Wie wird deutsche Literatur eigentlich im Ausland aufgenommen? CULTurMAG wirft einen ungewöhnlichen Blick auf aktuelle Neuerscheinungen. Lucy Renner Jones übersetzt (u.a.) deutsche Literatur ins Englische – und klopft für uns in unregelmäßigen Abständen Neuerscheinungen heimischer Autoren auf Ihre Aussichten auf dem englischsprachigen Markt ab. Heute: Silke Scheuermanns “Die Häuser der anderen”.
Failure and despair right where you’d least expect to find it
In 1953, American author John Cheever wrote the story The Enormous Radio, detailing how Jim and Irene, a New York couple in a 12-storey apartment house, buy a new radio. The couple, we find out, “differed from their friends, their classmates, and their neighbors only in an interest they shared in serious music (…) and they spent a great deal of time listening to the radio.”
So not only is their new possession a symbol of material wealth; it is also a symbol of intellectual pursuit. They are just not as common as the people next door. However, by virtue of faulty wiring, the radio accidently enables them to tune into their neighbours’ quarrels about money, their love spats, rough-housing, gossip and holiday anecdotes. Rather than finding this a hindrance, Irene becomes obsessed with eavesdropping and starts spending hours at a time listening to the goings-on next door and downstairs, even trying to decipher who said what as she stands next to them in the elevator, scrutinizing their faces for clues. The significance of these overheard personal conversations grows in the Irene’s mind: is her and Jim’s life reflected in these conversations? Her self-image is threatened and she turns to her husband for reassurance:
“Life is too terrible, too sordid and awful. But we’ve never been like that, have we darling? Have we? I mean, we’ve always been good and decent and loving to one another, haven’t we? And we have two children, two beautiful children. Our lives aren’t sordid, are they darling?” She flung her arms around his neck and drew her face down to hers. “We’re happy, aren’t we darling? We are happy, aren’t we?”
Jim, who has grown sick of his wife’s snooping, finally bursts out:
“Oh I’m sick!” he shouted. “I’m sick to death of your apprehensiveness. The radio can’t hear us. Nobody can hear us. And what if they can hear us? Who cares?” ’ (The Enormous Radio, John Cheever, Vintage International Edition, May 2000)
In 2012, Irene wouldn’t need to eavesdrop with her faultily wired radio: she could simply google her neighbours’ names, and find out intimate details about their lives. The internet has made our neighbours’ walls into the glass of a goldfish bowl. Scheuermann, in a talk after her reading at the LCB in Berlin, says she feels that nowadays, there are too many traps for us, too many ‘Like’ buttons, too much comparison of our lives with other people’s, too much pressure for self-improvement. Instead of accepting who we are and what we’ve got, we’ve been conditioned to dream of better times. But, she warns, quoting one of her characters, “Träume sind Fallen” (Dreams can trap you). Does she mean dreams, I wonder, or self-image?
There is no need for the Stasi anymore – we’ve got Facebook
In any case, this, says Scheuermann, is the starting point for where things have gone wrong. Her new novel, which is set in the milieu of wealthy West Germany, a rich suburb in Frankfurt am Main is titled “Die Häuser der anderen”, a conscious reference to the Stasi thriller film, “Das Leben der anderen”, and a wry nod to our compulsion to spy on others long after the regime the Stasi operated under has been dismantled. These days, Scheuermann laughs, there is no need for the Stasi. We publish our personal information on Facebook – our highs and lows, our triumphs and indiscretions, all of our own free will and in hope of a thumbs up.
All the people living in Kuhlmühlgraben, the street in which the novel is set, seem to live as if imprisoned by their own self-image. Nowhere is this made more clearly than with Gaby, a middle-aged cleaning woman with long blonde hair who jogs through the suburb hoping to be mistaken for a resident, and who stares, mesmerized, through the glass façade of Herr und Frau Taunstätt’s house – she, a star TV presenter, he, a star vet. By making meticulous mental notes on the arrangement of their furniture and accessories, she hopes somehow to absorb the aura of their wealth. From Gala magazine and the TV, she knows every detail of the life that goes on behind the façade, even certain words the couple regularly use:
…Ausdrücke wie “Dezenz”, die so gut zu ihrem eigenem Haus passten, in die Wiege gelegt worden, während Gaby sie sich mühsam aneignen müsste. Doch die Mühe lonhte sich; sie war inzwischen mit einer ganzen Menge ungewöhnlicher Vokabeln vertraut.
Her chance to leave her down-at-heel area and enter the house and the lives of these celebrities come when Frau Taunstätt becomes pregnant, and having also just adopted a 14-year-old, she suddenly needs a home help. Gaby is at hand, as quick as a flash, and even ropes her teenage daughter Britney into ensnaring the adopted Mark a little later. Gaby’s aim is to get her hands on the money.
The characters are human and likeable
Luisa and Christoph, the Taunstätt’s neighbours, have enough money, and are in many ways a typical West German couple – over-educated, childless, and dog owners. Their relocation to this exclusive street from the city centre marks their upward move in status. The furniture they have and the clothing they wear is painstakingly matched against their self-image criteria, and Luisa, although a low wage-earner as an art historian, feels entitled to keep tabs on the brands of furniture that end up in Christopher’s study rather than in hers. He, on the other hand, is sickened by her extravagance in clothing, mostly funded by his salary. Luisa’s love of the Old Masters borders on hero-worship while in real life, her eating disorder forces her to smuggle food from her husband’s plate in complicated, manipulative stages.
Their neighbour Herr Emmermann, (part of a gay couple with Herr Eisen, who together specialise in terrorising their tenants) risks the misanthropic basis of his relationship when he is softened by a crush on a young man and recasts himself as Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” protagonist. He dreams about ‘Tadzio’ and is forced into a humiliating episode when it is revealed that the affection is far from mutual.
Other figures wander into this street – Dorothee, Luisa and Christopher’s dog-sitter during their trip to Venice, and Anne, Luisa’s 8-year-old niece, who visits the couple during the summer holidays – each of them serving to highlight the Luisa’s unhealthy obsession with detail and Christopher’s lack of wherewithal to change anything.
But Scheuermann’s characters are by all means human and likeable, not simply target practice for the ills of society. Nor does she entrap the reader in a claustrophobic perspective. We literally ‘see’ Luisa when she visits Dorothee, and we hear the machinations of Christopher’s mind, which are a welcome balance from Luisa’s, and firmly place the responsibility for the couple’s problems on both their shoulders. There is no blame, no easy solution, and certainly no feeling that money can solve all problems, nor that is it the source of all of them either.
It bodes well for an English-speaking audience
The great strength of this novel, which is really a loose-knit collection of short stories, is that the writer manages to get you to care about her characters, subtly revealing their life crises as voices off in the following stories. The pages turn quickly. I forgot I was reading German, which doesn’t happen very often, and found the prose very fluid.
This bodes well for an English-speaking audience. Despite the geographical specificness of the novel’s setting, I found that the setting could equally have been the suburbs of Oxfordshire, New Hampshire, or even Sydney. It shows that human failure is international, no matter how pretty the interior of your house. American short story writing in the mould of Cheever, Richard Yates and Raymond Carver has a tradition of contrasting the American dream with the ridiculous impossibility of achieving it, and then showing the subsequent fall-out: suicide, alcoholism, destitution. This is not a tradition in German writing by any means. Suburbia is considered an unliterary setting and is rarely mentioned in books. Foreign cities are preferred. Thomas Pletzinger has been highly praised for “not feeling German at all” (Tim Parks). Would this have been possible if Pletzinger’s trio from “Funeral for a Dog” had had their ménage à trois in Hamburg? Possibly not. Perhaps what Tim Parks meant was that “Funeral” reads lightly. Not heavy. ‘Heavy’ being on a par with ‘German’.
The clarity of Scheuermann’s psychological portraits reflects that she is writing about what she knows. The figures are three-dimensional, believable. Luisa may be vain, but she’s not all bad. Christopher may be on the passive side, but he knows it and wants to change. The radicalism of his actions – he sells his wife’s entire distended wardrobe on Ebay – only reveals that he’s waited too long. There is no way he can dose his revenge, it all comes gushing out, as he knew it would. And when he returns from a business congress to find that Luisa played touché by selling the entire house’s furniture, the couple grab the chance to turn over a new leaf without being weighed down by their old materialism:
„Es – ist ganz schön leer”, sagte er, nicht gerade sehr pfiffig.
„Ja, leer”, echote sie.
Sie schwiegen und schwiegen, und er empfand einen so heftigen Widerwillen gegen sie, dass sich seine Laune urplötzlich wieder hob.
„Es ist gar nicht so schlecht, oder?”
„Wie meinst Du das?” Ihre Stimme zitterte, genau wie der Schatten, den sie auf die nackte Wand warf. Das machte ihn Mut.
„Naja, es sieht nach Neuanfang aus.”
Scheuermann, who laughs away any comparison with Cheever with a modest wave of her hand, has pulled off something difficult. She has made the reader care about people living in suburbia. And by doing so, she is striking out in her own territory, doing something quite un-German, creating a tension by showing failure and despair right in the place you’d least expect to find it. The ‘poet of suburbia’, John Cheever, would have surely approved.
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.
Silke Scheuermann: Die Häuser der anderen. Schöeffling + Co. 2012. Roman. 259 Seiten. 19.95 Euro. Foto Scheuermann: Jeworno für Wikimedia Commons.