World Literature

Is German fiction returning to the social novel?

The first in a series of surveys of the recent literatures of the world.

It sounds so easy. You choose the year’s most important novels, stories and poetry volumes; you judge them and you weigh them up, and in the end you understand what those novels, stories and poetry volumes all have in common, what contemporary trends they reveal. Arts editors often venture bravely into such assessments, then pronounce in their leaders how German writers are turning more and more to private themes, to humour, to the family or to the political.

Such trend-scouting does not have a long shelf life because it overlooks the production processes of literature. Each of those works of fiction that happen, by chance, to be released in the same spring or autumn has its own separate genesis. An author like Ulrich Peltzer, for example, takes his time and lets eight years pass by before publishing a new novel. Another, such as Gerhard Henschel, usually needs less than two years to add a further 500 pages to his autobiographical cycle of novels.

The oft-touted non-contemporaneity of the contemporaneous is equally true of the literary production in any given year. But if we start thinking on a larger time-scale we soon begin to notice a few things – displacements and changes that, 20 years from now, literary historians will examine in detail as they try to stick a label on the books of the 2000s and 2010s. Let us stick with observations that create the impression they are more than casual observations.

Poetry lives!

Let’s start with the easiest, the sudden perception of a genre that stands permanently on the margins: poetry. It is a commonplace often heard in the literature business that poetry doesn’t sell too well, though this is often qualified with the comment that poetry events (not just poetry slams) are very popular in literature houses and elsewhere.

A writer like Nora Gomringer, for instance, who turns her own poems and those of her colleagues into a theatrical event, has long since perfected the art of poetry on stage. With her and her many colleagues, performance and the live experience are what bring poetry to life, much more than the text fixed on the page.

When the jury for the 2015 Leipzig Book Fair Prize included a book of poetry on its fiction shortlist for the first time (Jan Wagner’s Variations on a Rain Barrel) some people quickly consulted the relevant dictionaries just to check that poetry really could be counted as fiction. The jury then did what it had to do: it strode resolutely forward and awarded Jan Wagner the prize. Henceforth Wagner, a highly likeable and eloquent representative of his guild, had to answer questions on all the different channels; he was invited to readings across the country and could rejoice in sales of around 50,000 copies – a real miracle, that.

Even before Jan Wagner’s award, we knew there were plenty of German-speaking poets worth listening to: Silke Scheuermann, Mirko Bonné, Nora Bossong, Ann Cotten, Daniela Seel, Ulrike Draesner and many more besides. The next few years will tell us if the poetry boom inspired by Wagner lasts, or if it is just a one-day wonder. Either way, it’s good news.

History as autobiography

With respect to prose, the patterns of the last ten years have continued in 2015. Crime novels – the biggest selling genre, not only in Germany – are far from restricted to the entertainment shelf. As Heinrich Steinfest and Wolf Haas demonstrated in recent years, there is no shortage of literarily ambitious crime novels that also have something to say about our society. In 2015, for example, such books have been presented by Friedrich Ani (Day Without a Name), Melanie Raabe (The Trap) and Jan Costin Wagner (Reflection of the Sun).

The popularity of novels about families and generational changes remains undiminished. Ever since Arno Geiger (We Are Doing Fine) and Julia Franck (The Blind Side of the Heart) won the German Book Prize respectively in 2005 and 2007, with sagas rich in experiences and with long dramatis personae, there has been no end of stories that gladly use a talkative grandmother, old chests found in attics, or diaries turning up out of the blue as the basis for family novels that weave a bouquet out of private and social histories.

A certain weariness comes over me, faced by these novels that often seem distilled in the retort glass. But in 2015, the genre has once again produced a number of original books: Matthias Nawrat’s The Many Deaths of Grandfather Jurek, for example, or Vea Kaiser’s Makarionissi or The Island of the Blessed.

The family also provides the subject matter for the outstanding epics that Andreas Maier and Gerhard Henschel have been working on for several years. Similar to the creations of Walter Kempowski and Peter Kurzeck before them, Maier and Henschel are each attempting to present their own lives (and as such also German history since the 1960s) in cycles of openly autobiographical novels. Maier has worked on his since 2010, producing four terse books so far, of which the most recent is The Town.

Henschel, on the other hand, writing about his alter ego Martin Schlosser, has now produced six lavish volumes since 2004, the latest being Artist’s Novel. When historians of the future investigate the everyday cultural life of Germany, they are sure to find rich pickings in these two big literary projects.

A move toward the political on a global scale

The most obvious feature of literature in 2015 has undoubtedly been the move by many writers to examine political and economic affairs, and to draw on twentieth-century history in an attempt to understand current trends. This manifests itself with particular immediacy in depictions of refugee existences, such as Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone, but also in Alina Bronsky’s Baba Dunja’s Last Love, a bizarre comedy set in the radioactive environs of Chernobyl; it is evident, too, in Doris Knecht’s The Forest, the story of a woman who loses her safe, middle-class existence because of the financial crisis, and in Nights by her Side by Annika Reich, who ties the 2011 demonstrations on Cairo’s Tahrir Square into her story.

Naturally, such historical retrospections by German-speaking authors often touch on the “Third Reich”. Ralf Rothmann’s much discussed To Die in Spring, for instance, or Jan Koneffke’s A Sunday’s Child and Alain Claude Sulzer’s Postscript. Despite this, the many authors of “immigrant background”, often fêted well in advance by the arts editors, ensure that the spectrum extends further than the Nazi period. Examples include Feridun Zaimoglu’s hefty novel Seven Towers District, set in Istanbul in 1939 and 1949, and Dana Grigorcea’s book The Primary Feeling of Innocence, which plays out in Romania before the demise of Ceausescu.

While people everywhere are complaining that politicians have no vision and merely respond to crises whenever they arise, all of a sudden literature seems to be reflecting on the old utopias and projections of how our society could look. In The Alligators’ Smile, Michael Wildenhain asks how it was possible for terrorism the develop in the 1970s, a subject also examined by Frank Witzel in what is perhaps the most daring narrative project of the year, his novel The Invention of the Red Army Faction by a Manic Depressive Teenager in the Summer of 1969. Nora Bossong, meanwhile, takes a step further back in her book 36.9°. She tackles the life story of the communist thinker and politician Antonio Gramsci, juxtaposing him with the banality of a latter-day Gramsci researcher.

Ulrich Peltzer, who has long shown great interest in the political milestones of the twentieth century, surely digs the deepest. In The Better Life he attempts, on the one hand, to show what defines the capitalist world in the early twenty-first century; on the other, he sets out explain how the actors in that world became what they are. Without establishing a single narrative voice, Peltzer rapidly switches perspectives on his material, which spans eight decades.

With the action taking place variously in Turin, São Paulo, Amsterdam and the Lower Rhine, his protagonists are two men in their 50s who have thoroughly assimilated the risky capitalist business of dealing in real or unreal objects. One is Sylvester Lee Fleming, who trades obscure insurance policies worldwide; the other is Jochen Brockmann, who, as the sales manager of an Italian firm, sells “equipment for coating and laminating bulk goods and substrates”, these days mainly in Latin America.

Peltzer connects their cleverly interwoven stories to the events of the twentieth century that he finds especially momentous. May 4, 1970, for example, when protests against America’s invasion of Cambodia ended in a bloodbath at Kent State University in Ohio. What a “better life” might be – in view of the behaviour of these jugglers of the financial market, and the political disasters of the last hundred years: that is what this novel attempts to show, in an epic style.

The Better Life was beaten to the German Book Prize by the surprise winner Frank Witzel. As a review of a decisive phase in Federal German history, Witzel’s novel The Invention of the Red Army Faction by a Manic Depressive Teenager in the Summer of 1969 fitted in some sense in the mainstream of the literary year. At the same time, however, this enormous work is unique and cannot be pigeonholed.

Witzel’s way of connecting autobiographically coloured experiences to contemporary history offers us, as Judith von Sternburg put it in the Frankfurter Rundschau, “unabashed fantasies alongside stone-cold realism”. He makes truth and fiction indivisible, enlivens theoretical observations with detailed scenes from provincial Hesse, and draws from the pool of literature that has little to do with flat realism.

Clearly then, we won’t easily find a single label for 2015 as a year of literature – and that should hardly surprise us. Nevertheless, it is still possible to discern a few trends and focal points that seem less than accidental.

Professor Dr Rainer Moritz has been the head of Literaturhaus Hamburg since 2005.

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