In Germany these days, freedom is everywhere. Or rather, Freiheit: the egg-bedecked cover of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel dominated the front table of nearly every bookstore I visited on a recent, weeklong tour. Somewhere nearby, invariably, loomed stacks of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tiere Essen (Eating Animals), Paul Auster’s Unsichtbar (Invisible), and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love (Eat Pray Love). I’ll admit that I found it comforting, in what was otherwise terra incognita, to encounter names without umlauts. Still, on the eve of the umpteenth annual Frankfurt Book Fair, it seemed to me striking evidence of a literary trade imbalance between the U.S. and Germany that so many of our books should be front-and-center in their buchhandlungs while so few of theirs are available in English at all.
This situation is not unique to Germany, of course. The figure “three percent” has become notorious shorthand for the proportion of foreign-language books appearing in English each year. Nonetheless, in the wake of the Bolaño craze, there appears to have been an uptick in the rate of translation from the Spanish. And a steady current of French literature, from Duras to Houellebecq, has always lapped our shores.
One would think, in light of Germany’s 500-year history as the publishing capital of the world, that the literary luminaries of its language, too, would have a following on this side of the Atlantic, as they did in the epoch of Mann and Broch, Hesse and Musil, Canetti and Döblin. And certainly, Anglo-German literary relations recovered quickly enough from World War II. Such eminences grises as Günter Grass, Christa Wolf, and Martin Walser have long been available Stateside, as have the postwar heavyweights Heinrich Böll, Uwe Johnson, and Arno Schmidt (though only part of Johnson’s magnum opus, Anniversaries, has been translated, and Schmidt’s, Zettels Traum, is said to be untranslatable). A handful of writers who appeared later, notably Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, and W.G. Sebald, are widely read in the U.S. But as the most esteemed German-language writers born after the war – the Thuringian Franzens and Foers, the Austrian Smileys and Gaitskills – remain largely untranslated or unknown, I made it an informal project, as I traveled from Munich to Hamburg to Berlin, to ask every critic and editor and bookseller and journalist I encountered to tell me whom I should be reading.
Two of the names mentioned most frequently were Wolf Haas and Marcel Beyer. Haas, born in Austria in 1960, is the author of nine books. Nearly everyone I talked to said they couldn’t imagine translating his voice-driven prose, but it turns out that Ariadne Press last year brought out an English edition of his 2006 novel The Weather Fifteen Years Ago. Scott Esposito reviewed the book favorably at Conversational Reading: “[It] is indeed a delight for people who enjoy play with metanarrative and conceptual games, but it also has quite a bit of what, for lack of a better name, I might call good old fashioned realism.” Beyer, born in 1965, has been even more prolific than Haas. One critic told me that his early work is the best, and happily for American readers, his first novel, The Karnau Tapes, as well as Spies (2000), are available in translation.
The recent Nobel Prize winners Elfride Jelinek (b. 1946) and Herta Müller (b. 1953) also came up often. Thanks to the concerted efforts of small American presses, even before the Nobel announcements, both have multiple books available in English. Hari Kunzru’s “Year in Reading” entry on Jelinek’s Wonderful Wonderful Times last year seems to comport with the findings of my informal poll: “I don’t want to live in her world, but suspect that in fact I do,” Kunzru says. “This is what makes her a great writer.” The Romanian-born Müller was spoken of even more highly – one Berliner waxed positively rapturous about her exploration of the brutal history of Central Europe in the era of World War II and the Iron Curtain.
Another Berliner, a journalist, suggested I take a look at a novel that concerns more recent history: September, by Thomas Lehr (b. 1957), a finalist for the German Book Prize. It has not yet appeared in translation, but an excerpt is currently available at signandsight. Funeral for a Dog, by Thomas Pletzinger (b. 1975) winner of the Uwe Johnson Prize, also deals with the September 11 attacks, albeit more obliquely; a book scout I talked to seemed very excited about the novel, which is scheduled to appear next year in a translation by the excellent Ross Benjamin. Other younger writers I was encouraged to read were Andreas Neumeister (b. 1959) and Michael Lentz (b. 1964), neither of whose books have yet been translated into English.
One of the most exciting developments in the Germany literary scene, according to a Bavarian sales representative, has been the appearance of narratives from the country’s large immigrant population. Like Aleksandar Hemon in English, these non-native speakers have reinvigorated their adopted language by hearing it with new ears. The sales rep singled out the Russian expat Alina Bronsky (b. 1978) for particular praise…and lo and behold, Europa Editions brought out Broken Glass Park just this year. The German Book Prize-nominated How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, published by Grove Atlantic, fashions a similarly effervescent prose idiom to reimagine the coming-of-age of author Sasa Stanisic (b. 1978) during the Bosnian War.
Finally, it may be worth mentioning a few writers who appeared in our “Prizewinners: International Edition” project a couple of years ago. Norbert Gstrein (b. 1961) has a new novel out this fall, though none of his work has appeared in English since 1995’s Döblin Prize-winning The English Years (natch). Katja Lange-Müller (b. 1951), another Döblin Prize winner, has been featured at the PEN World Voices Festival, but her work remains available in translation only in anthologies such as Oxford U.P.’s Berlin Tales.
One of the most frequently translated contemporary German writers is Ingo Schulze (b. 1962). A recent essay by the critic Marcel Inhoff complained about Schulze’s style, comparing him to his antecedents, E.T.A. Hoffmann and Leo Perutz. Unlike me, Inhoff reads German, but his argument seems to elide a key point: since his debut, 33 Moments of Happiness: St. Petersburg Stories, Schulze has looked as much to the East as to the West. What may look like casual journalese to Inhoff strikes me as a Germanic spin on the venerable Russian tradition of skaz – especially in the recently translated One More Story. In its narrative surprises, this book struck me as the equal of either of this year’s Bolaño collections. Even more affecting is Schulze’s expansive reunification novel, New Lives, whose hapless antihero, Enrico “Heinrich” Türmer, has stayed with me since I read it.
Whatever the merits of Inhoff’s critique, it directs us to a few more contemporary writers of distinction: Hartmut Lange, Patrick Roth, Thomas Stangl, Reinhard Jurgl, and Clemens J. Stetz. Like the one above, this is a partial list (though doubtless more authoritative). But even my own fragmentary catalogue of German-language novelists seems superior to the offerings currently available in American bookstores, notwithstanding the efforts of Europa and Ariadne and other fine publishers (and The Literary Saloon, The Quarterly Conversation, and Three Percent). Here’s hoping that such lists at least call attention to the imbalance, and light a fire under those who might remedy it.
Pitting a novel entitled Am I a Redundant Human Being? against Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love may initially seem like an imbalanced match. Eat, Pray, Love is more than double its length, a best-seller turned blockbuster movie, an inspirational book devoted to the pursuit of sensuality, spirituality, personal independence, and love. Mela Hartwig’s Am I a Redundant Human Being? is a conspicuous underdog, a slight volume in translation written by the Austrian actress turned novelist Mela Hartwig who befriended Virginia Woolf in Woolf’s final years. Gilbert’s book is a travel memoir that recounts a year-long pilgrimage in search of personal enlightenment that Gilbert the writer planned to chronicle well before booking her flights, while Hartwig’s is a bildungsroman, centered on the ineffectual Aloisia Schmidt who aspires to significance as she bemoans the dullness of the existence she was born into. The titles alone reveal the divergent natures of the two books, and demand that you answer, as a reader, are you drawn to pleasance or neurotic self-doubt?
The Library of Congress classifies Am I a Redundant Human Being? primarily as a book about “self-realization in women,” which is the topic of Gilbert’s book, too: the process of growing into the person you dream of becoming (or, in Schmidt’s case, of failing to do so). Gilbert’s path to self-actualization is fairly clear-cut: first stop Italy, where she learns Italian and binges on pasta and pizza merely because she wants to, next an ashram in India in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, and a final stop in Bali for balance, where inevitably, it’s no secret, she falls in love. As Gilbert states towards the end of her journey: “I think about the woman I have become lately, about the life that I am now living, and about how much I always wanted to be this person and live this life, liberated from the farce of pretending to be anyone other than myself.” However inspiring or cloying or annoying you find Gilbert’s self-satisfaction by book’s end, this becoming one’s ideal is exactly what Hartwig’s Aloisia Schmidt yearns to do, so desperately in fact that she’s willing to destroy her life in this pursuit.
Aloisia Schmidt is wonderfully insufferable. She recounts the sad events of her insignificant life in tireless detail. She is neither beautiful nor ugly, intelligent nor stupid, good student nor bad: the sum of her life is one large zero, or at least that’s what she would lead you, dear reader, to believe. However, Schmidt has penetrating insight into her own inadequacies and shortcomings, as well as the strength to willfully unravel her unexceptional life, as her first boyfriend, Emil K., accuses: “it’s hubris, Luise, to think so little of yourself… You’re acting as if you’ve been singled out. As if it’s your destiny to feel this way.” She rejects suitors with good intentions in favor of caustic affairs, erodes the faith of others, especially lovers, with her own self-doubt, and alienates anyone who believes in her – true to Groucho Marx’s adage, she wouldn’t care to join any club that would have her as a member.
Gilbert, on the other hand, identifies as being “social and bubbly and smiling all the time,” and makes friends wherever she goes. Her tone conveys personal warmth. She speaks plainly, offering intimate details and asides as if confiding in a good friend. In India, Gilbert admits her lifelong desire “to be the quiet girl,” but then counters this quickly with: “Probably precisely because I’m not.” She is the well-intentioned socialite, and never, however much she halfheartedly wishes, the despondent wallflower. However, Gilbert’s glibness and sometimes pussyfooting make one wonder about her depth. We need not forget that Gilbert is on a professional mission. Following her divorce and failed love affair, the self-proclaimed “administrator of my own rescue” had the wherewithal to pitch her book, pack her bags, and journey solo around the world for a year, under the pretense of finding herself.
Gilbert is closer in nature to one of Schmidt’s prep school classmates who are better dressed, better prepared, just more advantaged in general, something that Schmidt later identifies as “two-faced arrogance that comes with money and social position – things I completely lacked, and still lack.” When she has moved on to office life, Schmidt becomes “conscious of my pathetic tendency to be impressed by anyone the least bit self-assured.” Lacking confidence distinguishes Schmidt from the women she both envies and admires, and this distinguishes her from Gilbert, too.
Schmidt later befriends an actress (uncannily) named Elizabeth, who she wants so much to be that she imitates her, and this emulation becomes Schmidt’s one inspired role. After Elizabeth’s suicide, Schmidt attempts to inhabit her character, wanting “to make her fate my own, to experience it as a dream and desire.” Aloisia Schmidt is like Eve Harrington, the cunning understudy in All About Eve, though it’s not Elizabeth’s fame and prominence she covets, it’s her entire existence. Where Gilbert grows into her ideal self in the end, Schmidt’s ideal self is someone else entirely.
Of the two books, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love is the one Aloisia Schmidt would prefer to read. Of her reading habits, Schmidt says, “I read in order to forget myself, to slip from one life into another, to identify myself with my newest heroine… When I read, I lived on credit; I literally borrowed from the author what I myself so painfully lacked – namely, fantasies. I dreamed, you could say, at the author’s expense. But wasn’t it his job to dream for me?” Gilbert speaks to fantasies, specifically the twenty-first century American variety of jet-set enlightenment by way of paradisiacal settings, and reassurance that broken hearts mend to love again. The fantasy is so persuasive that her book has singlehandedly augmented spiritual tourism in Bali.
Eat, Pray, Love owes no small part of its success to the fantasy it sells to multitudes of readers who, à la Aloisia Schmidt, question the significance of their lives, who find, if not hope, then escape from their thwarted aspirations and dreams. Schmidt would prefer to lead Elizabeth Gilbert’s life, and honestly, if I had to chose between their lives, I would, too. But as a reader, I find that Schmidt’s hand in her own downfall and her relentless refusal to settle for redundancy make her a more interesting if also more complicated character.
Bonus Link: Zen and the Art of Image Maintenance