Sex, death, and motherhood in the Eurozone: contemporary women's writing in German: Critically acclaimed and immensely popular, female authors are invigorating German literature with captivating stories that examine the social dynamics and gender politics which shape European life today.
In summer 2011, as European stock markets plummeted and EU leaders tried to stave off the impending Eurozone crisis, a debate took shape in the German media about sex and feminism. The protagonists in this debate were Charlotte Roche, the best-selling author of two immensely popular novels and a self-proclaimed young feminist, and Alice Schwarzer, publisher of the established feminist magazine Emma and, for over thirty years, Germany's best-known feminist. The debate was unleashed by the publication of Roche's second novel, Schossgebete (the title, "Lap Prayers," is a neologism combining the words Schoss--lap or womb--and Stossgebet-short prayer, or devout ejaculation), a novel that claims to "conquer the last taboo: marital sex." Responding to her own depiction in the novel as a rabidly antisex feminist who haunts the protagonist's conscience as she enjoys making love with her husband, Schwarzer published an open letter on her website, accusing Roche of writing trashy fiction and betraying the cause of feminism. Subsequently, commentators from across the political spectrum weighed in on such questions as, Is sex degrading to women? Can women be both promiscuous and emancipated? Can pornography be feminist? How are sex, reproduction, marriage, and family connected (or not) in contemporary European society?
While this media frenzy in the dog days of August 2011 may have seemed like nothing more than a welcome distraction from the Eurozone crisis, in fact Europe's economic downturn and shaky common future are not unrelated to the revival of debates about feminism, sexuality, reproduction, and women's roles in contemporary Europe, debates that are taken up in the fiction of Charlotte Roche and other contemporary women writers in the German-speaking world. Reading Roche side-by-side with her contemporaries Julia Franck and Kathrin Roggla attests to the diversity and vitality of contemporary German literature by women. While these three writers draw on very different literary traditions and have considerably divergent styles, their common thematic focus on the politics of gender and the intersections of private and public lives suggest the ongoing relevance of women's literature today, even in an era when many female authors are loathe to see their work categorized according to gender designations.
The debate about sex and feminism inaugurated by Roche and Schwarzer can be seen as the logical extension of a prolonged public discussion about women and motherhood that took place in Germany during the first decade of the twenty-first century. The discussion was set in motion by the conservative literary critic Frank Schirrmacher, whose book The Methuselah Plot (2004) drew on demographic statistics to argue that the aging population should rebel against the ostensible decline of German society, which he connected to eroding family structures and a declining birthrate. Suggesting a correlation between the legacy of feminism and population decline, the so-called demography debate blamed women for focusing on professional careers and self-realization instead of choosing motherhood and contributing to the repopulation of Germany.
While commentators from across the political spectrum joined the discussion, they often failed to address the fact that ingrained attitudes about gender roles and structural deficiencies such as insufficient day care and after-school care have meant that women in Germany continue to face major obstacles in their efforts to achieve parity in the workplace and balance professional and family lives. As statistics show, women in Germany earn 23 percent less than men working similar hours; are 47 percent more likely to be working part-time than full-time; and occupy only 2 percent of executive positions in business. Even more striking are the facts that only 14 percent of women with one child, and only 6 percent of women with two children or more, hold full-time jobs. Female authors have responded to this situation with works that assert a more complex view of motherhood and women's roles in family and professional life in the context of both the complicated history of Germany in the twentieth century, which anchors the present, and alarmist accounts predicting the decline of German society in the future.
Charlotte Roche burst onto the literary scene in 2008 with her debut novel Feuchtgebiete (2008; Eng. Wetlands, 2009), a highly ironic response to the demography debates, which scandalized the tabloids with its sex-positive feminism and its parody of the beauty industry. Wetlands tells the story of Helen Memel, who narrates tales of her sexual exploits and experiments with feminine hygiene, all from a hospital bed where she is recovering from "an intimate shaving accident." The novel's remarkably explicit description of sexual acts and its grotesque and even abject portrayal of body parts and processes were viewed as taboo-breaking--a canny marketing strategy that made the book an instant best-seller. Yet Roche clearly draws on the groundbreaking work of 1970s feminist writers like Verena Stefan, whose Hautungen (1975; Eng. Shedding and Literally Dreaming, 1994) became a best-seller and guidebook for female emancipation by chroniding the radical sexual experiments and body politics of its female protagonist, and Gisela Elsner, whose novels, including Die Riesenzwerge (1964; Eng. The Giant Dwarfs, 1965) and Das Beruhrungsverbot (1970; The ban on touching), employed grotesque imagery to satirize bourgeois family and sexual life in postwar West Germany. Roche's work can also be understood in dialogue with globally successful European literature of recent years that foregrounds explicit sexuality, including Catherine Millet's memoir The Sexual Life of Catherine M. (2001) and the novels of Michel Houellebecq.
But if Houellebecq has been roundly criticized for depicting sex so repulsively that his fiction at times seems to function as a deterrente mechanism, Roche's work reads more like a how-to manual. A bicultural writer who was born in England in 1978 and moved to Germany as a child, Roche achieved fame in the 1990s as a moderator for the music television channel VIVA. Known for her smart interviews with prominent subjects, including Alice Schwarzer, Roche made the seamless transition from media personality to famous author in the market-driven, globalized publishing world of today. Not only did Roche's persona, along with her claim that her books are "70 percent autobiographical," help drive Wetlands to the top of Amazon.com's international best-seller list in March 2008--it was the first German novel ever to accomplish that feat--but the author's pop sensibility also helped her work gain a foothold among a younger generation of readers and writers influenced by the "pop literature" movement that swept the German literary landscape in the 1990s.
Characterized by the bricolage or sampling of diverse styles, German pop literature recycles elements of the pop art and culture movement of the 1960s. Known for its "new readability" and plotlines grounded in youth culture, pop literature is ostensibly not weighed down by the engagement with national history and identity that preoccupied previous generations of German writers. Often highly ironic in tone, pop literature seems to reflect an affirmative vision of the cultural changes brought about by globalization and neoliberalism, and critics have sometimes aligned it with neoconservative political views.
Consider the example of Roche's Lap Prayers, which begins with a twenty-page sex scene that includes protagonist Elizabeth Kiehl's graphic instructions for performing fellatio, followed by a lengthy scene in which she cooks a healthy dinner of steamed savoy cabbage ("the most beautiful vegetable there is"), while giving readers advice about how best to avoid tears when cutting onions. A number of critics have disparaged Lap Prayers for its conservative depiction of women performing such (house-) wifely duties, but they seem to have missed the irony that underpins Roche's representation of German motherhood. The protagonist of Wetlands celebrated her eighteenth birthday by having an elective sterilization surgery in order to guarantee that she could never become a parent nor repeat the mistakes of her own mother. In Lap Prayers, Elizabeth takes the opposite approach, striving to become the perfect mother she never had:
Over the years, I've come up with a lot of ideas about how to do it, how to portray a good mother. And when I write portray , I mean: portray . How am I at my best, in order to be at my best for my child? I would like to have strong roots and be at home as much as I can so that she has the most boring, repetitive everyday life possible, exactly the thing that I didn't have as a child. And based on that, she'll want to go out into the world, because life at home is so tiresome. (emphasis mine )
Emphasizing that motherhood is not a natural role for her, but rather one that she performs, Elizabeth describes in satirical detail the efforts she makes to portray the role of "good mother." An ironic response to the demography debates, Elizabeth's performance of motherhood also functions as a generational rebuke to her own mother, from whom she is estranged, and who takes on the role of "bad mother" in the novel.
In depicting Elizabeth's mother, Roche draws on her own horrific autobiographical experience. On the day before her wedding in 2001, three of her brothers died in a car accident, while her mother, who was driving the car, survived the crash with severe injuries. The trauma of this accident forms the backdrop for Lap Prayers, which is narrated in a hermetic, first-person monologue that almost never includes direct speech, and which interweaves the story of the car accident, told in flashback, with Elizabeth's present-day musings on sex, death, and motherhood, formed partially in response to her regular sessions with a therapist.
The autobiographical context of her family's car accident has led critics to read Lap Prayers as a transparently authentic depiction of Roche's own experiences. While the author--whose canniness with marketing and self-promotion certainly helps to explain her books' remarkable popular success--has done little to dispel such connections, her work should also be understood as a feminist response to the pop fiction of J. G. Ballard or Chuck Palahniuk, who in novels like Crash (1973) and Fight Club (1996) systematically examine the connections between violence and eroticism, while also deconstructing dominant images of masculinity. Like these writers, Roche depicts in both Wetlands and Lap Prayers the psychosexual universe her protagonists inhabit as an alternative universe unto itself, an aspect of her work that is both a strength and a weakness. While Helen and Elizabeth are convincingly drawn characters whose extreme qualities allow Roche to depict contemporary expectations of women with great irony, in the end Helen never leaves the hospital and Elizabeth never exits the circuit between her apartment and her therapist's office. If Roche's work articulates a subtle critique of the demography debates by writing against dominant expectations of women as mothers and forced sexual conformity, her novels are limited by their inability to move beyond the confines of the private sphere and make larger historical connections.
The author of six novels and a short-story collection, Julia Franck was born in East Germany in 1970 and emigrated to the West with her family in 1978. In many ways, Franck's work could hardly be more different from Roche's. If Roche takes her cues from global trends in popular literature and remains stubbornly glued to the private, internal lives of her characters, Franck's work draws on German literary tradition to explore the interconnection of public histories and private lives in the twentieth century. Yet Franck's most recent works, Die Mittagsfrau (2007; Eng. The Blindness of the Heart, 2009), which won the prestigious German Book Prize, and Rucken an Rucken (2011; Back to back), excerpted here, resonate with Roche's. Drawing on autobiographical material from her father's and her mother's families respectively, these novels investigate the traumatic events that have shaped the lives of Franck's protagonists--including two world wars, National Socialism, the Holocaust, and the division of Germany in the postwar period, bur also parental desertion, neglect, childhood sexual abuse, and the physical and mental illnesses that result. Like Roche, Franck invokes grotesque imagery in foregrounding the embodiment of her characters, and she responds to the demography debates by refuting the idea that motherhood is a natural role for women. Drawing on German literary history, Franck employs fairy tale imagery and elements of magical realism--witches, ogres, and prescient children--that reference the horrors of the Grimms' tales as well as the grotesque imagery of canonical twentieth-century writers like Gunter Grass. Franck's project to chronicle the impact of public events on subjectivity, especially female subjectivity, also draws on the work of Christa Wolf, the most significant writer of the GDR and an early practitioner of feminist literary strategies.
The Blindness of the Heart begins with a shocking and heartbreaking prologue, told from the perspective of seven-year-old Peter, who watches uncomprehendingly as his mother Helene is gang raped by Soviet soldiers in the final days of World War II. At the end of the prologue, Helene abandons Peter on the platform of a busy train station and never returns. The main story of Franck's novel traces the genealogy of Helene's decision to abandon her child, and overall the novel seeks to counter the common tendency to blame individual women, particularly mothers, for the fallout of history. Following Helene's story back to her own experience of childhood abuse, The Blindness of the Heart chronicles the emancipatory effects of World War I for Helene, who is able to leave home and study nursing in Berlin during the Weimar Republic. While escaping her own mother--a mentally ill woman whose all-consuming grief for her four dead infant sons caused her to neglect completely her surviving daughters--was essential for Helene's emancipation, the same does not hold true for Peter, a character modeled on Franck's own father, whose abandonment by Helene causes him to grow into an angry and hateful man. Helene's acts and Peter's responses must be understood in the context of the violence and trauma of the Nazi period when, as a Jew, Helene survives only by disguising her identity and marrying a Nazi who rapes and abuses her. Herself filled with grief--for a lover who dies in an accident, for her sister who succumbs to drug abuse, and for her own lost subjectivity--Helene ultimately repeats history when, like her own mother, she is unable to experience maternal feelings for her son.
Picking up at the historical moment where The Blindness of the Heart left off, Back to Back (see page 56) tells the story of Ella and Thomas, siblings who are emotionally--and often physically--abandoned by their mother, Kathe, a sculptor and Communist Party member who spends weeks at a time away from home creating art in the service of the nascent East German state during the 1950s. A kind of Hansel and Gretel story, Back to Back depicts the children locked away in a villa in the woods outside of Berlin, cleaning and cooking in a desperate attempt to win their mother's affection. Like Helene in The Blindness of the Heart, Kathe--who is modeled on Franck's maternal aunt, the noted GDR sculptor Ingeborg Hunziger--lacks any "natural" affinity for the maternal role; also like Helene, her rejection of maternity must be understood in the context of historical events, for as a Jew, Kathe was not allowed to marry the father of Ella and Thomas, a German who died in the war. Kathe's embrace of state socialism in the present is portrayed in Back to Back as a desire for structure and stability in the wake of war and genocide, a wrongheaded, even irrational choice that leads Kathe to participate in a system of oppression and subjugation (not least of her own children), which, failing to learn from the mistakes of the past, once more repeats history.
Through Ella and Thomas, characters who, as the novel's title suggests, are symbiotically attached, Franck explores the social construction of dominant gender roles in relation to histories of trauma. Both children suffer in different ways from the neglect of their mother and from the vagaries of state socialism, and both manifest physical and mental illness resulting from private and public traumas. Ella is sexually abused by both her stepfather and a boarder, an ambiguous figure who spies for the Stasi and may also be her mother's lover. In order to achieve a coveted spot at university, Thomas must first prove his credentials by working in a mine, where he is tormented and physically abused. Both characters contract horrible skin diseases, symbolic of their need to shed the traumas of the past. While it is Ella who survives in the end, the novel asks us to consider whether this is an act of heroism or one of surrender.
In the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin wall, literary critics in Germany demanded a new, more "readable" German literature, calling for the end of the so-called aesthetics of conscience that had characterized postwar literature in the West and the East as practiced by writers like Heinrich B611, Grass, or Wolf. Suggesting that a socially conscious literature that raised awareness of twentieth-century history, often through modern or postmodern aesthetic strategies, was an obsolete project, these critics saw pleasurable, readable literature as incompatible with politics. Franck's work proves them wrong, and her remarkable international success--Die Mittagsfrau was translated into thirty-three languages--suggests that German history continues to be a compelling theme for readers worldwide even at a moment, nearly a quarter-century after the fall of the wall, when a "new world order" shaped by transnational migration and global capital clearly holds sway.
If Franck's retelling of the past continues to resonate in the present, the dystopian work of Kathrin Roggla interrogates the way this new world order will shape the future. Born in Austria in 1971, Roggla is the author of numerous works of experimental fiction that cross boundaries of genre, form, and media to examine the way both the New Economy and new technologies of communication have reshaped language and subjectivity in the contemporary globalized world. Roggla writes for radio and theater, and her plays and prose works often draw on documentary sources, such as the numerous interviews she carried out with consultants, life coaches, account managers, programmers, and interns for the novel wir schlafen nicht (2004; Eng. we never sleep, 2009). We never sleep chronicles these protagonists of the contemporary workplace, where neoliberal reforms to ensure "flexibility" of the labor market and the rise of new technology have led to endemic job insecurity, the erosion of private life, and a workforce of ghostly insomniacs who constantly toil and rarely rest. Through three female and three male protagonists ranging in age from twenty-four to forty-eight, Roggla documents the disproportionate effects of these reforms on women and young people, resulting from the shrinking safety net, the erosion of traditional social structures, and the encroachment of market commodification on all aspects of life.
Sharing the distinctive style of we never sleep, Roggla's most recent prose work, the short-story collection die alarmbereiten (2010; on alert) is also told almost entirely in the subjunctive mood, using indirect speech to create a highly distanced portrait of the contemporary world it depicts. Written entirely in lowercase, both works eschew the capital letters that typically mark all German nouns, and in so doing they recall the style of the Vienna School, a loosely affiliated group of avant-garde writers from the mid-twentieth century who shared an affinity for concrete poetry and a deep-seated skepticism of language's representational possibilities. Reasserting such skepticism in an era when escalating media accounts of crisis numb global audiences to the real risks of climate change, global financial cycles, and unending wars, die alarmbereiten comprises a pastiche of alarming scenes of devastation: we hear about environmental catastrophes, financial collapse, violent episodes, and the ruin of cities through the indirect perspective of individuals seeking in vain to create human contact and communication. The collection is bracketed by two stories emphasizing how global capitalism and the media are driven by profit motives to foster catastrophe related hysteria.
The five interlinked stories that comprise the middle section of the collection are narrated in the first person by an unnamed female narrator who is consumed by these accounts of catastrophe. Though her perspective shifts across the five texts, in each case she reports, via indirect speech, conversations in which others mirror her own hysteria while also denying altogether its validity. For example, in the book's central chapter, "the adults," the narrator, a mother, is called to a conference at her daughter's school, where the parent-teacher organization holds her responsible for a vaguely described outbreak. As the narrator reports, the PTA accuses her daughter of spreading fear among the school's students and making them susceptible to new forms of illness, while simultaneously denying as a hysterical illusion the possibility that the illnesses are in fact being caused by environmental degradation:
maybe i just didn't want to understand: we aren't just dealing here with extreme cases of attention deficit disorder--the children are no longer listening at all in class--we are also fighting with a massive outbreak of psychosomatic disorders. whether it's clear to me that these difficulties with concentration bring with them susceptibility to hay fever and asthma? and what about the food allergies that have rapidly increased in recent months? suddenly, children who had never coughed before were starting to cough, suddenly, children who had never thrown up before were throwing up.
The PTA representative goes on to mention school shootings, drug-abuse epidemics, suicide plots, and anorexia clubs, insinuating that the daughter's ostensible behavior, which is never substantiated, is a kind of gateway crime that must be stopped before it escalates. Ultimately, the mother is blamed for her daughter's behavior, while the father is notably excused:
and since i'm practically a single parent--"sorry, gerit!"--i am responsible for what happens at home. a child imitates, if, at home, she gets nothing but forecasts of catastrophe, she will certainly bring forecasts of catastrophe to school with her. [...] bur maybe there's a bad influence? do i give my child away from time to time to other people? people, who might have some kind of religious background? i should go ahead and admit that i give my child away from time to time, after all that's how it goes with single parents--"sorry, gerit!"--otherwise she'll have to assume that it's all my intention, is my daughter perhaps acting out by proxy what i don't dare to?
As this carefully constructed doublespeak escalates, and the mother refuses to "cooperate" by accepting her daughter's guilt, the story ends with several terrifying insinuations. The PTA representative suggests separating mother and child and quarantining the child; she even goes so far as to argue that the child should be infected with a disease herself, giving her, as it were, a taste of her own medicine. Couched in a language tinged with both bureaucratic speech and psychobabble, and lodged firmly within a world structured by terrorist advisory systems and color-coded threat levels, these extremist solutions no longer appear so extraordinary. Indeed, Roggla's distinctive prose style expands readers' perception of the way language constructs social reality, systematically unmasking the violence of both. At the same time, her depiction of the endemic alarmism of a society perpetually "on alert" emphasizes the limits of human agency in a world that increasingly values personal responsibility while simultaneously blaming individuals (such as the mother in "the adults") for the effects of neoliberal policies, neoconservative ideologies, and the social anxieties they have fostered. As such, Roggla offers a very different sort of response to the demography debates than Roche or Franck, one that highlights the larger social context that has shaped Germany's tendency to blame women for the perpetual fear that the German people are dying out.
Authors and critics alike have problematized the very notion of "women's literature" in recent years: they suggest that it is an outdated category that unfairly lumps writers together only on the basis of their sex, trivializing women's writing by negating its universal qualities. These concerns are well taken, since emphasizing gender-specific categories of authorship and readership does risk relegating women's literature to secondary status; it also risks affirming the kinds of entrenched gender divisions feminist critics and authors would like to abolish. Nonetheless, as the longstanding debates over German demographics and the legacy of feminism suggest, gender discrimination continues to permeate the public and private lives of Europeans today. In this context, women's literature can be seen as a strategic category that continues to offer meaningful ways of reading contemporary fiction. As the work of Roche, Franck, and Roggla attests, contemporary German literature by women articulates a salient critical response to dominant ideas about gender, sexuality, motherhood, the body, and work, issues of enduring concern within the socioeconomic context of Europe today. At the same time, Roche, Franck, and Roggla clearly transcend the kind of marginalization originally attached to women's literature by reaching the top of the best-seller list, winning prestigious literary prizes, and participating in political and social debates of universal import--which they achieve by engaging readers with humor, suspense, and stylistic innovation.
University of Oklahoma
For Further Reading
Helen Constantine, ed., Berlin Tales , tr. Lyn Marven (Oxford University Press, 2009)
Lyn Marven & Stuart Taberner, eds., Emerging German-Language Novelists of the Twenty-first Century (Camden House, 2011)
www.litrix.de. Portal on contemporary German literature, with sample translations of many recent works of fiction and nonfiction.
http://ovegerma n books.blogspot.com. Translator Katy Derbyshire's blog about German literature and translation.
Hester Baer is Associate Professor of German and Women's & Gender Studies at the University of Oklahoma. She is the author of Dismantling the Dream Factory: Gender, German Cinema, anal the Postwar Quest for a New Film Language (2009) and the editor of a special issue of Studies in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Literature about contemporary women's writing in German (2011). She has published widely on German film, feminism, and literature.
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|Title Annotation:||COVER FEATURE|
|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||May 1, 2012|
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