#tddl, Day Three: Mollusks and Nazis

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 three (of three) went. The writers who read today* were, in this order: Ines Birkhan, Leander Fischer, Lukas Meschik, Martin Beyer. You can read all the texts here, if you are so inclined. For my account of day one click here. For my account of day two click here. For a German summary of the whole thing, which I also wrote, for Faustkultur, click here.

If yesterday’s post was a bit on the long side, today*’s summary is likely to be more brief. That’s not just because the Saturday slate of writers, as every year, is one writer shorter than the other days, but also because in many ways, what’s notable about today’s writers is just a continuation of things I already noted. This is the first time that the selection and treatment of writers seems so cohesive – and not in a good way. Following along in real time is like looking at a thesis statement, of a thesis you do not particularly care about.

The big exception was Ines Birkhan, the first reader of the day. Now, to be entirely honest, I went into this, intrigued but not expecting a lot. I had read her debut novel before, which was entirely unique, but not necessarily in a good way. Chrysalis read like a quickly written piece of fan fiction, you know the kind – it’s always a bit too long because the writer does not have the mot juste, like, ever, but also lacks the literary training to have easy access to cliché. So yesterday we had two different kinds of exact descriptions in the Federer and Birnbacher text. Federer spread out the vast microscopic observable detail and had absolutely no wish or ability to cut to down to an exact, resonating image or phrase, and he used literary clichés judiciously. Birnbacher was extraordinarily good at the good, exact observation, and tough on cliché. Birkhan’s novel somehow turns up in a third space. There are no clichés in it, but every description, and half the accounts of what happens read like someone had to paraphrase a text in an extraordinary hurry. It seemed very bad, but at the same time very original. So, originality, but at what cost? The second book was better written, with a Jelinek-inspired use of sexuality and a very political surrealism, about contemporary events. The story she read on Saturday, an excerpt from a forthcoming third novel, was much better than each. Gone was the awkwardness of descriptions, everything was much better. She was on similar conceptual ground as the very first reader of the competition, Katharina Schultens. Both offered a spec fic that drew on human transformation, and both had a bit of a vague sense of place. But where Schultens missteps both linguistically and literarily in her treatment of plot and structure, Birkhan’s text is tight, moves the reader forward. She integrates the descriptions of animals and morphology much better, an absolutely solid text, one of the best of the competition. You’d think a jury that had been kind even to the crappiest of stories (Gerster, Heitzler) would reflect this, as well. Instead, what happened was that two thirds of the jury absolutely savaged the text, to the point where the person who had invited it, Nora Gomringer, was constantly forced into a corner. The leader of the pack, Insa Wilke rose to a spectacular furor that was so strong, she kept coming back to the text and her hatred of it even in later discussions. It’s an absolute mystery to me why the jury reacted like that, especially since they had been so kind in the previous days. It is my personal theory that the similarity (but obvious deficiencies, compared to Birkhan) of Schultens’s text which had been invited by Wilke, and some other kind of resentment had played a role in it. Who knows. What I can say is that the hostility was so overwhelming that the critics ended up forcing Birkhan to defend her text, something that had not happened in a long, long time. Birkhan’s reply was elegant and smart. She pointed to the literary influence of Konrad Bayer, and briefly sketched some details of how the text was made. What a spectacle, what an undignified treatment of a text and its author, and fellow members of the jury. And what a dignified author.

The rift in the jury was quickly mended with the second writer of the day. If my statement about Federer yesterday was that he appealed to the jury, especially biographically, the same applied tenfold to the second text. Leander Fischer’s story was Bachmannpreis-catnip. Clever, well written, playful. Entirely devoid of relevance, but at the same time extraordinarily well made in the exact way the jury likes. There is no way this text dents the top three of Wipauer, Othmann or Birnbacher, or at least it should not, but it reads and sounds like a text that should do well. I don’t have much more to say, as I was neither interested nor intrigued by the text, though I can at least appreciate and laud the skill involved.

That skill was, confusingly, absent with the third text. i say “confusingly” because Lukas Meschik, despite his young age, is already a seasoned novelist, who writes novels at a rapid clip, some of them quite ambitious and voluminous. So when he turned up with an autofiction about his father’s burial that was among the dullest texts ever presented in Klagenfurt, it did make my head turn. This text is a kind and generous text about a father that appears neither ambitious not ambiguous. It is entirely unclear why a prolific and seasoned writer would turn up with a text like this. Some in the jury were similarly puzzled, at least one of the judges suggested the same inversion they had all suggested applied to Daniel Heitzler. To be honest, i was surprised this opinion wasn’t more widely adopted since Meschik was more deserving of reasonable doubt than Heitzler – there is something to be said about routine and work ethic in writing. It produces, as we could see from Federer’s text, a certain consistency. This apparent break here, in favor of uncomplicated sentimentality is at least unexpected.

The final text of the day, however, was a real humdinger. If you thought that Silvia Tschui’s text from day one upset me, you ain’t seen nothing yet. For context, for day one’s anger and this, maybe you need to understand that what’s happening in many countries, the rise of the radical right to insitutional power or at least coming real darn close to it, is happening in Germany too. What we also have is a kind of revisionist overton window that keeps moving to the right. The wave of texts about Germany-as-victim, jumpstarted by Günter Grass’s very bad but very explicably very popular late-career novel about the sinking of the Gustloff, Crabwalk (for my take on Grass and his career go here), were the beginning, but once we look at Germans as victims of Soviet aggression and Allied bombing (ignoring why it happened, who and what the populace had supported for how long), then it’s not that much of a leap to also look at the German officers and soldiers and the straight Nazis and ask how bad they were, really. A TV movie event called Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter took this and ran with it, with the barely concealed subtext being “sure they all say we were bad, but look we were like you, but look at the Polish people, much worse!” It is quite something that there was so much room to move to the right, given the insane amount of former Nazis whitewashed after the war and leading the country. Baden Württemberg, one of Germany’s most properous and largest states had a former Nazi judge as governor, and Chancellor Kiesinger was an NSDAP member, not to mention all the writers and professors and judges and the vast majority of the new country’s Foreign Office, and much of the new party FDP and on and on and on. But there was always bit of shame, a bit of underhandedness. They weren’t really members, not really Nazis, etc. etc. This is slowly starting to fall away which should terrify everyone living in this country. It is in this atmosphere, then, that Martin Beyer presented his text, a short story about the execution of the Scholl siblings. The Scholl siblings were genuinely part of the resistance against Nazi Germany. Principled, generous, forthright young people though what they did would barely make a dent in the resistance stories of other countries. They, like the Edelweißpiraten, wrote leaflets to the population. There was no real, active, armed, broad resistance in Germany, compared to France, or Poland or most other countries (for reasons I do not need to spell out), so the actions of Hans and Sophie Scholl truly stood out. They are unquestioned heroes in German history and culture. A story dealing with their execution thus has to deal with an exceptional amount of weight, and requires an exceptional amount of moral clarity and literary skill and investment. NONE of which is found in Beyer’s story, which focuses, of all things, on the executioner. Now, the actual executioner is a fascinating figure. The Nazis had their special #1 executioner shipped in, Johann Reichhart. He is an infamous murderer, but also, after the war, he was employed by both the Allies and the Bavarian state. His son, burdened by the pressure of being Johann freakin Reichhart’s son, committed suicide, I mean there is clearly a story there, also setting him in opposition to these famously principled young people. None of which is exploited by Beyer in any way. He makes an unknown, one time assistant to Reichhart his focal point. Why does he do this unpleasant job? Oh, to make money. Oh, because he is a victim of the war. Oh, because he has lost a brother in the war. Oh, of course his family HATES Hitler. This claim to OF COURSE have hated Hitler is such a well trod path in the history of Germans lying to themselves. It is particularly interesting that it came up this time of year since a group of scholars have just found out that the supposedly authentic diary A Woman in Berlin, about a woman in Spring/Summer 1945, which focuses on rapes by Soviet soldiers. As it turns out numerous passages had been added by the author to the text, specifically focusing on her supposed resistance to or dislike for the Nazis. I mean it’s such a remarkable lie to include in a story – and not undercut it in any way. The text is written in the most unambitious 19th century style, with no contrasts, no critique. There are small inserts to make us realize the poor man’s war trauma (what a poor widdle Nazi!), which contain some odd misogyny. It’s not that Beyer calls his protagonist a hero, in fact, he suggests his protagonist may be a bit of a psychopath, but that, too works as a kind of defense. The Scholl siblings barely make a dent in this story, which has the primary function, intentional or not, to make the protagonist relateable. A bad text, in most ways, and for once, the jury largely let the writer have it. Although, to be fair, with nowhere near the hostility they treated Birkhan with earlier this morning, still a mystery to me.

So at the end of a mostly bad day, nothing changed in who I think should win the awards, i.e. Wipauer, Othmann, Birnbacker and Jost. But I would advocate for the fifth award, the public vote, to go to Birkhan.

 

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”

 

Autobiography and Community

In what I am currently writing I have become quite interested in the way autobiographies and autobiographical work constructs an imagined community, obviously Benedict Anderson doesn’t quite apply here, but he also doesn’t NOT apply, you know? Instead of looking at the way autobiography explores the self, and applying various ideas of selfhood and truth etc. to it, I have become more interested in how reception theories shape what we understand of autobiography – if we shouldn’t read them in relationship to the self and ideas of the self, Freudian self-analysis and whatnot, and instead read them as texts written to be read by an audience. Written to interact with a specific literary field. Autobiography is a public act, and I think some interactions between writer and audience can be described by using Marcel Mauss and the gift. And now I have been thinking – and I’m sure this is not true for every autobiography. Say, Robert Lowell, a tall, white, straight man. But, say, you look at Mary McCarthy (because that’s my topic) and the situation turns. Or the tradition of Jewish autobiography. This is two steps. One, looking at the outside effect of autobiography and entirely excluding the self-exploratory aspect of it. Two, see in what way this works to construct a sense of (a) community, or a pole within a literary field. So that’s where I am. Any comments?

A note on Death

I have been working on fiction/memoir relating to my family – there are a lot of stories to be told, a lot of paths to followed. Most of my immediate family, two generations, one generation back, are some form of immigrant. But my grandfather is currently dying as I type this and everything is stopping in its tracks. I cannot properly explain what a loss this loss of my grandfather would be – would, mind you. He’s had an incredible life so far, and I’m visiting him across the country tomorrow, today, that is, later today, I suppose.

Death is strange. As a weird man who has been obsessed with death, largely my own death, but also that of others since childhood, a man who visits cemeteries, and is largely alone in this – it is not accompanied by a real fascination, or a gothic habit. It’s just – death.

But this is different. Today – yesterday, I suppose, I mean, dates get blurry when you write at night – my father, who lives far away from me, apparently locked himself in a room to cry after he had a phone conversation with my grandfather. I myself was stuck in a different room for an hour, similarly struggling. The image of my father in his bedroom, not able or willing to communicate with his family, bereft, even though nobody has died yet, feels like the fingers of death on our lives, a moment that we will all remember, even those, like me, who have not been there. Something has broken in him, in us, and there’s a feeling that it has also infected our memories.

How far back does death reach? Already, I find it difficult to call upon memories of my grandfather that are not touched by death, memories of my own life. At every important turn in my life, he was there, usually quiet, grumbling. A broad man of small stature who worked hard for everything in his life, who worked hard to survive. And my father, a much taller man, in his room, this moment which I have not witnessed myself, it pulsates in my imagination. I have not been able to shake it.

The first and last time I remember seeing my father cry was when his grandfather died. We all stood at his grave, my father cried, I couldn’t cry. I pinched myself – there must be a way to cry, but nothing happened. My father cried, standing in the cold on the slighly hilly cemetery in the little East German village. I stood there, pretending to cry, ashamed of failing some protocol. This time is different. i have been intermittently crying for two weeks. Maybe I am becoming a warped version of my father. Maybe that is what death does.

Herta Müller: Father’s on the Phone with the Flies

Müller, Herta (2018), Father’s on the Phone with the Flies, Seagull
Translated by Thomas Cooper
ISBN 9780857424723

I reviewed the first major translation of Herta Müller’s poetry for Full-Stop:

Internationally, Herta Müller is best known as a novelist, but since winning the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature, Müller has not published a single novel or collection of short stories. Her publications since 2009 consist of essays, interviews and — poetry. Indeed, this is the first time since her earliest days as a writer that Müller does not use narrative prose as her main mode of writing. In the 1980s, Müller abandoned her youthful poetry in favor of writing short narrative prose — and eventually, novels. It is as a novelist that she became famous and critically acclaimed. Yet her beginnings as a poet — much like Thomas Bernhard’s — have shaped not just her early prose, but much of her subsequent writing. Regrettably, as with Bernhard’s poetry, her first translated poetry for an American audience is marred by a translation that does not rise to the challenge and promise of the text. A warm and vibrant poetry is turned into small, dour, humorless lumps, like a game of Chinese whispers among IRS employees.

You can read the rest here.

 

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When you start reading a book

in translation and as you pass through the first pages you realize with a sunken heart that you walk among the ghosts of the source language and the shuddering testimonials to the translator’s unwillingness or inability to invent an original English equivalent. Bummer.

(This post may or may not be related to my reading of Herbert Lomas’s translation of Johanna Sinisalo’s Troll: A Love Story.)

Jenny Offill: Dept. of Speculation

Offill, Jenny, Dept. of Speculation, Vintage
ISBN 978-0-345-80687-1

If you think back on the final two pages of Michael Chabon’s sophomore novel Wonder Boys, you’ll remember it ends with the writer-protagonist jettisoning his monstrous manuscript, “the whole exploded clockwork” – he calibrates his “writerly perception of depth” and sets out to write a book that “sounds true,” written in the rhythms of daily domestic life and not the writerly obsessiveness of his previous alcohol fueled existence. This – the recalibration, the rejection of an unwieldy manuscript failure, it has a mirror in Chabon’s own life, who, after his jaunty little debut novel, spent some years on a large manuscript that he eventually abandoned. This is all to say that Jenny Offill’s own sophomore novel Dept. of Speculation has a similar sense. Offill’s narrator-protagonist, the nameless “wife,” works at a college, and is struggling to complete a second novel, constantly fielding requests by friends, colleagues and acquaintances to produce this difficult second book. At the same time, Dept. of Speculation is, in some sense, that second novel, published 14 years after Offill’s debut. And much as Chabon wove a fictional narrative around the personal struggle to produce a good second novel, Offill’s book tells a story of a disintegrating relationship.

It starts uneventfully, describing academic life, a lovely marriage and an “evil” but adorable child. Things go a bit off the rails when the husband turns out to be an adulterer, but Offill fills even the lovely charming early portions with shadow and doubt. Being a writer and being a teacher and being a wife and mother are three different kinds of being, and she never feels quite adequate to all of them. Offill’s style is flat, in the way many contemporary ‘experimental’ dullards are, but she rises above them by making the flatness a part of the narrative. The structure, full of short sentences and short paragraphs, seems fragmented, but it isn’t really. It’s sequential and coherent, but the paratactic perniciousness of the book creates a distance, makes us follow the narrator into her own stressed, unhappy, distracted mind. As, towards the end of the novel, things go bad, the narrator switches to talking about herself in the third person, further increasing an effect that has been part of the novel all along. This is a surprisingly rich novel, for all its straightforward elements, and the various detailed kinds of flatness in it. The first time I read it I read it in one sitting and it’s hard to imagine the book working when broken into multiple sittings. The book’s intense coherence would fall apart and all you’d be left with would be some angsty statements in short sentences and short paragraphs.

Dept. of Speculation is interesting in how it uses form without abandoning emotional significance. There’s the instrumentalized flatness of course, which the book uses well, in contrast to some other widely praised, intensely dull recent prose works. She also uses our narrative expectations in undermining our readings. As I said, the switch from first person to third person, with no accompanying stylistic change, seems to be done in line with the other attempts to create some distance in the book. At the same time, Offill fills her novel with doubt. There is the narrator’s side gig of being a ghost writer for a failed astronaut businessman (failed as astronaut, not as businessman). It’s a curious insertion into a book that doesn’t stray that far afield with other details. Offill’s narrator is economical with details. We don’t even get names for anybody involved, there’s not a lot of extraneous description, the book obsessively circles the same topics: writerly impotence, anxiety, love and some details of domestic life. Offill is exceptionally disciplined, so the ghost writing seems strange. One obvious effect is to show the difference between writing about one’s own life or follow one’s own inspiration on the one hand, and just lending your words to someone else’s life, someone else’s partially imagined experience. Another effect comes later. There’s a scene where her husband writes a short story and files it among her class work. The details remind her of her own life, but she assumes a female student who recently attempted suicide, is behind those words. This is a kind of ghostwriting too, but while in ghostwritten books, the real author spends their existence behind the curtain, in this case, the narrator becomes the audience.

Clearly the novel is preoccupied, outside of the details of the story of domestic bliss and upheaval, with the authenticity and directness of writing, and while we may assume that the narrator at some point starts talking about herself in the third person, which reflects her increasingly troubled state of mind, an equally plausible possibility asks us to question our assumptions regarding narrator/protagonist/writer. I will admit, this is the second time I started this book. First attempt, last year, I abandoned the book because I was bored. But I think I was wrong. This book is actually quite interesting, and it uses its limited palette, and its humdrum plot in order to do something with plot and narrative. In many ways it reads, once you resolve to read it this way, like a very classic postmodern work from the 70s, but without the now-boring irony and laid-back chuckle at life and people.

The story it tells, despite what I think is some intense postmodern tomfoolery, is still moving, still emotionally resonant. And that is no small feat. Overall, I think, Offill walks a very thin line here. It’s playful and interesting, but also written with substance and purpose (unlike, for example, the Luiselli novel which I didn’t find sustaining beyond its levels of playfulness). It’s emotional and direct without being drab and dull. What I most appreciate is how Offill pulls off this flat style without joining the ranks of all the bores like Blake Butler, who I think is a better editor than novelist. I’d like to repeat this: I think this book is fundamentally interesting, and I will likely return to it at some point to look at it from yet another angle. There’s other books I read this week and might review, like Brit Bennett’s debut novel, that I found so uninteresting, I considered getting rid of my copy. Bennett’s book is maudlin, clichéd, socially and formally conservative. It’s also much less of a tightrope walk. Whatever Bennett does, it does so forcefully, with all possible risks smashed out of the book by an MFA reading group. Offill takes a risk, I think. And for a slim book like that, it offers a bunch of angles to its readers, all of which involve rereading the whole book and its details. The student who attempted suicide, for example, is given quite a bit of space, and her inclusion raises questions of genre and representation, that I cannot go into here.

One interesting aspect of the book that I want to mention in closing is that in some ways the novel functions like a funhouse mirror of John Williams’s 1965 novel Stoner, which took both book nerds and the wider reading public by storm when it was republished in 2008. I have some…issues? I guess, with that novel, but that’s maybe for a different post or a different venue. It’s curious though, that it’s always these kinds of books that do well upon being rediscovered. Stoner, and the work of, what’s that Hungarian called? Sándor Márai, that’s it, and who could forget Hans Fallada’s unfortunate resurrection, after he was correctly buried by German critics in the 1950s. But, again, that’s not the point here. What I did want to say is that Dept. of Speculation feels in so many ways like a companion piece to Stoner that I wouldn’t be surprised if it was partially intentional. I mean, obviously the campus novel has a long tradition, and one wishes that some novels in the genre would be reread more often, like Jarrell’s funny novel, but in many ways Offill’s book feels like a direct reply to Stoner. And I don’t merely mean in the way the two novels employ gender. Offill’s attitude towards realism and representation, which I think I sketched earlier, also feels like part of a communication with John Williams. Or maybe not. It’s a good book, is all.

 

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