Ingo Schulze must be one of the more famous living German writers. He sells well in Germany, has won a wide variety of prizes and every new book is sure to receive broad attention and a nomination for one of the major German literary prizes. Additionally, he’s also widely translated into different languages, and has received positive write-ups in Anglophone and Francophone newspapers. In a climate where many readers and critics are concerned about the lack of attention accorded to translations and translators by major journals and publishers, writers like Schulze are a success story. And he’s the best example that they shouldn’t always be, because Schulze is a deeply mediocre writer, and the attention he receives arguably takes away time and space from better contemporary writers in German, whose voices should be heard, like Thomas Stangl, or Clemens J. Setz, or Reinhard Jirgl.
While its true, and quite sufficient to point out, that Schulze is quite simply a bad writer on various levels, it should nevertheless be mentioned that, first and foremost, he fails on the level of style. This is a failure that isn’t just due to a lack of talent, but part of a broader malaise in Ingo Schulze’s writing. It’s actually quite often true that style cannot be divested from content. Brilliant writers with a careless style like Philip K. Dick (my apologies to fans of Dick’s writing) are the exception. More often, a lack of care, attention or sensibility to the rhythm, music, and depth of language is revealing of other defects as far as the structure, thinking, or characters of the particular piece of prose are concerned. True, great writers are born with a certain modicum of talent, but I am convinced that everybody, with enough care and effort, can be good. Reading is about encountering minds, good writing isn’t tethered to a specific level of intelligence. Every writer can be decent.
Why bad writing is often so frustrating is that bad writers, I think, in order to be bad writers, need to be less than attentive or careful about their writing, something that you can see in all or most aspects of their work. With a good enough plot, interesting enough characters, sentiment, and a subject matter that is either politically pleasing or controversial, one can hide mediocrity well enough. Paolo Giordano’s problematic, but oddly well-received bestseller The Solitude of Prime Numbers is a case in point. This lack is least easy to hide in the actual writing, the style. This is why I stress Ingo Schulze’s execrable writing so much. This defect may not be as perceptible to Americans, who get to see him through a distorting lens (though after having spent some time with Helen Lowe-Porter’s crude manhandling of Thomas Mann, I can’t muster the energy to criticize any competent translator, whose work is difficult enough). After all, Portuguese friends assure me that even Coelho is much, much worse in the Brazilian original, and is saved by his translators in other languages.
To best describe Schulze’s stylistic deficiencies, it’s appropriate to say, I think, that there’s a kind of linguistic complacency in his style, it’s more than just bad writing, and what’s more, it has not always been as bad and complacent. Schulze’s best work of fiction, for several reasons, is his 1995 debut, 33 Augenblicke des Glücks, indebted as it is to E.T.A. Hoffmann and even more, I think, to Leo Perutz. In this book, Schulze delights in his writing, like these two role models, he delights in the mechanics of literature, delights in using his own voice. But in his first book, Perutz is the stronger influence, I think. Unlike Hoffmann he is very reluctant to be overtly political; his work is also more open to violent images and stark contrasts and conflicts than Hoffmann’s subtle prose. There is a youthful power in this book, Schulze constantly playing to his strengths. In an ill-advised move, Schulze will, in the further trajectory of his career, move away from Perutz and toward the Hoffmann of Meister Floh or his masterpiece The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, without offering as much thought, brilliance or generosity as the Prussian genius.
33 Augenblicke des Glücks, translated by John E. Woods into English as 33 Moments of Happiness, is not great literature, but it’s quite entertaining and not embarrassing, something that is increasingly less true as his work develops. Schulze is and remains competent, but he has quickly become complacent and weak. His first book won the Döblin Förderpreis, and that prize, along with the Büchner Prize, are the two German literary awards most worth monitoring. When he published the book, Schulze was primarily a journalist, writing for and founding several newspapers. There is an energy in that part of his life, and an intelligence that stayed, diluted, with him. After his debut Schulze was accepted more fully into a literary mainstream, publishing, to date, 5 books, among them two novels, Neue Leben (2005) and Adam und Evelyn (2008). His past, however, never quite left him.
On the plus side, the Döblin prize was, as he himself kept stressing, strangely apt for Schulze’s burgeoning poetic sensibilities. Schulze’s best book in any genre, is his 2009 collection of essays, Was Wollen Wir? (“What Do We Want?”), collecting essays written over the course of several years. It’s not good literary criticism, not good political journalism, but it is a wonderful memoir in fragments, and Döblin and his work is front and center in it. There is no influence of Döblin on Schulze’s writing or his commitments or the quality of his thinking, but as Schulze continued writing, moving from stories to speeches and novels, it’s clearly Döblin’s specter that was behind the changes, whether it’s Schulze’s increasingly odd characters, the influx of political pathos or the grandiose literary gestures, complete with gargantuan 18th century narratives (Neue Leben), vague mythical underpinnings (Adam und Evelyn), and Hoffmannian satire (Handy, Neue Leben).
The obsession with Döblin, plastered all over Was Wollen Wir?, isn’t flattering for Schulze’s work, since the reference invites comparisons, and, apart from his debut book, his work just doesn’t even remotely measure up. So while Döblin has expedited Schulze’s artistic development, this development has actually moved Schulze away from a man who was arguably, with Jahnn, the best German novelist of the 20th century. Responsible for this discrepancy is the other remnant from his past, his training as a journalist. A few paragraphs ago, I started into this disparagement of Schulze by citing his stylistic awfulness, calling it “complacency.” To be more exact, his style’s weaknesses correspond to a kind of writing that has taken over German journalistic writing sometime in the 1990s, with the advent of women’s and men’s magazines (titles like Amica or the German Men’s Health come to mind), characterized by a curiously assertive use of language, an intense quirkiness, so to say. The point seemed to be to convey an insouciant, slightly erudite individualism. This kind of writing was instantly recognizable, and eminently mockable.
It developed so quickly and completely, sprung upon German readers like a tasteless Athena, in full, talentless armor. What is annoying, but also entertaining, in journalistic writing, seems little else but sloppy in fiction and it was there where it stuck and developed into full bloom and convention. In the late 1990s it stopped being “journalese” and started to be a hallmark of mediocre, careless prose. There are certain turns of phrases, narrative structures, stereotypical characters which can be directly traced back to the peculiarities of this journalistic style. In my reading experience with regard to contemporary German fiction, this kind of writing almost never turns up in bits here and there. It’s usually an infestation with it, an either/or situation. This writing is an easy way out, recognizable, and relying on a certain consensus among the reading public. To use this style is to appeal to the lowest common denominator among a vaguely educated readership, and it’s indicative of other sub-par literary decisions. The work of many writers who decided to go down that path bears witness to the inextricably joined level of content and style.
Thankfully, many writers remain refrain from writing this way. Ilija Trojanow would be one of them. Even in his weaker books, such as his dystopic SF novel Autopol, he stays clear of it, but many others can’t. There is this year’s winner of the Leipzig book fair prize, Georg Klein (although his prize-winning book, Roman unserer Kindheit (“Novel of Our Childhood) is a departure of sorts), or the author of last year’s sensational surprise hit Paradiso, Thomas Klupp. Schulze, however, is worse, because in his case the stylistic complacency corresponds to an intellectual one. Like Paul Auster, Schulze uses complex narratives without any stylistic or intellectual backbone, but while Auster’s work is like a reader’s digest of postmodern theory, amusing and quite harmless, and mostly not particularly political, Schulze’s purview is larger–he aims for both the political and the historical, which makes him much more insufferable than his contemporaries. His major topics are the German reunification and its fallout in the private and public lives of Germans.
Schulze writes about these topics as if he were pressed for time, under pressure to produce an anniversary op-ed. The complexities and problems of the situation, raised time and again in countless excellent German novels and novellas, barely make a dent in his lukewarm sentimental hodgepodge of platitudes and truisms. Open any popular news magazine at random, find a story about the particular topic at hand, and there you’ll find Schulze. I’ve talked to young journalists, some of whom have spent time at university with me, and they tell me that you can’t afford to alienate your readers, that you need to write for them. If you challenge them, you also need to flatter them in return. They need to be motivated to buy your paper once a day or once a week and spend a considerable time reading it, so you need to give them a narrative for political events that they can accept. A novelist has more liberties. But Ingo Schulze seems to have decided, at one point in his career, to not use these liberties.
So his work reads tediously unsurprising, like the gloss of a pamphlet. It’s really dull in its own right, as all the magazines and newspapers who perpetuate the same thin narratives, are. But it’s when I remember that he’s a writer of fiction, one who sees himself in the line of Döblin and Hoffmann, that I have least patience with his writing. His work suffers most when compared to books like Günter Grass’ Far Afield, a novel that draws both on Grass’ heavy polemic streak, on Hans Joachim Schadlich’s acidic and powerful novel Tallhover and on the continuity of the Grotesque in bourgeois realist fiction in Germany. Its politics are odd, but gloriously so, it delights in its literariness and doesn’t shy away from taking risks. Grass, by the way, is one of the most vocal and most able heirs of Döblin in post-war German fiction. An heir of Brecht, and writer of several books that make Schulze look bad by comparison is Volker Braun, especially, with regard to the topic of the German reunification, his collection of stories/novellas Trotzdestonichts. A third book that provides a unique (and masterfully written) account of the complexities of these turbulent years in Germany is Marcel Beyer’s 2008 novel Kaltenburg, which shows that even contemporaries of Schulze can and do rise far above him and that’s just the parts of it that deal with the upheavals and the changes.
There is another aspect to his work, the east/west relationship, i.e. the relationship between the two Germanies. Again, Schulze comes up short, again, he fails to rise to the possibilities, well established by writers such as the great Uwe Johnson, whose books like Das Dritte Buch über Achim (“The Third Book about Achim,” 1962) or Zwei Ansichten (“Two Points of View,” 1965), helped create an interesting and complex discourse about this topic, one further developed by writers such as Reiner Kunze or Günter Kunert. I realize that it might be unfair to compare Schulze to great writers, but the sad truth is that neither Kunze nor Kunert are, in fact, great writers. But both have put a lot of thought into their works and both developed a distinct idea of how these issues work. Schulze hasn’t really. He riffs on sentimentality. His satiric streak took over during the early 00s, and his writing, modeled on Döblin but influenced mainly by Hoffmann, at this stage in his work, never achieves the level of insight, and acidic analysis that most great satire manages. There is a seriousness even to the light late works of E.T.A. Hoffmann, a seriousness of purpose that drove him to write satires that endangered his livelihood and even, arguably, his life, in a repressive climate. In a far less repressive climate, meanwhile, Schulze, the former NVA (the army of the GDR) soldier, takes no such risks, politically.
He does, however, feign literary risks by writing Neue Leben (translated by John E. Woods into English as New Lives) an enormous slab of a novel, mimicking in style (partly) and structure the great epistolary novels of the 18th century. I said that good writing is about care and attention. Great writing, however, is about risks. Attacking great writers for diverging from grammatical conventions, for using a style that departs from the norm that we would teach in creative writing workshops or encourage as editors, is utterly beside the point and borderline moronic. This Schulze understands completely and every page of Neue Leben screams out: yes, I indulge, but I am an artiste, I am a great writer. I am Döblin, Hoffmann and Thomas Mann rolled up in one. Only, he isn’t, of course. The followup novel (with a forgettable collection of stories sandwiched in between the two) Adam und Evelyn is dominated by dialogue, and half-hearted references to myth and religion. As a reader, there’s a certain morbid interest in following Schulze’s career, which has turned into a wild romp, drunk on Romanticism and Modernism, without a thought to spare for the history nor the language he is abusing here. His writing has, by now, reached an all-time low; a level that, however, he was effortlessly able to sustain for his last two books. Neither of these are Schulze’s main failings, though. It’s rather the fact that the books bank so much on being perceptive and insightful that the revelation that they aren’t, almost completely destroys them.
The book needs a reader who is comfortable with reading the watered-down, palatable version of his own history, a reader who doesn’t care about style and who is thrilled that he’s reading a writer who writes ‘daringly’ elaborate and cerebral books that suggest Thomas Mann-ian literariness without actually having to read Thomas Mann. He needs a reader who will proudly produce an unread, but creased copy of Berlin Alexanderplatz, but has a lot to ’say’ about the book, because he is so educated. This, in a nutshell, is Schulze’s audience, and he’s lucky that German critics are happy to provide just that for him. Understand this: Ingo Schulze isn’t really a terrible writer, just a terribly mediocre one. However, there are so many great writers writing in this language that it’s quite a shame that his work gets a spot in the limelight (and I’m not happy about Andreas Maier’s being translated, either), especially since his main job is to gently caress the egos of vaguely educated Germans who don’t like their writers or their thinkers to drag them out of their comfort zone.
But the worst thing, by far, about Schulze is that he was able to convince an Anglophone readership, who are naturally less well informed than natives as regards German history, that he is, in fact, the real thing, that there is something to learn or an insight to be gleaned from it, when that isn’t actually the case. Schulze in English borders on misinformation. He has, most recently, started to place himself and his writing at the crossroads between tradition and a new writing. He subtitled Handy, his hardly bearable collection of stories “Dreizehn Geschichten in alter Manier”, an explicit reference to 18th century fiction as well as to Jahnn, his protagonist in Neue Leben is called “Türmer”, an undisguised reference to the tradition of the Bildungsroman in general, specifically to Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister novels. This suggests more substance to his work and thought than there is. History and culture is important, and buffoons like Schulze shouldn’t be relied upon to spread knowledge of it. There is so much unmined gold in German literary fiction. Don’t waste your time with Schulze’s pyrite.
Eight Worthy German Writers and Books That Should Be Translated
More and more mediocre German-language writers are being translated into English, whether it’s Pascal Mercier, Ingo Schulze or Thomas Glavinic; if we additionally consider how few German novels are translated at all, the fact that so many bad writers make the cut while so many good writers don’t almost amounts to a tragedy.
For what it’s worth, here is a list of writers or books who deserve to be translated into English, who deserve a wide audience, accolades and admiration, although they don’t, at the moment, get either beyond the borders of Germany, Austria, or Switzerland. This list is made up of four living, contemporary writers, and four ‘dead’, classical writers. Especially in the latter period there are countless more writers who deserve infinitely more recognition abroad than they have been getting (Christoph Martin Wieland and Jean Paul come to mind), but with these four writers and books it’s particularly appalling.
Part 1: Contemporary Books
Hartmut Lange, Das Konzert (1986)
Novellas have a long tradition in German literature, and nowhere in the world is this genre as highly regarded as here. From classical masters of the form like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theodor Storm, Stefan Zweig, to Nobel Prize winners Paul Heyse and Günter Grass, the novella has always been given full attention, and the writing of novellas has always been a task especially scrutinized and analyzed. The best living writer in the form is Hartmut Lange, and not only does he not have the international attention that he deserves, he’s also vastly underrated in Germany, where he has become a kind of “writer’s writer.” His writing is classically elegant, complex, yet always light and readable and his books are suffused with his concern with places, history and culture, as well as age-old problems of the human heart. He is easy to read, but hard to stomach sometimes. The same applies to what I think is his best work, the novella Das Konzert, a tale of ghosts living in modern Berlin. There are ghosts killed by the Nazis, and Nazi ghosts, who have been waiting to be forgiven, in a bunker under the earth. Lange projects a ghost Berlin over the real, modern Berlin, and demonstrates concerns with responsibility and guilt; it suggests how historical continuities, and individual, cultural ones mold a national and local consciousness. There’s not a spare line in it, but Lange writes as if he had all the time in the world. He is one of our living masters. Read him. Translate him. For further reading, here is Read my review of Das Konzert and my review of his most recent book, Der Abgrund des Endlichen
Patrick Roth, Christus-Trilogie (1991-1996)
This one requires a bit of cheating. It’s not one book. It’s three books, parts of a trilogy, they can be read individually, of course, but read together they form one of the most impressive works of art written in the German language in the 1990s. Patrick Roth blindsided me, I never noticed him, but suddenly, he was everywhere, holding the prestigious Poetics lectures in Frankfurt, publishing high-profile books about all kinds of topics: novellas dealing with Hollywood, books about movies, about identity, and, of course, the Christus Trilogie. The first of these, Riverside, subtitled “Christusnovelle”, was published in 1991, the second, Johnny Shines oder Die Wiedererweckung der Toten, in 1993 and the third, Corpus Christi, in 1996. Each of them is only about 160 pages in length, but the reader emerges from them mesmerized, reluctant, as if he was dipped into a different world. Roth manages to call up two very different registers: he writes in a very archaic kind of German, meant to imitate Lutheran tone and voice, and at the same time, in a very clear and modern kind of German. Miraculously, this really works, and envelops the reader in a linguistic tapestry that seems biblical, and yet filled with an easy, glittering suspense. The first and last of the books are concerned with Jesus himself; Riverside is about two men coming up to an eremite who reputedly has met Jesus himself, avid to find out more about that man, trying to sift truth from tradition. They are soon caught up in a net woven of language and mysteries. The same thing happens to the protagonist of the third book. Its protagonist, Judas Thomas is intent to investigate the so-called resurrection of Jesus. He finds an eye-witness and interrogates her, which develops into a discussion about truth and faith, which never becomes academical, and is completely mesmerizing. The middle one is set in Death Valley, California, and is about an oddball who regularly opens coffins, demanding the dead person inside to stand up and walk (not successfully), who becomes enmeshed in a murder and is interrogated by a police woman. Three books, three investigations. Every line shows that Roth is both a gifted writer of prose as well as of drama, maybe one of Germany’s best in the business. The rest of his fictional work is surprisingly weak, compared to the ravishing thunderstorm of Christus Trilogie. But it’s hard to compare to that singular literary achievement. It’s a shame that it hasn’t found an American translator so far. Everyone should read it, in German or in translation. It’s, and I don’t say that lightly, a masterpiece.
Thomas Stangl, Was Kommt (2009)
Thomas Stangl is an Austrian writer, one of a whole range of promising young novelists, another of which would be Clemens J. Setz, who was recently nominated for the German Book Prize for his stupendous second novel Die Frequenzen. The same year also saw Thomas Stangl nominated for his novel Was Kommt. Setz’ success was surprising, his first novel, though very good, had been utterly different. With Stangl, the situation is different. Was Kommt is his third novel, and it’s proof that Stangl is one of the leading living prose writers in the German language. Like many great writers, his work recounts his obsessions. With time, memory, and history, amongst other things. His prose went to the Austrian school of Bernhard, Innerhofer and Handke, but unlike the recently translated Andreas Maier, he is in full control of his style. He is able to make it work for him, perform the tricks he needs it to perform in order to convey his thinking. Stangl’s work, like Lange’s, examines historical continuities, by juxtaposing different time levels, and creating a gorgeous linguistic maelstrom that draws the reader into the histories and memories of Stangl’s characters. Stangl is a committed writer, committed to his ideas and to his places, there are few writers who can evoke places so uncannily and directly as he can, places as well as times. In Was Kommt, Stangl shines a harsh light on the 1970s, by superimposing one character’s life in the 1930s on another’s life in the 1970s, clearly highlighting connections and continuities, evoking a place and a period so precisely that he takes your breath away. He, like Lange, Roth, uses a rather simple vocabulary, but as far as syntax is concerned, his writing is very complex, and not an easy read necessarily. But an astonishing, mind-blowing one, that I’m sorry to see so many of my anglophone friends missing out on. If you can, read a book by Stangl. Or translate him. You won’t be sorry. If Stangl continues at this rate, he will become one of the language’s most important writers. Already he’s one of its best. For more, read my review of Was Kommt
Reinhard Jirgl, Abschied von den Feinden (1995)
This is a writer that you don’t have to introduce to book-loving Anglophone readers any more. Although he hasn’t been translated yet, his name keeps coming up in discussions of contemporary literature and debates over international awards like the Nobel Prize in Literature which he would richly deserve. Jirgl’s writing is indebted to such titans of modern German literature as Alfred Döblin, Arno Schmidt and Uwe Johnson, but the power of his narratives, the violence of his set-ups and the raw emotion and the brilliance of his thinking are all his own. Like many of the best contemporary German writers, he meets history head-on, interrogating its narratives, and the language in which these narratives were constructed. Abschied von den Feinden is not Jirgl’s best book, but it is the first book where he fully came into his voice, into that style that he made his own ever since. It introduces many of his topics, and unlike his other books, it even contains an explanatory section for all the symbols and typographical deviations he uses. It’s comparatively short and explosive, a story of two Germanys, two brothers, and a woman’s fate in the debris of a ‘better society’. It’s not his best novel, but one of his best. If you can, read Jirgl. He is the greatest living German writer. And for God’s sake, translate his books. (my review of Abschied von den Feinden) For more, read my review of Abschied von den Feinden
Part 2: Classics
Alfred Döblin, Berge, Meere und Giganten (1932)
Döblin was, above all, a craftsman, and, in equal measures, dedicated to literature and to his political convictions. His work, from early expressionistic stories like Die Ermordung einer Butterblume, to his three-volume epic about the November Revolution in Germany in 1918, touches on a vast array of subjects, and is written in a variety of ways. He is best known for the aforementioned story and his novel Berlin, Alexanderplatz, a mad masterpiece of a book, completely written and constructed in a montage, a technique that he had been playing around with for decades and finally perfected in Berlin, Alexanderplatz. The great amount of different registers and voices and dialects that swamp that particular book make it enormously hard to translate properly, but this one has at least been translated. Among his other masterpieces, for me, two stick out: one would be his biographical novel about Wallenstein, which provides a history of that grand character of the 30 Years’ War, imbued with social criticism and a careful awareness. Less well known than Wallenstein, however, is his gargantuan (in every sense) utopian novel Berge, Meere und Giganten. It’s set up to be a projective history of mankind. In about 600 pages, Döblin races through centuries of upheaval, and we soon notice that most of this is not earnest speculative fiction, it’s expressionistic madness. In order to make the threats understandable that the modern age holds for us, Döblin goes overboard. Civil wars, political reformations, and later, natural disasters plague humanity, until the dinosaurs (yes) walk the earth again. This isn’t a mere novel about an idea or a few ideas, this is a huge explosion of one of the best minds of German literature. One idea races the other, one plot the next and we read on, breathlessly, trying to find out what will become of humanity. This is a spectacular book, one that breaks smaller lights like Jules Verne or Alfred Kubin into pieces. It tells us about the true potential of us human beings, it’s awash with decades of thought, yet it reads like a bestseller. And below it all, the thunderous river of Döblin’s language rumbles. Break out the seat belts, get on for this ride. I mean it, you need to read this book. And I’m honestly bewildered why it hasn’t yet been translated. The scope and depth of it puts contemporary writers like William Vollmann to shame. Really. Translate it.
Rudolf Borchardt, Jamben (1935/1967)
Borchardt is an oddity. Part of circles formed around the two masters of literature in German at the time, Stefan George and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, he was both venerated and hated. He was a man of contradictions, as a Jew, who had been generally read as a proto-fascist, whose last speeches seemed to hail Hitler’s arrival from afar. A renowned cultural scholar, widely praised and admired for his titanic knowledge, he, and those like him, resurrected a German tradition that the Romantics had tried to establish first, a metaphysical German-ness; this reading of his work, however, is deficient, but many people didn’t notice this, until in 1967 his long poem, Jamben, was published. It is a series of smaller poems written in a form that can be called Jamben in German, but are usually called epodes. An epode, a carmen maledictum, is usually written to abuse or vilify someone; in modern usage, by poets such as André Chénier, it has become more vituperative, more angry, more political. Chénier called the form “l’épode vengeresse”. And so it is here as well: Borchardt’s Jamben are an all-out attack on the rising wave of hate, on the new politics in Germany. They were written to the backdrop of the Nuremberg Laws, which were declared the same year. They reveal what a complex writer Borchardt was all along, and that he was content to let contradictions simmer in the literary delicacies he cooked up. Borchardt is one of those German writers with the most intricate knowledge of the German language and German literary tradition. His work, especially his stellar Dante translation, is almost unbearably complex in purely linguistic terms. That doesn’t mean he’s hard to read, but in his work, every word seems fraught with references, puns, and ambiguities; and usually, he’s uninterested in producing a finished work of art. He started lots of projects and was content to finish them in his head; accordingly, much of what he actually published evinces a certain disregard for his audience. Not so the Jamben. They are songs of anger, and although they, again, bear the full weight of German tradition, here we see him trow it at someone, writing not because he can do it, but because he needs to. You don’t need to understand, to ‘get’ German history to ‘get’ these poems. They speak, no, they sing, scream, shout, declaim, whisper for themselves. Jamben is one of the most powerful pieces of poetry published this century, in any language, and although it needs a good translator, it can and does translate to other languages. Everyone should read it. It’s inspiring, haunting, great literature.
Christoph Martin Wieland, Agathon (1767)
This is an incredible book, and Wieland is one of German literature’s most underrated genii. Wieland had a long productive career, and there are a few standout books in his work, but the publication of Agathon shows him at his most readable, most complex best. Fresh from having published a successful novel that was inspired by Cervantes, he wrote a book that stands among the most important and most influential German books ever written. It inspired the first extant theory of the Bildungsroman, and until Goethe published Wilhelm Meister, it was generally regarded as the pre-eminent German novel. Agathon is a novel like no other one. It contains material for several other books, as it charts a young man’s search for enlightenment in the tempestuous landscapes of Ancient Greece. There are long discussions of Greek philosophy, erotic games, politics and pirates! Agathon is the work of a writer born into the wrong period of time. Like Melville, Wieland’s complexities are astonishingly modern. Here, as in other books of his, his psychology is subtly wrought and reminds the reader of modern theories of mass and individual psychology. His characters appear to be written with Nietzsche’s philosophy in mind, and it all is written to a backdrop of sin and lust that is beyond simple bawdy games. Wieland, as we quickly see, debates modern theories of sex, gender and sexuality with the language and images of his time; Schlegel’s Florentin could not have been written about it. Wieland went on to revise it three times, softening the impact, imparting upon his narrative the wisdom he won through the years, but there’s no doubt that the first draft is the best one, the least harmoniously reconciled. Agathon is fundamentally contradictory, a book defying tradition and definition. Like Jahnn, Wieland’s other books became more expansive, more complex iterations of the ideas contained in this long but overwhelmingly dense masterpiece. If you can read German read Wieland! Or translate him. Through his heavy influence on the early German novel, he influenced world literature. It’s time the world read him!
Hans Henny Jahnn, Perrudja (1929)
I’ll just start with this: Hans Henny Jahnn is the single most underrated writer of the 20th century. Oh, yes, no doubt about it. He has written 5 truly great and mind-blowing plays and a few more very good ones. He has written two mind-blowing, game-changing novels. He has written a handful of mind-blowing shorter prose pieces. Of all that, only one play is still in print in an affordable edition in German. What translations exist into English barely scratches the surface of this man’s great work. It’s a shame. I repeat: it’s a shame. To single out one book of all them is hard, because all of them deserve to be read, translated, and passed around. However, I do understand if translator are careful when it comes to translating his opus magnum, Fluß Ohne Ufer, a sprawling trilogy of over 2,000 pages, unfinished, and hard to sum up. Granted, it’s the best German novel of the past century, but that doesn’t make it easier to translate or sell. I understand that. Keeping all this in mind, however, I definitely do not understand why Jahnn’s first novel, the burning meteor that is Perrudja, has not been translated yet. Perrudja is, like Döblin’s novel, about the conditio humana, and about the threats that modernity has to offer the individual trapped in its machinery. But it takes a very different tack. Instead of looking forward, it looks backward: it’s gorged with myth and history. In Perrudja, there’s a main story, a suspenseful story at that, but there are also numerous smaller stories inserted into the main story, who elaborate upon the topics of the main story. Jahnn is an obsessive writer, obsessed with sexuality, religion, history, and violence, and Perrudja can be described as an epic of the body as it deals with all these elements inasmuch as they form part of our culture. It’s one of the most potent novels about how homosexuality is affected by the repressive modern society. Jahnn examines how our culture, behavior, history are permeated with violence, but his book isn’t bleak or negative. Jahnn believes in the potential of humanity for good, and this belief runs through every page of this incredible book. This is a book that will swallow you whole, a genuinely great read, and a great novel. Jahnn writes in a style that is both mythic and modern, and the result is a great, mad, colorful dream. Perrudja is a challenging read but an engaging one, a book that you can’t and shouldn’t miss. Read Jahnn, translate him. It’s shocking that he hasn’t already been translated.
[Editor's note: This essay was adapted from a series of articles on the author's website.]
Marcel Inhoff, who blogs at Shigekuni, is working on his Ph.D. in modern American poetry at the University of Bonn, Germany. He is currently writing a short monograph on Irmtraud Morgner and GDR Literature for Kilmog Press and you can hear him on the podcast bookbabble, recorded on a weekly basis.
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