Loo Literature

September 24, 2012 § 1 Comment

According to 9gag and other meme sites on the internet, a lot of people take their smartphone with them when they go to the bathroom. The world reportedly plays 5 million hours of Angry Birds per day, and I wouldn’t be surprised if about half of this happened on the loo. Now, I don’t have a smartphone and therefore I have to fall back on the centuries-old entertainment of reading on the toilet. Have you ever noticed how many people, even your average non-readers, have books or magazines in the bathroom? I hereby admit that I myself am a toilet reader. I’m an everywhere reader, so it’s only natural that I also read there, isn’t it?

But what makes the “smallest room” such a popular place for reading? Sitting on the toilet is a bit like using public transport, and I’m not talking about the smell here. You are immobilised in a certain position for some time, so you can as well use that time for something productive. Neither the bathroom nor train seats are the ideal place to get your painting supplies out, but a book fits into your handbag or onto your window sill. It’s a wonderful occasion to read a few pages (or to launch some birds with a sling shot – but let’s stick with reading here).

Now picture the following scene from the author’s private life: My grandmother is invited to dinner at our house, and being the polite person that she is, she has brought a little gift for the host. “Here, I noticed that you sometimes read books on the toilet”, she says and hands my mother a book. My mother quickly examines the book, says thanks and puts it away. Later on, she gives it to me and I decide to give it a try as my new toilet read. It’s Bill Fitzhugh’s novel Pest Control, a nice little piece of fiction so far.

What makes a book an appropriate toilet read? In the end, it’s up to you what you read on the toilet, but I can tell you that I will not attempt to conquer the Magic Mountain on the loo. A good toilet book shouldn’t be too difficult to follow because your reading sessions are likely to be very short. That’s why I usually prefer books at the lower end of the acceptable scale – you won’t find horrible chick lit on the window sill in my bathroom, but I like some contemporary fiction with few characters and few big ideas. Books with short, anecdotic chapters are great toilet reads, and to all my German readers I strongly recommend the Känguru-Manifest by Marc-Uwe Kling.

Short story collections are a good choice as well. Someone who happens to live here is currently making their way through a collection of the “best German short stories”, selected and edited by the German literary pope Reich-Ranicki. Short satiric texts are very entertaining too, but you might break into laughter on the loo, and this might lead to an awkward moment when you come back and you have company. Trust me, I’m speaking from experience here.

There are people who think they’re too busy for reading, and there might even be people who actually are so busy all day long that they can’t dedicate time to the sweet indulgence that is reading. These people are your non-readers, but nevertheless, you might fight a book or at least a magazine in their bathroom. Even they have to admit that during those private minutes, they have “nothing better” to do anyway, so why not read a few pages.

Last but not least, you can also make a statement through your loo literature. Whenever I’m at someone’s place, I instinctively scan their bookshelf. If it’s well stocked, I might fail to notice their most important books. If you want people to know that you own Being and Nothingness, why not put it on your bathroom window sill? Sooner or later your guests will have to powder their nose and they’ll see what a great intellectual you are. On a second thought, why not leave the Communist Manifesto there? Politics don’t stop at the bathroom door.

100 miles an hour

September 17, 2012 § 1 Comment

Guess what, dear reader, today I almost dropped my sausage and sauerkraut into my oversized glass of beer. There are a lot of clichés about Germany and the Germans, some of which are true and some of which have a least a very small grain of truth in them. Whenever I come across a description of Germany or a German character in a book, I read the paragraph very carefully, paying close attention to how the writer plays with the common stereotypes. I could write a detailed analysis of the usage of national stereotypes in fiction, but that’s not what this article is supposed to be about.

The CorrectionsBack to my sauerkraut – I’m currently reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, a really good novel so far. It has something about it that makes it unmistakeably American. The big American novel, and say hello to a stereotype here, tries to be very comprehensive and to do more than just tell a story. Both The Corrections and Freedom, Franzen’s latest novel that I read earlier this year, aim to be a general study of American society, and I have to admit that Franzen is doing a good job here. His observations are crisp clear and paint a picture of 20th and 21st century America that is easily accessible to non-Americans. I can’t quite tell to what extent this picture is based on stereotypes, but it seems to be critically reflected and elaborated.

However, his brief depiction of Germany – actually only one sentence long – was a big disappointment to me. Here’s the sentence you’ve been waiting for, the one that made me drop my sauerkraut into the big cleavage of my traditional Bavarian dress.

“In Germany she drove a hundred miles an hour and was tailgated by cars flashing their high beams.“ There’s nothing wrong with the sentence in itself because we all know that on many highway in Germany, there is no speed limit, we all know that a lot of tourists love our highways for that and we all know that even for some Germans, a highway is one long race track. The problem is that Germany as a whole is reduced to this tiny sentence. The novel has more than 600 pages that contain detailed descriptions of houses and flats, but apparently one sentence is enough to describe a country.

What should Franzen have done? In my opinion, it’s either feast or famine – instead of jotting down a sloppy sentence that is based on one of the most common stereotypes, he could have written a more detailed description or nothing at all. Franzen is an intelligent writer who pays attention to the small things, and he’s not the one whom I’d expect to be so superficial here. Call me thin-skinned, but when I came across that sentence, I was seriously offended for a moment. If you want to play with clichés, do it in a clever way.

Speaking of The Corrections and German stereotypes in foreign literature – is there some kind of obsession with the name Klaus? There is a German guy called Klaus in The Corrections, but he’s by far not the only one I’ve met in fiction lately. This summer I finally read Roberto Bolaño’s whale of a novel, 2666, in which a character of German origin is called Klaus as well. While two occurrences might still be considered a coincidence, third time’s the charm. My new “toilet read” (a topic that deserves an article for itself) is Bill Fitzhugh’s Pest Control, an entertaining little novel, that has a German character called… Klaus.

German offers so many equally stereotypical given names – why not go for, let’s say, Wolfgang or Manfred? When I read, I often accidentally mispronounce foreign names in my mind because I’ve never heard them before, and I’m pretty sure that a lot of Anglophone readers will mispronounce Klaus as well. Dear writers, if you want to avoid that, you could also choose a more international name. But then again, it’s up to you.

Please excuse me, I have to put on my dirndl and go to Munich in order to be on time for the Oktoberfest. At an average speed of 100 miles an hour, I should be able to make the trip in less than four hours. O’zapft is!

A plea for a new literary canon

September 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

We need a new literary canon. We have to say good bye to the books that have been on there for decades – yes, you heard me right. I’d love to replace some of the “classics” with other books, not necessarily more recent, but definitely different. Why?

“You know, I’d totally put it on the reading list for high school graduation.” Can you guess what book I am talking about? Probably not because this is not an apparent choice. I’m talking about The Marx Family Saga, a very good postmodern novel by Juan Goytisolo. Seriously, it’s postmodernism 101 – no punctuation and no capital letters, but a load of metafictional elements. Anas recommended it to me, and of course he was keen to know my opinion on it, and he was a bit surprised when I told him I would include it in the high school reading syllabus. The book is definitely not easy to read and it takes a lot of patience and concentration, but once you’ve found your way through it, it turns out to be a very rewarding read.

But the main reason for putting it on the reading list would be sweet, sweet revenge for all the mediocre stuff that I had to put up with in high school. I wonder how some of the books we read ended up on the list in the first place.

I’m not saying that the books in the current literary canon are bad, but there are better books out there that are just less known. But is it really the quality of a book that makes it suitable for a literary canon? Let’s ask my ever-faithful friend, the dictionary. It says that a canon is “a list of books or other works that are generally accepted as (…) being important”. Anas and I have had long discussions about what makes a book important, but we have agreed on two points. A book should reflect the era it was written in and at the same time it should have a timeless value. An important book, in my opinion, should address an issue that is still relevant centuries later.

Fontane’s Effi Briest paints a nice picture of German society in the late 1890s and it is certainly a nice additional read for history class, but it is so dependent on exactly those social circumstances that to a high school student in 2012, it is no longer relevant. Goethe’s Werther, admittedly embedded in its era as well, on the other hand offers a protagonist going through lovesickness and teenage angst. And no matter how society changes, a young person will probably find traces of themselves in this character.

Furthermore, a literary canon should show a certain development. Most national literatures are obsessed with a certain era or even writer that they think is the peak and epitome of their literary production, but one mustn’t forget other schools of literature. The German literary canon shouldn’t start with Goethe and end with Schiller, it should be a list of books that depicts the change of style, form and motifs throughout the centuries. A canon should include more than just the bestsellers of each decade – why not dare more and dig a bit deeper into the treasures of the written word? Some books that went unnoticed when they were first published might prove to be perfect additions to the current “must-reads”. The textbook examples of each literary school have their right to exist as well and they’re necessary to teach the basics, but we should have the guts to include some more obscure works in our literary canon. In the end, this list of so-called important books is arbitrary, despite the criteria that one might detect, and this means that we can change it. We just have to start.

But what do our readers think? If it was up to you guys, what would you make a mandatory read in school? And why?

On the Power of Art: An Unnecessary Digression

September 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

I can safely say that the question of the importance of literature has inevitably crossed the path of every serious reader. Czeslaw Milosz, whom I think of as one of the finest poets of the 20th century, once wrote that ‘Poetry is quite different… Since poetry deals with the singular, not the general, it cannot – if it is good poetry – look at things of this earth other than as colorful, variegated, and exciting, and so, it cannot reduce life, with all its pain, horror, suffering, and ecstasy, to a unified tonality of boredom or complaint. By necessity poetry is therefore on the side of being and against nothingness.’ (1)

The question here is not whether all types of literature adhere to this definition of the nature of poetry or not, and this unnecessary digression isn’t a comparison between the qualities of poetry and prose. However, the nature of poetry as described by Milosz can be read in a wider context: I think of it as a possible explanation of the importance of literature at large, or even art as a whole.

But before I dive into that, allow me to digress: Let’s agree, first of all, on the idea that all forms of art have been created, in the first place, to retell reality, re-represent it, communicate it, probably because the individual reality that was to be communicated to another individual was not lived or witnessed by him, that is, the latter. I imagine a primordial man telling another primordial man about the adventures he had while hunting in the dense forests. Let’s agree that that, before even the mythical explanations of the world, was the birth of a primordial and unique form of art: In other words, communicating individual stories to an individual or a small circle of individuals, who, in return, communicate it to other individuals, etc. We can safely conclude then that the creation of art is, at least in its origin, a purely individualistic action.

But that’s not all. Art is also a rebellion on reality. Mario Vargas Llosa, the great Peruvian author, realized that and tried to explain it in his Letters to a Young Novelist. Allow me to quote, ‘Why would anyone who is deeply satisfied with reality, with real life as it is lived, dedicate himself to something as insubstantial and fanciful as the creation of fictional realities? Naturally, those who rebel against life as it is, using their ability to invent different lives and different people, may do so for any number of reasons, honorable or dishonorable, generous or selfish, complex or banal. The nature of this basic questioning of reality, which to my mind lies at the heart of every literary calling, doesn’t matter at all. What matters is that the rejection be strong enough to fuel the enthusiasm for a task as quixotic as tilting at windmills – the slight-of-hand replacement of the concrete, objective world of life as it is lived with the subtle and ephemeral world of fiction.’(2) Thus, in this retelling and re-representing of reality, an individual automatically refines and recreates it. Upon realizing that, storytelling, for example, ceases to be an innocent action. Art is a recreation that is rebellious, whether consciously or not.

Finally, art is also truth. By presenting the core or the truth of the world it depicts – in a thingly quality uniquely its own according to Heidegger – art contributes in representing truth. But what is truth? I’ll leave that question to great philosophers and sages for sadly I cannot enter this debate without taking a gargantuan amount of space in the process. But let’s say, for the sake of easiness, that what is meant by truth here is the original and inward nature of things. The truth in the shoes Van Gogh drew (a uniquely Heideggerian example to point truth out). The truth in the chair Picasso drew. That which if no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not, as St. Augustine once put it. Let me conclude this point with a quote from Heidegger’s Poetry, Language and Thought, ‘Yet truth is put into the work. What truth is happening in the work? Can truth happen at all and thus be historical? Yet truth, people say, is something timeless and supertemporal.’(3)

But I digress. Apologies! Let’s return to Milosz’s quote at the very beginning to bring this circle to its logical end. ‘Poetry is on the side of being and against nothingness’ because ‘it cannot reduce life, with all its pain, horror, suffering, and ecstasy, to a unified tonality of boredom or complaint.’ My argument is very simple: This is not only a quality of poetry, but also a quality of prose, of all literature, even – I dare say – of all art. If it is good art. For only good art has truth in it, and this truth is, by default, on the side of being and against nothingness.

 

Now I have to admit that this article began as a little thought-game on the power of literature and not art as a whole; however, during the process of writing, I somehow realized that I cannot differentiate or draw a clear line between literature and the whole bulk of forms of art in terms of power or influence. Yes, novels might sell better than paintings (and have a larger audience) and films might be more expensive to make than music, but in terms of power, in terms of the unique thing that makes great art the great art it is, all forms are equal in my opinion. However, since literature is my personal favorite of those forms, allow me to linger on it a bit before I end this article. Literature shares the qualities of any form of art, it is an individualistic action designed to communicate on a much deeper level, intellectually and linguistically. It is also an act of rebellion which carries truth in its heart. Needless to say, it is precisely because of those qualities that an unbelievable power stems out of literature. And it is this power that drives Italo Calvino, for instance, to say, ‘Perhaps it is a sign of our millennium’s end that we frequently wonder what will happen to literature and books in the so-called postindustrial era of technology. My confidence in the future of literature consists in the knowledge that there are things that only literature can give us, by means specific to it.’(4)

But literature has an advantage over any other form of art. It is not that literature is more powerful than other forms of art, but it is more immediate. The immediacy of literature differs from the immediacy of cinema in the fact that when we read, our whole consciousness is immersed in the act of reading. That is not the case with painting, for instance, which can be sometimes alienating, or films, which we cannot substitute for reality. Literature ‘reveal[s] the colors and complexities of our lives and [is] full of people, faces, and objects we feel we recognize. Just as in dreams, when we read novels we are sometimes so powerfully struck by the extraordinary nature of the things we encounter that we forget where we are and envision ourselves in the midst of the imaginary events and people we are witnessing.’(5) And this is the uniqueness of literature: the ability to sustain the illusion – or the naiveté as Pamuk likes to call it – that forces us to see the same world with new eyes.

Let me conclude: Art, great art, can change the world with the power it exerts on its subjects. And in a world that constantly bludgeons ideals and universal truths, the only absolute to look for is to be found in a brush stroke that signifies meaning, in the wailing of a violin, in a carnation drawn with words, between heaps and heaps of paper. We need art now more than any other time in history. We need poetry. We need prose. We need a new Cezanne to teach us how to see with new eyes, and a new Debussy. Oh, and we need readers and lovers of art. Need I say more?

 

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(1)       Milosz, A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry.

(2)       Llosa, Letters to a Young Novelist (translated by Natasha Wimmer)

(3)       Heidegger, Poetry, Language and Thought (translated by Albert Hofstadter)

(4)       Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (translated by Patrick Creagh)

(5)       Pamuk, The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist (translated by Nazim Dikbaş)

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