The German Book Award or Let’s all praise middle class mediocrity

The 2012 German Book Award has been awarded to Ursula Krechel for her novel Landgericht (District Court) and it turns out that I am psychic.

Yes, it’s true. I predicted last month that Ms. Krechel would win the award. But don’t be too impressed by my precognitive abilities. Predicting who will win the German Book Award isn’t exactly difficult, since it’s always the same type of book that wins, usually a family saga and always set against the background of recent German history, involving either the Third Reich or Communist East Germany or preferably both. This is not just my impression of the prize, by the way, but a pretty common verdict. Here is an English language article about the award from a site intended to promote German literature abroad. Hint: A bit less navel-gazing might do wonders for the popularity of German literature abroad.

This year’s winner is a typical example of a German Book Award winner. It’s a novel set against the background of recent German history, in this case following the life and career of a Jewish emigrant who returns to West Germany after WWII and makes career as a judge at a district court. But he finds that he no longer fits into post-war West Germany, because people are mostly too concerned with putting the past behind them and getting on with their lives to care about the plight of an emigrant. Worse, they think he was actually lucky to get away with his life and spend several years on the palm-lined beaches of Cuba far from any bombs or wars and they have no idea what exactly he is complaining about. In short, this year’s winner is business as usual. Which is also why I could predict the win so easily. Because Landgericht is exactly the sort of book that usually wins.

Now I haven’t read Landgericht, nor am I likely to read it. It’s just not the sort of book that interests me. What is more, I watched an extensive interview with Ursula Krechel on TV which completely hit me the wrong way and immediately raised my hackles against Ms. Krechel and her novel. Luckily, there was an interview with George R.R. Martin in the same program, which more than made up for my disappointment with Ms. Krechel.

Oh no, people in the 1950s and 1960s used to publicly display photographs of relatives who had died in WWII in a sort of shrine – how dare they mourn their relatives? How dare the people lament their own private little miseries (Ms. Krechel’s words not mine) instead of caring about the great evil of the Third Reich? Now I have never experienced the repression and silence about the Nazi era that apparently was widespread in the 1950s and 1960s – in fact, I have experienced the exact opposite, namely that people couldn’t stop talking about the Nazi era, writing about it and making films about it. But I have heard elderly people talk about bombings and rapes and having to flee the oncoming Red Army and of men who never came back. I’ve seen the photos of dead soldiers on sideboards and cabinets, too, though for me they were a reminder how many people died way too young during WWII. And so my reaction to Ms. Krechel’s “How dare those people complain about their own private little miseries?” was “Have some fucking empathy, will you!”

Interestingly, I am not the only person who detects a distinct lack of empathy in Ms. Krechel’s work. The most common description of Ms. Krechel’s novel is that it has a “cold and precise style”. And the verdict about Ms. Krechel’s winning novel in the Spiegel pretty much repeats this impression: good and important subject, dry and unemotional execution, difficult to empathise with the characters. And in fact Ms. Krechel seems to value coldness in language, because in the interview linked above she praises the actual historical model for her protagonist as having had a “brilliant, cold and precise style” in his written judgments. Now I have yet to see any legal document that is written in a brilliant style, mostly it’s great if they don’t completely vanish into dense legalese. Besides, Ms. Krechel is primarily a poet, which probably explains her preoccupation with style.

According to the Spiegel, Ursula Krechel actually gave a very good thank you speech wherein she drew parallels between the plight of her Jewish emigrant protagonist and the plight of refugees and asylum seekers today. A video of the speech can be found at the bottom of the page here. It’s a good speech and somewhat redeemed Ms. Krechel for me.

However, the question remains why the German Book Award continues to look into the past rather than at the world we live in today, a Germany (or Austria or Switzerland, because let’s not forget that the award is for German language literature in general) that is very different than that of the 1950s, even if some issues such as the abominable treatment of refugees remain. Ms. Krechel actually did answer why she could not write a book about the situation of a contemporary refugee – the facts are still too fresh, archives are not open and she would prefer not to further traumatize already traumatized people by interviewing them. Which is her right and her choice. But why does the German Book Award continue to laud novels about middle and upper middle class people which look into the recent past (historical novels set pre-WWI no more show up on the shortlist than SF would) written in a fairly conservative style (because truly avantgardistic books never make it onto the shortlist either)? Why not give the award to a novel, even a realistic and conservatively written one, that actually reflects the way we live now?

Now the German Book Award actually went to a novel that was a bit more modern and less navel-gazing, that is at least less gazing into specifically German navels, one time, namely with Melinda Nadj Abonji’s 2010 win for Tauben fliegen auf (Doves fly upwards), a novel about Serbian-Hungarian immigrant in Switzerland. And the book promptly was a commercial flop, the book award boost far less than with other winners. Because it appears that the sort of people who care about the German Book Award and who actually buy the winning tomes want to read only about middle class people like themselves inserted into German history.

And then it hit me. The German Book Award – more so than other awards of similar importance like the Booker Prize or the Prix Goncourt or even the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair, which at least occasionally honour more adventurous fare – is basically an award for a certain kind of realistic middle class literature. The middle class bit is crucially important, because there have been nominated novels which hit all the right notes – realistic, family saga set against a backdrop of recent history – and yet failed to win, because their protagonists were working or underclass rather than middle class.

Just recently, a previous winner, Uwe Tellkamp’s 2008 novel Der Turm (The Tower) about a bourgeois community/family in Communist East Germany was adapted for TV. And if you think I was harsh on Ms. Krechel, you should hear my verdict on Uwe Tellkamp and his novel. And a cultural program hyping the adaptation of Der Turm called the novel unique, because it was a bourgeois tragedy set in Communist East Germany. Now the term “bourgeois tragedy” always confused me in school, because why would anybody classify plays according to the social class to which its protagonists belong. Humans are humans, aren’t they, regardless if their aristocrats, bourgeois or working class? Never mind that I unanimously hated the bourgeois tragedies I was made to read, because the plot was inevitably “daughter of bourgeois family falls in love with young aristocrat and dies horribly (sometimes the aristocrat dies, too), usually because of the disgusting judgmentalism of her surroundings”. Don’t even get me started on Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Emilia Galotti, the play that praises honour killings as the way to bourgeois freedom. Der Turm is not nearly as bad as that and to my knowledge it does not horribly kill any women either. But my reaction to use of the term “bourgeois tragedy” to describe it was “Hey, I thought that Communism did away with that sort of bourgeois conservatism and good riddance, too?” But apparently bourgeois sentiment survived in certain pockets of East Germany, at least according to Uwe Tellkamp. Interestingly, classifying Der Turm and its ilk as a bourgeois tragedy set in East Germany also explains why I have never been able to recognize the East Germany we visited every year in the 1980s in any of the novels and films supposedly set there. Because those novels and films are usually set in a bourgeois middle class or politically bohemian milieu. Whereas the relatives we visited were usually working class or had lost any hint of bourgeoisie sometime in the 1950s. No wonder I couldn’t recognize the GDR shown in those works, because my limited personal experiences had been very different.

Class resentment never used to be particularly common in West Germany when I grew up, or at least it was well masked. But it has become a lot more frequent in the past twenty years or so with a lot of outright disdain for the so-called “underclass” from the middle classes. That resentment can be felt in the looks of pity I get when people find out that I teach “Hauptschule” – Oh dear, you have those horrible underclass kids (many of which are not horrible at all nor are they all lower class). It can also be seen in all of the parents who push for early separation of students into the German three-track system, so their precious little princes and princesses can be educated far away (and of course in the top track, because their kids are always wonderful) from all of those horrid underclass kids. It can be seen in all of those parents who pull their kids out of state school altogether and send them to private schools hoping to keep them away from lower class kids. When I was a student, I went to school (on the academic track) with the kids of teachers and doctors and lawyers as well as with the kids of farmers and forklift drivers and single moms and immigrants. Nowadays, I still teach the kids of farmers and forklift drivers and single parents and immigrants, but the doctor and lawyer kids are gone, probably at private school where they won’t have to look at the less fortunate.

The same people who try to keep their kids away from the kids of the working and underclasses are the sort of Bildungsbürgertum (another of those German words that are difficult to impossible to translate), the educated bourgeoisie, who buy novels that win the German Book Award. Hence, the German Book Award tends to laud novels that appeal to the interests and prejudices of that group. And that’s why the winners are often so dull and uninteresting.

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12 Responses to The German Book Award or Let’s all praise middle class mediocrity

  1. sherwood smith says:

    I am not surprised about so many novels looking back–from my distant perspective, the old folks of Germany have major PTSD and that causes some distinctive twists in the psyche. That shadow will hang over Germany when the last of the old generation who remember it has passed, is what I suspect. (I have friends here in SoCal who came over after the war, constantly talk to what’s left of their family back in Germany, and I get glimpses of what I saw while traveling and living there.) That particular one sounds awful, though–like you, I think the ones that let people mourn, or examine how what came to pass could have happened, are necessary and can be transforming.

    (One friend, who unfortunately is dying, was a teenager during the war years. What happened to her is astounding as well as horrifying; her life would make the most amazing novel. I suspect the younger Germans wouldn’t like it, though, as for her, as a teenager tramping the ruins of Poland, where she was stuck as a farm hand after Hamburg was bombed flat, the transforming experience was walking into a tiny church and rediscovering her faith in a moment of quiet, after it had been blasted to bits by a RAF shell when her mother and sister were killed. And that moment gave her enough strength to endure both the next couple of years, which were worse than ever . . . and then the long silence of loved ones imprisoned by the Russians, and the subsequent Stasi period.)

    • Cora says:

      It doesn’t help that we’re getting a whole new bout of PTSD from the people who lived in East Germany and had run-ins with the system of some kind as well as from those who actually thrived under Communism, but could never adjust to the Post-Communist era. And the personal stories from survivors of WWII and from those who lived in Communist East Germany will be with us for as long as the people are around and it’s a good thing that we have those stories. And there are a lot of powerful stories. Especially since some people start opening up only very late in life.

      Though when Günther Grass published Crabwalk, a novel about the Wilhelm Gustloff disaster, in 2002, the critics all said how that novel heralded the change that it was now okay to talk about the fact that German civilians had also been victims of the war and I thought, “Huh? Haven’t you people got parents and grandparents? Or did you always fall asleep when they started talking about the war?” Never mind that the Gustloff disaster isn’t exactly unknown in Germany, there’s a movie, documentaries, a TV mini-series, etc… One of my aunts quite narrowly escaped going down with the Wilhelm Gustloff BTW, when her family got on another ship at the last moment, one that made it to safety.

      But the people who write the sort of novels that win the German Book Award were all born post WWII. Ursula Krecher is actually one of the oldest winners to date and she was born in 1947. We do have the stories of actual war survivors and they sometimes write them down (the university magazine where I volunteered once published an incredibly powerful account by a man who had survived the bombing of Dresden as a teenager and was then forced to help with the clean-up), but what we’re getting now is mostly people mining either their own family history or archives and survivor’s stories for material. Meanwhile, there’s not a lot of novels that actually talk about how we live now or about life in West Germany (there are plenty about the East) in the 1970s and 1980s and those there are (e.g. Sven Regener’s Frank Lehmann trilogy) don’t win awards. Even though Regener’s Neue Vahr Süd speaks a lot more to me than anything that ever won the German Book Award.

  2. Estara says:

    I love your rants and I’m convinced you have truly deduced what is up with this award. Never having been a target audience for these books, I am only an amused onlooker.

    • Cora says:

      I’m not target audience either. But if they truly wanted to give an award for the best of German language literary fiction, surely they could find better books than this lot. The Büchner Prize or the Prize of the Leipzig Bookfair at least sometimes go to books that seem genuinely interesting (though Leipzig lost a lot of credibility by nominating the plagiarist Helene Hegemann). This one is just dull.

  3. And there are some who did it well: Böll in Billard um Halbzehn, Wolf in Der Geteilte Himmel (you could include Grass in Der Blechtrommel, but it was not to my taste).

    • Cora says:

      But then Günther Grass and Heinrich Böll are Nobel Prize winners and Christa Wolf was a serious contender who was skipped over probably for political reasons. And they wrote about the Third Reich, WWII and post-war Germany East and West, when those events were still current and not yet descended into ritualized rememberance. They also continued to write about the world they lived in, e.g. Böll’s take on the terrorism panic of the 1970s and the part of Axel Springer’s tabloid journalism in kindling it in The Lost Honour of Katherina Blum or Christa Wolf’s take on the Chernobyl disaster in Störfall/Accident or the fact that Günther Grass still has an opinion about every issue from Israeli policy to football and writes poems about it.

      Grass, Wolf and Böll are/were the real deal. The people who get nominated for the German Book Award are writers who dream they were Grass, Wolf or Böll (2008 winner Uwe Tellkamp has said as much) and are still writing the sort of books that that Grass, Wolf and Böll were writing in the 1950s and 1960s.

  4. Oops, Die Blechtrommel. My German is getting rusty…

    • Cora says:

      Never mind. German grammatical gender is very difficult to grasp for anybody who’s not a native speaker (and some who are).

      As for Die Blechtrommel, Günther Grass is definitely an acquired taste. My Mom always told me that my grandmother, who was not the target audience for serious literary fiction at all, nonetheless had a copy of Die Blechtrommel, because it was the controversial must-read bestseller of the 1950s. My Mom and my aunt were not allowed to read it, because it was deemed a “dirty book”, so they read it anyway in secret and were reportedly quite underwhelmed, though there was that scene with the sherbet powder in the bellybutton.

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