The Granta office in Berlin is located in the district of Friedenau. It’s a neighborhood of shuttered vinyl record shops and thriving funeral parlors that few visit, and fewer seem to leave. In the 1970s and 1980s, Friedenau became home to a concentration of West German writers, several of whom would make significant contributions to Granta: Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Günter Grass, Herta Müller. Today, on Niedstraße, in Enzensberger’s old building, piano lessons are offered on the ground floor; in Grass’s stout brick house next door, his widow runs an Airbnb (€145 a night). The residue of the Cold War is thick on the ground. A plaque commemorates the spot where two American pilots crashed into a building during the Berlin Airlift. The discotheque frequented by US soldiers that Gaddafi bombed in 1986 – Reagan duly bombed Tripoli and Benghazi in return – is now an organic supermarket. These days, the Americans you see high-fiving in the playgrounds tend to be leisure migrants, who have come to work less and for more affordable child care. Literary culture in Berlin has moved elsewhere – to Neukölln, to Wedding, to Lichtenberg, though it no longer has much of a reliable address.
In the early mornings in Friedenau, old, hard delivery men, sometimes barefoot, push trundle carts carrying newspapers the size and quality of which still shame the rest of Europe, while the local bookstore, Der Zauberberg, exudes an air of almost pharmaceutical seriousness. Such vital signs might seem like evidence that literary culture in Germany, if not in rude health, still holds its own. Not so. Here is an unspoken scandal: the most economically important country on the continent suffers from both a lack of literary ambition and exposure. Everybody knows the inheritors of the language of Kafka, Brecht and Mann are less widely read today than they have been in decades. One of the enduring mysteries about post-war German writing is why so much of its heavy lifting happened outside of Germany – in Austria, Switzerland, Romania. The last German writer to make a major international breakthrough was WG Sebald, who grew up twenty miles from the Austrian border, lived most of his life in England, and considered himself a student of Peter Handke.
The national reunification of Germany in 1990 did not do the same wonders for literature as it did for the art world. In the years that followed, writers began easing themselves into Anglo-American forms: the road novel, the well-researched historical novel (about primmer periods of the German past), the ‘state of the nation’ novel. Much was made at the time of the pursuit of the elusive Wenderoman – the ‘fall-of-the-wall’ novel – though its early masters, Monika Maron and Uwe Tellkamp, were, inconveniently, soon-to-be partisans of the New Right (something only now being countered by the appearance of Wenderomane by Lutz Seiler, Jenny Erpenbeck and Felix Stephan). The literary pioneers of the 1990s were interlopers with migration backgrounds, for whom the German language was not taken for granted. Few of these could keep pace with Emine Sevgi Özdamar, whose early books broke ground that has since been more routinely tilled. Reams of ‘memoir’-styled novels appear every year. They resemble magazine articles stretched to book length, as if only to satisfy the rules of literary marketing and get their authors on the trail of festivals and readings, which in Germany pay better than writing.
Cinema was the primary zone of avant-garde operations in post-war Germany. Led by the daemonic Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the fury of its finest production was fed not by the fact that the country was still fascist, but rather that it could be so smug about its economic miracle without so much as a glance backward at the ruins and carnage (see Owen Hatherley’s ‘Wild and Tattered Kingdom’, LRB, 29 June). Fassbinder and his fellow auteurs worshipped American popular art, but they were savage about the seepage of American power on the continent. Where Fassbinder was subtle – capturing in the cheap interiors, the plastic tablecloths, of his dramas the mimicry-ridden culture of post-war Germany – his contemporaries went for the jugular. Recall the plot of Werner Herzog’s Stroszek (1977), in which a West Berlin couple, Stroszek and Eva, viciously persecuted by a gang of pimps, resolve to move to Plainview, Wisconsin – the promised land – where farmers joust with shotguns on tractors, and Eva has sex with truckers to pay an impossible mortgage on their mobile home that, no sooner is it delivered on a flatbed truck, gets wheeled away by the same lanky affable young banker who sold it to them. ‘Nobody kicks you here. No, not physically,’ Stroszek reflects. ‘Here they do it spiritually . . . they do it ever so politely, and with a smile.’
As it was with cinema, so post-war German literature was most potent when it was oppositional, when its targets were the rottenness of the US-aligned Federal Republic in the West and the rottenness of the Soviet-aligned Democratic Republic in the East, when, in other words, it conceived of itself as an anti-colonial force. In East Germany, many of the leading writers – Uwe Johnson, Wolfgang Hilbig, Brigitte Reimann – still looked with tenderness at the ideals of their state, and took its perversions as one of their subjects. In West Germany, the most seismic art was made by those – Gerhard Richter, Jörg Immendorff, Alexander Kluge – who saw the US less as the liberator from the Nazis than as the enabler of the thousands of former Nazis still in power. The summit of West German literature was an interregnum in the late 1970s, between stringent high modernism and consumerist postmodernism. It was more self-consciously stylish than Heinrich Böll, more polished than the radical counterculture experiment of 1968, but also more intense, more serious, and not yet too ironic. The moment faded out in the early 1980s with Otto Waalkes’s first film and Modern Talking’s first Top 10 single.
The novelist Daniel Kehlmann once remarked that German literature originated in the parsonage, and has always been trying to get back there. Historically, it has been preoccupied by the trials of the individual conscience. Austria, by contrast, has the paradoxical status of being both peripheral (to German power) but also a former core (of the Hapsburg empire). With the memory of its imperial past and court culture, Austria has nourished irony, subterfuge, wordplay, and other elements of fictional artifice. Its leading post-war figures – Ingeborg Bachmann, Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, Marlen Haushofer, Friederike Mayröcker, Elfriede Jelinek – never felt themselves cut off from their modernist precursors (Kafka, Musil, Doderer, Broch) in the way Germans did. When Böll began publishing novels after the war, it was as if modernism had never happened. Austrian writers who came of age in the 1960s had the advantage of sharpening themselves against a more retrograde society than their peers in northern West Germany, where all was permitted. They still had enough tradition in themselves to hate it properly. You needed stronger legs to scale the steep walls of hidebound post-war Austria, where, as Bernhard noted in his autobiography, the ‘brainless scepter of Catholicism’ had swept the land, and where the new crucifixes on the walls barely covered the ‘conspicuous white patches’ where portraits of Hitler had hung.
But there may be another, deeper reason for the sheer Wucht and pressure of Austrian prose that you can feel right down to writers like Josef Winkler, and to the younger generation, from Mareike Fallwickl to Teresa Präauer. Put simply, Austrian culture is on closer terms with death, the great authority, the great editor and punctuator, that makes lives tellable. When Handke’s mother dies in A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (1972), the assembled mourners sip wine and look carefully at the corpse in the cold bedroom. When I passed through the small town of Engelhartszell in Upper Austria this summer, I found skeletons neatly displayed in glass cases along the pews of the local church, bedecked in Mardi Gras-style plastic jewelry. Across Europe, as Walter Benjamin observed, there was once scarcely an interior where no one had died. It took Ingeborg Bachmann, author of the Death Styles trilogy, to register the chill of first hearing the term Livingroom pop up in Austrian conversation.
Young writers in Germany today enter a literary system designed to keep them provincial. The country has a large enough internal market, enough funding, enough posts for Stadtschreiber and places in its two creative writing factories (in Hildesheim and Leipzig) to keep a sizable number of writers steadily afloat, turning out fellowship prose and countless worthy offerings. The European Union has become so naturalized in their minds that one has to look elsewhere – to Hjorth in Norway, to Houellebecq in France – for fiction that flies in the face of Brussels. With nothing like the Anglo critical press, novels sail through the culture without much engagement beyond wan stamps of approval in the books pages of the major dailies. Many of the most talented German writers burn themselves out writing 1,000-word articles for the feuilletons, or clickbait for digital outlets.
It would be tempting to say that much of the best German writing is untranslatable, that there’s no way, without a cumbersome footnote, to convey the piquancy of a writer like Rainald Goetz, who has his character Johann Holtrop go to the bathroom in a Barschelstimmung. But in fact we may be living in a golden age of German translators into English. The demandingness of its syntax, the sensitivty of its shades of meaning, the tolerance of ambiguity are what often makes German so capacious as a language, and come off with such splendor in the hands of an adept translator.
Yet just as a kind of inward satisfaction is a risk among the German writers who become too comfortable with domestic publishing, there’s an opposite risk for those who tailor themselves too much to Anglo-American appetites, or pare down their prose to make it more palatable in translation, another sleek product for the Weltmarkt.
Earlier this year the German state embarked on an unfortunate literary genre. It produced a National Security Strategy document modeled on the White House’s annual briefing about America’s security agenda. Amid standard-issue bullet points about building a stronger Europe, the paper read like a brochure advertising Berlin’s renewed loyalty to Washington. Only half a decade ago, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that Germany could no longer rely on its American partner. ‘We Europeans really have to take our fates in our own hands,’ she declared. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has put an end to such magical thinking: no major politician in the land outside of Sahra Wagenknecht speaks like that anymore.
The illusory autonomy of post-1990 German culture, as well as its opportunistic self-sufficiency, used to be reflected in Germany’s place in the world, where it got along well disciplining states in southern Europe, exporting cars to China, buying cheap Russian fuel, and conducting a global seminar on human rights. In April, Merkel’s successor, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, announced a Zeitenwende – a turning of the times – which meant Germany would no longer make any pretense about its own autonomy within the US-led alliance. Instead it would finally pay up its NATO obligation of 2 percent of the annual budget, and send heavy weaponry to Ukraine. For the German Social Democrats, who once took pride in their party’s robust relations with Moscow, this was a pointed reversal. Even if the amount of actual weaponry Germany sends is paltry compared to the US outlay, even if German rearmament is not terribly real, there is little doubt that the dreams of a European-led future have gone up in smoke. As Jürgen Habermas told Granta for this issue: ‘I no longer believe that the EU will play a globally influential role.’
But if the Russian invasion of Ukraine has ended some dreams, it has advanced others. For the German Greens, the sudden cut-off from Russian energy was a thrilling moment of asphyxiation: the chance to build a post-fossil future. For the first time, a major, wealthy Western public became not merely interested, but self-interested, in renewable energy schemes that would have seemed utopian just months before. The Greens, who found they looked dashing in military helmets, could now harness national security into their arguments. However briefly and hesitantly, the other parties in the ruling coalition – the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Liberals (FDP) – had to acknowledge that the Greens were the only ones with ideas about the future.
Robert Habeck, one of the leaders of the German Greens, defies the country’s moratorium on charisma. When I saw him speak in Berlin this summer, he was determined not to let the moment slip from the Greens’ grasp. Listening to Habeck – the author of a dissertation titled The Nature of Literature: On the Genre-Theoretical Foundation of Literary Aestheticity – was like watching an excited man about to leap from a cliff in a hang glider, only the lift to Habeck’s sails was the prospect of running Germany off renewable hydrogen. If the public failed to follow, the answer was not to meet the people where they were, but to build the new consciousness of where they could be.
As I moved among the Greens at the gathering, the younger Greens seemed more mundane. One giddy man was celebrating the party’s success in nearing a deal with a Silicon Valley firm that would rationalize rail-ticket buying across Europe, and save customers of Deutsche Bahn the arduous journey to the Deutsche Bahn website. It was hard to distinguish these Greens from their more avowedly pro-business FDP peers. But this was the needle that Habeck was threading: the effects of capitalism on the environment could only be counteracted by capital itself. How far one was from the Greens of yesteryear, who furiously knitted sweaters, decried the consumer society of the Cold War, and writhed on the floor at their founding party conference in 1982. The image of Joseph Beuys taking to the microphones, and the iron demands of Petra Kelly, whose stand against nuclear power included her sister’s chemotherapy, was distant history.
Whatever their electoral fortunes, the German Greens are today the vanguard party of Western elite consciousness. They are the party that Ivy League professors, Silicon Valley mavens, Wall Street progressives, and British liberals would vote for if they could. The irony that the Greens’ rejection of nuclear power was what made Germany so reliant on Russian fuel in the first place is not one on which they care to linger. In the Ukraine war, Germany, after some wavering, has begun to follow US instructions to the letter, and put its weight into the conflict, with no small thanks to the Greens’ efforts. But a reckoning may come should Washington pressure Germany to decouple from its fourth-largest export market, China. For that severing, the Greens will face tougher domestic opposition. As Covid subsided, the first foreign leader to visit Beijing was Olaf Scholz.
Germany’s contemporary political landscape has been marked most by the Greens, but the larger story may be the implosion of the SPD and the rightward shift of the Christian Democrats (CDU). Each of the three largest parties polls poorly with a public increasingly attracted to hard-right solutioneering. Each of them is a shell for a down-at-the-heel ideology. The CDU has displayed a newfound willingness to coordinate with the Alternative for Germany (AfD) for votes in regional parliaments, and to use the AfD’s hate-sowing tactics to garner electoral support. The party’s jet-setting leader, Friedrich Merz, is a BlackRock veteran, not a beer-swilling nativist in a Tracht jacket – he just plays one on television. The core of a conservative reaction is as hollow and unfelt as the SPD’s commitment to workers or the Greens’ to the environment.
In the post-Merkel Zeit, Germany is in a more precarious position. Having played by the rules of the US-led order, in which competition was the driving principle that gave Merkel grounds to pursue the cheapest energy her administration could secure, Germany has now entered a world where the rules of the game have changed. The country that tethered itself most tightly to the world market is poised to lose some of its reputation for stability, though how that will affect its culture is another question.
This issue of Granta collects writing headed full tilt in the opposite direction from the literary lassitude of the land. Leif Randt follows the consciousness of Merkel-era young professionals with a lunar-like stillness. Judith Hermann wanders outside the lines of Anglo autofiction, while Shida Bazyar inverts the story of migrant alienation. And Clemens Meyer inhabits the passion of youth in a story centered around a budding tourist trade in neo-Nazi memorials.
Lauren Oyler dwells in the projective space of generations of Anglos who have come to Germany with an idea of culture in their heads, only to realise that it had reached them like the light of a distant star that long ago collapsed. Michael Hofmann, in counterpoint, finds that the Germany to which he never wished to return to has, behind his back, accrued unforeseen virtues. Nell Zink illuminates the little-understood German notions of privacy that differ from dominant Anglo conceptions, and Ryan Ruby revisits the kernel of an alternative German future
Jan Wilm details last year’s attempted seizure of power by a Frankfurt real-estate developer, while Peter Richter tells the murder story behind Berlin’s urban-planning disaster. The perversion of Germany’s once-hallowed memory culture is the subject of Adrian Daub’s essay, which maps a new territory of forgetting. Our symposium discusses how the German project of reckoning with the past has lately become a bludgeon of the Right to stymie attempts to prevent the return of some of its ugliest features. In an impressive contortion of its Will to Virtue, the German state now believes it is obligated to circumscribe the identity and speech of its own Jewish population, while opportunistically recasting anti-migration policies as measures to combat anti-semitism.
Lutz Seiler and Durs Grünbein present eastern memories that the German body politic still has difficulty digesting. The issue also explores resources under the surface, as Fredric Jameson shows in his essay on the thwarted utopian impulses of East German painting.
When Granta magazine was re-founded in 1979, the editors wanted to go on the offensive against what they took to be the sedate state of the English novel, and the sterility that had befallen long-form journalism. Today the magazine faces different challenges. Nonfiction writing in the Anglosphere has rarely been healthier. There are newspapers, even British ones, that publish reportage, sometimes on the old Granta model, much more frequently than Granta itself does. What marks Granta out in this more-varied landscape is that the writing it publishes still aspires to the condition of literature. We believe there is a surfeit of moralism in contemporary journalism, and a shortage of accurate reconnaissance about the real political conditions of particular cities, regions, and countries.
And what about fiction? We remain committed to the tradition of realism. As long as people continue to hate reality, and do anything to defend themselves against it, realism will not have exhausted its possibilities. We believe great literature is political, but not in the sense that is commonly meant: literature is most enduring, not when it is most saturated with political ideals, but exactly when it is not, and because it is not, it is.
Bill Buford mostly got what he wanted when he dreamed of Amis and McEwan occupying the front tables at Waterstones. No one today is looking for the perfect synthesis of American and English writing, nor does the once-hailed global novel seem like much of a starter. But that does not mean Granta is not interested in making connections across space and time. Upcoming issues of the magazine will be devoted to the global extraction regime underpinning the Green ‘transition’, as well as special numbers on China and India. We are looking for writing that takes readers to the edge of contemporary consciousness, and which demonstrates maximal control. The reigning principle at Granta is that the prose must give pleasure. Pleasure is in command.
I thank Sigrid Rausing for her confidence.
Photograph courtesy of Muhammad Salah