Sunday, 9 December 2012

Categories and Generations

I was talking to someone about whether we can put writers working in German into categories and generations. We didn't get down to the nitty-gritty of definitions, but I rejected the idea of putting writers - rather than writing - into categories. My example was that there are various fairly young women originally from the former Soviet bloc and Yugoslavia now writing in German - Olga Grjasnowa, Nino Haratischwili, Marjana Gaponenko, Marianna Salzmann, Alina Bronsky, Julya Rabinowich, Lena Gorelik, and several more whose names refuse to occur to me right now. Yet despite all they have in common on a biographical level, their common gender, age group and similar childhood experiences, their writing is very different. And yes, I know I'm simplifying the matter by lumping Yugoslavia in with the Soviet bloc. But still, I don't think biographical categories make a great deal of sense when we look at what people are actually writing.

Generations, however, are a concept I can work with. What we talked about - for a Norwegian radio feature, of all things - was that there's a very dominant generation of German writers in the outside perception of the literature. Those canonised Group 47-era old or dead white men (mostly), who everybody interested in international writing has read: Günter Grass, Heinrich Böll, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, maybe Martin Walser, Siegfried Lenz. The postwar generation who defined themselves in opposition to what came before them, broadly speaking, and whose books we all had to read at university. And I said I think there are two other generations who suffer from that dominance. Those who followed on from them and those who are coming up now. And it's that squeezed middle generation that has it the hardest, I think.

Because the youngest and the young generation, the kids coming out of the creative writing schools and graduating and getting their debut novels signed up and the thirty-and-forty-somethings doing exciting but not exaggeratedly exciting things - I think they don't give a shit about Günter Grass. I think he's a figure of fun for them; they might have read him but they don't feel the need to react to his work in any way other than the odd snarky Facebook comment. Their influences are far wider and more international; if they feel the need to position themselves on Germany's past it might be in a less self-accusatory way like in the work of Kevin Vennemann or Tanja Dückers or even, less to my taste, Christian Kracht. And they have youth on their side; they get their column inches boosted by big colour photos and they get fawned over and projected onto by the older critics.

But the poor fifty-and-sixty-somethings - oh boy! They're always going to be in old Günter's shade. There was an article in yesterday's Die Welt criticising just that demographic. And aside from berating the men on the brink of retirement age, Tilman Krause actually compares them unfavourably - no, not to the Group 47 actually, but to Thomas Mann. As if Thomas Mann were the only valid benchmark. What Krause says, however, is interesting. He picks out three writers and puts them in the pillory for writing unadventurous, uninteresting, commercially successful schlock: Ralf Rothmann (I don't agree), Georg Klein and Alain Claude Sulzer. Perhaps, and this is only my theory, once you're facing your sixtieth, you might feel too old to change jobs and you might be stuck having to write and you might not be churning out your most innovative stuff.

The proof of the pudding is of course in the exception. Is that what we say? Never mind. There are plenty of exceptions, two of which Krause hands us on a plate: Sibylle Lewitscharoff and Rainald Goetz. But cf. also: Thomas Lehr, Peter Wawerzinek, Reinhard Jirgl, Ingo Schulze, perhaps Uwe Timm, perhaps Monika Maron. I feel I'm skating on thin ice here in a way, hence all the qualifications. Because yes, I do think the idea of writerly generations is a useful one, in that people writing in one time and place do have something in common but the concept doesn't presume that they're all doing the same thing. At the same time, I notice I'm hesitating over who to put into which generation. Maybe I just don't want to be rude.


Anonymous said...

I think Tilman Krause was trying to say that Thomas Mann, with his Joseph tetralogy, was able to break through creatively at an advanced age. Too many older authors rest on their laurels and never attempt to create something new - are they afraid of failure? But then how often does a giant like Thomas Mann appear on the scene?

Unknown said...

I think the proof of the pudding may be in the eating ;)

I do feel for those poor old writers waiting for retirement - only a few more years of average novels before the government pension kicks in, and they can give it all up :)

Anonymous said...

Dürrenmatt was not a member
of the Gruppe 47.

kjd said...

Yeah, this piece was a bit off the cuff. Most of it is crap, please ignore it.

kjd said...

Also, someone cleverer than me wrote to me and said very few German writers have ever been influenced by Grass. More Thomas Bernhard. I think that wasn't quite what I was trying to say, more that the middle generation has been in their shadow, especially in the international perception.
But obviously I have to think it all through a bit more thoroughly. One thing I do know - because I asked a shitload of people - is that while no one in Sebald's German generation would ever admit to admiring him, lots of German writers under about 50 do.