Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Charlotte Roche: Schoßgebete

There was so much hype I felt I couldn't not read it. The broadsheets devoted huge amounts of space to the follow-up to the massive-selling Feuchtgebiete even before it came out, there were huge piles of books in all the shops, it has a huge headstart in the book charts, and a huge row seems to be brewing now that Germany's favourite feminist Alice Schwarzer has replied in kind to her treatment in the book. So, Schoßgebete had to be read.

This time around, Charlotte Roche has advertised the book as a "real emotional rollercoaster", advising us to fasten our seatbelts. It's much closer to her own life as a mother in her mid-thirties than Feuchtgebiete, she's told us, and deals with her own real trauma of losing three brothers in a car accident the day before her wedding. Plus with her feelings about maintaining a loving relationship, mainly through fulfilling all her partner's wishes on the sex front. It feels uncomfortably close to Roche's real life, as far as I can judge. Which makes it hard to trash the book - it feels like trashing an individual. But trashed it must be.

Because where Feuchtgebiete was provocative and genuinely shocking, likeable and funny and created a great anti-heroine, Schoßgebete is none of that. It deals with three days in the life of Elizabeth Kiehl, an English woman living in Germany and trying to be the perfect mother and lover. So nothing all that new there then. There are a few parallels to Feuchtgebiete, especially the scatalogical elements - here we're treated to a nice description of mother and daughter's worms infestation, some details on Elizabeth's nervous stomach and an unpleasant anal sex accident.

My main problem as a reader was that the narrator is perhaps one of the most irritating characters I've ever come across, and I suspect that's not deliberate. Roche puts us through the agonies of what reads like several verbatim therapy sessions clumsily condensed into one, in which Elizabeth spouts various theories and ideas about abandoning her parents, having to visit brothels with her husband to keep him happy and thereby maintain their relationship for eternity, what her awful mother did to harm her with her changing partners, and all her fears and phobias. Meanwhile her beloved therapist - who she calls Agnetha in a rare burst of Rochian humour - nods patiently and approves of everything she does.

In between we get a lot of preaching and proselytising about how we ought to be bringing up our children, running our households and generally leading our lives. Being human, of course, Elizabeth is a terrible hypocrite, using organic washing powder but going everywhere by car, repeating the mistakes she criticises in others, and so on. That doesn't make it easier to accept her prescriptions - we should all be in therapy or at least read parenting books (in my eyes one of the most foolish things parents can ever do), we should never dye our hair, we should never buy the BILD, we should go vegetarian, we should try and make our relationships last for ever.

Much of the book seems to be about Charlotte Roche killing her darlings, and I wouldn't like to be her mother or her ex-best friend and have to read this. Which is what Alice Schwarzer seems to be reacting to - one of her ex-darlings being feminism itself. An all-new recipe: sex will set us free, she seems to be telling us, and relying on a strong older man with plenty of money. But as various commentators have pointed out, sex-positive feminism is hardly a new phenomenon, and as Schwarzer's pointed out, our grandmothers too relied on strong older men with money. Only they had little choice in economic terms. Roche's recipe comes across as merely reactionary, in both the literal and figurative sense.

Three things make the book just about readable: the sex scenes, the open descriptions of life in a patchwork family, and the strand that deals with the car crash and its aftermath. Not strictly erotic for the most part, Roche's sex scenes are, however, terribly useful in the vein of a Cosmopolitan How To Pleasure Your Man feature. And of course they will shift units, what with taking up the first few pages in the book for potential buyers to blush at in bookshops. I found the descriptions of dealing with sharing a child with its father accurate - the strange contrast between absolute discipline when she's at home and a complete lack of structure when she's not, the sudden boredom, etc.

And then there's the car crash. This was the compelling thing about the novel, the raw emotions it reveals, the light it sheds on the functioning or non-functioning of a family, and Roche/Kiehl's anger at the tabloid press for exploiting her misery to sell newspapers. But while the narrator rightly rails at journalists for putting her suffering on the front page, I felt very uncomfortable about reading her own story of the events. It raised a moral dilemma I'm not sure she's aware of - because as readers, we too are voyeuristically wallowing in her pain in the same way as people watching a gossip piece on TV, where her severely injured and confused mother was tricked into giving an interview after the accident. Perhaps it's less objectionable for someone to make money out of their own account, but what with the less than flattering portrayal of the estranged mother, I can't help thinking the book may upset a number of people in a rather similar way.

At any rate, the car crash strand broke off at an unsatisfactory point, with the mother still under strong drugs and not yet realising her three sons had been killed. Possibly it was an attempt to uphold some dignity for the mother, although with this self-centred narrator it might just have been because that extremely emotional moment of realisation - which I'd have found fascinating - was not of so much interest for Elizabeth Kiehl as her enjoyment of the limelight as sympathy-recipient number one. And although I hadn't been expecting a literary masterpiece, the novel also peters out harmlessly over 70s porn where it could have gone out with a bang.

So, a daring emotional striptease that falls absolutely flat. If you really want to read MILF eroticism from a feminist perspective, go for Anna Blumberg's excellent Kurze Nächte (see my review).

I do realise, by the way, that this is more of an emotional response than a good review. But it's that kind of book, and I found reading it genuinely infuriating. To add a very minor literary criticism that explains why I read it all the way to the end - I had hoped the heroine might develop as a character. She didn't.

1 comment:

David said...

Thanks for the review. Think I'll pass on this one...