When it was announced that Friedrich Christian Delius had been awarded the Büchner Prize for 2011, few industry insiders were surprised. Indeed, the only question was why it had taken the committee so long to recognise the talents of one of the country’s foremost writers.
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F. C. Delius
Delius, born in Rome in 1943, published his first poetry collections in the mid-sixties, along with satirical exposes of the collusion between big business and the dominant Christian Democratic Union in the early days of the Federal Republic. In the mid-seventies, he began to write novels, most notably his ‘German autumn’ trilogy: Ein Held der inneren Sicherheit (‘Hero of Internal Security’, 1981); Mogadischu Fensterplatz (‘Window Seat at Mogadishu’, 1987); Himmelfahrt eines Staatsfeindes (‘Ascension of an Enemy of the State’, 1992). This thematises the German experience of terrorism in the 1970s but also tackles important questions about the balance between security and civil liberties that are central to debates raging today after 9/11 and the 7/7 attacks on London. In addition, Delius is also a prolific essay-writer, newspaper columnist, and political activist.
Much of Delius’s writing is socially and politically engaged, and often looks back over post-war German history in order to make sense of the intertwining of the political and the private – of what it means to be there when epoch-defining events occur. The short novel Amerika-Haus und der Tanz um die Frauen (‘America House and the Dance around Women’, 1977), for example, looks back to the late 1960s and the heady mix of political protest and selfdiscovery that characterised that period for many young people. The more substantial Mein Jahr als Mörder (‘My Year as a Murderer’, 2004) revisits the same era and examines the temptations to political violence in a country in which former Nazi judges are acquitted while the wife of a resistance fighter is hounded by the courts. In Der Sonntag, an dem ich Weltmeister wurde (‘The Sunday That I Became World Champion’, 1994), on the other hand, the victory of the West German team at the 1954 World Cup is experienced by a young man (who bears a strong resemblance to the author himself) as a liberation, both from his restrictive upbringing and from Germany’s past, and also as the symbol of a new, democratic spirit. The short work Die Flatterzunge (‘Flutter-Tongue’, 1999) and the novel Königsmacher (‘King- Maker’, 2001), by contrast, deal with political correctness and the pitfalls of marketing. In Die Flatterzunge a musician is ostracised after jokingly signing a bar tab in Israel with ‘Adolf Hitler’, whereas in Königsmacher a middle-aged writer struggles to get published in a contemporary world in which looks matter more than substance.
Delius is at his best when he is most personal. Bildnis der Mutter als junge Frau (‘Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman’, 2006), published in English by Peirene Press (2010, tr. Jamie Bulloch), is a singlesentence 125-page re-imagining of one day in his mother’s life as the wife of a German army officer in Rome in 1943. In this highly rhythmical work, Delius gently tests the limits of his mother’s understanding of her situation and of the Nazi propaganda with which she has grown up. The result is a subtle, empathetic yet probing examination of the (self-)delusions of one very ordinary woman during the Nazi period. Mein Jahr als Mörder and Der Sonntag, an dem ich Weltmeister wurde also have autobiographical roots, inviting the reader to experience the author’s own fallibilities, whether for the self-righteous anger of the would-be assassin of an unrepentant former Nazi judge or for the illusion that football can change the world. These books, which meld German history and individual life stories with broader issues relating to the capacity we all possess for self-delusion, transcend the borders between countries and cultures and would surely appeal to an international audience. Die Flatterzunge, too, though less directly autobiographical, challenges us to identify with a protagonist whose motives are ambivalent at best — is his ‘Hitler joke’ a defiant act of protest against political correctness or a childish attempt to draw attention to himself and mask his mediocre career and failed personal relationships?
Delius’s prose is highly readable. His style is modest and understated, with a lightness of touch and an unobtrusive but compelling musicality that translate well into English. The plotlines are strong and drive the narrative forward, drawing the reader into the everyday psychological dramas experienced by the author’s unexceptional protagonists as they struggle with a set of dilemmas that are as universal as they are individual. At what point does moral indignation turn into selfrighteous self-delusion? Are we more than simply the products of a particular past and a particular present? How can we tell our story and be understood?
A worthy winner of the 2011 Büchner Prize, F. C. Delius is long overdue for translation into English.
is Professor of Contemporary German Literature, Culture and Society at the University of Leeds
Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman
Writer picked Delius’s Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman as one of his top reads of last year. Here, he tells NBG why.
In Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, F.C. Delius defies the normal meanings of the words ‘small’ and ‘large’. His book consists of a single sentence, but that sentence stretches to 125 pages. It describes a walk that takes only an hour but which assimilates the whole of a young woman’s life. It is set in a particular place (Rome) at a particular time (January 1943) but the fears, hopes, experiences and memories it recounts are timeless and universal. Alone in a strange city, pregnant, afraid and badly missing her husband, the young woman at its centre doesn’t pity herself but counts her blessings: how much worse it is for the Italians, she reflects, and how fortunate to be in the Eternal City, on which the Allies will surely never drop bombs. There’s something deeply engaging about her innocence and compassion as she struggles with her ambivalent feelings, not least about Hitler and Nazism. ‘On her own she could not work out what you were allowed and not allowed to say, what you should think and what you ought not to think,’ she reflects. Yet implicitly, by the end, she does work these things out, finding in music and Christianity an antidote to racial hatred and military triumphalism.