From Heinrich von Kleist to Monika Maron
By Marcel Reich-Ranicki
In January 1811 a short essay by Heinrich von Kleist entitled ‘Brief eines Dichters an einen anderen’ (‘Letter from one Writer to Another’) appeared in the Berliner Abendblätter. Though the addressee had, we read, praised the letter-writer’s verses, he – Kleist – did not wish to know about this approval. That’s writers for you, the same then as today, or a thousand years earlier. They want to be praised and acclaimed, yes, but that’s not enough for them – they want us to appreciate what they themselves consider significant and good in their work.
The addressee of that letter, probably Kleist’s own creation, admired ‘the purity and correctness of the expression and the language’ of his poetry, ‘the rhythm and the charming cadences’. However, these distinctions, explains Kleist, should be imperceptible. If he could deliver his thoughts directly to the reader’s hands ‘with no added ingredients’ then, ‘truth be told, the inner demands of my soul would be fulfilled in their entirety’. It is not the skin that quenches one’s thirst, but the fruit. Language, its rhythm and its melody are – are our eyes deceiving us? – a ‘necessary evil’.
Can Kleist have been serious? Yes indeed, he goes on to repeat himself. He concedes that he tries to lend grace and vitality to the music of the words’, but only so the thought therein encapsulated be revealed. So there we have it, the seemingly unavoidable and intractable opposition: here the skin, there the fruit; here the form, there the content. According to Kleist, then, art should serve only as pretty packaging and as a vehicle; its primary task is to convey the idea to the reader.
Kleist was a political writer, critical of his times, pretty much from the word go. He commented on his fatherland and his contemporaries and, of course, on himself. The notorious ode ‘Germanias Aufruf an ihre Kinder’ is proof that he positively craved the role of propagandist, or agitator – however, nobody took up his services. Kleist, then, as a forerunner of those adherents in our century to ‘politically committed literature’? Did he believe it was worth scaling back his literature to exert a wider political influence on his countrymen? Like countless other writers, he vastly overestimated the possibilities of literature, particularly as he was never in a position to make a sober assessment of the world, of the reality of its circumstances. This was a person who submitted a piece of drama to the Prussian court with a hero, a Prussian general, who suffers a breakdown, begs two women for clemency, wants his life, no more, declares loudly that he does not care whether that is laudable or not – and yet the dramatist believed in all seriousness that he would enjoy the favour of the court: a hopeless case in Prussia.
Kleist was a genius and a fool at once. Perhaps he could not have been the one without being the other. Be that as it may, the dilemma of what is regarded in the twentieth century as literature of the Left was one familiar to, or at least suspected by Kleist. But he did not suffer because of it, because no concessions were asked of him. However, when Jean- Paul Sartre came to formulate the programme of literature engagée after the Second World War, and said that the writer has loaded pistols at his disposal and should take aim at his target like a man, and not like a child who shuts his eyes and just enjoys the bang, that is something Kleist would have been able to put his voice to without hesitation.
In 1810 and 1811, when the Berliner Abendblätter had to close, when Käthchen von Heilbronn was rejected by the Königliches Schauspielhaus in Berlin and Prinz von Homburg by the court, when he was ruined in material terms, too, did Kleist perhaps likewise seek a new working hypothesis, as he sought new paths and possibilities, one that would lead him out of the culde- sac which none of his hitherto works had been able to? And was perhaps part of this tenet the plan to push the artistic as far as possible into the background, even let it disappear altogether, to take the reader straight to the pleasures of the fruit, while conceding it couldn’t be entirely without skin?
Kurt Tucholsky, the most successful socio-critical literary journalist of the Weimar Republic, lamented in 1933 that after twenty years’ work he hadn’t ‘been able to remove a single police constable from his post’. It can happen that literature has the effect on the reader so often sought and dreamed of, but only in a situation no country in earth could be envied for. Only in a dictatorship, only under tyranny can literature exercise an influence on the readership which might be described as contributing to a change of situation. Where terror reigns and there is no freedom of speech, no free press, a writer can become famous even when not a single book, not a single record of his can be purchased. Wolf Biermann’s verses were passed from hand to hand in the GDR, both as tape recordings and paper copies galore. What he said in those songs and poems was often known by those in his homeland, but nobody had dared to say it out loud, these were things whispered under cover at best.
Can a novel also have a similar effect? Yes, but only if it touches a contemporaneous nerve and, in an easily comprehensible form, without beating about the bush, or, in other words, ‘with no added ingredients’ offers the public what is longed for in countries without freedom of speech more than anywhere else: a slice of truth about their own life. It is with a novel like that, a novel entitled Flugasche published in 1981 – though not, of course, in East Berlin, but in Frankfurt am Main – that the path of writer Monika Maron begins.
She was forty years old at the time. So we are talking about a relatively late debut. First-time novelists, be they younger or older, often come to literature from literature and, because of that, what can be most easily discerned in their books is which books they themselves have been reading. Monika Maron on the other hand came to literature from life – and from no ordinary life. It was a Communist environment she grew up in, firstly in West Berlin, where she was the only Young Pioneer in her class at school and, from 1951 in East Berlin, where she’d moved to with her mother. Two things were taken as self-evident when she was young: that Communists were good, noble, even exemplary people, and that, as sure as the sun would rise, the Communist future, the salvation of all people, was on its way; also that she quite naturally would be the recipient of certain privileges, large or small.
After her Abitur she could have continued to benefit from those privileges – her future in the ‘Arbeiter-und-Bauern-Staat’ (‘Worker and Peasant State’) seemed preordained and secure. Nothing stood in the way of a nice and, most likely, fast-tracked career in the GDR – nothing apart from herself. The high school graduate was to seriously disappoint those around her: she decided, to general astonishment, to work in a factory. She wanted to try her hand as a milling-machine operator. What was that meant to be, protest or resistance, or even rebellion? These are big words, too big. Perhaps we should talk rather of defiance and curiosity: young Monika Maron’s intention, it seems, was to find out about a sphere of life lauded daily in East Berlin newspapers but given a wide berth whenever possible: workers’ songs, including those from the Weimar Republic, were sung, but the workers themselves kept at arm’s length.
She stuck it out as a machineoperator for a good year; later she worked in television, then she studied theatre and art history, subjects which are often favoured by those with a predilection for the muses and only a vague idea which career they should pursue. Evidence suggests that during this time what Monika Maron knew best was what she did not want. She did not want any more lies. Her whole life had been a series of untruths. As a schoolgirl and as a student, in the factory and in television, in the Free German Youth group and in the SED (the Socialist Unity Party) – everywhere and incessantly, lies were part and parcel. The GDR was supposed to be a land of happy faces, but it was a land of lies.
Given this situation, Monika Maron once again does something out-of-the-ordinary. She attempts to achieve something in the very place where lies are most often and most systematically told. Evidently driven once again by defiance and curiosity, she goes to the press, where she works firstly for a women’s magazine and then for the Wochenpost, where she is a reporter for the most part. Sure, she has to tell lies, but she makes an effort to slip something into her articles here and there which at least bears some relation to reality. Needless to say she comes unstuck.
In 1976 she resigns from the Wochenpost and writes a book. Its subject? Her recent experiences within the GDR press, of course. She tells the story of a young journalist who is a lot like her. The unheroic yet courageous protagonist assiduously collects material about Bitterfeld, the dirtiest town in Europe: she wants to know what it’s like there, what is going on and why. And she would like the readers of her newspaper to know about it, too. But her report cannot be published and gets her into enormous difficulties.
This book, the novel Flugasche, I recently read in an encyclopaedia of literature, is ‘one of the most important environmental reports on the GDR.’ Hang on a minute – is it a novel or a report? That slip, if it was one, hits the bulls-eye. For what Monika Maron created is important and highly revealing and perfect in its way; but it is a journalistic book rather than a literary one. It is certainly no coincidence that its climax is a dialogue between the budding journalist and her older colleague. What is said is absolutely right, but it could also have been printed as a newspaper article.
Yet, Monika Maron did find the appropriate form for this subject at that time, the one that enabled the widest dissemination and greatest effect: a reportage presented in literary form, in other words a faux-novel. And its success was enormous: both in the Federal Republic, where there little information on offer about the conditions therein depicted, and in the GDR, where hundreds, indeed thousands of copies found their way from the West and, like Biermann’s poems, were passed on, person to person.
Did Flugasche change anything? Many of the GDR’s citizens saw and understood what was being done to the people there, that at any rate. Western intellectuals who considered themselves ‘Leftists’ were disappointed and disgruntled, of course. They didn’t want to accept that their naïve yearning for what they mistakenly called ‘Utopia’ was chipped away at by a depiction of the reality.
Whatever else, Monika Maron was now labelled – she was, it was said, an excellent journalist, nothing more or less. Talents, however, are gloriously unpredictable. Her next novel, Die Überläuferin, is about a woman in the GDR who stops cooperating, who bales out, but without leaving the country. This story of a refusal unfolds on the shadowy and risky cusp between reality and a vision – far more literary, more poetic then her previous book, but arguably less perfect.
Stille Zeile Sechs
Monika Maron’s later books include Pawels Briefe (Pavel’s Letters,
The Harvill Press), Endmoränen, Ach Glück
and Bitterfelder Bogen.
All that Monika Maron the storyteller was capable of achieving was not revealed until her novel Stille Zeile Sechs. If it cannot be credited with perfection, that has much to do with its subject matter. In Flugasche the town of B. represented the GDR, whether that was the author’s intention or not. Stille Zeile Sechs is an epic reckoning, not with the GDR but with Communism. It is the work of an author who both wants and needs to be writing for a cause, but not on the say-so of anybody, least of all the Party she belonged to – the Socialist Unity Party.
How was it possible that Communists, who had stepped up to fight inhumanity and who had indeed fought heroically against it, would not shrink from committing cruelty themselves? How could it come to pass that those whose goal it was to realise the ancient dream of a just society, themselves constructed a society in which human beings were enslaved? In short, why and how did people who were unquestionably idealists turn into people who were unquestionable criminals?
Those are the questions at the heart of the novel Stille Zeile Sechs. Monika Maron answers them with the story of a German Communist of the Honecker generation, a former miner called Herbert Beerenbaum, a Professor with an ‘evening-school leavingcertificate’, who carried out his unspeakable task as ‘Official Responsible for Questions of Ideology at Berlin University’, sending innocent people to prison. Now retired, he is dictating his memoirs to a much younger woman, a rebellious historian. Instead of obediently helping him to create his own memorial in words, she asks him whether he really believes that generations of human beings were born just so that Communists could test their ideals on them by means of the most dreadful terror. She, the historian, once a Communist herself, now sits behind her typewriter like a goddess of vengeance – though still irresolute – and comments she fears that ‘Communists would rather blow the world to smithereens than accept that it will not become Communist.’
Monika Maron brings the world of the elderly party functionary face to face with an East Berlin intellectual milieu which includes bohemians, dropouts and desperadoes – all of them creations, and also victims, of the SED regime. The framework of the whole is the funeral of the old party member Beerenbaum. He lived in an exclusive city enclave and is now laid to rest in a part of the cemetery reserved for VIPs. The ceremony, which symbolises the mendacity of life in the GDR, is observed by the historian, at a distance: ‘I was here because I needed to draw a line under it, because I had to know that he was really buried and gone from the world.’ Who is meant? The Communist Beerenbaum, or Communism?
This, Monika Maron’s new novel, written after the Fall of the Wall, is potent because it is an epic work of art, in contrast to her debut novel Flugasche: its pace is gentler, but it has an urgency. It renders the questions of our time and of our lives not only more transparent, but also more vivid. In the ‘Brief eines Dichters an einen anderen’ Kleist opines that the ‘quality of all authentic form is that it reveals the essence directly and with immediacy …’ The novel Stille Zeile Sechs substantiates this view in the finest way: its composition is as skilful as it is unobtrusive, both simple and masterful. The skin and the fruit fit together – and we can slake our thirst on them. Whatever Monika Maron narrates, her writing has a virtue which has almost scarcity value in the modern German novel, and which tends not to be mentioned even when it does exist, almost as though it detracts from the artistic undertaking. I am referring to the unusual, and in its way, extraordinary intelligence of this author.
Kleist once praised the literary work of a friend in whom he acknowledged a very special ‘finesse’: he ‘succeeds in also saying what he does not say’. Perhaps this is the greatest distinction of Stille Zeile Sechs: depicting a specific historical problem of the century, it becomes an allegory which reaches far beyond itself. Here, too, Monika Maron is giving voice to what she doesn’t voice.
Translated by Brigid Purcell.
This is an abridged version of the speech Marcel Reich-Ranicki gave in honour of Monika Maron on the occasion of her winning the Kleist Prize in 1992 as it appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and is printed by kind permission of the author.
born in 1920 in Poland, is the most highly-regarded literary critic in Germany, and is sometimes referred to as the Literaturpapst (‘the Pope of Literature’). He became a household name through the popular television literary talk-show, Das literarische Quartett, which he co-hosted. His autobiography Mein Leben was published in 1999 and extracts from his column in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung will appear in book form this autumn.