Richard Kämmerlings spent several years as a literary editor of the FAZ and is now everywhere you look in Berlin, having moved on to the post of arts editor at the Welt, a newspaper that brings me out in a rash. He’s one of a fairly new breed of German literary critics who aren’t crumbly old fogeys. And to prove it he’s written a book about German-language literature since 1989, entitled Das kurze Glück der Gegenwart (the brief happiness of the present).
Critics, not unlike translators, don’t tend to put themselves in the foreground. Oh, no doubt they’re as vain and self-obsessed as the rest of us, but a traditional book review rarely reveals much about the reviewer. At least in concrete terms; we may of course notice that the critic is patronising or boastful or fond of flowery metaphors. It must get rather tiresome after a while, writing away and never getting to say anything about yourself. So Kämmerlings has rather gone against the grain in his book, as if finally let off the editorial leash and allowed to write as much as he likes about himself.
We’re used to it now, I suppose, from blog culture. There’s a reason why I have a tag called “me, me, me,” for example. And I love reading my friend Jessa Crispin’s criticism because the anecdotal elements feel so direct and pally (try this piece on Yeats and the occult, in which we also learn about Jessa’s religious beliefs and a mental argument she had with an arrogant man). The few American critics I’ve met seem to refer to themselves as writers rather than setting up a separate category. Elif Batuman would be a prime example, I think, with her book-I-haven’t-read The Possessed, which she refers to as “a volume of memoiristic literary-critical essays about the experiences of a graduate student of Russian literature.” Perhaps there’s an element of us clamouring for our fifteen minutes of fame, eked out over time into several years of familiarity to a couple of hundred or thousand readers. But in German, it still feels unusual to read literary criticism in the first person.
It feels great though. Kämmerlings not only abandons all pretence of objectivity, even listing his own top ten books at the end. He also has a premise I can wholeheartedly subscribe to. He argues that there are so many myriads of books out there that new writing has to tell us something about the times in which we live. He wants books to have an effect on their readers, change them in some way. Like reading Richard Ford put an end to Kämmerlings’ first marriage. Did that make you jump? That’s what Kämmerlings does here, all the time. Curiously intimate details that make the reading experience slightly uncomfortable, but all the more memorable. Perhaps an attempt to meet his other demand: literature has to touch a nerve, feel painful.
I must admit I feel thoroughly illuminated about all sorts of literary phenomena that happened here before I started paying proper attention, and I’m grateful for that. However, the meticulous detail on who said what in Klagenfurt in 1993 in the otherwise fascinating programmatic introduction was a little too much of a good thing.
In the chapters themselves though, Kämmerlings goes ahead and races through a history of German books that have touched a nerve in dealing with the present day since the Berlin Wall fell. Berlin and the author’s transformation from nerd to hipster, embodied in the figure of the literary DJ. Why Germans don’t write about war. Sex – although I was disappointed to find only male authors in this chapter (still hoping my thesis about women only writing about bad sex will be proved wrong), I enjoyed Kämmerlings’ excursus on the effect of the internet on the consumption of music and pornography. In a kind of head-nodding affirmative way. East and West – the business and financial world – and work and social issues (in which the author points out that fewer and fewer writers have ever had what we’d call a proper job, so it’s small wonder so few of them write about people at work; a subject dear to my own heart). The family as it is now, in all its many complications, rather than the tired format of the generational novel à la Buddenbrooks: a definite literary desiderata. Interestingly, Kämmerlings groups the provincial and the migration novel together; not a bad idea, although I felt the migration side of things fell rather short. And to finish off: death.
Inevitably, a subjective book about contemporary literature will appeal to those who share the author’s taste. And I do: Thomas Lehr, Ralph Rothmann, Clemens Meyer, Annett Gröschner, Sibylle Lewitscharoff, Kristof Magnusson, Maria Cecilia Barbetta, Kathrin Schmidt, Julia Schoch, Norbert Zähringer, Ulrich Peltzer… Kämmerlings praises a lot of books by a lot of writers I admire. But I also appreciated his style – witty without being needlessly cruel or condescending. And why the hell not write about “what this book did to me” and “what I want from a book”?
The unpleasant side effect on me, however – to respond to the book in kind – is a sense of embarrassment. German uses the term peinlich berührt – painfully touched – for the feeling, and it’s not wrong. I happened to sit opposite the author the other night, or he happened to sit down opposite me, and I literally had to leave. I was just so embarrassed at knowing all the comparatively intimate details of his life I had gleaned from the book with a kind of manic voyeurism, while assuming he didn’t even know who I was, let alone where I went to school and when I last played badminton or how many children I have in what constellations. At least when you meet a fiction writer you can console yourself that it’s probably all made up. So perhaps it’s fine for critics to get personal – as long as they remain at arm’s distance in the newspaper.
Should you read German and want an entertaining update on contemporary literature, do buy the book. I’m thinking in particular of Germanists in the English-speaking world, for whom it might well be a breath of fresh air. Sadly, due to the international publishing world’s penchant for historical themes in German novels, most of the books Kämmerlings talks about won’t make their way into English translation.