Clemens Meyer A gaze into the deepest recesses of society

Clemens Meyer; © Gaby Gerster
Clemens Meyer | Photo (detail): © Gaby Gerster

With stylistic daring and narrative exuberance Clemens Meyer holds up a mirror to the present.

There are more myths doing the rounds about Clemens Meyer than about all the other authors of his generation. He was born in Halle in 1977 and his debut novel Als wir träumten (When we were dreaming) was published in 2006, so there has not been all that much time for myths to be invented. But they have been, and one of them claims that Meyer is committed to the dark side of life. Another calls him the “enfant terrible” of German literature, and yet another has appointed him the chronicler of Leipzig, the city he grew up in and where he still lives today. There’s a modicum of truth in all of this, but Meyer’s books contain a lot more.

Rumour has it that the manuscript of Als wir träumten contained twice as many pages as the printed version. Clemens Meyer himself says the same about the successor novel, Im Stein, published in 2013. Immoderation is a category that he plays around with, in terms of both technical production and aesthetics: the protagonists of his two novels are immensely rich in experiences that are alien to a bourgeois readership. The young criminals in his debut novel live through the post-turnaround era in a Leipzig that only has room for those who are willing to fight for it: competitively in the boxing ring and socially in abandoned industrial sites and run-down residential districts. That is where new elites form and thrive once the old ones finally foundered with the demise of the GDR.

In the novel Im Stein, by contrast, Meyer does not give a concrete name to the scenario of the main events, designating it simply as “the city”. However, this novel maintains the structure of its predecessor to the extent that here too a battle is being fought for that city, this time for its soul. The criminal milieu has been replaced here by a scene earmarked for several years now in Germany for decriminalization: prostitution. Im Stein tells the story of this trade from the 1980s in East and West Germany to reunification to today.

Fascinated by figures from the social periphery

By gazing into the deepest recesses of society Meyer takes up a literary tradition which, in Germany, goes back to Alfred Döblin, with modern exponents in the Federal Republic and the GDR in Hubert Fichte and Wolfgang Hilbig, respectively. These are Meyer’s three local sources. He mentions the American John Dos Passos as one of his international models. With all these authors Meyer shares a fascination for figures from the social periphery, and for narrative exuberance. They too all delighted in experimentation, taking their prose to where their figures were located: the periphery, and beyond.

This Meyer does as well, and it has been held against him, as is often the case with innovators. Audiences have responded with both enthusiasm and perplexity to his pathos, rooted in a great sympathy for his protagonists, to his stylistic daring, in a novel seen as a matter of montage, and to the diversity of his voices. Anyone who is not an unconditionally loving reader will not be able to understand what Meyer, an unconditionally loving author, is writing.

Immoderate and yet incisive narrative

He himself emphasizes the economy of his immoderate narrative. The wealth of figures, facts and fictions is a means to an end, and that end is an all the more precise montage, in keeping with musical principles. Meyer’s two volumes of stories, Die Nacht, die Lichter (All the Lights), 2008, and Gewalten (Acts of Violence), published two years later, are practical examples of just how incisively this author can write. The fact that they contain characters, places and motifs that were then adopted in Im Stein indicates once again the economy the author lays claim to.

His finest story to date, Rückkehr in die Nacht (Return to the night), took Clemens Meyer four years to finish, parallel to writing Im Stein. It was published in 2013 and describes how a past crime becomes the motif for an act of revenge that the protagonists are unable to escape. It is something archaic that is taking place in present-day Leipzig (which is not mentioned by name but recognizable in numerous scenes), and holds up a mirror to the present. Meyer is a master of the art of staging such reflections in a constant state of flux, now blurred, now colourful. The dark side does not necessarily prevail. Als wir träumten ends with the sentence: “We closed ranks and ate and drank and were happy.” The finale of Im Stein depicts an, in every sense, overwhelming love outside the boundaries of the ordinary. And “Rückkehr in die Nacht” ends with the words: “I say, ‘good, good’.” What all Meyer’s protagonists seek is happiness, and many of them find it. As do his readers.