This is the post I had drafted and intended to post yesterday, before that Strunk and White business diverted my attention. It is long and full of technical details regarding linguistics, narrative perspective and contemporary German literature:
The 2011 Ingeborg Bachmann prize for German language literature goes to Austrian writer Maja Haderlap. The Ingeborg Bachmann prize is awarded in a sort of workshop setting, the Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur in Klagenfurt, Austria, where the contestants reading previously unpublished texts, which are then criticized by a panel of writers and literary critics.
The Bachmann readings are broadcast live on TV. I always try to catch as many of those broadcasts as I can (the timing is awful, morning and early afternoon). Because even though I don’t write in German and don’t write realist literary fiction (which is what the Bachmann prize is heavily weighed towards), I like listening to what worked for the critics and what didn’t. Which is often very different from what worked for me and what didn’t.
I actually did catch Maja Haderlap’s reading and I have to admit her text did not work for me*. It wasn’t exactly bad, it simply did not interest me beyond a brief moment of “Cool. I didn’t know that”. Of course, I did know there is a Slowenian minority in Kärnten in Eastern Austria, but I hadn’t known about Slowenian partisans in Austria during the Third Reich, so that was a new and interesting tidbit of information. The text itself, however, was a lot of ruminating about Nazis and partisans and World War II and how the Third Reich is still very much a festering wound, i.e. stuff I and the rest of the German-speaking world heard and read (minus Austrian-Slowenian partisans) a thousand times before in the past sixty years and can we please start writing about something else now.
The critics, alas, did not agree with me and almost unanimously praised the text. I pretty much pegged it to win there and then and I was right. “Vergangenheitsbewältigung”, that curious German term that has no direct English equivalent (the dictionary has “coming to terms with the past”, but that doesn’t quite hit it) always seems to work well for the Bachmann judges. Last year, an autobiographic text about an abandoned child in an East German children’s home won – and for the record, I didn’t like that one either.
The text that I liked most among those I heard is Einen Schatz vergraben (To bury a treasure) by Matthias Steinbeis.
The text wasn’t without its share of flaws. For starters, it hinged very much on a twist that I for one saw coming from miles away. Indeed, when one of the critics said that the impact of the text was reduced once one knew the twist, I thought, “Please, don’t tell me you didn’t see that coming, because it is really bleeding obvious.”
But what I liked about the text, much more than the not very surprising twist, was the unusual narrative perspective. For this story was narrated in second person formal POV. Which started a train of thought how some narrative perspectives are only possible in certain languages.
Now most people will be familiar with the three main narrative perspectives in (western) writing, namely first person, third person limited and omniscient. Nowadays, most popular fiction uses the third person limited POV, which has become the standard and in some genres (e.g. romance, but also SF and epic fantasy) only acceptable POV. First person is still quite common as well and is used in memoirs for obvious reasons as well as in certain genres. YA, chick lit, urban fantasy and hardboiled crime fiction are all genres where first person narration is common if not expected.
Nonetheless, there are quite a few people with a vehement dislike of first person narration and flat out refuse to read it. Nick Mamatas goes a bit into this hatred of first person narration in this post at Booklife Now (He is wrong about Gustav Freytag, though).
Omniscient narration, finally, was the dominant form in the 18th and 19th century, but fell from grace in the early 20th and is now reduced to the red-headed stepchild among narrative perspectives. Indeed, the German teacher who first taught me about narrative perspectives in 9th grade dismissed omniscient POV as follows: “The omniscient narrator has a god-like view and knows everything. But in the modern world, God is dead and we can now longer claim like those 19th century authors that we know everything.” My objection that one didn’t need to know everything about the world and the universe, the author just needed to know everything about the story, and besides, hadn’t he just said that the author and narrator were not the same person, went unheard. So did the objections from the more religious students that God was not dead. But while omniscient is largely obsolete, it does have its uses. Paul Jessup explains the use of omniscient POV in epic fiction here. It is also very useful for satirical fiction and certain forms of experimental fiction.
Those are the main three, but there are other lesser used narrative perspectives. For example, there is the second person POV, i.e. a piece of fiction using the second person pronoun “you”. Second person POV is fairly rare, often experimental and works best for short stories. When teaching highschool kids, I tend to mention second person POV as something that exists, but I usually don’t bring an example. For university students, I include an example. Luckily, the SFF genre has quite a few. The Chains That You Refuse by Elizabeth Bear is one.
Now English only has one second person pronoun and therefore only one possible second person POV. German, however, has two, one for formal and one for informal relations, thanks to something linguists call the T-V distinction. The term refers to the French pronouns “tu” (informal) and “vous” (formal). German has a T-V distinction as well, though our pronouns are “du” (informal) and “sie” (formal).
Interestingly, the English language did the T-V distinction as well with “thou” and “you”. However, “thou” vanished from common usage in the 17th century, though it survives in the King James Bible and the works of William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and the other Elizabethan writers. “thou” was the informal pronoun, by the way, though nowadays most people consider “thou” more formal because of its association with the Bible. The example I always give my students are the Ten Commandments, something most will at least be familiar with whether they are Christian or not, which use “du” in German and “thou” in English, i.e. the informal pronoun, because God is supposed to have an intimate relationship to his worshippers and thus uses the informal and more intimate rather than the formal and more distant pronoun.
The story by Matthias Steinbeis at the Bachmann Prize competition now used the formal second person POV, i.e. the pronoun “sie”. This was completely appropriate for the context, which is that of a company offering advise on protecting one’s assets and burying a treasure in a post-financial collapse, tea party gold-standard world. And in German, any sort of official communication, whether by businesses, local authorities, the government, etc…, uses the formal second person pronoun “sie”. There are some audiences and social contexts where the informal “du” is used, e.g. when addressing children or teenagers or among certain subcultures such as university students (among each other, professors use “sie”), comic book fans and bikers. But what Steinbeis had written was basically a financial advice broshure from the post-collapse future and financial advice broshures always use the formal second person pronoun. It is a matter of politeness.
Listening to the story, I thought, “Hey, second person formal POV. That’s neat.” And then I thought, “You couldn’t do this in English, because English doesn’t have the T-V distinction.”
And indeed the English translation has to go with second person “you” (because there is no separate formal second person pronoun in English), which alters the voice and somewhat robs the story of its impact. The French and Spanish translations, to take two languages that have the T/V distinction, both use the formal second person pronoun.
This led to a further train of thought about certain narrative perspectives that are only possible in certain languages. For example, I found myself wondering whether anybody had ever written a story in English in second person “thou” perspective. It is certainly possible, though the story would have to be short (a flash piece is best), because “thou” tends to sound stilted and unnatural to modern ears very quickly. Never mind that the grammar is difficult to get right.
There are other examples of non-standard POVs as well. A few years ago, my university hosted a reading with students of the Deutsches Literaturinstitut Leipzig, the only dedicated creative writing program in Germany. One of the students, a young woman whose name I have forgotten, read a story in third person indefinite POV, that is a story using the German indefinite pronoun “man”.
English does have indefinite pronouns, the Wikipedia page lists some of them, but they are not as commonly used as “man” is in German. “One” would be the closest translation, i.e. “One meets someone, one dates, one gets married, one has children, one builds a house” (the story went like this). It’s not a perspective that would be used in English, even though it’s possible and grammatically correct. Nonetheless, English-speakers, were they to write such a story, would probably use the all-purpose “you”. Indeed, one of the giveaways of German native speakers writing in English is that we tend to use “one” as an indefinite pronoun a lot more often than most native speakers. Because while “one” might sound stilted to a native speaker (I bet my good friends Strunk and White hate it), “you” does not have the same meaning.
Of course, all this begets the question whether there are completely narrative perspectives that are only possible in languages with a different pronoun system. Or whether some languages don’t have one or more of the common western narrative perspectives, because they don’t have the appropriate pronouns?
*I usually keep negative opinions about the works of other writers to myself, but if Ms. Haderlap and Mr Steinbeis could take having their work torn apart by prominent critics in Klagenfurt, they can take the remarks of a nobody like me.