View into the german literary scene

“You must be a happy, carefree country”

Quelle: Goethe-Institut © Christoph Schröder
Christoph Schröder © Christoph Schröder
Christoph Schröder, lecturer literary criticism, G.U. Frankfurt
“You must be a happy, carefree country”. This sentence was pronounced by the lector of a not insignificant French literary press at the Frankfurt Book Fair. The lector was referring to this year’s shortlist for the German Book Prize, and his statement was quite intentionally meant to be ambiguous. Firstly, it is indisputable that 2013 produced novels in German of an extremely high quality. They were so good that even novels that would definitely have been possible prize-winners in previous years were not even shortlisted this time. Secondly, however, the colleague from France was amazed by the fact that we in Germany continue to be able to afford ourselves a jury for the most important book (not literature!) prize, which does not set out to seek merely sales potential, but literary quality. That we
in Germany have a book market that tolerates and supports that.
For the moment, anyway.

One cannot talk about the development of German literature in recent years without talking about the German Book Prize. The prize’s profile-raising, market and selling power has promoted, if not produced a genre, starting with the first prize-winner, Arno Geiger, in 2005. Only recently has contemporary literature managed to liberate itself from the dominance of the prize in an urgently needed emancipation process and to break free from the genre of the historically coloured, politically based family novel, divided in turn into the two branches of the German-German past - National Socialism and the GDR.

In 2007, Julia Franck, who was born in East Berlin and who left for the Federal Republic of Germany in 1978, won the prize for her novel “Die Mittagsfrau”, in which she tells a woman’s life story from the beginning of the twentieth century, through the Weimar Republic and National Socialism right through to the immediate post-war period until the day when the woman, Helene Würsich, escapes, leaving her son by himself at a station, and decides to start a new life, free of any constraints. A year later, in 2008, Uwe Tellkamp’s monumental Dresden epic “Der Turm” was published. Its resounding public success is out of proportion to its literary complexity and the attention Tellkamp demands from his readers as the representative of a new conservative educated middle class. In 2011, Eugen Ruge won the German Book Prize with his debut novel “In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts”, which reflects the fate of a family in the history of the development of the GDR; finally, the year after, Ursula Krechel received the award for her novel “Landgericht”, based on real archive material, which deals with the narrow-minded way in which the new young Federal Republic handled an exile who had returned from Cuba.

Varied as these novels were in their choice of perspective and literary quality, they highlighted a trend, a clear tendency to historicise literary narrative. That is not a criticism, particularly since it is completely unclear who should be the target of such criticism (each individual author, publishers, the buying public, the juries?) Yet it became clear at the latest with “Landgericht” that the well-intentioned attempt to proceed in a semi-documentary way soon comes up against its aesthetic limits. The genre, it appears, has been exhausted. Or, to quote another lector, this time a member of staff at a renowned German-language publishing house: “I don’t bother reading any manuscripts where a great-grandmother’s or grandmother’s old letters are found in some attic or other.” What may still be acceptable is what happens in Tellkamp’s “Turm”, which is pure literature. The novel neither had nor has a mission or task, and it rises above its merely chronological and geographical cornerstones.

“Connected to the real world”, “contemporary”, “with a sense of urgency” – those are the hackneyed demands repeatedly made on literature and on authors from various quarters which, in essence, are dogmatic and limit freedom. Literature is not journalism. If it is to address the present, its constraints, neuroses, psychopathologies and their causes, it has to find its own ways of doing so. And that is what it is doing. There is no competition to see which is the most urgent problem of the day. You have a free choice. But in contemporary German-language literature, a trend appears to have been set in recent years which attempts to track down the individual’s voluntary self-abandonment in a semantically soft world of work. The domination of agencies where one is supposed to feel so comfortable that one never wants to leave them again, the continuous cycle of “performance and burnout” (the title of a collection of articles edited by sociologists Sieghard Neckel and Greta Wagner), the dismantling of the once strict boundary between professional and personal life that requires people to be ready for deployment in capitalist and economic contexts at any time – all these are themes authors have addressed to a greater extent in recent years.

Allow me to give but a few examples. In her novel “wir schlafen nicht”, published in 2004, which in retrospect could be said to have created a style, Kathrin Röggla makes a ghostly collage of moods using 24 interview protocols with representatives (who are simultaneously victims) of the New Economy. They are economic zombies, willing to engage in permanent self-optimisation and permanently under the threat of having excessive demands placed on them. In “Das Jahr, in dem ich aufhörte, mir Sorgen zu machen, und anfing zu träumen“ (2011), Thomas von Steinaecker robs a member of staff of a large insurance company, of all people, of all her personal security, and in the end sends her on a surreal business trip (which is actually a trip between self-loss and self-discovery) to the atmosphere of a bizarre Russian fairy-tale country. And in his novel “Das Schiff das singend zieht auf seiner Bahn”, which was published in autumn 2013, Philipp Schönthaler holds a mirror up to the staff of a cosmetics company in a way that is at least half-ironic. What they see in it are themselves and the speech bubbles that they give off, the wellness blabla that they believe themselves until they are hurled out into a sleep clinic, against a bridge support pillar or into depression.

The two latest novels by this year’s German Book Prize winner, Terézia Mora, “Der einzige Mann auf dem Kontinent” and “Das Ungeheuer”, are the clearest suggestion of a possible change of paradigms that we can currently diagnose. It is amazing how gripping language, verve and discreet humour are used here to present, implement and transform in highly literary fashion the capitulation of the individual in the face of a vague and yet unrelenting competency matrix with which we are accosted in the world of work. And Clemens Meyer’s rightly much-praised novel “Im Stein” is not as far as was initially thought from Terézia Mora’s approach. “Im Stein” is quite definitely not a “red light novel”, as often claimed, but a book that declares physical love to be a business sector, and a not insignificant one at that, and uses it to spell out the very precise mechanisms and changes that have taken place in the capitalist world between the nineties up to the present.

“You must be a happy country.” As far as contemporary literature is concerned, yes, why not? A Daniel Kehlmann, who succeeded in performing a work of genius on the tightrope between scholarliness, instruction and entertainment in “Die Vermessung der Welt”. A witty and audacious beginner from East Frisia called Jan Brandt, who does not practice false modesty, and who in 2011 followed in the footsteps of Uwe Johnson in “Gegen die Welt” to fuse extra-terrestrials with Heavy Metal and turn a small drugstore into Germany’s mental centre. Then there is the incredibly clever Christoph Peters, whose continuation of the boarding school novel “Wir in Kahlenbeck” (2012) is already eagerly anticipated. Or Bodo Kirchhoff and his amazing wisdom about life and love in “Die Liebe in groben Zügen” (2012). There is so much that cannot be pressed into any particular mould. A writer like Peter Kurzeck, for instance, such a marginal figure in the literature business, and yet possibly - why not use a superlative - one of the greatest of them all. A chronicler and magician at the same time. Since 1997, since “Übers Eis”, Peter Kurzeck has been working on a project called “Das alte Jahrhundert”, which, upon completion, is envisaged to comprise 13 novels. 2011 saw publication of the fifth volume entitled “Vorabend”. It has some 1000 pages and is a marvellous book, a book of the century indeed. Basically, the Büchner Prize can only be taken seriously as the most significant German literature prize when it is finally awarded to Peter Kurzeck.

We do not need to be a carefree country. And definitely not a happy one. But if there is one thing we do not need to worry about right now, it is the state of contemporary literature. The crisis is doing it good.

Christoph Schröder

Christoph Schröder was born in 1973.
He read German, Comparative Literature and Philosophy in Mainz and lives in Frankfurt am Main.
Since 1999, he has been a freelance critic and publicist, inter alia for the Süddeutsche Zeitung,
Die Zeit, die taz, der Tagesspiegel and Deutschlandradio Kultur.
He has lectured on literary criticism on the Book and Media Practice course
at the Goethe University Frankfurt since 2007

Autumn 2013