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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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.