Dimension2: Contemporary German-Language Literature

Volume 8, Number 1

Forward! -- Editorial

Ingo R. Stoehr

IT IS TIME TO LOOK back on another fall season, that of 2003. Again, the literary offerings from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland are plentiful. Any selection presented in an average of 160 pages (this particular issue is a "tad" longer) can only be that: a selection. It is a combination of subjectivity, necessity (such as copyright issues), and the hope that the selection is representative of the range that German-language literature spans.

As organizing principle I opted to use literary genres: poetry and aphorisms, novels, and stories. However, an alternative (which I have used in other issues) is arranging the texts according to themes. The main theme of the texts by Botho Strauss, Alex Capus, Nadine Hostettler, Peter Glaser, Hanne Kulessa, and Larissa Boehning is "love," or an exploration of relationships between individuals (spouses, lovers, would-be lovers, friends, colleagues, and family). In the latter, more abstract, sense, the short prose pieces by Ror Wolf share the theme with the previously mentioned stories.

Wolf's texts, however, bring the theme of "intertextuality," or focus on the business of writing, into play--a theme also important (in different degrees) for the texts by Jürgen Becker and Stefanie Zweig. Also, as a sign of how literature reacts to current events, the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, are mentioned by Jürgen Becker and Peter Glaser. While the attacks do not take center stage, the mere fact that the authors chose to "date" their stories in this way is worth observing.

Another significant theme is that of "experiences abroad," where "abroad" is a relative term. On the one hand, there are stories by German writers whose characters (invented or autobiographical) leave Germany to live in another country, as can be seen in the texts by Friedrich Kroehnke, Jürgen Becker, Peter Glaser, and Stefanie Zweig. On the other hand, stories may explore how characters from other countries and cultures (and from whose perspective Germany is "abroad") may fare in Germany, as does the text by Gernot Wolfram. In the context of this issue, the selected texts can only scratch the surface, to do more justice to the importance of this theme, a double issue of DIMENSION2 on this theme is in preparation.

This issue, then, begins with a short selection of poetic and aphoristic texts that are located at the polar ends of the literary landscape. Kurt Aebli's poems investigate the postmodern condition, down to the color of lipstick. Raphael Urweider's poetry is not any less contemporary, but it reaches back to the classical tradition, perhaps touching upon Rilke's treatment of the Orphic. It also seems as though the writers of the selected aphorism could not be any more different. On the one hand, Karl Heinrich Waggerl's aphorism are conservative and contemplative, even idyllic; on the other hand, Peter Rühmkorf presents the opposite world view in his aphorisms: progressive and critical, even cynical.

The emphasis of this issue, however, is on storytelling; in addition to short stories, I have selected excerpts from novels. None of these excerpts, incidentally, is an opening passage of the novel in question. Typically, openings are good choices to demonstrate a novel's potential because they are what catches and keeps a reader's attention as he or she approaches a novel. The other good choice is to take a passage that is an episode or otherwise self-contained part of the novel so that it can both be read as an "independent" story and still be considered representative of the novel at large. By chance, the novel excerpts in this issue are all of the latter kind.

The storytelling is representative of various narrative "attitudes," ranging from being involved in the action (typically, the first-person narrators) to traditionally limited-omniscient or neutral (as in most of the selected texts with third-person narrators) and to downright skeptical (such as in Ror Wolf's short texts, one of which even claims to be "no story").

Each narrative text begins with the observation of everyday life and its details, whether it is listening to the radio, dealing with middle age and relationships, an unwanted pregnancy, the wish to do right by a long-gone love, or the wish to die. The texts deal with these aspects of everyday life in varying degrees of realism. This begins with a "matter-of-fact" realism that may be deceptively straightforward (to still leave the readers wondering how the protagonist is going to cope, such as in Gernot Wolfram's "At the Radio") or tongue-in-cheek (to let the readers side with the protagonist, such as in Hanne Kulessa's "Thea, Techniques"). The realism of other stories is more refracted, for example, because of the emerging "definition" of the main character in Larissa Boehning's "Cat Mess," because of the mere geographical expanse in Peter Glaser's "His Story about Nothing," or because of the gradual transformation of realistic observation into mythological images in the excerpt from Botho Strau§'s novel Die Nacht mit Alice, als Julia ums Haus schlich (The Night with Alice when Julia Crept around the House).

The excerpt "Jahrestage" from Jürgen Becker's novel Schnee in den Ardennen (Snow in the Ardennes) stands out because it is, beginning right with the title of the excerpted passage, an homage to another writer, Uwe Johnson. "Jahrestage," of course, has the double meaning of "the days of the years" and the "yearly of a (special) day"; Johnson himself made clear that he had thought of "Anniversaries" as the proper translation of "Jahrestage." Becker's character Jšrn Winter takes a very personal approach. At the center of Johnson's monumental and complex four-part novel is the dialogue between Gesine Cresspahl and her daughter Marie, which tries to make sense of their current experiences in New York City during the period of one year from 1967 to 1968, as well as German history as Marie listens to Gesine's memories and family stories she herself had been told. The dialogue is extremely intense so that readers may well feel that they have come to know Gesine and Marie as real persons (just as Uwe Johnson always claimed they were); this is indeed what Jšrn Winter feels, and he imagines trying to meet Gesine to continue the narrative project that fell silent with Johnson's death.

Finally, another text stands out because, of course, it is not a story but a letter. A footnote in her collection of stories Owuors Heimkehr (Owuor's Return Home) explains that Stefanie Zweig wrote this letter in December 2001, when the movie version of her novel Nowhere in Africa opened in theaters. The movie has become a success both with audiences and critics, winning the 2002 German Movie Award and the 2003 Oscar for the best foreign movie. In the letter, Zweig addresses the actor Sidede Onyulo, who plays Owuor in the movie. She, too, reflects on realism, which never is "reality" but always the creation of an "illusion of reality," in the way the actor portrays a character in her book (though based on her memories of the real person) and in the way her audience has reacted to the character.

As always, the selection is rounded of by artwork, as usually chosen by Christoph Zuschlag. The artist in this issue, Brigitte Maria Mayer, is no stranger to the United States, where she was a guest at the Goethe-Institut Chicago in 1996. As so often, the visuals seem to be more directly thought-provoking than the written word; both, however, are an invitation to examine life, and I extend this invitation to the readers of DIMENSION2.

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