The Whole World in the Wetterau: The New German Regional Literature
In his collection of columns Onkel J.: Heimatkunde (Uncle J: Local History), the writer Andreas Maier confesses to being a “regional writer”. This has about it something almost defiant, even rebellious; for to the idea of the “regional novel” there still attaches the suspicion of the sticky-idealising idyll, the backward and trivial. No wonder then that writers such as Thomas Bernhard and Arnold Stadler have inveighed against it with anger, irony and sarcasm. Now, after oscillating between the extremes of idyll and “negative regional novel”, the time seems ripe for an unbiased look at the provinces: understanding instead of glorification, rapprochement rather than rejection.
Novels set in the provinces have in recent years found their audience and the acclaim of critics: Norbert Scheuer’s Überm Rauschen (The Rushing of Water) and Patrick Findeis’s Kein schöner Land (No Land More Lovely) were awarded in 2006 and 2008 respectively the Klagenfurt 3Sat Literature Prize. Scheuer’s novel even made it onto the 2009 short list for the German Book Prize, as did Stephan Thome’s Grenzgang (Border Walk). And in 2010 Andreas Maier received the Wilhelm Raabe Literature Prize for his novel Das Zimmer (The Room).
In defence of the village idiot
The Room is the prelude of Maier’s eleven volume novel cycle Ortsumgehung (Bypass). In the first volume the first-person narrator reconstructs a day in the life of his late Uncle J, who lived in the Wetterau, a region of Hesse. What did J feel think and feel back in 1969, the year of the moon landing?
In characterising the uncle, Maier does not miss a single provincial stereotype: J loves German folk music, Luis Trenker mountaineering films, inns, the Wehrmacht, the hunt and the forest. To cap it, the anti-hero exudes a pungent “smell of silage”. Yet Maier still manages to have the reader follow him into the world of Uncle J, who has been mentally handicapped since his delivery as a forceps baby. Only his nephew divines narratively the moments in which sheer chance prevented Uncle J from running amok.
The Room is an apologia of the village idiot and the simple life of the provinces. Maier presents the small world of the Wetterau and talks at the same time of great themes, of exclusion and of the longing to belong, of the euphoria of progress in the 1960s and its disillusionment.
Norbert Scheuer: “The Rushing of Water”
Regional novels are often written from the point of view of those who left home and now return. So it is in Norbert Scheuer’s Überm Rauschen (The Rushing of Water), a novel about two very different brothers, about fly fishing, remembering and, in the end, the Eifel.
Leo Arimond is called from Hamburg back to the Eifel: his older brother Hermann has barricaded himself in his room, gone mad. Since childhood, Hermann has had only one passion: fly fishing. Next to the inn, which he has taken over from his parents, is a river; it gathers at a weir and makes a rushing sound. Hermann’s father taught him to fish, and ever since he has been hunting the fabled fish Ischthys.
Leo, the first-person narrator, upon his return, slips into the fishing duds of his brother, into, as it were, his brother’s skin, and ambles along the river for a day, baiting fish and memories. Leo’s former certainties get caught up in the flow, in the movement. Overwhelmed by doubts, he finally asks himself where his home is. The strangeness he feels towards his past, his family, breaks open.
“Perhaps we know too little”
These works do not conceal the narrowness, the oppressiveness and the decay that characterises the provinces for many people. Norbert Scheuer, for example, tells of wounds that will never heal: the brother’s mother has wrapped herself in a terrifying coldness since the accidental death of her first husband; the father dies of a brain tumour; a Dutch woman with whom Hermann had an affair drowns in the river. And at the bar of the Arimond’s inn Zehner, the former mill owner, drinks his way through life.
Norbert Scheuer does not sit in judgement over these lives, but rather approaches them gently – constantly aware of how bounded one’s own point of view is: “Perhaps we know too little about the other ways of life and things around us”. Thus Leo questions the arrogance of those who have left their homes: “I remember how, back then, I wanted on no account to become one of these stiffs. I always wanted to be something special, and yet I’ve become just like them. I could just as well have stayed here”. And the nephew of Uncle J in Andreas Maier’s novel also increasingly notices resemblances in himself to his once hated kin.
Despite their portrayal of provincial narrowness, Maier and Scheuer succeed - and this is the most astonishing thing about their works – in broadening the reader’s horizon. Their prose has about it something conciliatory, if only because the protagonists come to find themselves. The Eifel and the Wetterau are in these novels interchangeable places. They correspond of course to areas on the map, but at bottom they are universal. Thus Andreas Maier has said: “In the end, the reader will notice that it was never about the Wetterau, but was always about the whole world and how I’ve learned to see it and what I think about us human beings”.
is a freelance journalist and has written for various publications, including West German Radio in Cologne.
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
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