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HAZ Interview with Judith Schalansky
“The past is something that has to be eternally reinvented.”

Judith Schalansky
Photo: Jürgen Bauer/Suhrkamp Verlag

Writer Judith Schalansky talks of loss, of forgetting ­– and of the book as the perfect medium

Ms. Schalansky, even in your earlier books, you wrote about remoteness and things or life plans coming to an end. Your new book is about losses. What makes you so interested in them?

When something is lost, it changes from something factual to something fictional. This happens even with everyday items such as a keychain whose sudden disappearance presents an unsolvable riddle. In my writing, I am interested in the echo chamber left behind by the loss. What remains of a natural object or a work for art that is no longer there? This is where the narrative begins to work, attempting to circle the gap and make it palpable – like the banquet after a funeral. Telling a story helps. It is the best way of processing grief.

What role does the end of the GDR play for you in that respect?

I share the common experience of all East Germans that everything can change practically overnight: borders, currency, slogans. And that your own biography splits into before and after.

Some of the pieces in your book are about Greifswald, where you were born in 1980. Did you experience your hometown in a new way while working on them? Did you get to know it differently?

Yes, I did. For one piece, I walked the length of the river Ryck, which flows through Greifswald, the entire 30 km from its source to its mouth – in three stages, up to three weeks apart, with the goal of describing nature as I encountered it along the way. When I set off, it was still winter. In spite of the guidebooks I had with me, it was quite a challenge to find out whether the leafless bush in front of me was a whitethorn, a pink hawthorn or a blackthorn. I not only had to determine plants and animals, but also discover a completely new vocabulary to describe a natural setting that was familiar to me. A true epiphany.

Among other things, you write about Greifswald harbor, Greta Garbo in Manhattan and also about the Caspian tiger in ancient Rome. What connects these elements, what do they have in common?

All these pieces revolve around experiences of loss. Starting with painting by Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich that was burned, I go on to describe a nature where only the remains of what used to be wilderness are visible. Among other things, it was the transformation of wilderness into a cultured landscape that could be exploited that spelled the beginning of the end of the Caspian tiger. In my text, a specimen of the subspecies is set on a Berber lion, another extinct species. In another piece, we enter the mind of a 46-year-old Greta Garbo who hasn’t made a movie for years and directly experiences what it means to have become an icon that must not age while still alive.

In your piece about Sappho’s love songs, you state that „Every age created its own Sappho“. Does every age also have a different perception of what we experience as a loss?

Of course. Revolutionary times require us to ruthless discard the old. In conservative times, we rebuild what was lost, like the Berlin Palace. Time and time again, the past is something that has to be eternally reinvented.

Every act of writing and of storytelling is in and of itself an act of preservation. Is this your way of pushing back against the loss of beings, things and memories?

Yes, it is an effort to bring the essence of what has been lost to mind in the telling. A major effort of compensation.

But it is also not possible to preserve everything, to archive everything. Doesn’t forgetting also have a liberating aspect?

Of course. Whether as individuals or as a society, we cannot keep everything. We have to choose what is important to us. Often, souvenirs are – in the truest sense of the word – placeholders for a memory. Those who preserve everything in the end preserve nothing. We cannot live in a museum of our own past. But those who wish to forget everything and only look to the future deny the very core of their being.

Because of digitalization, books are often considered outdated. You, however, describe it as „the most perfect of all media“. Why?

In a book, content and form can merge and become inseparable. Books have bodies, just like we do, which can last for several generations with proper care. The digital information I used during my university studies are no longer accessible, but I can take the books from my childhood from the shelf at any time.