Leipzig Book Fair Prize Guntram Vesper’s novel “Frohburg”

The author Guntram Vesper
The author Guntram Vesper | Photo (detail): © Volker Poland c/o Schoeffling & Co.

“Frohburg” is the life’s work of the author Guntram Vesper. The novel embarks on an autobiographical journey of discovery into his childhood and youth, and into the world of his parents and grandparents.

When in the mid-1980s Guntram Vesper was visited in his house in Göttingen by Fritz J. Raddatz, the then head of the features section at Die Zeit, he seemed to feel the need to almost justify his decision not to live in the usual literary centres. “Reality is everywhere”, Vesper explained to his worldly visitor, “it can be found in Berlin pubs, but equally well at the house of my old parents whom I regularly visit and who then tell me absolutely unbelievable stories about life in the one-horse town that is Frohburg.”

It was in this “one-horse town”, situated in the state of Saxony between Leipzig and Chemnitz, that Guntram Vesper was born in 1941. He spent his childhood and adolescence there until 1957, when his parents fled to West Germany with him and his younger brother Ulrich. After spending periods in Giessen and Friedberg, Vesper wanted to study medicine in Göttingen, though he dropped out of his course to devote himself to his writing.

In 1985, he collected together the stories which his parents had told him and compiled a volume of poetry to which he gave the name of this small town of 11,000 inhabitants: Frohburg. The first poem contains the lines: “The old stories. So many/Far away and very near.”, while another reads: “On the way to school /through Thälmannstrasse/Schlossergasse, Hintergraben/following the far-off drone of all of the/rallies and parades/I saw the town like/me myself/half yes and half/no.”

Autobiographical journey of discovery

Guntram Vesper has always been close to the town of his birth, and was himself reflected in it. In recent years, Vesper once again set off to Frohburg to write, embarking on an autobiographical journey of discovery into his childhood and youth, and into the world of his parents and grandparents. Like the volume of poetry, this novel is also entitled Frohburg – and like at that time, when his parents supplied him with stories, Vesper once again did not want to rely solely on his own resources. In Frohburg, as one of his characters says, “I have not only eyes and ears, more than one source also springs forth here for me, imparting information is about sharing, giving, passing on, that is just how we are, playing hide-and-seek is not necessarily our thing.”
  • Guntram Vesper with his mother Erika © Archiv Guntram Vesper
    Guntram Vesper with his mother Erika
  • Guntram Vesper 1953 © Archiv Guntram Vesper
    Guntram Vesper 1953
  • Frohburg © Archiv Guntram Vesper

This novel, containing 1,002 pages of memories, is in every respect Vesper’s opus magnum. It is a book full of German history and stories, “with deviations, aberrances, countless versions, interspersed with contradictions and veiled in obfuscations”, as Vesper writes in it. The book extends back to the late nineteenth century and repeatedly touches also on Vesper’s more recent present. Above all, however, Frohburg is a panorama of life in Germany in the twentieth century, from the German Empire via the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany to the early GDR, with Vesper’s early years being the source of memory that springs forth the most.

A lifetime achievement award for the 75-year-old

Frohburg is an amazing, impressive and rich book, and Guntram Vesper deservedly won the 2016 Leipzig Book Fair Prize for Fiction for it. The award is unusual nonetheless, and differs from the book prizes awarded each year at the two book fairs. It seems to be a lifetime achievement award for a 75-year-old author who has made himself scarce, in the literary world not only of West Germany but also of post-reunification Germany – despite memberships in the German Academy for Language and Literature in Darmstadt and in the Academy of Sciences and Literature in Mainz. And despite having produced an extensive oeuvre of poetry, prose, essays and radio plays.

Yet Vesper himself often “narrates” his poems, and is reluctant to view epic, essayistic and lyrical writing as strictly separate genres. His 1979 novel Nördlich der Liebe und südlich des Hasses (i.e. North of Love and South of Hate) comprises associative prose rather than telling a strict story. Some passages in it read like poetry.

Frequent shift of perspective

And Frohburg, Vesper’s novel, is also reminiscent of a great river of images and consciousness in which the stories from Frohburg and the surrounding area flow, at times more quickly, at others less hurriedly. There are no distinct chapters, only longish paragraphs, though at times there are many dozens or even hundreds of pages without a single short paragraph. Vesper chose to do without inverted commas and question marks entirely, and the perspectives also shift frequently. In many cases the first-person narrator allows other characters to take over the narrative, likewise in the first-person perspective. 

Strangely, this constant shift of perspective does not make the novel excessively hard to read, as Vesper’s prose is too clear and bright for this to be the case. In addition, the stories, despite their entirely everyday nature, are too interesting and exciting, as indeed are the numerous tales of crimes and murders against the historical backdrop.

But beware! Even as a child, Vesper felt many of the stories that he was told to be untrue, as he writes immediately in the first pages of Frohburg. He says that they became “truer” for him only later, in the form of “continuations which I invented myself.” This is why, with cunning foresight, he precedes his novel with a quotation from Theodor Fontane: “For any doubters let it therefore be a novel.” Reality, after all, can be found anywhere, and especially in art.