Dimension2: Contemporary German-Language Literature

Volume 10, Number 2/3

Forward! -- Editorial


When waxing philosophical in private conversations, we tend to achieve deeply felt insights that may not hold up under scrutiny by daylight. One of those insights, put forth as an almost off-handed remark by one of my best friends in Germany, was that there are many beginnings (and he did not have to continue his thought, because it was obvious in the context: there are, however, only a few endings).

Perhaps, this insight is not off the mark, after all — especially, when we supply adjectives, such as “promising” and “satisfying,” to modify “beginnings” and “endings,” respectively. This brings me to my topic on several levels: Beginnings in life and beginnings in literature.

With “life,” I also mean to refer to the life of this literary endeavor. DIMENSION2, of course, is the reincarnation of Dimension, founded in 1968 and edited by A. Leslie Willson. There are two things going on here. On the one hand, there was a missed opportunity to reconnect. While Leslie and I had been close contact the first several years of my editing DIMENSION2, life happened, and we lost touch with each other. So, when the year 2008 approached, I was looking forward to the opportunity of reconnecting with Leslie to celebrate what began forty years earlier: publication the only literary journals exclusively devoted to printing German-language literature in English translation: Dimension (from 1968 to 1994) and DIMENSION2 (from 1994). But Leslie passed away in December of 2007.

My plan had been to co-edit with Leslie an issue of DIMENSION2 that would feature beginning chapters from novels published in 2008. Now I had to do this without him. I know he liked the idea of focusing on the beginnings of novels, and I believe he would have liked the specific choices for the current issue, but a few other changes came along. I decided to include some novels from 2009 to keep up with the fact that the publication of individual issues got more and more delayed after the Goethe Institut had stopped funding this journal and money got really tight. During the process of making this long-overdue issue of DIMENSION2 ready for print, I also realized that this will be one of the last issues. At this point, I am committed to publishing two more volumes (probably, in triple-issue format for cost-saving reasons), that is, volumes 11 and 12; then, however, it is most likely time for DIMENSION2 to fold. All good things must come to an end.

The tradition of thinking about beginnings in literature goes back to Aristotle, according to whom stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. Put this way, the description of narratives suggests something about their completeness and, hence, the narratability of the world. Today, we have become skeptical of such claims, but as readers we still mostly expect stories with beginnings, middles, and ends — but we may not get what we expect. As early as the mid-eighteenth century, Laurence Sterne gives us nothing but “beginning” in his satirical novel, Tristram Shandy.

So what do we expect from the beginning of a novel? There is “general agreement about the effect of the first few pages in regard to the reader’s expectations of a novel’s structure, plot, narrative viewpoint, and style. The first words read may determine whether a reader proceeds to turn pages or simply lays a novel aside.” Leslie Willson wrote this in his “Perspective,” as he called the editorials in his magazine, in Dimension 17.3 (page 310). This 1989 issue of Dimension coincidentally also featured the beginnings of twelve novels.

This “Forward” (as I call the editorials in DIMENSION2) cannot trace the critical tradition of thinking about beginnings in literature, but it wants to call attention to the fact there are “more” beginnings than endings in the sense that as a novel (or any narrative) opens, it literally opens up. Beginnings typically suggests options for the budding story to develop in a variety of different ways, a variety that usually is more and more restricted as the story progresses until there is a small set of possible endings. A traditional narrative is likely to have one (happy or unhappy) ending; more-modern narratives may have not only open endings but may offer alternate endings — but that is a different “story” in the context of a selection of beginnings.

This “openness” of a beginning is part of what may pull us as readers into a story. But when does a beginning start? Or when is the beginning over? These are theoretical questions that have practical ramifications for selecting the texts for this issue. Obviously, the title may be seen as a part of a novel’s beginning; after all, if the title does not appeal to us in some way, we are not likely to pick up the novel. Then, there are novels that start with an introduction, perhaps a preface or a kind of “pre-chapter” that we recognize as such because it is only after it that we get to what is designated as the first chapter.

The concept of “chapter,” however, is itself more fluid than my use of it may have suggested. Some chapters are long; others, short. What is the status of “mini-chapters”? What if each chapter is autonomous in the sense that it is a story in its own rights that is combined with others into a “novel in stories”? And, finally, what are chapters good for anyway? “Nothing” is the answer to the last question, at least for those writers who choose to write a novel as one flowing movement without chapters.

Several of the beginnings presented in this issue of DIMENSION2 are quite long because they are either long first chapters or the first part of a novel without chapters. In the latter case, I tried to find a “significant” point in the narration at which a reader might “pause.” I understand that these are not necessarily satisfactory terms, but they capture a readerly intuition. For example, the first-person narrator of Jens Wonneberger’s novel is spying on his neighbors (as we realize this, his initially confusing comments about “peak season” make more sense: for him, peak season is the dark time of the year during which people tend to need light and this, in turn, makes spying on them in their apartments easier). This narrator has a certain degree of self-awareness and, after the first reports on some of his observations, as well as on a day at work in the office, he wonders whether he is a voyeur or a visionary. This, for me, is a “significant” point that makes me briefly “pause” because, as a reader, I wonder about where the narrator is going to take his story. And a reader who wants to know the answer to this question will read on.

Other selected beginnings are very short because the authors chose to write very short chapters. However, “short” does not mean “light-weight.” In this respect, I was particularly struck by Gila Lustiger’s short novel, which she subtitled A Story of Happiness. What struck me was not only the strange complexity of using footnotes in a literary text (and, of course, the “whole story” emerges in the interaction of both main text and notes) but also (and primarily) the preface, in which Lustiger insists on countering the world’s unhappiness with happiness. She sees this book also being a response to the war between Israel and Lebanon that erupted in July 2006, just when it so happened that she was visiting Tel Aviv while her best woman friend was visiting Beirut.

As always, the sequence of the texts and the headings in the table of contents are simply there to facilitate the reader’s encounter with the texts. They are, like beginnings of novels, invitations to start reading and, hopefully, keep reading. Almost a quarter century ago, Leslie Willson concluded the “Perspective” on his selection of beginnings of a dozen novels on a somber note that still rings sadly true today: “The Dimension reader who also knows German can seek out a novel for complete revelation, but those who do not will have to wait for an English translation of the entire book to appear. Some will find a publisher; most, through no fault of their own, won’t.”

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