— Ronald M. Schernikau
IN 1980, readers of German literature were introduced to a startling new voice through a slim volume, entitled Kleinstadtnovelle (The Small-Town Novella). Written in lowercase, it opened with its narrator waking up in bed:
i am afraid. am female, am male, double. feel my body departing from my body, see my white hands, my eyes in the mirror, i don’t want to be double who am I? want to be me, male, female, see only white. i am facing myself, want to reach myself, stretch my arms out towards myself where am i? i see, kiss, hug and intermingle. at some point lea appears, then reappears, and at last he is aware of her. b. senses: he’s lying in bed, it’s morning, his room is blurry, he tries to take it in, feels the movement of his head, doesn’t try to steer it. no hope for a good day today, fuckingettingup, fuckingschool, fuckinglife.
What follows is not a standard-issue torrent of teen angst, though it would become a best seller as one of West German literature’s first coming-out stories, catapulting its 18-year-old author, Ronald M. Schernikau, into the bookstores, feuilletons, and talk shows of German literary and cultural life. In the discussions of Kleinstadtnovelle in these public arenas, interest in the novel seemed to be driven primarily by its subject matter and by Schernikau’s own author-persona as a precocious Wunderkind who published his first book while still in high school. Yet it would be a mistake to align Kleinstadtnovelle with the effusive outpourings of emotion that had become fashionable in German literature under the sway of the “New Subjectivity” earlier in the decade, represented best by now-forgotten novels like Karin Struck’s Klassenliebe (Class Love). Even at an early age, Schernikau was aware of the literary traditions within which he wrote, and would repeatedly complain later in the decade that critics had ignored that his book was a perfect example of the novella form.
That no one took notice of the text’s adherence to formal norms is perhaps testament to Schernikau’s talent and craft, through which he created an earnest, seemingly offhand account of a brilliant young man growing up in a small town and realizing that his queerness and his communist politics will come to structure his life. The book was the first of Schernikau’s many attempts to lay out a gay politics that would open him to the world rather than fating him to a specific lot within it: an identity politics not constructed to elaborate and defend a single perspective, but one that sought to locate the self within a broader movement to transform society. While contemporary writers and thinkers like Mario Mieli and Guy Hocquenghem have been widely translated and discussed in English, Schernikau has remained absent from English-language conversations about queer desire and the question of how to imagine a way through identity politics toward universal liberation. Lucy Renner Jones’s translations of two sections of the book, its opening and a school trip in which b. admits his love to leif, are available respectively at No Man’s Land and Words Without Borders, and provide an exciting opportunity for English-language audiences to discover Schernikau’s work for the first time. This is also an exciting time for German readers of Schernikau, as February 2019 will see the publication of a new and much more affordable edition of his posthumously published magnum opus legende, making the work available for the first time in more than a decade.
Schernikau was born in Magdeburg, East Germany, in 1960. When he was six years old, his mother Ellen smuggled him across the border into the West so they could live with his father, the owner of a small stamp store, who had fled to a small town called Lehrte to escape prosecution for tax fraud. Upon arriving, they discovered that the father was a Nazi with a second family. Stranded, Ellen raised Ronald poor and single in the Bundesrepublik of the 1960s and 1970s.
These were transformative times. In response to escalating protests, the social democrat Willy Brandt was elected chancellor in 1969 promising to “risk more democracy”; his government thawed relations with the East and reformed the Nazi-era anti-sodomy laws under which more than 100,000 men were arrested after 1945 while simultaneously cracking down on domestic radicals. It was in this environment that the young Schernikau grew up, surrounded by rebellious teens too late for the earnestness of the ’60s. He describes these young nihilists in the opening pages of Kleinstadtnovelle: “someone […] whose ‘nuclear power? no thanks!’ badge is winking from his jacket,” subtly satirizing their substitution of radical fashion for radical politics. After all, “cdu [conservative]-party key rings can also hang on low-slung jeans.”
Kleinstadtnovelle attempts to build a transformative politics from the mad desire for connection born of being a lonely queer kid in a small town. The novella’s gay narrator delineates the ways in which social institutions reproduce restrictive gender roles: his overworked mother putting breakfast on the table, teachers reading women’s magazines during classes, horseplay in locker rooms where “wild combat rages” and “men are trained to beat up faggots and rape women […] where the systematic destruction of happiness takes place.” He falls for a boy his own age, leif, a “good” boy from a “good” home, and they engage in some light sex play. The secret gets out; school institutions get involved. These institutions, b. comes to realize, exist to perpetuate a grim-eyed, dull normalcy: a normalcy which awaits leif, a good boy from a good home. These reflections contribute to ongoing conversations about desire and politics that connect ideas from Schernikau’s contemporaries Mario Mieli and Guy Hocquenghem to recent critical debates by Andrea Long Chu, Anastasia Berg, and Amia Srinivasan. The word “embrace” returns like a talisman throughout the text. Embracing himself in the opening passage, b. longs for the embraces of lovers, of friends. Embrace without the expectation of its return could, the narrator believes, be the beginning of fighting back against systems in a way that overcomes teen nihilism and angst.
Hot on the wings of the success of Kleinstadtnovelle, Schernikau moved to West Berlin in 1980 to study and write. Although he wrote profusely, he was unable to find a publisher, and turned to left-wing journalism as a source of income. Even in journalistic settings, Schernikau’s writing was still unmistakably literary. Tasked with writing an article about the baking industry, for example, Schernikau delivered a piece entitled “The Bread-Roll’s Path into Socialism,” complete with a fairy-tale opening:
Once upon a time there was a young man who travelled to the most beautiful country in the world. He had heard so many so very beautiful things from this country that it seemed almost impossible to add anything new, or even anything worthy of a mention, to what he had already heard. But the young man was very determined to do so.
So as not to start with the hardest thing, and so as to be able to say everything about everything, the young man decides to write about bread rolls. In East Germany, it is thus: half of the rolls are made in state bakeries, the other half in private bakeries. The state ones taste like paper, and you can’t get the private ones. The theme, therefore: the bread-roll’s path into socialism.
His writing, as evidenced by this opening, combined radical openness and naïveté with a wicked wit. The most important word in East Germany, he wrote, was “...well… The distance seems strangely possible to overcome. What is not yet there, will be. An amazing attitude.” A respect for the boldness and sense of purpose fostered by the socialist project, and the dreams and desires of the East Germans he met, was combined with a gimlet-eyed understanding of the East’s shortcomings and bureaucratic ridiculousness.
His journalistic work also includes two early and significant pieces responding to HIV/AIDS. The first, “Keep Fucking!” (fickt weiter!), was a polemic in support of continued promiscuity, while the second, “The Personnel,” focused on the patients and medical professionals in a clinic for HIV and AIDS patients in a Munich hospital. Written at the height of the HIV/AIDS hysteria, Schernikau’s article provided a much-needed, sober portrayal of the broad range of people affected by the condition, the challenges that they faced, and of the doctors and nurses working with them at a time when many others in their profession refused to do so. These pieces and many of Schernikau’s other journalistic writings can be found in the anthology Königin im Dreck (Queen in the Filth), published in Germany in 2009.
Schernikau’s journalism points the way to a broader understanding of his poetics. Such is the case in the short essay “die wahrheit ist westlich” (“the truth is western”), perhaps the only article on East German literature to open with the question: “who was better, heiner müller or marilyn monroe?” In the article, Schernikau launches an attack on the idea that the critique of society’s ills constitutes the sole purpose of art, arguing that it should instead create change by identifying and preserving glimpses of utopia, fragments of the good life potentially accessible even within a bad and broken world. The literary preservation and intensification of this glimpse of utopia should then, Schernikau argues, give readers the hope, desire, and strength to go out, to take action, and to change the world for the better. In a polemical speech delivered at the final conference of East German authors in March 1990, just months before East Germany ceased to exist, Schernikau proclaimed that “the only thing that interests me in my work is: being able to praise something. I hate negation.” This was an odd stance in the 1980s, when German literature was dominated by virtuosos of negation such as Elfriede Jelinek, Heiner Müller, and Günter Grass. Viewed from the perspective of today, however, we can recognize Schernikau as a prescient forerunner of the debates around post-critical forms of reading and writing that are currently taking place within the humanities, particularly in the wake of Rita Felski’s incisive analysis of the drawbacks that have followed from the institutionalization of critique as the default mode of scholarship in literary and cultural studies over the last decades.
So Schön: From Berlin to Leipzig
One of the most important concepts for Schernikau in this regard is beauty (schönheit), not least in the book so beautiful (so schön), which he wrote in 1982, although it was not published as a stand-alone book for the first time until 2012. The book’s story is situated within the gay subculture to which b. takes flight at the end of Kleinstadtnovelle, focusing on the interweaving lives and loves of four young gay men living in West Berlin. Schernikau’s style is far more distinctive here than it had been in Kleinstadtnovelle, striking in its reduction of syntactical and lexical complexity and its frequent use of childlike, tautological repetitions. Taken together, these stylistic features help create an atmosphere of warmth, familiarity, enclosure, even gentleness. The narrative focuses on the minute details of the four protagonists’ relationships: the way two lovers speak in a crowded bar, the beautiful moment of hesitation one shows when drying himself after the shower, the vulnerability one shows in a post-coital embrace. Schernikau wishes to affirm these moments of care, beauty, and concern. But not everything in so schön is seen through rose-colored glasses. The protagonists’ loving relationships break down in the course of the book, and the personal lives of the members of the local branch of the Communist Party, in which two of the four protagonists are members, are shown to be dour and monotonous, weighed down by their work for the party. The tensions between the communists’ stated politics and gay men’s actual lived experiences also frequently weave their way into the narrative, often through remarks upon the way in which franz, a flamboyant femme singer and Schernikau’s alter ego in the text, sticks out like a sore thumb among the non-queer protestors at demonstrations. Schernikau is one of the few authors of this period to bring these milieus together in his writing, given that other politically engaged queer authors tended to be somewhat older and less embedded in the protest movements of the 1980s, and certainly less strongly linked with the Communist Party. His writing thus provides a useful and rare document of some of the tensions that existed across the left in this period.
The question of the personal and political significance of style is a complex one for Schernikau, who often dressed extravagantly, with long hair and plentiful eye makeup. In his work, one finds a tension between a critical perspective on style in its commodified mode as mere fashion, and a celebration of style and glamour as one possible form that the beautiful and utopian can take within the present. While franz clearly falls into the latter camp, many of the characters in the novel do not; we learn that one man now wears his jumper tucked into his trousers “because that’s just how one wears them now,” and learn that in the gay bar, “the people have style. the people don’t look at us. the people look past everything,” in a studied show of indifferent disengagement from the world around them.
In Leipzig, he set himself to the question of the discursive relationship between the East and West. His first book written there, the days in l. on the fact that east germany and west germany will never understand each other, least of all through their literature (die tage in l. darüber, dass die ddr und die brd sich niemals verständigen können, geschweige mittels ihrer literatur), is a genre-defying hybrid of autobiography, long-form essay, and aphorisms in which Schernikau uses his life experience in Berlin and Leipzig as the springboard from which to explore the way the two Germanies saw each other — and how they saw themselves. The book was published by the prestigious West German leftist publisher konkret, the first publication of one of Schernikau’s texts by a serious publisher since Kleinstadtnovelle; yet this success was bittersweet. Despite celebrating the East on the whole, the book contained too many criticisms of the state to make it past the censors, leaving Schernikau in the difficult position of having to accept that his love letter to East Germany could never be delivered to its addressee.
The other text which Schernikau worked on throughout this period was legende, a text of colossal proportions which, despite the word “novel” in its subtitle, defies any attempts at generic classification. He had begun work on it in 1984, and did not finish it until September 1991, only weeks before his death from AIDS-related illnesses. legende as we have it today consists of 10 parts. Five of these are legende proper; the other five, identified in the book as “inserts which can be removed and sent back to the author if they fail to please the reader,” are other works which Schernikau was unable to publish before his death, included in the book as a stopgap solution. The different parts of legende proper are united by a common set of figures and a common narrative strand, focusing on the inhabitants of the “The Island,” a fictionalized version of West Berlin which “sits like an egg yolk in the middle of the Land,” a cipher for East Germany. Existing alongside yet invisible to these inhabitants are the gods of the Island, “tete, fifi, kafau, and stino,” who had lived their mortal lives, respectively, as the queer author Klaus Mann, the left-wing terrorist Ulrike Meinhof, the lesbian actress Therese Giehse, and Max Reimann, the postwar leader of the West German Communist Party. In Schernikau’s fictional world, these historical figures earned their divine status by virtue of having acted in order to change the world, instead of simply accepting the world as it was. legende is a text of gargantuan proportions and daunting complexity. The text is written in biblical form, divided into books, chapters, and verses. In their most reduced modes, the verses consist of a combination of verbal triptychs such as the following: “author homo communist, faith love hope, childlike queeny self-assured” (in this instance, the German works far better than any possible English translation: schreiben schwulsein kommunistsein, glaube liebe hoffnung, kindlich tuntig selbstbewusst).
While these digressions and commentaries are an integral part of what makes legende so rich and rewarding, they certainly don’t make it an easy read, and might be seen by some as signs of the author’s self-indulgence on the part of the author. Schernikau seemed to have expected this reaction, addressing it in legende’s striking epigraph:
You must remind yourself with every self-indulgence that you find here that I was almost entirely unsuccessful for ten years when I wrote this. You must consider that I was forced to deliver my late work in my thirties. If you are reading this book, then I am famous, a stroke of art, but now! If you are reading this book, then I am already long dead. Hopefully! The times past! The joyful farewell! How funny and odd are those things which lift us above our toil.
At the moment he wrote those lines, Schernikau was sick and beaten down. In an interview conducted with Erika Runge the day after finishing the book, he wryly noted that “no one is waiting for the big novel of Ronald M. Schernikau.” Several years after his death, Schernikau’s self-deprecating judgment was proven wrong by a subscription campaign headed by intellectuals and politicians, including Elfriede Jelinek and Sahra Wagenknecht, seeking to finance the publication of his “big novel.” In 1999, legende appeared in a luxury edition affordable only to university libraries and collectors; luckily, as interest in Schernikau has grown over the last decade, the demand for these enthralling and entertaining reflections on communism, West and East German postwar culture, queerness, and aesthetic theory has increased. In February 2019, the Berlin-based independent publisher Verbrecher will be answering that demand with supply, in the form of a new, more affordable edition, the first part of their forthcoming series of his complete works.
The world has caught up with Schernikau’s ideas, it has begun to return his mad embraces; in the last 10 years, several of his works have been republished or published for the first time, a conference has been held on his work, and a play exploring his life and writing has been staged at Berlin’s prestigious Deutsches Theater. The surge of interest in Schernikau is almost certainly dependent on a number of external factors, such as the ongoing financial crisis and the accompanying return of materialist perspectives to the center of political discussions across the left. Maybe it honors Schernikau’s style to end with the boundless hope of his first narrator. At the end of Kleinstadtnovelle, b. has decided to move to Berlin. His future there is uncertain.
what’s feasible: not giving up on happiness, on the idea of love even in the stone age. as long people are being destroyed by their relationship with their work, with their neighbors, with themselves, gays won’t be any exception. i embraced leif, that was all. the world didn’t embrace me for it. i won’t let myself be knocked down by people who have their story, just like i have mine. i will try to love again and again. i will no longer try to escape the embraces. i live in the embraces, i want them. only when i no longer want to escape the embraces but instead want to change the world, only then will i be able to live and work.
The beginning of politics is the joyful embrace of the world, expecting nothing in return. The mad dance of gay subculture will not be sufficient, but it will be a start; a practice (like writing) of the unegotistical embrace of friends, of lovers, of comrades. b. stands on the platform with his small suitcase, heading toward an uncertain future. “subway. the address of the gay commune. subculture, dancing […] i embrace you all.”
Nicholas Courtman is a PhD candidate in German Studies at the University of Cambridge.
Ben Miller is a writer and researcher in Berlin, and a graduate student in global history at the Freie Universität.