Hanns-Josef Ortheil Life as Narrative

Hanns-Josef Ortheil
Hanns-Josef Ortheil | Photo (detail): Peter von Felbert

His novels are frequently biographical and elicit great enthusiasm from readers and sometimes astonishment from critics. Be that as it may, Hanns-Josef Ortheil is a great boon to contemporary German literature.

Although he often writes about his own life, not everything revolves just around him: Hanns-Josef Ortheil, born in Cologne in 1951, is undoubtedly one of the most productive and thoughtful authors that contemporary German-language literature currently has to offer. Since his debut novel Fermer in 1979, he has put himself to the test in various narrative forms: He has written historical novels (Faustinas Küsse/Faustina’s Kisses), which reflect his wide-ranging literary and artistic acumen, has tried his hand at contemporary panoramas (Schwerenöter/The Philanderer), but above all he has insisted over the years on repeatedly dealing in autobiographical novels with primal experiences and the early stages of his artistic career.

In this connection his 2009 novel Die Erfindung des Lebens/The Invention of Life is a key text. Its protagonist, Johannes Catt, son of an engineer surveyor and a librarian, immerses himself in the 1950s, when he was growing up in Cologne. Although the Catts, like many other people then, participated in the economic boom of that era, they lived their life as outsiders. His mother, having lost four sons either in the war or just after their birth, lapsed into a prolonged silence – and with her, her son Johannes, who upon reaching the age of three never spoke another word. The family’s everyday life adhered to its own rituals: father and mother communicated by written notes, while mother and son formed a secret bond forged by the mother’s anxiety about possibly losing her fifth child.

The dream of a career as a pianiste

Isolated from those around them, the two spent long hours on the banks of the Rhine, where Johannes cultivated his powers of observation. Step by step the reader senses how the “colossal narrative marked by horror and fear” relating to his dead siblings finds a liberating outlet. Guided by his mother, Johannes proceeds towards becoming a “star in the pianists’ firmament”. He receives tuition from a famous music teacher, and finally even recovers his speech.

People familiar with the details of Hanns-Josef Ortheil’s biography know that, like his hero Johannes, he too was unable to pursue a career as a musician – forced by tendinitis to abandon his musical studies. The final chapter in the novel describes him in a critical state. He begins to rewrite early notes he had made and outlines a concept for a first novel. He is invited to take part in the Ingeborg Bachmann Competition in Klagenfurt, and suddenly the tide turns. The thwarted pianist who did not know what he should study instead, finds a new calling.

Die Erfindung des Lebens is not an autobiography in the strictest sense, of course, but the key data of Ortheil’s own career can be found in this novel. Ortheil is the classic case of a poeta doctus, a scholarly poet versed in various genres. He has a doctorate in Literary Studies and was an assistant at the University of Mainz for many years, during which time he also wrote reviews and essays. Today Ortheil is Director of the Institute of Creative Writing and Cultural Journalism at the University of Hildesheim, which, alongside the German Literature Institute in Leipzig, is considered to be the cradle of young contemporary German literature.

Affiliated to no particular literary school

Despite his links with the literature scene, Ortheil, who holds the Thomas Mann Prize, among others, has never allowed himself to be monopolised by that scene. He continues undeterred to write works that cannot be ascribed to any particular school. And he continues to astonish the critics, above all, with a trilogy of love stories (Die große Liebe/Great Love, 2003; Verlangen nach Liebe/Desire for Love, 2007; Liebesnähe/Loving Proximity, 2011). That trilogy culminates in an Upper-Bavarian castle, where, inexorably and without hindrance, the lovers find a path to one another – for a contemporary literature characterised more by failure and decline, this is a harmony-seeking, aesthetically pervaded provocation.

A particular feature of Ortheil’s oeuvre is the publication of notes he made while he was still very young. He started doing this as a seven year old in an effort to counterbalance the biographical calamity of silence, capturing his “flickering thoughts and emotions” day by day in notebooks. In 2010 he published a first sample of those early ‘works’, the summary of a trip along the Moselle with his father in 1963, garnered from his notes and composed into a cohesive narrative called Moselreise/Moselle Trip. One year later, father and son took another trip, this time to Berlin. Again, the then 14-year-old sorted his impressions in the Berlinreise/Berlin Trip (published in book form in 2014), which he presented to his father as a Christmas gift. This testimony of a highly gifted and observant child wonderfully captures the divided Berlin of the 1960s, while at the same time describing a unique and intense father-son relationship. It reveals the beginnings of a writer who has a lot to say, is conscious of how much his literary tools are indebted to tradition, and pays no heed to what happens to be ‘in’. For this reason alone, it is worth reading Ortheil’s books.