Now allow me to get the cliché out of the way: the Germans are quite fascinated by illnesses, their own and other people's. Don't ask after a German's health if you're afraid of an honest answer. Outside of bathroom fittings, pharmacy frequency and the like, that's manifested in literature too. Kathrin Schmidt won the German Book Prize a few years ago with Du stirbst nicht, a semi-autobiographical account of a woman recovering from an aneurysm. Georg Diez described his mother's cancer in Der Tod meiner Mutter. Arno Geiger wrote about his father's Alzheimer's in Der alte König in seinem Exil. Wolfgang Herrndorf is detailing his life with a brain tumour pretty much in real time on his blog Arbeit und Struktur. All of the above are examples of excellent writing that confronts us with mortality. I'm not sure whether that's still a taboo, but it certainly doesn't make for light reading.
And so to Leben. Did I want to read something like that when I actually vaguely know the writer? I did. But I've been having difficulties writing about the experience.
The book opens with a short sharp shock: the narrator comes home late one night, eats a little something and suddenly starts bringing up blood. He calls an ambulance and goes into intensive care, knowing this means he has to go back on the waiting list for a new liver. What follows is a series of 277 miniatures about his time in hospital and in rehab, before and after the transplant. The narrator, and with him David Wagner, has an autoimmune disease whereby his body rejects his liver. He has been on medication since the age of twelve but has lived a fairly normal life, having fun, travelling, fathering a child. And now, well, he's confronted with his own mortality.
Wagner's narrator shares his thoughts and emotions, veering from suicidal to joyous and including how he deals with the unknown donor, throughout the process. These are hard enough to deal with. What made matters worse for me was that the state he is in often seemed degrading. Helplessness, hopelessness, boredom, ridiculous hospital-imposed routines, pain. Raised testosterone levels mean he has a bit of a one-track mind, presumably awkward when you're bed-bound. Or maybe the guy always has a one-track mind, what do I know? At times I found myself teetering between pity and admiration for exposing himself so honestly. That wasn't something I wanted to feel about this book, specifically about its author.
And then I read this piece in the FAZ, in which Wagner talks about how it's not quite autobiographical, or not entirely, or not in a straight-forward way. He worked on the book for five years, using his notes from his time in hospital but always with the benefit of hindsight, and always selecting what he wanted to use and what he wanted to cut away. Whereas his narrator speaks to us in his personal present tense, out of the very moment he describes - with all the immediacy and strength of emotion that entails.
There are other factors that make the book not just readable without crying, but thoroughly enjoyable. There's the writing, as witty and insightful and compact as usual. Then there's the humour. The book pokes gentle fun at the hospital and the people in it, the liver patients with their entertaining life stories and the nurses with their routine friendliness. What delighted me most was probably the narrator's memories as he lies in bed, of his previous lovers especially. I'm a sucker for that shit. And there's the form. Between the miniatures - does their length reflect the attention span of a sick man? - there are two special treats, a macabre prose-poetry list of bizarre deaths culled from newspaper reports and a collection of even shorter texts on the subject of tiredness. Are they personal aphorisms? I'm not sure what to call them but they include the following:
Tiredness is isolating; I'm tired all on my own.
Sex is tiring too. Post-coital falling asleep is easy, but not always desired.So now to the niggle. It may well be a very personal issue or a personal reaction to the text. What I wanted from Leben was cynicism, intelligence, melancholy, a survival account, searing honesty, a radical rejection of pity. To some extent that was all there. But I also found another thing that made me feel uncomfortable, and that was the way the narrator rediscovers his will to live for the sake of his daughter. Being a parent, I realise we all think this way at times, making grand gestures and sacrifices, being strong and holding out for our children. Talking and writing about it, however, seems difficult without pathos coming into it. And while Leben is remarkably and delightfully low on pathos for the most part, where the narrator's daughter is concerned I felt it shining through more than I wanted. Which is something I didn't notice in Wagner's book about his daughter, Spricht das Kind (see my review).
Nonetheless, this is definitely my book of the season and I'll be truly upset if it doesn't win the Leipzig book prize.
Speaking of pathos, you can order a nice plastic organ donor card here (in Germany) and you can sign up to the NHS's organ donor register here (in the UK). If you want to donate in the USA you can register by state here. It would be good if you did because I might one day need a new right eye. Thank you.