The German Library Volume 88: Three Contemporary German Novellas_, edited by A. Leslie Willson. 324 pgs. Continuum, 2000.
The eighty-eighth book in the hundred-volume German Library (which provides in English “the major works of German literature and thought from medieval times to the present”) spans the last few decades of German fiction with three novellas: Lenz by Peter Schneider (1973), Martin Walser’s A Runaway Horse (1978), and The Sunday I Became a World Champion (1993) by Friedrich Christian Delius. Given that the stories themselves stretch back into the sixties and fifties, what we are offered here is an encapsulated but enthralling and powerful literary history of the evolution of German attitudes toward several major questions facing the post-war generation.
Peter Schneider’s Lenz, a bestseller in Germany appearing here in English for the first time, tells the story of a young man making his way through—and helping create—the politically and socially chaotic Berlin of the late sixties. Part idealistic reformer, part passionate lover, part hapless and whimsical wanderer, the titular protagonist tries to serve the leftist transformation of society and make things work with the woman he loves. The novella, bearing the same name as an unfinished play by the German dramatist Georg Büchner (1813-37), takes its lead from that earlier work, being told, despite its serious subject matter—communism, Maoism, love, and alienation—in such an indefinite chronology, Lenz, his exact age not given, bopping freely through life, or at least trying to, in episodes of indeterminate date and varying length which begin “On a weekend . . .,” “On another day . . .,” or “In the middle of the night . . .,” that it provides a refreshing contrast to the stereotype of German orderliness and exactitude. Lenz himself lends to this quirky atmosphere by not having a job, riding random trains to unknown destinations, buying a man on the street a pair of shoes, and then taking a particular job for no apparent reason.
We get this sense of playfulness, unfortunately, in spite of, rather than with the aid of, E. Leslie Willson’s translation, which is often awkward and wordy, in contrast to the clipped, staccato, deadpan, and wry German of the original. Translation is an iterative process, but Willson, either because he thought he was already there, or because time ran out for him before going to press, hasn’t made the further required leaps beyond the literal translation to English idiom and usage and, finally, to smooth, concise prose. For example, he renders the German unterwegs into the similar-sounding underway, yielding “While they were underway . . .” instead of the more colloquial “While on the road” or “En route.”
Nevertheless, the whimsicality of the original is still evident and refreshing, and Lenz is worth reading not only for that, nor just for the glimpse into Berlin at that eventful time, but because it also speaks to the very issues Berlin represented as the nexus of the Cold War: a bastion of freedom surrounded by what Norman Manea calls the “penal colony that called itself the German Democratic Republic,” but also a spearhead of social and political leftism against the more conservative rest of the West. Indeed, Lenz’s dilemmas and solutions address directly the problems of the Left but also larger ones of German culture that inform those politics, as well as personal relationships.
Lenz suffers from alienation—not the traditional Marxist alienation from the fruits of one’s labor, though there are hints of that, but more a distance from others, especially his fellow leftist activists, with whom he feels little personal connection. We first encounter him waking up from one of his frequent unsettling and claustrophobic dreams and jumping angrily out of bed:
For some time he had already been unable to endure the sage face of Marx over his bed any longer. He had hung it turned to the wall once already. In order to let the intellect drip off, he explained to a friend. He looked Marx straight in the eye: “What were your dreams, old know-it-all, at night, I mean? Were you really happy?”
And later, at a meeting of a political group of factory workers he joins,
He looked at the faces of the individual workers one after the other….It seemed to Lenz so funny at the moment that all these comrades with their secret wishes…wanted to know nothing more of one another than these clean sentences from Mao Tse-tung—that just can’t be true, thought Lenz. Didn’t they also want just to be together, to exchange their pleasures and problems, to simply stop being alone? Would these needs, which would be hindrances in their work, not take place behind the backs of the group and hinder work through their suppression?
In fact Lenz’s needs already are hindering his work, as he’s begun abstaining from demonstrations. He tries to express his frustrations to the group but can’t quite articulate them—and no one really wants to hear them anyway.
Lenz also has trouble connecting with his girlfriend, L. He writes her a letter, then remembers “a thousand sentences…in which L. had made it clear what she expected from him.” He adds it to the stack of other unmailed missives, and “[t]he thought that he would not be able to communicate drove him out of his house.”
Not only out of his house, but his country, too, to Italy, and thus ensues an entertaining and productive, if somewhat contrived and not always convincing, adventure. It works, though, partly because the solution is not just to go to Italy: Lenz’s first stop, Rome, proves to be just as frustrating as Berlin, though in the opposite way. There he hooks up with an old girlfriend, Pierra, an actress who, like her friends, is completely ensconced in and entranced by psychoanalysis—not without justification, given her past, but now to the point of complete narcissism and political apathy. But then Lenz chances to Trento, a city in the mountains of northern Italy, and there, living and helping the townspeople in their political activities, comes, finally, into his own, or at least a good way towards it. Just as it is the stereotypical German “reserve” that separates Lenz from his fellow humans, it is the Italian “emotionalism” that liberates him (as in Death in Venice, without the death): “Every emotion was caught in the act and taken to task.” Both personal and political history are ever-present, and Lenz finds renewed enthusiasm.
Unconvincing, however, is Schneider’s dismissal of formal psychological treatment. In Trento, “perhaps because there was no reason to conceal anything at all from himself,” Lenz “very unexpectedly experienced scenes out of his childhood.” Mountains, for example, due to an early experience with his parents, represent punishment for Lenz, and in the end, driving on a winding alpine road, Lenz vomits and, as though having expelled all his old wounds and associations, is suddenly clearheaded and free of anxiety. But Schneider is careful to state that in Trento, “personal conflicts were often solved on their own without having need of a plan to work them out.” Thus we learn of a woman “who seemed particularly stiff and seldom opened her mouth” because, Lenz finds out, she’d been repeatedly raped by her father. Her friends now frequently provoke her into wrestling matches until she defends herself, acting “as though they were aiming to have her thrash them soundly in her father’s stead.” Though perhaps helpful behavior modification within a broader program of therapy, this hardly sounds like a lasting solution, one truly addressing the deep, persisting damage and allowing her to be angry or intimate without guilt or fear.
Given Lenz’s friends in Rome, Schneider appears to believe that non-judgmental focus of psychoanalysis on the individual’s wounds, needs, and desires leads to narcissism and political indifference. But psychoanalysis, though dealing in emotions, is above all about the rational understanding of those emotions and the dynamics in which they operate. Such understanding, I believe, while certainly encouraging the patient to defend herself, is above all a tool to lead wiser, happier, more productive and compassionate lives, which often results in the desire to help others.
Regardless, Lenz’s popularity in Germany is understandable, given its supra-political message that Lenz’s ultimate contentment comes from having been true to himself.
The difficulty of knowing oneself, let alone being true to it, is also the major theme of Martin Walser’s A Runaway Horse, clearly the centerpiece of the book, for here there’s no doubt that both original and translation (by Leila Vennevitz) are brilliant. Darkly hilarious and deadly serious, Walser’s rich and rushing tale explores the pretenses that men—and their women—put up not only for others, but more importantly for themselves, and their corrosive and even fatal, if often comical, consequences. On another level, though, A Runaway Horse is a defense of the power of fiction to profoundly enlighten us about the human condition. That fiction should need such a defense is the result of the gauntlet thrown down by philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, which Walser cites as an epigraph:
From time to time one comes across novellas in which certain persons expound opposing philosophies. A preferred ending is for one of these persons to convince the other. Thus, instead of the philosophy having to speak for itself, the reader is favored with the historical result that the other person has been convinced. I regard it as a blessing that in this respect these papers afford no enlightenment.
So, naturally, Walser—one of Germany’s leading writers, who for decades “has explained the Germans to the Germans”—creates two characters who live by seemingly opposite philosophies and pits not only these philosophies, but the characters themselves, against each other. Theirs are not philosophies in the conventional sense, logical arguments laid out clearly point by point the way academic philosophers debate. Rather they are fundamental assumptions about people, oneself and others, and, as in all good fiction, are demonstrated through the speech and actions of those who hold them and are exposed when placed in conflict with those of others.
Our protagonist is one Helmut Halm, a conflicted man constantly “promoting mistaken conclusions” about himself, because he feels people will use the truth “to deal with him. To subordinate him. To make him perform.” On the other hand, while we do first find him feeling exposed and pathetic as he sits with his wife, Sabina,vactioning on the edge of Lake Constance, both of them aging, overweight, and sunburned, watching the other tourists, Helmut also “felt a kind of hopeless craving for those brightly, lightly clad, suntanned figures.” His plan of escape: to withdraw behind the barred windows of their vacation apartment and read, not surprisingly, Kierkegaard—not the man’s philosophical treatises, though, but his diaries, all five volumes. For like Lenz with Marx, Helmut “yearned to get closer to the man.” This isn’t surprising, for in these first pages we get the sense of a man very alone, even when with his wife. In one of several funny and telling exchanges between them, Walser ingeniously condenses thoughts and dialogue into a single paragraph showing both the couple’s intimate knowledge of each other and their struggle. Looking at his wife, Helmut thinks,
They have affected each other. They now have an uncanny resemblance to each other. Just look at her smile. Probably, without being aware of it, you are at this moment wearing exactly the same precipitous smile. Anyone seeing you like this is bound to take you for twins. And just then Sabina said: “I think we both already have spaniel faces.” This happened over and over again: She would make a remark that was like an answer to what he had happened at that very moment to be thinking. On this occasion it annoyed him. Shut up, he thought, and immediately felt acutely embarrassed at having been so harsh with Sabina in his thoughts. “Don’t fight so hard,” Sabina said, placing her hand on his. He withdrew his hand and stroked Otto [their dog], saying: “He’s insulted, and no wonder, because you said we resembled him, whereas you’re the only one who resembles him, I don’t at all.” “Separatist,” she said. “Are you having a good time here?” he asked. “I could watch people forever,” she said. “I couldn’t,” he said. “Too bad,” she said. “I’m leaving now,” he said furiously. “Just one more minute,” she said. “By all means,” he said, and looked at his watch.
It is a near-fatal mistake. For enter Klaus Buch, one of those lithe, tanned young men accompanied by a beautiful, lithe, tanned young woman. Helmut, a teacher, thinks him one of his former students, but it turns out he’s a former classmate and boyhood “pal” of Helmut’s. But while Klaus remembers virtually everything, Helmut recalls almost nothing; moreover, Klaus wants, or needs, to remember, whereas Helmut, to say the least, does not. For all of Helmut’s memories are of “destroyed items,” and “[f]or many years he had done little but prepare himself to live with what had been destroyed.” And this mainly means forgetting.
What ensues is a hysterical—in both senses of the word—battle of wills and manners, with the Buchs wanting to spend time with the Halms and Helmut trying his damnedest not to—though Sabina is understandably grateful for the change—without seeming either threatened or to dislike them. The sedate, morose Halms, drinking wine and smoking cigars, not exercising, reading de Sade (Helmut) and Masoch (Sabina), and rarely—only if Helmut can’t avoid it—making love, versus the annoyingly “happy loving” Buchs, who drink only mineral water and eat only salads, who certainly don’t smoke, who run at six a.m., tennis at seven, then a nap followed by sailing, and who, as Klaus tells the Halms once he gets them on his boat, screw frequently.
The tension continues to mount until Helmut gets roped into going sailing alone with Klaus one day, setting the stage for a mortal showdown, surprising climax, and ingenious ending, not only in what happens but also in whose “philosophy” wins out. As in Lenz, the protagonist finds liberation from isolation by moving beyond the pretense of a sage, confident persona, in himself and others, to a greater acceptance of all sides of himself as well as to the sharing of emotion and memory. Walser gives more emphasis to memory than Schneider, however, for it must be shared so that together people can determine what is real and what isn’t and avoid self-deluding narcissism. Thus memory, while eminently necessary, is also suspect.
Memory is shared, of course, in the form of stories, and herein lies Walser’s argument for fiction: that enlightenment is afforded not by dry, black-and-white, neat and tidy philosophical doctrines, but rather by these stories, which encompass all the muddled and contradictory details of ourselves and the world. Thus the “historical result” of A Runaway Horse is so vivid that it cannot help but enlighten, its characters changing and growing not through reason and logic, but through conflict, struggle, and experience. Walser may just as well have added a second epigraph, which his novella demonstrates: “There are more things in heaven and earth than are known in your philosophy.” That said, Walser also urges us, in a final, masterly twist, to be suspicious of all stories, even—or especially—those in books. The pretense of the author’s claim to truth and superior knowledge is just that, and it is just as much through our own experiences and stories that we, or at least the Germans, are to be understood and saved.
Another important similarity between Lenz and A Runaway Horse is that despite the (qualified) endorsements of memory, relatively little childhood background—“all that David Copperfield crap”—is offered in either novella to explain characters other than brief snippets of traumatic episodes in Lenz’s childhood and a sketchy portrayal of Helmut as a pretentious, intellectual, but insecure boy. The details of a child’s life, however—and thus memory—are the complete canvas, though by no means the entire subject, of the third piece in this volume, Friedrich Christian Delius’s The Sunday I Became a World Champion (1993), which tells the story of a unique day in the life of a unique eleven-year-old boy. Essentially a character study, this rich, detailed, and again both funny and ominous work, also appearing in English for the first time, complements nicely the previous two, exploring the same themes from a very different angle. Though clearly neither Helmut nor Lenz, the unnamed adult narrator looking back here paints a broad and deep enough picture to give us plenty of clues as to the forces that brought those other two to their conditions. And though a very unhappy boy, his grown self’s wry, unsentimental outlook makes for a charming narrator, and Delius captures beautifully the world through a child’s eyes. Moreover, set in 1954 and played out against the country’s efforts to regain some acceptable form of national pride, Delius’s well-written and well-translated (by Scott Williams) tale offers a powerful vision of the roots of German nationalism and its explosiveness.
For this boy’s life is governed, like his household, by a strictness that makes even the family meal an occasion of grim seriousness at which they must sing, say grace, “chew pensively,” and above all remember and thank God for the grace he has bestowed upon them by giving them our daily bread. Feeling isolated, the boy looks to his mother for reassurance, only to find that her smile increases the distance between them, for “she did not mean the smile just for me, in any case, not me alone, because she was frozen in the earnest striving for kindness, when she divided things, when she divided her love among the four of us….She did not seem to notice that I needed a kind of nourishment other than bread . . .” Father doesn’t notice either, and the boy, as will any child who doesn’t get the love he needs from his seemingly all-powerful, God-like parents, seeks the fault in himself. And this boy does have his “faults”: he is neither a good student nor athlete, he stutters, and he suffers from severe psoriasis.
At one point the narrator likens his boyhood self to Isaac, wondering, “What kind of God would order such a thing [as He does Abraham], what kind of father would actually do it without so much as a question.” These are not new questions, of course, but coming from a pastor’s son living in a household so disciplined as to be clearly and painfully devoid of the love and joy we ideally associate with “good Christian families,” they seem freshly powerful. Delius also adds a new twist to the story, from the child’s point of view: even though Isaac is saved by the angel, “The atrocity had already occurred….The atrocity was that the child’s terror played no role in the story and that I remained alone with that terror.”
So where does such a lonely, scared, guilt-ridden boy turn? First to denial, contorting reality, as he has already done with the blame, and imagining himself as the center of the world—not of the world he really needs to be the center of—i.e., his parents’—but of the world outside: “Where am I?” he asks, answering, “I am where the middle is…” Not unusual for a child, but here more desperate and poignant, and argued rather convincingly.
There is a second outlet, however, more tangible and exciting and less lonely: “Can the Hungarians be stopped? That was my question.” For this is the day in 1954 on which the German national soccer team plays Hungary in the World Cup soccer final in Bern, Switzerland. Reading the newspaper about his team’s slim-to-nil chances, “it no longer mattered what I read and which opinion I had [about the game], more important was that I knew I was not alone when I read that others thought and hoped the same as I and had already formulated what I could not formulate . . .” The outside world, with its secular texts, its voices over the airwaves, and its companionship, captivates the boy, and the novella, like the boy’s thoughts, speeds up into often humorous suspense. “Can the Hungarians be stopped? What could I do to stop the Hungarians?” Naturally the boy imagines himself playing in the game, wants to believe he can make an impact. Tensely waiting for the start, he runs outside: “I could not stop the Hungarians and ran, not rushed, but faster and faster down the path,” the Hungarians coming to represent his parents and their stifling rules.
Finally the boy turns on the radio in his father’s study and
…entrusted myself to the strange voice. Glib and excited it carried the thrill from syllable to syllable and swelled to the word melodies of huge sensation and soccer miracle. I was immediately captured by the tone: Finally, an adult was saying with few words everything I was feeling but could not quite grab hold of. I inhaled the voice, let myself go whither it would, lifted and rocking sideways.
Hitler would have been pleased—and no doubt was—at such reactions to his words. That this parallel is no stretch is confirmed by two strains of the German national anthem the boy hears being sung, the new “Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit” (fraternity and justice and freedom) and the old, verboten “Deutschland Deutschland über alles.” Not surprising, perhaps, but frightening when we recall what the boy has told us earlier about his quaint, quiet village:
Every house, it seemed to me, had a secret, something about which no one spoke….There was a stagnant rage, there were dark stories that did not belong in the world of a child, somewhere there was a chasm out of which terms like Jew were spoken with a contemptuously long EW and words like Führer with a high-pitched Ü, or Nazi with a rebelliously intoned A turned up, then they were sneeringly and hurriedly swallowed, a fairy-tale world of evil terms and figures…
What is ingenious about this novella is that the boy’s poignant story works on its own but the ominous parallels to German nationalism are also unmistakable, especially when we consider that it was published in 1993, three years after Germany again won the World Cup and was reunited into one country. Having lived in Berlin in 1990, I wish I could say I hadn’t seen any remnants of national chauvinism, but of course they were there. From the recently liberated and highly unemployed East, as well as from deep in the West, arose skinheads attacking foreigners, particularly Turks, in streets, on subways, even in their own homes. Closer at hand was my West Berlin host, a young man my age (then twenty-three) and a fellow student of history and English who felt it necessary to remind me repeatedly and smugly that English was a Germanic language. Fortunately there were also more sympathetic people, struggling to define, or perhaps find hidden in themselves, a new, “kinder and gentler” identity.
One hopes Delius’s fine story has served his country not only as a warning but also as a cathartic or at least useful picture of the parts of the self that have in the past been sacrificed on the altar of German discipline and reserve. Perhaps we should hope more that it reminds all of us, as all three novellas suggest, that those needs and desires of the individual that are stifled in one way will eventually burst forth in another—often much more destructively. But maybe we can take heart that these novellas, while perhaps strengthening one stereotype, resoundingly shatter another: that the Germans don’t have a sense of humor. Even if it is, understandably, dark.
Eric Grunwald has been managing editor at AGNI since January 2000. His translation (from the German) of an interview with writer Norman Manea appears in the spring issue of Partisan Review. (5/2002)
Eric Grunwald is a writer, teacher, translator, and occasional actor in Boston. His fiction, translations, and book reviews have appeared in Partisan Review, Spoiled Ink, AGNI, The MacGuffin, Two Lines, The Boston Sunday Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, ArtsFuse, and elsewhere. His story “Tomo” will appear in Prick of the Spindle in fall 2012. He was managing editor of the internationally acclaimed literary journal AGNI from 2000 to 2004. He has received grants from the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation (2003) and the St. Botolph’s Club Foundation (2001), as well as fellowships from the Writers’ Room of Boston, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation. He was chair of PEN New England’s Freedom to Write Committee from 2006 to 2008 and ran its prison writing workshops in Massachusetts for three years. He has taught writing, literature, and fiction writing at Suffolk University and ESL at Roxbury Community College and has done manuscript consulting for Grub Street Writers. He now teaches writing and ESL at MIT and Boston University. His work can be seen at www.ericgrunwald.com. (updated 8/2012)