Is it “off and away” or “over and done”? Anna Katharina Hahn tells the story of a Swabian family’s struggling women and their attempts to escape. One heads to New York, the other to a low-income neighbourhood in Stuttgart.
By Marit Borcherding
Anna Katharina Hahn mixes two German idioms for the title of her new novel. Auf und davon, meaning off and away, and aus und vorbei, over and done, become Aus und davon. These idioms are definitely related, because when something is irrevocably finished and failed, it might make sense to leave the scene of your own misfortune, to distance yourself and start again somewhere else. And so, the family members in this novel seek out paths for escape that are less-trodden and dissatisfying, some desperately, some burnt out and some even confidently. This may distance them from one another for a while, but not entirely, because, as so often with Hahn’s books, there’s no escaping family that easily.
Calls for helpThe author’s familial set-up in the first image on the first page – a pancake stuck to the ceiling – makes it clear that circumstances are topsy-turvy. The creator of the greasy mess is Bruno, who gets carried away to an act of rebellion against his grandmother Elisabeth. She looks after her grandchildren because daughter Cornelia – a divorced, single parent at the end of her rope – needed a break and went off to New York. Elisabeth, otherwise the embodiment of the smart, strong businesswoman, is presently shaken to her foundations: her husband Hinz, with whom she ran a travel agency, left her after many of years of marriage. A stroke patient, he met Annemarie in rehab and from now on he intends to lead a happy life with her. In view of this humiliation, taking care of her grandchildren Stella and Bruno seems to be a good distraction, even if it takes place in the east of Stuttgart, a low-income area that middle-class Elisabeth usually tends to disdainfully avoid.
The treat on the ceiling is just the prelude to a chain of chaotic events in the course of which Bruno disappears and is found again, Elisabeth meets the clique of her teen-age granddaughter Stella and finally even befriends an older dog owner from the neighbourhood. In the end, Cornelia returns from the USA and Hinz leaves a few panting breaths on the answering machine.
Inner urgesBut the novel is not only about what is happening to the characters, but also with the development of their respective personalities, presented from a changing narrative perspective. Thus Elisabeth, the hard-worker, the advocate of oven-ready meals and rough grandchild-rearing methods, is internally plagued by the disapproving voices of two pietistic deaconesses. There’s no super-ego to ensure cheerful serenity in the face of life’s rigours. Her daughter Cornelia, who appears as a first-person narrator, is more casual and modern, but also driven by gruelling perfectionism. On the distant continent, she not only wants to find a respite, but also the traces of relatives who emigrated, about which Hahn composes another narrative thread full of tension and horrors.
Finally, with Bruno, the delicate but overweight boy, the author relentlessly demonstrates how brutal and effortless exclusion is when someone doesn’t conform to conventional norms of self-control and self-optimization, even if he is merely an innocent child plagued by family trauma.
Of dolls and average familiesAnd then there’s Linsenmaier – a rag doll filled with lentils like those that Hahn tells of in a story from the past – and again it’s an attempt to escape: the story of Elisabeth’s mother’s emigration. It doesn’t end gloriously in a rags-to-riches fairy tale in the United States, but with her return to Stuttgart and a woman’s life marked by care and sacrifice. The doll story, borrowed from romanticism, brings a fairy tale-like tone to the book that transcends reality. As the author herself divulged about this device in an interview with Bayerische Rundfunk, “Linsenmaier is a little like a Gothic novel within the novel.”
One could also take a closer look at the unusual role that animals – pigeons, dogs, cats, etc. – play in this book, as well as the function of digital media for intra-family communication or the cultural irritation felt by some protagonists due to Stella’s Syrian friend Hamid. The novel is certainly not lacking in complexity. And yet, as mentioned in the above interview, now and then critics find Anna Katharina Hahn’s preferred middle-class Stuttgart families tedious. She can’t understand that – and rightly so – saying, “The whole of the Federal Republic of Germany is a bourgeois country. [...] The middle class is the milieu in which almost all of us exist [...] we’re all German squares. And that’s why I can’t find this milieu boring. [...] I’m just as fascinated by the middle as the lower classes; they’re often close.” Given this focus, Hahn – fortunately for her readers – will not run out of material anytime soon.
Anna Katharina Hahn: Aus und davon
Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2020. 308 S.
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