Like Chewing Gum on the Sole of a Shoe
There is a slight irony that Friederike Mayröcker, of all people, gave the Laudatio speech in 2003 to mark the Promotional Award for Literature presented to Daniel Kehlmann. This is the same Friederike Mayröcker whose associative writing stands for that same so-called pseudo-avantgardism that Kehlmann and a handful of his contemporaries reject so emphatically.
She admired the fierce pace of Kehlmann’s style, which lures you into more and more intensive continual reading, according to Mayröcker. One could also interpret this admission as an abdication speech. Precisely the things that in 2000 the young generation of writers had announced in full-blown style – namely, the end of the avantgarde and failure of socially relevant literature, as proclaimed in the 1970s, in favour of conventional, directionless narration – had finally come about. No revolution, but a gentle turnaround that, since then, has mainly impacted on the sales lists.
Flashback: in July 2000 the journal Literatur und Kritik ran a special feature on the thirty-year-old writer. That was back when pop literature in Germany was in the throes of crisis and starting to evolve into literary history, while here a supposedly new generation of writers were quizzed about their sensitivities – incidentally, even before the start of the “blue-black” coalition (Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ).
The young generation already anticipated the change. What united them was only the urge for deliverance from the social state model. In literature, too, the post-war era should reach an end. Ernst Molden, Martin Amanshauser, Thomas Glavinic and the then 25-year-old Daniel Kehlmann supported the end of the subsidies system for the literary business supporting itself against useless literature with no market value, against literature as a reaction to social or political reality, against the avantgarde tradition. Shortly afterwards, the ex-actor turned Secretary of State for the Arts, Franz Morak, commented that there was a return to normality. The time of polarization was over and despite Nestroy, Bernhard and Jelinek at last came integration into the European context.
This idea of normality befits few other contemporary Austrian writers than Daniel Kehlmann. Not only is he not to be placed within a literary tradition, which can certainly be said of his fellow campaigners Molden, Amanshauser and Glavinic. He also personifies that type of writer who seems to float above the times and any limits, for example, as Raoul Schrott always strove to do. While the latter still regards it as essential for strategic reasons to fictionalize his biography, in this respect Kehlmann need not do anything to avoid being corrupted by the most potent power for Austrian literature: the burden of one’s native roots.
Precisely what doesn’t interest Kehlmann, namely working through a proletarian and petit bourgeois background, overcoming the mind-set of the province, Catholicism and the mentality of the right, the cultural campaign against Heimatverbände (“homeland associations”) and political folklorists, in short – Austria as the fat man who makes one choke, in Peter Handke’s terms – this is precisely the Austrian character of Austrian literature.
Writing against or in the best case in spite of Austria; linguistic criticism as a form of political resistance; poetic elimination of the fathers – none of this had to concern Kehlmann because he has never come into contact with this Austria. Now the social embedding of a writer can and should be no indicator for his or her quality. However, one must consider that in this country almost every writer’s biography is a tale of damage. Writing in this country is tied to the background and milieu in which the writers have their roots. Whether this is good or bad remains to be seen. Yet in any case this situation ensures an unmistakability that a less well-disposed critic could dismiss as provinciality. Elfriede Jelinek was also faced with this rebuke when she was awarded the Nobel Prize.
In 2003, when Friederike Mayröcker admired the furious pace of Kehlmann’s style, with the release of his novel Ich und Kaminski (Me and Kaminski) this was first picked up by critics across the board in German-speaking countries. He had previously been certified for talent and precociousness here and there, yet now the critics discovered his wit and intelligence – and probably also a certain slickness (German literary critics quickly came up with the idea of writing school aesthetics, and whether a text is well made, as it’s called in the Anglo-American context). This slickness became a key objection to the novel Die Vermessung der Welt (Measuring the World) and caused an element of what could be called a ‘limit experience’ in the pages of the feuilleton: there were marvellously expansive discourses, yet to echo Hubert Winkel – where is the metaphysical dimension?
What lurks beneath the surface? Or to put it more provocatively: what is the added value of the laughter? These are very ‘German’ questions – and Daniel Kehlmann has no intention whatsoever of answering them.
This may be because he regards his intellectual home as world literature and nothing goes below that benchmark. It should be said, however, that scarcely another writer from his generation could converse so intelligently and naturally about Flaubert, Nabokov, Henry James or Milan Kundera, as if since childhood he never went below this level. If you prefer a summary reading of his critical reviews and essays on literature as poetics, you will never stumble across Austria and the Austrians at any point.
For this reason, along with Christoph Ransmayr he is the most compatible domestic Austria writer for the international market, a world author in the truest sense of the word. He once remarked in an interview that the most fascinating opportunity of literature lies in regaining the complex characters and their stories, yet without destroying everything that in recent decades the avantgarde has furnished us with as formal tools. And he didn’t forget to add which company he wants to be seen amongst: J. M. Coetzee, Jonathan Franzen and Lars von Trier. What applies for these three, namely finding complex forms of expression for the complexity of life, need not apply for criticism of Kehlmann. Intent and ability are two different pairs of shoes. Andreas Breitenstein for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung once referred to the sterile brilliance of Kehlmann’s prose. Despite all the commercial successes – the writer has stepped on this neat appraisal like a piece of chewing gum that’s difficult to scrape from the sole of a shoe. The ‘wishful thinking’ project of positioning Daniel Kehlmann in the context of Austrian literature must anyway be considered a failure.
By Peter Zimmermann
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright