Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Oh, Germania!

Now, normally I would not buy a book like this, but I have a feeling that in my childhood I spent some afternoons in the author's family. Not that I can actually remember him - he is older than me and might have been at boarding school.

Stephan Wackwitz calls his book 'Neue Menschen - ein Bildungsroman'. Sorry guys, and Stephan, this book is arch-German and will never be translated into English. The translator would commit suicide first!

'New people - a .... novel'. What is a 'Bildungsroman'? 'Bildung' can mean 'education' but also 'formation'. As it happens, the French word 'formation' means 'training' (eg for work). Going round in circles, eh? The question is who is being educated - is it the reader? Probably if he or she pays attention to those zillions of highly learned references. Or is it about the education of the author? Or is it about how his gestalt is formed (going into deep psychological territory here, so we are)?

The other question is, why does he call it a .....'novel' when it is clearly autobiographical, using his family name(s?) and family history. Time to look up the term 'Bildungsroman'.

Victorianweb defines it as 'most generally, the story of a single individual's growth and development within the context of a defined social order. The growth process, at its roots a quest story, has been described as both "an apprenticeship to life" and a "search for meaningful existence within society."' Wow, we have learned something new today. Let's not pay any attention to the name of the website which relates to a period long past, and our author whose bildungsroman period coincides with mine. I am beginning to like this word - let's see how long it takes me to slip it into a report on social protection reform. 'The Bildungsroman of the Rwandan social protection system'.

So, our author is a GERMANIST. A GERMANIST is someone who studies German language and literature at university, generally in Germany. In this case, he has a PhD in it, though his current, mainly administrative job, probably does not provide an outlet for his undoubtedly considerable talents.

This Bildungsroman is about his growing up, up to the age of about 22 or so, as well as skirting through his parent's growing up period (more so his father's, he says his mother seemed to show little interest in him once he started school - maybe there were other children?). It seems that he was in any case not an easy child; while many first children have their troubles dealing with inexperienced parents he went through some difficult phases. Maybe his parents should have called him 'Placide' or 'Confiance' like Rwandan parents do. According to the book both his parents were quite bookish and interested in the arts, and probably as a result, our author became a bookworm, too.

It seems that our GERMANIST developed his identity through reading, discussions and debates - though I am not sure what he learned in his early years at university, when like many people of his time, he was a Marxist (and boy, could they talk - hindlegs off a donkey stuff! I remember it well), and he was much more involved in running errands for his party than in doing the studying. However, little seems to have passed him by, judging by the book. With me absolutely not being a GERMANISTIN I find scenes like where he and his girlfriend quote poetry at each other quite - aw, puke! - but then I might play music at someone.....

It would not be fair to say that the book is all his own work. While he credits all his quotations there are extended excerpts of letters written by both his parents, and many other quotes. It really would help, though, if he did not put something in the book, and then quote it again, the same text, a couple of pages later. His readers are not stupid!

While the book for me was a fascinating read since I was quite close by, both in terms of the period, and also, I think, literally across the street, if it had been written by a total stranger, I might not have bought it. The language is awesome - he really has a brilliant command of words and I wonder just what his vocabulary is like... but words like 'abstruse', 'obscurantist' also come to mind. The words he uses would definitely not fit into a 'plain German' guide. For example, he talks about 'oedipale Symptombildungsartefakte' (don't you love the German language?) which - maybe - are 'oedipal artefacts which create symptoms' - eh? He talks a lot about Oedipus... He skirts across German history, from about 1500 to now (all contributing to his personal Bildungsroman) to today, including my loved-hated poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger...Not a single page passes without a quote by some author or thinker so one wonders whether one is reading an academic text (for which it is very readable) or a novel/autobiography. And one asks oneself - does our author have the capacity to think for himself, and simply tell his story, or is it necessary to always be supported or positioned by other thinkers?

(Which is what I hate about academic texts, when every piece of research is preceded by a long section of quotes from other pieces of research almost in the same area - while it positions the research I sometimes wonder whether it is intended to show simply that the author has read other materials).

This book really is for people with a deep interest in heavy reading, philosophy and so on; I am not sure what people of a generation other than ours, who did not go through these phases, would think of it. I found it on the fiction shelves of a Vienna bookshop - where it might sell better, but I wonder how the poor bookseller is supposed to classify it.

Would I buy another book by the same author? I'd have to see what it is about - it's unlikely I would ever buy a technical GERMANISTIK text - but anything else I might well buy out of a sense of appalled fascination.


varske said...

After all that, I am surprised you did not make some dreadful English joke about his surname.