There are books like devil’s food cake; there are books like Mother’s Pride; and then there are the books like German rye bread – filling, nutritious, tasty in its own way, but it gets a bit dry in your mouth if you take large bites.
Lutz Seiler’s short story collection Die Zeitwaage is one of those. Seiler is known for his poetry but won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 2007 for one of the stories in this book. My regular readers will know I’m a sucker for prose written by poets. This collection is his first prose publication, perhaps a step towards writing a full-length novel at some point. It contains 13 short stories, some of them linked by their characters, narrators or settings.
As in his poetry, Seiler’s background in the uranium-mining region of Thuringia, East Germany, plays an important role. A number of the pieces are set in the region, reverberating with small-town atmosphere that could almost be anywhere, were it not for the threat of bulldozers moving in to tear the place down or the queer vocabulary of the East German state. Often these stories document tiny moments that assume huge meaning – a school caretaker not waving but drowning, an injured blackbird (to which we later return).
A few are set in the present, all of them rather depressing tales of fathers losing grip on their children through marriage break-ups. Perhaps not what I needed right now. Yet here too, Seiler picks up on small details and leaves clues for his readers to follow, should they so wish. There are fathers in many of the other stories too, all of whom feel like they’re about to disappear at any moment. And there’s a dry, dark humour so subtle you very nearly don’t notice it. Or perhaps it’s not there after all.
The prose is incredibly writerly – one piece starts telling the story of a past relationship in the first person, only to jump out of the plot and tell us that the writer tries to contact his ex-girlfriend and finds out she has died in an accident. Then we return to the storyline to watch the relationship disintegrate. I was reminded of Ingo Schulze, who’s also fond of these games with his narrators – is it really me, or am I stringing you along? With Schulze I can deal with it, it feels like playful teasing. With Seiler though, I found it increasingly self-indulgent and pretentious.
And then there are the allusions. No doubt I missed many of them, but I did discover Thomas Mann’s Mario and the Magician re-located to a Californian pier – not without a disintegrating relationship of course. And Seiler’s great hero and model is Wolfgang Hilbig, often cited as the East German working-class writer to have maintained his dignity as an author, if not in his personal life. The stories are scattered with references to him and his work – a stoker on a train, rotting apples in a cellar, and no doubt more that didn’t catch my eye.
Until we come to the final, eponymous piece. Having filled us up with all this writerly prose, Seiler seems to allow himself an unexpected amuse-bouche here. Because here we have a budding writer in the heady days of East Berlin at the end of the GDR. Heartbroken by the end of a relationship (what else?), he squats an apartment and gets a casual job in a bar. And here he comes across The Worker. It took me some time to get behind the humour here, but in the end it was practically slapstick. The Worker is everything the narrator isn’t – a man of few words who earns his living with his hands, a man who never pays for his breakfast and then dies a gruesome and pointless working-man’s death. The narrator-writer is of course inspired to put pen to paper by his great presence and his passing, tempted to pray for The Worker’s soul – and that his own tentative story may continue. Pathos? Check. Self-irony? Check. A man uncomfortable in his own skin? Oh yes.
All in all, Die Zeitwaage showcases Seiler's outstanding writing very well. It’s tough and needs a lot of chewing, but it has its own rather brown and nutritious charm. If only it weren’t so incredibly depressing all the way through, I’d have thoroughly enjoyed it. But then you can hardly eat rye bread with syrup, can you?