2015 German Book Prize Frank Witzel: A niche man

Frank Witzel
Frank Witzel | Photo (detail): © Claus Setzer/Börsenverein

His stories are unconventional and have a ‘sound’ of their very own. Frank Witzel was awarded the 2015 German Book Prize. One ingredient of his recipe for success: the writer has always remained true to himself.

Frank Witzel did not expect it at all. The German author was sitting with numerous other guests in Frankfurt’s Town Hall, known as the Römer, waiting for the winner of the 2015 German Book Prize to be announced. He was sure he would not be getting the award, but then his name was called. Franz Witzel got up from his seat not knowing where to look in his disbelief, so he lowered his eyes and looked at the floor.

Unaccustomed attention

This is the response of a person who is not at all accustomed to running and clicking cameras. Later the prize-winner said: “I went there totally convinced that I would not be receiving the prize. I was just that Witzel guy, with no chance at all.” A surprise winner he certainly is – but he is definitely not a newcomer in the field. After all, Frank Witzel is 60 years old and has already published several novels and volumes of poetry. Indeed anyone who has been keeping an eye on the scene knows that his breakthrough was already in the offing three years ago, when he received the Robert Gernhardt Prize in Frankfurt, a financially very rewarding prize aimed at enabling writers to complete projects-in-progress. At that time, he was honoured for the, at the time, still incomplete version of a work which would earn him the 2015 German Book Prize: Die Erfindung der Roten Armee-Franktion durch einen manisch-depressiven Teenager im Sommer 1969 (The invention of the Red Army Faction by a manic-depressive teenager in the summer of 1969). What is more, the prize came just the right moment, for Frank Witzel had seriously been thinking of abandoning his mammoth project. Even then, the jurors realized that Witzel wrote “totally irrespective of conventions”.

Inspiration from art and music

That is something only a person can afford to do whose feet are firmly on successful ground, or who has nothing to lose one way or the latter. Witzel belongs to the second category, given that he had already “come to terms with a life that could perhaps be termed unsuccessful”. Frank Witzel has lived for 25 years in Offenbach, near Frankfurt am Main, a none too glamorous place, but a place of residence that suits him, as his is not the metropolis type.

Witzel was born near the Hessian capital of Wiesbaden in very tranquil surroundings. “Everything was very orderly and manageable there,” he says. His father was an organist and they seem to have had a close relationship. The winner of the Book Prize also plays the organ. “That instrument was decisive for me.” Music was actually very important, right from his childhood. The later writer learned to play piano, cello and classical guitar.

Frank Witzel is a child of the post-war period, when the atmosphere in Germany was still strictly conservative. He writes on his website that he often walked into the museum in Wiesbaden to gaze with fascination at the paintings of the expressionist artist Alexej von Jawlensky. Then he began to engage with painting and graphic art himself. A friend of his introduced him to Surrealism, which became a driving force in his life. “That’s what it was all about: the dissolution of our rigid petit-bourgeois reality. And only art could do that,” Frank Witzel writes in retrospect. Pop music also had an important influence on his artistic work, especially the Beatles; in Witzel’s view they stood for the counter-culture of the 1960s.

A journey through time in Germany

A lot of these influences can also be found in Die Erfindung der Roten Armee-Franktion durch einen manisch-depressiven Teenager im Sommer 1969, which comes as no surprise. After all, the novel is a journey through time in the Federal Republic of the 1960s and 70s. Witzel makes no secret of the fact that he has interwoven a lot of autobiographical features into it. “For me, reality is often more absurd than anything I could make up,” he says. Nevertheless, he has in fact thought up a lot of daring things which react in his novel with real events from that era. The childlike narrator brings the cosmos of the then Federal Republic of Germany to life in his stories. The political events of the time held people in suspense, for example, the arson attacks on the department store in April 1968, involving Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin, who later founded the extreme left-wing terrorist group the Red Army Fraction (RAF). The young narrator has his own way of making sense of such events: for him Gudrun Ensslin is an Indian squaw made of brown plastic and Andreas Baader a knight in shining black armour. Gradually the most diverse elements merge to form a daring patchwork novel about terrorism and pop culture. Anecdotes and philosophical discourse alternate in a rather wild tempo, like in a musical arrangement.

The author’s sound

This particular ‘sound’ is also typical of the other books by Frank Witzel, called Bluemoon Baby, Revolution und Heimarbeit (Revolution and Cottage Industry) or Vondenloh. These were published in the first decade of the new millennium, all with a similar ‘sound’ and a similar mixture of curious stories, world conspiracy theories and rough-and-ready figures. But the time was not yet ripe to garner the favour of the newspapers’ culture sections or the reading public. That did not matter to Frank Witzel, however. He continued to work in his niches, as a musician, an artist and a writer. Yet he still enjoyed the unexpected fame and will bathe for a while in that sun before devoting himself to new projects. In 2016 Die Erfindung der Roten Armee-Franktion durch einen manisch-depressiven Teenager im Sommer 1969 is to be produced as a radio play with music composed by the author. He is also planning a new novel. In one thing, however, the writer remains true to himself: “The money I receive for the book and the prize will enable me to be able to work in peace. So I would be delighted if my life takes me back to my desk and to normality.” And you can take him at his word.