#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”

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#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.

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

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

Saturday
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

 

Nora Gomringer: Moden

Gomringer, Nora (2017), Moden, Voland & Quist
ISBN 978-3-86391-169-0

The most prestigious German-language literary award is the Büchner Preis. It is not given for a single work, it’s given for a whole oeuvre. Sometimes it’s given to younger writers, sometimes older writers, very often it’s well judged. I don’t get miffed about its choices often. Sometimes it even surprises me, as when the award was given to Felicitas Hoppe, a fiendishly clever novelist with a small but excellent body of work. Sometimes it goes to writers who should have won it a decade ago. Jürgen Becker and Marcel Beyer are examples of overdue writers finally getting their due in these past years. The award, unlike the Nobel Prize in Literature, actually awards poets quite often. Becker is an example of an important poet winning the award. If you want to read his work, you’re fortunate that the late Okla Elliott has translated a selection of his shorter poems, published by Black Lawrence Press. But, and obviously, that’s just me, it’s the awards for small forms, poets, writers of novellas that sometimes misfire. Wolfdietrich Schnurre, Büchner laureate in the 80s, was an important writer of postwar literature, particularly well known for his short stories, but exceedingly minor today. I am also not convinced of the plaudits frequently awarded to Durs Grünberg, whose debut collection of poetry I adore, but that’s about the only collection of his that is genuinely great.

And last year, the award was given, I don’t know why, to Jan Wagner. Jan Wagner is commonly credited with resurrecting popular poetry in Germany. His 2014 collection Regentonnenvariationen (~Rain Barrel Variations) rose to the top of the bestseller list, he won all kinds of awards, it was quite intense for a while. But his work is exceedingly banal. It’s what you’d expect from a well educated, smooth young man. The poetry is well crafted, tonally frequently epigonal, to the point where individual lines shift in debt from Grass, to Eich, to Fried. More than once I thought I recognized the actual wording and pulled Grass, Eich or Fried from my shelves, but of course that was never it. It’s just the echoes you can expect in the work of a gifted reader and craftsman. I don’t know who to compare it to. Maybe: what if Mary Oliver was less interesting.

Ok, ok. This is not about Wagner. But if you wanted to give a brilliant younger poet an award last year (to be quite honest, I don’t see how a writer like, say, Robert Schindel or Natascha Wodin wouldn’t be at the top of any Büchnerpreislist, but that’s not the point), I wouldn’t have picked Wagner. I would have picked Nora Gomringer. Nora Gomringer is a poet with a big name, as her father Eugen Gomringer is one of the most important German poets of the 20th century. That’s a heavy cross to bear, but Nora Gomringer wears that burden well. She has produced consistently good work, on stage, on the page, and she has supported and pushed other artists. She’s won a ton of awards, among which most recently, in 2015, the Bachmannpreis. For prose, of course, because why the fuck not. Nora Gomringer can do a lot of things, but what’s most remarkable is her gift for poetry.

I don’t do poetry reviews on this blog a lot. In fact, I think this review of Ben Mazer’s book is the only one I did. But on this, the final day of #GermanLitMonth I was re-reading her most recent book, the most excellent Moden, and thought, why not. I will say this: poetry reviews are difficult for me because I always put them in relation to my own writing; not a comparison, but I have a fairly good sense right now of what kind of idiom comes easy to me and what doesn’t, etc. So when I read Nora Gomringer’s recent books, one thing that stuns me in particular is the way she is able to control colloquialism and sharp, arch tone and turns of phrases. In German poetry, when you try to combine these two elements, what you usually do, see Wagner, is sound a lot like Grass. Because Grass (read my brief post about him here) perfected a specific way to turn words around, estrange them from common usage, spin, color them, in particular verbs. Moving them through sentences, conjugating them against the grain – when Grass was good, he was brilliant. But ever since, writers who tried to lift words into art have often reached for Grass’s register. It’s incredibly seductive. It works fantastically well.

Nora Gomringer doesn’t do that. And even after reading her book multiple times, I still have difficulties seeing exactly how she does what she does. Moden, her 2017 collection of poetry, follows Monster Poems (2013) and Morbus (2015) as the final volume in a loose trilogy. All three poems are about specific phenomena, united by theme, not by form.

Monster Poems is about monsters. Yes, pop cultural monsters, but also the monsters in us, the ways we can become monstrous. It’s about the threat of violence without and within. And all that is nice – but most of the poems contain a core of clarity, a discourse about female identity. “We Eves, all of us, I fear / we are replaceable” she writes in one poem, in another poem she marries Plath to Norman Bates, and in yet another poem, the big bad wolf comes to Little Red Riding Hood, opens his pants and tells her: “Reach Inside,” until eventually, she learns how to shoot, and kill, and where to bury the bodies. Nora Gomringer’s poems take no prisoners, but what I found most fascinating the first time I read Monster Poems was that language. It was loose and colloquial, but constantly tightened by a sense of form and art, with words often turned into an arch tone, but for once, it didn’t send me to the shelf to find the source. The source was right there.

The second book in the trilogy, Morbus, was about illness, death, and, generally, the fallibility of our bodies. In it, Gomringer’s language is just right, just hard and clean enough to manage a tightrope walk that moves you but never drops you into sentimentality. In a poem, which I think is about depression, she answers a question. “How would you describe this state?” and in three tercets, she offers three descriptions per stanza, one per line. She starts with “a black dog,” the common way to describe it, but moves on, and eventually we get “these questions of leather,” and finally, “the body in space.” The poem, built on repetition, varies its theme, introduces musical elements, plays with the various elements of its structure, including a final, completely dissolved tercet. At the same time, it offers a moving, stark evocation of emotional distress. It’s curious. It was published roughly around the same time as Jan Wagner’s book, and like his book, she is playful, clever, erudite and allusive, but unlike Wagner’s dull banalities, Morbus is vivid with something to say.

This balance, between looseness and tightness – it’s hard to get right, and Moden is, in many ways, the crowning achievement of this method. In the poem “Maybelline 306” she invents the word “Fure,” a portmanteau of “Furie” and “Hure” (fury and whore), but before you get into the beautiful anger of this poem, you notice that its musical theme is set by an unexpected inversion in the second line which is, I think the essential moment that holds the whole poem together, this moment of tense formal focus. I mean this is obviously fitting since the whole book is about, loosely, the topic of fashion. Gomringer interrogates the way we interact with fashion, but most of all, the way the female body is made to fit the demands of fashion. Among these is the infamous practice of breaking and bending young girls’s feet to make them more elegant. The poem on the topic, “Lotus,” explains that the rules for this practice are written by people who are in love. And after explaining the method, she turns around at the end of the poem, and offers, in a very Brechtian tone, a connection to our time. Speaking of Brecht: maybe it’s just me, but I detect his tone not infrequently in this book, which is fascinating. This book’s lines and words and turns are sharper, more cutting, less patient than the previous books. It elevates the whole collection. To me, the book’s central poem is called Elfriede Gerstl. Gerstl was an Austrian writer and a holocaust survivor – but the poem doesn’t dwell on that. It assumes we know, it assumes we know this woman and her strength and her past. The centerpiece of the poem is a meeting between the speaker and Gerstl. I think it’s the central poem because Gerstl’s own work has connections to the way Moden works. In particular Gerstl’s stunning autobiographical text Kleiderflug, a book that contains a long poem, shorter and longer pieces of prose. In Gerstl, Gomringer finds a feminist who writes about fashion however indirectly, who, like Gomringer, is part of a larger literary scene (among Gerstl’s friends was Konrad Bayer), and who has a steely feminine strength that also imbues Gomringer’s books.

Moden is, I think, Gomringer’s best work so far, but she’s written a lot of good books, books that count, books that have to be counted. She belongs among the great poets writing in German right now, the likes of Paulus Böhmer, Sabine Scho and Friederike Mayröcker.

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Martina Clavadetscher: Knochenlieder

Clavadetscher, Martina (2017), Knochenlieder, Edition Bücherlese
ISBN 9783906907017

Sometimes a book is so surprisingly good that you stop reading and go online to look up what other books the author has written and how on earth this is the first time you read their work. At least for me, this is sometimes the case. This happened to me when I read Martina Clavadetscher’s debut novel Knochenlieder, a novel about inheritance, language, uncertain futures and how communities persevere. This is a very good book. It was shortlisted for the 2017 Swiss Book Award and should have won it, too. Clavadetscher employs all kinds of registers, from poetry to cyberpunk, from JG Ballard to fairy tales. Her novel, the title of which can be translated as “Bone Songs,” is part of the current wave of German-language dystopias, but she manages to produce a text that is both science fiction – and not. There are portions that seem a bit off as science fiction, strangely anachronistic discussions of digital matters that are supposed to take place roughly 60 years in the future, but sound outdated today. But Clavadetscher incorporates these anachronisms as a gesture, as an element of the text that tells us that this isn’t really about the future. Knochenlieder is about the linguistic way we construct the future, the way we conceive and shift our sense of home, our sense of ourselves. In this, Clavadetscher ressembles no writer as much as JG Ballard, whose work is echoed all over Knochenlieder. Ballard had also always been uncomfortable with suggestions that he wrote prescient literature. Ballard’s work engages our collective memories as humans, and the collective memory of life on earth. Clavadetscher’s novel is more personal, and she doesn’t appear to subscribe to complicated theories such as those that undergird Ballard’s novels, but it has been awhile since I’ve read a novel about the future that so powerfully engages our present and past instead. And on top of all this, Clavadetscher’s language, despite the occasional slip into sentimentality, is clever, musical and sharp – and should be fairly easy to translate because she achieves all that with a more limited vocabulary than you’d expect of what is essentially a novel in verse. Knochenlieder is always a balancing act – had it been written with less skill, it could have failed in numerous ways. Instead, it seems very successful in what it attempts to do. A good writer. A good book. Read it. Translate it.

I mean, this is not to say that the book doesn’t have blind spots, but its clever construction makes you at least question whether what you see are indeed actual blind spots or whether you diagnosed something intentional as a blind spot. The novel has three parts, set in a chronological sequence. The first part is set in 2020, so in the very near future, in a small commune of sorts, a group of people who decided to escape the increasing awfulness of the world by going mostly off the grid. This commune is a group of families, who informally renamed themselves after colors and painted their houses that way. Clavadetscher combines different things in her commune. They are off the grid, but in a very specific way that distrusts not just the increasingly unsafe world (there’s a war going on outside, we eventually learn), but they also fit a kind of state of mind that is common today too: people who distrust modern medicine, focus on “natural” remedies and solutions. If you look at these communities today, they are often white, privileged, and focusing on notions of family and heritage that are politically unpleasant sometimes. When the “Green” family, long unable to conceive, manage to engender a pregnancy with the help of medicine, other members of the community attack them for introducing the “stachelkind” – a barbed or thorned child, an unnatural, cursed child. This phrasing recalls, in fact, the recent-ish comments by Sibylle Lewitscharoff, an important contemporary German novelist. In a speech in 2014, she referred to the abominations of children conceived in unnatural ways, like in vitro fertilization. She called them “Halbwesen,” chimeras: “They are not quite real in my eyes, but dubious creatures, half human, half artificial Godknowswhat.” Since Knochenlieder was originally written in 2015, and its themes overlap with some themes of Lewitscharoff’s novels, it’s hard not to see a connection. Mind you, I think the scope of criticism is wider than one novelist: it’s about a problematic mind-set.

Clavadetscher’s choices here are intriguing. Setting up such a community could have made her novel approach fiction like Sarah Hall’s good The Carhullan Army, stories about communities off the grid, often governed by a fundamentalist secular ideology of sorts. Instead, she barely touches on the ideology, thus asking us to implicitly associate them with the groups and ideologies we already know. She focuses on the human aspects, because ultimately, her novel is about how we relate to one another and how we make a home with one another. Additionally, the science fiction doesn’t end with this (near-)future community. The more science fictional elements, including some not-quite-right technobabble, follow this. Doing this creates a tension. On the one hand, the second part, set in a metropolis, among hackers and computers, makes the simple, poetic, pastoral first part resonate as a kind of ideal, idyllic place before modernity breaks in. At the same time, we are shown that it is already broken – not by modernity but by lack of empathy, love and community spirit. Clavadetscher evades simple dichotomies, lifting her discourse into language itself.

And indeed, the language of the novel is remarkable. Clavadetscher writes a prose that is lyrical, but not excessively so. She uses line breaks to speed up and slow down her narrative. It allows her to create palpable, sensuous scenes of action and seduction. Her language allows for a clear treatment of hallucinations as well as of realistic observations without really including a linguistic shift, there’s enough room in her language for both. She does, and it’s almost impossible not to, I think, with this kind of writing, sometimes slip into sentimentality as well as a kind of poeticism that echoes Günter Grass’s very specific phrasings extremely strongly. But those moments are an exception. Novels in verse are often either banal or horribly burdened by self-consciously poetic language. Clavadetscher’s prose has a purpose, there are muscles working under the surface, and the effect is extraordinary. One such effect is that the poetic and allusive style presents a kind of discursive “home,” a fixed point of emotional reference as the world described degrades into dystopian awfulness. As the novel slowly turns into the search of a daughter for her mother, Clavadetscher increases the amount of fairy tale motifs, enriching and affirming the book’s basic linguistic direction as the lingistic search for home starts corresponding to a narrative search for home. My intuition to search for a language based solution to some of the novel’s intricacies is confirmed, I think, by what I called “technobabble” in the novel’s middle section. The protagonist of the second section is a hacker, but written the way old people imagine hackers. It uses current vocabulary and offers a kind of hacking that we do now, and indeed have done for a while now. The novels and movies of the 1980s and early 1990s, though more mid-career Neal Stephenson than William Gibson, are clearly echoed in these lines, though brought slightly up to date. The 1995 movie Hackers, which isn’t actually that awful of a portrayal of hacking resonates throughout. In no way would hackers 60 years from now go about their business the way that is described in the book. However, I don’t think we’re supposed to read this as a realistic hard SF speculation. Yes, it sounds outdated for 2017 – but it’s supposed to sound that way, I suspect. The novel pushes its readers onto the level of language, allusion and discurse.

If I was reticent about plot details, it’s because the plot of the book is good fun, I think, and there’s no need to spoil it. Ultimately, Clavadetscher has written an engaging, intelligent book that is more original that the vast majority of contemporary literature in German, particularly the prize winning kind written by non-immigrant writers. The Swiss Book Award was won, eventually, by Jonas Lüscher’s most recent awful novel, one of many praised and shortlisted novels about male professors and their righteous ruminations. Knochenlieder doesn’t really add to important political discourses, despite alluding to a future with camps and wars. Nevertheless, there’s something at stake here, this is literature that takes risks, that is fun to read and sometimes disturbing to ponder. This is an unusual and exciting voice. Translate it already.

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Melinda Nadj Abonji: Fly Away, Pigeon

Abonji, Melinda Nadj (2010), Tauben Fliegen Auf, Jung und Jung
ISBN 978-3-902497-78-9
[Translated into English by Tess Lewis
Abonji, Melinda Nadj (2014), Fly Away, Pigeon, Seagull Books
ISBN 9780857422125]

German language literature is full of tales of migration – often these are among the better books published in the language. Melinda Nadj Abonji is a Swiss writer and performer, and her second novel, Fly Away, Pigeon, is such a tale of migration and identity. It was also a runaway success – winning two German language book awards, garnering praise from critics and readers alike. And it’s been translated into English. There’s no doubt: Fly Away, Pigeon is a lovely book. It is very smart, well written, and moving. And yet – at slightly above 300 pages it is twice the size of Abonji’s 2004 debut novel and her third novel, published just this year. That her sophomore novel is sandwiched between two such significantly shorter publications suggests that writing novels longer than 300 pages doesn’t come naturally to the author. Indeed, the novel sometimes feels a bit padded, a bit overlong, stuffed here and there with slightly too much detail, slightly too much sentimentalism. It’s true, the novel tells a story about the dissolution of Yugoslavia, about communism, about immigration, about integration, and about the way all these stories contribute to identity formation. You’d think this does require some space – but Abonji doesn’t always use the space well. Her debut novel, while a bit flashy and melodramatic, showed the author’s skill for using allusion and fragments to tell a deeper story than the words on the page appear to tell. Somehow, despite the fragmented, back-and-forth seesaw structure of Fly Away, Pigeon, one never feels that a story was left untold, or was told only partially. It feels as if we were told everything, exhaustively. And yet, obviously, we have not, but something about Abonji’s calm style in the novel makes us feel as if we are told a full complete story. I feel framing this as something bad, because I wanted the book to be more. At the same time, the kind of story it tells is fairly unique and Abonji has a clear sense of how languages and nationalism and identity interact. The book is very clever and a very pleasant read, despite some harrowing stories within its pages. I guess this is a kind of literary comfort food. A well executed story with a relevant subject, by a writer in control of her prose and her thinking. Honestly, it’s hard not to recommend this book.

In some ways, Fly Away, Pigeon provides a contrast to some of the German language books I reviewed here recently. It discusses the way an immigrant family attempts to become Swiss citizens, a theme that also comes up in Meral Kureyshi’s Elefanten im Garten. But in that book, the process is humiliating and alienating, whereas Abonji’s characters are accepted by their village. You may not know this, but in Switzerland, the individual communities get a vote as to whether foreigners living among them get Swiss citizenship. And these villages are quick to reject foreigners if they, for example, wear, O sin of sins, sweatpants around town. Or if they don’t like to go for hikes in the mountains. Or if they are vegan. As we know from Swiss writers like Max Frisch and Friedrich Dürrenmatt, and from the success of the SVP party, bigotry bubbles just under the surface in Switzerland. But Abonji’s novel is like a calming balm, in contrast to Kureyshi’s irritant. Abonji’s family is accepted, and the handful of bigots in the village are presented as exceptions. The reason Abonji’s family does so well can maybe be traced to another difference. In contrast to Barbi Marković’s Superheldinnen, the family at the heart of Abonji’s novel are stable and secure economically. They worked their way up to owning a café in their Swiss town, overcoming early skepticism and gaining economic and social success. It’s hard to believe that Abonji’s novel is particularly representative of the immigrant experience – but then again, as a novel it doesn’t have to. And this choice of economic comfort – it’s clearly a choice. Because in her debut novel Im Schaufenster im Frühling, Abonji discusses a much more difficult, marginalized existence. Migration only enters the novel in passing, but it is connected to that novel’s themes of exploitation, loneliness and violence. There are no rose tinted glasses in that book, which packs a punch, but is also freighted with the melodrama and eagerness of a debut novel. It follows, then, that the choice to depict a family rising to comfortable middle class status has a specific literary value rather than merely reflecting the author’s views on immigration.

As it turns out, Abonji uses the calm waters of the immigration narrative to hide some darker stories below the surface, lifting them out of the water one by one as the novel progresses. This allows her to focus on certain issues without having to to make them stand out against a loud background. In many ways, Abonji’s calm look on language and nationalism makes her work an apt comparison to the many German takes on immigration by writers with no immigration background. In those books, there’s often a disinterested, distanced, almost pathologizing view of that Other, the migrant and their culture. It’s not that it’s critical and negative – it’s often benevolent, in the most condescending fashion. That condescension explains why critics can feel insulted when a foreigner, who won one of their coveted awards, isn’t properly grateful to their Germanic munificence. Abonji’s novel shares some of the distanced intellectualism, but she never condescends to her characters. We are always aware that their issues are important, urgent and are in no need of anthropological curiosity. Abonji approaches the whole topic intellectually – in another essay, published by Volltext, she discusses her multilingualism, and starts toying with language, layering puns and allusions. She does the same in her novel: almost bemused, characters remark on the way words in one language echo words in other languages, she uses multilingualism for puns, for allusions and the like. But within the glitter of language games, there’s always the core of identity and belonging.

The family at the heart of Fly Away, Pigeon are Hungarians from the Vojvodina, which is an autonomous region in Serbia today, and was then part of Yugoslavia. The father of the family in the novek was horribly mistreated by Tito’s pseudo-communist dictatorship (the grandfather was tortured and interned in a work camp), and doesn’t leave out any opportunity to malign the man and his reign. He’s also our main window into how the novel views nationalism. He views himself as Hungarian, and often praises the food and cultural achievements by Hungarians, but whenever he visits the Balkan, he brags with the cleanliness and efficiency of Switzerland. He equates Yugoslavia with Serbians, who he hates with a fiery passion. His view of his nationality is one where he as an individual is front and center – his identity isn’t constructed by nationalist discourses: it’s the opposite, he constructs national narratives to fit his identity, to distinguish himself from others, to elevate himself and denigrate others. Even if I may make it sound bad, the book doesn’t judge him for it, but on the contrary uses him to make a larger point about how identities and national narratives interact. The question is always the amount of agency an individual has in the overall scheme. The father of the family in Abonji’s novel has the most agency, the most freedom to act as he sees fit. Meral Kureyshi’s characters, by contrast, have much less agency, have to undergo more pressure and parry more attacks. Even within Abonji’s novel there are differences. The protagonist, the daughter of the family, is much less able to move between national identities. In fact, at one point a love affair appears to trap her between loyalties and nationalisms. That the book ends with her moving out (no spoilers there) supports my feeling that some of the book’s themes are about individual identity and freedom. These tensions are brought to a boil during the Yugoslav Wars, which happen at the same time that the family receives plaudits for integrating so beautifully into the life of the Swiss town they live in.

Another theme of the novel is memory. Melinda Nadj Abonji herself moved to Switzerland at the age of 5. Her memories of Yugoslavia are by necessity flawed, but the novel provides a model for how first and second generation immigrant memory can work. A tapestry of languages (the novel is written in standard German, but it contains words and phrases in Hungarian, French, English and Swiss German) foregrounds the oral nature of the novel’s narrative. Most of the novel’s stories are not told in flashbacks, but are told to someone. There are three generations of storytellers in the book, and between them, they create this curious amalgam of memory, with the book itself, published years after the end of the Yugoslav Wars, an extra layer. The optimistic view of culture, of the possibilities of immigration and the endurance of memories are not undercut by doubts, cynicism or criticism. Explicitly, Abonji presents many of the stories of the past as constructed, sometimes offering conflicting versions of the same story, but the higher (or deeper, depending on your choice of metaphor) truth survives even this construction. In this time of anxieties, with its rising tides of bigotry, the calming voice of Fly Away, Pigeon is welcome. We will go on, we can go on, and we will talk to each other about where we have been so we can see where we need to go. Do I have some skepticism? Sure, but this is well executed literary comfort food, with a pulsing core. Before you pick up someone like Ingo Schulze, go and read Melinda Nadj Abonji.

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Meral Kureyshi: Elefanten im Garten

Kureyshi, Meral (2017), Elefanten im Garten, Ullstein
ISBN 978-3-548-28849-9

This is a good book. Meral Kureyshi is a Swiss-Albanian writer who is part of that country’s Turkish minority. At the age of nine, she moved to Switzerland, where she still lives and writes. Her novel Elefanten im Garten, which someone should be translating into English ASAP, talks about a girl with similar experiences. At the center of it are the feelings of displacement and alienation that accompany many refugee narratives. The novel’s protagonist is a refugee, who, when she loses her father, goes into a bit of a tailspin, reevaluating her life. The novel recounts that life in fits and starts, moving back and forth through time, offering us a disjointed chronology that reflects the disjointed biographies of many people who have left their home without being allowed to find a new home in the place they arrived. Kureyshi offers us a novel written in a poetic style, although you can tell the MFA trained writer in the self-conscious way she sometimes presses the poetic elements to the point of offering the occasional Coelhoite banality in the guise of a moving sentence. The flourishes that permeate the book are not its best element – she is best when she allows her observations to stand on their own, but she also has an interesting gift for structure and how to make stories like hers cohere. Her tendency to offer a pretty poetic bow to the sharp unsalted substance of her tale is regrettable, because it keeps us from finding her voice in the text as much as we should – it also invites comparison with other, somewhat better texts and writers, the most obvious of which -to me- was Aglaja Veteranyi. Veteranyi was exceptionally skilled at giving us a moving tale with political relevance, where poetical flourishes enhance rather than cloud the author’s work. You can get Veteranyi’s slim oeuvre in English, and one wonders whether the loud echoes of her work in Kureyshi’s book are an indication that her work is taught in MFA courses and schools as one way to deal with this specific kind of material. Don’t get me wrong – I may have complaints, but Elefanten im Garten is definitely a good book, and one that is both moving and – especially given today’s politics- politically relevant.

The book is structured in many small blocks of text, too small to be called chapters, although they are themselves structured in larger groups which resemble chapters but are never named as such explicitly. These groups advance a topic, or an element of the plot, and within the groups there are bits set in the past, bits set in the present, offering, in effect, a sort of complete set of the protagonist’s context for a specific observation or memory. There is this strong sense, within each of these groups that we are the sum of our memories and to understand an emotion in the present we need to understand the deep impression left on us by the weighty pressure of the past. This coherence then allows Kureyshi to be much less obviously structured in the way she arranges the groups. It is only after a while that we notice we were slowly fed more and more details, that Kureyshi slowly builds one element on the other. Much as they do in Veteranyi’s work, repetitions start to weigh on us as we make our way through Elefanten im Garten. We learn that the protagonist’s father died early in the book and that this precipitated much of the soul searching, the “Das dreißigste Jahr”-styled attempt to find herself which comprises the events in the novel’s present. Only as we pass through the novel do we slowly understand why that death was so shattering. And we really do – the impatience of the writer to make us understand, to show us, to point to the important thing can be irritating, particularly at the beginning, when all the pointing is unearned, and in retrospect, when we see how the book itself does such a good, gentle, and moving job at pointing us in the right direction. One sentence early says “I looked for you in your diaries, but I found myself.” This is not a good sentence, and thank God the book doesn’t crawl with them. But that is an example of the author not quite trusting herself. We understand as we go through her memories and vignettes that understanding the things her father -Baba- did is also a mirror to her own life.

One feels with some unease that the author was taught that this material would benefit from this kind of language, and this kind of obviousness – particularly since the work of Dorothee Elmiger, which I reviewed a few months ago, doesn’t contain any such superfluous pointing and waving. Elmiger is content to let the material accrue, to let the information and the stories and the allusions do her work for her. And Elmiger went to the same MFA program, the Literaturinstitut in Biel, but her material and approach is different. The heavy traces of Veteranyi in Kureyshi’s book leave me, as I said, uneasy. But maybe it’s not the MFA – maybe it’s just this incredibly talented debut novelist’s impatience to really make the book work, make the book speak to its audience. In a book I’ve been reading recently, Anne Katrin Lorenz discusses parrhesia and the way Foucault’s work shifts in relation to it. Ultimately, Lorenz says, Foucault lands on the importance of open speech as a form of self-care, making one’s life into art. Given the biographical overlap between Kureyshi and her protagonist, it’s hard not to see some of the way the novel is written as a kind of performance, a sometimes regrettably overdetermined, but always exciting dance on the page of speaking out, and needing this transformation of self into art to work. Some of the connections she makes are breathtaking, but subtle. Or breathtakingly subtle? For example, the use of colors. In the same group of blocks where she discusses the letters her family would receive from the state announcing the rejection of their stay in Switzerland, she also mentions winning a bike at a fair. The envelopes of the letters are yellow, the bike is orange and the only other colors mentioned in the group are two shades of red. This may seem minor but the theme and symbolism is part of what ties that group together and Kureyshi keeps doing things like this, seemingly effortlessly, and you follow her until she drops one of those clunky-poetic sentences on you.

The poeticisms are all the more confusing because Kureyshi sometimes offers simple, plain sentences, simple, plain descriptions of things that happen, and these are among the most shattering parts of the book. She asks questions of her readers: what does it mean to be at home, if your residence can be revoked at any time. Do you understand the fear of living in suitcases, being prepared to leave the place whose language you know best? There is a lot of awfully complacent writing about refugees these days in German-language literature, and some confusingly clueless writing about Germans going abroad that would have been questionable in a 19th century novel. From Jenny Erpenbeck’s overwrought tale of German compassion and confusion to the traveling tales of Bodo Kirchhoff (whose offensively reactionary book Widerfahrnis won last year’s German Book Award) and Jonas Lüscher, whose debut Frühling der Barbaren feels like one of Fouad Laroui’s French characters wrote a book, and whose new book (longlisted for this year’s German Book Award) is another tale of an upper middle class German who feels put upon by women and travels abroad to find a solution to his very important problems. Writers like Kureyshi destabilize that literary complacence. Two other books on the topic, one that hasn’t come out yet (but is already longlisted), Sasha Salzmann’s Ausser Sich, and one that’s been out for a bit, Olga Grjasnowa’s Gott ist nicht schüchtern, are on my short short list of must reads. And Kureyshi should be on yours. None of the book’s minor shortcomings overshadow the book’s major virtues, and they are equal parts political and literary. This is the kind of debut novel that you squint at, saying: if this is her first book, how goddamn good will the next one be? And maybe graduating from the MFA school will reduce the group of teachers that push her to adopt other voices, like Veteranyi’s in this book, and increase the courage to push harder for her own.

Because her voice needs to be heard. There are scenes here that I have never seen described or written before, filled with an awareness of how our world works – or indeed doesn’t work. In one fragment, Kureyshi’s protagonist waits at a busstop with a man wearing the uniform of the Swiss army members of the KFOR soldiers stationed in Prizren. The man comes from the same village where the protagonist grew up, and Prizren is where her family is from. She makes him aware of this coincidence, and he nods and turns away. This scene is described in incredibly precise language, it ends on a simple declaration, but also contains a small borderline surreal element. I have never read a scene quite like this before – and for something to be entirely new to me, that’s not very common. Literature that surprises me, that moves me, that angers me – that’s literature I want to read, particularly when it’s mostly well written. German is a sickness, the protagonist says at some point, she cannot get rid of it in her head. Well if this book is the result I’m not sure I want to help her find a cure. Read this. Translate this.

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