Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Rewriting literary history

This morning's headline in Guardian Books: Unlikely bestseller heralds the return of lightness and humour to German literature. Are they provoking me? "For decades German fiction has enjoyed the reputation of being serious, worthy and a bit dull." Of course, that would have nothing to do with English journalists' stereotyping and publishers' reluctance to print anything contradicting a "reputation". Gert Hofmann's wonderful, final novel for example. It's an oversight that's even more ironic considering the subject matter of Daniel Kehlmann's book. Hofmann's was also about a 19th Century Göttingen scientist who gets involved with a teenage girl. 

"Already, [Kehlmann] is being compared to Nabokov and Proust". Yeah, right. As I said the other day, these comparisons are meaningless; merely hyperbolic. Do they know what it means to be compared to these writers? No doubt other author features about Kehlmann will say he been compared to Nabokov and Proust with the only reference being to this article. Hofmann, on the other hand, is incomparable. But that might be the problem. 

Kehlmann says: "I've written a Latin American novel about Germans and German classicism." Yes, what most literary journalists really want is not German fiction but sunny South American magical realism; the sentimental confections of Márquez. What's more Kehlmann "likes British writers including Zadie Smith and Ian McEwan. 'Atonement is one of the best novels of the past 30 years. An incredible masterpiece,' he says." Oh dear. 

There's more. "A lot of interesting epic art now comes from US TV", Kehlmann continues. "You have The Sopranos. It's a modern realist novel that isn't expressed as a novel. It's like modern Balzac." What did Robbe-Grillet say yesterday

The big story for the Guardian, however, is that Kehlmann's novel "has proved nothing less than a literary sensation. Since it was published last September, the novel has sold more than 600,000 copies in Germany, knocking JK Rowling and Dan Brown off the top of the best-seller list." Isn't that a sales sensation rather than literary sensation? I suspect the journalist is unaware of the difference. 

By the way, Kehlmann lives in Austria, so his status as a "German" author is problematic. Austria's most famous author's work is, of course, humour and lightness itself. While it isn't magical realist or Balzacian, it is an incontrovertible literary sensation and a permanent herald.


  1. The German critics have some interesting and perhaps more balanced remarks. For example, the FAZ:

    Or die Zeit:

  2. Thanks. Anything for those of us without German?

    Is he in fact Austrian rather than German?

  3. Anonymous6:30 pm

    Living in Austria doesn't make him an Austrian, the work of Thomas Bernhard is not humour and lightness itself but ponderous, self-absorbed and full of tiresome repetitions. Ian McEwan is a genius, and you are a pathetic loser who knows nothing about German or, for that matter, any kind of literature. Keep barking, man, and much luck!

  4. Thanks Anon for giving us all a good laugh.

    It's a pity you're too ashamed of your assertions to give us your name so we can look out for it in future.



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