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!

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