Peter Handke wrote a book in 1987, which I read with some puzzlement at university: Nachmittag eines Schriftstellers. I think it must have been my introduction to the notion of the German book in which nothing whatsoever happens. As far as I recall, a writer goes on a walk and thinks about some things, including writing. Then he goes home again. It may be a tad pompous.
Jan Peter Bremer's book Der amerikanische Investor also describes a writer's afternoon, and there's also a walk involved, albeit a rather short and chaotic one with a disobedient dog. Again, most of the action takes place in the writer's head, but this time he hasn't achieved his day's creative quota in the manner of Handke's exemplary writer - he can't actually manage to put any words down on paper.
Because Bremer, not content with bearing a striking resemblance to aged British comedian Ken Dodd, has written a fine piece of anti-Handke here. Instead of considering aesthetics and other literary matters (or at least until towards the end of the book), his anti-heroic writer is occupied with worries about his home and family. Their apartment building in Berlin has been bought up by the American investor of the title. Who has started renovating it, causing subsidence in the writer's flat. So he decides that instead of agonising over that opening sentence he wanted to write for his book today, he'll write a letter to the American investor. But how to start...?
As the day goes on we make the acquaintance of the writer's dog, his wife, his son and daughter, and various neighbours including the building's previous janitor and an up-and-coming young writer with a thirst for beer. All in a kind of slip-sliding third-person monologue that doubles back on itself so often you might get dizzy. Because although he's suffering from severe writer's block, this guy has no lack of imagination. So there's the moment of panic in which he imagines his daughter's been run over by a car but his capable son sorts out the coffin so as not to bother him, or the idea of his hard-working wife getting an aid job in Africa and the family moving to a mud-hut where he'll tell the local children stories and mop their feverish brows. Or the many scenes in which the American investor is jetting around the world in his private plane, talking down to his manservant and passing judgement on the writer. In fact, for a German book in which nothing whatsoever happens, a hell of a lot happens in this book.
What's most marvellous about it is Bremer's self-deprecating humour. His writer could be a photofit of himself - lives in Kreuzberg, wife and two kids, rather silly children's book about a dog - but is utterly self-absorbed and unreflective. All his wonderful excuses for not getting anything done, all his fantastically clichéd ideas about the people around him - the nearly 100-year-old lady next door, little Ali in his son's class, and above all the American investor - show him in such a bad light that I spent much of my time laughing out loud and folding down pages. And with only about 150 of them (pages, that is), there isn't time for it to get tedious. In fact with all the emotional ups and downs the poor writer goes through in the course of his day, it's pretty much the opposite.
I don't have a great deal more to say, except that you really ought to read this short novel if you enjoy humourous writing. Being a German book, it does of course have a serious and timely point to make, about property speculators and the Berlin housing market. But it does so with such a lack of pomp that Jan Peter Bremer pretty much walked away with the Alfred Döblin Prize for it (see my report here). I'm impressed.