For several years, a notable trend has become evident in (West-)European literature for no-holds-barred autobiographical texts. Previously, in novels the point was often to contrive complex structures and to devote all one’s energies to inventing plots and characters. Now, suddenly an air of mistrust prevails over all fictional contortions, and all at once the main priority seems to be writing as “authentically” as possible, and plumbing the depths of the abysses of the individual psyche. In contemporary German-speaking literature, back in the 1970s, a similar trend already existed for autobiographical writing, which was then discernible in novels by Elisabeth Plessen, Jutta Schutting, Christoph Meckel, Bernward Vesper, Karin Struck or Fritz Zorn. While the autobiographical novels of these years often served to settle old scores with the parent’s generation and their political activity, more recently writers’ interests have shifted to calling to account one’s ego and personal shortcomings. For example, the Scottish writer, John Burnside, recently did just that in his works A Lie About My Father and Waking Up in Toytown. The Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgard achieved international acclaim with his six-volume My Struggle (Min kamp). And in German-speaking literature, on the one hand, unashamed self-explorations were published like Thomas Glavinic’s Der Jonas-Komplex, or on the other hand the multi-series, partly (still) unfinished autobiographical novel cycles by Peter Kurzeck, Andreas Maier and Gerhard Henschel. At least the pioneer for Henschel’s Martin Schlosser novels was Walter Kempowski, whose semi-documentary works highlighted anew the relationship of fiction and non-fiction.
Despite the varied aesthetic communication of all these personal records, they are clearly marked by mistrust of fictional stories. Sometimes, in this setting the novel appears as an unnecessary detour, as a cover for what could be said much more clearly and “honestly” without one’s individual masks. Now, it’s part of the history of the progressive modern novel that it regularly integrates scepticism about its fictional structure, and indeed basically integrates this as its key element.
By Rainer Moritz
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright