Clemens Meyer & Jenny Erpenbeck on the German Novel
While their own broadsheet culture pages may often claim that The German novel is dead, The Skinny speaks to the exciting and experimental authors Clemens Meyer and Jenny Erpenbeck to find out how they are disproving this theory
For a bookish outsider arriving in Germany, a fascinating element of the country’s literary scene is the vibrant culture of the Feuilleton, the arts pages in any serious German newspaper. Like their British counterparts, these publish reviews and interviews, but they’re also the wheels behind a seemingly constant debate about the State of German Literature.
In many ways this is healthy; German novelist Clemens Meyer sees the Feuilleton as rich and enriching, part of Germany’s strong literary tradition. It can, however, lead to self-obsession bordering on navel-gazing. On a semi-frequent basis, articles claim that: the German Novel Is Dead / German literature has become dull and provincial (according to self-styled enfant terrible, author Maxim Biller) / the establishment of Germany’s two prominent writing schools – Hildesheim and Leipzig – has given rise to a proliferation of books by serious young men about, well, serious young men (to be fair, there is some truth to this. Leif Randt, I’m looking at you).
Take a step back from all this self-analysis though, and you’ll discover a remarkably rich literary landscape, as a number of recent translations into English can attest. Most notable over the past twelve months have been Clemens Meyers’ Bricks and Mortar (which, in its dizzyingly good translation by Katy Derbyshire, was longlisted for the International Man Booker) and Go, Went, Gone, the latest novel by Jenny Erpenbeck, already a perennial favourite in the UK scene.
Go, Went, Gone tells the tale of Richard, a newly retired professor in East Berlin, who befriends a group of refugees and is drawn in both by their stories and by the Kafkaesque bureaucracy which governs their fates. Bricks and Mortar delves into the sex industry in a fictionalised East German city, offering glimpses into the lives of everyone from sex workers to policemen through a remarkable interweaving of inner monologues. Both novels were critically acclaimed in Germany (both were shortlisted for the German Book Prize¸ with Go, Went, Gone arguably winning the popular vote in 2015), and their authors are established names on their native literary circuit. Strikingly different though they are, between them they offer an introduction to a literary scene which is far more vibrant than German critics and writers readily admit.
“German literature is used to linear stories,” Meyer tells me when we chat. This is a tradition which Bricks and Mortar resolutely bucks. Fasten your seatbelts: the text switches between speakers and times – mainly from the early 1990s to around 2010 – with ease, and it takes the reader a few pages to work herself into the rhythm of this rollercoaster ride. “I knew straight away that the book would only work in this diversity of voices,” he continues. “I didn’t want to just write a milieu study. To avoid that, I had to make use of all possible registers – to turn it into a story about sex, about greed, about death.”
The result is a remarkable origami of streams of consciousness, and the influence that the British modernists have had on Meyer is hard to miss. “I didn’t think about the fact that it would be difficult for the reader,” admits Meyer, “... but it’s always clear after two pages at the most who’s speaking!” Two pages can admittedly feel like a long time, but the disorientation prompted by Meyer’s polyphony is fitting for the story of an industry which is both central to and resolutely separate from society as we normally perceive it.
Meyer may be right that linear stories are still the norm for German novels, yet he’s one of a number of authors pushing the boundaries of narrative structure. One good example would be Erpenbeck’s previous novel, The End of Days, in which each chapter offers up an alternative version of the same woman’s life. And then there’s Before the Feast by Saša Stanišić, which Pushkin Press published in English in 2015. Telling of a village’s decline in the former German Democratic Republic, the novel interweaves voices, stories and times, and – like Bricks and Mortar – is remarkably democratic in the way in which it gives voice to the whole spectrum of society.
This democratic impulse is perhaps most heart-wrenchingly evident in Go, Went, Gone, in which Erpenbeck gives voice to each of the novel’s refugees in turn. While sharing their stories, she shines a light onto the rich mix of cultures and languages which they bring with them (hats off to Susan Bernofsky for her elegant translation of the novel’s multilingualism).
“You can only really be a racist if you’ve never spoken to an immigrant for more than five minutes,” Erpenbeck states, and the novel she has created out of conversations with immigrants is a cry for empathy and understanding. The author talks of Europe’s refugees as living in a kind of parallel existence to the rest of society, one at the bottom of the hierarchy. Go, Went, Gone not only attempts to remove the distance between “them” and “us” but also to invert this hierarchy. Struggling at first to remember his new acquaintances’ names, Richard – a classics scholar – gives them nicknames: Apollo. Tristan. The thunderbolt hurler. “I wanted to portray this lowest level of the hierarchy as a pantheon of gods,” Erpenbeck smiles. “These men aren’t just victims, they’re so much more.”
An interesting parallel between Bricks and Mortar and Go, Went, Gone is the ways in which they blur the lines between fact and fiction. The town in which Meyer’s novel plays out is a veiled version of the author’s hometown, Leipzig, and the novel borrows liberally from real political scandals, interweaving them with its characters’ fictional lives. (Similarly, Stanišić’s Before the Feast is closely modelled on a real village.) Meanwhile, like her protagonist, Erpenbeck interviewed a number of refugees for research purposes and consequently fell into friendship with them. Their names are listed at the back of the novel, and it is their stories that are told. “I treated these stories like archive material,” Erpenbeck explains. “I’ve worked a lot with archive material in the past, and for me it’s like a kind of treasure. There are some very concrete things which you just can’t invent.”
This might sit strangely for a British readership, who are used to bookshops neatly divided between fiction and non-fiction. In Germany though, the divide is between Belletristik (literally, ‘beautiful letters’) and Sachbücher (or ‘fact books’). While the two are often translated as equivalents to fiction and non-fiction, there’s a fine difference. A memoir or a piece of travel writing might come under Belletristik, while a guide book or an encyclopaedia would certainly be a Sachbuch. The decisive factor has less to do with truth and more to do with intent and craft, whether a book aims above all to entertain (for want of a better word) or to inform. The distinction opens up a space between fact and fiction where creativity is often at its most exciting.
Our view of German literature can be skewed when we stand on the outside looking in; as Meyer points out, the German novels which get translated are most often historical, set at some troubled time in the twentieth century. This point was echoed in a recent panel discussion at the British Centre for Literary Translation, when publishers identified a current trend for Hitler-themed comedy in the British market (seriously?!). It’s worth pushing aside all preconceptions though – whether our own, those of our publishers, or those of the critics in Germany trying to define the ever-changing creature they name 'The German Novel'. The German novels to be excited about right now have no comedy moustaches and no young men wearing horn-rimmed spectacles. Instead, they’re experimental and full of empathy. They remind us to pay closer attention to language, but also closer attention to each other.