Hans Pleschinski in conversation “As a writer, one’s task is to recall what has been forgotten”

Hans Pleschinski in Novosibirsk; photo: privat
Hans Pleschinski in Novosibirsk | Photo (detail): private

Hans Pleschinski was born in Celle in 1956. For more than 30 years, this writer and translator, who has won many awards, has lived in Munich. An open view of the contemporary social climate, serious and happy at the same time, shines through his novels.

Mr Pleschinski, you have just returned from a reading trip across Siberia. What impressed you most there?

The country’s vastness, with a distance of 800 kilometres between one reading venue and the next. One’s soul melts into heaven and earth there. Then the people. A lot of them still trudge through the streets in a dully post-communist way. But the reading audience was beguiling. Large, young, attentive. Literature still seemed to be an important interpersonal message for them. They sometimes said Germany was a “window to the world”. Many readers were more precisely acquainted with Alfred Döblin or Paul Celan than I am myself. In Siberia, cultivated Russians feel completely “European”. They asked me about visions for Russia. As a foreigner, I was only allowed to make modest wishes: for fairness and a just democracy. The people there are going down a difficult path.

You once said, “Translations are a kind of holiday trip I sometimes go on.“ Is translating relaxing for you?

Translating my own novels means extracting their inner substance. When translating, I am allowed to go down unfamiliar paths, I draw the curtains covering forgotten things and travel to distant words.

The works you have translated into German include letters from Voltaire and Madame de Pompadour. What fascinates you about eighteenth-century France?

Through a happy coincidence, some of what we read of Voltaire’s work at school has remained with me – his wish to promote a brighter world. That led me to French. And one works one’s way into such a world, the world of the Enlightenment, of the glorious empowerment of people to determine their own fate. And I like to remember everything that was there before Hitler, before the brutalities of the twentieth century. As a writer, one’s task is to recall what has been forgotten. Europe’s intellectual charm is something that is easily forgotten.

In January 2012, you were awarded the Ernst Hoferichter Prize, a distinction for writers from the Munich area. You grew up on the Lüneburg Heath and have lived in Munich since you finished studying. As a north German, can one feel at home in Munich?

Instead of having just one home, Northern Germany, I now have two, because of Munich, so one loses a clearly-defined home. Everything Bavarian was foreign to me for a long time. I was fixated only on downtown Munich. Through meetings, and admiring the landscapes, Bavaria opened itself up to me. I learned that it is a very old European land, that there was a Roman culture here at a time when in Lower Saxony arguments were still settled by the axe. And the Bavarians, the canny people who manoeuvred their way through the centuries, have always been amazingly open towards me. Perhaps friendliness engenders friendliness.

Do you feel that you are being perceived appropriately by literary critics?

A book is a book, a feature is a feature, and sometimes the two are parallel worlds. But I cannot complain. The number of my readers is growing steadily, and I believe they are special readers. Right at the beginning, in the mid-eighties, I was a kind of young star. It was flattering to be named in newspaper columns headed “Who is in town?” I dare to claim that I created post-modern literature in the German-speaking area back then; since then, more work has been done. Still, I have received invitations, particularly to appear in Russia. Everything has remained very exciting. Some books are read more now than when they were first published. So I am happy that my book children have a life of their own.

You have expressed the following wish: “I would like to bring a certain festiveness and cheerfulness into German literature.“ Why is that important to you?

Perhaps I tend towards melancholy and wish to stage a festivity for that reason. The most cheerful works of art are often by manic-depressive artists, such as Rossini, Nestroy and Offenbach. Not least, I have often hated German grouching and cultivated bleakness. Hard times come soon enough, and before they do there is a duty to celebrate the sun, happiness and love. A valued reader considered some of my works to be “tragicomic”. I think that is appropriate.

Do you have light-hearted literary role models?

Early role models disappear in the stream of life. Flaubert remains a literary deity for me, I am impressed by André Gide’s literary coolness, I fled Goethe because he is always right. Today, these forerunners come together in a choir of longings and visions, and they become role models for perceiving the present and bearing witness a little. The baroque poets who combined energy and despair have always been close to me.

What are the distinctive features of your style?

I rate some of my books, such as Brabant and Ludwigshöhe, as being proud and heroic. Others, such as Der Holzvulkan, are dancingly crazy. My writing is intended to entertain myself, partly through a varied tone. Perhaps it will then entertain readers too. I love keeping endangered words alive, such as aufs Geratewohl (on the off-chance) or Sonnenglast (sunshine). With the exception of caresses, we have nothing more intimate than our sounds. Perhaps that can be heard in my style. One nests in sentences like a bird in its nest. Voilà.