Dimension2: Contemporary German-Language Literature

Volume 5, Number 2

Forward! -- Editorial

Ingo R. Stoehr

Contemporary literature written in German is more than alive—it is vibrant. Nevertheless, it often encounters a web of preconceived ideas that treat it less than favorably, even lock it into a vicious circle: on the one hand, German-language literature is considered to be too serious; on the other hand, light-hearted and entertaining German-language literature is not taken seriously.

Literature written in German—like the literature of any other major language—is characterized by a full literary production typical of its cultural environment. German is not monolithic, either; one obvious distinction is suggested in view of the different countries that produce contemporary German-language literature. An ensuing question concerns the identity of Austrian or Swiss literature in opposition to, or in conjunction with, German literature in a narrow sense.

Much has been made of the insular condition of Switzerland as Europe's oldest democracy, as a neutral country, as a society encompassing four distinct cultures (and languages) yet with one distinct national identity, and as a stable economy specializing in high-quality industrial production while being dependent on raw materials from the outside. These observations are generalizations that, however, provide the readers with a first orientation (to be later revised if necessary); however, it still needs to be seen what these observations mean for literature.

If the generalizations contain the proverbial kernel of truth, the interaction between idealized image and reality is likely to effect a creative challenge for the arts. Swiss-German literature is both regional and universal, full of realism and driven by imagination. The Swiss insular condition has been seen as having fostered both a sense of national identity and an occasional feeling of being closed in, leading to that which has always been an important function of literature: the exploration of alternative (imagined) identities and new worlds, which is often done by experimenting with new poetic forms.

What is needed is not only a theoretical discussion (about serious/entertaining literature, about “national” literatures), but also a look at actual texts, such as the ones in this issue of DIMENSION2. Reading these texts is likely to lead both to seeing themes and locales specific to Switzerland and to realizing the connections to other German-language literature and Western literary traditions in general. In addition, these texts span the range of serious and entertaining literature; all texts, however, should provide reading pleasure, although perhaps not the same pleasure to all readers alike.

For those readers who enjoy reading coming-of-age stories in the tradition of Mark Twain's Huck Finn, I recommend the first two selections (under the heading “The Image of Adolescence”). Huck's raft on the Mississippi finds its equivalent in an old junkyard Cadillac, but that's just how the action gets started in the excerpt from Roland Limacher's short novel Juliluft (July Air; Diogenes, 1995).

Huck's scoundrel father shows up as a more suave and contemporary con artist in Milena Moser's novel Mein Vater und andere Betrüger (My Father and other Con Artists; Rowohlt, 1996). In the chapter printed here (chapter 4), the novel's first-person narrator watches some of her father's suspicious behavior without yet seeing it for what it is; for the most part of this chapter, the young girl's attention is focused on a physiological aspect of puberty, of which she tells in an nonchalant manner.

The novels by Limacher and Moser can be said to be popular literature; I do not mean this statement as a value judgment, but rather as an invitation to think about the categories that we apply to literature. After all, quite a number of critics maintain that popular literature is skillfully written and wonderful to read; however, while Anglo-American literature abounds with popular literature, there is no such thing in German-language literature. Or is there?

Some of the other selections in this issue could be classified as belonging to the serious type of literature in the sense that they demand more work on the part of the readers to make sense of what is being said. But, then again, why should that not be entertaining: while the text may not present a detective story, reading it requires the readers to do detective work.

The difference between texts is in part brought about by each writer's narrative decisions concerning style, theme, and tradition. With the term tradition, I refer to the choice a writer has, for example, between the tradition of storytelling that focuses on action and the tradition of an essayistic-reflective presentation. Themes are abundant; some, however, have evolved into major, or even dominant, themes within a specific literary culture.

The theme of love can be presented in various ways. In the eighth chapter (which is printed here) of his novel Festland (Mainland; Residenz, 1996), Markus Werner offers a discussion of the differences and similarities between love, desire, and pleasure exactly as that: a discussion. The adult narrator Julia and her father try to become reacquainted as Julia attempts to understand her parents' complicated relationship with each other. While this relationship and the discussion suggest basic narrative structures, the chapter centers indeed more on the philosophical issue of love than on action.

The image of America has already provided the focus for an entire issue of DIMENSION2 (volume 4, issue 3). It is indeed an important theme, indicative of the attraction the New World possesses for German-language authors. The selections by Hugo Loetscher and Christoph Geiser are autobiographically informed; both draw on visits to California.

In Loetscher's prose text “Die Botschaft aus dem Teerteich” (Message from the Tar Pit), published in Herbst in der Großen Orange (Autumn in the Big Orange; Diogenes, 1982), the encounter of “H.” with the vast dimensions of Los Angeles (which lead to his taking driving lessons) is connected to a surprising message about pollution and health.

The excerpt from the first section of Geiser's novel Wüstenfahrt (Desert Journey; Nagel & Kimche, 1984) plays with icons of the American West, both from reality and from television, such as roadrunners, coyotes, and cacti. This context adds mythical dimensions to the physical car trip to the desert, hence the term journey (rather than a more mundane word).

Wüstenfahrt is also exemplary of gay literature. The narrator's monologue addresses another person in the German familiar second-person pronoun du. The monologue's addressee is the narrator's male lover, an older man who is married with children. The monologic quality of the text reflects the growing distance between the two men, which the novel follows to the final independence of the narrator.

Another landscape that has long fascinated the Northern imagination is that of Southern Europe, especially Southern France and Italy. The latter provides the backdrop for the two selections by E. Y. Meyer and Urs Faes.

The excerpt printed here from Meyer's Venezianisches Zwischenspiel (Venetian Interlude; Ammann, 1997) is the second part of the seven-part novella, which offers speculations about “the perfect crime: the murder of reality” (Meyer 102). The description of the cumbersome road trip from Paris to Venice sets the mood for the rest of the novella, moving back and forth between precise references to reality (readers can follow the trip on a road atlas) and occasional visions of horror that keep irritating the narrator.

While the excerpt printed here is mainly centered on the reality of the road trip, a more frequent oscillation between reality and horror and fantasy scenarios and a stronger, yet subtle, predominance of the eerie is characteristic of Meyer's texts, as is true of the novella in its entirety and as can be seen in his other stories, such as in his short story “Eine Reise nach Sibirien” (A Journey to Siberia), translated in DIMENSION2 3.1 (1996), from his Wintergeschichten (Stories of Winter; Ammann, 1995).

Faes's novel Ombra (Suhrkamp, 1997) presents a pastiche of various stories that intertwine as the first-person narrator starts looking for his writer friend who has disappeared in Italy. The regular chapters tell of this search; the other sections of the novel consist of fictitious writings of the disappeared man: the “Graue Bogen” (Gray Leaves) present the fictitious story of the life of a renaissance painter, and the “Weiße Blätter” (White Pages) relate the story of Osch, an instructor of German at an Italian university. In the sixth installment of the “Weiße Blätter” (printed here), elements of the story of Osch and the life of the renaissance painter come together.

Literature is about all of life; however, a few texts focus on the nitty-gritty of the small things of everyday situations, especially those situations that are at the margins of what society prefers to see, because these things may be too small, too oppressive. Still, this smallness of life needs to be expressed, and it has been done successfully by Robert Walser (1878-1956), a Swiss writer whose reputation rests on such literature. The contemporary selections from Jörg Steiner and Margrit Schriber can be seen as being in Walser's tradition.

Steiner's short narrative Der Kollege (The Colleague; Suhrkamp, 1996) is about Bernhard Greif, a man who tries—and finally fails—to come to terms with being unemployed; the narrative's third section (printed here) reveals in its terseness the extent to which feelings of insecurity permeate everyday decisions, such as whether or not to take an umbrella.

Schriber's novel Schneefessel (Fetters of Snow; Nagel & Kimche, 1998) takes a close look at the hard life in a remote, rural mountain area. Not only the region is isolated, but so are the people who live there. The narrator Croupier-Lini addresses a fly, not another human being, during her narration; even her house seems to be more fit for flies than for human habitation: “The rooms are tiny and low. A house for flies” (Schriber 6).

There are many different ways to organize texts. The thematic organization that I chose for the selection in this issue will hopefully make the reading easier; however, the organization is just a first step toward experiencing these texts, which could have also been grouped in other ways, as the remarks about Geiser (gay literature) and Meyer (the horror and fantasy story) have already indicated. Other texts include the excerpt from Faes's novel Ombra, which is also about love.

In addition, Lukas Stuber's text is about anti-Semitism; Jenny's short story is about child-parent relationships and death; and Werner Lutz' poetry is about every topic ranging from hell to paradise.

The last three authors and their texts, however, are grouped according to nonthematic criteria. Stuber and Jenny belong to the young generation of writers, which is emphasized in support of the claim that contemporary German-language literature is well, alive, and vibrant. To be and remain that way, literature needs to be written by all generations of authors, especially young writers.

Stuber's novel Sechs fußbreit über dem Boden (Six Feet above the Ground; Nagel & Kimche, 1998) tells the story of a modern-day fight of David against Goliath, in form of the fight to keep the pub Cardio from going under in the competition with a big-business-style restaurant company. The fight is complete with love interests and betrayals; and much rests on the narrator Bendic's ability to raise money as a writer. The short excerpt stands on its own as one episode in this endeavor.

Jenny's short story “Die Fähre” (The Ferry) deals with a girl whose ambitious mother drove her into suicide, an event with which the younger sister—the story's focal point—has to come to terms. The story is a dark treatment of complex parent-child conflicts, a topic that Jenny dealt with in a quite different manner in her successful short novel Das Blütenstaubzimmer (The Pollen Room; Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt, 1997).

The poems in Lutz's Die Mauern sind unterwegs (The Walls are Moving About; Ammann, 1996) are written in the epigrammatic tradition. Similar to the prose genre of the aphorism, an insight into the real nature of existence is brought to the point. As a lyrical form, epigrammatic poetry places more importance on the timing of expression; for example, the arrangement in lines supports certain rhythms and distributes suggested significance in more subtle ways than prose could.

The fact that Lutz's is the only collection of poems represented here is merely an accident, but it still leads to a general question: where are the other Swiss authors (not just the other writers of poetry)?

This issue of DIMENSION2 can only provide a small glimpse at Swiss-German literature and is limited to presenting a small number of writers. However, texts by Swiss writers have been made available in previous issues, including Kurt Aebli, Peter Bichsel, Gion Mathias Cavelty, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Felix Philipp Ingold, Kurt Marti, Peter Weber, and Urs Widmer. Consequently, this individual issue is part of DIMENSION2 as an on-going project: building the ultimate bilingual (German-English) anthology of contemporary German-language literature one issue at a time.

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