems should have put that idea to rest a long while ago.

And what is she? Is she a German writer? A Romanian one? German critics have always maintained that writing about Romania is a preliminary step to becoming a real writer, that her worth would only prove itself when she succeeded in ‘arriving’ properly, i.e. writing about Germany. This explains the overwhelming success of her latest novel, since the only subject that Germans more like their authors to write about than Germans, is Germans who are victims. Müller herself never tried to fit into critics’ expectations. Nationality is a thorny subject in her work and she prefers to write about bodies and spaces. Nationalities, ethnicities turn into languages in her work. She sees cultures and nations as webs, as interconnected systems that can’t be looked at on their own. In a statement she once said

Je mehr Augen ich für Deutschland habe, umso mehr verknüft sich das Jetzige mit der Vergangenheit.

Herta Müller is a careful, aware and thoughtful writer, and a gorgeous creator of prose and poetry as well. I’m happy she’ll finally get the attention she deserves. ISBN

Hartmut Lange: Das Konzert

Lange, Hartmut (1986), Das Konzert, Diogenes
ISBN 3257216459

konzertAll major literatures have writers in the critical spotlight, who reap all the laurels, who command all the attention. As a rule of thumb, you can find all of them on the idiotic lists of people complaining about how (and to whom) the Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded. And each of these literatures also has excellent second-tier writers, writers who are as good or better than those in the spotlight but who, for some reason or other, despite good reviews and decent enough sales never quite broke through. In Germany, one of those writers is Hartmut Lange. The excellence of his work deserves a wide audience, critical and popular, yet ever well-read people can be puzzled when asked about him. In recent interviews, Lange himself has turned to complaining about the critical bias against him and grumbling about his work being simply too ‘bold’ for the success that has been denied to him for decades. This is not to say that Lange has been altogether without success. He started his career as a playwright in the GDR, where he was successful, both with audiences as well as with critics. He won a major prize yet he then fell out of love with the ruling ideology and, in 1965, did not return from one of his trips to West Germany.

For some reason, he stopped writing plays in the early 1980s when he embarked upon his second career as a prose writer. He has since written mainly novellas, short, brilliant pieces on different topics, tinged with melancholy and written with a sleight of hand that would have made Updike proud. His style is always unobtrusive, elegant. It creates the impression of sumptuousness without ever meandering. That’s the case, as well, in his 1986 novella Das Konzert (translated into French by Bernard Kreiss as Le Recital (Editions Fayard, 1988)), ‘the concert’, one of his best works. It’s not a thriller, but sometimes it feels like one, simply due to Lange’s control of genre and language. He intimates horrible things, but shrouds them in glances and elegant turns of phrase. His book is set in baroque villas and dank graves yet he consistently resists excessive indulgence as far as descriptions are concerned. He doesn’t try to evoke the baroqueness in all its glorious details to us, nor the graves. This novella, as many of his books, is concerned with a shadow world, and his style allows the world to retreat, partly, into shadow. We may not see all the details of his places but we see enough to get a good idea.

Lange-Hartmut-Le-Recital-Suivi-De-La-Sonate-De-Waldstein-Livre-876328697_MLAnother sign of his mastery is his use of the form of the novella. Instead of just putting out a piece of prose that’s too short to be a novel and too long to be a story, and slapping on it the label ‘novella’, he writes, consciously, a novella, a tight piece of prose. Theodor Storm, one of the most important writers in that form in German literature, called the novella “the sister of drama” and “the strictest kind of prose writing”, which is organized through a conflict that’s at the center of the whole construction. I’ve a feeling Hartmut Lange shares that view. Das Konzert is so tight that it’s, as with all books that are written this well, hard to imagine it being any longer despite the fact that the subject could make for quite a long novel. Lange, however, chose a structure and a central organizing metaphor that allows him to write a book of just over a hundred and thirty pages about a topic as vast and expansive as guilt and redemption after the atrocities of the Second World War. Although there are several concerts, the eponymous concert comes at the end, almost unannounced, unexpected, even, but we the readers still see that the whole book’s structure hangs on that concert and its outcome. The book even employs short bursts of violence but although that violence can seem harmless, it has a much more harsh effect on the readers. Again, as with other things, Lange makes the utmost of his use of violence.

But I should mention the plot first, so these remarks make more sense. I’d say the plot is simple but it isn’t. The premise is interesting. It’s the mid-1980s. Berlin is awash with rumor and excitement because Lewanski, a famous pianist, is giving concerts again, forty years after having been shot at the age of 28. Well, not all Berlin. It’s Berlin’s dead who are excited. In a variation of a theme frequently employed in fiction (a recent version can be found in Will Self’s 2001 novel How The Dead Live), Lange imagines dead people living on among ourselves. But they are not part of our society. Their lives are superimposed upon our lives. They live in a different world atop our reality. They have rebuilt houses, eat, sleep and drink in them, although completely different houses have been built in the meantime on the very same spaces. In a premise that reminded me of Miéville’s fantastic recent novel The City & The City, Lange endows his dead with the ability to see both cities at the same time. Although the living are oblivious to the presence of the dead, the same cannot be said of the dead. Unlike Miéville, however, Lange never attempts to explain and finish his concept, which I will call ‘Ghost Berlin’ for simplicity’s sake, fully. He hands us a few facts and expects us to make do with them. We can’t ask questions, because that’s not this kind of book.

Unlike, again, Miéville, he constructs his concept as a metaphor and only mentions or highlights those aspects that make sense in term of the metaphor. One of the most significant omissions that most directly point to the artificial, purely literary, metaphoric nature of the concept, is the lack of any dead that died before the advent of the National Socialists. In his mixture of real and invented characters, Lange parades before us people like the (real) German impressionist Max Lieberman and the (invented) Frau Altenschul, who, one of the first Jewish dead to return to Berlin, opened a salon for the fashionable dead there, the internal dynamics of which strongly display shades of Proust. The writing, however, does not resemble Proust at all, at least as far as his use of memory is concerned. The ghost layer over the real Berlin is a personification, in a way, of memory. Memory as a monument but an invisible and intangible one. Ghost Berlin intersects with the real Berlin in certain places, where the bad things happened, places remembered and avoided by the dead and remembered or used for memorials by the living. In a way, Lange’s ghost layer is a transcendent affirmation of Pierre Nora’s idea of “lieux de mémoire” (of three volumes of that work, two have been published after publication of Das Konzert, so the connection is wholly of my making).

To return to the plot. The young pianist, shot in the Litzmannstadt Ghetto, one of the largest ghettos in the Third Reich, appears and starts to give small concerts in Frau Altenschul’s circle and he’s so good that his performance instils a desire in Frau Altenschul to organize a huge concert to celebrate his return. Halted in his artistic development at 28 when he was shot in the neck, Frau Altenschul attempts to lead him to new artistic heights, to help him become a complete artist. He is, however, clearly a disturbed young man, haunted by his death. At his first appearance before her circle Lewanski breaks off his recital, murmuring the word “Litzmannstadt” and declaring that, to play that particular piece, Chopin’s Douze Études (op. 25), he is too young, that he has been ripped from his life too early. In his struggle to regain mastery over his art he is helped by a satiric writer of novellas called Schulze-Bethmann (who is a melange of different German and Austrian writers, like Tucholsky or the great titan Karl Kraus or maybe even Musil), who generously dispenses advice and, later, precipitates the final events. Schulze-Bethmann also helps him to come to terms with a different group of dead people on Berlin’s street: Nazis.

missing langeBasically, for all we know, in Lange’s Ghost Berlin, there’s only dead Nazis and dead Jews (not all of them murdered, Liebermann died in his sleep). Most of the Nazis are deeply remorseful for what they did. Many of them, after all, did it for a higher cause, ‘saving the German race’ and it took death to show them the horrible delusion they were under. The passages dealing with this recognition are potent statements on the longevity (or the lack of it, as it happens) of ideologies, of death canceling out some illusions. The Nazis are the pariahs of Ghost Berlin, ashamed of themselves and shunned by the other occupants of the city. Schulze-Bethmann is one of the few who has regular contacts to them. As it turns out, the Nazis have as much interest in Lewanski regaining his powers as Frau Altenschul. They think that if he manages to mature as an artist despite their murdering him they will be saved, in a way. Art will free them, make them less contemptible. In the end, Lewanski has the choice between attending one of two concerts. One in front of Frau Altenschul and a large audience assembling to hear him, and one in front of an army of dead Nazis, hiding in what used to be the Führerbunker. His failure to play the piece he set out to play dashes the Nazis’ hopes and contains a direct indictment of Germans’ attempts in Lange’s time and the decade after the book’s publication, to extricate themselves from responsibility by erecting monuments and installing rituals of remembrance in schools.

These rituals, as is evidenced by many aspects of German culture, merely pay lip service to remembrance. They frequently evade understanding and try to reduce the topic to guilt and punishment, a reduction that allows then to call for an end to the guilt and the punishment. Any reminder by individual Germans of the historical responsibility, any call for genuine attempts to understand and properly contextualize events is publicly read in guilt/punishment parameters and, recently, tends to elicit that well-worn Nazi trope of ‘self-hating’ Germans. These discourses have been ongoing for decades and Lange manages to compress these issues that have filled shelves full of books, into one brilliant metaphor. At a glance, this metaphor may appear to be of little subtlety, but it’s Lange’s execution of this concept that makes it really work. Actually, as we close the book, it’s Lange’s mastery that stays most with us, and if there is any flaw with this book, this is it. It may not be terribly felicitous in dealing with such a topic to aim to dazzle the reader with your gifts. But it’s a feeble quibble, because while reading the book, we are frequently moved. As Lewanski murmurs “Litzmannstadt” for the last time, we shudder, recognizing the indelible imprint of these horrors on art, history, culture and, what’s more, we see what it means to end a life, to abort a life’s trajectory before its time.

Lewanski is eternally in-between. His is not a life after death. Although he can move, his is a life frozen in the moment of death. As a human being, he cannot develop further, he can just reiterate what happened. In a way, this is a call to the reader to make the utmost of his or her own life. Seeing a life that is stilled, we are reminded of our own lives and of the potential that slumbers within us. And we are reminded of the opportunities to change things and our duty to remember. In an eerie coincidence, the Führerbunker, which had been buried by the Soviets in 1945, was finally unearthed in 1987, a year after Lange published Das Konzert. The Nazis, who, in Lange’s novella, hid beneath Berlin’s streets in the vast bunker, thus lost their habitation. In the final chapter, Schulze-Bethmann tells his murderer “Schuld ist eine große Gelegenheit”, guilt is a great opportunity, and the novella sheds its metaphor as the whole book comes together in the final paragraphs, like Sextus Empiricus’ ladder. This is a masterpiece, written by a master, It’s elegant, moving and thought provoking. As far as I know, this novella has not yet been translated into English. However, Helen Atkins translated a handful of Hartmut Lange’s stories that were published as Missing Persons (Toby Press, 2000).


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Anna Katharina Hahn: Kürzere Tage

Hahn, Anna Katharina (2009), Kürzere Tage, Suhrkamp
ISBN 978-3-518-42057-7

Anna Katharina Hahn is a young writer, born in 1970, who has published two volumes of stories before putting out this novel which, like Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut novel The Namesake, bears the traces of a mind trained on writing in the short form, but it’s most successful in the last third where Hahn pulls together all the threads of the book to make, no, to force it to cohere. Kürzere Tage (Shorter Days) is a bleak book, a dark book that finds hope in the end, but it’s a hope born of death and destruction, a hope for something different, better, new, a hope that is fed by the utter hopelessness of the present and the past. There has to be something better in the future, in other countries, doesn’t it? And even this is a hope that is only available to a few of the book’s miserable characters. It is one of Hahn’s few strengths that she can make this dark and utter misery into a light enough read, that she uses a language that does not reflect the pain and desperation it depicts. That may be one of the reasons why some people don’t like to read writers such as Jirgl, whose dark subject matter finds expression in a language that is just as dark and violent. That makes for an amazing, convincing reading experience, but it’s also taxing. Kürzere Tage, in contrast, isn’t either of those things.

Reading it isn’t as much of an exhausting emotional and aesthetic experience, but despite being light and readable it is still able to transport content that is serious and important. That is, clearly, another reason for the huge critical success of the book (Ingo Schulze’s strange critical and popular success can be chalked down to similar reasons, although Anna Katharina Hahn is a far, far better writer than the curly-haired hack). The issues it raises, like nationalism, racism, sexism, as well as gender and class issues and the newly popular and, by now, well-explored fate of German refugees after WWII (‘Germans as victims’ is perhaps the most popular new topos in German fiction and non-fiction in this decade) assure it’s ‘significance’ in the wide field of recent publications.To cut a long story short, it is an ok book. Not great, certainly, much of the writing is sub-par and the characters are flawed as literary creations, but now and then the writing soars (or hops) and, after all, the characters serve their purpose, which is illustrating certain ideas, well enough, and the writer’s perceptiveness in regard to the city she writes about is incredible. The major flaw of the book is its cowardice or laziness: almost all of it reads as if the writer held back, tried to keep to a certain convention, to keep her book from any kind of excess, make it dark, but still pleasant, but she’s too good a writer not to show the possibilities of the book, to display what could have been.

One of the most interesting yet also most disappointing aspects of Kürzere Tage is its use of local color. The book is set in Stuttgart, a large city in south-west Germany, the capital of one of the largest and most prosperous of Germany’s 16 states, Baden-Württemberg. Politically and culturally, Baden-Württemberg has a strange mixture of progressivism and conservativism, and it has always been that way. It is the state where the first post-French Revolution revolution in what we today call Germany (Germany is a very young country, first established in 1871) has taken place, but that revolution marks also the birth of a particular insidious and persistent brand of nationalism. It is the only state where regularly mayors are elected who are members of the Green Party (Bündnis 90/ Grüne), but it is also the state that is firmly, on a statewide level, in the hands of the Christian Conservatives and was once governed by a former Nazi judge (who used to sign death warrants for deserters) and, until his death last year was a venerated and well-respected figure in Baden-Württemberg’s political culture. It is the state where rebellious and genius writers like Hölderlin, Wieland and Schiller came from, and it is the state where the staging of a play critical of Christianity raised death threats and such a furor that some cities declined staging it at all, afraid of the public reaction (death threats can have that effect…).

The state is dominated by two different (but very similar) cultural groups who even speak different (but actually very similar) dialects. Stuttgart is part of the ‘Württemberg’ part of the state which is, in many ways, more conservative than its brother, ‘Baden’. As any major city here and in the world, there is a big, traditional part of town, where the established families live, crime rates are low and rent is high, and the abandoned quarters for the poor and the immigrants. Anna Katharina Hahn makes heavy use of this briefly sketched background, and it is one of the strengths of the book that she rarely explains herself, that she uses, uncommented, words only used in the local dialect and local reference and these words, another strength, are not marked as dialect, either. This subtle, unmarked use of localized language is very interesting, but Hahn displays a very different use of dialect in other places. None of her characters habitually appear to use dialect in their everyday speech except for a few choice times when Hahn, orthographically, marks dialectical pronunciation. Since this is not always used to mark out stressful situations or particular words or anything else, the reader only associates a certain cuteness with it, a nice quirk. This is the first of many instances where Hahn reduces an interesting possibility in her writing, one which she had already been using, to an easily palatable gimmick.

Much more consistently interesting is the way Kürzere Tage employs local social structures and how they pattern Stuttgart’s citizens’ behaviors. Anna Katharina Hahn, born and raised in Stuttgart, has a fine sense of how living in the city influences issues of class and gender, but at the same time she manages to elevate these issues to a level that makes them relevant to others as well. Her characters are carefully constructed to achieve this. There is Judith, who studied art history, fell in with a student of medicine, Sören, who took her into his life of parties, debauchery and addiction, from which she tried to extricate herself, which she didn’t manage to do until it was too late, and she was made to drop out. Subsequently, she married a dull neighbor of hers, Klaus, who went on to become a university professor, while she became a stay-at-home mom. She became part of a conservative yet vaguely progressive part of society which is among the biggest support groups for the state’s Green Party. Her two sons are not sent to private nor public school, but to Rudolf Steiner’s Waldorf schools. They are not exposed to television nor are they allowed any kind of excess. Just very few sweets, controlled but wholesome periods of playing in the garden and little contact with non-Waldorf kids, so as not to poison them with the unhealthy tendencies of today’s tv-based education. Those are very happy kids. No irony. It is their mother who has lapsed into a depression that seems to know no bounds. She takes medication but Klaus appears to neither know nor care. Being a housewife and not having any vigorous intellectual exercise and not working devastates her on a daily basis and has done so for the past decade. She is profoundly unhappy, yet, to outsiders, she appears to be the most happy woman on the block.

Another character, living in the same neighborhood, is Leonie, who is a working mother, with two daughters and a husband, Simon, who also works and supports her working (although his support for this is waning fast). Their marriage is interesting in a different way from Judith’s. Her husband, while rich now, is basically nouveau riche, he worked his way up from the bottom, coming from a poor neighborhood. He has since honed his speech and appearances to hide his provenance, but Leonie, who is from a rich and well-established Stuttgart family, aus gutem Hause, is still disgusted by his signs of the proletariat. There are two basic tensions in that family. One is the class tension, with Leonie constantly on edge about signs of her husband misbehaving; the other is her own background, in the sense that she is constantly racked by guilt over her working, not being ‘a good mother’, a worry that becomes even more prominent when she meets Judith and sees her well-behaved kids, which contrast with her own unruly brats. Leonie’s break with traditional gender roles is focused on as such, which already says a lot about how strict and traditional the background here is. The book itself further implicates Leonie in such issues as sexuality, adultery and even, but subtly, pedophilia, thereby casting her in the role of morally unsound, at least potentially.

These two modern women are offered a third woman by means of comparison late in the book, where, for two chapters we slip into the pov of an older woman, a neighbor of the two, someone, actually, whom we’ve already, glancingly, met. In those two chapters Hahn connects the present with the past by telling us the old woman’s story, a story of emigration from the East, marrying different men and the like. She isn’t a working woman nor has she ever been but the issues plaguing her are not much different from modern issues. She, broad-hipped but childless, has also, always, had trouble with gender expectations, she’s every bit as unhappy as the two younger woman. Her chapters are the two best chapters of the whole book. Here Hahn allows herself to indulge in her language and the result is moving, sumptuous, amazing. Although I would have embraced this kind of writing from the start, I understand the effect that Hahn aimed for in pulling out that character so late. At this point, we know so much about the two younger characters and their issues that every info here, every remembrance in from the older woman strikes the reader as a necessary insight, and it speeds up the book in surprising ways. A similar, but more pronounced effect is achieved by introducing a character called Marco, a young German from a poor background, beaten and clubbed regularly by his stepfather, a nationalist, broad-shouldered macho. Since his character and his actions provide a surprise of sorts, a change of pace, that make him a catalyst for this book’s attempt to achieve a resolution, I won’t go into many details here, but it is amazing to what extent the final third of the book calls up many issues of the previous sections of the book and connects them with other issues, like racism, and nationalism, and builds on them by introducing literary references (Sören turns out to be “Dr. Sören Rönne”, clearly a reference to Benn’s immortal creation Dr. Rönne) or by letting some emotional, cerebral issues find a concrete, direct embodiment.

Now, I do think that the last third is the best section of the book, but the end, when it comes, is terribly weak. Hope is a mere gesture for Hahn, at least in this book. The logic of the book doesn’t allow for light, or even hope. This extends even into the language Hahn is using. Apart from the two outstanding chapters I mentioned, the writing is very weak, mostly because Hahn usually employs a third person personal narrator, but shows no intent to make an aesthetically ore realistically satisfying use of this. Instead she lets slip words of a slightly different register, words that in German journalism are frequently supposed to mark colloquial speech, but are actually nothing like colloquial German speech. This lack of aesthetic determination amply reflects the way of life that the two women are trapped in. It fits the book in interesting ways, one could go into further details here, but sadly, this doesn’t make for great reading. This is the lack of resolve to think or work things through I mentioned earlier: the book could be so much better and Hahn demonstrates that she, in fact could do it better, but for whatever reasons, she doesn’t, which is a big disappointment. Language, and the ending, is its weakest point but I’m not awed by the other sections either. The ideas are good, her perceptiveness and her understanding of the milieu she writes about is great, but as a novel, Anna Katharina Hahn has not made it work.

Remarks on Christa Wolf’s “New Life and Opinions of a Tomcat”

Wolf, Christa, “Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers”,
in; Wolf, Christa, Erzählungen 1960-1980, Luchterhand
ISBN 3-630-62034-5

This is not a proper review, more like brief remarks which own their brevity to the shortness of the text in question. It’s a story by major GDR writer Christa Wolf, written in the early 1970s, published together with two other stories in 1974 in a collection that was subtitled “Drei unwahrscheinliche Geschichten” (that is ‘three improbable stories’). All three of those stories are masterful, the best of the three probably the scintillating titular story “Unter den Linden”. “Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers” (New Life and Opinions of a Tomcat) is, technically, probably the weakest story of the bunch, but it’s still fascinating reading. It pretends to be a ‘continuation’ of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr (my review here), but in many ways it just employs its satirical spirit, while actually departing quite a bit from Hoffmann’s text. Wolf is passionate and direct, bleeding commitment into her text, she has no patience for Hoffmann’s genteel games; in this and other stories and books she portrays the outcry of the soul against stifling, destructive structures.

“Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers” is a much more earnest and serious text, really, much more direct in its criticism of society and the direction its heading towards than Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr. What Hoffmann did was provide an oblique critique channeled through a literary maze. Instead of commenting upon an issue directly, he comments upon other texts, presenting a multi-pronged kind of criticism that is as readable and topical, really, as it was when it was first published. Christa Wolf’s story is much more directly relevant to the social, political and cultural context of her time, down to phrases that echo the peculiar kind of neologisms common in the GDR (and the Third Reich, curiously). Its connection to Hoffmann’s text is a small one, constituted by the title and the conceit of the text being written by a tomcat on pages from a manuscript. However, while Hoffmann invented this in order to construct an elaborate book of fragments and two separate stories running in parallel, it serves no other purpose in Wolf’s story but to create the link to Hoffmann’s novel.

Wolf does not have two story-lines but she doesn’t just throw half of Hoffmann away, either. Instead, she brilliantly injects the basic thrust of the Kreisler story, if we subtract the Gothic plot, into the cat’s narrative. See, in Kreisler, Hoffmann depicts a romantic subjectivity which is at odds with the society around him and instead of succumbing to ‘reason’ persists as artistic spirit and is almost broken due to that decision. Wolf’s story is about a similar problem. It is about a group of scientists and thinkers who want to create a system that will make mankind happy, a system that ensures a maximum of spiritual and bodily health. And wouldn’t we all love that. Their proposals are then fed into a computer who, however, tells them that their ideas won’t work out. The model human being that the system is based on and the actual submitted system do not fit, they have to change one or the other. During the following weeks they work on the model human being, slowly stripping it of all things that are incompatible with a smoothly running system like they envisioned it.

Things to go first are elements like artistic creativity but reason and sexuality are thrown off board as well, in due course, as the computer continues to hand back to them their proposal as flawed and wrong, but it keeps assuring them they are on the right path. The computer is basically a mechanism forcing the scientists to ‘think things through’. It’s a wonder this story got published at all, since it clearly constitutes a criticism of the socialist (not Communist, mind you) enterprise, the attempt to think up, construct and maintain a system that nominally has man’s best interests at heart but, in actuality, does not have much room for human beings in it, unless they conform strictly to the ruling ideology. Individuals, here as in other places in Wolf’s work, such as the Quest for Christa T. (my review here) are at odds with that restrictive society. Wolf does not damn the idea of Communism, per se, in fact, as her work repeatedly clarifies, she considers it necessary, it is also liberating, but it must revolve around the individual and not an idea. If you have to adapt something, adapt the system and not the individuals living in it.

It’s quite clear how this connects to the ideas that drive the Kreisler sections of Hoffmann’s novel. But what about Murr and his equivalent in Wolf’s story, Max? Both are first person narrators of their story, both are philistines of a kind, but while Murr’s story is basically Murr’s Bildungsroman (a parody, actually, of the genre), Max is just an observer of the events. While Murr is talking about his life and reflecting mainly on himself, and his pet friends, Max is almost exclusively focused on humans. Murr’s reflections were part of a complex metafictional web Hoffmann was weaving in his book, which largely references and targets other books, while Wolf is having none of that. She is focused on the message and delivers it with few distractions, and she largely references and targets real world life and politics. Her dismay with the inflexible society that she was living in, is plain, and she’s clear about the fact that she doesn’t pit creativity against reason, since ‘reason”s another property that is left out of the model character. Like Hoffmann, she’s very clear about her commitments and unlike him, she delivers a scathing critique of the socialist state.

It is not her best story but indicative of qualities all her stories have, qualities that make her best stories shine like they do. Hers is a literary sensibility that is upfront about her criticisms and concerns yet is able to weave a complex literary text, with a use of intertextuality that frequently reminds me of Genette’s idea of a “continuation infidéle”. In this case, Wolf took on more than she could handle, her grip on the source text is weak, and the simple structure is too simple to do any kind of justice to Hoffmann’s novel, which really hurts the impact of the story. In other texts, she is far more proficient in this. It is nevertheless recommended, like everything of hers. If you cannot read German, do not despair: the story can be found in a collection of her short prose, What Remains and other stories, translated by Heike Schwarzbauer and Rick Takvorian, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1995. Pick it up, why don’t you.

Reinhard Jirgl: Abschied von den Feinden

Jirgl, Reinhard (1998), Abschied von den Feinden, dtv
ISBN 3-432-12584-5

Abschied von den Feinden (Goodbye to the Enemies), not yet translated into English, is Reinhard Jirgl’s breakthrough novel. Published in 1995, it won two of the most important German literary prizes and established its author as one of the major and original voices of contemporary German literature. His work has three distinct and important predecessors in German language literature, each of which can be held accountable for one very important aspect of Jirgl’s dark and violent work. Those three are Thomas Bernhard, Uwe Johnson and Arno Schmidt; some of them more obviously influential for Jirgl’s oeuvre than others. This is not to say that Jirgl draws only from these three sources; of course he doesn’t, a writer who wields his language as deftly and powerfully as Jirgl does often draws from a multitude of sources, and not only from German sources at that. Chief, perhaps, among the Anglo-Saxon strand of influence, for example, are William Faulkner and Samuel Beckett, but among modern writers writing in German, I would place the three aforementioned novelists at the fore. We’ll return to that. Jirgl’s themes are restricted to a few areas of interest, like German history and the violence that people assault each other with, openly or in a less open manner. His 2000 novel Die Atlantische Mauer (The Atlantic Wall) for example, contains one of the most harrowing, most well-written depictions of rape I have ever had the displeasure to read, as well as a frighteningly precise outsider’s account of the workings of a bureaucracy.

Typically for Jirgl, it’s hard to grapple with the book, Jirgl is a slippery writer, offering several conflicting angles, down to a fundamental level. Abschied von den Feinden is a book deeply and explicitly invested in history, in questions of historical continuity and guilt; at the same time, it’s a textual machine. By cutting all the names from the text, reducing every character to a function, and every function to schematics, in combination with his typography and orthography, Jirgl suggests reading the book not as a historically involved book but as a textual artifact, as a book whose only level is exclusively textual, with history as one of many other textual elements, a game, in short, without responsibilities. These two levels are not coexisting, unconnected. Jirgl’s powerful use of language, his easy access to direct, even violent expression provides a strong link. Indeed, instead of subjugating history to a literary game, to a careless romp through the shelves, Jirgl goes the other way, he reconnects textuality to the gritty outside of history; his intense fiddling with words, typography and other gadgets serves just that purpose by locating the roots of the, often disturbing, acts he describes in the language they are described in. There are a few great writers who manage to create that link, one of those is Thomas Bernhard. Like Bernhard, Jirgl is an obsessive, like Bernhard, Jirgl creates a set of signs and topics and uses his work to explore them. Bernhard’s work can be put on a chart so that we see how certain topics are refined, developed, and how this is reflected in the language he uses to do this. As I said, the same applies to Jirgl.

Abschied von den Feinden traces a few characters through just over 40 years of German history; basically, we are looking at the lifespan of the German Democratic Republic, the socialist state on German soil, taken over by the other German state, the BRD, in 1990. Jirgl focuses on two inimical brothers and a woman both brothers courted at one time. The two brothers were left by their father, who fled into West Germany. Their mother was raped by government agents who wanted information from her about her supposed contacts to the imperialistic West, her kids taken away, practically orphaned. One of the most impressive sections of the book deals with the younger brother’s time in the orphanage. These sections are constructed with the imagery and language of German modernism, most significantly perhaps that of Hans Henny Jahnn, whose inestimable influence on German post-war avant-garde prose is traceable through major writers like Rolf-Dieter Brinkmann and Hubert Fichte, both of whom, in turn, have left their marks on Jirgl’s work. This may sound like namedropping but it’s actually a desperate attempt to render understandable the insane wealth of literary sources and references that are scattered through this amazing book. His writing is such that the literate reader automatically connects words, phrases and images with other books and texts. A metaphor containing an “Aster” calls to mind Benn’s famous early poem, just as, mentioning a “Tarnkappe” (magic cap or cloak of invisibility), to me, is almost as good as mentioning Christoph Meckel’s poem with the same title, and there’s innumerable smaller and larger ways in which texts surface and add depth to the book; just as in most cases of intertextuality, Jirgl, too, can be said to outsource meanings into the web of text he places his novel in. The specific context of Benn’s early poems, “set” in Germany before the first world war, is interesting to consider in relation to the modern history Jirgl looks at. I have absolutely no idea how the references, this incessant sounding for literary depths, this integral part of the novel would make it into a translation. I guess I’m lucky to speak the language.

To return to the two brothers. After a short time in the orphanage, they are taken in and raised by a pair of refugees, who were chased from what used to be German territories in the east, as people are wont to be chased in the turmoils of history. Since all this review stuff is created from memory (and my memory is awful), I will go ahead and admit I may be mixing the brothers up with another pair of orphans, who, however, only enter the story in its fringes. Structurally, the novel utilizes repetition a lot, thus, years after the father, leaving the two brothers’ mother, another man, the older brother, leaves a mother of two boys. Just like his father, he absconds to West Germany. We do not learn much about what happens to the two brothers once they are grown up. These years are regarded, for the most part, through the eyes of the woman I just mentioned. The two brothers appear, but as minor characters in the larger context of her life. The older brother is the quiet, shadowy presence in the West, whom she writes letters, partly as a defiance of the GDR establishment, the younger brother falls in love with her in the East, sleeps with her and is generally obsessed with her. That is about all that can be said about their history. The brothers are more important as narrative elements than as actual characters. The book is told via a complex arrangement of letters and monologues, and the two brothers’ voices provide the main tonal dynamic.

As to the woman, she is the person who sets everything in motion, who links all the characters, leading the story down from the environs of Rostock, a big city on the northeast coast of Germany, to East Berlin and back again. The story starts in a small town near Rostock (a very specific historical reference suggests this), the same town where the two brothers were raised by the elderly emigrant couple. There a woman’s dead body was found and an injured man who threw himself off a cliff. In a way, Abschied von den Feinden is about retracing the steps that led to her murder, about illuminating that homicide. Since this necessitates illuminating her background, Jirgl embarks on presenting a very memorable life to us, the life of a woman who did not fit the mold of GDR society. This very specific kind of misfit is a very well known part of GDR literature and life. There are literary characters all over the map such as Christa Wolf’s “Christa” from Nachdenken über Christa T. (translated into English; my review here), and the eponymous protagonist from Brigitte Reimann’s marvelous classic Franziska Linkerhand (not translated). Life in the GDR was beset, in a very un-communist manner, by all kinds of bourgeois prudery. Former citizens of the GDR pride themselves today on the easygoing manner with nakedness, for instance, that people in that country displayed, but below that was a strong and strict bourgeois moral code, especially as far as sexuality and more specifically, as far as promiscuity on the part of women was concerned. Very un-communistic, as I said. The woman in Jirgl’s book took what she needed, she slept with many men, especially after the older brother left her, she went to dances and took men home regularly. When a rich doctor, head of a government clinic, takes her home one night, she takes up with him and becomes his wife. She uses him, not in the way that cliché would have it, a woman marrying a rich man for money to live comfortably off the rest of her (married) life. She wants to study and to have the leisure and support to do it. Within the next years she proceeds to write a dissertation; it is in that process, however, that she has a falling-out with her husband.

For various reasons that I need not disclose here, he discards her and when she protests he has her thrown into a psychiatric ward, a punishment that will follow her for the rest of her life, because once pronounced, she finds it to be impossible to cleanse her name from something like that, even if those who pronounced the judgment have been discredited since. It is a general topic in Jirgl’s work but especially in Abschied von den Feinden: once you have been pronounced as outside of reasonable society, you tend to have trouble finding your way back in. Jirgl depicts madness as a classification created as a deposit of the irregular; she is thrown into the asylum not for medical but for private reasons, yet in a way, her punishment fits the institution; the fact that the judgment is upheld after 1990, with the threat of being put away continuously hanging above her, underscores this. Jirgl most effectively explores the inside/outside active in any society by giving a voice to the mob. This novel crawls with sounds and voices, and one of them, the most scathing and revealingly political, is that of the mob.
In the first chapter of E.P. Thompson’s seminal study The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson talks about the rise of the English working class as a political force, as a change from those times

when ‘the Mob’ did not organize itself in pursuit of its own ends but was called into spasmodic action by a faction […] to strengthen itself.

The mob in Abschied von den Feinden, the population of the small northeastern village, is hateful. Not in any special way, but in a way that anyone even fleetingly acquainted with German history will recognize. I’m sure it’s like this in every country, but this is my home turf, so excuse my myopia. These past 60something years we have expended a lot of time and energy convincing the world that we were called into action by some fringe faction instead of acknowledging that we took action, whoever represented us, politically. Once every dozen years something happens, however, that raises the specter of what happened then, that shows how we behave when we find the courage to behave as we really want to. After 1990, the signal event was when, in 1992, a mob burned the houses of asylum seekers in Rostock-Lichtenhagen, and many more citizens, up to 2000, stood nearby, watching the foreigners burn and flee, attacking the police, too. Because it’s not about obedience. It’s about doing the right thing, and, c’mon, we know someone needs to pay, Jews, foreigners, take your pick. It is this event that is recalled in the first of many instances that Jirgl lends a voice to the people, to the neighbors of the brothers, their adoptive parents and, at the end, to the woman.

Mentioning Lichtenhagen (alluding to it, rather, names are absent here, as I said) does not actually touch any of these people. There are no foreigners in the village, none of the protagonists is a foreigner. The Lichtenhagen incident is only meant to underscore a certain kind of thinking, a historical continuity, in East and West Germany. The most important German novelist writing on that topic is probably the magnificent Uwe Johnson. He, frequently called “Dichter beider Deutschland” (‘Both Germany’s Poet’), produced a couple of incredible novels about the exigencies of life in one half of Germany. He wasn’t just a superb writer, he was also an excellent reporter both on the mentality triggered by the insane bureaucracy in the GDR and on continuities in German culture. The people and characters that crowd Abschied von den Feinden could come straight from one of Johnson’s major novels. And like him, Jirgl clearly doesn’t like what he sees. The story of the woman and the two brothers drips with anger, venom, even. He pursues his subject with a dedication and an energy that is engaging and harrowing, which would not work half as well were Jirgl not the amazingly great writer that he is. In his actual writing, he demonstrates quite a few similarities to Arno Schmidt, the solitary literary hermit, who is perhaps best known for his experiments with typography and orthography. I will review one or two Schmidt novels within the next month so I wouldn’t want to shoot my load right now, but one of many tricks Schmidt pulls is dismembering words and phrases in a hunt for etymological roots and clues to meanings hidden in the weeds and the undergrowth of language. This is where Jirgl picks up. In a note that precedes Abschied von den Feinden, he warns his reader that he will encounter difficult and different kinds of typography and orthography to add further layers of signification. For example, he does not just use the word “und” (and), he also substitutes it variously by “u:”, “&”, “+” and others. He does not end an exclamation sentence with an exclamation mark, he starts it with it, not just that, he also inserts exclamation marks in the middle of them, for special emphasis. Jirgl uses punctuation as a tool to use not as a rule to obey.

In Abschied von den Feinden, unlike, for example, in the later novel Die Atlantische Mauer, Jirgl proceeds to explain himself. Any of these changes are lucid and self-explanatory, but Jirgl insists upon saddling the book with a four page discussion of the deeper meanings that some symbols add. Perusing this you’ll find that each change, for example the decision to represent the indefinite article “ein” (which doubles as a numeral) sometimes with the actual number “1”, is motivated and can be read as significant. The incredible thing here is that it doesn’t feel annoying and self-important as in Ander Monson’s novel; on the contrary. Yes, Jirgl’s additional notes do not help you read the novel if you read it for the first time. This is why they are in the back not in the front. Jirgl invites us to reread his book in the light of his notes. To see where he tells us that someone is, for instance “thin” and small details like this. Jirgl’s actual use of words, gadgets aside is impressive, astonishing, praiseworthy, and he does not need the tricks and these small experimental thingies, but what’s great about him is that he makes it look worth your while. Nothing looks extraneous or eccentric. Jirgl has made it a part of his work and what a magnificent, wonderful work it is. Much of his later work is contained in this dense book. There is Hundsnächte, of course, which is basically a sequel, but, as I said above, Jirgl is a man with obsessions and Abschied von den Feinden is his first utterly perfect result from his encounter with these obsessions. His writing will stay with you, his characters, phrases and scenes will haunt you. Reinhard Jirgl is a great writer.

I gotta say, though, it has to be a nightmare to translate. He works so much from within his language and culture, building this vibrant, raw bell-tower of sounds, that I have trouble seeing how that would be possible to translate. A translation would need a Jirgl (i.e. someone with Jirgl’s abilities) on the other side as well, for this to work. Yes, I like that. Jirgl as an enigma machine. But do read that book if you have the opportunity to do so. Or something else by Jirgl. He published a new novel this year. Pick him up now and when he wins the Nobel you can gloat.


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Bertolt Brecht: War Primer

Brecht, Bertolt (1994), Kriegsfibel, Eulenspiegelverlag
ISBN 3-359-00173-7

“Here, Kunert, look at this, see whether it’s publishable…”, Bertolt Brecht, the titan of modern German drama asked a young acolyte of his. That acolyte was Günter Kunert, a major GDR poet, and he recalls the request and the manuscript in question in a memorable chapter in his great autobiography, Erwachsenenspiele (Games for Grownups), which is still one of the best books about the life of writers in the GDR. The manuscript were a few cardboard pages on which pictures and poems were pasted by hand. These are what later became the Kriegsfibel, published in 1955/56. It has been translated by John Willet as War Primer. Since you might know that I am wary of any poetry translations, I cannot vouch for this one, especially since I’ve never seen it. The German book, though, is one of my very favorite books. It’s a huge black chunk of a book, and I have never moved without it, it’s really a book that affects me like few others do, and this is kind of surprising since it’s a rather simple affair. It consists of 69-85 (depending on the edition) newspaper cutouts, usually photographs with the caption that the newspaper provided. There is a picture of an American soldier cradling a dead Japanese soldier, and a picture of actress Jane Wyman, her crotch hung with military medals, and pictures of German helmets and many more. Brecht assembled those in his years in exile, mostly while he lived in the US. The history of his sojourn in the US is well known, I assume.

Each newspaper cutout was accompanied by a brief poem, four lines, basically two couplets, truly Brechtian in diction, rhythm and music. Brecht was a prolific writer, he wrote countless poems, there’s much in his work that doesn’t withstand closer scrutiny, but Brecht can be powerful, and he frequently is. He is a writer who fuses bawdy and political issues within single poems, he writes complex yet accessible tracts about political situations. The poems in the Kriegsfibel show him at his best. These are angry poems, funny poems, bawdy poems, almost all of Brecht’s range is in there, reduced to simple couplets. These are poems against the war, but they try not to make people oppose war by telling sob stories, by trying to make them feel sorry for the victims of war. Brecht shouts at you, in a musical, elegant, funny way, but he does shout, because what he has to say is important, it needs to be said. He tells people to consider the consequences of their actions. He tells us that a group of soldiers did not lose the war when their helmets were shot off their heads but when they put them on. Simple truths, truisms perhaps, simplistic truths, even, but Brecht is not trying to be an authority, he’s not trying to force us to understand His Truth. Brecht wants to make us think. To make us more aware of our actions. Of things.

In his autobiography, Kunert tells us of his enthusiasm for Brecht’s manuscript and of the trouble that Brecht had publishing it. It was too dirty, too pacifistic and other things, to go over well with those in power. This was, after all, after June 1953. Brecht assembled and pushed it through to publication and the world is richer for it. Kriegsfibel is a book that can set you right. It’s a masterful work of art and a burning black meteor of a book. It will always be with me.


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Volker Braun: Trotzdestonichts

Braun, Volker (2000), Trotzdestonichts oder Der Wendehals, Suhrkamp
ISBN 3-518-39680-3

Volker Braun is a master. He has written plays, poems and prose, and has excelled in every medium. His voice is recognizably his but at the same he’s part of the great generation of writers like Thomas Brasch and Christoph Meckel, all of whom were (are) successful in different kinds of media. Volker Braun’s still active and still an incredible writer. Like many great GDR writers, he was influenced by Ernst Bloch and his multivolume manifesto to utopian hope; like many great GDR writers, the attractiveness of socialist hope and the problems of the everyday reality of the socialist state they lived in (I talked a bit about that stuff here) provided two important parameters of his work. In a way, they still do. Trotzdestonichts oder Der Wendehals is a good example of this and it’s a whopping great read at the same time. As for the edition I read: The book on my desk (see bibliographical info above) has been published in 2000 (after Braun won the prestigious Büchnerpreis that year, I guess, which is still the most significant prize for German language literature). Two parts of it have already been published under the title Der Wendehals in 1995. For this paperback edition, a third part, written at the same time as the other two and sharing common concerns and characters, has been added.

Now, to clear up that strange long title: “Trotzdestonichts” is not an existing German word, it’s a neologism, derived by switching around the elements of the word “nichtsdestotrotz” which, roughly, means “nonetheless” in English. You might translate it with “lessthenone”, I guess. A “Wendehals” is a “turncoat”. Thus, the title might be translated as “Lessthenone, or The Turncoat”, but, of course, a few things would be lost in that translation. Volker Braun is, first and foremost, a poet. His language, playful yet precise, is testament to that. In a light and cumpulsively readable manner, Braun, especially in the middle section, which is titled “Der Wendehals”, piles on puns, jokes and the like, with such ease and slight of hand that it made me repeatedly squeal with glee. The word “Wendehals” is made up of the words “Hals”, meaning “neck” and “Wende”, which means “turnabout”, “turn” or “reversal”. There is, however, one specific historical meaning that the word carries: it can refer to the end of the GDR and the takeover by West Germany (BRD). And so we have, in the title, a pun that contains in nuce, already, the theme of the book. How people were affected by that specific historical “turnabout”, how some became turncoats, how it overturned and switched around meanings for people living there, how even everyday life had to be read anew, how old readings of one’s own history had to be reversed etc. But I make the book sound more serious and heavy-going than it is, really.

There have been many books written about the Wende, some good, some less so. My favorite is Günter Grass’ miraculous Far Afield (Original German title: Ein Weites Feld), that was panned by many critics when it was published but remains one of my favorite Grass novels, and it’s certainly one of the best books dealing with that period. Grass’ book is, as usual, a grotesque, heavy with pathos and symbolism. Grass blends the life of German canonized literary giant Theodor Fontane with the life of a bumbling GDR man, nicknamed Fonty. This allows Grass to spread countless layers of German cultural references, literary and political, over the events in 1989 and 1990. Every action taken, every sentence uttered thus takes on a special (double) significance. There is a lot of humor, too, but it’s Grass’ variety of humor, which I always find hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t read the man. Grass is almost never witty, in his best moments he’s either funny or ponderous, in his worst, well, let’s just pass over that. The difference to Braun’s book, which is infinitely witty and light couldn’t be more striking yet Braun’s take on that period is astonishingly good, too. The three texts, written in 1992/1993 make the best possible use of hindsight, they provide an assessment that still holds up today, 14 years after the book was first published, which is no mean feat.

As I said, Trotzdestonichts oder Der Wendehals consists of three parts, not of equal length. The first section, the aforementioned newcomer in this edition, is the shortest. It’s called “Das Nichtgelebte” (roughly “The Unlived”) and relates to us the events of that day in November 1989 as experienced by a character named Georg. We learn that he experiences the Wende as an end, in a way, of time, an end to life as he knew it. Early in his story, he tells us that he is a punctual man, who doesn’t have an appointment to go to, which is intensely alienating to him. He had, in the waning days of the GDR, an affair with a younger woman, which fails to take off; mostly, we suspect, because he isn’t able to warm up to her, he keeps a distance. In one memorable scene, he watches her sleep, slips into bed beside her, and keeps a distance from her, exactly the lenth of his erect penis’. He tells himself that it’s better that way: “He had only guarded her sleep, and this thought evoked a tenderness in him that he carried away from the cave like robbed goods.” (crap translation mine). In the final pages of “Das Nichtgelebte” we find out that this reserve of his is a national problem. As the GDR, the great hope of so many, crumbles around him, he has a few insights, among them this: “We did not want it, he mumbled. We did not want it, we did not want it. We were not serious about it. We had time enough.” (again, my translation) Time enough indeed. Now it’s all over, West Germany takes over the country and incorporates it into its own structures. The “unlived” of the title does not just refer to the chances George missed in his private life by being an anal reticent pedant. It also refers to the chances the whole country missed by not following up on Bloch’s Prinzip Hoffnung. Imagine there’s a revolution and the people bungle it, and the reaction takes up the remains. This is tragic, and the section, though replete with a quiet humor, does full justice to that feeling.

Of all the sections, “Das Nichtgelebte” is the most poetic, the one with the most arresting images and moving formulations. It also introduces Schaber, a former high ranking supervisor of some kind, who has now become a turncoat, working for a financial conglomerate in the West. He is the principal character of the second section, which is called “Der Wendehals oder Trotzdestonichts”. The second section is the longest one, at a hundred pages roughly four times as long as the other two. It’s basically a dialogue between “Ich” (I) and “Er” (He). These two characters could be Georg and Schaber, the author and Schaber etc. It doesn’t really matter, because what they really are, is Hinze and Kunze. Hinze and Kunze are the protagonists of Braun’s most famous novel (Hinze-Kunze-Roman) and most famous play. Hinze is a citizen of the GDR who manages to see through the faults and problems and structural issues of his society. He engages a bureaucrat, Kunze, in a discussion, which leads to dialogues that possess the precision of Plato’s dialogues and the concerns and humor of Brecht’s Keuner stories. The same happens here, but the parameters have changed. Kunze/Schaber now doesn’t have a bureaucracy to defend, or a country. He defends himself. After all, this is a new country, individualism is valued highly here. Schaber is a cynical opportunist who praises his own actions and the advantages of this new life. Hinze/”Ich” is a man whose hopes have been dashed, who is almost as cynical as his opponent, but his cynicism is born from disappointment.

As the two talk, the discussion picks up speed, the two opponents bouncing words, puns and phrases off each other. It’s quick, funny and makes countless excellent points about democracy, about the peculiar (West) German attitudes to work (in German, the employer “gives” you work; literally, the German word for employer means “Workgiver” and the word for employee means literally “Worktaker”. This is partly due to an ambiguity in the word “Arbeit” (Word), but it’s also telling as far as the German attitude towards employers is concerned), about emergent racism, about consumerism and about “thoughtcowardlyness” (Braun uses a neologism here as well). At the same time, the plot of this section involves an odyssey through Berlin at night, full of surreal scenes and images, most strangely, a stampede of prostitutes. In another scene, in a library, “Ich” throws volumes of Lenin at volumes of Stalin, in the middle of a discussion that touches on Marx, Engels, the two bearded Soviets and Hegel. It’s marvelously structured, very well thought and divinely well written. At the end of that section we notice a few catchphrases from the first section reappear, but turned, cold, opportunistic. The wasted life that Georg complains about, which means a committed life, reappears now as a zest for life, but in the sense of carpe diem, Just do it!, like many of these slogans completely divested of commitment. Commitment means accepting failure, not thinking in terms of success but in terms of process. In the turned version, this facet has vanished in favor of a far more sparkly: Don’t talk so much, live!. Watch out for opportunities and grab them!

Trotzdestonichts oder Der Wendehals, it turns out, provides a wide array of emotions, depending how you read the book. The last section more or less wraps things up. It consists of several very short prose pieces that focus on different aspects. It doesn’t add much more to the book in terms of idea, but it’s necessary in that it fleshes the book out a bit, broadening its message, and clarifying many hints and implications. There’s much to delight in, and the writing vacillates wildly between the poetical style of the first and the ribald style of the second function. So what about the book as a whole? It’s certainly a joy to read, but as for its ideas, for me, Braun was preaching to the choir, basically. I have no idea how the book appeals to people with different convictions. The thinking behind it is certainly lively and powerful, but as a whole the book seems a bit thin. Turns out, I could have used some more Grass here, to provide a punch. The execution of the text, as it is, is masterful. Braun’s immense gifts as a poet are in full display here, as Braun bends the language to his will, more unobtrusive than fellow magicians like Schmidt, Jelinek and Jirgl but with no less verbal energy and inventiveness. Nothing slips from his grasp, except for one thing. The whole comedy could have made the book a cold, distanced satire. It is part of Braun’s prowess, though, that he knows when to give the reins some slack. Now and then, the mask slips and we see hurt and disappointment and we are touched, moved, and saddened. And as the book ends on a note of hope, we close it smiling. Thinking, but smiling.

Trotzdestonichts oder Der Wendehals is not a masterpiece, maybe, whatever that means, but it is a delight, from the first to the last page. In 1989 and 1990, half of Germany was turned on its head, and for the second time, German citizens had to renege their beliefs and adapt to a new society. The GDR has left scars upon the German consciousness, partly, certainly, because of all the disappointed hopes and dreams that were invested into that country. Books like Braun’s provide an insight into the hurt and resentment of many former citizens of that strange country, who were told that everything they believed in was a wrong and flawed as the dictatorial bureaucracy that used to govern them and that the West German system was the only way to go. Volker Braun, evidently, doesn’t believe that, which leaves him in an intellectual state of inbetweenness and which makes this book so readable.

Elias Canetti: The Voices of Marrakesh

Canetti, Elias (2005), Die Stimmen von Marrakesch, Fischer
ISBN 978-3-596-22103-5

In the decade after the second world war, Elias Canetti,winner of the Nobel prize for Literature in 1981, was then a somewhat unknown expatriate writer living in London, a man born in Bulgaria, who was raised in Switzerland and Austria and became a writer in the 1930s, just before the Nazis bundled existing forces and convictions in Germany and Austria and took power. In 1938, he left Austria and went to live in England, where he met many people; two of his friends, about to shoot a film in Morocco, invited him to come along. So, in 1954, Canetti joined a film crew and traveled to Marrakesh in Morocco. Over a decade later, in 1967 he published Die Stimmen von Marrakesch: Aufzeichnungen nach einer Reise, (translated into English by J.A. Underwood as The Voices of Marrakesch (Marion Boyars Publishers)) his travel account of that journey. The book, which describes an immersion into a palpably alien culture, is remarkably short at about a hundred pages. It consists of fourteen short chapters, several as short as three pages, each of which seems independent of the others, creating the impression of loosely connected stories, interlinked by a general sense of chronology and build, but these links are not necessary to understand and interpret each, let’s call them: vignette. These are short, concise description of a certain aspect of Marrakesh, of a certain event, smell or sound, of a certain person or group that the narrator met.

I admit, I have not always been the greatest of fan of Mr. Canetti’s work. When I first read it, I have found his autobiography, published in three volumes from 1977 to 1985, somewhat overlong, rambling and self-indulgent, although fascinating and full of arresting episodes and images. I have come round to it in the meantime, appreciating it for the masterpiece it is. I am still not convinced by much in his major philosophical non-fiction work, the massive (and certainly brilliant) Masse und Macht, published in 1960. I cannot, however, find fault with Die Stimmen von Marrakesch. Each of its chapters is written with a precision and economy of means that makes them less like reportage than like prose poems. In the few pages over which Canetti has spread his account, there is enough material to fuel books twice as long. At the same time, reading it, one doesn’t feel the economy, the book has a sumptuous, easy feeling to it, evoking the Suks and mosques of Marrakesh, its merchants, mendiants and its mad people. All of this is structured by an emotional and spiritual hunger, an openness to shock, to violence, to the Other, that is directly transmitted to the reader, who cannot put down this slim book until he has devoured every last page and then puts it away, deeply moved and in deep thought. At least that’s what happened to me.

There are many concerns in Die Stimmen von Marrakesch, but the most central one, as in all travel accounts, is the yearning to understand this alien country, to read it in a way so it makes sense to you. Canetti differs from many writers in that he doesn’t want to understand it, he doesn’t learn the language or get a translator whom he drags around with him on his tours through the narrow and dusty streets of Marrakesh. At one point he outright declares his preference to hear speeches, prayers and entreaties with his bare ear, so to say, to hear the sounds, the raw emotions as they are rasped through the vocal chords of the natives. That said, Canetti speaks French and English perfectly, and most natives can understand and speak French, so his communication with the natives, inasmuch as food and similarly important issues are concerned, is not impeded in a significant manner. His decision not to learn Arabic only concerns his observations, his scrutiny of his environment. He may not be driven by a wish to understand, but his eye is that of a classic ethnologist, and Marrakesh is his village. Nothing enters or leaves this village except him and others like him.

This immobility is encapsulated in his account of a destitute and clearly desperate woman at a bar, who is being pimped out to rich and ugly men by her lover. The men need to be ugly so his jealousy is not awakened. She gets beaten if she recoils from sex and she gets beaten if she takes pleasure in it. Meanwhile, her lover has his own income as the gay lover of the son of a local potentate. This son has had to leave the country at the behest of his father and the strange couple is thus left to their own devices, which mostly means a live in poverty. He won’t leave, and she can’t. Canetti’s village is in a state of stasis and even though foreigners pass through and can even become part of it all, the city has an internal logic all its own: everything points back to Marrakesh. Canetti, in passing, mentions money, touches upon issues of wealth and poverty, implies exploitative mechanisms, hints at problems brewing beneath the surface, but hints they remain. Canetti’s book isn’t a journalistic account of a country and it neither possesses nor aspires to possession of a journalistic or even scientific precision.

In these accounts there is always a danger, to an extent inescapably, of colonizing the alien, the strange country, to read it in terms of your anatomy tables and take heed not of the country as it meets you, but to read it only in terms of difference, to remark upon that which is strange, with reference to one’s own everyday givens. Many of these accounts go even further than that: by not reflecting one’s own situation, situatedness, they colonize everything off the self-established norm as deviant. One luminous, problematic example of such a writing is Goethe’s massive, brilliant account of his travel to Italy, which implicitly treats women, effeminate men and similar ‘deviants’ as symptoms of the foreign country. In Die Stimmen von Marrakesch Canetti shows himself quite aware of this problem, quite aware, too, of the alterity of that other country. Aware of the anatomical function of language, of the interpretative and defining power of translation, Canetti decides to skip language. With an enormous spiritual appetite, he opens himself up to the sounds of Marrakesh.

There are the noises of begging children, chiding, playing, laughing, begging, even instructing him how to perform a religious ritual. There is a madwoman on a balcony, who whispers to him, words in different shades the tone of which he fails to read in a consistent manner. The chapter that is about her shows a progression from bare listening to an effort to understand, which makes him, in the end, read her as a madwoman. The interconnectedness of some processes of thinking and the establishment of certain categories is demonstrated by chapters like this, where we see Canetti’s thoughts move from gentle questing, questioning, to a full interrogation. Whenever he enters this last state, he either starts to categorize people in a way that he, quite obviously, is himself uneasy to do, but which may be, to an extent, inevitable, or, as in a later chapter, he is moved to disgust by what he readily recognizes as his own morals (and there is quite a bit of patronizing inherent in the explicit stating of this, too).

None of these are flaws of this, really, flawless book. These are flaws inherent in the process, and it’s one of the book’s main strengths that it provides a structure and a context for these flaws that it makes them part of its rhetorical thrust and construction. The titular voices appear and reappear in different contexts (a screaming camel in the powerful first chapter that is dragged to be slaughtered is another memorable one), but as the book progresses, we find that they gravitate around two centers. One is belief, the other is fear. Belief is always present in that country, which wears its convictions on its sleeve. There is the belief in God, transmitted through public prayers and through numerous beggars who repeat the word Allah, all day, chanting themselves into a trance. All this, Canetti feels, is powered by a general belief in the power of the word. When he discovers a corner of the town where the story tellers gather a large following around them, and the writers sit stoically, waiting for people to service with their pen, he is profoundly humbled. His mistrust in language, in words, well-funded though it may be, appears to make him a coward, compared to these people who throw their words into the air, or rather: their voices. His emigrant’s voice, filtered through several layers of language, is hidden, artificial, his tongue divulges its truths only with care, bit by bit, as evidenced by the temporal distance between the journey and the publication of this highly artificial book, which, as the title also tells us, is an account after a journey. Not of, not during, no, after. As if he needed the time to render the unspoken, unspeakable, into literature.

Fear certainly plays a role in this. The two central chapters are not about Marrakesh proper, they are about the Jewish community in the city, in the mellah. Canetti is astonished by the fact that Marrakesh is a Jewish melting pot, where Jews from all nations live, peacefully, side by side. The mellah, the Jewish quarter, is a colorful, rich island of Jewishness in a Muslim country. One of the most powerful descriptions in the book is in the first of the two chapters handling the mellah. Canetti describes the Jews he sees sitting by the road and describes how they all watch foreigners, unobtrusively, carefully. The merchants among them possibly in the hope of finding customers, but that is not the main reason, Canetti decides. These people are afraid, their whole existence is governed by the need to be careful, to live in a way that doesn’t challenge the natives and keeps them safe. This story is one that we have heard many times over, by Jews from all over the world. Fear is all over the map, in Die Stimmen von Marrakesh, Canetti’s account of that town at a certain, pivotal point in its history, but it is a way of life in the mellah. Is the publication, in 1967, at an important point in the history of modern Israel, when its Arabic neighbors attacked the young Jewish state for the second time in a few years, accidental? Canetti describes the pride and happiness of Marrakesh’s jews not for being respected and/or equals but for not being persecuted. The fear, the care, that the Jews along the street in the mellah manifest, is something that marked Jews all around the world.

In the end, their fear and their beliefs (well-known to Canetti as they are) and the other citizens’ beliefs, alien and beguiling, full of a confidence that Canetti can only envy them, all these are equally important to the construction of this marvelous book. It turns out that the hunger and appetite behind it, and the unspeakable things Canetti found, were in need of the precision and poetical prowess that Canetti brought to his travel accounts. Although I did not want this book to end, it appears to be in such a perfect equilibrium, that I could not wish it to be any longer. It’s perfect. Read it.


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Marcel Beyer: Kaltenburg

Beyer, Marcel (2008), Kaltenburg, Suhrkamp
ISBN 978-3-518-41920-5

Educational books have always been popular, and there are different varieties of these kinds of texts. There are books, for example from which you learn things, although not always correct things. Most historical novels are written that way, Michael Crichton (whose name, my paperback of Jurassic Park informs me, “rhymes with frighten”) built himself a career out of this, so has the diligently dull (or dully diligent?) Richard Powers etc. These books hand you a large amount of information (not always correct (I’m looking at you, Michael)) that you may not have come by otherwise. Then there are books that concentrate upon being insightful, making you see knowledge in a different way. There are vastly more of those around, because that group contains both novels that rely upon the reader’s knowledge of a topic and those from which you learn things). Marcel Beyer’s latest novel, Kaltenburg, longlisted for last year’s Deutscher Buchpreis, is a strange fellow in that it is both a book that imparts knowledge to its readers, in a rather exotic area of expertise; it is also insightful, but in a completely different area. Beyer’s trick here, basically, is to talk about one topic but hinting at another that may or may not be connected with the first thing, and the longer the novel goes on, the clearer the reader sees the underlying theme, until, at the end, he’s completely caught up in Beyer’s ruminations and thinking. This is a masterful novel, by a great writer. Kaltenburg is easily the best contemporary German novel I have read in years (and I gather you remember me swooning over Trojanow’s work), by a writer who is completely and utterly in control of his craft.

Kaltenburg is narrated by an elderly ornithologist named Hermann Funk, a retired professor, who is living in Dresden. One day he is visited by a translator who asks him for advice and information. She is preparing for a conference and wants to learn ornithologist terms both in English and in German. We don’t know how she came up with Funk’s name, or why he agreed to do it; as a retired professor he certainly didn’t need any money. As we enter the book, their discussion has been underway for a while, we’re basically catching up. The whole novel is written from a first person perspective, except when Funk tells us about events that he hasn’t witnessed himself. He then launches into a seeming third person narrative, but it is still his voice we’re hearing, although it may not always be transparently so. The structure of the narrative is highly complex, Beyer constantly shifts gears. Sometimes it’s a plain q & a dialogue between Funk and the woman, sometimes Funk digresses and talks for a while. It’s important to note that, even in the middle of what may seem like a conventional narrative, small asides tell us that we are still in the interview, especially when he steps aside to let the translator ask a question, and yes, it’s a stepping aside; sometimes her questions can only be inferred through odd remarks and phrases, sometimes we don’t get any hints, but the nature of such a dialogue suggests that things have been left out. These comments of mine may sound extraneous but much of this novel is concerned with gazes and domination and I consider it a brilliant idea of Beyer’s to reproduce several of his ideas on, let’s call it: a formal level, as well.

Funk’s monologues are highly associative, partly modeled upon the example of Proust’s memoire involontaire. From birds he segues into personal anecdotes with birds and then, more and more, into reminiscences of his life as a student and companion of Ludwig Kaltenburg, the world famous ethologist, ornithologist and zoologist. It is in one of those reminiscences that we enter the discussion, quickly learning the basic historical parameters of the novel. Funk and his parents had lived in Posen (then Germany, after WWII Poland) at the same time that Kaltenburg, a Vienna native, had. Funk’s parents had encouraged his early love for animals in general and birds in special, putting him into contact with two students of Kaltenburg’s (who, at the same time, were soldiers in the Wehrmacht), one who went on to become a famous artist and one who went on to become a famous documentary filmmaker. Early we learn that an event unknown to young Hermann had sundered Hermann’s parents and Kaltenburg who used to be a regular visitor to the Funk household. As the war drew to a close, both the Funks and Kaltenburg moved to Dresden. In the Dresden firebombings in February 1945, Funk’s parents died. The account of the disastrous night is the single most moving part of the book (many reviewers have been put off by the fact that much of the book does not go down the same sentimental road, but the mechanism of the novel makes this necessary (more on this in a minute)). We then loosely, by no means strictly chronologically, rather in leaps and bounds and rebounds, follow Kaltenburg’s career.

That career takes up again at the University of Leipzig (near Dresden) where he took a chair shortly after the war until, in the 1970s, Kaltenburg left the GDR for West Germany where he published books that made his international fame, books that left his academic turf and contrived to make general statements about human behavior. At this point, the account of Kaltenburg’s career ends, the novel returns to the present and leaves Funk and the translator to wrap things up. Although this is not quite correct: actually, the book is preceded by a prologue of sorts that starts with the end of Kaltenburg’s life, with him missing the birds he left behind when he moved to West Germany, with the controversy that erupted over his most famous books. So, even before we enter the narrative proper, Beyer tells us where we’ll end up and takes thus any direct suspense out of the book, only to replace it by a tension of sorts. The book works like a mystery without any murder, but we the readers still want to understand how things are connected, how the controversy about his late books ties in with the rather harmless and slow assemblage of anecdotes about his time in Dresden; additional suspense is derived from the constant hints at what happened in Posen and from the dark undercurrent below the light banter about birds. If, unlike me, you have a working memory, you may learn quite a bit about birds, ornithology and related areas. A huge part of the book appears to have no other purpose than to lecture you about different domestic birds, bird classifications and how to behave in the company of birds. To read these parts in that way only, perhaps with a few additional thoughts about the hints to Funk’s personal history and past events in Posen, would be a gross mistake, however.

We not only learn about birds, but rather, as I said, about bird classifications and related issues. We learn about the scientific gaze, about the workings of a scientific mind, about his work with living specimen, all these aspects are not simply explained to us, but shown, and repeated time and again. Beyer works hard to make us understand the parameters of this thinking, only to deliver a punch to the guts at the end by showing the consequences of applying such a thinking to humans. There are many atheists I know who think not believing in God is a “daring” (that word is so prolific among a certain segment of reactionary atheists that it starts to lose meaning) gesture that constitutes an ethics all of itself in a way. It doesn’t. What Adorno called the instrumentelle Vernunft has shown its dirty mug during the Third Reich but it has not been invented by Nazis, it and its destructive, anti-human thrust is inherent in much scientific thought before and after that. To anatomize a human being, to subject it to a normed and implicitly contemptuous gaze, that is always problematic, this we know, and it is one of the major points of Kaltenburg. It is a frequent mistake of books that grapple with the Third Reich and its heritage for post-war Germany (including hundreds of thousands of Nazis at universities, in the courts and in political parties) to achieve their effects through making their readers feel guilty. This is not at all how Kaltenburg works, it does not slam sad images of the Shoah etc at its readers at all. It wants its readers to understand, not to weep.

Understand who it is, among others, that was killed in the Dresden firebombings, understand, also, the continuities in German culture, understand what, in seemingly innocuous thinking, is problematic and what kind of thinking could lead to which results. None of this is obvious and none of this is hammered into its readers. It assumes that its readers are well read in German history, cultural and political. I know a surprising amount of people, Germans and British especially, who run their mouth about German history without having read or understood even a modicum of what Beyer presupposes in his book. You need not bone up on German history in order to read this book; I do recommend, however, to look up all the historical names and references that are dropped in the book. Wiki the cities and the names and you’ll be fine, but I do recommend this. As for other things: some readers will see (the introductory section about Kaltenburg’s late career does hint at this quite directly), some won’t, that the character of Ludwig Kaltenburg is a thinly veiled depiction of Konrad Lorenz. The artist mentioned above has his real counterpart in the legendary artist Joseph Beuys and the documentary filmmaker has his in Heinz Sielmann. Konrad Lorenz’s actual career is dissimilar in a few aspects but Beyer, instead of concentrating on the continuities of the Third Reich in West Germany which are all too obvious, he depicts those in the GDR (not absolving West Germany, on the contrary).

Of necessity this review contains only a rough account of the riches of Kaltenburg. There are many aspects, as the opposition of art and barbarism, the role of Proust’s suite of novels, the behavior of birds and the petty everyday murder of them. Much of this would fit in the overall reading of the book I have suggested, some would not. Marcel Beyer has written a multi-layered book that is unlike any other novel I have ever read. His nuanced approach to the topic that contains a harsh, unmitigated indictment without resorting to guilt and shock, the incredibly complex construction of his narrative, it’s really beyond words. It’s really a joke that he did not make the shortlist of the Deutscher Buchpreis, but a veritable hack like Ingo Schulze did. Beyer’s novel should win every prize available.


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E.T.A. Hoffmann: The life and opinions of Tomcat Murr

Now, how do I start this? This is a fragment containing a continuous story and another fragment. No. This is a cat’s pretend autobiography and a bandmaster’s biography, both unfinished. No. This is a book that is a humorous send-off of the Bildungsroman and a serious critique of the society of its time. No. This is a postmodern masterpiece, that stops at all the right bases: metafiction, pastiche, even McHale’s ontological turn, it’s all in there, but it was published not in the 1970s but in 1819-21. No. Or: yes, all of these. This book is strange, it contains so much, and is, on the other hand, very light and entertaining reading. I rarely reread books, there’s not enough time and too many books, but I reread this one, and it was even more enjoyable the second time around. The author is one of those chaps who wastes nothing, every image serves multiple purposes, every plot strand has significance in several ways; the downside to this is that, for a story about a cat, this book is strangely cold and aloof, much like the cat that narrates a good deal of it.

E.T.A. Hoffmann, despite being one of the titans of German literature, is still in need of being discovered. In this country, at least, he has largely been reduced to a horror writer (For obvious reasons, Hoffmann’s stories are among the most frequently used examples for Freud’s notion of the uncanny (Unheimliche)). The only text of his that is still widely read and that is not a horror story is this one, the Lebensansichten des Katers Murr nebst fragmentarischer Biographie des Kapellmeisters Johannes Kreisler in zufälligen Makulaturblättern (usually referred to by the first four words of the title. Translated into English by Anthea Bell as The life and opinions of Tomcat Murr together with a fragmentary Biography of Kappelmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper; published with Penguin, I believe). It is both a humorous and lighthearted satire and serious criticism; despite his horror writer reputation, satire is Hoffmann’s main strength and fuels most of his work. Hoffmann, also, was unafraid of angering powerful people with his satire. In a climate of repression, with the Prussian state cracking down on rebellious students, he wrote and published a satire on a particularly angered and powerful official. He was immediately canned, and would have, possibly, been prosecuted, if he hadn’t died short afterward.

Dead at 48, he has produced an outstanding body of work, most of it short stories and novellas, with Lebensansichten des Katers Murr as the only longer exception. Additionally, he wrote a large amount of music, pieces for piano, or the stage, but his most lasting influence on music can be found in other people’s music. There is, for example, Schuhmann’s cycle of music called Kreisleriana, inspired by stories of Hoffmann’s featuring his alter ego, bandmaster Kreisler (who also appears in this book). There’s Jacques Offenbach who based an opera on Hoffmann’s tales. Or Tchaikovsky, whose Nutcracker is similarly based on a story by Hoffmann. Hoffmann’s self-image of himself as an artist, someone who creates music and literature, shines in every piece of his work. Satire without heart can be hollow and poor, weak, and, at worst, mean-spirited and dull. At the heart of a work of satire there needs to be a kernel of commitment, a core belief in something, in order for it to work, to be convincing as criticism and a work of art.

In Hoffmann, that core belief is always loud and strong, but Hoffmann’s imagination can, at times, seem boundless and striking, and it can appear to obscure the finer points of his mind, his core beliefs. In this, too, the novel fragment about Murr the tomcat, is different. Lebensansichten des Katers Murr is completely reduced to satire, without the balm of generous fantasy. Instead, he opts for pastiche and parody, each of which words well describes one of its two parts. The basic conceit for the novel is that Murr, a highly literate tomcat, has decided to write his autobiography, because that’s what people do after having lived a life full of experience of the world and its books, especially when they have something worthwhile to tell, and Murr is clearly incapable of imagining that his tale may not be as worth our while to hear as he thinks. He is a cat, as such, relegated to be eternally underfoot, short-lived, inferior to humans, but he doesn’t appear to care. Not in the way that some other cat-centric books like to imagine, that the cat thinks it’s superior to a human being because it’s a proud feline. No, Murr just starts to act and speak like a human being, at least as far as books and knowledge are concerned. In his asides, he says cutesie things like threatening to scratch a wayward listener but these are minor points.

Murr, as a young cat, discovers his interest in books, reading, writing, and his lack of bookworms of his own age creates an enormous sense of intellectual righteousness in him. Quickly he looks down on other cat’s expressions as too vague, he looks down his furry cat nose at everybody that is not as well read as him. But, and here’s the important part, he’s a philistine. He does not wish to understand the books he reads, he does not wish to engage with them; his readings are not encounters with them, he’s merely taking note of their existence. Talking about books, these days, often turns out to be a question of taking sides, we no longer show any interest in engaging with thinking that we do not share, other people’s thoughts are just so much noise that is just an excuse for us to talk more loudly. Even highly literate people turn out not to parrot other people’s thoughts, but just their own prejudice. On the internet I have encountered people who have certainly read multiple books of history but have clearly not understood anything beyond that which fosters their own preconceptions. They will not learn, they will just acquire more books, and remember little except the bare bones facts.

Hoffmann’s Murr is just that sort of narrow minded philistine, who is extraordinarily well read without it making any larger sort of difference. And here is a second thing. Murr will always remain a cat, of course. As I said, this book’s using only a smidgen fantasy. Murr is quite often thrown back upon his felinity, he is, although, mark me, this is a stretch, a perennial subaltern, who does not use his own voice to speak, but borrows his voice from the human culture around him. His intellectual passivity ensures that nothing changes in this respect, but there’s an interesting twist. His autobiography, as we learn in the introduction, is written upon pieces of paper that he found. More to the point: on a manuscript he found, that he ripped apart to suit his purposes. So, without appropriating the voice and the language for his purposes, he does, after all, do something somewhat similar. The manuscript he rips apart, is the biography of Bandmaster Kreisler, of which we only have fragments. Both narratives are in the right order, but only Murr’s is continuous and complete (except for the end, because the book has remained a fragment), and, as Murr’s method suggests, Kreisler’s story just, without any introduction (but clearly marked by visual signs), surfaces now and then, since Murr did not erase Kreisler’s story.

Murr’s book, you could say, is a perfect parody of the Bildungsroman, which is astonishing given that the genre had existed for only a short time when Hoffmann wrote his book. It might also be more accurate to say that it is a parody of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, that book which immediately after publication became the gold standard for the genre. It carefully takes up many central ideas, including the sequence of the educatory events in Wilhelm’s life. Parody usually implies criticism and indeed, in addition to the satiric criticism I outlined above, the Bildungsroman parody has an additional, specific target. Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre was largely adulated when it came out but it had also a couple of rather vehement enemies, among them Friedrich von Hardenberg, better known as Novalis, who wrote his only novel, Heinrich von Ofterdingen, as a response to Wilhelm Meister. What had bothered him so much was the fact that Novalis thought Goethe’s novel portrayed growing up as a process, wherein one is divested of romantic ideas and artistic élan, and ideally heads towards a career as a merchant. Such a moral Novalis found unacceptable.

Hoffmann must have had similar objections to the book and others that followed in its wake. So, his ridicule of the philistine is also a ridicule of the goals of the Bildungsroman, and of the goals and ideas of Prussian society around him. Hoffmann worked for the Prussian state, in a commision during the crackdowns, evaluating the rebellious students. German politics are always more complex than some would have it. This was not a conflict between smart, emancipatory and well-meaning students and a repressive state denying its citizens basic rights. Among these students were many rabid anti-Semites (most famously, Turnvater Jahn), and the Romantic student movements were to turn into German nationalism that shaped a German people that, at the end of its development, committed the Shoah. At the turn of the century and again in the Weimar republic, it was young ardent students who were most heavily involved in this kind of thinking, not old crusty conservatives. This is not to deny that, on the other end of the conflict in Hoffmann’s time did not stand a repressive state. It did, and many high ranking officials called for severe punishment for the wayward students. Among Murr’s animal friends, there are few people you would sympathize with, the situation is snafu, although Murr is clearly singled out for criticism.

Hoffmann appears to be marvelously aware of the complicated situation, and its demands for criticism that is not manichaean. So instead of juxtaposing two characters on the same level, Hoffmann expresses his Novalis-like criticism by including the biography of Kreisler. Do take note of the ingeniousness of this. Kreisler and Murr live in the same world, they even meet at one point in the story, so they could be part of one longer narrative. Instead, Hoffmann has separated them by more than just space. He separated them by genre as well. Kreisler’s biography is written in a pastiche of Gothic writing, Hoffmann has in his work repeatedly experimented both with that mode of writing as well as with Kreisler. Kreisler is a young, passionate artist. He has already grown up when we meet him, and is thrown into a cliché Gothic story, with changelings, murder and intrigue at a prince’s court. The story is the weakest point of the book, not even Hoffmann appears to show much interest in it, letting it plod along dully; even murders and revelation will not rivet the reader although they did entertain me passably the first time I read it. The major function of these sections, however, is the portrayal of Kreisler the artist, who is unsuccessful at pursuing his artistic vision in the philistine society around him. Although the prince’s court is a clear reference to the court at the end of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, this is no parody. Instead, the text shows the artist struggling to maintain his personal vision and integrity, instead of caving to the pressure like Meister did.

Lebensansichten des Katers Murr is, although its parts are interlocked, structures somewhat like an argument, starting with a thesis (In the beginning, Murr’s parts take up more space than Kreisler’s), and continuing into an antithesis (as the novel progresses, Kreisler is granted more and more space). The fact that Hoffmann was not able to finish the novel deprives us of a synthesis. As a whole, this book is fueled by an admirable energy. While not entirely successful at all times, it coheres wonderfully, and Hoffmann’s ardor at work covers up the boredom of parts of the second half of the book. This is a book like no other one and since it has been translated both into English and French, I recommend you read it. ISBN


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Disorder: Juli Zeh’s “Corpus Delicti”

Zeh, Juli (2009), Corpus Delicti: Ein Prozess, Schöffling
ISBN 9-78-3-89561-434-7

Do you smoke? Does it bother you to be forced to go outside to smoke? To be frowned upon whenever you light up in public? That people assume you would stop smoking if you had the discipline to do it? Are you overweight? Does it bother you that the bar for obesity is dropping lower and lower, so that any surplus weight is treated as a disorder? That eating healthy is turning into less of a choice and more of something that is expected, normal? In the public eye, the thin, well-proportioned hunks have become norm rather than the pleasant exception; any deviation from that ideal, any perceived deformity, turns into a marked freak show act. Does that irritate you? Does it irritate you how quickly we, as a society, have internalized hygiene standards and have purged that which we consider normal from all taint of filth and dirt? Disinfectants have become the norm rather than the exception in household cleaning utilities. The larger scope of biopolitics aside, on the small scale we have learned to discipline our bodies on our own really well, and the trends there, especially after phenomena like the outbreak of the swine flu, does not bode well for the future. Does this make you mad sometimes? Does this worry you? Well, if so, you’re not alone; it is a widespread concern and Corpus Delicti, Juli Zeh’s most recent novel is a particularly vivid example of that.

Juli Zeh’s career has been a constant success. While the fortunes of young German writers have been inconsistent, Juli Zeh has thrived. Daniel Kehlmann published 5 novels in near obscurity (well, as obscure as a writer can be who is published by Suhrkamp, where his second, third and fourth novel saw the light of day), until, in 2005 he made it big-time with his sixth novel, Die Vermessung der Welt (Measuring the World). Judith Hermann made a huge splash with her critically acclaimed and well-selling first collection of short stories, Sommerhaus, später (Summerhouse, later), and was widely lambasted by the critics for her second collection, Nichts als Gespenster (Nothing but Ghosts). With her third collection, published this month, it is a toss-up. These tales could be continued until dawn, without Zeh’s name ever being called up. Juli Zeh’s debut novel was a huge success and the two novels that followed continued that trend. True, Zeh had always her detractors, but they, too, are somewhat reliably predictable. The main offence that Zeh seems to commit, according to her critics, is the use of overburdening intellectual concepts and constructions. Since, in interviews, Zeh doesn’t always appear to be the most brilliant of writers, not quite understanding some of the concepts she uses, I was always wary.

For various reasons, however, when her latest novel, Corpus Delicti: Ein Prozeß, came out, I picked it up. It’s my first Zeh novel, and in many ways, it’s said to be an atypical effort, so my impressions of the book will not be transferable to other Zeh novels. That said, it’s an ok read. It’s not great, not even very good, and Zeh, as many contemporary German novelists, is an excruciatingly bad stylist, sometimes, but you won’t regret reading it and it has some good moments. Most of the good moments are, of course, ‘borrowed’, that is, they are not due to Zeh’s original writing and/or thinking, but to the source material she used to cobble together the intellectual construction of the book. Corpus Delicti is a science fiction novel, albeit with the SF aspect toned down as much as possible, which depicts a dystopian, in some respects vaguely dictatorial society; as could be expected, the novel owes much to greats of the genre such as Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984. Sadly, taking a SF framework seems to give Zeh the excuse to go for caricatures instead of characters, for puppets instead of persons. Stylistically, and especially in what concerns atmosphere, other important references are stories by Kafka (reading the book, the word ‘Kafkaesque’ comes to mind repeatedly), or by Kunert (for instance the justly celebrated story “Zentralbahnhof”). As with Davis’ collection, Zeh’s novel, too, never transcends her predecessors or is able to beat them at their own game.

This is not a bad thing, however. Zeh’s novel is less an effort to create an original work of Art (note the capital letter), it’s rather an angry screed against developments that Zeh perceives to be harmful in her society; it is meant to be much more disposable than your everyday novel, in a way, it’s performative, like any political pamphlet. It wants to show us where our current policies and attitudes could lead us; it rallies us to protest and to action. It is, however, this lack of interest in making a durable work of art that may, in the long run, prove to be its biggest asset in achieving just that. Whereas critics have repeatedly pointed out the strained ‘artiness’ of Juli Zeh’s novels, from the construction down to the metaphors, in Corpus Delicti, they are balanced by the writer’s fury, which injects a full load of feeling and originality into what would otherwise devolve into a formulaic genre novel, which is not written well enough to hold together. As it is, the reader who sees the context, who feels Zeh’s anger, is whipped into reading it cover to cover with baited breath. Yes, the end is not surprising, but that is the point, isn’t it? The end is inevitable, inescapable, nd necessary. Zeh shouts at you: this will happen. Get a move on. Do something.

The plot is simple: the protagonist, Mia Holl, is mourning her brother, the late Moritz Holl, who was imprisoned because of alleged antisocial, dangerous acts, and membership in a terrorist group, and on death row for murder. In jail, he commits suicide by hanging himself. Before disappearing into the bowels of the System, he had made a few ominous comments about the direction his life was about to take, talking about his new girlfriend, who was apparently responsible for his political awakening. Throughout the book, this girlfriend, whom Mia has never met, keeps her company, a shadow, her better self, the possibility of living a better, more aware life. Mia never believed that her brother was a murderer. Then, all of a sudden, with the possibility of proving Moritz’ innocence hanging in the air, Mia Holl is arrested and prosecuted for, well, for what, exactly? For not conforming to the exigencies of the society she lives in. To be sick is a crime in her society (here Zeh is thinking through an idea of Butler’s classic Erewhon, by putting it into a familiar setting and exploring the reasoning behind that thinking), any kind of excess is criminalized. If today’s politicians are considering to make ‘reckless’ people pay for the cost they are allegedly causing to the health system, in Zeh’s future society they have criminalized antisocial and dangerous behavior. As with many dystopias, the impulse is partly anti-individualistic, as offenders against the public good, who do not behave in as uniform and bland a fashion as the other citizens, are ostracized, jailed and, sometimes, executed.

Totalitarianism is not one of Zeh’s targets, however. The society in the novel is like ours in many respects. This is not 1984. Personal actions and freedoms are stressed time and again (which makes it worse, of course); we see uniformity in just this one aspect, although controlling and disciplining the body may be one of the most important and pernicious parts of public policies. Sickness is a crime in Zeh’s world, because, unless you’re reckless, you won’t get sick. Genetic screening, hygiene and a responsible and well-planned diet are to blame for a squeaky clean society, with zero illnesses. Zeh’s thinking is somewhat troubling, though. Her criticism clearly targets only those policies that discomfort the roughly normal man of today. What happens to people who get, through no fault of their own, into accidents? How does being pregnant work? In Butler’s Erewhon we were indeed offered an explanation for the fact that pregnant women are not prosecuted. Although the logical system in Corpus Delicti is better woven, Zeh leaves crucial components out that do tell us quite a bit about the tacitly accepted norm in the book, which is the basis for its outrage.

As the novel progresses, Mia Holl is more and more caught up in the absurdities of bureaucracy, in a web of defamation, lies and the absurd standards of a society where she is an outcast if she stops toeing the line. I mentioned it above: there is a huge amount of personal freedom in Zeh’s world. It is not so much different from ours in the way we discipline ourselves, in the way we castigate, lampoon and shower with derision those who don’t share what we consider the necessary tenets of society. Other themes of the novel, such as gender, are also, though refracted through the dystopian scenario, reminiscent of our present day; I take, for instance, the rise and fall of the fortunes of a female judge, to be a reflection on the case of district attorney Lichtinghagen. With direct references like this, Zeh doesn’t allow her readers to read the book as an idle or entertaining exercise in thought, instead she hammers home the topicality of it all time and again. The book is a good though preachy read, a quick read, enlivened by the anger of Zeh who thinks we’re ceding control over our bodies. The fact that, as a positive counter-image, she posits a clean, self-controlled, strong human being, something that we can all manage, if we just try, is Corpus Delicti’s major failing. She is not as far from the people she attacks as she may think.  In one of the most passionate speeches in the novel, she extols weakness, but this is a sham, a mask. Like much Christian thought, her praise of weakness is rhetorical, it’s a masked strength. In Zeh’s novel there is no room for actual weakness. Weakness is external, the very rhetorical power of her praise of weakness derives from its position on the outside. In short, she may disagree about the order that she thinks our society is heading towards, but she is in favor of just as strong an order herself, even if it is a slightly different one.

Abyss: Hans Henny Jahnn’s “Perrudja”

Jahnn, Hans Henny (1985), Perrudja, Hoffman und Campe
ISBN 3-455-03630-9
[Originally published 1929]
[Traduit par Reinhold Werner et Jean-Claude Marcadé, aux Éditions José Corti]

This is novel crawling with sex and violence. It’s about modernity, myth and masculinity. Can you believe no-one wanted to buy this huge and brilliant novel when it came out originally? I can’t, but here’s the deal. I’m biased, I guess. I love, cherish and admire Hans Henny Jahnn like few other writers. I think that he is, along with Döblin and Feuchtwanger, the greatest German novelist of the first half of the 20th century. He was also an accomplished playwright (see this blog next week for more news on that). When he wrote and published Perrudja, he was known as the infamous author of two scandalous plays. Perrudja took a long while to gestate, and almost as long to get published. And when it was published, few people bought it. This and other minor issues, such as the Third Reich, stopped him from finishing a sequel.

After the war he then published the first installment of what turned out to be his masterpiece, the three-volume Fluß Ohne Ufer, which is in many ways a continuation of Perrudja, only with the weight of Germany’s darkest decade behind it. Thinking and writing about that heinous period is, for a German, as it should be, always tinged with guilt. It is our grandparents and their neighbors who committed these atrocities or failed to stop them. Shame is also an important part of Perrudja, but Jahnn is ashamed of his fellow human beings, not just (but especially) of his compatriots. And, to a large extent, it is about fear: this book throbs with violence, but it is theirs, it is always a violence experienced by the main character, not a violence acted out, and the shame that the protagonist feels towards his fellow human beings, is but fear of that part of himself that is like them, it’s a fear of his own abyss.

Perrudja is a Bildungsroman-ish novel about a character called Perrudja. Perrudja is an anti-hero, or as his wife says at the end: a “not-hero”. The book does not chronicle his exploits, it shows him making sense of the world, and at the same time, the novel itself uses him to make sense of its own world. The way it does that is by using all the means that precocious, makin’-it-new modernism had to offer. Perrudja is a novel of many voices and traditions. Unexpectedly, for a playwright, these voices do not include an array of different human voices, no demotic speech ‘a la Joyce et al. Instead, Jahnn digs deep into the coffers of literature and culture and constructs a mosaic of language. There are mythical passages, modern short stories, folk tales, Jahnn is equally adept at levity and gravitas, he can write a chapter about a Babylonian king in almost Lutherian style and shine, and a small Kafkaesque story about a lost boy and dazzle. All these are interwoven with the main story, they both comment upon the story and are commented upon again by the main story.

And throning above it all is Jahnn’s authorial voice, which is both visceral & direct and aloof & heavy. Jahnn can lead you through a Norwegian wood, making you afraid of the cold and the animals therein; he can make your spine tingle upon hearing the screams of hungry horses in a stable; he can make you feel the pain of illicit sexual desire and the mortification at being not merely turned down, but being violated and humiliated by the man you want. Reading this novel you feel that nothing is out of reach of Jahnn. This is, of course, one reason why people did not take to it: it can be overpowering, this is a novel about everything, it contains at least five different books, among them a treatise about economics and one about myth. Oh, and sheet music. In many ways, this is a ‘typical’ modernist novel, a project along the lines of the Cantos, Pound’s attempt to “write paradise”; even its fragmented nature, due to the aborted second part, fits the pattern. Much of the appeal of works such as the Cantos will also appeal to the reader of Perrudja, but this novel is far more than just a grandstanding attempt to capture mankind in a fictional maze.

The difference is its protagonist: Perrudja is a weak character, a broken, despairing man, who cannot manage the modern world. At the beginning of the novel we meet him in the woods of Norway where he buys a horse to go with a piece of land and a farm that he just bought. He is, as far as he knows, without parents. At this point we have no idea about his financial situation: we don’t know where he had the money from to buy animals and property, and we don’t care. Perrudja’s youth and other events that have led up to him settling in the remote Norway mountains are later told us in a few inserted stories. That first chapter, “The Horse”, introduces us not only to Perrudja’s horse, but also to the emblematic nature of many of the book’s natural references. Elements such as the horse are shown to be a constant in cultural history. The retreat into the woods is not a retreat from civilization, it is rather a return to what Jahnn considers essential about modern man. Perrudja is not exceptional, as a character, but in the end, he turns out to transcend mere mortals, by encapsulating not just the conditio humana, but also the general build of our society, as the book moves from an almost abstract deluge of concerns to real-world particulars, such as the intricacies of modern capitalism.

The beginning can be taxing since Jahnn throws everything at us that he has: the topoi of animals, violence and history are touched and elaborated upon, even before we get a chance to get to know this Perrudja better. Also, to reread these passages is, also, to see, how much of the novel is seeded there, how nothing is wasted, although the book seems, especially in the early stages, excessive and indulgent. Plowing through the beginning is like a deal struck with the writer, who demands of the reader to understand the parameter of the story that is about to follow before he hands over that story. However, if I have made reading the beginning sound like a chore, I can assure you, it’s not. It may be difficult but it’s not forbidding. In fact, the first two chapters are deeply intriguing and they have, some years ago, sold me on the man’s work. The best section of the book, however, is a story from Perrudja’s youth that is inserted roughly halfway through the novel; many early fans of the novel, such as Klaus Mann, remarked upon the emotional power and brilliance of that episode.

Perrudja is 14 years old when his sexuality awakens. He lives with his aunts in the country and he is a spoiled boy, who makes friends with a 16 year old farm hand, Haakon. We see immediately that there is a power imbalance between the two and it’s not just the difference in age that creates this imbalance. As Haakon starts to make Perrudja pay him small sums of money, he is also involving the boy in the nitty-gritty reality of farm life. There are two events that are particularly significant to Perrudja’s awakening. The first is Perrudja’s confrontation with violence in the daily slaughter of swine and cows on farms. Having to slaughter a pig himself opens his eyes to the darkness in his culture. This marked difference between knowing that atrocities happen and becoming a part of the system that produces them is repeated near the end of the novel, where Perrudja finds out that he is the richest man on earth and complicit in many modern atrocities. Perrudja is aghast to find out he’s the master of over “a hundred million slaves”. No matter how much we may retreat, we are always, to an extent, complicit in the things we don’t try to stop. Running away does not absolve you of these things.

The other event is even more significant: to accompany Haakon across the country, Perrudja saddles up behind him, clinging to his back while feeling the wild rhythms of the horse below him. Perrudja falls for Haakon, although he doesn’t know it. Haakon does, however, and tempts his young acolyte time and again, stripping him naked, daring Perrudja to move on him. Perrudja, however, is completely confused and helpless. He’s a typical teenager, he has no idea how to translate his confused desire into action. Thus, all he does is trail Haakon on his exploits until events come to a head when he witnesses Haakon rape a maid. Upon seeing Perrudja’s fear and befuddlement, Haakon threatens him into silence, beats him and humiliates him by urinating on him. This event forms Perrudja’s adult sex life. Perrudja turns into a man who has many desires but is afraid of acting on them. Being attracted to men is something he is never able to own up to, although he does have homosexual affairs now and then. He literally transforms his farm into a fortress against the society around him that is intolerant of his urges.

He is his own worst enemy, however, internalizing the prejudice. There is violence in his relationships with men, but it’s triggered by his fear and his way of coping (or not) with that fear. He’s also riving away people that love him, engaging in self-destructive behavior and giving himself, simply, up. Critics in Jahnn’s time have attacked Perrudja for being a novel of “flesh and death”, and it is between these two poles that Perrudja is caught, opting for retreat, quietude, until he cannot retreat any more because, as mentioned, he practically owns the world. He marries but his wife, Signe (pun intended, clearly), leaves him, reproaching him for “not having changed her world”. Critics, among them the editor of his collected works (see bibliographic reference above), have pointed to the way that she makes her short appearance in the novel and drops out again quickly enough. What they don’t understand is that the normative relationship within the novel is homosexual. They are violent, but because of Perrudja’s failings, not because of an inherent fault. The relationship to Signe is different: the patriarchal assumptions behind many heterosexual relationships are exposed in the rituals of courtship that are expected of Perrudja. The relationship is less important than its beginnings and its end.

Near the end, his former wife Signe runs in with a circus and it is this circus who encapsulates much of the world’s depravities and brutality, turning into another of Jahnn’s emblematic images. Jahnn’s novel charts the pessimism of a sensitive soul up against the world. There are two key phrases that people utter when discussing Perrudja’s humanity. Signe points out the fact that he is a “not-hero” (not anti-hero), defining a hero as someone who acts upon his desires and makes them come true. She closes with a direct address, telling Perrudja: “You are the human one.” In contrast, Haakon, when he dresses Perrudja down, tells the crying bundle of misery that 14 year-old Perrudja was: “You are a useless human being if you cry.”

Being a useless human being is not a bad thing in Jahnn’s book. Jahnn, similar to Hawthorne, has been founder of a spiritual community, which did not survive for long. This bitterness towards utopia, combined with such world-shaking events such as the Great War, which had taken place all of ten years ago and rising Nationalism, Antisemitism etc. among the Germans, clearly inform the abyss that opens up beyond Perrudja’s fortress and the abyss in his own heart. Reading the book one cannot help but think of the “uses” that a few years later his compatriots made of human beings. Perrudja is a harrowing novel that leads us deep not into the darkness behind civilization, but the darkness civilization is made of. Joyce, whose influence on Perrudja is palpable, might have been a paragon in this, as well. Jahnn, together with geniuses like Döblin, was clearly engaged in trying to create the conscience of his race. He did not forge it. Instead, as Perrudja testifies, he violently tried to break it from the stone quarry of Western culture.


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Bad Moses: Wilhelm Raabe’s “Der Hungerpastor”

Raabe, Wilhelm (2002), Der Hungerpastor, Edition Anker
ISBN 3-7675-6945-0
[Originally published in 1864]

This review’s going to be very short, since I am really tired and the book’s really not great. Look, even it’s author hated it. Wilhelm Raabe was a German writer of the late 19th century. His work is generally divided into two distinct phases. His very first novel, Die Chronik der Sperlinggasse (1856), was his breakthrough, and its style, Bürgerlicher Realismus, i.e. bourgeois realism, proved defining for the first part of his oeuvre. Bürgerlicher Realismus was torn between its two main intentions: showing the real circumstances of that new class, the bourgeoisie, and celebrating the ideals and values of that class. This led to a literature that was curiously Dickensian; the realism never rose to social criticism, but it came close, at times. In its worst moments it was dull and moralistic. A great example of the latter is Der Hungerpastor (1864), which has been translated into English as The Hunger Pastor. The novel’s plot is simple enough. It is a classic Bildungsroman: it details the life of Hans Jakob Unwirrsch, who is born a son of a shoemaker, and manages to go to university where he studies theology and becomes a pastor. He finds a wife and weathers many mishaps until he finally settles in a poor parish at the Ostsee. His best childhood friend, a Jew named Moses Freudenstein, becomes his antagonist when he meets him again many years later.

The writing is a marvel. It’s not, strictly speaking, good, it often feels clumsy or awkward, it’s usually circuitous, and weighted by learned allusions that feel superfluous and gratuitous. But the further you progress in the book, the more it all seems to cohere in a strange way, especially if you factor in another important element: the vividness of so many of his descriptions. In its best moments the book feels like a children’s book, highly illustrative, and suffused with a quirky humor, which extends even to aptronyms. Quirky humor, however, isn’t the only sort of mirth Raabe offers his readers. Another one’s irony. Reading the book is so much like listening to someone tell a story that some phrases appear to be equipped with a video file with the narrator’s smirk in it. Take note: this is not the sophisticated irony of Thomas Mann, it is its obvious and grimy-faced cousin. The narrator has important things to say, and he’s not taking chances: he wants everybody to understand him. He makes clear points about proper moral behavior. Raabe wrote his early novels to be accessible to the lower classes, educating them about right and wrong, in a style that he thought would appeal even to a peasant or a worker. The Hungerpastor can, in many ways, be seen as the culmination of this enterprise; indeed, although Raabe frequently referred to his novels of that period as “Volksbücher”, he always singled out the Hungerpastor as the one where he achieved his purpose most completely. And, as many of his earlier books, it was a resounding success. When Raabe died in 1910, the novel had known 34 pressings.

Today, several of his novels and novellas are in print at large publishing houses, but the Hungerpastor, a huge popular and critical success at its time, has needed the efforts of an obscure Christian publisher to stay in print. One reason is the change in taste. Raabe himself has come to hate his earlier work, referring to it as apprentice and even child’s work. His masterpieces, such as Stopfkuchen (1891), which he personally considered his best, are far more adept at social criticism and far more ambiguous and complex works of art. By this time Raabe had lost all the simple yet circuitous elements that are so prominent in the Hungerpastor. The critical establishment, these days, agrees with Raabe’s own assessment, thus, clearly, a taste in change could account for this, but other works of the same period, such as Die Chronik der Sperlinggasse (1856), or Schüdderump (1870) are alive and well. The linchpin here is antisemitism. Der Hungerpastor, as well as one of the novels its modeled on, Gustav Freytag’s Soll und Haben (1855) has frequently been accused of antisemitism. In contrast to Freytag’s patriotic novel, which is among the most important German novels of the 19th century (and also dependent on a small niche publisher for staying in print), the case for the Hungerpastor isn’t as straightforward.

In fact, the novel explicitly addresses the issue, taking a clear stance against antisemitism, bafflingly. On the other hand, the antagonist of the simple Christian German Hans is a greedy rich Jew, who betrays his former friend. What Raabe is doing, basically, is telling his readers that not all Jews are bad. There are good Jews, actually, Jews are generally nice smart cosmopolitan merchants. But there are evil Jews who conform to stereotype. These are not just a disgrace to Germans, they are a disgrace to their own race. History tells us that this is not a minor point. Many famous antisemites have held Jews in high esteem, this is why, they claim, they have become a danger to the Germanic race (cf. for instance, Marr’s Der Sieg des Germanenthums über das Judenthum). Additionally, Germans have a unpleasant history of claiming to know what’s best for Jews. See any debate about Israel on TV these days. The book is an enjoyable read, but some parts of it are hard to swallow. The unease resulting from this is the reason why the book has dropped out of print for decades. That’s no reason not to read it. It is of its time and of its genre, but it’s certainly worth reading. It’s a good bad book, so to say. Flawed, but fun.

Second Thoughts: Christa Wolf’s “Nachdenken über Christa T.”

Wolf, Christa (1999), Nachdenken über Christa T., Luchterhand
ISBN 3-630-62032-9
[Originally published in 1968]

This is Christa Wolf’s second novel, published in 1968, which established her as a major writer of the GDR, and made her world famous. Nachdenken über Christa T. has been translated into several languages, the most recent translation into English is Christopher Middleton’s, which is titled Quest for Christa T. (not a good title for various reasons. We’ll return to this later). Christa Wolf, born in 1929, is one of the best prose writers in the German language after WWII, and, at least in Germany, among the most popular, judging from the fact that all her books (for someone who has been writing with success for such a long time she has a surprisingly slim body of work, in more ways than one; she has not written awfully many books and the books she’s written are rather thin, for the most part) after the reunification have been bestsellers.

Her popularity is puzzling inasmuch as Wolf is one of the darkest and most disturbing of German writers, and clearly one of the most idiosyncratic. It’s not often that you could take any paragraph from someone’s work and be sure to be able to pin it on that writer. Christa Wolf’s voice is unmistakably strong in the face of an intense hurt. Her books are equal portions cerebral and emotional. She is an exceptional writer and Nachdenken über Christa T. is my favorite novel of hers, although Kindheitsmuster (Patterns of Childhood) comes close and some of her novellas are considerably more powerful. Together with Sarah Kirsch and Irmtraud Morgner she can be said to belong to a trias of visionary and effervescently original GDR writers (incidentally, in 1980, they came together to publish a collection of novellas (Geschlechtertausch) to which each contributed one; I can only recommend their work inasmuch as it has been translated and published in English (or French, as it is, dear Fausto)).

This is one of Wolf’s most conventional books. It basically traces a nameless narrator’s reminiscences of a woman named Christa T., who has died, at 35, of leukemia. The way this idea is realized in the novel is hinted at by the title, which would be translated as “Thinking about Christa T.”. It is a quest to find out about that elusive strange woman who died so early, but not in the way that a quest is supposed to work, hence the inappropriateness of Middleton’s choice for a title. The original title is more to the point: the novel traces the narrator’s process of thought. The novel may, on the surface, be about Christa T., and to a large extent, it is, but on a second, just as important level, it is about the narrator figuring out her world as she tries to make sense of Christa T.’s making sense of it. The most significant factor here is that the narrator has little personal memory of Christa T., so she’s not scouting the dark hallways and alleys of her memory: instead she’s thinking by writing.

Thus, the extent of our knowledge about Christa T. is subject to most of the known vicissitudes of biographical writing. We see the narrator trying to figure out Christa T’s thinking by reading her journals and stories: how reliable are written accounts? To her credit, the narrator doesn’t buy into a simple concept of knowledge. We don’t get a Dan-Brown-esque examination of records, no semiotic analysis. The narrator’s approach is more old-school, so to say. I’m talking hermeneutics here, the Schleiermacher approach. Reading a text and intuiting the intention. As Schleiermacher pointed out, predating modern reception theories by roughly 150 years, this is extremely dependent on the reader. Thus, following the traces of Christa T., we watch the narrator’s mind unfold. This way of reading does not only concern the written legacy of Christa T., it also concerns the narrator’s actual memories and her trying to make sense of those periods where she has neither actual memories not written testimony. She not only tries to fictionalize situations that were roughly related to her by Christa T., she also invents possible discussions she herself could have had with a classmate whom both of them had known, playing off her own opinion of Christa on what she thinks is a so-called outside opinion.

This unfolding of the narrator’s mind involves three parameters, roughly. The first is cultural: the book is as much informed by literary history and tradition as it is by original, personal thinking. Wolf’s great novel about WWII and the Third Reich, Kindheitsmuster (Patterns of Childhood) starts with a loose translation of Faulkner’s famous dictum “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (from Requiem for a Nun, if I am not mistaken). Nachdenken über Christa T. frequently echoes other texts. Among many other references, we have a phrase echoing Melville’s “Call me Ishmael”. This, a classic reference for narrative unreliability, is one of many such references shaking our confidence in whatever truth the narrator’s search dredges up. It is typical of Wolf’s work that her references glitter through the different languages that make our understanding of literature. The second parameter is political, which is also typical of Wolf’s oeuvre in which everything personal is also, as the quip would have it, political.

Christa Wolf is highly sensitive to the extent that language, culture and other aspects of our lives are permeated by politics. Generally, sex and gender are one of her major preoccupations and on this field her work yields interesting and frequently apposite insights. This is not the case in this novel, however, which takes up a different topic. As I have frequently mentioned elsewhere, the greatest GDR novels are often torn between two extremes. There’s hope and enthusiasm on the one hand, which are fueled by a passion for a communist paradise. These passions are buttressed by visions from young minds who had no problem getting fired up about the idea of a country free from oppression. Small wonder the young GDR literature was so dominated by brilliant women such as Wolf, Morgner, or Reimann. After having lived through the Third Reich, which was, in a way, the apotheosis of oppression, they smelled spring, especially for the ongoing process of emancipation. It was clear, soon after the WWII, that West Germany, i.e. the BRD was not going to go the way of freedom, taking up many age-old tropes of repression (see how people were cheated when they were handed “anti-discrimination” for “emancipation”), but the GDR explicitly promised to provide a society free from oppression; then, within a few years, everything went sour on them.

This change is at the center of the novel which starts with childhood under the Nazi banner and ends with death in the early 1960s (not entirely sure. I’m bad with details), as most people’s dreams of a better society slowly died a sad death as well. Christa is teacher, first, who then turns into a student of German literature, who then returns to being a teacher. Her understanding of what it means to teach rests on a solid moral foundation that is informed by humanism and Marxism. As mentioned before, she has learned from the inhuman behavior of her fellow human beings during the dark decades. And she expects as much from the younger generation. So when she watches students from her class rob a bird’s nest and throw the young against a wall, or bite the head off a toad she is so shocked by this petty display of brutality that she sits down to cry. The revelation that human nature has not changed even in the young generation is terrible. How is a society to change if even the children are damaged?

As Christa T. grows older, the situation grows steadily worse as her environment starts to put increasing pressure on her to assimilate. To become one of the many. A turning point is reached when a former student of Christa’s reproaches her for having taught idealism to her students, for not having prepared her students sufficiently for “the real world”. This is eerie since it comes right on the heels of a discussion that Christa T. and friends had in West Germany, where they encounter the typical inane comments still rampant today when talk turns to Socialism and/or Communism. We see arrogant, well-fed, self-satisfied people talking about how the Socialist state has robbed its citizens of a desire for freedom and how cute its citizens’ idealism, considering how the real world is in need of real thinking. We are clearly told that this society is no alternative. Christa T. and the narrator are both aware of the fact that any change would have to come from within the system. This is the world’s pitch for a better life. And both Christa and the narrator sense that this project is not going well. Here’s where we enter into the third parameter: personal. What we watch is the narrator’s sense of a world imploding on itself.

By monitoring Christa T.’s life and death, the narrator appears to try to hold the pieces of her disintegrating world together. She does this, paradoxically, by using a writing that is disintegrating itself, that is filled with insecurity about all sorts of truth and narrative. As the novel progresses, however, we feel the tension mount; as Christa T. slowly gives up on herself, becoming a veterinarian’s wife &c, the narrator is more and more forced to rely on her own means. Consequently, she tightens the narrative, trying to squeeze as much as she can from her subject. And at this point, all she has to turn to is Christa T.’s sickness and death.

Sickness is not a metaphor here, not in the way that it is the case in her weaker, late novella Leibhaftig (2002). Christa T. is actually sick, the novel involves Christa’s body in other ways as well. Christa succumbs to leukemia twice, bearing a child between recovering and falling sick again. It is frequently speculated that she may be guilty of her own death in the sense of precipitating it. This does not, however, make of the sickness a metaphor. She has the same sickness as everybody else, the sickness is not the nexus to her emotional state of well-being. It is her weakened resolve that leads to her ‘decision’ to drop out. The last section, which details her sickness is complex in that it allows for both of these readings at the same time. Make no mistake, I am not talking alternative readings here: both of these readings are equally important. Wolf makes sure that the sickness is always just that: a sickness, which is likely why it’s shuffled to the end as it is.

I have talked about many aspects of the novel so far, but it is a marvel. There’s infinitely more and as you will read it, as I urge everyone who read this to do, you will see how crude my summary is of this short but incredible novel. The title “Nachdenken über Christa T.” is ambiguous. On the one hand, as I said, it is a reflection of the way the book is constructed. On the other hand it is a description of what is wants its readers to do: think about Christa T. See, I have met a few guy online, who glibly talk about a “percentage” of the population that is “just bad”, and which it would be better to murder via devices such as the death penalty. If thinking about Christa T. can make you see the problems in such an assertion, much is achieved. It is a grand book. Read it.


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Short Circuit: Ilija Trojanow’s “Autopol”

Trojanow, Ilija (1997), Autopol, dtv
ISBN 3-423-24114-4

While not conceiving or constructing it first, the Autobahnen, the German highway system, is still considered to be one of Adolf Hitler’s lasting achievements by many Germans, not just revisionists. In his second novel, “Autopol”, Ilija Trojanow digs deeply into the tar to excavate a horrific dystopia, published in 1997, on the heels of his widely praised debut novel “Die Welt ist groß und Rettung lauert überall” (1996), as part of an Internet project, as a “novel in progress”, published in small, hyper-linked installments. Since then he has been traveling the world and went on to published multiple travel accounts of India, Bulgaria, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Mecca, he has also been writing essays, managing his own small publishing house (all of his books, incidentally, were published elsewhere). With all that, it took him 9 years to finish his third novel, “Der Weltensammler”, which I’ve reviewed here. “Der Weltensammler” is, as I said then, a masterpiece, frightfully aware and complex, a mature work in every way, a warm, full-bodied read. “Autopol”, in contrast, is short and very lean, almost angular; it’s also considerably less complex, serving its ideas up hot from Trojanow’s excellent mind.

When it was finished and, finally, published in book form, for a while readers had the choice to read the paper copy of it or the hypertext online version. All I had was the book itself, and while I can see how the novel would have worked as a hypertext, I do not have the option of reading it as such any more, since the online version has disappeared. Contrary to my expectations, ordering all the bits and pieces and binding them into a single book may have rendered the whole enterprise less interesting, rather than more, but that’s purely speculative, of course. The actual book on my desk is certainly worth reading and recommended. It’s a science fiction thriller, told in very small chapters. There are dialogs, conventional narratives, photographs, copies of press clippings, and an official memorandum. The plot is rather conventional, but cutting up the narrative and offering several voices the opportunity to tell the story makes for a quick and varied read. The novel consists of three sections; while the basic mixture of formal genres within each section stays roughly the same, the headings change. This may appear to be an inconsequential change, something that could be seen as simple trickery, but “Autopol” not only relies heavily on such changes but it also draws much strength and insight from them. It’s power is not, after all, derived from the writing itself, but from other elements: scenario, ideas, and formal tricks. The writing, I’m sorry to say, is weak, though it is never actually bad: somehow Trojanow always manages to be at least functional. He conveys what he has to in a decent style without the stylistic embarrassments that plague so much of current German fiction.

The basic idea is simple: a political dissident, Sten Rasin, is imprisoned in a huge prison colony, the eponymous Autopol, where criminals are dropped into to disappear; Rasin subsequently stages a large-scale prison escape attempt, in the course of which hostages are taken and people are killed. In Autopol, there is no rehabilitation, it’s a place where those end up whom the society wishes gone. Thus far, nothing new. The structure of the prison, however, is novel. It’s not a region or a place or, God forbid, one of those prison planets so ubiquitous in SF movies. It is a system of highways, a closed circuit that is cut up into four sectors, each of which has four rest stops. In between the rest stops, cars ceaselessly circulate. These cars are the prisons, and their drivers are called pilots, since the cars are apparently meant to be a mix of high tech buses and modern trains. The rest stops are solely meant for the drivers. Prisoners only get off the buses when they are sick or dead. They eat, sleep and live on the road. This system, closed off the the world bustling on outside, has developed a dynamic of its own. It is not run by the government, it is run by a company; the judiciary has almost unchecked powers to drop people into the abyss that is the Autopol and neither the company nor the people outside care. As it turns out, by now, even if they did care, the system cannot be effectively supervised by the people. Criminals are not just abandoned in the prison; by dropping them into the closed system of the Autopol, they are dropped out of the “open” system of the society outside.

This scenario will evoke several unpleasant historical and cultural associations in most readers. There are roughly three layers of significance. The first, and most unpleasant, is the most obvious one. In my first sentence I mentioned the Führer, and the Third Reich is a central reference here. One of the most salient associations, I think, are the cattle wagons used to move Jews through Europe to their fatal destination. As with the Autopol, the railways were a kind of closed system, with most onlookers pursuing a don’t ask, don’t tell policy in regard to the prisoners. The context here is different, of course, but Trojanow is concerned with the frightening ability of a society to cast out its members without looking twice and asks how this ties into our notions of narrative. “Autopol” dwells quite extensively upon the intricacies of speech and discourse, partly by using different genres, as mentioned, partly by the inclusion of an undercover journalist, who is determined to ‘get the truth’. This is the second major reference, equal parts Natural Born Killers and Katharina Blum. Journalistic ethos and narrative truth are both important parameters here, and questions arise as to how the media shapes our understanding of the world etc. If this sounds unspectacular, it is.

This part of “Autopol” is tedious and repetitive. Much of the resulting boredom is due to Trojanow’s decision to set the novel in a world very similar to the one he lived in then (1997 Germany). He restricts the SF elements to the Autopol. This, of course, makes some of the novel’s predecessors such as Böll all the more obvious, and severely restricts the scope of its criticism. That’s something that we often find in fiction writers who turn to the tools of SF for inspiration, but shy away from going all the way. So ’tis with “Autopol” as well: by restricting the amount of SF elements, Trojanow loses many advantages the genre offers. This restriction is clearly intended to generate immediacy, to make the criticism more directly relevant to today’s readers, and, in this, the novel definitely succeeds. Trojanow is a very good writer, too good not to make this book work at least at one level. His decisions, i.e. opting for sound bites rather than longer prose sequences, and for immediacy rather than complexity, mar the novel, I think. As it is, it is highly readable, well executed, but never rises beyond “good”. Good, but, I fear, forgettable, like a good, strong drink.

A drink, that only speaker/readers of German are able to enjoy, so far. As of today, only three of Trojanow’s books have been translated into English. Adding “Autopol” (or his debut novel!) would not be the worst of ideas. Get to it.

Field Work: Ilija Trojanow’s “Der Weltensammler”

Trojanow, Ilija (2007), Der Weltensammler, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag
ISBN 978-3-423-13581-8
[Translated into English by William Hobson as The Collector of Worlds (Faber and Faber, 2008)]

As an introductory remark of sorts: when Trojanow’s novel was translated into English, his name was strangely transliterated into “Ilya Troyanov”. Strange, since he, although he is of Bulgarian descent and has lived both in India and South Africa, is German. Thus, they needed, in a way, to transliterate his name back into Bulgarian and then transliterate it into English. Funny thing, when his travel books on the hadj and the Ganges were translated in the “Armchair Traveler” edition, his name was stated correctly (here’s a longish discussion of this) So, this is just me being a pedant, but if any of you wants to go out and buy the book I thought you should know this. Speaking of which: you should read this book. It is among the best German novels I read in 5 years and certainly the best German novel I finished this year.

For me as a reviewer there are two ways to approach this book, because on the one hand it’s highly readable and evocative, a novel of adventures and exotic places, and on the other hand it’s a very smart book about narratives, orientalism, colonialism etc. It makes many of its theoretical points in a quiet manner, sneaking theory onto the reader’s mind, so to say. However, just in case, if I forget to mention this again: this is a gorgeous, fragrant, compelling novel that I can’t imagine anyone not liking. It is a very well written book. With so much of contemporary German literature in a stylistic slump, Trojanow’s clean, complex prose, which is elevated yet highly readable at the same time. It is functional prose, in the very best sense. The language needs to shoulder a huge story, a brilliant narrative structure and evoke three different locales without detracting from either of the three, which is just what it does, providing, additionally, chunks of gorgeous prose scattered all over the 523 pages of my edition.

The novel, consisting of three sections and a coda, follows the life of famous explorer, translator, poet, soldier, sufi Richard Burton. The novel is no biography, it does not claim accuracy. As the author himself says, it is “inspired” by the life and work of Burton and at times strays far from the path of biographical fidelity. The most intriguing experience for me was the fact that I was left not with a desire to read a ‘proper’ biography of Burton but to delve deep into Burton’s own writing. Der Weltensammler is at least as much about the cultures it writes about and the difficulty of writing about culture and biographies as it is about Burton the person. The novel may seem conventional, but any closer reading will reveal it’s anything but. In dealing with three periods of Burton’s life, as a soldier in the British army in India from 1842–1849, as an incognito ethnographer/pilgrim in Medina and Mecca in 1953 and as an explorer, hunting for the sources of the Nile in central Africa with Speke from 1856–1860, it examines the very acquiring knowledge and the product is an eminently readable book that appeals to a vast readership. Reading the novel you can see not Burton’s but Trojanow’s mind work. Each of the three parts is constructed in a different way although they share certain basic properties. They all consist of two strands of narrative: one’s the Burton narrative, written by a third person narrator, sometimes Burton, sometimes omniscient. The second is, let’s say, the informant. The detective. The storyteller. All of these. As the novel proceeds Burton’s voice is more and more muted. Instead of leading us, step by step, into Burton’s mind, we withdraw more and more and see knowledge, doubt and the world as perceived by multiple points of view take center stage. From the very first chapter the voice of the native dominates Burton’s. Der Weltensammler has been criticized repeatedly for failing to render Burton the person in a satisfying way, which is puzzling since the novel clearly has no intention of ever doing so. Reproaching it for failing in an endeavor it never undertook is, to say the least, boneheaded.

The first section treats Burton’s time in British-India where Burton is portrayed as insatiable as far as knowledge and languages are concerned. He takes a teacher and learns several Indian languages, among them Gujarati and Hindustani, as well as studying in-depth Indian culture and religion. He takes a lover (a temple prostitute) and when he is moved to a largely Muslim part of the country he learns their religion and both Persian as well as Arabian. He starts to practice the Muslim faith as a means of mingling with the common (enough) people in disguise. He develops an opinion of how to deal with civil unrest and uprisings and although the reader may have the notion of meeting a tolerant and open man, Burton recommends draconian measures. In the end a scandal and bereavement lead to his leaving the country precipitously, “on sick leave”. This is the whole story. Trojanow, luckily, completely abstains from trying to sound the depths of Burton’s soul, from attempting to find out Burton’s motivations.

The only helping hand he lends the reader is the voice of Ramij Naukaram, who becomes his servant, his mediator between the foreign country and Burton. Naukaram’s voice is recorded because, at the outset of the novel, he seeks out a lahiya, a writer, to write down his story in order to compose a letter of application. Thus, the story is narrated by the third person narrator and Naukaram, who is frequently asked by the lahiya to clear up confusions. The lahiya, it turns out, is as much of an author as he is a human recording device and by and by he fills in narrative gaps in the story. As Naukaram’s audience, he clearly represents the readership of the novel and as an inventive writer he is just as clearly a stand-in for the author. He helps us make sense of the story we are watching unfold. How much of Naukaram’s story is self-serving? How much is, later on, anti-Muslim prejudice? What is the truth? When does it turn to fiction?

Thankfully, there is remarkably little of that popular literary parlor game: letting the native puzzle about white/Christian rituals and customs. This usually contains two elements: making fun of the native’s naiveté and criticizing our own culture. Barely anything of that here. By using Burton’s voice to explicate the British and Christian elements and leaving Naukaram to explain the parts of the story that involve his own culture. Thus far, he seems to be the common figure of informant, something, however, which is both subverted by the fact that his strand contains an Indian recording an Indian, and by the fact that we get a lot of grumbling about the low morals and despicable religion and behavior of Muslims. Naukaram cannot understand why Burton would choose to become Muslim, even for a disguise. We get an outside view from the inside, so to say.

The second part is even more complicated. There is again the Burton strand, yet the second strand contains more elements. Instead of having one man relate a story to a second man, it mostly consists of three man debating Burton’s identity. The three men are the Turkish governor, the Sharif of Mecca and the Kadi. The occasion is Burton’s publication of the “Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al Madinah and Meccah”, wherein he details his pilgrimage in disguise, something which is, if undertaken in bad faith, heretical and blasphemous. The Turkish governor, who appears to have called the meeting, is worrying about something else, however: whether Burton may have been a spy for the British army, paid both to reconnoiter Mecca, Medina and its environs and to sow unrest among the people under Turkish rule. The three of them proceed forthwith to debate this back and forth. In order to arrive at a satisfying conclusion they call witnesses and engage in theological discussions. Here the Burton strand often appears to be a commentary upon the discussion of the three, by depicting situations described by the witnesses from Burton’s angle. There are many details hidden beneath the folds of this construction, some revealed, as in an afterthought, late in the sections, such as Burton’s subterfuges to measure and draw Mecca without anyone noticing. Burton slips on and off the page like the Dervish that he claims to be while traveling. The extent to which identity is subject to interpretation is demonstrated brilliantly, as we see Burton’s honesty being debated.

The third part is the least exciting yet not less enjoyable. This is the part where Burton’s voice finally takes a back seat to the commentary. Here the commentary is, in a way, an insider-outsider-insider, a black slave who ‘returns’, so to say, with the Slave holder culture clearly imprinted upon his mind. The fact that Burton is so subdued here may be due to the fact that Burton is here as ‘himself’, he is not trying to pass himself off as someone he’s not. As the novel clearly demonstrates, however, it is no longer his choice, he has become his masks. This does not lead to a harmonic melting-pot kind of character, however. In his conflicts with the different kinds of ethnicities and religions (and Speke as Brit is but one of them) the difficulties and the possibilities of intercultural communication become clear. Nonetheless, we should never forget that Burton was a soldier and a fighter and although the novel accords little weight to these aspects of his personality, he is, as the title says: a collector of worlds. He had a voracious hunger for other cultures, and although his seniors doubt his loyalty, the Burton represented in the book has his loyalties straight. Everything, from his way in assessing political situations to his attitude to gathering knowledge is clearly routed in his own culture (there are a few telling differences between him and Speke that sent me to look up something in Foucault but I shouldn’t go into these details). The book demonstrates the bonds that knowledge as we see it, are for us and how little, at the same time, we can afford to forgo it.

All this is contained by the Burton described in the book, who is so well contained by the strands of narrative that he never towers over the events and places. Fittingly, the coda is reduced to the one aspect of his person that is never before properly focused on: his beliefs as a Christian. A small investigation is launched to determine whether Burton merits the Catholic burial his wife insists upon. The smallness of the grave serves as a perfect metaphor for the provincialism that Burton tried to escape by trying to become a Weltbürger, a citizen of the world. That he didn’t become one and merely became a Weltensammler is his tragedy and, to an extent, ours. Putting on the news tonight, I sighed quietly.

Katharina Hacker: The Have-Nots

Hacker, Katharina (2006), Die Habenichtse, Suhrkamp
ISBN 978-3-518-45910-2
[Translated into English as The Have-Nots by Helen Atkins, Europe Editions]

It was with trepidation that I picked up this novel, an gift by a dear old friend. It won the 2006 German book prize, besting as good a novel as Ilija Trojanow’s Der Weltensammler. Whence the trepidation, you ask? Whatever books may be published off the radar, the body of books that constituted critically acclaimed German contemporary literature is a sad affair. Look at the 2006 short list. Both the Schulze and the Walser are so bad that I’d rate that year’s jury worse than this year’s Booker Jury. Dito other fêted writers. Judith Hermann? Pascal Mercier? If you listen closely you can hear me shudder right now. Oh, maybe I’m just picky. Anyway, to cut a long story short, Die Habenichtse is an excellent novel. Hacker may be somewhat sloppy with her prose at times, but more than makes up for it.

Oh, but what is it about? This basic question is hard to answer satisfactorily. Not that the plot is that convoluted or hidden, but this novel is necessarily about plot. A rough sketch of the plot could read like this: after 9/11 a Yuppie couple, he working as a lawyer, she working as a designer, move to London because the husband, Jakob, has been offered a job there. Dull alienation ensues, like straight from a mid-80s suburban novel. There are all the routine trappings. Man works too much, gets caught up in his work and his colleagues, wife (Isabelle) is lonely, consoles herself with a lover. The lover in question is a drug dealer. The dullness of this plot does not reflect badly on the novel though.

Katharina Hacker is an excellent writer, always in control of her matter. The plot, as we see quickly is one more tool in her nimble fingers. The novel is stuffed with these devices which directly evoke distinct references and feelings to the literate reader. There is the fact that it commences with 9/11, or that the law firm hiring Jakob is mainly concerned with the restitution of property stripped from Jewish fugitives by the Nazis.

Wir müssen hineingehen, sagte Jakob. Er bückte sich und hielt die Blumen, die gerade von seinem Rollkoffer rutschen wollten, fest. Isabelle? sagte er, wir können hier nicht stehenbleiben.

There are alcoholic parents, a brutally killed cat, a mistreated child and some highly erotic passages. And all of this in about 300 pages. The novel moves at an incredibly speed, hitting the reader with its images, characters, ideas, never letting up. This effect is all the more pronounced by the intricate construction: Jakob, Isabelle, the neighbor’s child Sara, Jim the dealer, their stories are told in interweaving chapters. What for? There is no conclusion where the different threads come together to produce surprise or shock. The structure does, however, emphasize the complexities of the novel, by emphasizing the general applicability of what may seem like particular problems. These problems are not hard to guess, they are not alluded to, the reader is bludgeoned over the head by them.

Thus, we turn again to the question of what the novel is about. A hint is found in Jakob’s ruminations upon researching details of the Shoah, buried in heaps of books, Bajohr, Friedländer and a shelf full of others. In a telephone conversation Jakob vents his shock

Ich habe mich noch nie so sehr mit Deutschland beschäftigt, sagte Jakob am Telefon zu Hans, – ich frage mich, ob ich all diese Bücher in Berlin hätte lesen können. –Warum nicht? sagte Hans empfindlich, und Jakob las ihm eine Passage aus Friedländers Buch […] vor, wie Kinder einen Juwelierladen stürmten im Juni 1938, wie sie ihn plünderten und ein kleiner Junge dem jüdischen Besitzer ins Gesicht spuckte.

There we have, in a nutshell, the reason why the novel is set in London. The distance to Germany allows the novel to treat Germany and its past without having to resort to the olde dance, the guilt game: y’know. Germans were victims, too, you can’t collectively blame Germans, and are we not nowadays grown out of the whole thing? It’s sickening, and Hacker brilliantly sidesteps the issue by having Jakob realize the extent of the disaster and also, time and again, the fact that it was man-made. We did this, and freed from Germany, Jakob awakens to that fact. Not just past Germans, he is also made aware of the hidden stashes of anti-Semitism in present Germany, and of the ways Germans hide behind alibi actions like, for instance, restituting property without truly coming to terms with what exactly caused Germans to persecute and industrially murder European Jewry.

Alexander Mitscherlich’s classic study of collective German repression, Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern becomes relevant in this context. The question “Und gibt es ein deutsch-jüdisches Zusammenleben? Ich bin gar nicht sicher” („Is there a German-Jewish cohabitation? I am not sure at all.”) is well asked given that in a city like Cologne right here, there is strong resistance against a Jewish museums while a couple of old geezers are allowed to host a major anti-Semitic installation on one of the most prominent and central places of Cologne. There is a strong and pronounced bitterness to many of these issues. The 9/11 reference at the beginning merely quietly contextualizes them. The Twin Towers make virtually no appearance once the book leaves the introductory passages and it’s a better book for it. Hacker knows which cards to play and which not to play. Thus, the novels feels heavy, but never heavy-handed (unlike this review).

In the meantime, in the present private disaster strikes the protagonists, especially, Isabelle and Jim. Here we return to what I called a dull plot. It is only dull if we expect a standard plot, if we expect to be moved or engaged by what shapes up to be, among other things, an unhappy love story. Victims, guilt etc are transposed to the private realm and then projected back again. The novel reduces everything to power structures, never more so than when it treats in-depth Isabelle’s affair with Jim. Hierarchies become painfully obvious. Gender hierarchies, economic hierarchies, even questions of anti-Semitism are transferred into the private realm. As I said, the writing is somewhat sloppy in places. It almost seems as if the writer isn’t particularly interested in crafting precise or poetic prose. Nothing about the rest, though, is the least sloppy, in my opinion. The novel is perfectly constructed, thoughtful, it works equally well on multiple levels, and, above all, and to counter the dry way I have been approaching it, it is endlessly entertaining. The speed, the writing and the pathos combine to form a truly great read, in my eyes.


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On hopes, disappointments and surprises: recent books by Günter Grass and Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie and Günter Grass, two of my favorite living writers, have both published new books recently. Both writers have a mixed track record of late. Rushdie took a downward turn with The Ground Beneath Her Feet and hit literary rock bottom with the astonishingly bad Fury. He regained some ground since, with the mixed but good Shalimar the Clown. It wasn’t all good, in retrospect there were many problems with it but I for one heaved a big sigh of relief upon reading it. Especially the Kashmir passages were among his very best work, and in the WWII passages I felt he was slowly getting the hang of writing about the west without descending into self-parody.

Grass has started his bad years with Mein Jahrhundert (My Century), which showcased why he shouldn’t write more short prose, but wasn’t as excruciatingly bad as the poetry he published in the following years. Novemberland and Letzte Tänze were bad. Very bad. Embarrassingly bad. Lord knows, Grass was one of the best German post-WWII poets when he started his career, I’d still recommend his debut volume of poetry, Die Vorzüge der Windhühner to anyone who cares for poetry and my opinion. I can’t really explain what happened. He also published a novel that read like a bad parody of himself, Im Krebsgang (Crabwalk).

So I awaited both writers’ new books with hopes and fears. With Grass, admittedly, the hope was solely based on my love for his older work and wasn’t strong enough to make me pay for the hardcover. When I finally bought the paperback of Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (Peeling the Onion) I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, some irritating ticks, too much talk of Grass’ penis and too much of a hurry marred the book, but it cohered wonderfully, was a great read and contained much of what I loved and love in Grass’ work. A shifty memoirist, he slips in and out of truth, offers interpretations for his own work by claiming real life counterparts to some of his most famous creatures, including the precocious son of an acquaintance of his, who walks into the living room with his tin drum. Grass relates of his talks with a friend in the army, who was to become Pope Benedikt XVI, he does a good job of discussing Germany’s dark past without providing excuses (but also without being really open about it, more on this soon) and his writing often shines as it did in the old days. It’s the old baroque Grass again, who lays it on too thickly but it feels rarely forced. An inspired book.

Not so The Enchantress of Florence. Well. There are two ways of looking at the book. They are not compatible, but they are both true. According to one it’s easily his best work since The Moor’s last Sigh. No matter how you look at it, it’s not as good as Moor or the Verses, or Shame, or Children, or indeed Haroun, but it bests the rest of his novels. There is some glorious writing and there are few writers out there who can do as much justice to the sumptuousness of the setting of the novel as Rushdie can. Without even having to indulge in long descriptions, it’s there, in his prose. He needs few words to paint a whole, finely detailed, rich world. Days after finishing the Enchantress I had vivid visions of Florence. It made me pull Mandragola and The Prince off shelves and reread them.

There are many strange and great characters, often pained with broad brushstrokes that left an intricate pattern in the novel. The story is straightforward enough told with an enormous pace, actually, but without ever seeming hurried. He seems to have regained his talent for telling a rich story in few words, something which has amazed me ever since Shame (which, at the time, I picked up reluctantly, as any thin book, but which, in retrospect, seems like that house in Danielewski’s House of Leaves, it’s bigger inside than outside.)

However, there are, once we invoke the masterpieces of this great writer, some respects in which The Enchantress somewhat short. It’s never as moving, as warm, as his earlier work. People move past you and even though their characterization is superb, the book is still cold. With a writer of Rushdie’s abilities, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had recognized his strengths and crafted a better novel, to the best of his abilities. Unlike Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (Peeling the Onion) this is most certainly not an inspired book, no sir. It’s a supremely well crafted book, but there’s something missing at the heart of it all, although I admit that Rushdie’s language does carry a certain warmth, the warmth of a room hung with thick, rich carpets, in the midst of summer, in a household lonely with cruelty. The child alone in his room basks in the heat, but still shivers, from a different kind of cold.

And this is where we turn to the second point I alluded to before. Rushdie was never a good thinker. Take a peek into one of his volumes of essays and you’ll see what I mean. The best parts of them are inspiring, even thought provoking, but less like real philosophy and more like (at times) good aphorisms. Not that they are aphorisms. If that is confusing, it’s all you’re going to get. Well. Back to Rushdie being a second- or third-rate thinker.

It shows in the new novel which cites and sometimes paraphrases contemporary discussions of that infamous idea of the “Clash of Cultures” and of religion and fundamentalism. Tired, all too well known witticisms, bad arguments that pose in the novel as novel (excuse the pun) ideas, and brilliant and/or daring ones at that. How could Rushdie have read period pieces (it is to be assumed he has read all or most of Macchiavelli’s work, including the luminous work that is the Discourses on Livy) and assumed that his cut&paste method of transplanting weak contemporary arguments into that setting could work at all?

Hence my comparison to Fury. Both are, in their own ways, failed novels of ideas, in both cases because Rushdie hasn’t many good ideas, in the philosophical sense, of his own. It’s not just because Rushdie is channeling the Football Hooligans of Rational Thought, although he is, and it’s not a nice thing to behold. No, this novel immediately takes a nosedive anytime he engages in anything philosophical. It recovers quickly, but I have been known to shout angrily from time to time while reading it. I’m not sure I want to reread it. I’ll try to just remember the great parts and look forward to the new novel, which is, hopefully, emptier of philosophy and fuller of awesome (yes, I use awesome as a noun). ISBN