Stefan Mesch on "Über Unterwegs: Cosmopolis" Does the country give you enough? Do you give the city enough?
In "Über Unterwegs" (Toronto), Barbara Yelin shows us how the radius of life expands. In “Irmina”, a graphic novel about the World War, she shows us how it shrinks.
Ian McEwan’s short novel “On Chesil Beach” is set in 1962: Florence and Edward are looking forward to their wedding night – but a lack of knowledge about sex, false pressure, sexisms and expectations culminate in a scene after which it is no longer possible to embark on a path towards a shared future. A book as a cautionary tale, a lesson: if only the two had communicated with each other earlier and had communicated better! Balanced their expectations. ‘Say something!’ warns McEwan: ‘Question! Otherwise you will have many regrets for the rest of your life.’
“Irmina”, Barbara Yelin’s best-known graphic novel, begins in the same style: In 1934, Irmina von Behdinger trains as a foreign-language secretary and falls in love with Howard from Barbados, who is on a scholarship at Oxford. ‘The world was her oyster’, was the headline in the Frankfurter Rundschau, a German paper, in an article about the young German woman who finds liberation and love in Great Britain shortly after Hitler seizes power. When she runs out of money and has to return to her parents, she is left with one choice: how much would she like to sacrifice for Howard, whom she still barely knows? She marries an SS man, soon becomes a mother, a widow, a teacher in Stuttgart.
Barbara Yelin is also issuing a warning: ‘Say something! ‘Question! Otherwise you will have many regrets for the rest of your life.’
No. "How on earth did Barbara Yelin succeed in reducing me virtually to tears in one of the scenes in 'Irmina'?" asks the graphic novelist Reinhard Kleist. I was struck by “Irmina” because I find it pretty easy to heed the lesson of “On Chesil Beach”: Question, be-open-and-empathetic.
“Irmina” contains many more complex 'lessons' – concerning privilege, comfort, social class, habitus and risk: at what cost would Irmina have been able to stay on in England? Would Howard have been reason enough? By his side, she would have moved up – but without him? Sunk?
Yelin’s art begins with drawings, lines in pencil optics. Where other graphic novels go the extra mile and use ink to clearly and cleanly define, demarcate and perfect lines, silhouettes, a range of contrasts, Yelin’s auxiliary lines leave open swirls. Her scenes appear nebulous, light and rough – in many places, the colouring tips over into a vague brown, blue, washed out colours.
An ‘unclean’ style over which the eye is happy to wander because there are no smooth, expansive reference points. When reading a Disney comic after reading Yelin, I always think: Mickey is not a living being – but with a thick outline and brutally bright colours, he stands dazzling and static in the centre of the picture: polished and hard like a road sign or an advertising template. Yelin’s figures drift, tremble, live, blur.
“Irmina” was published in 2014 – the first year in which I knew: I will not be going to Toronto. I’ve run out of steam, financially. I have little to offer Canadians as a dating partner. I cannot write a novel and, at the same time, start living on another continent. In 2014, I went to Berlin for a few months. Fell in love there. Have never left since.
I miss Toronto every single day: Between 2009 and 2013, I was in the city from January/February until the end of April, five years in a row. Barbara Yelin’s one-page comic book “Über Unterwegs: Cosmopolis” shows and talks about much that I love over there. Yelin, in figures: ‘Diverse ethnic groups: over 200. Residents whose mother tongue is neither English nor French: 47 percent. Skyscrapers: under 2,000. Population of the Greater Toronto Area: 5.6 million.”
Why Toronto? I needed one final internship for my university course, was at the Goethe-Institut for three months, fell in love at Starbucks with a graphic designer who himself had emigrated from Hong Kong at the age of nine, and returned each year: three years of a long-distance relationship and then the last two years, because I did not want to give up the city only because my partner had given up the both of us.
Barbara Yelin too meets a Goethe intern – and quotes her in the graphic novel: "Before coming here, I studied in Erfurt, Germany. But there were far-right marches every week, that was awful. Since I’ve been here, I’ve been feeling good. Social interaction is good and open." A woman sitting at the next table says: "We are ALL immigrants."
In 12 pictures, "Über Unterwegs: Cosmopolis" shows us the skyscrapers downtown – and points out that fewer than 2,000 of these buildings are particularly high. Yelin shows the Niagara Falls, as well as the bizarre casinos, wax-figure cabinets and the honeymoon kitsch 500 metres towards the city. Save money and spend three months a year over there: would work for me. Live there, permanently: how? Work on texts in cafes, for German newspapers: would work. Actually be a part of the Canadian literary scene: how? A room in a shared apartment, snack bars, concerts, bookstores? Savour city life: would work! Set up my life there: how, at what cost?
The graphic novel “Irmina” is not a parable but is based on the life of Barbara Yelin’s grandmother. When Irmina meets Howard in 1934, she asks herself, how a man of colour can study at Oxford.
At first she thinks he is a bartender. Which league does Howard actually play in? This is not the ending of the graphic novel but must be re-considered scene by scene. She is white. He experiences racism. He is a man. She, ‘only’ a woman. When, decades later, the two lives are laid bare once again before each other, everything is judged afresh: Irmina accepted Hitler, pogroms and hatred. Was Germany inevitable, for her? Was adaptation unavoidable? What would have become of her in London or Barbados? Was ‘everything’ really her oyster in 1934?
I have no right to call my Toronto breaks ‘courageous’: Using just as much money as was available to me between the ages of 25 and 30, I spent time in precisely that very western, English-speaking city that was open, diverse, queer, artsy and relaxed enough for me to avoid rubbing people the wrong way. In 2012, I fell in love there again, with a barista/journalist. We were dating in 2013 as well, and when I had earned some extra money (through translations) and had enough for around two more Toronto months in the autumn, he asked: ‘Which city would you like to go to with the money, if I were not there?’ ‘New York’, I said. ‘Then take New York,’ he said and parted company.
I had two months in New York, end 2013. In summer 2014, an important Toronto friend took his life. And ever since then, year after year, I find it more and more capricious to save money for several months simply to spend another two, three months there: there are no attachments, no pull. Knowing there is somebody there, waiting for me. I engaged with Toronto as long as I had sufficient money, time, privileges.
Barbara Yelin often asks about women’s lives, the image they have of themselves, their plans for life and questions, the value of what still remains after decades have passed. Her graphic novel “The Summer of Her Life” (co-author Thomas von Steinaecker) is about Gerda who wanted to become an astrophysicist and, in an old-age home today, is losing the plot. I don’t know whether I fought hard enough for Toronto, for my two relationships there. What would I have had to sacrifice to be able to finance myself for six, nine, eleven months, a year there?
My mother gave me flight tickets for Christmas. I could, and wanted to be able to afford the unpaid Goethe internship. I managed to pay a 600-dollar room rent for three months because I spent the rest of the time living in an empty house that belonged to my dead grandparents, rent-free. I follow the simple lesson of Ian McEwan’s “On Chesil Beach”: ‘Say something! Question!'
The harsher lesson that Yelin often conveys: people usually get about as far in life as is comfortably possible, given their means, privileges and the support of the milieu.
One of the highlights in Yelin’s graphic novel about Toronto is the visit to TCAF, the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, held every year in early May. ‘Three floors of comic books from all over the world. More than 500 artists from everywhere. I am in paradise!’ I was never at the Festival because an extra month’s rent was too expensive for me. As a comics journalist in Toronto, I tanked up on expertise, cultural capital, often a head start, niche knowledge: with the help of cheap second-hand titles, readings, bookstores and friendships. ‘Continuing education’ that I paid for myself. For me, spending a lot of money for Toronto meant: in the city itself often managing astonishingly well with little money – for a bite, concerts, culture.
I do not believe that life in Germany per se has to be more narrow, with a more insipid cuisine, be more heteronormative, provincial, culturally homogeneous. However, I do believe that there are a few cities where I, with my time, energy and budget, would have been able to gain so much in terms of memories, friendships, zest, moments-of-being-seen-and-understood, sushi and reading material.
That I was there does not prove that I was ‘special’ or that I ‘dared’ to do something special – but instead gauges privilege, comfort, social class, habitus and risk. With parents somewhat better off, I might have had five years in New York. Or marriage in Toronto. Or a father who yells at me: ‘Comics journalist? Freelancer, not attached to an institution? What will people think?!’
That Barbara Yelin liked and enjoyed Toronto is more than obvious in “Über Unterwegs: Cosmopolis”. ‘Would you go there again?’ I like asking people to find out whether a place was just pleasant or whether it touched something deeper. I see how Yelin draws the bumbling streetcars. Chinatown. Queer comic-book fans, people of colour, loud, self-confident, self-aware in the city scene. What is difficult about time spent abroad? During the first few days, I think ‘Does Germany give me enough?’ But yet, when calculating: ‘Could I give Toronto enough? At what cost?’ This is the question that makes Yelin’s heroines exciting: ‘At what cost?’