A Matter of Memory: On Ingo Schulze
On a cool, drizzly autumn afternoon last November, German chancellor Angela Merkel walked across the Bornholmer Bridge flanked by former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and former Polish opposition leader Lech Walesa. The Bornholmer was the first of several border checkpoints between East and West Berlin to have been burst open by throngs of East Germans on November 9, 1989. "This is not just a day of celebration for Germany," intoned Merkel, the first German head of state to hail from the former East after the so-called Wende, or "turning point." It is, she hastened to add, "a day of celebration for the whole of Europe." The large-scale festivities commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall, which included the usual fanfare (Daniel Barenboim conducting the Berlin Staatskapelle orchestra at the Brandenburg Gate) and political platitudes ("We are Berliners," declared Nicolas Sarkozy, hoping to rekindle the spirit of JFK), captured the mood, or at least the official mood, even if the pains and aftershocks of unification continue to be felt and written about on both sides of the former border.
Without a trace of the infectious euphoria conveyed at the opening of the wall and the subsequent celebration of its collapse, or of the countervailing Ostalgie, the nostalgia for life in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the German fiction writer Ingo Schulze has distinguished himself as an exceptionally sober-minded, unsentimental chronicler of postunification Germany. Born in Dresden in 1962, Schulze came of age in the GDR, where he studied classical philology and German literature at the University of Jena. Apart from a smattering of stories composed during his obligatory service in the East German military in the early 1980s, and a couple of poems written as a teenager, he didn't begin writing in earnest until after the wall had fallen.
His first book, 33 Augenblicke des Glücks (33 Moments of Happiness), appeared in 1995. An irreverent collection of short stories set in post-Communist St. Petersburg, where Schulze had worked as a journalist in the early 1990s, it was immediately lauded by critics and showered with Germany's most prestigious literary awards, including the Alfred Döblin Prize, named after Weimar Berlin's premier literary Modernist. But it was Schulze's 1998 debut novel, Simple Stories, that brought him international fame and marked him as an exemplary voice of Wende literature (Günter Grass crowned him "our new epic storyteller"). In the twenty-nine discrete but thematically linked chapters that form Simple Stories—the German edition bore the evocative subtitle "Ein Roman aus der ostdeutschen Provinz" (A Novel from the East German Provinces)—Schulze offered a fictional account of the people of Altenburg, a small town south of Leipzig, where he had worked during the late 1980s and early '90s, as a dramaturge at the local theater and as an editor at the local paper. Owing to his spare prose style and unflinching eye for human drama, two formal attributes that have remained constant throughout his writing career, Schulze's work, in particular his debut novel, has begged comparison to Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway, influences the German author has readily admitted.
But Schulze's choice of adopting an American literary tradition—Simple Stories was largely written during an extended stay in New York City in the mid-'90s—to describe everyday life in postunification Altenburg isn't without its share of irony. In a chapter called "New Money," he tells a wrenching story, an allegory so it would seem, of East/West cultural collisions through the eyes of an Altenburg waitress named Connie Schubert. Connie falls for Harry Nelson, a slick West German salesman she fleetingly fantasizes about as her "future husband" and "father of [her] children" but who rapes her and skips town. Tales of love, loss and betrayal and of a seemingly chronic sense of disorientation in the face of a new system dominate Schulze's oeuvre. In 2005 he published a sprawling epic, Neue Leben (New Lives), another reunification novel of sorts, which recounts the life of its protagonist, Enrico Türmer (as told in letters gathered by a fictional editor named Ingo Schulze), from his youth in East Germany to his "new life" after unification, from his days as an unfulfilled writer to his ultimate transformation into a ruthless capitalist. Similarly, Schulze's latest novel, Adam und Evelyn (2008), a dark comedy whose departure point is the fateful swell of late summer 1989, when the border between Hungary and Austria began to crack, applies additional pressure to the competing allegiances, East and West, of the two title characters.
In between these two novels, in 2008, Schulze published a collection of stories called Handy (Cell Phone), which has now been expertly rendered in English by John Woods, Schulze's devoted and highly gifted translator, and released on these shores as One More Story: Thirteen Stories in the Time-Honored Mode. For American readers, Schulze's subtitle might call to mind Harold Brodkey's Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, but the original phrasing of Schulze's subtitle, "Dreizehn Geschichten in alter Manier" (literally, "Thirteen Stories in the Old-Fashioned Manner"), is much more basic and elemental, less fanciful and hardly grandiose. Indeed, as the stories amply demonstrate, Schulze prefers a kind of unvarnished and natural storytelling that, while not entirely without artifice, is rather understated. Schulze writes with great poise, maturity and confidence, but he is acutely aware of his formal limitations as well as his debts. All but two of the stories are told in the first person, and the degree of self-consciousness exhibited by the narrators is occasionally startling. As the first-person narrator in one story observes, "How lovely it would be if I could describe what comes next in the style of a Leskov or Turgenev."