Contemporary German literature A return to politics?

Their books deal with social topics: Juli Zeh and Ilija Trojanow;
Their books deal with social topics: Juli Zeh and Ilija Trojanow; | Photo (detail): © Isolde Ohlbaum

The crisis in Europe, the confrontation with refugees: not only German society but also German literature is undergoing politicization. Yet the debates take place mainly in the features section.

In an interview in the literary supplement on the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair in the weekly Die Zeit, three German writers proclaimed a “return” to politics: Jenny Erpenbeck, Ulrich Peltzer and Ilija Trojanow pilloried the prevailing “paltry solutions of pragmatism” and called for a rehabilitation of utopian “grand narratives”. Literature, they were agreed, had the obligation to point to the “inner contradictions of the ruling system” and, beyond appeals, signature campaigns and essays, to shape reality in its narratives.
Ulrich Peltzer went one step further and made complexity itself the motive of narrative: “If you say it’s all so complex, in the end there isn’t any longer an immediate causality we can make out, then I say: No, that’s not true. It’s an elemental necessity, for narrative as well as for politics, to make at least suggestions about causality.”

A politicization of society

Specifically, this means to name those responsible for the state of the world and to expose in narrative the inner laws behind current political events. If a significant number of writers were to cleave to this goal, then a “committed literature” (Jean-Paul Sartre) would again be the order of the day. And in fact the events of 2014 and 2015 – the Ukraine crisis, ISIS terrorism, the euro and refugee issues – have caused a politicization of German society. This is reflected in the Pegida movement and the newly formed protest party Alternative for Germany (AfD), and on the other hand in the growing readiness of the middle-class to stand up more actively than before for democracy, the rule of law and an open society. The writers who appeared in Die Zeit are less the vanguard than the symptom of this development.

Lack of economic knowledge

The confrontation with social problems, however, had never disappeared from contemporary German-language literature. It is true that following the phase in which most writers of the Group 47 came to terms with the past, they entered into an apparently unpolitical phase in the 1950s and since the 1970s, in which private life moved more into the focus. But authors such as Siegfried Lenz, Martin Walser, Peter Handke and Günther Grass always saw themselves as political writers and in many phases spoke downright excessively on current political issues. Yet the political element is not dominant in their work, and when in individual books it is, as in Grass’s Wende novel Ein weites Feld (Too Far Afield), these are not among their strongest.

Striking in the majority of narrative works by many West German authors before the fall of the Wall in 1989, but also in a remarkable mirror image in most East German writers, is the conspicuous lack of economic knowledge. A blanket critique of capitalism constituted the broad consensus; economic connections, the interaction of financial frameworks and human behaviour, was of only passing interest. As central themes of a novel, they were regarded as rather dry and boring.

The world economic crisis as a creative stimulus

In Germany, you would seek in vain for a book like Bonfire of the Vanities by the American writer Tom Wolfe, which paired popular fiction with social analysis and knowledgeable descriptions of stock market mechanisms. Ernst-Wilhelm Händler, who as a businessman has deep insights into the effect of the economy on our lives and whose work also constitutes a nuanced confrontation with capitalism, remains an exception in German literature. Hans Christoph Buch, who has discovered many venues of the so-called “Third World” for German literature, and Ilija Trojanow, whose novels do not deny their proximity to his political writings and essays, belong to a handful of authors who have tenaciously sought to make a world beyond the mainstream accessible to the German reader. Their commercial success has remained negligible.

It took perhaps the shock of the world financial crisis in 2008 to awake the interest of a growing number of writers in economic and business processes and demonstrate to them their significance for partnership, families, small towns and businesses. Yet a spate of corresponding novels failed to materialize. Ulrich Peltzer’s novel Das bessere Leben (The Better Life, 2015) nevertheless has two main characters who earn their money in the global economy. This highly complex novel rejects, however, a comprehensible narrative form, and therefore can develop its analytical potential only to a restricted degree. The almost unanimous critical praise bestowed upon it was directed primarily to its literary construction.

Conventional narrative versus the features section

Contemplating the top places on the bestseller list, you do not notice a re-politicization of narrative. Here stories dominate that focus on characters, families and the fates of couples. A writer such as Juli Zeh, however, has managed to arouse the interest of a broad reading public with realistic-naturalistic novels. Her novel Unterleuten (2016) is set in a village in Brandenburg. Equipped with the latest sociological tools, she unfolds the classical social panorama of the realistic novel. Perhaps the success of the book is owing to its conventional narrative technique, while Ulrich Peltzer and Ilija Trojanow are looked upon rather as the darlings of literary criticism.

Thus the cry “Back to Politics” will arguably show itself to be a favourite project of the features pages and remain a sometimes broader, sometimes narrower tributary of numerous co-existing tendencies in contemporary German literature. No less, but also no more.