Julia Franck The Private Becomes Literature

Julia Franck is as successful with the reading public as with literary critics, Photo: Mathias Bothor/photoselection
Julia Franck is as successful with the reading public as with literary critics. | Photo (detail): Mathias Bothor/photoselection

In the emotional story of her own family, Julia Franck finds the best material for her novels. In “Rücken an Rücken”, the Berlin author again unfolds an incredible and shocking narrative.

The German Democratic Republic has been dead since 1990. But it has not disappeared from people’s heads, from their memories. Those who grew up under “really existing socialism” carry this experience around with them for a lifetime. When Julia Franck, born in 1970 in East Berlin, was eight years old, she went with her mother and sister to the West; but the first eight years of life are formative, and her new novel Rücken an Rücken (Back to Back), which takes place in the 1950s and early 1960s of the GDR, shows that the experiences of the previous generation can shape a literary consciousness.

Narrative power, compelling images

In Franck’s writing the private, family history and the individual’s suffering of “history at large”, becomes literature. This was already the case in The Blind Side of the Heart (Mittagsfrau), her fourth novel, which won the German Book prize in 2007 and gained her a large, international following. It was a glorious victory: the novel, the jury said, had made them, professional literary critics, into readers again; they had argued about the heroine as if she were a living person.

The heroine is a deeply ambivalent figure and based on Franck’s grandmother. This grandmother, in the chaos at the end of the war in the summer of 1945, abandoned her seven-year old son at a train station in the eastern German provinces. He never saw his mother again; he never spoke of the abandonment, the trauma of his life. This act of maternal barbarism is for Franck, the granddaughter, “the given that lacked a history”. She then wrote the history, unpeeled the pre-history that had made her grandmother into the person she became; sought to research her motives. Not by means of psychology, but by those of storytelling.

For such a “fate” to become literature, it requires more than the handing down of stories, research and imagination. It requires tremendous narrative power and discipline, compelling images and an obsessive rhythm. Only thus can the experienced horror become the horror unfolded in the storytelling. Only thus can the reader become little Peter, whom the Russian soldiers tell to stand outside the door while they rape his mother.

Between reality and fairy tale

The shocking, the incredible, refuses to let go of the author, not least because she finds it in her own family in abundance. Rücken an Rücken (Back to Back), Franck’s latest novel, focuses on her other grandmother, on the maternal side. She is a not unknown, almost historical figure: the sculptor Ingeborg Hunzinger. The daughter of a Jewish mother, she fled from the Nazis to Italy. After the war, she committed herself heart and soul to the GDR and the project of creating the “New Man”. In the novel she is called Käthe and forgets, wreathed in her lofty visions, that she is very concretely responsible for four human beings: her four children. She raises them in an old bohemian house on Müggelsee on the outskirts of Berlin – if the mixture of neglect and humiliation with which she treats them may be called an upbringing.

There are two younger children, twins, who are usually unloaded on foster parents. There are also Thomas and Ella, the central pair of siblings, who are destroyed by the coldness of the household, the mother, the socialist state. Ella is abused by her stepfather and the Stasi lodger, reacts with sleeping and eating disorders, is sent to a sanatorium and finally remains frozen for the rest of her life in child-like forms of behavior. Thomas, clever and sensitive, is shattered as an individual by the demands of the collective into which he is forced. Together with his girlfriend, he commits a double suicide reminiscent of that of the poet Heinrich von Kleist and Henriette Vogel. Thomas too is a poet; the poems that Franck quotes in her novel are by her uncle, the son of the actual sculptor. He killed himself in 1962.

The closeness to a reality in which such incredible events occur intersects here with the genre of the fairy tale. Käthe is based on a real figure, but is at the same time the wicked stepmother that repeatedly appears in the Brothers Grimm. Thomas’s fate, on the other hand, is a veritable Passion, behind which shine the martyr legends.

Literary regions of horror

The reader of Rücken an Rücken plunges into a region of horror, which create their own plausibility even if the reader often feels like crying out: “Too much!” But there has been more than enough “too much” in the disastrous century from which Franck draws her material. And the reader who fights off the horror of the novel with aesthetic arguments is perhaps rather fighting off the disturbing effect that dwelling in this literary region of horrors has had on him or her.

Franck, who was born in 1970, is still a young writer, who with her thick head of hair, broad face and gentle, firm voice seems much younger. But she has nothing to do with the representatives of the so-called Fräuleinwunder (girl miracle). With her books, including the novels Der neue Koch (The New Cook), Liebediener (Lady of the Night) and Lagerfeuer (Camp Fire) and short stories, she has written herself into the first rank of German literature. The Blind Side of the Heart is one of the most successful German novels of the past few decades, with one million copies sold and translations in 33 languages – successful with the broad reading public and well as with literary critics. Julia Franck lives in Berlin with her two children, whom she is bringing up by herself, as a freelance writer.