Peter Kurzeck: Nothing will be lost

Andreas Maier introduces the extraordinary oeuvre of author Peter Kurzeck. Throughout the summer of 2010, Kurzeck publicly dictated his new novel Vorabend (‘The Evening Before’) at the Frankfurt Literature House. It is published this spring.

Peter Kurzeck’s life and works cannot be separated in the usual way. He writes books, records audiobooks without a script, and at his readings often improvises his narratives. He moves in his own storytelling sphere, and in that sphere he has found a language for the memory of how things were. It is not so much autobiography as the attempt to preserve the world and everything in it, by finding a language for it.
For over fifteen years Kurzeck has been working on a powerful cycle about the years 1983 and 1984 in Frankfurt: The Old Century.
The plot can be told in a few words. Sybille, the narrator’s partner, has just left him. Their four-year-old daughter Carina lives with her now. The narrator remembers the three years they all lived together: taking Carina to the nursery every morning, going to the flea market with her, the book he wrote during those years. He also remembers their visits to friends and how he would tell of his own childhood, and of the village of Stauffenberg, where he grew up. Sentence by sentence a whole world is revealed. The cycle of books gradually works its way deeper and deeper into the Frankfurt of the time, into its social poverty and the milieu where left-wing intellectualism met more extreme political resistance. It also works its way ever further into the past and tells a whole history of Germany since the War.
The cycle’s narrator was once, like Kurzeck himself, an alcoholic. For decades never sober, a few years before the narrative’s present he stopped drinking, and didn’t touch a drop after that. In the books he often comes across tramps at liquor kiosks. ‘You see yourself standing with them and drinking and swaying, the earth turning, and arguing drunkenly. Boozed-up, you can be right your whole life.’ To the narrator, time is now like the little bottles that people drink at the kiosks: there one minute, gone the next. But ‘nothing will be lost’. It is the same for the tramps who drag themselves along pavements, their trolleys loaded up with dozens of bags and yet somehow kept together. They too keep hold of themselves in the most miserable of situations. And the children in the nursery, where the afternoons are eternities, also rebel against time, as if they had the power over it which the narrator wishes he had: ‘We aren’t going to be picked up,’ they say to him once. ‘We’re staying here forever! You can stay with us here forever, too.’
The narrator’s little daughter has a very particular relationship to ‘things’ and ‘words’. They have a ritual, for example, for unpacking bags from a shopping trip: the narrator takes out individual things and puts them in his daughter’s hand. ‘Every thing on its own. As if it had just been created, or re-created each time. And its name, origin, classification and where it should go.’ Naming brings these things into the world. Naming creates them, new each time. As if they wouldn’t exist without the right word. The naming corresponds conspicuously with her father’s notes, jottings and – above all – his books, with which the narrator is always and ever ‘behindhand’. Because the world is always passing and even the shift workers from over thirty years ago, whom he saw return home every evening, have been crowding into his head for decades, ‘and now they won’t stop interrupting the book, trying to get into it’ – so that they don’t die. When the three of them are at home in the evening, the narrator starts to say out loud the sentences which he has noted down. He walks about and gestures with his hands as he does. ‘Before you start writing, you always have to recite everything. Like a song, like a prayer ... An incantation. Again and again and each time more true.’ That produces a distinct note of urgency. At one point the narrator says: ‘Little children like it when people speak rhythmically. They feel the musical notes. Almost as if the voice nudges and caresses and tickles them.’ That is just the effect that Kurzeck has on his readers.
You might hesitate to call the narrator in Kurzeck’s cycle a narrator, or a storyteller. What Kurzeck does has little to do with the usual telling of a narrative. His books are not an author speaking to his audience, but the ‘narrator’ in the book talking to his daughter. He tells stories as you do when you are with a child. As you do when time disappears around you and everything spoken becomes the present, as if it were there (‘you can almost touch it’).
It is the actual act of speaking which this prose is all about. It is the gentleness with which things are said, the unthreatening nature and peacefulness of it. This is why Kurzeck’s books cannot be read like other books. You cannot read in order to find something out. You cannot read for intellectual stimulation. Impatience blocks the reading of this prose, and is an obstacle to enchantment. Kurzeck’s language is certainly the best being written by an author in Germany today. It has a subjective form, through and through. It is a world of its own. And it all comes from someone who, as we learn in every sentence, is in a rush, and driven, and fearful – not the least reason why Kurzeck’s books are the absolute opposite of introspection. They come from a naked need to survive. They are an author working out his life, so that he does not lose it.
Translated by Stefan Tobler
A version of this article, ‘Nichts soll verloren gehen’, appeared in Die Zeit on 12 April 2007 and online
Peter Kurzeck was born in Tachau, Bohemia, in 1943. Today he lives mainly in Uzès, France. His titles are published by Stroemfeld / Roter Stern, Frankfurt, with paperback editions by Suhrkamp.
Andreas Maier 
was born in Bad Nauheim outside Frankfurt in 1967. He won the Ernst Willner Prize at the Ingeborg Bachmann Literary Competition in Austria in 2000 and received the Jürgen Ponto Foundation’s Literary Support Prize and the Aspekte Literary Prize for his first novel, Wäldchestag. Open Letter published his novel Klausen in English in 2010.