On Literature in 2015
It sounds so easy: you pick the most important novels, short stories and poetry editions from a year; you assess and evaluate them, and finally you say what these novels, short stories and poetry collections share in common and what they reveal about current trends. Feuilleton editors often steel themselves for this task, announcing in lead articles how German writers increasingly turn to private material, to humour, the family or politics. This research into literary trends rarely has a long shelf life, since it ignores the production process of literature. What is published collectively on spring or autumn fiction lists is then related to quite different evolutionary circumstances. A writer like Ulrich Peltzer, for instance, takes time and eight years flash by before he releases a new novel. Another writer like Gerhard Henschel needs barely two years to add another 500 pages to his autobiographical novel cycle.
The talking point of ‘non-simultaneity of the simultaneous’ also applies for literary output in an individual year. Yet, if you begin to think in longer time intervals, you’re soon struck by certain odds and ends – the shifts and changes that will be processed in depth by literary historians twenty years from now, since they want to attach a label to the books from the 2000s and 2010s.
Let’s stick with observations or insights that stimulate the impression of being more than just chance impressions. Let’s start with the simplest, the sudden awareness of a genre that is permanently marginalized – with poetry. It’s a commonplace attitude that poetry is the worst-selling kind of literature. People often add that poetry events (and by no means just poetry slams) are extremely popular in literature houses or other venues. A writer like Nora Gomringer, for instance, who turns her own poetry and that of her colleagues into stage events, has occupied this performance niche for years. For her and many of her peers, poetry lives from performance, from the live stage event, not necessarily from written and rigid text. When the jury of the 2015 Leipzig Book Fair Prize first included a poetry collection on the shortlist for fiction – Jan Wagner’s Regentonnenvariationen/Rain Barrel Variations – many people quickly resorted to the relevant lexicons to make sure that poetry really is classed as ‘fiction’. The jury then did what it had to: it worked systematically and announced Jan Wagner as the prizewinner. Wagner, a very pleasant and eloquent advocate of his craft, snow had to be available on all media channels to offer answers to the questions. He was invited countrywide to give readings and – a true miracle – he could look forward to sales soon reaching 50,000 copies. It was also clear before Jan Wagner’s award that plenty of German-speaking poets – Silke Scheuermann, Mirko Bonné, Nora Bossong, Ann Cotten, Daniela Seel, Ulrike Draesner and many more – are worth listening to. Time will only tell over the next few years whether or not the poetry boom, which Wagner has inspired, will last or will just be a flash in the pan. But this is all good.
As far as prose is concerned in 2015, the trends of the previous decade continue. The crime thriller – the bestselling genre, not only in Germany – is by no means stuck in the ‘entertainment’ category. As Heinrich Steinfest or Wolf Haas have already proven in previous years, crime stories exist with literary ambitions, and at the same time this speaks volumes about our society. Friedrich Ani (Der namenlose Tag/Day Without a Name), Melanie Raabe (Die Falle/The Trap) and Jan Costin Wagner (Sonnenspiegelung/Reflection of the Sun), for instance, have published these types of books this year.
The family and generational novel enjoys continued popularity. At the latest since 2005 and 2007 when Arno Geiger (Es geht uns gut/We’re Doing Fine) and Julia Franck (Die Mittagsfrau/Lady Midday) won the German Book Prize with their experience-saturated and character-rich sagas, the stories have been springing up from everywhere. From wherever there are grandmothers blessed with memories, trunks discovered in attics and diaries emerging from nowhere, there’s a welcome reason to combine private realities with contemporary stories and to produce a bouquet of the family novel. The tedium cannot be overlooked thanks to churning out these novels. In 2015, original books were also published in this context such as Matthias Nawrat’s Die vielen Tode unseres Opas Jurek and Vea Kaiser’s Makarionissi oder Die Insel der Seligen.
The outstanding epic projects that Andreas Maier und Gerhard Henschel have worked on for years are also about the family. At best they are comparable with what Walter Kempowski and Peter Kurzeck devised before them. Yet Maier und Henschel strive to represent their own lives (and therefore a record of the Federal Republic since the 1960s) in open autobiographical novel cycles. Since 2010, Maier has so far done this in a very compromised style in four volumes, most recently Der Ort. On the other hand, since 2004 Henschel has published six opulent volumes, the last being Künstlerroman about his alter ego Martin Schlosser. In future, historians, who will inspect everyday cultural life in the Federal Republic, may delve into both large-scale literary projects to unearth a genuine treasure trove.
The most striking feature of the literary year 2015 is undoubtedly the way that many writers turn to the political and economic events and the attempt to understand current trends from the history of the 20th century. This is because in the highly topical case of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Gehen, ging, gegangen/Go, Went, Gone the refugees’ stories are depicted, or as in Alina Bronsky’s Baba Dunjas letzte Liebe/Baba Dunja’s Last Love a comical comedy is set in the contaminated region of Chernobyl, or Doris Knecht in Wald/The Forest narrates the story of a woman, who loses her secure middle-class life due to the financial crisis, or Annika Reich in Die Nächte auf ihrer Seite/Nights by Her Side includes the 2011 Cairo demonstrations on Tahrir Square. While historic retrospectives in texts by German-speaking writers are, of course, constantly related to the ‘Third Reich’ – for instance, in Ralf Rothmann’s much discussed Im Frühling sterben/To Die in Spring, Jan Koneffke’s Das Sonntagskind/A Sunday’s Child or Alain Claude Sulzer’s Postskriptum/Postscript – numerous writers with a ‘migrant background’ whom the feuilleton often praises, ensure that the timeline extends beyond the National Socialist era. Feridun Zaimoglu’s bumper novel Siebentürmeviertel/Seven Towers District, set in Istanbul in 1939 and 1949, or Dana Grigorcea’s Das primäre Gefühl der Schuldlosigkeit, which dates back to pre-revolutionary Romania, are also included.
Where complaints arise everywhere that politics lacks vision and only responds to emergencies in the short-term, literature suddenly seems to reflect what were previously utopias or realistic ideas about how our society might look. In Das Lächeln der Alligatoren/The Alligators’ Smile Michael Wildenhain asks how terrorism could emerge in the 1970s. Frank Witzel also follows up this topic in what is perhaps narratively the smartest novel project this year in Die Erfindung der Roten Armee Fraktion durch einen manisch-depressiven Teenager im Sommer 1969. By contrast, in 36.9° Nora Bossong takes a step back and expands on the life story of Communist thinker and politician Antonio Gramsci which she confronts with the banality of a contemporary Gramsci researcher.
Ulrich Peltzer probably digs the deepest. He was always extremely interested in political milestones of the 20th century. In Das bessere Leben/A Better Life on the one hand he aims to shed light on what the early 21st century capitalist world decides, and on the other hand to make comprehensible how their main players became what they are. Without establishing a superordinate narrative authority, in rapid succession Peltzer changes the perspectives of almost eight decades of his comprehensive material. The protagonists of the plot – at times set in Turin, at other times in Sao Paolo, or occasionally in Amsterdam or the Lower Rhine – are two men in their fifties who successfully internalized the risky capitalist business world with real or unreal assets: Sylvester Lee Fleming, who deals in obscure insurance policies on an international level, and Jochen Brockmann, a sales manager for an Italian company, who sells ‘plants for covering and laminating mixed goods and substratum’, in the end mainly in Latin America. Peltzer combines their ingeniously interlinked stories with what, for him, are the central markers of the 20th century, for instance, the date 4 May 1970 at Kent State University in Ohio when mass shootings occurred after student protests against the American invasion of Cambodia. In view of the conduct of financial market jugglers and the political disasters of the past one hundred years, the question of what could be called a ‘better life’ is a subject that this epic novel strives to describe.
It’s obvious, indeed you cannot overlook that the literary year 2015 is difficult to pin down to one common denominator. However, some trends and main themes can always be identified and their effects don’t seem so haphazard.
By Rainer Moritz
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright