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10 October, 2011  ▪  Yurko Prokhasko

Parting Prose

German Writer Judith Hermann about Birth of the Text and Death in Life

Success came to the famed German writer Judith Hermann as a surprise. Her first book was an unlikely hit which largely prompted Hermann to make a career in literature rather than journalism. In the 13 years since then, Hermann has produced only three books with little concern over maintaining popularity and high print runs. The writer spent several days in Kyiv on the invitation of Goethe Institut to give lectures there and also speak in the Ye bookstore. She shared her thoughts about writing slowly, the poetry of parting and yearning that begets literature with The Ukrainian Week.

U.W.: You started writing in a world that now appears different. How rapidly has it been changing for you? Were you able to capture a very special atmosphere and convey it in your first book? Is there something that remains of it?

If you mean the time when I started writing and the world changed, I start thinking about my job in a German-language newspaper in New York. It was in the early 1990s and I was a little over 20. I went there to work and live for six months. I felt strongly nostalgic and sent tons of letters to Berlin. They wrote me back. I handwrote on paper, put my letters in envelopes and stuck stamps on them. For a long time I didn’t have a permanent place and no mailbox of my own. Instead I had a PO box in a small Italian newspaper store in Manhattan in a room with 500 small mail boxes. I don't think that store is there anymore. Its owner, Masteleni, must have died a long time ago – he was a very old man back then. But memories of it persist even today when I think about what it means to “be alien” and to “yearn.” It means entering that dark small room, opening my mailbox and reaching in – you couldn't see from the outside if there was mail in it.

Today people write e-mails and, when it gets really hard, turn on Skype. There is no longer a certain feeling of separation and distance. But it sometimes seems that, generally speaking, distance contains a lot of material for poetry. The very feeling of nostalgia has a great potential for writing. So back then I had this yearning for home; then I returned to Berlin and started writing my first book about this city. So, it was set completely in Berlin.

This was not a conscious decision. I simply wrote about the place were I was born and where I have lived since then. But Berlin was the necessary background – the Berlin Wall had just fallen. Everything that it was incomplete tried to unite. In some ways, it had success, but sometimes it didn’t work. And these so-called gaps which showed in private things and in relationships between people were reflected in the city, too. They are now disappearing. But what is emerging instead is not only unideal and dubious but also unpoetic. It is a great and interesting city that has numerous levels. They still say that Berlin lives off its diversity. But something is missing. Something has been lost.

U.W.: As I read your works, I always have the feeling that you possess a special gift to see things from an estranged and surprised perspective. Do you have new estrangements that could be important to you?

Strangely, they take place closer and closer to me. I used to feel estranged and distanced – metaphorically – because of places, travels and trips abroad. There I felt my motherland and the distance, and then I would come back and it would disappear. Now I'm older and have my family which binds me to Berlin even more than other things. But my tendency to feel estrangement remains. I wouldn't say that I construct it, but I feel it also in my workdays and in personal life, i.e., in this small circle. I no longer have to make a huge circle – from Berlin to Reykjavik – in order to feel it. I can simply open it in my own room.

U.W.: Was it persistence? This is a feeling which gave rise to your first writings back in New York and later. This must have been a need, but was it also a compulsion? Did you feel you had to write or not?

I don't think so. In the six years I had between finishing school and writing my first book, which I did at 26, I intended to do certain things. Over time their number grew increasingly smaller until finally only writing remained. There was something akin to abstention in it. I wanted to tackle completely different things, but the only thing that remained was writing – something I gave no thought to initially. In fact, it was very romantic. I had nothing else. There was nothing else. Writing was my last attempt. I was looking for a place for myself. This was my last chance, and I was able to find it. I cannot say it was persistence. I have always wished to have compulsion. But I don't have it. Perhaps I'm not courageous enough for it. I am too reserved and, on top of that, very superstitious. If I also had persistence, it would probably be too much.

U.W.: How do you perceive it today: did you want to write, have to write and take up writing? How has your perception of this moment changed?

My first book, unlike all the rest, was a certain exclusive condition in which you don't know anything and are not afraid of anything. You simply write, just like you fall in love for the first time. You give it all you have and fear something but not the worst. The situation with the second book was different, to say nothing of the third. You always learn something and at the same time give something. I lost, gave away and exhausted all the manifestations, plots or situations contained in the third book, Alice. They no longer belong to me and I cannot use them anymore. So sometimes I have these fears: Did I have to give them away here, or should I have kept them for another book?

U.W.: On the one hand, this is a relief and a release, but on the other hand, do you fear that these things have left you forever? As if they are in your work, but no longer in you.

That's exactly right. I gave away something, but it is forever in a safe place, that is, in a book. But then, I have also lost it – a strange, paradoxical twist. You lose it, but at the same time you put it in good hands. Perhaps I should do the same in life. But it's hard. I'm starting my fourth book, and I begin from scratch as always. I already have a certain treasure chest of experience which I gained while writing the first three books. At the same time, I know little, even less than before. In other words, it’s always around zero, plus or minus, again and again. It's good, but I feel uncertain.

U.W.: Could it be the fear that nothing else worthy of becoming literature will come to you?

I don't think so. There are many things I feel I need to write down. Of course, thoughts sometimes come to my mind: What will happen when all of this suddenly stops? But they are about whether I will be able, rather than want, to commit these things to paper.

U.W.: Do you have the feeling that what is taking place in you now could at some point become a book?

My third book, Alice, raises this difficult topic. It is about death as parting rather than about existential parting as described in the first two books. However, this book is, after all, about life, rather than death, and about what it means to live while someone else is dying. After I finished writing it, it occurred to me that my first three books make a kind of trilogy – Summerhouse, Later; Nothing but Ghosts and Alice. There is a certain unity about them. The motif of parting and death is present in the first book, while in the third one it becomes the key topic. I have noticed that I always wrote about parting. What will happen next? Many things will happen next, of course, just like in life. When someone dies, your life and perceptions change but they do not end. The same goes for plots. The core of my three books lies in my own autobiographical environment, in the things I experience, see and hear and in how things are in my life. I was allowed to continue to live, but for a long time after that my life carried the imprint of the parting described in Alice. There will be a new book about this which I hope to be able to write.

U.W.: Have you started writing it?

Not yet, but I’m thinking a lot about it. This is the way it was with my other books: the time I spend thinking about them was much longer than the writing period itself. Guided by magical reasoning, I think as if in a fairytale: I need to insert the key at the right moment. If I miss it, the lock won’t open and I will not enter the text. It has worked until now. When I felt that it was time to begin, it was the right moment to insert the key and I would start writing. Now this key is in my hand but not yet in the lock.


Judith Hermann

Hermann was born in West Berlin on May 15, 1970. She studied German and philosophy, eventually hoping to become a journalist. She later dropped her studies and completed an internship with a New York-based newspaper. In 1997, she took a prose workshop in Berlin’s Literary Colloquium. That same year she was awarded a Berlin Academy of Arts stipend. Her collection of short stories entitled Summerhouse, Later (1998) became a bestseller.

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