For many, including many Germans, it was a complete surprise when Herta Müller was announced as another writer in the German language to win the highest international literary award, the Nobel Prize for Literature, which has increasingly focused on European writers. Did she deserve the honor? Of course she did. Herta Müller is among the best and most important writers in German today, with a work that never shies away from trying new things, a writer who is smart yet not unreadably difficult. On the contrary: her writing, while complex, is frequently buoyed by a pleasurable language, which is warm and is driven by a kind of verbal plasticity that I have not encountered since Günter Grass. One of the defining characteristics of Grass’ style is the surreal quality of his words, his use of nouns is especially interesting and significant in this regard. But where Grass frequently drops off into a surreal plot, opting for a rich stew of a book instead of sharp criticism (which is why his shorter books frequently fall so short of the mark), Herta Müller is always on point, always engaged and worth engaging with.
Herta Müller was born in Romania in August 1953, she fled the country in 1987, with her then-husband, a novelist, as well. Her work is largely concerned with Ceausescu’s dictatorship and the trauma that it left on its citizens. She is a German-Romanian, not because she’s a German citizen now, but because she was a member of Romania’s German community in the region called the Banat. The group she belongs to are the so-called Banater Schwaben (~ the Swabians from the Banat, a region that is part of three different countries, Romania, Serbia and Hungary) and today she’s that community’s most prominent member. She has always, however kept its distance to the Banater Schwaben, mostly because she was always resistant to Nationalism and the community, like many ‘exiled communities’ have engaged in a strongly nationalistic discourse that tended to border on racism (a statement by the community talks about a “deutsches Bauernvolk von hoher Kultur (…) inmitten einer fremdvölkischen Umwelt”). The complexities of being ethnically a Banater Schwabe in Romania are frequently explored in her fiction, as the group has always, on the one hand, enjoyed privileges, especially economic ones, and it also was part of the fringe, the dispossessed, in the context of rising Serbo-Yugoslavian and Romanian nationalism.
This story of ethnicity is frequently combined with a history of being oppressed by and resisting a totalitarian system, a history of violence. As is the case with many of the best German language prose writers of the latter half of the 20th century, among them genii like Elfriede Jelinek, Thomas Bernhard and Siegfried Lenz, violence, as a force, is threaded throughout her work. Violence is always present and Müller is highly adept at constructing situations that are structured by violence or by relationships of power. Recently I have read a few misguided comments comparing her to Jelinek, but Jelinek detects and exposes violence in language and culture, her subject is language, whereas Herta Müller writes about people and cultures. Her awareness of language serves a completely and utterly different purpose: it’s secondary to people but it helps to identify and define situations, contextualize acts and actions within cultural and historical frameworks. What’s more, Herta Müller writes to move people. If her work is so often read autobiographically (which does a disservice to the work), it’s because so much of it feels heart-felt. It’s hard not to see Bossert’s real-life suicide as one of the driving forces in the structure of Herztier (translated, puzzlingly, as The Land of Green Plums by the wonderful Michael Hofmann (Metropolitan/Henry Holt, 1996)) which, after the new masterpiece and opus magnum Atemschaukel, is her second-best novel and an extraordinary read all told.
Violence, in turn, is connected to fear and darkness and the progression of her work could be read as an attempt to climb out of it, but it shouldn’t. She herself has said that writing doesn’t help or mitigate the darkness. Instead, her work is the work of a teacher. Writers like Jelinek have been suspicious of teaching, as it can be said to reproduce and execute power inequalities and similar issues, but Müller doesn’t share these misgivings. Like Grass’ oeuvre, Müller’s work is a continuation of traditional storytelling. She, too, is aware of the structure of myth and folk tales but her use of them is constructive. She uses tradition as a tool in constructing and building a story. Memory is important, so are intercultural connections. In this she is, if anything, the antithesis to Jelinek. She teaches us to remember, to look not for repression in words (although we are reminded of its presence) but for the past. The eponymous Herztier (‘Heart Animal’) can be read as a mythical figure in the tradition of Gershom Scholem’s, a mythical symbol of the hidden life, a conflation of the individual (Herz) and the collective (Tier).
I return to this book because, until her latest was published, it represented the fullest artistic statement Müller had published so far. It is a magnificent combination of storytelling and of a poet’s sense of the weight and richness of words and symbols. It’s also the best statement on her stance as far as her Romanian past is concerned. In a speech, Müller differentiated “soziale Angst” (social fear) which is a collective fear, something that is visible in a society’s tendency to, for example expunge and attack foreigners and minorities, and “existentielle Angst”, which is the individual’s fear. Whereas books such as Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet (translated as The Appointment (Metropolitan/Picador, 2001), her least great novel so far) concentrate on the latter, her writing is at its best when she combines this with a strong focus on the former. In the protagonists of Herztier and their fears, she’s achieved just that and highlights the connections between that fear and tradition, memory and storytelling. The first sentence of the novel is legendary:
“Wenn wir schweigen, werden wir unan genehm,” sagte Edgar, “wenn wir reden, werden wir lächerlich.”
It can be translated as “’When we’re silent, we become awkward/displeasing’, Edgar said, ‘when we talk, we become ridiculous.’” That awareness is important. To talk is to risk ridicule but how will we provide testimony without talking? Here’s where we return to what I said earlier, about her use of language. Sometimes her criticism is plain and direct, especially if its the easy criticism of dictatorships. Sometimes she evades from harsh language into poetical and mythical, as when she, in an essay, explains why she so frequently uses the word “king” instead of “dictator”: because it’s softer. Soft-spoken, her novel carry big sticks nevertheless. Often, Müller is concerned with the access (der Zugriff) that a repressive system has on the individual. In a very nice appropriation of the feminist discussion of how hair or fashion can demonstrate the access that society has on women in society, she maintains in one of her many great essays that a man’s hair demonstrates the access of the (totalitarian) state on him. Movingly, she recounts how Bossert, a friend and writer who killed himself weeks after having been the target of repressive measures (apartment searched, manuscripts confiscated and he was beaten to a pulp) started to cut random pieces of hair out of his beard and hair, a motif that also comes up in Herztier.
These kinds of topics make many of her books seem bleak, especially ones like Der Fuchs war damals schon der Jäger or Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet. The harshness of many descriptions in her books, filled with desolation, terror, suicide, with cut-off thumbs and the solace of having a mother-of-pearl button that takes away the fear momentarily, this harshness is not part of a bleak, one-sided attack on a dictatorship, although that is certainly an important and central part of her work. The brilliance of Müller’s work is that her language and her way of structuring, contextualizing situations means that she interrogates the very point of view of her narrators, for example by letting them spout nonsense about history, or by creating situations that are no longer structured by political repression but by other power relationships, as the one between men and women. Repression is something that can be passed down and refocused and Herta Müller is amazingly aware of the intricacies of these relations. And she finds that many of them can be found in the mirror that is language, but her language is not cultural or social language, like Jelinek’s. Her language is the individual’s: “Sprache … lebt immer im Einzelfall.” and “Sprache … läßt sich von dem was Einer mit dem Anderen tat, nicht trennen.” Müller is a dedicated writer, a writer committed to the responsibility that we have as human beings. Hence the remark about teaching.
Before publishing her amazing new novel, which is very different from much that she has previously put out, she started to write poetry. But not just any poetry. Collections such as Im Haarknoten wohnt eine Dame contain poems that are not written, they are assembled, they are collages. Each page contains an image of a poem assembled of phrases and words (even just letters) cut out of books and newspapers, which is perfectly logical for a woman who is interested not just in language, as an abstract medium, but in language as something that people use. Language as part of actual, printed books and pages, which, in turn are read again by people. By individuals. Another application of this technique can be found in the anthology Vorwärts, ihr Kampfschildkröten, where different poets translate some well-known Ukrainian poets, frequently offering different versions of one and the same poem. Herta Müller’s contribution to that is not a translation or a poem of her own. Instead, she creates collages out of the translated versions, thus creating fascinating new poems. This last is interesting and intriguing, but slight. Her proper poetry, in Im Haarknoten wohnt eine Dame, however, is actually very good, light, well written, musical. I cannot recommend that book highly enough. Accomplished novelists who are also accomplished poets are very rare and it remains to be seen whether poetry really is a direction she intends to pursue in the future, but that book is an extraordinary accomplishment, on many levels.
And in Atemschaukel, her most recent book, (proper review on this blog forthcoming) her return to fictional prose, she writes about memory. Memory has always been important in her books, which frequently employ flashbacks. It is these flashbacks which are most responsible for the fractured narratives that had people incorrectly complain that she puts style before plot. These are not willfully fractured narratives in the sense of of a postmodern fragment for fragment’s sake. Müller is interesting in that, although clearly postmodern, she doesn’t write in 1970s/1980s traditions of postmodernism, but in 1950s traditions. I mentioned Lenz and Grass, but equally noteworthy are writers like Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann as well as, in a later vein, Walter Kempowski. All of those three are relevant to matters of memory, because the aforementioned flashbacks are but the tip of the iceberg. In her use of words she appears to me to pursue a kind of hunt for the memory that is in words, that hides in the words’ history, cultural and linguistic. This makes for a fascinating language, for a use of words that can appear to be overly poetic, which some German critics have accused her of in the reception of Atemschaukel. It is that aspect of her writing that connects her to writers like Paul Celan whose literary project contained similar attempts.
With, on the other hand, Kempowski (who isn’t likely to be a direct influence), she shares an interest in the power of stories to make or become part of history. That had always been boiling under the surface, but the autobiographical connection had overshadowed it. Her books always appeared to be descriptions of her experiences under Ceausescu and her escape from that. That is a worthy topic and the reasons that I have heard her name in discussions about last year’s Nobel prize as well, but what she did with the new book is amazing. She stepped out of the autobiographical framework and explicitly told other people’s stories. Her mother, as well as many other people from her village were deported after the war and set to work in a USSR labor camp, which happened to my grandmother, coming from a German community in Hungary, as well. Like my grandmother, many of the Romanian survivors of those camps rarely talked about these stories, so, starting in 2001, Herta Müller sat down with some of them and recorded their stories. Her help in this endeavor was the great, recently deceased poet Oskar Pastior, who is himself a survivor of these camps and who contributed most significantly to the stories thus assembled. Together they traveled to the Ukraine to visit locations where once camps were. After Pastior died in 2006, Müller decided to make a novel out of the reams and reams of material they had assembled together, most importantly, his own story.
Without wanting to anticipate my own proper review, let me just say that Atemschaukel is a great achievement that combines many of her strengths outlined in this piece, but applied them to a completely different topic. It can be said to round off her work. I didn’t expect her to win the prize because her work hasn’t had, to my mind, a definite shape yet, which may well be the reason that she did not yet receive the most prestigious German literary prize, The Büchnerpreis, but the longer I think about it the stronger I approve of the Swedish Academy’s decision. I think that this book can be like a capstone to her work, it exemplifies many of her powers and demonstrates that they aren’t just restricted to one topic, that she is not a one-note writer, although her poems should have put that idea to rest a long while ago.
And what is she? Is she a German writer? A Romanian one? German critics have always maintained that writing about Romania is a preliminary step to becoming a real writer, that her worth would only prove itself when she succeeded in ‘arriving’ properly, i.e. writing about Germany. This explains the overwhelming success of her latest novel, since the only subject that Germans more like their authors to write about than Germans, is Germans who are victims. Müller herself never tried to fit into critics’ expectations. Nationality is a thorny subject in her work and she prefers to write about bodies and spaces. Nationalities, ethnicities turn into languages in her work. She sees cultures and nations as webs, as interconnected systems that can’t be looked at on their own. In a statement she once said
Je mehr Augen ich für Deutschland habe, umso mehr verknüft sich das Jetzige mit der Vergangenheit.
Herta Müller is a careful, aware and thoughtful writer, and a gorgeous creator of prose and poetry as well. I’m happy she’ll finally get the attention she deserves. ISBN