Ulrike Edschmid Closeness and distance

Ulrike Edschmid
Ulrike Edschmid | Photo (detail): Jan-Philipp Strobel, picture alliance / dpa

In a reserved, almost cool tone, the author tells of the radical left-wing movement in Germany of the 1970s, in which her own partner was enmeshed.

“I live in a critical offside”, Ulrike Edschmid once went on record saying. She thus marked her distance not only to the jet set of the cultural scene, to the changing literary fashions and political fever curves, but also to contemporary history. Once herself involved in the events of the 1960s and 70s, she returns again and again to material from the recent past.

Closely followed by the arts pages, Edschmid, who was born in Berlin in 1940, once again gave proof of her self-imposed distance in the novel Das Verschwinden des Philip S. (i.e. The Disappearance of Philip S.) from 2013. The book is about Philip Werner Sauber, a native of Zürich, whom Edschmid met in 1967 when she was a student at the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin, and who was killed in unexplained circumstances by police bullets in 1975. She owed it, says Edschmid, not to her former partner, but to herself to immerse herself in this past. For years she was haunted by Sauber’s photo on the terrorist wanted poster, yet it was four decades before she wrote Das Verschwinden des Philip S. Even the title remains biographically vague.

Decision to live in the underground

The reserved, almost poetically chilly report, which leaves out all intimacies, takes the reader from idyllic Italy to politically hot Berlin, where, after the assassination of the student leader Rudi Dutschke, the world is no longer as it was. Violence and suspicion corrode all trust and compel a “decision”, one that Philip S. submits to willingly. When he decides for a life in the underground, their love affair suffers a serious crisis. “He does it without having to do so”, writes the author in retrospect. On the other hand, she neither hinders nor condemns his decision. This has earned her the accusation of idealising the radical left-wing movement of the 1970s.

Philip S., then just twenty years old, is one of the few male “heroes” in Edschmid’s works. Only her father-in-law, the writer Kasimir Edschmid, who died in 1966, is accorded a similar honour. Even so, in her 1999 dialogue novel about him, Wir wollen nicht mehr darüber reden… (i.e. We Don’t Want to Talk about …), which originated in an exchange of letters, it is his relationship with his partner Erna Pinner that takes centre stage. The book treats the couple, who were considered an ideal pair in the 1920s, on an equal footing.

In fact, Edschmid’s writing career – after the excursion in film and education, she studied literature – first really began with couples. Or, it would be truer to say, with the wives of writers, who lived in the shadow of their husbands and later often acted as their literary executors. The long interviews that Edschmid conducted with them went into the volumes Diesseits des Schreibtischs (i.e. This Side of the Writing Desk, 1990) and Verletzte Grenzen (i.e. Violated Borders, 1992). In these books Edschmid is primarily interested in the roles of women as the muses, assistants and secretaries of men, who without female “coaching”, without the stabilizing help of the “women at their sides” would hardly have achieved their well-known productivity. Living in the gravitational field of a famous husband demanded of wives subordination, patience and self-abnegation. For a “writing man”, as the literary scholar Barbara Hahn says in the preface to Diesseits des Schreibtischs, “needs a non-writing woman at his side, who organizes his life, whereas women writers usually live alone”.

The mother as epitome of female autonomy

A very emancipated, if not writing, woman was Edschmid’s mother, who fled during the Second World War to a castle in the Rhön and eked out an existence in the post-war period with weaving work. In Die Liebhaber meiner Mutter (i.e. My Mother’s Lovers, 2006), her daughter tells of a woman who, in spite of hardship and misery, demanded her due from life by teaming up with changing partners and still insisting on her autonomy: “My mother was one of those women”, remembers Edschmid, “who no one ever left”.

That there are women who are catapulted out of their traditional course of life to combat in illegal ways a society that is hateful to them has much preoccupied Edschmid. The stories in the book Frau mit Waffe (i.e. Woman with Weapon, 1996) are not entirely unbiographical, yet still remain foreign to her. With her own peculiar discretion, she seeks an approach to Astrid Proll and Katharina de Fries, former members of the Red Army Faction (RAF). The book was already dedicated to Philip S. – a kind of precursor, perhaps, to the author’s later embarkation on the story relating to herself.