Dimension2: Contemporary German-Language Literature

Volume 7, Number 2/3

Forward! -- Editorial

Ingo R. Stoehr


Actual events usually do not live up to the hype that precedes them, and things were not any different when the year 2000 rolled around. And as the millennia were about to change, there was no dearth in expectations, ranging from scares, such as the fear (dubbed "Y2K") that a computer glitch with the date would bring all computer-dependent businesses to a screeching halt, to high hopes that after a millennium that ended with a century that saw two World Wars, as well as the rise and fall of Communism, humanity would have a chance at a more peaceful future.

If the first few years of the new millennium, however, are any indication, the future looks more like the past than a utopia. The Balkan wars at the end of the 1990s suggested as much; in addition, they also highlighted an increasing international demand on Germany to deploy its military. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, opened the world's eyes to a new challenge that was at times framed as a clash of cultures, not unlike the opposing value systems during the Cold War, yet different for many reasons, including the so-called asymmetry of force.

The world had to define itself with respect to these changes; and within the Western World as a rift between the United States and Europe (or some European countries) emerged with respect to the war in Afghanistan and, especially, the war in Iraq. On the other hand, as the European Union is in the process of growing together, such issues as the European Constitution and expansion to include Turkey continue to be debated. And each European country has been trying to improve its economy. In Germany massive social reforms have gotten under way and have met with support and criticism. Unemployment has been a long-standing problem and has been made more complex by German unification, with unemployment rates in the eastern part often double those in the western part.

While actual events do not live up the hype, literature often rises to the challenge that these actual events pose. Literature does not have to be obviously topical; rather, its approach is more likely to be refracted and delayed. Violence and war will probably always be great literary themes. Of course, writers will look to their immediate surroundings and, for example, write about the Balkan wars, as Peter Handke and Norbert Gstrein have done. However, the Nazi legacy has remained an important subject matter to paradigmatically deal with violence and war. There is not one particular way of addressing these issues, as is illustrated in the three es-says (all of which were first given as speeches) by Michael Naumann, Martin Walser, and Burkhard Spinnen that are printed in this issue; in its own way, each speech tries to look ahead and establish what is important for literature and culture in general, but each acknowledges the Holocaust as a point of departure.

Exploring how to live everyday has been another major subject matter. Depictions of everyday life include not only personal observations and reflections—for instance, in Uwe Kolbe's poems and in short prose by Peter K. Wehrli, Hans Bender, and Barbara Honigmann—that are as realistic as they are subjective, but they also include reflections that are surrealistic, such as Adolf Endler's poems. Other depictions address more clearly a social reality that ranges from social dislocations (for example, the stories by Carsten Probst and Bettina Gundermann) to the new post-Communist world; texts about the latter encompass remembrances of everyday life under Communism (such as Jakob Hein's story) and explorations of the new realities (as in the chapter from Radek Knapp's novel).

As the printed texts illustrate, the tone varies from serious to humorous. Regardless of tone, theme, or subject matter, however, both short stories and excerpts from novels exemplify that German-language writers tell stories well—something that is not "needless to say" because of a persistent prejudice to the contrary. And good stories are also written about the human condition: about last things (as in Ralf Rothmann's story) and about love (as in Sibylle Mulot's stories).

Literature does not just "happen"; it emerges through the efforts of writer and reader. If the reader is beaten ragged by the headlines covering the actual events, there is something to be said for a piece of literature that can simply be enjoyed. But my contention is that this act of enjoyment has much to do with those actual events. This may begin with literature helping a reader gain some distance from the actual events, and it may lead to literature participating in the ongoing debate about actual events. This possible function is perhaps less visible in literature itself than in essays about literature. In this way, however, literature is about values and the worth of these values. For example, Peter Rühmkorf, Dieter M. GrĢf, and Hans Joachim SchĢdlich revisit the origins of the Western tradition, and Jochen Jung plays with the form of the fairy tale. In this way, finally, literature invites its readers to a dialogue—and what today could be better than dialogue?

In hopes that at least some of the selected texts make such a dialogue possible, I present them to the readers of this magazine. The texts come from the years when we were changing millennia or, more precisely, from 1999 to 2001 (with a few exceptions, for example, Walser's speech was given in 1998). The actual millennium change has not spawned many literary responses. Matthias Politycki's story playfully recounts personal events from 1989, 1999, and 2009 (!); but Steffen Kopetzky's novel literally counts down to "midnight in Europe" on December 31, 1999.

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