Translatables! (Part 1)


As I follow blogs and news, I see more and more mediocre writers in German being translated into English, whether it’s Pascal Mercier, Ingo Schulze or Thomas Glavinic; if we additionally consider how few German novels are translated at all, the fact that so many bad writers make the cut while so many good writers don’t almost amounts to a tragedy.

For what it’s worth, I decided to put up a list of writers or books who deserve to be translated into English, who deserve a wide audience, accolades and admiration, although they don’t, at the moment, get either beyond the borders of Germany, Austria or Switzerland. This list is made up of two times four writers/books. Four living, contemporary writers, and four ‘dead’, classical writers. Especially in the latter period there are countless more writers who deserve infinitely more recognition abroad than they have been getting (Christoph Martin Wieland and Jean Paul come to mind), but with these four writers and books it’s particularly appalling. I will try to keep my appeals short, in many cases they’re backed up by reviews I’ve already written for this same blog. This is Part 1 (here is part 2).

Part 1:  Contemporary Books!

Hartmut Lange, Das Konzert (1986)

Novellas have a long tradition in German literature, and nowhere in the world is this genre as highly regarded as here. From classical masters of the form like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theodor Storm, Stefan Zweig, to Nobel Prize winners Paul Heyse and Günter Grass, the novella has always been given full attention, and the writing of novellas has always been a task especially scrutinized and analyzed. The best living writer in the form is Hartmut Lange, and not only does he not have the international attention that he deserves, he’s also vastly underrated in Germany, where he has become a kind of “writer’s writer”. His writing is classically elegant, complex, yet always light and readable and his books are suffused with his concern with places, history and culture, as well as age-old problems of the human heart. He is easy to read, but hard to stomach sometimes. The same applies to what I think is his best work, the novella Das Konzert, a tale of ghosts living in modern Berlin. There are ghosts killed by the Nazis, and Nazi ghosts, who have been waiting to be forgiven, in a bunker under the earth. Lange projects a ghost Berlin over the real, modern Berlin, and demonstrates concerns with responsibility and guilt; it suggests how historical continuities, and individual, cultural ones mold a national and local consciousness. There’s not a spare line in it, but Lange writes as if he had all the time in the world. He is one of our living masters. Read him. Translate him.

Additional links

Read my review of Das Konzert? Link
Read my review of his most recent book,
Der Abgrund des Endlichen? Link
Buy his book on amazon? Link
Buy his book in French translation on amazon? Link
Read Lange’s Wiki page? Link

Patrick Roth, Christus-Trilogie (1991-1996)

This one requires a bit of cheating. It’s not one book. It’s three books, parts of a trilogy, they can be read individually, of course, but read together they form one of the most impressive works of art written in the German language in the 1990s. Patrick Roth blindsided me, I never noticed him, but suddenly, he was everywhere, holding the prestigious Poetics lectures in Frankfurt, publishing high-profile books about all kinds of topics: novellas dealing with Hollywood, books about movies, about identity, and, of course, the Christus Trilogie. The first of these, Riverside, subtitled “Christusnovelle”, was published in 1991, the second, Johnny Shines oder Die Wiedererweckung der Toten, in 1993 and the third, Corpus Christi, in 1996. Each of them is only about 160 pages in length, but the reader emerges from them mesmerized, reluctant, as if he was dipped into a different world. Roth manages to call up two very different registers: he writes in a very archaic kind of German, meant to imitate Lutheran tone and voice, and at the same time, in a very clear and modern kind of German. Miraculously, this really works, and envelops the reader in a linguistic tapestry that seems biblical, and yet filled with an easy, glittering suspense. The first and last of the books are concerned with Jesus himself; Riverside is about two men coming up to an eremite who reputedly has met Jesus himself, avid to find out more about that man, trying to sift truth from tradition. They are soon caught up in a net woven of language and mysteries. The same thing happens to the protagonist of the third book. Its protagonist, Judas Thomas is intent to investigate the so-called resurrection of Jesus. He finds an eye-witness and interrogates her, which develops into a discussion about truth and faith, which never becomes academical, and is completely mesmerizing. The middle one is set in Death Valley, California, and is about an oddball who regularly opens coffins, demanding the dead person inside to stand up and walk (not successfully), who becomes enmeshed in a murder and is interrogated by a police woman. Three books, three investigations. Every line shows that Roth is both a gifted writer of prose as well as of drama, maybe one of Germany’s best in the business. The rest of his fictional work is surprisingly weak, compared to the ravishing thunderstorm of Christus Trilogie. But it’s hard to compare to that singular literary achievement. It’s a shame that it hasn’t found an American translator so far. Everyone should read it, in German or in translation. It’s, and I don’t say that lightly, a masterpiece.

Additional links

Buy his books on amazon? Link1, Link2, Link3
Read Roth’s Wiki page? Link

Thomas Stangl, Was Kommt (2009)

Thomas Stangl is an Austrian writer, one of a whole range of promising young novelists, another of which would be Clemens J. Setz, who was recently nominated for the German Book Prize for his ok second novel Die Frequenzen, a sign of his diminishing skill that would only get worse in following years. The same year also saw Thomas Stangl nominated for his stupendous novel Was Kommt. With Stangl, the situation is different. Was Kommt is his third novel, and it’s proof that Stangl is one of the leading living prose writers in the German language, getting better with each book. Like many great writers, his work recounts his obsessions. With time, memory, and history, amongst other things. His prose went to the Austrian school of Bernhard, Innerhofer and Handke, but unlike the recently translated Andreas Maier, he is in full control of his style. He is able to make it work for him, perform the tricks he needs it to perform in order to convey his thinking. Stangl’s work, like Lange’s, examines historical continuities, by juxtaposing different time levels, and creating a gorgeous linguistic maelstrom that draws the reader into the histories and memories of Stangl’s characters. Stangl is a committed writer, committed to his ideas and to his places, there are few writers who can evoke places so uncannily and directly as he can, places as well as times. In Was Kommt, Stangl shines a harsh light on the 1970s, by superimposing one character’s life in the 1930s on another’s life in the 1970s, clearly highlighting connections and continuities, evoking a place and a period so precisely that he takes your breath away. He, like Lange, Roth, uses a rather simple vocabulary, but as far as syntax is concerned, his writing is very complex, and not an easy read necessarily. But an astonishing, mind-blowing one, that I’m sorry to see so many of my anglophone friends missing out on. If you can, read a book by Stangl. Or translate him. You won’t be sorry. If Stangl continues at this rate, he will become one of the language’s most important writers. Already he’s one of its best.

Additional links

Read my review of Was Kommt? Link
Buy Thomas Stangl’s book on amazon? Link
Buy Clemens J. Setz’ book on amazon? Link
Read Stangl’s Wiki page? Link
Read the official page of the German Book Prize? Link

Reinhard Jirgl, Abschied von den Feinden (1995)

This is a writer that you don’t have to introduce to book-loving Anglophone readers any more. Although he hasn’t been translated yet, his name keeps coming up in discussions of contemporary literature and debates over international awards like the Nobel Prize in Literature which he would richly deserve. Jirgl’s writing is indebted to such titans of modern German literature as Alfred Döblin, Arno Schmidt and Uwe Johnson, but the power of his narratives, the violence of his set-ups and the raw emotion and the brilliance of his thinking are all his own. Like many of the best contemporary German writers, he meets history head-on, interrogating its narratives, and the language in which these narratives were constructed. Abschied von den Feinden is not Jirgl’s best book, but it is the first book where he fully came into his voice, into that style that he made his own ever since. It introduces many of his topics, and unlike his other books, it even contains an explanatory section for all the symbols and typographical deviations he uses. It’s comparatively short and explosive, a story of two Germanys, two brothers, and a woman’s fate in the debris of a ‘better society’. It’s not his best novel, but one of his best. If you can, read Jirgl. He is the best living German writer. And for God’s sake, translate his books. (my review of Abschied von den Feinden)

Additional links

Read my review of Abschied von den Feinden? Link
Buy his book on amazon? Link
Buy his book
Die Unvollendeten in French translation on amazon? Link
Read Francois Monti’s review of that book/translation? Link
Read Jirgl’s Wiki page? Link

Read Part 2 here.

On three novellas by Hartmut Lange

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hartmut Lange: Das Konzert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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