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Germany: Michael Hulse

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In 1895, the year in which his masterpiece Effi Briest was published, Germany lost its great novelist of the late nineteenth century, Theodor Fontane. Observing the new nation (united in 1871 under Prussian leadership), Fontane had taken his amiably ironic scalpel to the fledgeling Reich's foundation myths, the gulf between its conservative and progressive instincts, and its class and gender conflicts. The first great novel of the new twentieth century came from one of Fontane's profoundest admirers, Thomas Mann: Buddenbrooks (1901) is a searching portrait of three generations of a patrician family in a proud old Hanseatic city (transparently Mann's own birthplace, Lübeck), recognizing both the qualities and the shortcomings of the wealthy upper middle class. Deft in its characterization, generous and shrewd in its portrayal of milieu and its human sympathies, Buddenbrooks also began Thomas Mann's lifelong exploration of the conflicting claims of artistic imperative and social circumstance, a theme later pursued in numerous novellas and above all in the great novels The Magic Mountain (1924) and Doctor Faustus (1947). His Nobel Prize (1929) and, through years of exile, his active opposition to the Nazi regime, gave him a commanding influence internationally. (His brother Heinrich was also an acclaimed novelist, with rather more streetwise bite.)

One contemporary frequently applauded by Thomas Mann was Jakob Wassermann, who at times shared aspects of Mann's subject matter. Christian Wahnschaffe (1919) looks at a younger generation's rejection of the moneyed elders' mores in favour of a more spiritual life. (The same conflict occurs in other guises in the works of Hermann Hesse.) As a Jew, Wassermann could not but be conscious of his outsider role in a German nation which paid only lip-service to principles of assimilation, and his novel Caspar Hauser (1908) stands as a great metaphor for social outcasts of every description. It concerns the celebrated case of a ‘wild boy’ who appeared in Nuremberg in 1828, clearly in his late teens but unable to speak more than a single sentence—‘I want to be a rider like my father.’ The historical Hauser had been kept in a dark cell since early infancy, and speculation was rife that this was a great dynastic crime, that he was perhaps an illegitimate son of Napoleon—and the speculation was further fuelled by the youth's murder. Wassermann's love of Dostoevsky but also of cloak-and-dagger yarns makes this a compelling account of society's problems with those on its impenetrable fringes.

But the great Jewish writer of the first quarter century was born in Prague as a citizen of that xenophobic patchwork state, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Franz Kafka's stories and novels can also be read as elaborately mournful allegories of the Jewish experience. The universality of Metamorphosis (1915), The Trial (1925), and The Castle (1926), though, lies in Kafka's subtle and profound understanding of the nature of individual alienation from a world bewilderingly unsympathetic and indeed hostile. If the adjective ‘Kafkaesque’ has entered many languages to describe a somewhat grotesque exploration of identity in extremis, that is because these parables of life in a society increasingly institutionalized, faceless, and menacing have struck an unpleasantly familiar chord with readers world-wide.

The achievements of Franz Kafka, in a life closed prematurely by tuberculosis, belong very much to that new order of society superseding the old which is glimpsed only on the fringes of Mann and Wassermann. The First World War left Germany a changed nation: the Kaiser abdicated, the major cities were racked by a series of revolts in the post-war months, and as the dust of peace settled it became clear that this world of perceived humiliation, reparations payments, the crippled veterans of an army popularly thought undefeated and betrayed by the politicians—and then, as the short-lived Weimar Republic wore on, of inflation, rising unemployment, political instability, and factional thuggery—was a world transformed for ever. All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) placed Erich Maria Remarque alongside Barbusse, Graves, and a select few other prose writers who recorded the sorry carnage of the war once called ‘great’.

In the same year as that classic of anti-war literature appeared, Alfred Döblin published Berlin Alexanderplatz, the story of Franz Biberkopf, adrift in the teeming city after release from prison, turning to drink and a prostitute for comfort, falling in with criminals and with the rising Nazi movement. This was the seedy metropolitan Germany of Brecht's plays and Otto Dix's paintings, and novels by another highly gifted writer, Joseph Roth, a Germany that bore little resemblance to that which Thomas Mann had commemorated not thirty years before.

Meanwhile, in Austria Robert Musil charted the eclipse of the old order in his immensely long, sprawling masterpiece The Man without Qualities (1930–43). Its action is confined to the year 1913-14, and a major strand in the plot concerns preparations to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the ageing Austro-Hungarian emperor's accession in 1918, the year in which, as the reader knows, that empire ceased to exist. Musil's novel also shares with Döblin's an Austro-German obsession of the interwar years: sex crime.

The twelve ignoble years of the Nazi Third Reich drove many writers into exile, silenced others, and transformed the literary landscape in Germany and Austria. From the infamous book-burning of 1933 (at which the works of every author I've mentioned so far were consigned to the flames) to the smouldering ruins of May 1945, the totalitarian dictatorship ensured that any spirit resembling critical, liberal pluralism was expunged from the literature officially tolerated. After the defeat of the Axis powers and the return of the soldiers and evacuated civilians to the bombed-out cities, what became known as a literature of the rubble (Trümmerliteratur) made its tentative appearance, with Heinrich Böll's stories and early novels expressing the desolate, taciturn hardihood of the returnees. But it was left to Böll's fellow Nobel laureate Günter Grass, more than a decade after the Second World War had ended, to publish the first masterpiece of the newly democratic (West) Germany. The Tin Drum (1959) swiftly became a global best-seller, not least because of what George Steiner called ‘the power of that bawling voice to drown the siren-song of smooth oblivion, to make the Germans—as no writer did before—face up to their monstrous past.’ Told by a dwarf now confined to a mental asylum, the novel is staggering in its detail and its imaginative range, and with it Grass single-handedly established European magic realism.

Swiss literature is often overlooked when German-language writing is discussed, but two post-war authors both equally at home in drama and fiction put it emphatically on the map: Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Max Frisch. While the former turned to fiction chiefly for the relaxation of writing crime stories, Frisch explored the century's obsessive dilemma of identity in I'm Not Stiller (1954) and produced other fiction of distinction before publishing, towards the end of his life, one of the most inspiring and delightful novels of recent decades, highly acclaimed in the United States: Man Appears in the Holocene (1979). A gentle inquiry into the nature of knowledge and of human frailty, it centres upon an old man on an isolated mountainside in the Ticino region as he struggles to determine what he can really feel sure of remembering or knowing.

The diversity of fiction in German in the closing two decades of the twentieth century is well illustrated by four extraordinary performances by an East German, an Austrian, a West German, and a West German resident for more than half his life in England. The East German (the term is just, for the forty-year German Democratic Republic left its mark on her every sentence) is Christa Wolf, whose writings turn time and again to the vexed relation of individual to collective identity. No Place on Earth (1981) records an imaginary meeting in 1804 between two troubled writers, each later to commit suicide, and through their conversation explores the male and female principles and the nature of creation in dark times. The Austrian is Elfriede Jelinek, a writer outspokenly uncomfortable with her troublesome country. The Piano Teacher (1983) explores the love-hate relation between Erika Kohut and her mother, and Kohut's fascination with the seamy side of Vienna. The West German is Patrick Süskind, whose Perfume (1985), a murder story set in eighteenth-century France, is a stylistic and imaginative tour de force. The best-selling German novel worldwide since The Tin Drum, it symbolized the arrival of a new generation of German writers more concerned to tell a powerful story than to examine the nation's historical guilt or the teething troubles of democracy through the years of student revolt and of terrorism.

And finally, the German writer long resident in England is W. G. Sebald, whose idiosyncratically melancholy narratives, a teasing blend of fact and fiction, won a wide readership either side of the Atlantic as the century closed.

His masterpiece, The Emigrants (1993), is among many other and more important things an unspoken rebuke to those German writers (and others) who would consider reunification in 1990 as setting a triumphalist full stop to the probing of the painful past. It consists of four brief lives of Jewish people who left Germany, and through the re-creation of the circumstances of those lives it evokes bygone times that can never return. Arresting for its graceful language, its elegiac compassion, and its meditative sensitivities, it marks a mature and responsible closing to a century of writing from a troubled and troubling nation.

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