Dorothee Elmiger: Invitation To The Bold Of Heart

Elmiger, Dorothee (2010), Einladung an die Waghalsigen, Dumont
ISBN 9-783832-161941
[translated into English by Katy Derbyshire:
Elmiger, Dorothee (2011), Invitation To The Bold Of Heart, Seagull Press
ISBN 978-0-85742-019-0

This is a curious little book. Dorothee Elmiger’s debut novel Einladung an die Waghalsigen, translated by Katy Derbyshire as Invitation To The Bold Of Heart, is often billed as “postapocalyptic” and many German critics have expressed irritation at its constructed form, an irritation that I think is gendered. Elmiger’s novel sits somewhere between modernism and postmodernism, realism and metatextualism. It uses the tropes of exploration and of rugged reality in the same way postmodern novelists have done for a long time. But she does it without being male. One reads in review after review, the disappointment over the lack of realism, authenticity, of felt, emotional truth. A critic called it “arrogant” – but unless, like Gore Vidal, they reject postmodern literature out of hand, there is no obvious reason to be hostile to this book. Because whatever you might think of what it does, it does what it does with extraordinary skill. Sure, you can see the MLA-schooled writer here, you can see the excitement of a young novelist trying out a new idea, playing with literature, tradition and form, and not always hitting the mark. But of all the authors who graduated from Leipzig and Hildesheim, the awful German MFA mills, Elmiger’s book actually feels like she has something to say. There is a forcefulness to the book that dives deep into our shared sense of cultural heritage, and what it is lacking in emotional immediacy, the novel replaces with the emotional repositories of music, childhood and literary classics. This is on the surface a novel about a vanishing village in the mining areas of West Germany, but it is also a novel about loneliness and selfhood, about the way we as readers and writers need to connect – to reconnect – to a world sometimes burning up around us. And literature is an extraordinary way to do this. The writing is simple and direct, but it doesn’t slip into the shoddiness of style that is apparently taught in Hildesheim and Leipzig as a stand-in for simplicity and directness (see Hischmann, Fabian). Elmiger’s style is always weighed and exact, carefully shaped and directed. The titular invitation doesn’t come until the end of the book, but in a way the whole book is an invitation: to all of us. I’m glad Katy Derbyshire (whose taste in picking translations has to be commended. I already reviewed Inka Parei’s The Shadow-Boxing Woman on this blog, also a Derbyshire translation) accepted the invitation and translated the novel, a mere year after the original translation.

The book’s plot – itself a metatextual device – is swallowed by the many textual references (listed in the appendix), allusions and tricks the text plays with its readers. Like many German writers in the 2010s, Elmiger opts for an apocalyptic scenario (the list of writers to choose a science fictional/postapocalyptic setting includes young writers like Elmiger and Leif Randt, as well as stalwarts of German literature like Jirgl and Georg Klein.), but the predominant, I think, reference for the novel is one not named in its appendix: Arno Schmidt’s Nobodaddy trilogy. Like Schmidt, Elmiger’s scenario draws on the imagery and tropes of the postapocalypse, all while feeding it with elements of the real: there’s a true sense of place, in Schmidt’s case, the Lüneburger Heide specifically, in Elmiger’s case a sense of the Ruhrgebiet, the vast mining areas along the river Ruhr, comparable maybe to England’s north, from Newcastle to Manchester. The Ruhr area is so undertunneled with mining that occasionally streets will collapse. The novel is set in a village devasted by a fire where a coal seam underground has started burning and the burning has started affecting aboveground life. As a Goethe quote in the novel shows, this is not a fantastical invention, this sort of thing can happen – at the same time, Elmiger does not examine a specific event in the Ruhr area (as far as I can tell). Instead, she assembles a dusty, dirty, firm sense of an abandoned village in the area, affected by some real event. The postapocalyptic feeling is fueled by the strange sounding local catastrophe, but also by the images of an industrialized area that’s largely empty of people. There are still normal people beyond this particular village, normal life, but in this village, the narrator, her sister, and some occasional strangers are the only ones left. And this is important: postapocalyptic literature is often too liberal in deploying that metaphor to do a minor point. Elmiger by contrast is exceptionally precise: the very real abandonment of old industrial areas, abandoned by young men, by companies, and by the benevolent hand of the state is recreated here in miniature format. The book’s final invitation for the bold to come back, to join the sisters on their fantastical discovery of an underground river, in a way it is a call against the way capitalism has chewed up and abandoned the working class of vast areas – again, people living in the north of England will understand which social stratum I am referring to.

Another writer whose presence I feel in this book (and maybe that’s just because I am currently re-reading his work) is Andreas Neumeister. This writer, as of yet untranslated into English, is one of the few living German masters of prose, as in, writers from Germany, not writers writing in German. The deplorable fact that Neumeister has not won the Büchnerpreis yet, but Jan Wagner, the Billy Collins of contemporary German poetry, has, explains much about this country’s literary culture. Neumeister’s novels show a steady development towards a sense of how speech and language shapes our perceptions of places and memory in a way that I should write about at length some other time. When I was reading Elmiger’s novel, I got a sense of a similar investment in reality, language and literature from her. Neumeister uses music in interesting ways, employing both cultural connotations and rhythmical implications in his work, and Elmiger, though to a much less experimental and forceful degree, also uses music in her references (she quotes from Godspeed! You Black Emperor) and rhythms. That said, with Neumeister as with Schmidt, there’s always a connection of writer and place. But Dorothee Elmiger was born in a rural part of Switzerland. She’s not from the Ruhr area – and the sense of dedication to and evocation of a specific place isn’t part of an authentic discourse about a specific home. On the contrary: what we encounter is a discourse about home itself. Elmiger draws in her quotes from 19th century ethnologists to evoke a specific view of reality, turning the imperialist gaze of the profession to a piece of European heartland. The search for a secret river interiorizes the mythological narratives of 19th century imperialism without actually needing to overtly interrogate that tradition. Much of what she uses, even when she uses well known texts, relies on us understanding the texts immediately, implicitly. She marks quotes in the text, but some of the sources are obscure and she doesn’t offer a source for each quote (there’s a list of texts in the appendix, but no correlation of quotes and text). What she wants us to see, instead, is what musical and cultural quality each quote adds to the text, with its unique rhythms. We can sort of tell where everything is from, even if we cannot pinpoint the exact source. Elmiger is appealing to our cultural understanding, while making this method explicit in the marking the quotes as quotes.

Let me, finally, return to the question of autobiography and authenticity. I’m not doing this because I have a personal obsession with the topic – it’s because so much of the text is artfully woven around these questions. I just said that sources are marked but not named – that is true except for a small handful of exceptions, three of which are the epigraphs to the novel. Of those three, the longest is from Goethe’s Dichtung und Wahrheit. Now, if you followed me so far, you might think it’s cited here because of the book’s central position in the canon of the classics of autobiographical literature – more than that: Dichtung und Wahrheit moves away from the immediate personal memory as the sole source for autobiography. Goethe in fact makes heavy use of other people’s statements and in his time, the book was criticized by some as too artificial. But the quote in the epigraph isn’t about life writing at all: it describes a coal seam burning and affecting life aboveground. The very “postapocalyptic” description of life in the novel is taken from this classic of autobiography, allowing Elmiger, as the author, to create a complex building of references, and hide herself and her remarkable voice in between the walls. It is, ultimately, the urgency that fuels the eponymous invitation, that makes the book worth reading, that makes it more than an idle game of postmodern chess. Indeed, another reference of the book, marked but not annotated, is from Ferdinand Bruckner’s play “Krankheit der Jugend” (“The Sickness of Youth”) – the play dates back to 1926, but its searing evocation of young love and desperation leads to occasional revivals on German stages. A character in it says “you either become a part of the bourgeoisie or you commit suicide.” This tension, between becoming part of the adult world as it is constituted by capitalism (Elmiger also quotes Engels), and of giving up on life, voluntarily leaving this world, is, in a way, also felt in this book. Trying to fight for their reality, their place, the characters of the novel marshal the magic of myth, of books, of our shared magical memory to save their village, but also to save them. A task that requires, truly, boldness.

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Inka Parei: The Shadow-Boxing Woman

Parei, Inka (2011), The Shadow-Boxing Woman, Seagull Books
Translated by Katy Derbyshire
ISBN 9781906497958

Parei, Inka (2011), Die Schattenboxerin, Fischer
ISBN 3-596-14869-3

Last week, at a conference I spoke at, I spent two days with two roomfuls of translators and of people academically and privately interested in translation. It reminded me of the fact of how embattled a field the arena of literary translation is. Translators get paid terribly little, and they often get less respect. At the conference, half of them were German, and in Germany, at least we have an enormous amount of translations coming out each month. In the US, only three percent (an almost proverbial number, by now) of overall publications are translations. What’s worse, for every Every Man Dies Alone, i.e. translations that sell reasonably well, and are read and reviewed seemingly everywhere, there appear to be ten worthy novels that are translated only to vanish again into obscurity. Although it’s quite tragic when it happens to fantastic masterpieces like Beautiful Days by Franz Innerhofer, which was translated by Anselm Hollo and seems to have disappeared almost instantly. The same happened to Katharina Hacker’s The Have-Nots (see my review here), translated by Helen Atkins, which appears to be in print, yet has not been broadly reviewed, not has it sold particularly well, and this despite the fact that Hacker is indisputably one of the major German novelists. It’s tragic when it happens to the heavyweights, but it’s worse when it happens to a younger writer. Innerhofer is bound to be picked up again, if only by NYRB’s excellent imprint, Hacker might well win a major prize again. But yloung writers might fall into a hole and never crawl out. So let’s hope Inka Parei’s debut novel The Shadow-Boxing Woman, originally published in 2000, does well. The translation has been undertaken by Katy Derbyshire, translator and blogger at Love German Books, and it was published by the University of Chicago Press this February and Seagull Press this May. The Shadow-Boxing Woman, called Die Schattenboxerin in German, is an excellent debut. It may suffer from small flaws typical of debuts, but overall, it’s a marvelously executed novel about a young woman in 1990s Berlin, who is trying to get her bearings in a disintegrating, malevolent city. The book tells a harsh story, yet it is never downright depressing, a balance which is due to Parei’s clever structure and to the distinctive voice of her wary protagonist, the Shadow-Boxing Woman of the title. In its imagery and use of the cityscape, the book draws on a tradition that includes Alfred Döblin’s Berlin novels and Gottfried Benn’s early poetry. It is firmly placed in a thorough sense of history as it’s ingrained in the everyday lives of Berlin’s inhabitants. It also draws on the rhythms and anxieties of crime writing, producing a novel that is suspenseful, dark, funny and bleakly elegant. If you can get your hands on this book, read it. Parei, who’s currently writing her third novel, is surely one of the better writers of her generation. A German critic called this book a “promise” and what a beautiful promise it is. It is also a damn good novel, and thanks to Katy Derbyshire, you can all read it now. So please do. You will find one of the better books published this past decade, a book that won’t leave you cold. Here is the amazon link.

Initially, the book appears to be a mystery with noir stylings. Hell, as the the book’s protagonist is called, notices that her neighbor has gone missing, and takes it upon herself to investigate. Before the book is over, we’ll have found out that it is in fact, a mystery, and that, in fact, a crime has occurred, but the crime and the victim are different ones than we thought. With a wondrous sleight of hand, Parei manages to tell a story that is both tightly knit, and mysteriously loose and baggy. At exactly the right points in the story she manages to hold on to details and events so much that we feel the gray soil and the gray bricks of Berlin and the gray breath of her characters as we ourselves had found ourself stranded in the same dirty streets and among the same hard-up characters. At other points, she steps away from events, not attempting to explain, to fill us in or her heroine. I think that it’s this rhythm of clarity and nightmarish obscurity that makes the whole novel work, because this rhythm is tied directly to the disorderly mind of Hell. Small objects cause Hell to remember episodes from her past, with a sharp, hurtful clarity that is not the clarity of Proust’s mémoire involontaire, but the clarity and sharpness of trauma. The change between present-day reality and past memories can be disorienting at first, because the whole novel is narrated in the present tense, no matter what period of Hell’s life the episodes are set in. The more we read on, the more we notice that the memories, like the present-day events, follow one particular story, but the two stories are differently structured. The present-day story starts to develop according to the genre rules of mystery. We learn that someone has vanished, and then we start accumulating clues. We find a mysterious stranger in the missing person’s apartment, and he tags along in our attempt to make sense of it all. It is not until late in the story that it all unravels, as first improbable things happen and events as diverse as a mysterious fire and a bank robbery start cluttering a heretofore clear and clean storyline. The story starts to go completely off the rails as the past, remembered in short intense flashes, starts to bleed into the present.

The remembered story works exactly the opposite way. The first few times the past intrudes on the present-day story, we are slightly confused, because the past events do not fit precisely; they are small shards of a larger mosaic, although they are largely arranged in chronological order. While the present-day story works its way towards a climax, the cataclysmic events in the past, the ones that traumatized the hell out of Hell, they come pretty early in the sequence of memories. Her memories, arranged chronologically, are nevertheless broken into small bits, and the most destructive, central event is the most horribly broken part. Something has been broken, and in a way, these memories are like an attempt to mend that which has been so thoughtlessly, so awfully carelessly destroyed, but like a beautiful vase that has been thrown from a high place, there are still bits and pieces missing, no matter how much care you invest towards making the vase whole again. And there is another thing we notice. The more we read on, the clearer we see that her whole life after what happened in the past is an attempt to deal with that past, or at least all of her current life that we are told about. After all, we can’t forget that it’s the narrator framing the story, telling us of both past and present events and creating a narrative link between them. And as the book draws to a close, both story lines run into one another and we see how skilfully we were led there. The Shadow-Boxing Woman is a small book, both in terms of size and in terms of scope, but at the end, after the climax, after the whole novel’s structure has collapsed, the book suddenly opens up as its heroine takes a deep breath, allowing us to breathe, as well. Paradoxically, in the one moment when darkness literally and figuratively enters the frame again, the novel feels most replete with light and relief. If I seemed to repeat myself these past few lines, it’s because the book is very adept at using its structure to be both very exact and very imprecise. The moment, where the book’s events make the most sense, the moment where we see how everything, past and present, fits, is also the moment when we most realize how unreliable the narrator is, when we see to what extent this book is a literary artifact, a literary creation. This is something that both the constant use of the present tense, as well as the naturalistic-seeming descriptions of the environment have suggested to us.

The novel is full of an obvious and a less obvious symbolism. The obvious symbolism is so direct and upfront that it paradoxically does not detract from the naturalistic impression. In fact, this obvious brand of symbolism, which Parei seems to have an attachment to, is probably the novel’s biggest flaw, and it is one we are apprised of early on. I’ll be honest, I almost stopped reading the book, because I was slightly annoyed by it, as by the book’s other flaw, Parei’s handling of the present tense, but I am glad I didn’t, and I suggest you persevere, as well, should you feel a slight irritation at the way the novel is written or at the book’s intense use of a set of very transparent-seeming symbols and allegorical scenes. It is part of the book’s excellency that, upon finishing it, we are considerably less sure we can see through the novel’s oh so obvious signifying. This begins with naming things. The book’s protagonist is called, as I said, “Hell”, which is German for “light” and her neighbor, the one who goes missing, is called “Dunkel”, i.e. ‘dark’. Mind you, the allocation of properties to symbolically named person is not straightforward, in fact, Parei is rather clever in her use of two sets of morals, one complex and intractable, the other strong and more or less Manichean. Impressive, too, is how insistently everything in Parei’s book is rooted in the embodied reality of Berlin and her protagonist. We are not asked to believe in or subscribe to something based on abstract ideas. Parei grounds everything in a set of experiences, some of them incredibly painful. On the other hand, the web of symbolic references is undeniable. As I said in my first paragraph, there is a strong tradition in Berlin for this kind of writing. The novel’s closest literary relatives are the 19th century plays by Gerhart Hauptmann and the 20th century novels by Alfred Döblin. Hauptmann’s relationship to this book is largely established through his plays Vor Sonnenaufgang (1889) and Die Ratten (1911) dark, naturalistic portraits of a society both coming together, growing into a new century, a new millennium, into modernity, and at the same time, these part portraits of society falling apart at the hands of its greedy, poor, desperate individuals. There are few manifestations of literary realism as densely accomplished as these plays by Gerhart Hauptmann, a towering writer who is surely among the most deserving winners in the 111 year history of the Nobel prize.

In German literature, it’s mainly Hauptmann who has taught us how menacing and desolate Berlin can be, and how the city can visit horrors on its inhabitants wholly absentmindedly. Within his best plays, there is no moral instance, no salvation, no hope. Things just happen, people are just allowed to be themselves, as we look on in helpless terror. Döblin added something else. Coming from the tradition of modernist surrealism, his most famous novel Berlin Alexanderplatz shows us a human being falling through the gaps, seemingly abandoned by the Moloch Berlin like Hauptmann’s unbearable pitiful protagonists, but the book is at the same time a whirlwind of insanity, of strange events, prayers and otherworldly experiences. Döblin’s mistreated protagonist Franz Biberkopf is briefly saved by his fellow human beings again and again, but tragedy (and his own odd head) keeps dragging him into the maelstrom of life, murdering him on the spokes of modernity. I am very insistent on the debts owed to these writers and books, but the similarities are not as obvious as all that. The texture of the atmosphere, the apartment building and the way Parei paints her characters, all this is highly reminiscent of Hauptmann-style naturalism, and on the other hand, the stranger, less straightforwardly realistic moments that veer off into trauma and an odd kind of distortion, these reminded me personally of Döblin. All of this is held together by the place, dirty, scruffy, lovable, horrendous Berlin. Parei has set her novel in a decaying Berlin, a Berlin falling apart. If you look at the cover of the German edition, you can see the facade of a house that looks empty and abandoned, windows smashed, walls crumbling. Mysterious Hell takes it upon herself to live, well, almost squat in such a house, creating a no-man’s land of sorts for herself, as the other tenants do. Far from the bourgeois chic that Auster evokes in a similar scenario in his most recent novel, in Parei’s book the decrepitude of the house, the outsider status of the squatters in the house and the helpless souls of its inhabitants complement one another. If I have to repeat myself, I’ll do so gladly. This is an absolutely stunning and original book, well made, well crafted, well imagined. And the book is so much better than I have made it sound, additionally to all the things I mentioned, the book is set in the period directly after the wall came down, and one could write at least as long an essay as this review about the historical dimensions and intricacies of this fantastic novel. There’s just not enough time and space.

Finally, a few words on the translation. As I read German books in German, I am not usually able to comment on the translation. In this case, I am, because seagull books published an excerpt from the book on its site. I was very nervous reading the translation, because Parei’s style, however simple it appears to be, can’t be easy to translate. Parei opts for a simple syntax, and simple descriptions, and yet every other sentence contains an interesting word or turn of phrase. It’s a constantly intriguing delight to read this book, without ever becoming challenging. It’s both absorbing, and drafted with a calculating pen. From the excerpt, the translation manages to recreate the a very similar impression, while managing to sound more elegant and readable than Parei, who seems awkward sometimes. The present tense is not always easy to maintain in a novel, and Parei sometimes struggles a bit. From what I’ve seen of the translation, this cannot be said for Katy Derbyshire’s excellent translation. I’m intrigued to find out how she solved the Hell/Dunkel names thing, though. Readers, buy this book, and then run and tell me.

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