New books Diversity in Autumn
In 2012, 79,860 new titles in first editions appeared on the German market, of which 35 per cent alone fell under the category of fiction. Given this number, it is hardly surprising that publishers vie for attention through the favourable placement of their programmes. Book fairs and their literary prizes, readings and panel discussions, are good opportunities for getting books talked about. What are the themes of the current German-language novels that have appeared in autumn 2013 shortly before the Frankfurt Book Fair?
Terézia Mora, awardee of the German Book Prize 2013 | © Claus Setzer On the occasion of the nominations for the German Book Prize 2013, the journalist Richard Kämmerlings observed that, were a Martian from Reinhard Jirgl’s new novel Nichts von euch auf Erden (i.e., Nothing of You on Earth) to look back on the awards ceremony in October 2013, he would think “these Germans are the unhappiest people under the sun”. And as a matter of fact you can hardly overlook a tendency this autumn to serious themes both amongst and beyond the candidates for the Book Prize. The main characters of the new books struggle with loss, psychological illness or large issues of conscience. Thus, in Was wir Liebe nennen (i.e., What We Call Love), the author and publisher Jo Lendle tells of a dialogue with a doppelganger (the conscience?), Marion Poschmann sets her novel Die Sonnenposition (i.e., Sun Position) in a mental institution and Mirko Bonné discusses in Nie mehr Nacht (i.e., Night No More) incestuous love relationships.
Loss and crisis
Two personal crises, strikingly similar in their initial scenarios, are described by Uwe Timm and Terézia Mora: the main male character in both novels has lost everything – wife, job, home. The resulting holes in his life give rise to reflection and reorientation. Mora embarks in Das Ungeheuer (i.e., Monster) upon a play of forms and depicts in parallel the experiences of her protagonist and the diary of his late wife. For this novel she was awarded the German Book Prize 2013. Timm in Vogelweide (i.e., The Bird Meadow) links past and present through individual strands of narrative and so looks back on and appraises the story of two couples in the midst of a love and life crisis.
Responses to globalization and acceleration
Personal conflict also shows itself to be the response to a greatly accelerated world in which the quest for optimization has gained entry into all spheres of life. In Cabo de Gata, Eugen Ruge’s protagonist gives notice to his landlord and moves south, where he lingers longer than envisaged in a Spanish fishing village and his plan to write fails. Philipp Schönthaler perseveres through the adversities of everyday life in his debut novel Das Schiff das singend zieht auf seiner Bahn (i.e., The Ship that Singingly Makes Its Way). In quiet, precise observations, he makes the reader realize what permanent pressure to succeed can mean for people personally and professionally. Different, but equally sensitive to the excesses of a totally twisted world, is Helene Hegemann’s Jage zwei Tiger (i.e., Hunt Two Tigers). The story of two young people unfolds in a world in which it is essential always to keep up appearances. The artistic milieu of the parents is exposed through imitating its language, unmasking its hollow phrases.
Closely linked to this underlying criticism of acceleration and overload is the question about the effects of globalization, which two newcomers make the subject of their texts. Jonas Lüscher’s novella Frühling der Barbaren s(i.e., The Barbarians’s Spring) takes place in Tunisia, where a Swiss factory owner on a business trip runs into British wedding tourists from the jet-set. While the pound sterling falls and England suddenly becomes bankrupt, they all become aware of how fragile the network of worldwide connections can be. The novel Strom (i.e., Current) by Hannah Dübgen illustrates something similar: its main characters live all over the world, their lives sometimes move towards each other and then finally again in opposite directions.
Politics and protest
The sometimes heard complaint that German literature is insufficiently worldly can be maintained only with qualification. Several authors have devoted their work explicitly to political questions. In his Keine Experimente (i.e., No Experiments) Markus Feldenkirchen writes about a conservative MP in an election campaign, in RLF vFriedrich von Borries reflects upon anti-capitalism and the protest movement Occupy, and in Ein deutscher Sommer (i.e., A German Summer) Peter Henning unrolls again the scandal about the Gladbeck hostage crisis of 1988.
Less common in autumn 2013 has been the classical family novel, the chronicle spanning generations and closely interwoven with history, such as has appeared in past years. Though the family is still a key theme, the gaze of the narrator is directed mainly to individual persons in their relationships with each other. Fünf Kopeken (i.e., Five Kopecks), the debut work of the Sarah Stricker, who lives in Israel, begins shortly before the death of the mother, whose story is told from the perspective of the child with a sharp tongue and great affection. Eleonora Hummel, in In guten Händen, in einem schönen Land (i.e., In Good Hands, in a Beautiful Country), spans a triangle of mother, child and a third person. Where the Soviet system drives apart whole families, Hummel urgently raises the question of the meaning of biological motherhood. In Die Lieben meiner Mutter (i.e., The Loves of My Mother), Peter Schneider approaches his subject differently. The work, which is based on the letters of Schenider’s mother from the time of the Second World War and the post-war period, can be located somewhere between a novel and a double biography. Daniel Kehlmann, in his long-awaited novel F,tells the story of three half-brothers with a propensity for shady dealings. In his usual casual manner, he raises key questions about faith, fate and chance.
And those who like to object to the typical heaviness of contemporary German-language literature can be hit on the break with the humour and wit of, for example, Hans Pleschinski’s Königsallee (i.e., King’s Avenue), which describes the return of the emigrant Thomas Mann to a repressed and uptight post-war Germany. Or Sven Regener’s Magical Mystery oder die Rückkehr des Karl Schmidt (i.e., Magical Mystery, or the Return of Karl Schmidt), which revives a figure from Regener’s cult novel Herr Lehmann and has him set off with old friends on a bizarre journey a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
There can be no question about it: this season has seen the publication of fantastic books. In addition to the works of well-known writers, for which the reading public has long waited, many young authors too have published further works or exciting first novels. Great books, large print runs and sold-out readings all prove that literature is still the place par excellence for the treatment of contemporary themes.