I sort of know David Wagner and sort of don’t. Certainly he’s one of those people I see at all sorts of literary events – he seems to go out a lot but then he’d probably say the same about me. Anyway, I sort of don’t know him well enough for him not to recognise me when we were both walking down the street with our respective daughters the other week. Now, I was very pleased to see that David Wagner has a very tall daughter, because most people I see at literary events don’t seem to have children, or they only have very small children because they only got around to having them slightly later in life than myself. And I sometimes think there’s an invisible dividing line between people with children and people without children, although people with children can be intensely irritating.
Anyway, shortly after the above non-incident I was in a bookshop looking for something else entirely and came across Wagner’s book Spricht das Kind. So I bought it because it’s obviously about the tall daughter, and I was curious. I’d read and admired some of his writing about Berlin, but that’s somehow much more abstract. How would a great stylist like Wagner approach the subject of his own child?
The answer is: beautifully, thoughtfully, intelligently, discreetly, originally. I’m struggling to think of other men who have written about children. Children do exist in German novels but they often seem to be props in the focus on the parents’ relationships. The most recent exception, I suppose, was Thomas Hettche’s Die Liebe der Väter, which I didn’t read because it was received in a very politicised way and came across as an angry reckoning with the child’s mother and the system. Oh, and Wolf Wondratschek’s Das Geschenk about a father and his teenage son, which I did read some of but soon tired of.
What men do write about, of course, is their own relationships to their fathers. And Wagner covers that ground here too. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Spricht das Kind is billed as a novel but is actually a collection of miniatures, something the author has excelled in elsewhere. At just over 150 pages, it’s an afternoon’s read or something to dip into. The chapters, if I can call them that, vary from one paragraph to five or six pages, covering a period from 2002 to 2008 (the book was first published in 2009). The child of the title is never named but we know it’s a girl, and the sections don’t seem to be in strict chronological order. Wagner simply describes moments with his daughter, many of which prompt him to remember moments in his own childhood and reflect on his own mother and father. For instance, a game played with his daughter reminds our shaggy-dog-storyteller of how he played as a child, how he was not allowed to hang from his father’s neck at some point and how from then on his father seemed much smaller. And then the child lifts him up – a neat and melancholy full circle, ending with a childish act I presume all parents will recognise.
What’s so remarkable about the book is this: There are a number of ways in which parents tell stories about their children – out-and-out boasting, putting down other children and parents, anecdotes about embarrassing moments that are actually intended to make you think their children are wonderfully shrewd and honest. And Wagner knows that – hell, who hasn’t heard thousands of these stories? – and while the book’s not totally devoid of all those things, he’s always aware of what he’s telling us and what it tells us about his narrator or himself, and he thus miraculously avoids the "isn't she cute" trap. What we get instead is really quite deep reflection, suffused with really quite deep love.
Regular readers will know that love is an important and much-abused word for me. This book showed me a parent’s love that I recognised. The wonderment at the child’s world, the projection, the search for similarities to oneself, the laughter, the consolation. A child as an anchor and an inspiration, a mirror that often enough throws back an image not as positive as we’d like.
Wagner’s thoughts are punctuated by things the child says, as the title suggests, enjoying her wordplay and her ideas about the world. At times other voices come in too, friends telling stories about their own children or parents. It feels almost like a lazy afternoon on a blanket in the park, the children playing out of earshot while the parents talk, except they go into the kind of emotional depth you only reach quite late at night. There’s a languid narrative curve of sorts, surging in the middle as we learn more about the narrator’s parents and his relationship to them, falling again as the child helps him deal with life. Page 146 made me cry for quite a long time. But there’s no conclusion, because how can you put an end point on childhood?
Spricht das Kind is a beautiful book about being a child, a parent and a parent’s child. The back-cover blurb on the paperback pitches it slightly too low, presumably aiming for impulse buyers looking for a light, amusing read. While it has its light, amusing moments and is life-affirming on the whole, it’s much more than that. The publishers say Walter Benjamin's Berlin Childhood is never far away, but I can't say I noticed that. What I did notice was the sophisticated language on a level that might seem incompatible with the subject-matter, but never actually did. Ditch the parenting manuals and read it.