View into the german literary scene

Capturing The Present

Ina Hartwig, Germany © Georg Kumpfmüller
Ina Hartwig,
literary critic
20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, German authors are once again beginning to narrate with great self-assurance.

When the secretary of the Swedish Academy of Sciences appeared before the press in Stockholm to announce that the winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature was Herta Müller, international response was largely clueless: “Herta who?“, inquired an American newspaper with smug ignorance. In Germany, however, Herta Müller, who has lived in (West) Berlin since 1987, is not only an author who has been awarded many high distinctions throughout the years, she is also – which need not be coextensive – one of the most highly acclaimed of all authors writing in German today. Since her first novel „Niederungen“ (i.e., Nadirs, 1984), she has been regarded in literary circles as a truly great, indeed magical virtuoso of language. However, her most recent novel “Atemschaukel“, which describes in highly poetic fashion the lives and suffering of Romanian German prisoners in a Russian labour camp from 1945 – 1950, provoked a dispute when the book was released in august. Those who received the novel with enthusiasm and acclaim gathered on one side. On the other, sceptics asked whether someone born after the events portrayed had any business writing literature about the labour camps at all. And is it acceptable for the language to be so “beautiful”? Fortunately, the Nobel Committee did not let themselves be influenced by such considerations.

In terms of orchestrating publicity, things were awkward for the German Book Prize (which awards the „best German-language novel of the year“) this time, as its purpose is to be a sales motor. The distinction from Stockholm was a hard act to follow. In a certain sense, the German Book Prize, in the fifth year of its existence, now suffered a minor GAU: Hertha Müller – a newly-chosen Nobel Prize laureate – was among its six finalists. The winner in the end was Kathrin Schmidt, born in Gotha in 1958. She received the award for her autobiographically-based novel “Du stirbst nicht“, about an East German writer who awakens from a coma caused by a cerebral haemorrhage and laboriously pieces back together her identity, her history, her language, and her love-relationship crises; all of it unsentimental and not without discovering humour in the situation, either.

Another reason for Kathrin Schmidt’s “Du stirbst nicht“ popularity is that it simultaneously deals with two important themes in contemporary German literature: illness and the question about who one is as “a German.“ Judith Hermann’s “Alice” short stories, released this past spring, already revolve around one cancer death after another, an elegiac book that makes its presence felt with meaninglessness rather than with significance. Then, all of a sudden in autumn, as if prearranged, several books dealing with cancer followed, whether the author’s own or that of family members (Georg Diez, Christoph Schlingensief, Jürgen Leinemann). The second major theme in Kathrin Schmidt’s novel is her inquiry into German-German self-experience, as the protagonist must reconstruct two German identities at the same time – a GDR identity as part of her biography, and a life in the reunited Federal Republic as “Part Two.”

Flaubert is the author of the wonderful bon mot that the future is what is unpleasant about the present. Perhaps because the present of 1989 is now past, and what was then the future is now the present, can the political transition be better reflected upon now than in the midst of the events as they were directly unfolding. But counter-examples also exist. One of them, who has decidedly committed himself to the present, is Rainald Goetz. Feverischly, he puts his écriture automatique to the test as a voyeuristic parlour game and experiment on himself at the same time; docu, gossip and flash of insight are one. Goetz’ slim book, in which the mighty in politics and the media have their more or less embarrassing public appearances, and which was released just in time for the Frankfurt Book Fair, is entitled “Loslabern” (i.e. running off at the mouth). The book trade is not spared scathing treatment as well, so that in particular members of the trade ought to be delighted with Goetz’ protocol. So - what is the present? Rainald Goetz’ rule is: I just take notes. But the truth is more complicated than that, since the the old avant-garde’s lasciviously tormented doubts about language are still making themselves felt.

Today, an impressive number of authors who began writing only after German reunification is populating the literary scene. What is striking is that doubts about language are foreign to them. These young East German narrators tackle things differently. Uwe Tellkamp, for instance, who applies the full force of history with provocative self-assurance in his novel “The Tower” (“Der Turm”, 2008). Contrary to what is often claimed, the decrepit GDR is by no means being nostalgically whitewashed here as an island populated by a dreamy, educational elite. Tellkamp turns the full severity of his Hegelian gaze on the “Red Aristocracy “, the socialist nomenclature, whose dissolution is brought about by the poison of doubt. Tellkamp’s GDR perishes with all pathos in a “revolution,“ not in a „reunification.“ On the other hand, Clemens Meyer - who caused a furor with “Als wir träumten” (i.e., while we were dreaming), his 2006 debut novel about a Leipzig youth clique - deals with the GDR in a completely different manner. In his treatment, the political transition appears as if behind an alcoholic veil: as grotesque, as theatre, as entertainment.

In Year 20 of the fall of the Berlin Wall, German-language literature is more vital, self-assured, multifaceted and open to experimentation than it has been in a long time. German literature, at least, has mastered reunification with flying colours. And let us not forget: West Germany met its own doom in 1989 just as much as did the GDR. The old Federal Republic is in need of its own literary investigation, it is in part awaiting exciting new reinterpretations, which in turn will provide the basis for future interpretations of the present. Any number of novels are bursting their covers - a new joy in length and comprehensiveness is noticeable: these narratives reach out into the wide world. Globalisation has captured literature; experience is no longer sought in barren apartments in old buildings in Berlin. People evidently have some catching up to do. One noteworthy novelist is the entrepreneur Ernst-Wilhelm Händler. His books (this fall’s release: „Welt aus Glas“ – i.e., a world of glass) risk diagnosing the present, factoring in monetary flow and human drives - in which he views men and women as completely equal generators of energy. It is a pathetic statement about the haplessness of our brave new award culture that this astute and perceptive author did not even make the shortlist of the German Book Award. But the fact remains: this special seriousness, this belief in the narratability of the world - precisely because its complexity is being looked at straight in the eyes once again - are manifesting themselves in the new German-language releases of recent years. Works dealing with cultural and social backwaters (an example here is Stephan Thome), with the flow of goods (David Wagner), with fetishism (Marlene Streeruwitz), with cars and cities (Ulf Erdmann Ziegler), with true and false heroes (Felicitas Hoppe), with vulnerable and wounded milieus (Anna Katharina Hahn), with the new world of work, fluctuating between Absurdistan and exploitation (Terézia Mora), with love and sexual slavery (Ralf Rothmann), with the angels of history (Sibylle Lewitscharoff), and with intoxication and darkness (Andreas Maier).

Could it be that – in the midst of the crisis, which is creating an ideological vacuum – we are witnessing a new “founding era“of literature?

Our thanks go to Ina Hartwig, literary critic of the Frankfurter Rundschau, for her exclusive introduction to our selection of books.
Ina Hartwig
literary critic

October 2009