How German Is It (Wie Deutsch ist es), Walter Abish’s PEN/Faulkner — winning 1980 novel, follows the writer Ulrich Hargenau as he returns to Germany after a failed love affair in Paris. Hargenau is connected, by name, both to a heroic martyr of the von Stauffenberg plot (his father) and a prominent, egotistical modernist architect (his brother). What Ulrich finds in the course of his return is both home and not-home, the eerily scrubbed and fabricated landscape of the postwar Miracle, an altered and barely recognizable Germany trying to suppress its Nazi past — though this past inevitably resurfaces in small chilling details such as the matchstick model of a detention camp being built by the former Hargenau family servant. The buildings of Ulrich’s brother also start getting bombed, a fact that may or may not be connected to Ulrich’s own betrayal of a Baader-Meinhof-like terrorist group. Abish’s fiercely intelligent and grimly funny novel is a meditation on the familiar and how the familiar can also be the horrific. Thus a young schoolteacher in the novel:
Anna Heller wrote in large block letters the word “familiar” on the blackboard, and then turned to face the class. What do we mean when we use that word, she asked. What is familiar?
I find myself asking this same question, sitting in my teenage bedroom near Minneapolis writing these notes, under a bookshelf that props such titles as The Germans, Germany at Its Best, The Tyranny of Greece Over Germany, and Meyers Grosses Handlexikon. In the bathroom down the hall, next to the toilet, stand beer steins bearing the city crests of Ingolstadt and Frankfurt-am-Main. Not to mention the midcentury paperback editions of The Arms of Krupp and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and Hitler: A Study in Tyranny that have loomed darkly over countless Lundgren family dinners.
My German problem undoubtedly stems from the fact that it was the language my parents used when they wanted to conceal something from me as a child. And the related fact that my parents’ pet names for each other were Putzer and Fräulein. Unfortunately, it is no exaggeration to say that I owe my very existence to the German language. My parents met in the winter of 1972 at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. My father was a failed chemist who had defaulted to a major in German after breaking too many beakers in the lab, and had gone on to pursue a master’s degree. My mother had majored in German as an undergraduate, and was studying library science in Illinois. Who knows how many schöns, what liebe dichs were uttered between them. After dating for a year, they got engaged in a practical, unpretty, German manner, and went to teach English for a year in Lower Saxony. They were married September 1, 1973.
“I won’t have any trouble remembering our anniversary,” my father told my mother, as they strolled along the Weser River. “You see, that was the day that Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.” This anecdote, in my mother’s telling, is a central tenet of our German lore. Familiar to me as the red spines of the Continuum German library, or the thin flimsy edges of the Reclam German literature series, which has been a part of my mental furniture as long as I can remember. I wouldn’t want to suggest that my parents’ homes, first in Minneapolis, then in an inner-ring suburb, were temples devoted to German culture and thought. My father has always been somewhat more liable to watch a Vikings game than to consult Wittgenstein’s Vienna or Goethe’s Image of Man and Society.
Still, my childhood, wie deutsch ist es?
My first visit to the German-speaking world occurred in the summer of 1978 when I was less than a year old. Though I have no memories of this visit, it is memorialized in photo albums where I appear as a spectral and gauzy presence. Perhaps, from the comfort of the backpack in which I was trundled, I am gathering subliminal impressions of Alpine peaks, medieval castles, smells of wurst, kraut, and beer, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik in my young ears, and the garblings of the German tongue itself — who is to say?
After my father set up an exchange program between his high school and a Gymnasium in Neuberg, Bavaria, in the early 1980s, the Germans came to us every other summer. We did not find it unusual to have a German in our house for weeks at a time, trailing the exotic scents of European hygiene products, eating muesli at the kitchen table in the mornings, liable at any moment to appear and prod us with polite and precise questions about the finer points of American language and culture.
They had names like Gerhardt and Klaus. The former, a compact and mustached man, must have had some darkness in him, judging from the force with which he hit ping-pong balls, stinging forehands I would chase as they leapt down the steep driveway of the old house in south Minneapolis. Klaus was a goateed scholar who spoke English more perfectly than any of us. There was another quiet woman named Andrea, her name pronounced with an ahh. But mostly I remember Horst. He was a stout, red-cheeked, exemplary German: polite, cultured, and an effusive fan of my mother’s cooking. Horst brought us beautiful leather sandals and Bayern München T-shirts that we donned incongruously around Lake Harriet in the summers. Horst seemed an ideal of serenity, always with a book under his arm. He was unfailingly curious about the minutiae of our Minnesotan reality, from the enmity between the Autobots and the Decepticons to Kirby Puckett’s on-base percentage (and how that was calculated). This is a salutary experience for any child, to restate your own life in terms that might make sense to a German.
“What else is familiar?” Abish’s schoolteacher continues. “Now the street below is, as I have already pointed out, familiar, but it is not the same street we saw yesterday or the street we will see tomorrow. It is always changing, only most of the time we pay no attention to the changes.”
Horst brought his twin daughters along to Minneapolis one summer. They were about the same age as my younger brother and I. One night, when the adults went out, the Lundgren brothers had to negotiate a pizza order and a movie selection with the two lovely blondes — a transaction for which we could not have been more unequipped. I was maybe 12 and all girls could have come from a foreign country. The exchange was deeply, inexplicably fraught. I have to thank the Germans for this chapter in my erotic education, and will confess to a certain nostalgic charge when I learned recently that one of these girls has grown up to join the German border police.
The language itself continues to elude me. I strongly relate to J.A.K. Gladney, the narrator of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, a Hitler scholar who “lives on the edge of a landscape of vast shame” because he embarrassingly does not know German, and must cram before he hosts a conference at which “actual Germans would be in attendance”:
I’d made several attempts to learn German, serious probes into origins, structures, roots. I sensed the deathly power of the language. I wanted to speak it well, use it as a charm, a protective device. The more I shrank from learning actual words, rules, and pronunciation, the more important it seemed that I go forward. What we are reluctant to touch often seems the very fabric of our salvation.
My study of German did not start auspiciously under Frau Wolf, a woman with enormous blue-framed glasses who always looked like she’d just come in from the rain, one of those charmingly inept people who only seem to find work in public high schools. I think of her now mainly as the victim of a memorable class prank, her chalk attached to a piece of fishing line that was strung through the ceiling tiles and jerked around the chalkboard to Frau Wolf’s confusion and dismay. Hilarious at the time, although I remember the episode now with more shame than schadenfreude.
“You have to prove yourself a man in full before the German language will give you the time of day,” Karl Kraus writes in “Heine and the Consequences,” one of the essays translated by Jonathan Franzen in The Kraus Project. “And that’s only the beginning of the trouble you’re in for.”
By the time I reached college, the ludicrous Frau Wolf was replaced by the tall, winsome, confident, and frankly hot Daniela. She strode across the front of the classroom, drilling us on grammar in a miniskirt, which she usually wore over dark tights. She brought to the teaching of German a potent blend of intellectual aplomb, physical allure, near-sadistic shortness/tightness of skirts, and European reserve. My German improved greatly under Daniela. When she called on you in class and you fell short, her face contorted into a cute wince, suggesting that you had caused her minor but real pain, and I’m sure I was not the only one to catalog this expression for later imaginary “tutorials.” As Roland Barthes argued in his great essay on striptease, the essence of the erotic is partly in concealment, and no doubt Daniela’s allure was heightened by the fact that she was mistress of a language that remained opaque, that was still a language that people could speak if they wanted to keep something secret from me.
In 1999 I traveled to Germany. During the last segment of a semester abroad, which I’d spent mostly in Ireland, I joined my father and a dozen or so of his high school students for a three-week tour of Bavaria with side trips to Salzburg and Prague. We visited the haunts of the great Ludwig II, his fairy-tale castle Neuschwanstein and the cave at Linderhof with its moat and stony throne where Ludwig could listen to Wagner arias as the singers floated past him. Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest in the Alps, where I heard the purest echo I have ever heard, the crystalline report of a boatman’s trumpet off the rocks. These were difficult times for me emotionally. On one of our excursions, the bus driver complimented my father’s German, saying he spoke it like a native. Of course, my father had spent a good part of his life mastering the language, whereas my own attention to German had been fickle at best, but I still choked down my envy of his accomplishment. At this point in my life (I was 21) I was absolutely terrified of appearing stupid, and if there’s one quality required to successfully learn a language, it was the ability to stumble and muck around and make fun of yourself; humility, in other words. My father had it in abundance and this made his students love him. When one of them told me “you could not be more unlike Herr [Lundgren],” I knew it was not a compliment. I had not made any attempts to endear myself to the spoiled private school kids, burying my head in Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (in English natürlich), so terrified of appearing stupid that I more or less avoided speaking any German at all, and the rumor spread that I was unfamiliar with the language.
I stayed for much of the trip with Horst, who spoke to me in English. He was kind to me as ever, taking me around Ingolstadt in the afternoons for Kuchen at the local bakeries, but his wife was in poor health, he was stressed, and at times irritable, especially around his father-in-law, who lived in a stuffy flat on the second floor. According to Horst, his father-in-law was a card-carrying Nazi, or at least believed that Hitler had had the right idea. Given that I was a guest in the home, it was more or less inevitable that the father-in-law and I would run into each other, as we did around the breakfast table on multiple occasions. The old Nazi favored yogurt. A schoolteacher like his son-in-law, the old man once started lecturing me in German on how thunderstorms started. His lecture was broadly illustrated with hand gestures and so elementary in its content that no language of any kind was really necessary to understand it, but Horst cut him off in annoyance: “Er kann nicht Deutsch!” he cried.
He does not speak German!
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s brooding four-hour masterpiece World on a Wire is perhaps his most American film. Remade in Hollywood as The Thirteenth Floor, its concept could easily have come from a sci-fi novel by Philip K. Dick or Ray Bradbury. Originally produced for West German television, World on a Wire chronicles the dizzying effects of a virtual reality device called the Simulacron on a group of chilly technocrats. Its former project leader goes insane. Another team member disappears, and weeks later, no one can remember anything about him. One by one, members of the company vanish into their own fabrication, while spectres from the virtual reality escape into the physical world, behaving just as ordinary citizens would (and donning the same wonderful outfits of broad-collared 1970s plaid blazers and corduroys). At the art-house cinema in St. Louis where I saw the film, along with a few dozen other diehards, the film was screened with an intermission, and there was a visible sense of disorientation as we stepped out for a mid-film smoke or stood in line for the weirdly gleaming urinals. Fassbinder’s film, without resorting to special effects or fancy narrative tricks, shifts between levels of reality and keeps the viewer off-balance, supplying a sublimely uncanny cinematic experience.
I was up to something similar when I created the Traumhaus, one of the fictional architect Klaus Bernhard’s strange creations in my first novel. The Traumhaus is an avant-garde assisted living home where residents competitively write memoirs in the hopes of gaining admission to the best rooms, all of which are named after suicidally depressed German writers. Thus the best room in the place is the Schreber Suite — named after Daniel Paul Schreber, author of the harrowing and charmingly kooky Memoirs of My Nervous Illness — but there are also coveted rooms named after Klaus Mann, Robert Walser, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. The Traumhaus (whose name of course plays on the German word for dream and also the English word for trauma) was for me a place of escape, much indebted to the sanitorium in Thomas Mann’s Zauberberg. When I contemplated giving up on the novel, which I did many times, it was thinking about the Traumhaus that restored my faith. Growing up in a bilingual family gave me access to this secondary world, this place that was other, uncanny, and glowed in the corners of my life like a strange dream. It gave me a portal to somewhere else: when I went through it and came back, I was almost the same, but different in some small and undefinable way. When we read writers in other languages, when we translate, we undergo a similar transformation. It’s utterly appropriate that one of the few books I managed to read in the original German was Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis).
As Abish’s schoolteacher says:
[W]e discover that the longer we stay in one place, the longer we sleep in unfamiliar beds, the longer we meet people from other countries, the more familiar it all becomes. How long can something remain unfamiliar? And, perhaps an even more important question is, does the unfamiliar activate and spark our curiosity and interest? Is it a call to us to explore and familiarize ourselves with the unknown?
Horst died last year. It had been surprising for me to learn that he suffered from depression and alcoholism — that he’d been drinking his first beer before he taught his first class in the mornings — that he was very much a part of the dark and tormented world described in Thomas Bernhard’s Correction, or Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina, or Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, that crushing little book. It was a familial heart defect that killed him, although he’d been spared the damage of an earlier stroke by the frantic barking of his beloved golden retriever Churchill, and got to spend a few more years walking his dog and strolling to bookstores, which had always been his favorite pastime with my father — he always snuck a book for Dad into his bag. Though I hadn’t seen Horst for over a decade, the news struck me hard, because he was the connection to that parallel world where he lived, into which my father disappeared, and from which, every other summer, Horst would emerge. His death was one of those events that signals that the garden of childhood is darkening.
And I’m not a child anymore, I guess, even if I’m still not man enough for the German language. When I received the advance for my novel, it felt like a moment of immense import, as if some subterranean part of myself had stepped out into the light. The check heated my pocket as I strolled down to the neighborhood bank branch. The teller was a pretty young woman with reddish-brown hair who began processing my check with wordless efficiency. I’d half-hoped for some cheerful small talk, some admiration for the largish check I was depositing from a literary agency, but then again that was probably frowned upon in bank teller trainings, and I did admire the seriousness with which she was going about her task.
“And vould you like any cash back?”
Chuckling to myself, I asked her where she was from originally.
“I’m from St. Louis,” she said. “Can’t you tell?” She set a couple of twenties on the counter. “Take I guess where I am from.”
I paused. I’d heard something that sounded a little Slavic in her accent. I guessed Austria.
“You are close,” she said with a slow, impish smile. “I am from Germany.”