Wie wird deutschsprachige Literatur eigentlich im Ausland aufgenommen? CULTurMAG wirft einen ungewöhnlichen Blick auf aktuelle Neuerscheinungen. Lucy Renner Jones übersetzt (u.a.) deutschsprachige Literatur ins Englische – und klopft für uns in unregelmäßigen Abständen Neuerscheinungen interessanter Autoren auf Ihre Aussichten auf dem englischsprachigen Markt ab. Diesmal hat sie Astrid Rosenfelds Roman „Elsa ungeheuer“ gelesen.
– Spanning an arc from the 1960s in southern Germany to the 1980s art scene in Düsseldorf, Astrid Rosenfeld’s latest novel will have you in stitches of laughter, as you admire how effortlessly she writes.
Elsa ungeheuer is told from the perspective of a fat little boy called Karl Brauer (8), who lives in the Oberpfalz region with his handsome older brother, Lorenz. Karl and Lorenz live in the kind of village you might have seen on family holidays driving through southern Germany’s Oberpfalz in the early ‘70s – as I did – where the three people propped against the Imbiß table stopped to gaze as our Datsun Cherry chugged past, my sister and I peering through the rear windows, bare legs stuck with sweat to the plastic seats. We’d notice, as three heads turned in our direction, that one man had a huge goitre on his neck, the other’s teeth were mostly missing, and the woman’s clothes were shabby.
If our parents stopped to get a bottle of water in one of these villages, we might stand for a while in the shade of a shop awning and hear a man talking with an artificial voice (we’d find out later it’s called an electrolarnyx). We thought he was a robot. This was a world that existed long before the omnipresence of McDonalds and Starbucks. The social services or health systems had yet to be invented. And this is the kind of setting that Astrid Rosenfeld chooses for the first part of Elsa ungeheuer. Except she’s not passing through in a car, she’s very much an insider.
Karl and Lorenz’s mother has jumped out of the window on the first page. Because someone took away her green hat. She has a problematic relationship to horses whom she thinks are in conspiracy against the donkey. So the donkey gets its own flat on the ground floor of the house – and continues to live there even after Hannah has leapt to her death. Her loving husband doesn’t want to change too much after she’s gone, and the poor man spirals downwards in his grief during long bouts of heavy drinking. His seasonal work at the local factories keeps him away most of the day, so Karl and Lorenz (who would nowadays end up in a home) grow up under the influence of Frau Kratzler, their ancient housekeeper, and Herr Murmeltier, their permanent guest.
So wie in anderen Familien hässliche Kuckucksuhren von Generation zu Generation weitergegeben werden und niemand es wagt, das Erbstück trotz seiner Scheußlichkeit zu entsorgen, wurde bei uns Frau Kratzler durchgereicht.
Nobody knows when ‘the Kratzler’ arrived or where she came from, but she is the undisputed matron of the house, and shows a fierce kind of maternal love towards the two motherless brothers, chasing after Karl through the courtyard to try and comb his unruly hair. Herr Murmeltier has arrived two years before the story begins; a car crash at the junction in front of the Brauer’s house, which he interprets as an act of Providence, makes him decide to stay permanently in a room in the Brauer’s sort-of-bread-and-breakfast. His goodnight stories, (excerpts from his sexual exploits across the world) are very graphic without much Aufklärung:
-…Concettas riesiger Hintern. Was hat mir dieser Arsch für Vergnügen verbreitet (…) Regen prasselte sanft gegen die Fensterscheiben, und Concetta saß auf meinem Gesicht …
– Warum saß sie auf deinem Gesicht? wollte Lorenz wissen.
– Oh, das tun die Weiber gern (…)
– War sie nackt?“ hakte ich nach.
But these are the only bedtimes tales they’ve ever known and were sealed by their mother’s approval. The boys take in every word.
Into this scene comes Elsa (11). Her mother, Mathilde, a local legend, has broken the hearts of most of the village men, but now Mathilde has other plans with her new lover and so stops merely to park her daughter indefinitely with Elsa’s father and uncle. Karl’s heartstrings are entwined from first sight:
Ihr magerer Oberkörper steckte in einer viel zu großen, durchsichtigen Taftbluse. Nachtblau. Dort, wo ein Frauenbusen hingehörte, labberte ein leeres Bikini-Oberteil (…) ich hätte enttäuscht sein müssen. Aber mitnichten. In meinen Augen war Elsa vollkommen, und sollte sie jemals auf meinem Gesicht sitzen wollen, würde ich sie lassen.
Strange and moving things happen over the next few years between the three children, all of which would be spoilers if I wrote them down, and then the novel departs into the world of 1980s Düsseldorf art scene. Propelled for the first time out of the village by a visit to their mother’s grave in Holland, and having pleaded for Elsa to be allowed to come along, the boys’ story takes on a new line that is soon set in the world of big, money-making art. If you believed up to this point that you too were going to stay trapped in the Oberpfalz village, destined to look in on passing cars, you were wrong.
The perverse world of 1908s art seems a natural succession to what has gone before, and the boys’ familiarity with psychosis and sexual perversion forms an obvious link to how their lives in the art world pan out. Karl, ever straggling after his brother, gives up his ambitions to stay near him as Lorenz has decided to become an artist – and to create one single work of art over his lifetime. Lorenz’ looks, the main reason for his success, are manipulated by the cynical and embittered Irina Graham, and her cocaine-addicted assistant, Vera. The backdrop of opening nights and kinky sexual preferences are hilarious, told by Karl in the same naïve, non-judgemental tone as before: finding Vera sitting in a stone cold bath one night doing lines doesn’t surprise him in the least.
Rosenfeld manages to pull off again what she did in Adams Erbe: she neither makes light of, nor moralises about her characters. In Adams Erbe, the setting was the Warsaw ghetto, the least likely of places for humour yet the easiest location to fall into over-poignancy. But Rosenfeld managed to steer clear of this. In Elsa ungeheuer she’s not teaching any lessons about corruption in the art world, and none of her characters are mere plot-movers but have some kind of moral integrity, even with their pants around their ankles.
In Germany, where even fictional mothers are rarely allowed to be mad or negligent, this caused some consternation among critics looking for an authorial moral voice. One particular German review that I found perplexing stated that it was problematic to have a lead character who was weak. Another, bizarrely, complained that she felt she’d been a “little too well entertained.” and the serious subject matter it included had been treated “too lightly.”
Rosenfeld has a spot-on sense of timing, great humorous talent and I felt that the issues she touches on Elsa were by no means dealt with superficially. The ungeheuer in the title is there for a reason, and it shows Rosenfeld’s talent as a writer that she can make write about the everyday ungeheuer-ness of village life (which is still alive and kicking today) and still be entertaining. On the whole, though, Elsa ungeheuer has been met the same kind of enthusiasm by German critics that it would most certainly have if it were among the 3% of novels to be translated into English every year. Reading it is a bit like opening a can of air freshener. It does away with the stuffy illusion that literature has to be Serious to be Proper Literature.
Lucy Renner Jones
Lucy Renner Jones ist eine freiberufliche Autorin und Übersetzerin von Texten ins Englische, hauptsächlich aus den Bereichen Kunst, Fotografie, Film und Literatur. Zur Homepage.
Astrid Rosenfeld: Elsa ungeheuer. Diogenes Verlag 2013. Hardcover. 288 Seiten. 21,90 Euro. Ein Video-Interview mit Astrid Rosenfeld finden Sie hier.