During the past year and a half the German literary scene has lamented the loss of some renowned representatives – Siegfried Lenz, Fritz J. Raddatz, Günter Grass and Hellmuth Karasek were some of the grand “old men” who had influenced literary discourse for decades. Raddatz and Karasek were active for many years at the nerve centres of the literary world and for a long time were among the leading literary critics. Grass and Lenz not only belonged to the best-known novelists, but also counted as intellectuals who were substantially involved from the 1960s in political and social debates and to a certain extent embodied the country’s moral conscience. Above all, Günter Grass masterfully played this role until the last; and he never shied away from commenting on events in world politics and not without a wise guy attitude – be it in essays, interviews or poems.
The obituaries dedicated to these four greats were also defined by the sense that this loss indicated the end of an era. It’s true that Martin Walser and Hans Magnus Enzensberger – both well over eighty now – carry on working and busily publishing and are gladly invited by editors for interviews whenever commentary is called for about god and the universe. Curiously, German literature still lives on the myth surrounding the role of its representatives in the 1960s and 1970s. Nostalgic tones still resonate when one recalls how politicians like Willy Brandt listened to intellectuals and how they joined in with appeals and publications so that the social-liberal coalition emerged in 1969. And the Gruppe 47 meetings are repeatedly evoked when the focus was in no sense merely the promotion of new books and the award of prizes. Incidentally, Helmut Böttiger’s study published in 2012 entitled Die Gruppe 47 outlines how short-lived the influence of the Gruppe 47.
The more time went by the more permanent the hankering after a comparable institution that could serve as a corrective. Günter Grass, as mentioned, noticed this gap until the end and cheerfully filled it. Hence, in recent years in Germany a strange situation emerged: when writers commented on social questions, in particular, the 80-year-old plus group raised comments. At the latest at the time of Helmut Kohl’s Chancellorship the social influence of writers petered out. This was by no means the responsibility merely of the political government caste who only wanted to listen to writers in a few cases. While US President Barack Obama counts the writer Marilynne Robinson among his favourite authors and conducts a long interview with her, in Germany there is no way of imagining what the topic of conversation should be that Chancellor Merkel should conduct with a writer.
No, clearly for decades even among writers the need has rapidly diminished to offer any comment on non-literary subjects. Indeed, every year Botho Strauß supplies enigmatic essays and ensures a storm in a teacup and Martin Mosebach or Sibylle Lewitscharoff also regularly register their opinions. However, looking more closely among 45-year-old to 60-year-old writers, who certainly deal with social issues in their novels, there are alarmingly few with an interest in becoming doyens and opinion leaders. Where are the audible interventions of Thomas Hettche, Matthias Politycki, Ulrich Peltzer, Julia Franck, Terézia Mora or Annette Pehnt? At best Karen Duve (in her treatises Anständig essen (“Eating decently”) and Warum die Sache schiefgeht) is one of the exceptions – and consequently is a favourite guest invited onto discussion panels and talk shows. The reticence of most of her colleagues logically leads to writers hardly being in demand as sources of information about social topics.
The tide only seems to be turning during the past few months. As the refugee crisis instantly turned Western European values on their head and things, which were taken for granted no longer applied, and politicians conveyed the impression of helplessness, the clamour is growing for voices from the side-lines, for intellectuals, for instance, to express their opinion in a focused manner. Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel Gehen, ging, gegangen (“Going, went, gone”) that stormed the bestseller list and almost won the German Book Prize 2015 and was licensed for publication in numerous countries evoked – without the writer having foreseen the topicality of her novel – the situation for refugees in Germany. This promptly led to Jenny Erpenbeck not always being left with the easy task of being allowed to comment from now on about all manner of issues related to the refugee situation. Suddenly, there was a sense of general air of relief that the same panellists didn’t always discuss this virulent topic, which had caused upheaval in Europe, and that a writer was not too precious about adopting a political position and skating on black ice.
There is a great longing for such interventions from “unprofessional” voices. The respect given to a multi-talented individual like Navid Kermani seems to me to be a special case here. As an expert and professor in oriental affairs, a cultural agent and writer with a “migrant background” Kermani is a one-off; as a Peace Prize of the German Book Trade laureate 2015 he can scarcely save himself from the flood of invitations to discussion events.
The “old men” Walser, Strauß and Enzensberger urgently need younger back-ups. The current political situation in Europe could lead to a turnaround and make writers into polemical “citoyens” once again.
By Rainer Moritz
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright