Nobel Prize 2015: My picks.

So originally I planned on mostly just reposting my old 2014 picks (because I, uh, picked wrong, as always), but I did end up modifying them. I mean, look, I have become very impatient with the insistence of the Academy to elect good-but-not-great white or European writers. I always found that the best attitude is not “who should win it instead” – but “has the winner deserved it?” Because the pool of excellent & important writers who cannot all win it, is just too large. And opinions vary. I wrote a longish piece on Modiano in the wake of his win, you can read it here. He’s very good, but he’s just not Nobel material. None of his work really stands out from the larger body of French postwar literature that examines collective and personal memory. The best writer of the bunch is probably Claude Simon, with Jorge Semprún a close second, and writers like Jean Rouaud and Patrick Modiano following behind that. Simon is an undeniably great writer (a very deserving Nobel winner), and while Modiano is not following in his footsteps, following a different literary lineage, I would argue he’s not appreciably different enough to warrant a Nobel Prize while other writers languish. A French Nobel prize – how, after the already dubious (but at least interesting) election of Le Clèzio, could it not have gone to Yves Bonnefoy? Or 91 year old Michel Tournier, whose best work far outstrips Modiano’s best? Or if French language, why not Assia Djebar? She passed away this year and it’s a shame she never won Literature’s most prestigious award.

And while we discuss whether another white or European writer should win it (Banville, Roth, Fosse, Oates are among the names I heard over the past weeks), we hear nothing about writers like Nigerian novelist Buchi Emecheta, who writes excellent novels about the female experience in a country between colonialism and modernity. She’s smart, good, popular and significant and yet people dare to name Philip Roth as a deserving writer. Or how about Guyanese novelist, poet and essayist Wilson Harris. Harris is 94 years old, and has not won a Nobel prize yet despite having written an important and inarguably excellent (and extensive) body of work that’s insightful, experimental, political and addictively readable. Why wasn’t he picked yet or why isn’t he at least being prominently discussed, especially since it felt a few years ago as if the academy was doing a tour of all the important writers that were on the brink of dying, giving the prize to deserving and old writers like Pinter, Lessing and Tranströmer. They are the kind of significant, excellent writers that we sometimes think must already have won it. In general, as I pointed out last year, the award appeared to settle into a “sure why not” pattern of boring but unobjectionable writers.

And yet, much as I liked my ‘observed’ pattern, Modiano does not fit it. If he died unrecognized there would have been no outcry about it, nor was there a general clamoring for his election, as there was for writers like Vargas Llosa. In fact, a different pattern, less acceptable, emerges now. These selections have been so safe, so European-friendly that I’m hesitant to be happy about rumors that László Krasznahorkai, a truly, deeply, excellent writer may win the award. He would be more than deserving, but at this point, the award needs to look at other continents, at other cultures, at other kinds of writers. And by that I don’t mean Haruki Murakami. In lieu of ranting about him, I direct you to this piece written by my good friend Jake Waalk on this blog. So let’s go on to my picks.

ONE  My #1 wish every year is to give it to a poet, being a poet myself and writing a dissertation on poetry. I also think the genre is criminally underrepresented. So in first place is poetry, and the three living poets that I consider most deserving. I used to put Bei Dao on the list (and not just because he’s charming in person), but two years after Mo Yan’s win, that’s not going to happen. My list of poets tends to be headlined by John Ashbery who I consider not only to be an absolutely excellent poet, but whose influence both on American poetry of his time, and on our reading of older poetry is importand and enduring. Given the circumstances outlined in my introduction, however, if an American poet makes the cut, I would vote for Nathaniel Mackey. Mackey is an African-American poet who has just won the Bollingen Prize, the single most prestigious award for poetry in the US. His work is powerful, experimental, moving and important. He draws from Modernist traditions and from postmodern impulses – but really, at this point, he has become a tradition in himself. Jazz, biography, politics and the limits of poetry are among his topics. There are other influential experimental US poets who are still alive, but few can match Mackey for his mastery of language and his inventiveness in poetry and prose. Mackey would be an excellent and deserving pick. A close/equal second for me is Syrian poet Adonis/Adunis (Adūnīs) whose work, as far as I read it in French, English and German translation, offers poetry that is both lyrical and intellectually acute. He is a politically passionate poet whose sensibilities prevent him from writing bland political pamphlets. What’s more, he is critically important to Arabic poetry as a scholar, teacher and editor. In a region, where weapons often speak louder that words, and words themselves are enlisted to provide ammunition rather than pleasure, Adonis’s work provides both clarity as well as lyrical wellspring of linguistic nourishment. His work in preserving and encouraging a poetic culture in a war torn environment is not just admirable and fantastically accomplished, it is also worth being recognized and highlighted. In a time of religious fights and infights, of interpretations and misinterpretations, his work engages the language of the Qu’ran inventively, critically, beautifully, offering a poetic theology of modern man. A final intriguing option would be Ko Un. I have read his work in English translation, but I don’t read Korean, and can’t really discuss him. I find him intriguing and interesting, but there’s no way I can adequately discuss him. Selfishly, I would root for him winning just to read more essays on his work.

TWO Like poetry, nonfiction which has not had a winner in decades. So as in the previous case, I will mention more than one here. #1 surely should be Umberto Eco. While he’s also a novelist, and perhaps more widely known as such, his work in the fringes of philosophy and in literary criticism and theory is significant, wide ranging and influential. I don’t think any other writer as important and accomplished and widely read in his field is still alive. What’s more, his work is fantastically well written, at least in English translation. Similar things apply to my other pick in this category, Hilary Putnam. I always thought Stanley Cavell should be considered, with his wide range from philosophy to literary and film criticism, but as long as Hilary Putnam is still around, a nonfiction Nobel that is not awarded to him or Eco would be upsetting, Putnam’s increasingly mystical examinations of reality and language are blindingly well written and incredibly influential, even among the many people disagreeing with him.

THREE Meanwhile, the novelist that I most want to win the prize is Ngugi wa Thiong’o. There’s his literary skill. His early novels written in English, as well as the more allegorical Wizard of the Crow and the recent, clear-eyed and powerful memoirs, all of this is written by an excellent writer. He moves between genres, changing techniques and eventually even languages, all with impressive ease. So he’s a very good writer, but he’s also politically significant. As the literary conscience of a tumultuous Kenya, he highlights struggles, the oppressed and shines a light on how his young country deals with history and power. In the course of his literary and cultural activism he was eventually imprisoned for a while by Kenyatta’s successor. After his release he was forced into exile. Yet through all this, he continued, like Adonis, to work with and encourage cultural processes in his home country. Starting with his decision, in the late 1970s, to stop writing in English, instead using Gĩkũyũ and translating his books into English later. He supported and helped create and sustain a native literary culture that used native languages and interrogated political processes in Kenya. A cultural, politcal and linguistic conscience of his home country, it’s hard to come up with a living writer who better fits the demands of the academy. Of the writers I root for, this one is the only one who would also fit the “obvious choice” pattern of recent decisions. Wilson Harris, who I mentioned in my introduction, is a better writer in my opinion, but would be more of a stretch for the academy.

Four So the fourth pick I am least sure. If a white/European novelist were to win it, after all, who would I be least upset about? There are a couple of excellent/important writers who are too young to win it, among them Romanian writer Mircea Cărtărescu and Russian emigré novelist Mikhail Shishkin. Juan Goytisolo appears to be worthy, but I haven’t read his work enough to have an opinion worth sharing. Similarly, due to accessibility problems, I have only read parts of the work of Gerald Murnane who is unbelievably great. But older parts of his work are out of print, and newer parts have not been published outside of Australia yet. First book, no, first page of his I read I could not believe how good he is, but, again, mostly not been able to read him. So who? Let me pick 2. There’s László Krasznahorkai who is pretty much universally recognized for his excellence. He draws on an (Austro-)Hungarian tradition of paranoia and darkness, but spins it into an intellectually brilliant and musically devastating form that nobody else can achieve right now. But the death of Siegfried Lenz, who was more than deserving of the award, reminded me of the now best German living active novelist: Reinhard Jirgl. A disciple of Heiner Müller, Jirgl rose from being a mechanic and stage hand to winning German literature’s most prestigious award, the Büchner Preis. Jirgl’s work, originally prevented from being published in the GDR, initially was highly influenced by Müller, whose mixture of stark physicality, and strenuously literary, even stiff, language pervades Jirgl’s Genealogie des Tötens, a book that collects his earliest manuscripts that were prevented from being published in the GDR. Another influence on that book, and more, on his later work, is Arno Schmidt. In his later work, Jirgl interrogates impotence and the violence of social relationships and injustice. His language is literary and inventive, and as his work progresses, he increasingly changes and manipulates the limits of the form of the literary novel, by offering Cortázar-like shortcuts through the sequence of the novel (Abtrünnig) or by engaging with the genre of science fiction (Nichts von euch auf Erden). Quietly, he has become part of the intellectual, historical and moral conscience of Germany, a country increasingly unafraid (again) of waging war on others, and a country that is trying to exculpate itself from its awful early 20th century history. Jirgl has won almost every German prize imaginable but his powerful and gorgeously written work has not found recognition outside of Germany and France. (ISBN)

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Nobel Prize 2014: my picks

Since I have never correctly picked (well, Tranströmer, kind of) the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, my picks should not be given much attention. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to offer my suggestions. So here are five of them. With a few exceptions, I am not trying to second guess the academy. They are not unlikely to offer it to another boring candidate. It is my belief that, starting with Vargas Llosa, they started giving the prize to candidates that won’t be likely to upset the white male dominant culture of criticism. Tranströmer was the one poet whose name was touted every year, as well as perennial nobel contender Mo Yan. The pattern of the new “sure that makes sense”-prize became most obvious last year when Alice Munro won. If they wanted to give it to a white, female, important, accomplished Canadian writer of short stories, why not give it to Mavis Gallant, who, in my opinion, is significantly better than the already excellent Munro. Before 2010, I have no doubt this would have been given to Gallant. But maybe the double whammy of Le Clèzio and Müller intimidated the academy into its present, boring, if not objectionable course.  I sincerely don’t want to think what the “sure, why not” option for 2014 could be. Philip Roth? Murakami? My heart weeps. Let’s just go on to my picks. 🙂

ONE  My #1 wish every year is to give it to a poet, being a poet myself and writing a dissertation on poetry. I also think the genre is criminally underrepresented. But factually, it’s probably not (was Churchill the last nonfiction winner?). So in first place is poetry, and the three living poets that I consider most excellent/deserving. I used to put Bei Dao on the list (and not just because he’s charming in person), but two years after Mo Yan’s win, that’s not going to happen. So my list of poets is headlined by John Ashbery who I consider not only to be an absolutely excellent poet, but whose influence both on American poetry of his time, and on our reading of older poetry is importand and enduring. Additionally, his work in translating French poetry and writing on art is both accomplished, but also draws him out of what the academy perceives as American insularity. His work is personal and generous, smart and emotional, international and profoundly American. A close/equal second for me is Syrian poet Adonis, whose work, as far as I read it in French, English and German translation, offers poetry that is both lyrical and intellectually acute. He is a politically passionate poet whose sensibilities prevent him from writing bland political pamphlets. What’s more, he is critically important to Arabic poetry as a scholar, teacher and editor. In a region, where weapons often speak louder that words, and words themselves are enlisted to provide ammunition rather than pleasure, Adonis’s work provides both clarity as well as lyrical wellspring of linguistic nourishment. His work in preserving and encouraging a poetic culture in a war torn environment is not just admirable and fantastically accomplished, it is also worth being recognized and highlighted. The third poet is Yves Bonnefoy, the most significant and important living French poet. Since I have only read his poetry (with great pleasure) and not studied it or his broader work, here is someone else’s excellent discussion of Bonnefoy. Moreover, Bonnefoy, like Ashbery, has been writing about art and produced fantastic translations (from English). So as we see, my first pick is actually three and could be longer (Jaccottet, the Swiss French genius would come to mind, maybe Zagajewsky). But I feel like there’s only room for one poet on a shortlist, for reasons that don’t apply to writers of novels who are often only perceived as “writers”.

TWO The same applies to nonfiction which has not had a winner in decades. So I will mention more than one here, #1 surely should be Umberto Eco. While he’s also a novelist, and perhaps more widely known as such, his work in the fringes of philosophy and in literary criticism and theory is significant, wide ranging and influential. I don’t think any other writer as important and accomplished and widely read in his field is still alive. What’s more, his work is fantastically well written, at least in English translation. Similar things apply to my other pick in this category, Hilary Putnam. I always thought Stanley Cavell should be considered, with his wide range from philosophy to literary and film criticism, but as long as Hilary Putnam is still around, a nonfiction Nobel that is not awarded to him or Eco would be upsetting, Putnam’s increasingly mystical examinations of reality and language are blindingly well written and incredibly influential, even among the many people disagreeing with him.

THREE The novelist that I most want to win the prize is Ngugi wa Thiong’o. There’s his literary skill. His early novels written in English, as well as the more allegorical Wizard of the Crow and the recent, clear-eyed and powerful memoirs, all of this is written by an excellent writer. He moves between genres, changing techniques and eventually even languages, all with impressive ease. So he’s a very good writer, but he’s also politically significant. As the literary conscience of a tumultuous Kenya, he highlights struggles, the oppressed and shines a light on how his young country deals with history and power. In the course of his literary and cultural activism he was eventually imprisoned for a while by Kenyatta’s successor. After his release he was forced into exile. Yet through all this, he continued, like Adonis, to work with and encourage cultural processes in his home country. Starting with his decision, in the late 1970s, to stop writing in English, instead using Gikuyu and translating his books into English later. He supported and helped create and sustain a native literary culture that used native languages and interrogated political processes in Kenya. A cultural, politcal and linguistic conscience of his home country, it’s hard to come up with a living writer who better fits the demands of the academy. Of the writers I root for, this one is the only one who would also fit the “obvious choice” pattern of recent decisions.

FOUR Now. I think Thomas Pynchon, together with William H. Gass and Joyce Carol Oates, is the best and most important and accomplished living American novelist. I think his work is unbelievably well written, brilliantly conceived and incredibly influential. His thinking is generous and humane, his work being engaged against epistemological and political violence. He has tackled and succeeded in writing a multitude of different kinds of books. There are very few significant contemporary writers whose work is not marked in one way or another by Pynchon. Now, at the same time, he said he wouldn’t accept the prize and I completely understand why this would keep the academy from giving him the prize. Nobody needs a Marlon Brando moment at the ceremony. That said, my pick for #4 is not Pynchon. I advocate a joint award for Pynchon and John Barth or even Pynchon, Barth and Robert Coover. It’s been a while since we had joint Nobel Prizes in Literature but it’s not unheard-of. John Barth, even more than Pynchon, is a profound and enduring influence not just on American literature post-1960, but on world literature. Young postmodern novelist, say, Austrian firebrand Clemens J. Setz, are unthinkable without Barth’s work that continued into the 1980s. While his work since then has been of much lesser impact, the academy has shown itself willing to award writers whose best work had been behind them for quite a while. The two mid-oughts awards for Lessing and Pinter are pretty clear evidence of that fact. Giving an award to Pynchon and Barth would be an overdue recognition of the excellence and importance of American early postmodernism. Well deserved.

FIVE So the fifth pick I am least sure. There are a couple of excellent/important writers who are too young to win it, among them Romanian writer Mircea Cartarescu and Russian emigré novelist Mikhail Shishkin. Juan Goytisolo appears to be worthy, but I haven’t read his work enough to have an opinion worth sharing. Similarly, due to accessibility problems, I have only read parts of the work of Gerald Murnane who is unbelievably great. But older parts of his work are out of print, and newer parts have not been published outside of Australia yet. First book, no, first page of his I read I could not believe how good he is, but, again, mostly not been able to read him. A writer I did read, Pierre Guyotat, is a much older writer I would not mind being recognized for his excellence and significance. But the recent death of Siegfried Lenz, who was more than deserving of the award, reminded me of the now best German living active novelist: Reinhard Jirgl. A disciple of Heiner Müller, Jirgl rose from being a mechanic and stage hand to winning German literature’s most prestigious award, the Büchner Preis. Jirgl’s work, originally prevented from being published in the GDR, initially was highly influenced by Müller, whose mixture of stark physicality, and strenuously literary, even stiff, language pervades Jirgl’s Genealogie des Tötens, a book that collects his earliest manuscripts that were prevented from being published in the GDR. Another influence on that book, and more, on his later work, is Arno Schmidt. In his later work, Jirgl interrogates impotence and the violence of social relationships and injustice. His language is literary and inventive, and as his work progresses, he increasingly changes and manipulates the limits of the form of the literary novel, by offering Cortázar-like shortcuts through the sequence of the novel (Abtrünnig) or by engaging with the genre of science fiction (Nichts von euch auf Erden). Quietly, he has become part of the intellectual, historical and moral conscience of Germany, a country increasingly unafraid (again) of waging war on others, and a country that is trying to exculpate itself from its awful early 20th century history. Jirgl has won almost every German prize imaginable but his powerful and gorgeously written work has not found recognition outside of Germany and France. Maybe it’s time.

Frankfurt die Bleistadt.

Die Mainufer, künstlich begradigt & befestigt, kaum höher scheinend als 1 Bordsteinkante, – so bietet der korsettierte Fluß-selber den Anblick einer breiten, asfaltierten Chaussee – ohne Menschen, ohne Fahrzeuge, in Finsternis belassen u leer. – Vielleicht zweihundert Meter weiter über den Fluss sich streckend die “Friedensbrücke” – ihre Kanten leuchtend konturiert vom selben kaltglühenden Blau wie das Geschäftshochhaus mit dem zungebläkenden Firmenzeichen, als hätte 1 Schulkind dies gemalt & aus Bequemlichkeit für beides, Firmenhaus & Brücke, dasselbe Blau aus dem Tuschkasten verwendet. – Wir bleiben stehn auf dem kleinen gemauerten & umzäunten Plattformviereck am Rand des Mains, sehen die Stadt: Als stützten Metallröhren glitzernd mit winzigen Tröpfchen beschweißt im hitzigen Dunkel die tief herabgedrückte Decke Eineshimmels ohne Regen ohne Wind. Starr u verschlossen Dienacht, eine Kammer aus Blei. Frankfurt die Bleistadt.

from Reinhard Jirgl‘s most recent novel Die Stille.

Jirgl wins 2010 Büchner Prize

The possibly best living German novelist Reinhard Jirgl has just been announced as winner of the 2010 Büchner Prize. Congratulations. He joins last year’s winner Walter Kappacher as yet another major German-language novelist who has been accorded the most prestigious German prize yet hasn’t been translated into English yet. For shame! Here is my review of one of Jirgl’s best novels. For more undeservedly untranslated German writers, I made a list here and another one here. Dalkey? Serpent’s tail? Open Letter Books?

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.

Reinhard Jirgl: Abschied von den Feinden

Jirgl, Reinhard (1998), Abschied von den Feinden, dtv
ISBN 3-432-12584-5

Abschied von den Feinden (Goodbye to the Enemies), not yet translated into English, is Reinhard Jirgl’s breakthrough novel. Published in 1995, it won two of the most important German literary prizes and established its author as one of the major and original voices of contemporary German literature. His work has three distinct and important predecessors in German language literature, each of which can be held accountable for one very important aspect of Jirgl’s dark and violent work. Those three are Thomas Bernhard, Uwe Johnson and Arno Schmidt; some of them more obviously influential for Jirgl’s oeuvre than others. This is not to say that Jirgl draws only from these three sources; of course he doesn’t, a writer who wields his language as deftly and powerfully as Jirgl does often draws from a multitude of sources, and not only from German sources at that. Chief, perhaps, among the Anglo-Saxon strand of influence, for example, are William Faulkner and Samuel Beckett, but among modern writers writing in German, I would place the three aforementioned novelists at the fore. We’ll return to that. Jirgl’s themes are restricted to a few areas of interest, like German history and the violence that people assault each other with, openly or in a less open manner. His 2000 novel Die Atlantische Mauer (The Atlantic Wall) for example, contains one of the most harrowing, most well-written depictions of rape I have ever had the displeasure to read, as well as a frighteningly precise outsider’s account of the workings of a bureaucracy.

Typically for Jirgl, it’s hard to grapple with the book, Jirgl is a slippery writer, offering several conflicting angles, down to a fundamental level. Abschied von den Feinden is a book deeply and explicitly invested in history, in questions of historical continuity and guilt; at the same time, it’s a textual machine. By cutting all the names from the text, reducing every character to a function, and every function to schematics, in combination with his typography and orthography, Jirgl suggests reading the book not as a historically involved book but as a textual artifact, as a book whose only level is exclusively textual, with history as one of many other textual elements, a game, in short, without responsibilities. These two levels are not coexisting, unconnected. Jirgl’s powerful use of language, his easy access to direct, even violent expression provides a strong link. Indeed, instead of subjugating history to a literary game, to a careless romp through the shelves, Jirgl goes the other way, he reconnects textuality to the gritty outside of history; his intense fiddling with words, typography and other gadgets serves just that purpose by locating the roots of the, often disturbing, acts he describes in the language they are described in. There are a few great writers who manage to create that link, one of those is Thomas Bernhard. Like Bernhard, Jirgl is an obsessive, like Bernhard, Jirgl creates a set of signs and topics and uses his work to explore them. Bernhard’s work can be put on a chart so that we see how certain topics are refined, developed, and how this is reflected in the language he uses to do this. As I said, the same applies to Jirgl.

Abschied von den Feinden traces a few characters through just over 40 years of German history; basically, we are looking at the lifespan of the German Democratic Republic, the socialist state on German soil, taken over by the other German state, the BRD, in 1990. Jirgl focuses on two inimical brothers and a woman both brothers courted at one time. The two brothers were left by their father, who fled into West Germany. Their mother was raped by government agents who wanted information from her about her supposed contacts to the imperialistic West, her kids taken away, practically orphaned. One of the most impressive sections of the book deals with the younger brother’s time in the orphanage. These sections are constructed with the imagery and language of German modernism, most significantly perhaps that of Hans Henny Jahnn, whose inestimable influence on German post-war avant-garde prose is traceable through major writers like Rolf-Dieter Brinkmann and Hubert Fichte, both of whom, in turn, have left their marks on Jirgl’s work. This may sound like namedropping but it’s actually a desperate attempt to render understandable the insane wealth of literary sources and references that are scattered through this amazing book. His writing is such that the literate reader automatically connects words, phrases and images with other books and texts. A metaphor containing an “Aster” calls to mind Benn’s famous early poem, just as, mentioning a “Tarnkappe” (magic cap or cloak of invisibility), to me, is almost as good as mentioning Christoph Meckel’s poem with the same title, and there’s innumerable smaller and larger ways in which texts surface and add depth to the book; just as in most cases of intertextuality, Jirgl, too, can be said to outsource meanings into the web of text he places his novel in. The specific context of Benn’s early poems, “set” in Germany before the first world war, is interesting to consider in relation to the modern history Jirgl looks at. I have absolutely no idea how the references, this incessant sounding for literary depths, this integral part of the novel would make it into a translation. I guess I’m lucky to speak the language.

To return to the two brothers. After a short time in the orphanage, they are taken in and raised by a pair of refugees, who were chased from what used to be German territories in the east, as people are wont to be chased in the turmoils of history. Since all this review stuff is created from memory (and my memory is awful), I will go ahead and admit I may be mixing the brothers up with another pair of orphans, who, however, only enter the story in its fringes. Structurally, the novel utilizes repetition a lot, thus, years after the father, leaving the two brothers’ mother, another man, the older brother, leaves a mother of two boys. Just like his father, he absconds to West Germany. We do not learn much about what happens to the two brothers once they are grown up. These years are regarded, for the most part, through the eyes of the woman I just mentioned. The two brothers appear, but as minor characters in the larger context of her life. The older brother is the quiet, shadowy presence in the West, whom she writes letters, partly as a defiance of the GDR establishment, the younger brother falls in love with her in the East, sleeps with her and is generally obsessed with her. That is about all that can be said about their history. The brothers are more important as narrative elements than as actual characters. The book is told via a complex arrangement of letters and monologues, and the two brothers’ voices provide the main tonal dynamic.

As to the woman, she is the person who sets everything in motion, who links all the characters, leading the story down from the environs of Rostock, a big city on the northeast coast of Germany, to East Berlin and back again. The story starts in a small town near Rostock (a very specific historical reference suggests this), the same town where the two brothers were raised by the elderly emigrant couple. There a woman’s dead body was found and an injured man who threw himself off a cliff. In a way, Abschied von den Feinden is about retracing the steps that led to her murder, about illuminating that homicide. Since this necessitates illuminating her background, Jirgl embarks on presenting a very memorable life to us, the life of a woman who did not fit the mold of GDR society. This very specific kind of misfit is a very well known part of GDR literature and life. There are literary characters all over the map such as Christa Wolf’s “Christa” from Nachdenken über Christa T. (translated into English; my review here), and the eponymous protagonist from Brigitte Reimann’s marvelous classic Franziska Linkerhand (not translated). Life in the GDR was beset, in a very un-communist manner, by all kinds of bourgeois prudery. Former citizens of the GDR pride themselves today on the easygoing manner with nakedness, for instance, that people in that country displayed, but below that was a strong and strict bourgeois moral code, especially as far as sexuality and more specifically, as far as promiscuity on the part of women was concerned. Very un-communistic, as I said. The woman in Jirgl’s book took what she needed, she slept with many men, especially after the older brother left her, she went to dances and took men home regularly. When a rich doctor, head of a government clinic, takes her home one night, she takes up with him and becomes his wife. She uses him, not in the way that cliché would have it, a woman marrying a rich man for money to live comfortably off the rest of her (married) life. She wants to study and to have the leisure and support to do it. Within the next years she proceeds to write a dissertation; it is in that process, however, that she has a falling-out with her husband.

For various reasons that I need not disclose here, he discards her and when she protests he has her thrown into a psychiatric ward, a punishment that will follow her for the rest of her life, because once pronounced, she finds it to be impossible to cleanse her name from something like that, even if those who pronounced the judgment have been discredited since. It is a general topic in Jirgl’s work but especially in Abschied von den Feinden: once you have been pronounced as outside of reasonable society, you tend to have trouble finding your way back in. Jirgl depicts madness as a classification created as a deposit of the irregular; she is thrown into the asylum not for medical but for private reasons, yet in a way, her punishment fits the institution; the fact that the judgment is upheld after 1990, with the threat of being put away continuously hanging above her, underscores this. Jirgl most effectively explores the inside/outside active in any society by giving a voice to the mob. This novel crawls with sounds and voices, and one of them, the most scathing and revealingly political, is that of the mob.
In the first chapter of E.P. Thompson’s seminal study The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson talks about the rise of the English working class as a political force, as a change from those times

when ‘the Mob’ did not organize itself in pursuit of its own ends but was called into spasmodic action by a faction […] to strengthen itself.

The mob in Abschied von den Feinden, the population of the small northeastern village, is hateful. Not in any special way, but in a way that anyone even fleetingly acquainted with German history will recognize. I’m sure it’s like this in every country, but this is my home turf, so excuse my myopia. These past 60something years we have expended a lot of time and energy convincing the world that we were called into action by some fringe faction instead of acknowledging that we took action, whoever represented us, politically. Once every dozen years something happens, however, that raises the specter of what happened then, that shows how we behave when we find the courage to behave as we really want to. After 1990, the signal event was when, in 1992, a mob burned the houses of asylum seekers in Rostock-Lichtenhagen, and many more citizens, up to 2000, stood nearby, watching the foreigners burn and flee, attacking the police, too. Because it’s not about obedience. It’s about doing the right thing, and, c’mon, we know someone needs to pay, Jews, foreigners, take your pick. It is this event that is recalled in the first of many instances that Jirgl lends a voice to the people, to the neighbors of the brothers, their adoptive parents and, at the end, to the woman.

Mentioning Lichtenhagen (alluding to it, rather, names are absent here, as I said) does not actually touch any of these people. There are no foreigners in the village, none of the protagonists is a foreigner. The Lichtenhagen incident is only meant to underscore a certain kind of thinking, a historical continuity, in East and West Germany. The most important German novelist writing on that topic is probably the magnificent Uwe Johnson. He, frequently called “Dichter beider Deutschland” (‘Both Germany’s Poet’), produced a couple of incredible novels about the exigencies of life in one half of Germany. He wasn’t just a superb writer, he was also an excellent reporter both on the mentality triggered by the insane bureaucracy in the GDR and on continuities in German culture. The people and characters that crowd Abschied von den Feinden could come straight from one of Johnson’s major novels. And like him, Jirgl clearly doesn’t like what he sees. The story of the woman and the two brothers drips with anger, venom, even. He pursues his subject with a dedication and an energy that is engaging and harrowing, which would not work half as well were Jirgl not the amazingly great writer that he is. In his actual writing, he demonstrates quite a few similarities to Arno Schmidt, the solitary literary hermit, who is perhaps best known for his experiments with typography and orthography. I will review one or two Schmidt novels within the next month so I wouldn’t want to shoot my load right now, but one of many tricks Schmidt pulls is dismembering words and phrases in a hunt for etymological roots and clues to meanings hidden in the weeds and the undergrowth of language. This is where Jirgl picks up. In a note that precedes Abschied von den Feinden, he warns his reader that he will encounter difficult and different kinds of typography and orthography to add further layers of signification. For example, he does not just use the word “und” (and), he also substitutes it variously by “u:”, “&”, “+” and others. He does not end an exclamation sentence with an exclamation mark, he starts it with it, not just that, he also inserts exclamation marks in the middle of them, for special emphasis. Jirgl uses punctuation as a tool to use not as a rule to obey.

In Abschied von den Feinden, unlike, for example, in the later novel Die Atlantische Mauer, Jirgl proceeds to explain himself. Any of these changes are lucid and self-explanatory, but Jirgl insists upon saddling the book with a four page discussion of the deeper meanings that some symbols add. Perusing this you’ll find that each change, for example the decision to represent the indefinite article “ein” (which doubles as a numeral) sometimes with the actual number “1”, is motivated and can be read as significant. The incredible thing here is that it doesn’t feel annoying and self-important as in Ander Monson’s novel; on the contrary. Yes, Jirgl’s additional notes do not help you read the novel if you read it for the first time. This is why they are in the back not in the front. Jirgl invites us to reread his book in the light of his notes. To see where he tells us that someone is, for instance “thin” and small details like this. Jirgl’s actual use of words, gadgets aside is impressive, astonishing, praiseworthy, and he does not need the tricks and these small experimental thingies, but what’s great about him is that he makes it look worth your while. Nothing looks extraneous or eccentric. Jirgl has made it a part of his work and what a magnificent, wonderful work it is. Much of his later work is contained in this dense book. There is Hundsnächte, of course, which is basically a sequel, but, as I said above, Jirgl is a man with obsessions and Abschied von den Feinden is his first utterly perfect result from his encounter with these obsessions. His writing will stay with you, his characters, phrases and scenes will haunt you. Reinhard Jirgl is a great writer.

I gotta say, though, it has to be a nightmare to translate. He works so much from within his language and culture, building this vibrant, raw bell-tower of sounds, that I have trouble seeing how that would be possible to translate. A translation would need a Jirgl (i.e. someone with Jirgl’s abilities) on the other side as well, for this to work. Yes, I like that. Jirgl as an enigma machine. But do read that book if you have the opportunity to do so. Or something else by Jirgl. He published a new novel this year. Pick him up now and when he wins the Nobel you can gloat.

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