The commander is weary. His bold attempt to seize the throne has failed, he has nothing left to live for, and in a gesture that is half resignation and half kindness, he finally dismisses even his loyal valet with the words ‘I think that I shall sleep a long, long time, / For these last days have been a great torment, / Take care that they don’t wake me up too soon.’
Wallenstein will not live to see the morning. His last sentence has at least three meanings: first, he is a broken man, he is utterly exhausted. Second, his sleep will be longer than he thinks – infinitely long, in fact. And third, his instruction not to be woken up too early is addressed not only to his servant, but also to the remembering future: do not write about me too soon, do not summon me to the stage too early. For a moment the illusion becomes translucent to reveal, at Wallenstein’s side, hazy yet discernible in outline, Schiller, the writer who about 160 years later – yes, Schiller is closer in time to Wallenstein than we are to him – will do just that in his trilogy of plays, the first of which premiered in 1798, namely, awaken Albrecht von Wallenstein from his sleep. This is not to be done too early – which implies that Schiller considered distance important, that is: to know everything necessary about the character, but perhaps also not too much. Only once the witnesses have made their exit does the inventing author begin his work.
When you write about people who actually lived, the question of the right distance – not only in terms of time – is constantly on your mind. Epistemologically, however, theater has it easier here than prose. When Wallenstein is on stage, there’s ultimately a man standing there, known by every member of the audience to be an actor in costume. Even if they can bring themselves to repress this fact in a suspension of disbelief, it is a highly cultivated self-deception to which they only seem to succumb. After all, even in film, the most realistic medium of fiction, we are never in doubt about the ontological status of what we are seeing: we know at every second that no camera has captured moving close-ups of Queen Elizabeth I or of Adolf Hitler in the bunker, just as we know that Olivia Coleman isn’t Queen Elizabeth II; whereas if we read the names Wallenstein, Hamilton, Tasso, or Hitler on a page torn from a prose text, we cannot immediately be sure what kind of speech act we are dealing with.
This difference is not trivial: it means there is always a flicker, an uncertainty, a fundamental confusion around historical figures in narrative prose that we do not experience in theater or film. A dramatic text, to paraphrase the beautiful words of Tom Stoppard, is in itself not yet a work, but the description of a future event – and this, by definition, is shaped by people who are engaging in pretense. In a prose text, things are not so clear-cut: ‘They tugged at each other, thinking in their own ways how to rid themselves of Wallenstein. Even as they sat there, he grated and cracked his desire over their necks and shoulders. He was unable, he proclaimed resoundingly from Prague, to see any difference between his achievements and those of Elector Maximilian after the Battle of Prague.’ Whether this is written by a slightly eccentric historian or by a novelist, in this case Alfred Döblin, is not evident in every sentence. A shimmering vagueness lies over such sentences; something about them is unserious in the best sense of the word. For let us not forget, the unserious has always been the place where art could thrive.
The first impulse for my novel Measuring the World was an image. It came out of nowhere as I was walking by the sea in southern Spain: a man on a sailing ship, holding on to the mast, looking out at the horizon where, far off but clearly visible, a sea monster rises from the waves. He had his back to me, I couldn’t see his face, and yet I knew what was going on inside him: on the one hand, deep horror at what he saw, but at the same time the firm decision that he would tell no one about it and would erase it from his memory, until soon he would no longer have seen the monster at all.
Later, in Mexico, I became acquainted with the works of Alexander von Humboldt, was fascinated by his beautiful, German, completely humor-free humanism and his measuring frenzy; I saw the outlines of a comedy. But I could only really begin when I realized that he had been the traveler from that daydream.
In the second chapter Humboldt does indeed glimpse a sea monster and immediately decides that he has not seen it. The fact that no reader has asked me about this monster, which is actually the secret core of the book, doesn’t bother me in the least. On the contrary, I have the feeling that the most important image of the novel remains protected by its inconspicuousness, shielded from the attention of the many people who have wandered past it like distracted museum visitors on a Sunday afternoon. Because faced with a work that ended up finding an almost preposterous number of readers, an author can’t help asking himself the question that Saul Bellow posed after the success of his novel Herzog: ‘I have examined my conscience. I’ve tried to find out whether I had unwittingly done wrong. But I haven’t yet discovered the sin.’ Sometimes I ask myself the same thing, because a massive readership is as suspect to me by virtue of conviction and education as it was to Schiller when, in what was perhaps the most consequential review in German literary history, he banished the poor poet Bürger to the inferno for being so popular. But then I think of the man on the ship who, noticed by no one, sees a monster and knows at the very moment he sees it that he will not have seen it – and yet knows that at the same time he in turn is being looked at by this monster, even as his whole existence is based on denying it; I think of the moment when the eyes of the two meet and I know that, whatever others may say, I have stayed true to the strange and disturbing vision I had, and I haven’t yet discovered the sin.
Certainly, I invent, and yet I make claims: Humboldt is wearing this and that, he is thinking this and that, he is doing this and that. How far can, may, should a writer go when making things up?
Does the word ‘novel’, as long as it is prominently displayed above the text, permit everything? As always, there is a first, simple answer, which is: of course you are allowed to invent anything, because art must be allowed to do anything. And this answer isn’t wrong. But does that make it right?
Whoever writes about the living must be careful, because they can defend themselves, if necessary with the help of the courts. Whereas for the dead the opposite is true. When you write about them, you must be careful because they are at your mercy. The only thing protecting them is your sense of what is appropriate.
Humboldt was an influential man, I can fictionalize him to some extent, but not as much as, for example, the warlord Gustav Adolf of Sweden, who appears in my novel Tyll as a blatant caricature. Nor do I feel much obligation to hold back with Athanasius Kircher, whose false results and unearned authority almost brought scientific progress to a standstill for a hundred years, which is why I portray him as a constantly-offended, highly-dangerous narcissist. Immanuel Kant, on the other hand, appears in Measuring the World as a demented old man only because at the end of his life Kant actually was a demented old man, and because the fact that my main character Gauss hears nothing but drivel during his – fictitious – visit to him ultimately tells us more about the sad truth of human life than any exchange about the foundations of mathematics.
Satire only comes into its own against the powerful; against the powerless it is cheap mockery from above. That Wilhelm von Humboldt, a genuine sadist and also ministerial architect of the Prussian school system, wanted to kill his brother ever since he was a child is something I made up, and yet it doesn’t seem entirely untrue to me. While writing about a witch trial in Tyll, however, I felt my imagination flagging: the European witch hunts are a collective crime of almost unimaginable proportions; more than 100,000 innocent people were prosecuted, tens of thousands tortured to death. As an admirer of so-called magical realism, I would have liked nothing more than to make the accused a real witch, but suddenly I was confronted with the question of whether in that case it wouldn’t be just as possible to write a gripping novel about a conspiracy of the Elders of Zion. There were no witches, there were only victims of the witch craze; and the cozily creepy folklorization in our books, amusement parks, and horror movies now struck me as an abuse of the injustice once inflicted on actual people in the real world. Anyone who writes a novel is theoretically free to do anything. But in practice I wasn’t free here. And this wasn’t due to any external constraints. If I had invented a real witch, no one would have complained, there wouldn’t have been any nasty tweets or angry letters from readers. I wasn’t free due to the material itself.
The character of Alexander von Humboldt was my entry and key to the narrative world of South America. The term ‘appropriation’ was not yet in wide use at the time, but I was instinctively convinced that I couldn’t write a South American novel set among Colombians, Argentinians, or Chileans. Yes, in theory you are allowed to write anything, but in practice you usually just make a fool of yourself when you attempt to write about things that have no connection to your own culture, your own past, your own life, and your own language. Simply because anything else would have seemed silly to me, I thus wrote my South American novel around a German protagonist, a man who came from the culture I knew and went out into a world that seemed as strange and promising to me while writing as it once had to him.
In literature we are never in the realm of disinterested pleasure, where art would be uncontaminated by thought and ideas. When Kant speaks of disinterested pleasure, he means above all the beauty of nature, such as roses and hills and green forests, and perhaps also the purely ornamental, Moorish textile patterns and perfect silk wallpaper. When we read a literary work, however, we never do so completely detached from certain notions about who wrote it, and in what situation, and for what purpose. Would, for example, Fatelessness be as significant a book if it turned out to have been written by a young Norwegian? The simplest response is again to quickly exclaim, ‘But of course, only the work counts, that wouldn’t make any difference!’ And that’s not entirely wrong.
But nor is it quite right. Taking into account the moral weight of testimony, which is indeed inherent to Fatelessness, there can scarcely be any doubt that in such a case it would be a completely different and perhaps not quite as significant work. This thought in turn automatically gives rise to a third response, namely, that it is no mere accident that Fatelessness was not written by a twenty-five-year-old Norwegian, but by an actual inmate of the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. There is a truth in the book, a veracity and laconicism that someone who had just made all this up would hardly be capable of – it would be logically conceivable, but it isn’t likely, which is precisely why it didn’t happen.
Or suppose someone were writing a television series about the life of Franz Kafka. Who, hypothetically, would play Kafka? The simplest answer: anyone who can do it and looks somewhat like him, whether he is French, Irish, or Texan. As an actor you portray others, and declaring this to be a problem is tantamount to demanding that everyone should play only themselves. After all, the essence of art is transformation!
Quite right, you are about to exclaim, but then you suddenly wonder whether the same argument couldn’t have been made by an Elizabethan theater director seeking to justify why there was really no reason to give female roles to women: ‘The essence of art is transformation, and such a demand, followed to its conclusion, would mean that at some point everyone could play only themselves!’
Let’s take this thought experiment – which is not so abstract, by the way, because I have just written a television series about Kafka with the help of his biographer, Reiner Stach – one step further: let’s imagine a film production about Franz Kafka’s family and his Prague that is not French, not Irish, and not Texan, but purely German. Not only Kafka’s three sisters, but also most of his other relatives, his friends, and the women he loved – the majority of them were killed in the concentration camps. Now let’s imagine an otherwise excellent film version in which all those murdered are played by actors from Westerland, Münster, Kassel, and Garmisch-Partenkirchen, who, as chance would have it, are also in no small part descendants of Wehrmacht soldiers and SS men. Would there be anything wrong with that? From an abstract moral point of view, there is nothing to be said against it. But you wouldn’t look at the result with undiluted joy.
‘Who lives, who dies, who tells your story,’ is the last line of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, which, in an odd way, echoes Wallenstein’s instruction not to be woken up too soon, since it too makes the creator of the drama visible behind his character for a moment. Indeed it is never possible to fully disregard the question of who has died and who is telling the story. In literary art everything is interwoven with history and prehistory, ideas and contexts, connections and affiliations, interest and interests. As soon as we use words, we are painting in shades of gray and searching for a way through a thicket of paradoxes.
Secretly, without ever saying it out loud, privately and to myself, despite everything, I imagine the historical Wallenstein as a close relative of Schiller’s character, except that he doesn’t speak in such perfect verse. In the recesses of my own mind I believe that the real Simón Bolívar was astonishingly similar to the version of him invented by Gabriel García Márquez, that the actual Goethe has quite a lot in common with the main character of Thomas Mann’s Lotte in Weimar, and that there’s no biography from which we learn as much about Stalin as we do from the chapter of In the First Circle in which Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn puts himself inside his head. In moments of megalomania I have even gone so far as to convince myself, though I keep it to myself, that the historical Humboldt might have looked more like my neurosis-plagued and anxiety-ridden figure than the pale marble hero of the many Festschrifts. Invention doesn’t only obscure truth, but can also reveal it.
Yet truth is an unreliable ally. On the Orinoco River Alexander von Humboldt – the real one, not my fictional one – encounters a hitherto undocumented monkey: ‘It is the ouavapavi with gray fur and a bluish face,’ he writes. ‘The forehead and the rings around the eyes are as white as snow . . . This little animal is as gentle as it is ugly. Every day in the courtyard of the mission it jumped on a pig and remained sitting on its back from morning until evening.’ And in a footnote the discoverer of the animal and the first to describe it then gives it the taxonomically correct name ‘Simia albifrons Humboldt’.
Someone calling a monkey particularly ugly, while at the same time not hesitating to give it his own name – this, in turn, is a good story only in reality; as an invention it would be weak. And because even the absolutely true is not fit for a novel if it couldn’t be invention, and good invention at that, I couldn’t use this telling detail from Humboldt’s travelogue. Fiction must be plausible, must not exaggerate, must follow the rules of dramaturgy. Only reality has no such obligations.
Reality can even permit itself another pirouette vis-à-vis fiction. Because anyone investigating the exceptionally ugly monkey with gray fur and a bluish face as well as a white forehead and white rings around its eyes, which enjoys riding on pigs, is in for a surprise. According to zoologists, who have searched for a long time, a species of monkey that fits Humboldt’s description never existed.
Image © jesper_reinholdt