Storytelling and silence

Jewish novelist Eva Menasse has made her mark on the German literary scene

By BEN NIRAN
August 23, 2011 15:38
Jewish novelist Eva Menasse.

Eva Menasse. (photo credit: Courtesy Eva Menasse)

 
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EVA MENASSE, A VIENNESE journalist turned novelist, is among the youngest representatives of a new wave of Jewish authors, who have left a visible mark on the literature scene in Germany over the past decade.

Her debut novel, “Vienna,” published in 2005, inspired academic studies as well as much coverage in the German-language press, and contributed to an upsurge of interest in the questions surrounding Jewish identity in Germany and Austria today. Her second book, a short story collection entitled “Lässliche Todsünden” (“Forgivable Deadly Sins”), appeared in 2009, to great critical acclaim, and has since been translated into Hungarian, Dutch and Spanish, with Hebrew and French versions forthcoming, but has yet to appear in English.

“Vienna” was received with an enthusiasm unusual for a debut novel, causing a stir even before its publication. Having previously appeared in installments in the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung,” a leading German newspaper, it was, upon publication, immediately nominated for the Leipzig Book Fair Prize, and subsequently won the Rolf Heyne Début Prize, a German award for a first work of fiction; the English translation was shortlisted for the 2007 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in the UK.

The novel traces, through a loosely-knit patchwork of anecdotes, the vicissitudes of a half-Jewish, Viennese family, closely modeled on Menasse’s own, over the course of the 20th century. The book’s appeal, according to the majority of its German critics, lies in the fact that it presents this family – and through it, a quintessential Central-European Jewish experience of World War II – in a way that is at once entertaining and profound, offering a significant statement about the way in which identity, Jewish or otherwise, is formed.

How does an assimilated Jewish family become the subject of a best-selling novel? And what does the success of “Vienna” tell us about the reception of Jewish literature in Germany today?

MENASSE, 41, OFFERED SOME insights into those questions during a visit to Tel Aviv in June, where she had come to visit friends. “Although Catholic on my mother’s side, my entire family was pervaded by a Jewish element, a feeling difficult to express in words, that went beyond the bounds of religion,” she begins.

“My father, although completely assimilated, lived his life surrounded by Jews; at the same time, he didn’t fully belong to any particular group – remaining somewhat aloof both from the more traditional members of his family, as well as from his Christian in-laws,” she tells The Report.



“Speaking was a survival strategy,” she continues. “On the one hand, our family was kept together by a tradition of anecdote-telling, where everyone would constantly vie for the title of best storyteller. On the other hand, no one would ever speak about what had actually happened during the war. My entire childhood was defined by that tension between storytelling and silence – by the dilemma of whether ‘to tell or not to tell.’” That tension – the feeling that “something has been left unsaid” accompanies us throughout the novel. In the first chapter, we are introduced to the main characters: the narrator’s paternal grandfather, a wine and spirits dealer from a family of Galician Hasidim; the grandmother, a Catholic German from Moravia, for whom the only joy in life is playing bridge; the former’s sister, Aunt Gustl, married to a Christian bank director, the narrator’s uncle; and the father himself, a future star player on the Austrian national soccer team, whose birth (a precipitate delivery, as we learn from the opening sentence) disrupts a game of bridge, spoiling his mother’s costly fur coat in a scene that sets the tone for the entire book.

Then, about halfway through the chapter, the rambling tone suddenly changes.

Something momentous has happened, but it goes untold, transmitted to the father, now a young boy, and his brother, through their parents’ behavior: “When they came home, nothing was as usual. Already in the stairwell, they encountered the flaming-eyed Aunt Gustl, a rare guest. She rushed by in a cloud of perfume, without greeting them, toward the entrance, from where she threw back a last glance that was almost humane. In the kitchen, the mother sat as if deep-frozen. She looked at them for a while, until she at last began, mechanically, to kvetch. But somehow even that seemed too much for her, as if she were kvetching merely out of a sense of duty, to perpetuate a tradition that had ceased to exist half an hour ago. Even on that day she kvetched, we would later say in my family, with a mixture of admiration and a slight shudder, a grin and a nod.”

From here on, the events pick up speed: the family is forced to move out of their petty bourgeois neighborhood, back to what the grandfather endearingly refers to as the “matza island,” the Jewish quarter in downtown Vienna where his parents, Orthodox Jews from Tarnow, live. Then comes the scene at the train station, the farewells, and the two young boys are sent off on what was one of the last “Kindertransports” to leave the country for England, where they are to remain for the duration of the war. All the ingredients of a good anecdote are there: only the punch line is missing. Yet the point is obvious: the year is 1938, and a crowd of 200,000 enthusiastic Austrians has just gathered on Vienna’s Heldenplatz, or Heroes’ Square, to celebrate Hitler’s annexation of Austria.

BY PLAYING DOWN THE HISToric background of the story, Menasse establishes a tacit bond with her readers, creating an invisible backdrop, which unifies and lends weight to what might otherwise appear to be a succession of trivial episodes. “We have all the images and the facts about the Holocaust already in our minds,” Menasse explained in an interview with “Die Jüdische Allgemeine,” the German Jewish weekly. “I place more trust in the effect of omission, more precisely: I express myself through that which we all know, which I understate until it hurts. We are flooded with images of violence.

The task of literature – as of film – must be to find other ways of leaving an impression”, she explained.

By shifting the emphasis from the historical to the personal, as reflected in the family’s ceaseless stream of anecdotes, Menasse reestablishes a link with a more lighthearted theme of Central European Jewish history: humor. “The humorous aspect of my writing owes much to the Viennese cultural atmosphere in which I grew up, where identity issues were often treated with a grain of salt,” she recounts to The Report, citing the example of Georg Kreisler, a well-known Viennese Jewish cabaret singer and pianist.

“Kreisler enjoyed cult status in the 1990s, which was when I first began to discover the truth about my family – why, for example, my father had spent the war years in England – which I automatically associated with the identity complex – the idea that “we are all refugees” – that Kreisler parodies in songs like “Ich fühl mich nicht zu Hause” (“I don’t feel at home”), she explains. “In my writing, humor is a means to an end, a way to ‘open up’ the readers, to make them more susceptible to the point the author is trying to make,” she adds.

Menasse’s close attention to the effect of language on her readers – her own literary technique is a unique combination of relaxed familiarity and literary sophistication – evokes an additional aspect of her evolution as a writer: her journalistic background. After an early start as a freelancer for “Profil,” an Austrian magazine, Menasse became the Viennese cultural correspondent for the “Frankfurter Allgemeine.” It was in that capacity that she covered the trial of the British Holocaust-denier, David Irving, held in London in 2000, an assignment which led to her first book, “The Holocaust on Trial.”

Although she has been living in Berlin for the past eight years – “in political exile,” she jokingly adds – Menasse has remained closely involved with developments in her home country: in 2008, she took an active part in the campaign against Martin Graf, a member of the far-right Freedom Party with neo-Nazi affiliations, whose election to the position of third president of the Austrian parliament aroused widespread condemnation.

“I AM SHOCKED EVERY TIME I go back,” Menasse says, speaking in a café on Tel Aviv’s busy Ben-Yehuda Street. “I simply can’t understand it: Vienna is one of the most comfortable cities in the world, and the standard of living is high,” she muses. “Considering that, the percentage of extreme right-wing voters is extraordinarily high, a force to which the left tacitly contributes through its passivity and indifference,” she continues.

Besides influencing her writing style, journalism is also a theme in Menasse’s plots, functioning as a bridge between the world of the family and the broader context of Austrian society. In a central chapter of “Vienna,” the narrator describes how her older brother (a character who reminded many in Austria of the well-known Austrian writer, Robert Menasse) is inspired by a heated discussion at home about the nature of the family’s “Jewishness” to engage in political journalism: he eventually publishes a groundbreaking article that exposes the secret Nazi past of a popular Austrian sports mogul.

By presenting this fictitious story as the “forerunner” to a very real episode – the 1985 Waldheim affair, in which the former UN secretary general, Kurt Waldheim, was accused, during his election campaign for the Austrian presidency, of complicity in war crimes while serving as a Wehrmacht officer during World War II – Menasse draws attention to the ways that the “personal” and “national” levels of history interact. In doing so she sheds light on the often paradoxical nature of modern Austrian society: while the brother makes a name for himself as a “provocative Jewish historian,” the father, as we learn later on, votes for Waldheim. That, in turn, triggers a bitter family quarrel, as a result of which the narrator moves out, anticipating the dissolution of the clan described in the final chapters of the book.

ACCORDING TO JAKOB HESSING, head of the department of German literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Menasse’s treatment of these themes – specifically, her representation of identity as a mosaic-like combination of anecdotes that reflect different, conflicting perspectives – places her work firmly in the tradition of post-war German-Jewish literature.

“The notion that the Holocaust had ‘shattered’ language, and that, as a consequence, there was no longer any single truth that could serve as a point of orientation, was central to post-war European thinking from the very beginning,” Hessing tells The Report in a phone interview.

“As regards Jewish literature, the real breakthrough came with the reunification of Germany in 1990, when second generation writers like Maxim Biller and Irene Dische began to grapple openly with the question of what constitutes German-Jewish identity, breaking the silence, which had defined relations between Jews and Germans since the war,” he explains.

As Hessing notes, one typical solution adopted by Biller was the juxtaposition of different literary perspectives in a way that leaves the reader in doubt as to the true identity of the narrator. Alternatively, as in the work of the Russian-born émigré writer and entertainer, Vladimir Kaminsky, the present is portrayed as a flow of disconnected stories which, however, fail to cohere into a narrative that would inspire any particular sense of identity in his characters.

Menasse’s book, then, is the continuation of a tradition which, to judge from its enthusiastic German reviews, has by now become an integral element of the dialogue within contemporary literature in Germany, something most educated readers there can immediately relate to and identify with. The leading German paper, “Die Welt,” described the Menasse family as “an early model example of the patchwork family, which writers so often tinker with nowadays,” while a reviewer for the “Hamburger Abendblatt” went so far as to write that Menasse’s “grumpy Viennese figures” seem like distant relatives “whose morbidly comic escapades we absorb like a forgotten part of ourselves.”

The literary parallels drawn by other German critics also suggest that they see “Vienna” as fitting into a larger, European cultural scene – a tradition of family-oriented literature defined by figures like the Jewish comic authors, Friedrich Torberg and Ephraim Kishon, the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg, author of “Family Lexicon,” and Imre Kertész, the Hungarian Jewish 2002 Nobel Prize laureate.

Menasse herself considers her work, in its preoccupation with the themes of identity and history, a direct continuation of 20th century Austrian literature. “My literary background is “Habsburg,” rather than “German,” which is a different world altogether,” she says with a smile. “I feel very close to, among others, [the 20th century Austrian writer] Heimito von Doderer, who had the ability to pack an entire, sunken world into a single novel. For my generation, that is no longer possible, which is why, in my book, the notion of rupture is built into the very form: anecdotes that are constantly varied, told sometimes this way, sometimes that. Truths no longer exist; everyone has their own truth, which they like to remember,” she explains.

Yet it is precisely in Austria that the book’s reception was most problematic. According to Menasse, the Austrian response to “Vienna” reveals the depth of the cultural divide between Austrians and Jews – in particular, the extent to which Austrians remain ignorant of the active role their country played in the Holocaust, and, equally important, of the post-war Jewish experience. “One common reaction was that of surprise: the Austrians were surprised to discover, for example, that Jews too kept silent about the past – that it wasn’t only they who had repressed their memories of what had happened,” she relates.

Indeed, the tone of the few Austrian reviews of “Vienna” – with the exception of those published in “Profil” – is strikingly different from that of the German ones: a reviewer for the “Salzburger Nachrichten,” one of Austria’s most prominent papers, referred to the “fawningly homelike” tone of this novel in which “a crowd of naughty rogues clamor for our favors.”

The book’s Israeli reception adds yet another dimension to the question of what constitutes contemporary Jewish identity. A review of the Hebrew translation of “Vienna,” which appeared in the “Haaretz” daily not long after the book’s Hebrew publication in 2008, reflects a distanced attitude towards the novel’s “European” attempts at defining that identity. Equally revealing is the way in which the review presents the issue of Jewish identity itself. “If even the Viennese family is torn by the question of ‘who counts as a Jew,’” the review concludes, “I would not hurry to mourn the passing of the [Israeli] conversion authorities.”

This suggests that in a modern Israeli context, the question of identity takes on a political and legal meaning far removed from the essential, soul-searching dimension attributed to the book by its German readers. Judge for yourselves from this extract from “Vienna.”

“One day, my brother appeared with a sensational expression on his face and announced that we weren’t Jews at all. ‘What is that supposed to mean,’ my father asked, baffled, ‘then why did I emigrate?’ My uncle just shook his head. My two cousins shrugged their shoulders, for they sensed where this was going, and knew they weren’t affected.

My sister was relieved. Only moments before, she had reported to my father that her boyfriend, the Quack-son, was of the opinion that she had a Jewish nose.

“She didn’t get as far as to explain to my father that her friend had meant it as a compliment, and that she had understood it as such, because my father had flown into a boundless rage. Considering that my father never got angry – indeed, he hardly ever chastised, scolded or punished his children, preferring to leave matters of upbringing to their respective mothers – this was a highly interesting and even slightly frightening experience.

‘What rubbish is he talking, that dolt,’ my father screamed, beside himself with rage, ‘he’s never seen a living Jew in his life!’ ‘Yes he has,’ countered my sister – who, although slightly awed, was ready to take up the fight for her first love – ‘You!’” •

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