Daniel Goetsch: Ein Niemand

Goetsch, Daniel (2016), Ein Niemand, Klett-Cotta
ISBN 978-3-6ß8-98021-9

So you may remember my posts about the BachmannPreis earlier this month – I always try to read books by authors involved in it but I don’t always manage. This year I came away with four novels by four of the writers, and the very first one I read was a big dud. Daniel Goetsch’s reading on Day One of the Bachmannpreis was dull, sort of competent, but incredibly boring. It was inconceivable that he had read an excerpt from a novel, i.e. that there was a whole book of that material out there. A case for the Geneva conventions? I had had a look at his 2016 novel Ein Niemand by the time he read his story and it started very promisingly – derivative, but interesting, and I was looking forward to challenging my negative opinion of his writing. Maybe, in book-length form, he was a much better writer? I’m not good with very short fiction anyway. So ahead I went and took a plunge into Ein Niemand (~ A Nobody) and, man, I wish I hadn’t. If you write a story about mistaken identities, conspiracies, economic fanaticism, suicide, love, desire and more, there should be no way to make the book a punishingly boring reading experience, and yet, Goetsch succeeded. Maybe that is his superpower. What’s more, the book is competently written throughout, though more in a journalistic rather than literary way. How can this go so bad? There’s a bit of research that went into the book and it’s presented to us like a high school recapitulation of knowledge gleaned from Wikipedia – nothing is at stake here, except a case of very fragile masculinity. If you ever wanted to read a book where a man regrets not having the wherewithal to sexually assault a woman who denied him sex, and where this “failure” is shown to be indicative of other kinds of weaknesses of character, look no further. If you want a book that is largely set in Prague and has a sense of place that smells of a well annotated Lonely Planet guide rather than of observation and description, halt, you have your book! If you crave a book that borrows from various European traditions heavily, but comes off as an improvised pastiche by a high school student (who doesn’t get laid) – I have just the book for you! Should you read this? GOOD LORD no. At the same time, I can’t say whether it wouldn’t work in a translation, if by translation we include the Deborah Smith school of light to heavy editing of the original text. Because the structure isn’t all bad – after all, many other books have made this work. As it is the best thing about the book is the lovely cover. Maybe Klett-Cotta should invest in editors.

The structure is that of an interrogation: the German police, on the eve of Romania’s joining the EU, have caught a Romanian who they believe is in the country illegally. The man, who they believe is someone named Ion Rebreanu, proclaims to be, in reality, a German citizen named Tom Kulisch. Most of the novel is written in Tom/Ion’s voice and is written in a very “written” way, but the information contained therein is also information the policeman receives in the sections that are set in the novel’s present, and are narrated from the policeman’s point of view. The reason, I suppose, why the story of Tom/Ion is not told more orally is due to the overarching theme of the novel: the play of identity and narrative. We, like the policeman never know what’s happening, and some of the novel’s fictional games are on the surface, some more submerged. Some of the novel is set in an area of Bucharest called Gliulamila, which, as far as I can tell, is completely made up. It’s not entirely clear whether that’s intentional, as a fictional game, or not. With overall awful books, one is always tempted to assume incompetence, not intention, but I’m not sure here. After all, the novel is completely based on providing layers of unreliable information told by various characters to various other characters. The book offers us Tom/Ion’s story as one of confusion, of being misidentified by many people, of lying about his past, about his present, the fear of being found out connects with the fear of not being found out etc. There are other characters who did a name-change like Tom/Ion, and again other characters who are living a lie. The constant elements are sex, violence, hunger, as well as a curious copy of Rilke’s Duino Elegies that the protagonist carries around with himself. We are frequently cautioned to assume none of the story told is real, with a strong vibe of The Usual Suspects about some of the writing, but for a possibly invented narrative, intended to stall the police for a few hours, Daniel Goetsch spends an awful lot of time engaging in describing male malaise. The novel moves either too fast (the final chapter of Ion/Tom’s story reads like a deadline needed to be kept for the manuscript) or too slow, as in the truly excessive and languid examination of the relationship of Tom/Ion to a mysterious woman named Mascha.

The deficiencies of the novel are obvious just from reading it, enough to make me worry about the sanity of Klett-Cotta’s editors. They become particularly glaring if looked at in context of their literary forebears. JMC Le Clézio’s only true masterpiece, Le Procès-verbal, as well as some of Modiano’s work (particularly Boulevard de Ceinture, maybe?) appear to have provided some inspiration – the major connection however is the Swiss tradition of examining identities. Goetsch, himself a Swiss writer, was clearly influenced by some of the giants of Swiss literature, particularly Max Frisch and Adolf Muschg. Muschg’s Albisser’s Grund (inexplicably untranslated into English) is an absolutely brilliant novel about a foreign-born psychiatrist named Zerrutt who is one day shot by his patient, Albisser. The police starts questioning the victim, because as it turns out not everything is as it seems. Albisser’s Grund is roughly twice the length of Goetsch’s book but so much more captivating. For Muschg, writing, narrative, personal identity are all at stake in the book, and he manages to create a book that is both highly constructed and symbolic and emotionally relevant at the same time. He also makes use of the element of foreignness and how that changes how we construct our narratives and read others’. There is very little evidence in Goetsch’s book of an awareness of the same thing, or in any case, it is badly executed. The major example of the kind of writing we find in Ein Niemand, however, is Max Frisch. I don’t, personally, love Max Frisch, apart from Montauk, which I think is a flawless piece of prose. But, in particular in Stiller and Mein Name ist Gantenbein, Frisch provides a skillfully executed example of how identities and narratives are connected, and how telling stories of ourselves can often also just be us telling stories, both to ourselves and to others. Political, personal and social expectations are all part of this narrative game. Less relevant to the novel under review, there are many other Swiss writers engaged in this kind of writing, with Dürrenmatt, playwright, novelist and theorist, as a particularly notable example, though in Dürrenmatt it has an absurdist angle that we don’t find here. It makes you wonder what’s in that water there, doesn’t it. Then again, whatever’s in the water clearly doesn’t confer talent – because for all the similarities to other books, be they French, Swiss or German, Goetsch clearly doesn’t hold up his end of the tradition.

The only tradition where he does hold his own is that of tedious masculinity. I cannot tell you how tiresome it is to read book after book of men worried about their dicks. Invented or not, Ion/Tom’s story is to a large part one about impotence, in a framing that reminded me a lot of Grass, particularly late Grass. In Grass’s work, which I admire almost unreservedly (while pretending he only wrote one and a half books since 1999), there’s a strange obsession with masculinity and male genitals, both literally and symbolically. I mean, really. Dicks and memory are the two overarching themes of his work. Grass connects masculinity all the time with the act of writing and with literary tradition (Bloom, anyone?), and sexual potency always doubles as creative potency, too. And that’s fine if you are a preternaturally talented artist (see my obit here for some more fawning). It’s more of an irritation with Daniel Goetsch. The story Ion/Tom tells has multiple beginnings. It begins with a suicide, or it begins with witnessing a deadly accident, or – and I think this is the real beginning: it begins with Tom’s failure to translate a manual from English to German. There’s a sentence in it, “The image that has been adjusted will not be reflected even if it is captured,” which eludes him. His inability to render it in German leads to a kind of mental breakdown and then sets in motion all the rest of the story. Now, this has multiple uses in the book. The sentence itself reflects the way the story is built; but also, on a less metafictional level, this failure to translate the sentence is repeated in his failure to “man up” in his subsequent dealings with women. After his breakdown, Tom witnesses an accident, pickpockets the victim, and takes on his identity, to go to Prague where he lives as Ion Rebreanu for a while before moving to Bucharest and eventually back to Berlin. Rebreanu is a “real man,” who has a woman for his passions and a woman to talk to, although he apparently has sex with both. In one of the strangest scenes of the book, Tom’s inability to fuck one of the two women, is then followed by recriminations – had he been a real man he would have just forced her, he would have taken her. The book doesn’t use the term friendzone (thank God), but Ion/Tom is constantly stymied by being considered a friend by a woman he’d really, really like to fuck, which, I mean, thank you but no thank you?

The rest of the story is full of strange clichés about Czechs, Russians, Roma and Romanians, to the extent that the few genuinely good observations are startling, unexpected. There is a two page rant about Romanian politics, by an interesting (but unexplored) character which is startlingly interesting to read, although it is couched in Wikipedia’d information about Ceausescu and his reign. I mean, the book’s decisions of what to dwell on for pages and pages and pages, and what to sketch in half a sentence are confusing. I mean, yes the book is bad, and yes, the only other text I know by the author is worse, but there are many solid ideas here, and it’s inexplicable that Goetsch didn’t have an editor who told him to cut the genital self-examination and expand on some, hell, any of the other elements. I mean Goetsch is a competent writer. How did this happen? And why did I have to read this? And what do I do with my copy of the book? Questions raised by a questionable book. Here’s to hoping the other three Bachmann-inspired purchases are better!

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#tddl: Day One, the Wraypocalypse.

If you follow this blog you are likely not fluent enough in German to have followed the Bachmannpreis livestream (see my post about the event) so here is a brief summary of how day one (of three) went. The writers who read today were, in this order: Karin Peschka, Björn Treber, John Wray, Noemi Schneider and Daniel Goetsch. You can read all the texts here, if you are so inclined.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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