View into the german literary scene

Coming out of its shell – Why it is a good thing that the German literary language was never home alone

Lothar Müller © Rolf Walter
Lothar Müller © Rolf Walter
Lothar Müller
Editor Feuilleton SZ, Berlin
Hardly anyone knows the name of the town that features in the title of the novel Zeiden, im Januar (Zeiden, in January). It is in Romania; its local name is Codlea, and in Hungarian it is called Feketehalom. When you have finished reading the novel, you will know that there is plenty of woodland around the town, that it is located at the foot of a hill and that the language of those who called the shots in the surrounding area has sometimes been Hungarian, sometimes Romanian and sometimes German. As one reads, one might suspect that sagas merge across language barriers in the narrative’s remote small world: “At the court of Etzel in the land of the Huns, the beleaguered Burgundians open the wounds of their fallen brothers in arms to still their hunger and quench their thirst on their blood. Perhaps the Nibelungenlied is the source of vampirism in Hungary.”

The novel Zeiden, in January is one of the surprises of 2015’s spring publications. It appeared from nowhere, as the topos of the anecdote of the unsolicited manuscript sent to a publisher would have it. The manuscript came into the hands of an editor whose eyes widened with amazement as he read. After all, this was a debut novel by a completely unknown writer and it attracted such critical attention that it was shortlisted for the Leipzig Book Fair’s fiction prize. In the end, Ursula Ackrill, who was born in Brasov in Transylvania in 1974, read German literature and theology in Bucharest and completed a doctorate at the University of Leicester, England in 2003 with a thesis on Christa Wolf, did not win the prize. But the town of Zeiden, populated by fictional characters and Doppelgänger of real historical figures is now on the literary map of German literature. The chronicle is densely packed into three days in January 1941. Multiple trapdoors open into recent and more distant pasts, fascist Iron Guard Legionnaires in Bucharest hunt Jews to the death, zealous nationally-minded Transylvanians recruit young men for the SS and the majority of the people of Zeiden speculate that the alliance between Romanian dictator Antonescu and Nazi Germany will offer them, entrenched, self-contained German-speaking Transylvanian Saxons, a historic opportunity, with only a few warning against condoning the persecution of another minority, the Jews, out of opportunism.

This is a book in which the German language is not only the narrative medium, but also one of the novel’s key characters. The Austrian learned in Vienna by some of the novel’s Romanian characters is just as much part of this artificial language as the linguistic climate of the Transylvanian Saxons, and the disconcertment regarding the language that was palpable in some reviews clearly resulted from the distance of the style deriving from these linguistic sources in terms of its vocabulary and rhythm from the familiar, laconic ideal of contemporary German-language literature orientated to Anglo-Saxon models.

It is as uncertain as it is irrelevant whether or not Ursula Ackrill, a librarian in Nottingham, holds a German passport. Whether or not she does, her debut novel has taken her into the realm of contemporary German literature. In this realm, any affiliation authors writing in German may have to a nation state is not lost, but it is relativized by the fact that the German-language literary market brings together books, writers and publishers from the Federal Republic of Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The Swiss writer Lukas Bärfuss, who was awarded the Swiss Book Prize 2014 for Koala, was nominated for the German Book Prize 2014 for the same book. The first writer to win the German Book Prize ten years ago was Arno Geiger, an Austrian. Yet both these writers publish their works in publishing houses based in the Federal Republic of Germany.

The interconnections in the literature market have deep historical roots. For it is not only true of the German literary language that its golden age in the Classical and Romantic period preceded the nation state. It only achieved this golden age in the first place because it was never isolated. Literary imports had a lasting influence – in the eighteenth century, the German literary language absorbed formal models from England and France, but also from Italy, and sometimes pinned its ambitions on speaking with an ancient Greek accent. The fact that it was developing the impetus gained from Luther’s translation of the Bible at the same time and was also setting about plying official language and legal diction was no impediment to the energy with which German literary language discovered itself through the medium of translation. Its rise and the internal diversity of this rise were favoured by the fact that it took place at a relative distance from the state, that Germany had no fixed dominant capital city. The epoch in which the Classical and Romantic German literary language developed was marked by wars, a transportation boom and the development of trade relations. Thus, the German literary language was influenced from its very emergence by its “migration background”, a term now used to refer to individual writers. Naturalist and world traveller Adelbert von Chamisso represents immigration into the German literary language, the complementary phenomenon to the development of the German language through going out of itself in translation. His name has been given to a German literature prize established in 1985 to recognise authors writing in German whose mother tongue is not German, and it is meanwhile awarded to writers “whose works are influenced by a culture change“.

The Chamisso Prize emerged from discomfiture with terms such as “migrant worker literature”. It owes its development to a decisive extent to the upheaval of 1989/90, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the re-emergence of the physical and cultural maps beneath the monochrome political atlases of the post-Yalta world. It is characteristic of contemporary German literature in the early 21st century that Terézia Mora, who was born in Hungary, grew up speaking two languages and has translated a great deal from Hungarian, won the German Book Prize in 2013 for her novel Das Ungeheuer (Monster) and that in spring 2014 Saša Stanišić was nominated for the Leipzig Book Fair prize for Vor dem Fest (Before the Party), alongside Katja Petrowskaja for Vielleicht Esther (Maybe Esther). In the end, the award went to Stanišić. The Chamisso Prize is letting its children go – they are now receiving all sorts of prizes, and the kind of writer for which it was conceived no longer depends on it. In his debut novel published in 2006, Wie der Soldat das Grammofon repariert (How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone), Saša Stanišić, who was born in Višegrad in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1978, tells a story of origins. And instead of telling a lucid three-generation family novel in Vielleicht Esther, Katja Petrowskaja used the Internet to research her Ukrainian family of origin. Only in the course of this research does it gradually emerge who is actually part of it. But there is no aesthetic law that authors who have left their world of origin are obliged to tell over and over again of this world of origin and of leaving it behind. It is part of the charm of Saša Stanišić’s Before the Party that the narrative voice speaks like a ventriloquist from the collective village community in the Uckermark in the Brandenburg provinces, but that at the same time the humorous novel covertly includes the perspective of the foreigner, the new arrival, on the village with the two lakes and its history. Accusations that the author adapted to German majority society in focusing on provincial Germany and was disloyal to his own origin did nothing to detract from the novel’s charm. The way in which it plays with the form of the village novel is based on something that had not previously existed in old village stories, either in Germany or in Bosnia: the uncoupling of origins and future orientation. Like translating, this involves leaving behind the established linguistic world, a creatively imaginative linguistic force.

Lothar Müller

(who was born in 1954) is an editor for the feuilleton of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, based in Berlin.
After a lectureship for general and comparative literature at the Free University of Berlin, he worked as an editor for the feuilleton of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Müller was awarded the Alfred Kerr Prize in 2000, the Johann Heinrich Merck Literary Criticism and Essay Prize in 2008 and the Berlin Prize for Literary Criticism in 2013.

Spring 2015