View into the german literary scene

“Books Creating Buzz”

Berthold Franke © Berthold Franke
Berthold Franke © Berthold Franke
Berthold Franke, member of the German Book Prize jury 2016
As well having undeniably strenuous sides, being a member of a literature jury also has its pleasant aspects. It means being in a kind of state of emergency, during which extensive reading may be made into a full-time occupation for a while. As a juror of the German Book Prize, however, you then experience an interesting shift in point of view. The world and reality are suddenly perceived as it were from the perspective of current German-language prose, a very exciting project. For what this enables one to see is a second-hand reality, a reality mediated by literature, enabling one to gain metaphorical distance from the tangible while giving very special access to reality through artistic-narrative concentration. People who like books know that one is always both closer and further away; literature creates, to use an expression of Adorno, the phenomenon of “distant proximity”.

We experience this paradox in books such as Phillip Winkler’s Hool or Reinhard Kaiser-Mühlecker’s Fremde Seele, dunkler Wald (Dark Forest, Foreign Soul), where extreme or remote living environments are described where ultimately very elementary, universal human constellations emerge. Or, conversely, in Gerhard Falkner’s Apollokalypse, a book that makes experiences of generations and cities readable as construction elements of a biographical-literary identity. Bodo Kirchhoff, the newly-chosen winner of the German Book Prize has taken the literary art of linking the external, social world and the internal, subjective world to extremes. His novel, which is actually referred to as a novella, takes the gentle but radical love story of an ageing couple into the European reality of summer 2015, and thus, if you will, into a confrontation with globalisation, which Europe is experiencing in the form of the new migration movements. The fact that this succeeds without sliding into kitsch for even a moment has something to do with the concentration of the text and the writer’s linguistic delicacy. Kirchhoff calls a spade a spade without the word “refugee” ever being used in this wonderful book. Perceiving in a way that is so up to date and deep at the same time is the privilege of the literary view of the world.

If there is a trend in current German-language literature and perhaps in current literature generally, it is towards biographical writing. For some time, many of the books that have been dominating production and the bestseller lists have had their central impulse in the literary memoir. The German projects by Gerhard Henschel, Andreas Maier and Joachim Meyerhoff correspond to the world success of Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård in their comprehensive coverage. Books by André Kubiczek and Thomas Melle, which were also shortlisted, are outstanding, alongside many unique works of this literary season by the outstanding writer Maxim Biller, the above-mentioned Gerhard Falkner, Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre and others. While Kubiczek narrates a primordial scene of (himself) growing up in Potsdam in 1985 in Skizze eines Sommers (A Sketch of Summer), presenting a wonderfully playful yet precisely observed bittersweet novel of adolescence, one of the most enjoyable books of the year, Thomas Melle’s biographical report on his manic-depressive illness that lasted years, entitled Die Welt im Rücken (The World At Your Back) takes one’s breath away. If one had to define this book across the boundaries of genre, it would be something like a “non-fictional novel”, a text based on brutally unemotional self-exposure using highly literary means. We not only read the hard-hitting story of an illness that goes to the extremes of what is bearable and its terrible effects on the writer’s biography, but a great text about the human condition from a previously undescribed perspective.

An important autobiography is also to be expected among the non-fiction books, namely that of Wolf Biermann, the singer-songwriter who once taught those in power in the GDR to fear. Warte nicht auf bessre Zeiten (Don’t Wait for Better Times) is the account of a life packed full to the brim, a life intertwined with contemporary German history like that of hardly anyone else in his generation. This account brings to us the full-blooded person and most important German writer in Bertolt Brecht’s tradition. Anyone writing in German today is a successor of Martin Luther to some extent. To mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, there is a biography of Martin Luther by Australian historian Lyndal Roper and a journey into the cultural history of the Luther era entitled Reise in die Lutherzeit (A Journey to the Time of Luther) by Bruno Preisendörfer, which deals not only with the major religious events that took place 500 years ago, but also with major events in the history of the German language.

As always, relevance to the current political situation and contemporary cultural trends comprise the majority of non-fiction book production. Michael Angele analyses the causes and effects of the oft-cited crisis of the printed press in his essay Der letzte Zeitungsleser (The Last Newspaper Reader), which is an ironic take on Thomas Bernhard. Christoph Bartmann’s book Die Rückkehr der Diener (The Return of the Servants) deals with the partly cynical, partly suppressed, but definitely unpleasant fact that the modern middle class in rich countries meanwhile celebrates its lifestyle at the expense of a new class of the serving proletariat in the service sector. And a fresh, unemotional but very precise new voice in the choir of feminism reveals itself in Margarete Stokowski’s Untenrum frei (Free Down There). Carolin Emcke, the latest winner of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, writes against hatred in Gegen den Hass (Against Hatred). Her book about the new dimension of uninhibited fanatical hatred that has broken ground in our public political and cultural life is one of the most-discussed texts in Germany this autumn, along with the prize-winner’s polarising speech, in which the debate on the refugee issue was taken further. The book by Herfried and Marina Münkler Die neuen Deutschen (The New Germans) assumes the unavoidability of social change resulting from the new waves of migration and analyses in a refreshingly sober and unemotional way the opportunities and risks of the upcoming process of integrating large numbers of people. It is observed, not for the first time, that Europe is in a trap. The doyen of critical political science in Germany, Claus Offe, succeeds in adding specific perspectives for a solution to this truly unpleasant analysis without self-deception, while Jan-Werner Müller’s much-cited essay Was ist Populismus? (What is Populism?) undertakes to start by clarifying the categories that are needed. That is not much at a time, particularly following the American elections, when Europe is called upon more than ever before to find itself.

ObWhether one makes a selection from a large number of books in connection with literary prizes, bestseller lists or a book list like this one, it is always an ordeal because every decision in favour of one book amounts to a decision against many others. That lies in the nature of the matter. So if someone cannot accept the unavoidable playful arbitrary element of this process in principle (for which there are some good arguments), they should, if possible, not be influenced by all the awards and lists. To everyone else, we recommend this booklet as an inspiration for their journey around the German-language book world this winter. Enjoy this latest edition of “Books Creating Buzz”.

Berthold Franke

Berthold Franke, born in 1956,
studied music, German language and literature, and social sciences and has worked
as a journalist and university lecturer.
Since 1988, he has worked for the Goethe-Institut, with assignments in Warsaw,
Dakar, Stockholm and Paris, among other places. Most recently, he was regional
director for Southwest Europe and European commissioner for the Goethe-Institut
in Brussels. Since 2014, he has been regional director in Prague for the Central
and Eastern European Goethe Instituts.
He is the author of essays and other publications on cultural policy and political
topics, which have appeared in MERKUR and elsewhere.
His latest work is Kanon und Bestenlisten. Was gilt in der Kultur? – Was zählt
für Deutschlands Nachbarn
(Göttingen: Steidl 2012), of which he was the editor.
He was a member of the German Book Prize jury 2016.

Autumn 2016