A Matter of Memory: On Ingo Schulze

A Matter of Memory: On Ingo Schulze

The unvarnished fiction of One More Story explores Germany’s papered-over past.

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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."

The subject matter of One More Story ranges widely—from oblique philosophical reflections on fate and transcendence and a near-hallucinatory meditation on the beauty of an orange peel, to the more concrete, prosaic concerns of people sorting out their relationships or simply struggling to maintain them—yet Schulze’s style remains centered on the essentials of storytelling. Indeed, his choice of epigraph, taken from the modern Austrian poet Friederike Mayröcker, betrays the age-old, never-ending project that finds expression in the book’s succeeding pages: "Then one day followed the next without the basic questions of life ever being solved." Throughout the collection, Schulze repeatedly complicates the distinction between reality and fiction, with some of the stories speaking directly to this issue. For example, the first-person narrator of "Incident in Cairo" claims while preparing a lecture to have "found the hook to hang it on in the relationship of the words ‘history/story’ and Geschichte/Geschichten." The same narrator, who confesses to a habit of bringing pieces of the Berlin Wall, "the colorful ones" encased in Plexiglas and purchased at KaDeWe, as gifts for his foreign hosts, is made to field a string of familiar, presumably recurrent questions: "Why do you write? How autobiographical are your books? Are the East Germans being oppressed by the West Germans? Why are your characters unhappy?" Like that other widely celebrated German author of the late twentieth century, W.G. Sebald, yet without the same infusion of visual imagery or the ethereal language, Schulze tends to blur the two realms, sometimes beyond recognition. (A handful of these stories first appeared in German newspapers and magazines, one in the Times Literary Supplement, and the generic boundaries between reportage and the short story are frequently suspended.)

For all its self-consciousness and the intricacy of its patterns, Schulze’s writing is not particularly radical in its formal innovation: Schulze indulges in few literary acrobatics. If anything, the frequent blurring of history and fiction forms less of a link to the literary vanguard of the post–cold war West than to the time-honored Russian poets and storytellers, several of whom he mentions by name. One of the narrators in One More Story—yes, one who is rather easily mistaken for Schulze—bears a striking resemblance to Pushkin. The Russian-born neighbor in the story, after seeing a picture of the narrator in the local Dresden newspaper, insists on calling him "my Pushkin." Here, as elsewhere, the East German–born author straddles traditions of competing and complicating origins.

Among the finest pieces in the collection is "Estonia, Out in the Country," which relays in all its vivid, bizarre detail the experience of an author on a speaking junket in the Eastern European hinterland. Again the first-person narrator is difficult to distinguish from Schulze—he notes early in the text, "I had written thirty-three stories about St. Petersburg, so surely I could come up with one about Estonia"—but part of the strength of the story is that it forces the reader to imagine a writer like Schulze being brought to remote regions and expected to perform. The real conceit, however, is not so much the framework as the story told within it, which has an arch twist to it that merely amplifies the absurdity of the German writer thrust into the Estonian outback. After giving a perfunctory reading in the German department at the University of Tartu, and going for a round of beers with the students, the narrator and his female traveling companion embark on a journey to Käsmu, on the North Estonian coast, where the Writer’s Union has offered them its guesthouse. There the two witness an event that seems almost to have been imported from a John Irving novel: a circus bear named Seryosha eludes a group of Finnish hunters by riding a woman’s bicycle that he’s swiped from an unsuspecting Estonian blueberry picker. As if it had all merely been conjured up in a hazy dream, "[he] fled into the forest, soon breaking into an easy trot on all fours, and vanished among the fir trees."

In an interview Schulze once said of Carver and Hemingway that their form lent itself to the subjects and time period he has chosen to approach in his work. "It had something to do," he asserted, "with the transition from a socialist and Soviet dependent culture, however defined, to a capitalist one. Almost overnight we found ourselves in the middle of an American world." References to American culture, often as a catchall for the West, abound in Schulze’s fiction. As one narrator remarks while on a trip to Umbria in the spring of 1999, staying in an area from which NATO aircraft bound for the Balkans launched their missions: "Sometimes we watched CNN but avoided talking about the details. Reiner said that words like ‘airbase,’ ‘air strikes,’ and ‘Serbs’ already seemed more familiar, more appropriate to him than the German terms, which really just sounded like translations." Even though this collection is less overtly concerned with the East/West divide than some of Schulze’s previous books, many of the stories still offer subtle commentary on the ongoing differences—habits, manners of speech, career choices and travel destinations—between Ossis, the characters whose origins lie in the GDR, and their Wessi counterparts. As hard as it may be to peg Schulze exclusively as a Wende author, it appears equally hard for him to turn away from that subject altogether.

While living in Berlin during the months leading up to the twentieth-anniversary celebration of German unification—as fate would have it, in an apartment located just a few blocks from the Bornholmer Bridge—I was often puzzled by how few reminders of the former border remain. Sure, there’s a plaque here and there, a monument along the Bernauer Strasse in the form of a restored, sanitized stretch of the Berlin Wall, and the kitschy Disney-style museum of the Wall, the Mauermuseum at Checkpoint Charlie. It often felt to me, as Schulze has repeatedly intimated in his fiction, as though the past had been largely papered over. A German documentary that premiered in Berlin in 2008, Heimatkunde (Local History), follows its narrator, Martin Sonneborn, a former editor at the satirical magazine Titanic, as he treks along the old border, trying to gauge the level of cultural cross-fertilization (not so much) and residual animosity (plenty). One memorable scene has him sharing a sausage with a group of kids at a gas station and listening to the lingering grudges that the children of former Ossis harbor toward the West. The wall may no longer be there physically, Sonneborn suggests, but it’s still lodged quite firmly in the mind. More than anything, then, it is now a matter of memory, which is why Schulze keeps returning in his fiction to a question he posed in his first novel: "Why am I telling this? Because a person forgets so quickly."n

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