Dimension2: Contemporary German-Language Literature

Volume 6, Number 1

Forward! -- Editorial

Ingo R. Stoehr

This issue focuses on prose that was published in the fall 1998. (For lovers of the other literary genres: the next issue is a double issue on poetry, and another issue on theater plays is in its early planning stages.)

As is sometimes the custom in Dimension2, the texts are arranged according to themes. The present “classification,” however, is merely a suggestion, meant to make easier a first access to the stories. It is one possible way of thematic organization. For example, several of the stories could have been grouped under the theme of love. The two stories by Ohnemus and Szymanski present an image of adolescence, but they are also stories about young love, that is, about falling in love and the difficulties of coming to terms with sexuality, respectively. Michael Köhlmeier’s story is also about falling in love, but is it represented by way of remembering that is triggered by a song; hence, it is grouped with other stories around the theme of music.

There is the temptation of overstatement: all stories are about love or, at least, relationships. But then this topic would not serve to distinguish literary works from each other thematically; consequently, it would make sense to use other themes or images. In addition, love is not too broad; rather, it does not cover all; it has been observed that the two great themes that intrigue the human imagination are love and death. Yet, as if to prove that literature can be about even more than that, a few of the selected prose texts pursue different paths.

Of the two texts that are not under any specific headings, Urs Widmer’s monologue is, as promised by its title, about lethargy (and the attempt of making the addressee snap out of the state of lethargy). The first chapter of Perikles Monioudis’s Flight over Germany is, taken as a text by itself, the story of an adventure; the theme of death, of course, is implied because the pilot barely survives the crash.

The image of childhood is presented in Lydia Mischkulnig’s story as a complex texture (somewhat like the children’s jungle gym in that story) of relationships that include the parent’s marriages. The excerpt from John von Düffel’s novel About Water, however, is only about relationships in the sense that it centers on the relationship of the narrator to two rivers, in one of which he and his friends learned how to swim.

Crime fiction frequently includes love and hardly ever seems far away from death. In the excerpt from Susanne Mischke’s novel Sophie, the Icy Saint, Sophie’s proximity to death and the possibility of a love interest between the two lawyers can be sensed by the readers. Whether the readers are right creates part of the suspense. Urs Richle’s novel Hand in Play takes the technique of interwoven strands of plot lines (some of which include love and death) further by exploiting chance encounters and random developments. The excerpt is from the beginning of the novel as the events of a chaotic night get started when a small-time white-collar criminal overhears only part of a missing person announcement and thinks it is about him.

The literary image of crime is a part of the image of violence, which was the focus of the last issue. Crime fiction is just one way in which violence finds literary expression, but it seems to be the most popular way of representing violence. For literary theory, this invites the question of “popular literature.”

Death is also one of the themes upon which the art work by Horst Haack touches. The prints in this issue of Dimension2 coincide with the ongoing revaluation of the terrorism of the RAF (Red Army Faction) in contemporary German art, including films and theater plays. Here is what Haack offers in a letter from January 28, 2002, as comment on the graphics printed in this issue:

“1. This cycle consists of ten prints.

2. The correspondence on prints two to nine was taken from a report by Ulrike Meinhof (1934-1976).

3. The background pictures were found and bought by the artist in a bazaar in Fez (Morocco), as well as adapted by him.

4. Such photographs are being shown to tourists who pick ornaments for their hands or feet from these samples for a modest fee.

5. The pictures for prints one and eight were taken from a catalogue of such samples with a disposable camera.

6. The texts can be found in Peter Brückner’s paperback Ulrike Marie Meinhof und die deutschen VerhĢltnisse (Verlag Klaus Wagenbach, Berlin 1989).

7. The adapted color copies were the actual basis of the artist’s work. The letters were transposed into them.

8. Strange things are going on.

9. The combination of both levels of meaning, the linguistic and the graphic, borders on magic. The impact is heightened by the power of the colors (here, reproduced in black and whtie only).

10. The dimensions of each print (ink jet with ink and gouache on paper) are 155 x 110 cm; each print is considered an original."

The next group of texts—two stories and one excerpt from a novel—change the thematic focus to music. In Köhlmeier's story, as mentioned above, a song triggers a memory. Brigitte SchĢr's "The Singer" is both about the singer’s necessity of dealing with changes in his voice and his adoring audience’s blindness to his humanity. The excerpt from Andreas Neumeister’s novel Real Loud presents the narrator’s thoughts on the importance of music, where and how it is heard. The latter issue finds a general solution: music should be played really loud or—in keeping with the informal German expression “gut laut”—“real loud.” Incidentally, the young party-going narrator of Ohnemus’s novel also reflects briefly on music and the volume with which it is played.

Various themes come together in the excerpt from Michael Scharang’s novel The Last Judgment of Michelangelo Spatz. There is the image of violence, but it is twice refracted: the story is not just a literary representation of violence, but it is already a representation in the story, that is, not actual violence but a tale invented by a character. There is the image of racism; although arguably related to that of violence, it makes sense to differentiate between these two themes, especially with regard to this excerpt, where there is a particularly subtle connection between racism and tales of violence. And, finally, there is the image of America, where Scharang’s novel is set.

In the last text, Irmtraud Morgner’s “Beau and the Beast” (a chapter from her posthumously published novel The Heroic Testament), again, various themes come together. At the text’s center is love in the full range of its possible manifestations, from love as liberation to love in its perversions. Above all, however, the text is characterized by the mode of fantasy. Usually, just like crime fiction, a fantasy story begs the question of literary quality, often in silent reference to a three-step scale: “serious” literature, popular literature (which, though “popular,” is considered high-quality), and mass-produced “formula fiction.” Morgner’s text is part of a major literary achievement: her novelistic project advances feminist ideas in prose of the highest literary quality.

Her use of fantasy to do so is usually understood in the context of Communist East Germany, where mythology and history were often used to circumvent the state censor when writers wanted to express social criticism. Myth and fantasy, however, make it also possible to explore new options and to formulate utopian ideals. During the 1980s, many writers in both German states alike became disillusioned with their respective political realities; for Morgner, this experience was compounded by her declining health. The complex texture of the trilogy’s final and fragmentary novel suggests that Morgner used her writing to overcome these feelings of resignation. As the novel’s center piece, she rewrote the Greek myth about the tragic love between the priestess Hero and Leander. In postmodern pastiche-and-parody fashion, the myth of creation— paralleling the biblical story, Hero takes one of her ribs and makes it a man—is refracted by modern science as Hero presents “her” man to an academic committee as her dissertation project. It is this man whom Beatriz meets in the story printed here. Beatriz once was a female troubadour in the Middle Ages, who fell into fairy-tale sleep, reawakened in 1968, died a few years later, and then returned to life as a siren. The power of love now transforms her into a woman again.

As always, I submit my thoughts about the selected texts to invite the reader to encouter the texts themselves.

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