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Hyper Text: Digital Media and the Printed Word

Take a stroll through the village of Unterleuten, explore the North Friesland coast or take the seventh leap into another dimension: Sarah Hemens explores how German-language novels are navigating the Internet.

Readers of Juli Zeh’s Unterleuten – a bestselling novel about contemporary Germany and its recent past – can take a virtual stroll through the village which forms the location of the novel. Clicking on various locations on the map uncovers information about the village and its inhabitants, alongside links to characters’ social media profiles, the local bird conservation organisation, the local restaurant’s online menu and even information about a book written by one of the characters, which can be ordered on Amazon.

Initially conceived as a tool to disseminate scientific information, the World Wide Web has had an inestimable impact on the style, form, content and selling of literature. Digital media, at times pitched as an adversary to the printed book, is now being harnessed as its complement. It is employed alongside the printed book in a wide variety of ways.

Use of diverse media to tell a story can reflect and amplify its themes, but in the case of Ulrike Draesner’s novel Sieben Sprünge vom Rand der Welt (2014) the theme demanded it. ‘Seven Leaps from the Edge of the World’ deals with the loss of one’s homeland. ‘Halfway through the writing of the novel it dawned on me that I would want to express its main topic – forced migration and its intergenerational consequences– not only through the novel’s characters but equally in its form’, Draesner explains. ‘The novel itself needed to be forced to migrate – in a leap from one medium to another.’ And so the seventh leap of the novel took shape. That seventh leap is a website that forms an integral element of the book. As well as providing historical background, it covers the author’s research and approach, ‘giving access to the making of a literary world’, says Draesner. ‘Its last chapter engages in yet another leap – opening up a shared space on the website for readers to add their own voices.’

Digital media also makes it possible for stories to break free from a linear narrative. ‘Hypertext fiction’ uses hypertext links to enable the reader to move from one section of text to another, creating an interactive storyline. In 1995 Norman Ohler – now feted for his international bestseller Blitzed (Penguin, 2017, tr. Shaun Whiteside) – published Die Quotenmaschine, the world’s first hypertext novel. A detective story set in New York, the original online version is – ironically enough – presently unavailable online, although paperback copies are in circulation.

New media can also be employed to enrich literary classics. Over 200 years after his birth, Theodor Storm has his own website. The creation of his translator, Denis Jackson, the site provides information on Storm’s works, a select bibliography and, importantly, information on locations in his novels. Jackson considers personal visits to the settings in and around Storm’s hometown in Northern Friesland to be a crucial part of the translation process – an opportunity to absorb the local culture, language and environment. The translator’s role of enabling an author’s voice to be heard by a wider audience has in this instance been extended by shining a light on the wider world of Theodor Storm. (Updated to add that Denis passed away in 2020.)

Draesner describes how ‘Sieben Sprünge originally grew out of my memories of refugees mumbling their broken memories in my grandparents’ living room – it comes full circle in the last chapter online’. A journey that begins in one medium is completed in another. Interplay between the printed word and digital media is full of potential for author and reader alike.