Pyrite: Why you shouldn’t read Ingo Schulze

Anybody reading this blog will know that I have little love for Ingo Schulze, whom I tend to refer to as the “curly haired hack”. During the past months I have received a couple of emails (~ 10, which is half my readership) inquiring about my frequently communicated dislike for a writer they keep hearing good stuff about. I answered two of these emails personally, but am too lazy to keep it up. Well, here are the goods:

Ingo Schulze must be one of the more famous living German writers. He sells well domestically, has won a wide variety of prizes and every new book is sure to receive broad attention and a nomination for one of the major German literary prizes. Additionally, he’s also widely translated into different languages, and has received positive write-ups in Anglophone and Francophone newspapers. In a climate where many readers and critics are concerned about the lack of attention accorded to translations and translators by major journals and publishers, writers like Schulze are a success story. And he’s the best examples that they shouldn’t always be, because Schulze is a deeply mediocre writer, and the attention he receives arguably takes away time and space from better contemporary writers in German, whose voices should be heard, like Thomas Stangl, or Clemens J. Setz, or Reinhard Jirgl.

While its true, and quite sufficient to point out, that Schulze is quite simply a pretty bad writer, on many levels, it should nevertheless be mentioned that, first and foremost, he fails on the level of the actual writing, his style. This is a failure that isn’t just due to a lack of talent, but part of a broader malaise in Ingo Schulze’s writing. It’s actually quite often true that style cannot be divested from content. Brilliant writers with a careless style like Philip K. Dick (my apologies to fans of Dick’s writing) are the exception. More often, a lack of care, attention or sensibility to the rhythm, music and depth of language is revealing of other defects as far as the structure, thinking or characters of the particular piece of prose are concerned. True, great writers are born with a certain modicum of talent, but I am convinced that everybody, with enough care and effort, can be good. Reading is about encountering minds, good writing isn’t tethered to a specific level of intelligence. Every writer can be decent.

Why bad writing is often so frustrating is that bad writers, I think, in order to be bad writers, need to be less than attentive or careful about their writing, something that you can see in all or most aspects of their work. With a good enough plot, interesting enough characters, sentiment and a subject matter that is either politically pleasing or controversial, one can hide mediocrity well enough. Paolo Giordano’s problematic, but oddly well-received bestseller The Solitude of Prime Numbers (my review) is a case in point. This lack is least easy to hide in the actual writing, the style. This is why I stress Ingo Schulze’s execrable writing so much. This defect may not be as perceptible to Americans, who get to see him through a distorting lens (though after having spent some time with Helen Lowe-Porter’s crude manhandling of Thomas Mann, I can’t muster the energy to criticize any competent translator, whose work is difficult enough), after all, Portuguese friends assure me that even Coelho is much, much worse in the Brazilian original, and is saved by his translators in other languages.

To best describe Schulze’s stylistic deficiencies, it’s appropriate to say, I think, that there’s a kind of linguistic complacency in his style, it’s more than just bad writing, and what’s more, it had not always been as bad and complacent. Schulze’s best work of fiction, for several reasons, is his 1995 debut, 33 Augenblicke des Glücks, indebted as it is to E.T.A. Hoffmann and even more, I think, to Leo Perutz. In this book, Schulze delights in his writing, like these two role models, he delights in the mechanics of literature, delights in using his own voice. But in his first book, Perutz is the stronger influence, I think. Unlike Hoffmann he is very reluctant to be overtly political; his work is also more open to violent images, and stark contrasts and conflicts than Hoffmann’s subtle prose. There is a youthful power in this book, Schulze constantly playing to his strengths. In an ill-advised move, Schulze will, in the further trajectory of his career, move away from Perutz and toward the Hoffmann of Meister Floh or his masterpiece The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr (my review), without offering as much thought, brilliance or generosity as the Prussian genius.

33 Augenblicke des Glücks, translated by John E. Woods into English as 33 Moments of Happiness, is not great literature, but it’s quite entertaining and not embarrassing, something that is increasingly less true as his work develops. Schulze is and remains competent, but has quickly become complacent and weak. His first book won the Döblin Förderpreis, and if you didn’t know that, I’ll tell you that the Döblin Prize and the Büchner Prize are the two German literary awards most worth monitoring. When he published the book, Schulze was primarily a journalist, writing for and founding several newspapers. There is an energy in that part of his life, and an intelligence that stayed, diluted, with him. After his debut, Schulze was accepted more fully into a literary mainstream, publishing, to date, 5 books, among them two novels, Neue Leben (2005) and Adam und Evelyn (2008). His past, however, never quite left him.

On the plus side, the Döblin prize was, as he himself kept stressing, strangely apt for Schulze’s burgeoning poetic sensibilities. Schulze’s best book in any genre, is his 2009 collection of essays, Was Wollen Wir? (~ What Do We Want?), collecting essays written over the course of several years. It’s not good literary criticism, not good political journalism, Lord knows. What it is is a wonderful memoir in fragments, and Döblin and his work is front and center in it. There is no influence of Döblin on Schulze’s writing or his commitments or the quality of his thinking, but as Schulze continued writing, moving from stories to speeches and novels, it’s clearly Döblin’s specter who was behind the changes, whether it’s Schulze’s increasingly odd characters, the influx of political pathos or the grandiose literary gestures, complete with gargantuan 18th century narratives (Neue Leben), vague mythical underpinnings (Adam und Evelyn) and Hoffmannian satire (Handy, Neue Leben)

The obsession with Döblin, plastered all over Was Wollen Wir?, isn’t flattering for Schulze’s work, since the reference invites comparisons, and apart from his debut book, his work just doesn’t even remotely measure up. So while Döblin has expedited Schulze’s artistic development, this development has actually moved Schulze away from him who was arguably, with Jahnn, the best German novelist of the 20th century. Responsible for this discrepancy is the other remnant from his past, his training as a journalist. A few paragraphs ago, I started into this disparagement of Schulze by citing his stylistic awfulness, calling it ‘complacency’. To be more exact, his style’s weaknesses correspond to a kind of writing that has taken over German journalistic writing sometime in the 1990s, with the advent of women’s and men’s magazines (titles like Amica or the German Men’s Health come to mind), characterized by a curiously assertive use of language, an intense quirkiness, so to say. The point seemed to be to convey an insouciant, slightly erudite, individualism. This kind of writing was instantly recognizable, and eminently mockable.

It developed so quickly and completely, sprung upon German readers like a tasteless Athena, in full, talentless armor. What is annoying, but also entertaining in journalist writing, seems little else but sloppy in fiction and it was there where it stuck and developed into full bloom and convention. In the late 1990s it stopped being ‘journalese’ and started to be a hallmark of mediocre, careless prose. There are certain turns of phrases, narrative structures, stereotypical characters which can be directly traced back to the peculiarities of this journalistic style. In my reading experience with regard to contemporary German fiction, this kind of writing almost never turns up in bits here and there. It’s usually an infestation with it, an either/or situation. This writing is an easy way out, recognizable, and relying on a certain consensus among the reading public. To use this style is to appeal to the lowest common denominator among a vaguely educated readership, and it’s indicative of other sub-par literary decisions. The work of many writers who decided to go down that path bears witness to the inextricably joined level of content and style.

Thankfully, many writers remain who refrain from writing this way. Ilija Trojanow would be one of them. Even in his weaker books, such as his dystopic SF novel Autopol (my review), he stays clear of it, but many others can’t. There is this year’s winner of the Leipzig book fair prize, Georg Klein (although his prize-winning book, Roman unserer Kindheit (~Novel of our childhood) is a departure of sorts), or the author of last year’s sensational surprise hit Paradiso, Thomas Klupp. Schulze, however, is worse, because in his case the stylistic complacency corresponds to an intellectual one. Like Paul Auster, Schulze uses complex narratives without any stylistic or intellectual backbone, but while Auster’s work is like a reader’s digest of postmodern theory, amusing and quite harmless, and mostly not particularly political, Schulze’s purview is larger- he aim for both the political and the historical, which makes him much more insufferable than his competent and incompetent co-hacks. His major topics are the German reunification and its fallout in the private and public lives of Germans.

Schulze writes about these topics as if he were pressed for time, under pressure to produce an anniversary op-ed. The complexities and problems of the situation, raised time and again in countless excellent German novels and novellas, barely make a dent in his lukewarm sentimental hodge-podge of platitudes and truisms. Open any popular news magazine at random, find a story about the particular topic at hand, and there you’ll find Schulze. I’ve talked to young journalists, some of whom have spent time at university with me, and they tell me that you can’t afford to alienate your readers, that you need to write for them. If you challenge them, you also need to flatter them in return. They need to be motivated to buy your paper once a day or once a week and spend a considerable time reading it, so you need to give them a narrative for political events that they can accept. A novelist has more liberties. But Ingo Schulze seems to have decided, at one point in his career, to not use these liberties.

So his work reads tediously unsurprising, like the gloss of a pamphlet. It’s really dull in its own right, as all the magazines and newspapers who perpetuate the same thin narratives, are. But it’s when I remember that he’s a writer of fiction, one who sees himself in the line of Döblin and Hoffmann, that I have least patience with his childishness. His work suffers most when compared to books like Günter Grass’ Far Afield, a novel that draws both on Grass’ heavy polemic streak, on Hans Joachim Schädlich’s acidic and powerful novel Tallhover and on the continuity of the Grotesque in bourgeois realist fiction in Germany. Its politics are odd, but gloriously so, it delights in its literariness and doesn’t shy away from taking risks. Grass, by the way, is one of the most vocal and most able heirs of Döblin in post-war German fiction. An heir of Brecht, and writer of several books that make Schulze look bad by comparison is Volker Braun, especially, with regard to the topic of the German reunification, his collection of stories/novellas Trotzdestonichts (my review). A third book that provides a unique (and masterfully written) account of the complexities of these turbulent years in Germany is Marcel Beyer’s 2008 novel Kaltenburg (my review), which shows that even contemporaries of Schulze can and do rise far above him and that’s just the parts of it that deal with the upheavals and the changes.

There is another aspect to his work, the east/west relationship, i.e. the relationship between the two Germanies. Again, Schulze comes up short, again, he fails to rise to the possibilities, well established by writers such as the great Uwe Johnson, whose books like Das Dritte Buch über Achim (~ The Third Book about Achim, 1962) or Zwei Ansichten (~ Two Points of View, 1965), helped create an interesting and complex discourse about this topic, one further developed by writers such as Reiner Kunze or Günter Kunert. I realize that it might be unfair to compare Schulze to great writers, but the sad truth is that neither Kunze nor Kunert are, in fact, great writers. But both have put a lot of thought into their works and both developed a distinct idea of how these issues work. Schulze hasn’t really. He riffs on sentimentality. His satiric streak took over during the early 00s, and his writing, modeled on Döblin but influenced mainly by Hoffmann, at this stage in his work, never achieves the level of insight, and acidic analysis that most great satire manages. There is a seriousness even to the light late works of E.T.A. Hoffmann, a seriousness of purpose that drove him to write satires that endangered his livelihood and even, arguably, his life, in a repressive climate. In a far less repressive climate, meanwhile, Schulze, the former NVA (the army of the GDR) soldier, takes no such risks, politically.

He does, however, feign literary risks by writing Neue Leben (translated by John E. Woods into English as New Lives) an enormous slab of a novel, mimicking in style (partly) and structure the great epistolary novels of the 18th century. I said that good writing is about care and attention. Great writing, however, is about risks. Attacking great writers for diverging from grammatical conventions, for using a style that departs from the norm that we would teach in creative writing workshops or encourage as editors, is utterly beside the point and borderline moronic. This Schulze understands completely and every page of Neue Leben screams out: yes, I indulge, but I am an artiste, I am a great writer. I am Döblin, Hoffmann and Thomas Mann rolled up in one. Only, he isn’t, of course. The followup novel (with a forgettable collection of stories sandwiched in between the two) Adam und Evelyn is dominated by dialogue, and half-hearted references to myth and religion. As a reader, there’s a certain morbid interest in following Schulze’s career, which has turned into a wild romp, drunk on Romanticism and Modernism, without a thought to spare for the history nor the language he is abusing here. His writing has, by now, reached an all-time low; a level that, however, he was effortlessly able to sustain for his last two books. Neither of these are Schulze’s main failings, though. It’s rather the fact that the books bank so much on being perceptive and insightful that the revelation that they aren’t, almost completely destroys them.

The book needs a reader who is comfortable with reading the watered-down, palatable version of his own history, a reader who doesn’t care about style and who is thrilled that he’s reading a writer who writes ‘daringly’ elaborate and cerebral books that suggest Thomas Mann-ian literariness without actually having to read Thomas Mann. He needs a reader who will proudly produce an unread, but creased copy of Berlin Alexanderplatz, but has a lot to ‘say’ about the book, because he is so educated. This, in a nutshell, is Schulze’s audience, and he’s lucky that German critics (see my rant here) are happy to provide just that for him. He’s the prince of mediocre literary writing. Understand this: Ingo Schulze isn’t really a terrible writer, just a terribly mediocre one. However, there are so many great writers writing in this language (I have mentioned 8 writers in dire need of translation here and here) that it’s quite a shame that his work gets a spot in the limelight (and I’m not happy about Andreas Maier’s being translated, either), especially since his main job is to gently caress the egos of vaguely educated Germans who don’t like their writers or their thinkers to drag them out of their comfort zone, so a weak, derivative and complacent writer like Schulze has snatched a spot near the top of contemporary writers, one he doesn’t deserve, while even we forget writers like Thomas Strittmatter (who’s also been translated into English, see my review), and many others, like Dietmar Dath (excellent thinker, bad stylist) or the great, great Reinhard Jirgl (my review) never get translated.

But the worst thing, by far, about Schulze is that he was able to convince an Anglophone readership, who are naturally less well informed than natives as regards German history, that he is, in fact, the real thing, that there is something to learn or an insight to be gleaned from it, when that isn’t actually the case. Schulze in English borders on misinformation. He has, most recently, started to place himself and his writing at the crossroads between tradition and a new writing. He subtitled Handy, his hardly bearable collection of stories “Dreizehn Geschichten in alter Manier”, an explicit reference to 18th century fiction as well as to Jahnn, his protagonist in Neue Leben is called “Türmer”, an undisguised reference to the tradition of the Bildungsroman in general, specifically to Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister novels. This suggests more substance to his work and thought than there is. History and culture is important, and buffoons like Schulze shouldn’t be relied upon to spread knowledge of it. There is so much unmined gold in German literary fiction. Don’t waste your time with Schulze’s pyrite. (ISBN)