Müller / Grass

A german post for once: Herta Müller reacting to the Günter Grass affair that recently erupted over a ‘poem’ he published.

Die Literaturnobelpreisträgerin Herta Müller hat die Äußerungen von Günter Grass zur israelischen Politik scharf kritisiert. Am Rande einer Lesereise nach Tschechien sagte sie in Prag, Grass solle sich lieber zurückhalten: „Er ist ja nicht ganz neutral. Wenn man mal in der SS-Uniform gekämpft hat, ist man nicht mehr in der Lage, neutral zu urteilen“, so Müller über ihren Nobelpreis-Kollegen.

Die Kritik äußerte sie auf einer Pressekonferenz im Prager Goethe-Institut. Sie habe von der Debatte um Günter Grass wegen ihrer Auslandsreise erst aus den Zeitungen erfahren. Sie halte Grass’ Äußerung nicht für ein Gedicht: „Wenn er ehrlicher wäre, hätte er einen Artikel geschrieben. Will er, dass es Literatur ist und damit interpretierbar? Dort steht kein einziger literarischer Satz drin, also ist es ein Artikel“, sagte Müller.

Mit dieser „Etikettenfälschung“ könne man sich auch nicht retten. Dass Grass sein „sogenanntes Gedicht“ an drei verschiedene Zeitungen in mehreren Ländern geschickt habe, halte sie für „größenwahnsinnig“. Ihre Kritik schloss Herta Müller mit den Worten: „Das muss er selber verantworten.“


Herta Mueller and Oskar Pastior

This weekend, the German literary scene was abuzz as absolutely stunning, and profoundly sad news surprised us all. Roll back the tape for a moment now: we all remember how Herta Müller, Literature Nobel winner 2009, discussed her most recent novel Atemschaukel (translated into English as Everything I Possess I Carry With Me). She had written this novel to commemorate a friend, the great German poet Oskar Pastior. Müller and Pastior, both of them exiles from Communist Romania had been friends for awhile when they suddenly started to look into Pastior’s experiences in a Soviet camp shortly after WWII; their long talks resulted in copious notes, which Müller turned into a book after Pastior’s death. Atemschaukel was a remarkable literary success, and her moving interviews and statements at readings about her dear old friend (who died in 2006, and was awarded the most prestigious German literary award posthumously), could not fail to move her listeners. For those who knew her work, Atemschaukel was a kind of departure. Hitherto, Müller’s work had always been shrouded in a darkness, a result of living under the watchful eyes of the Romanian secret service, the Securitate. Müller wrote at length, bleakly, and bitterly about the terrors of hiding one’s secrets from the informers, of fleeing the country. She also wrote and talked about how friendships were destroyed by the knowledge of someone having been an informer. This was something, Herta Müller confided, she was unable to forgive or bear in even a close friend.

And now we learned (click here for a longer article) that Müller recently (two weeks ago) found out that Pastior had been himself, from 1961 to 1968, an informer of Securitate under the alias Otto Stein. So far, precious little is known about his involvement. The two researchers who found Pastior’s informant’s dossier and traced at least one report on a fellow writer in that writer’s dossier have found enough, however, to make us picture a deeply troubling story. What seems clear is that Pastior was pressured into signing up.

Immediately after the camps, returning to his home town, he wrote a couple of poems, some of which he kept. These poems criticized the camps and, by extension, the Soviet Union, and were dangerous material to have. Pastior knew this well, and although he gave copies to a friend of his, he swore her to secrecy and burned all his other copies when he moved to Bucharest, Romania’s capital, to study German literature; there, among writers and lovers of literature, found himself quickly in a peculiarly dangerous position again. Studying at university, gaining a reputation as a writer, he hung around with poets and novelists who were suspected of harboring a bourgeois attitude. This led quickly to the Securitate taking an interest in him. They came after that old friend of his, found the dangerous poems, and with a few more trumped-up charges they sentenced her to seven years in a penitentiary. And then they came for him. What’s odd, one of the researchers notes, is that Pastior’s informer’s file at the Securitate contains no reports apart from a small scrawled note. What it did contain is material that could be used to pressure Pastior. No reports by Pastior, but reports on Pastior aplenty. Everyone and his mother seemed to inform on him. Fellow students, university teachers, friends, Pastior’s environment was lousy with rats. And Pastior was afraid. Not just because of the evidence they already had against him and confronted him with.

There was also the fact that Pastior, despite being married, was secretly homosexual, and feared discovery and being persecuted for his sexual predilections. After seven years of fear, of going through the motions with the Securitate and of hiding his innermost self from everyone around him, he took a trip to Germany and never came back. Upon his arrival in Germany, he talked to the officials and came completely clean about his past as IM Stein. This was the last time he talked about it. Except for small notes found in his papers after his death, he never confessed what he must have felt an excruciating shame for. Not to friends, not to his editors, nor indeed to Herta Müller. In an interview with the FAZ, she said that the discovery was “like a slap in the face”. Müller had, in a recent interview with a Romanian newspaper, poured scorn over those former informants who had never come clean about their past, yet she seems to feel differently about Pastior. Of course she’s angry, but at the same time, Müller stresses that Pastior must have lived in perennial fear, and she takes his long silence as evidence of his deep, deep shame about the compromise he accepted in the face of a faceless, powerful and brutal regime. Pastior was a sensitive poet who created a unique body of work, which will have to be read differently from now on. In her interview, Müller tells us that Pastior always said that his language was broken in the camps. She adds that we might assume now that it’s been broken a second time when he returned home.

In a queer way, this story re-affirms that Herta Müller is a worthy winner of the Nobel Prize, because in her work, she has always taken on the demons of a country that has forced not just Oskar Pastior, but millions of other citizens to live in fear of discovery, in mistrust of their neighbors. In Müller’s work, one can’t, even in exile, escape the trauma of the Securitate. The life story of Oskar Pastior seems to be taken straight from the searing pages of Müller’s novels and novellas. We always knew that Pastior’s poetry bears witness to suffering, but we never knew how much of it actually hid in in the folds and creases of Pastior’s brilliant lines. The Pastior case remains open: we don’t know what and how much he told his tormentors, we can only guess why he kept quiet and whether he ever told anyone. We don’t know yet whether his behavior caused pain to others. What we do know, however, is that is case is a profoundly tragic one, whatever the final outcome. Denounced by his own poetry, and vulnerable because of his desires, Pastior signed a pact with the devil until he fled, a pact that kept consuming him for the rest of his life.

(other sources except those linked are two smaller pieces, from the same newspaper. An editorial called “Maß der Schuld” by S.K. and an opinion piece by Hanser director Michael Krüger (“Ein zarter, trauriger Mensch”)

Found in Translation

L’an passé, lorsque le Nobel fut décerné à un écrivain français, la presse américaine s’est demandée “who ?”. Cette année, le blogger le plus illustre de France n’a pas trouvé mieux que de s’épancher sur son favori (Roth) et, lui qui a toujours quelque chose à dire, a été contraint au silence par le choix de l’Académie suédoise. De JMG who à Herta qui, on se dit qu’on n’a pas de quoi faire les malins. C’est pourquoi le FFC a contacté son correspondant allemand pour qu’il nous cause de cette Herta Müller, inconnue par ici malgré trois traductions. Ne pas savoir qui est l’auteur est toujours de notre faute, jamais celle du jury.

quoth the introduction over at the land of plenty, a.k.a. the Fric Frac Club, to Francois Monti‘s diligent and competent translation and reworking of my Herta Müller essay. May I add that it’s considerably better than the original? It is. Dig in. Here’s the link. Enjoy.

Herta Müller, Nobel Prize Winner

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