Felicitas Hoppe

True Fiction

This year Germany’s most prestigious literary prize, the Georg Büchner, was awarded to Felicitas Hoppe. Svenja Frank introduces readers to the author’s ingenious works.

F. Hoppe’s latest novel, Hoppe
Literary critics writing about Felicitas Hoppe risk being made redundant by their own subject. The author’s latest novel, a biofiction boldly entitled Hoppe (S. Fischer Verlag, 2012), includes references and quotes from a secondary literature that she has simply made up: presumably out of frustration and impatience with what others have managed to say about her works so far. And a glance at her publisher’s website shows that she has even taken to interviewing herself.
But the award of the Büchner Prize to Hoppe proves that she does not live in a critical bubble. Conferred by the German Academy for Language and Poetry, it is ample proof that critics view this fascinating and challenging work as a unique voice in contemporary German literature. Indeed, Hoppe’s simple, rhythmic prose is stylish and accomplished, and in the wake of her early success she continues to enter ever-new literary and historical spaces. Felicitas Hoppe’s virtuoso language, her crossing of narrative boundaries, intertextual references and fairy-tale elements have earned her the label of postmodernism. Prematurely, as will be seen.
Paradiese, Übersee
The text that is perhaps most deserving of the ‘postmodern’ label is Paradiese, Übersee (‘Paradises, Overseas’, 2003). Its kaleidoscopic mirroring of characters and settings, circular plot and disregard for narrative boundaries create a lively giddiness that has scarcely been seen since the Romantics – E.T.A Hoffmann’s Prinzessin Brambilla particularly springs to mind. The Doppelgänger protagonist (a ‘real’ knight and a tourist guide in fake armour) pursues the fantastical animal Berbiolette, together with his Sancho Panzalike companion who constantly records their absurdly comical aventiure. These characters move so swiftly between different settings – from Luxemburg to Kolkata, for example – it is as if they are merely changing the set on a theatrical stage. At one point they even leap into the newspaper article that they are reading, only to put Christmas decorations on the article’s subject: a tiger in an Indian zoo.
Since her collection of character portraits, Verbrecher und Versager (‘Delinquents and Losers’, 2004), Hoppe has continued this superimposition of imagined characters and historical subjects. A long way from the stuff of popular historical novels, these supposedly historical texts call into question realistic accounts of history and use factual material as fuel for the poetic imagination. Whereas the character portraits bring history’s losers into the limelight, the campus novel Johanna (‘Joan’, 2006) takes as one of its principal subjects the life of Joan of Arc. The suggestion is that any academic investigation of the picture-puzzle Joan is doomed to fail, whereas the novelistic approach to her life arranges a sophisticated network of motifs alongside subtle references to Joan of Arc’s trial, and an abundance of further historical detail.
Iwein Löwenritter (‘Iwein, the Knight with the Lion’, 2008) differs from these highly complex and discontinuous narratives. Envisaged as a children’s book, this adaptation of Hartmann von Aue’s Arthurian romance Iwein shows that Felicitas Hoppe is also a storyteller in the most original sense, and thus faithful to the oral tradition of the Middle Ages. Despite her loyalty to the original, however, she maintains her own unpretentious tone, speeds up the plot and makes a highly inventive and surprising change to the narrative perspective. Hoppe writes with great empathy about friendship, pain and what happens when Iwein and Laudine swap hearts, yet never slips into sentimentality, so that it is hard to tell whether the greater pleasure is with the adult reader or the young listener.
Picknick der Friseure
Hoppe’s recent narratives continue this more linear structure, and she increasingly writes herself into the text, as displayed by the autobiographical elements in the story Der beste Platz der Welt (‘The Best Place in the World’, 2009). Nonetheless, she treats her own biography with the same disregard for fact as those of others – in her most recent novel, Hoppe, a fictional author called Felicitas Hoppe writes a biography of Felicitas Hoppe. The informed reader knows of course that the childhood in Canada and the promising career as an ice hockey player are utter nonsense. Felicitas Hoppe was really born in Hameln, northern Germany, in 1960, and later studied literature, theology, Italian and Russian in Hildesheim, Tübingen, Berlin, Rome and Oregon. She used the money earned from her breakthrough collection Picknick der Friseure (‘Hairdressers’ Picnic’, 1996) to tour the world in a container ship.
This blending of fact and fiction that culminates in her latest work does suggest superficial affinities to postmodern narrative, which explains why she has often been pigeon-holed as a postmodernist writer. The novels, however, resist and mock such categorisations. Felicitas Hoppe’s guiding principle of ‘truthful invention’ is more serious than the playful strands of postmodernism; and she understands unfulfilled wishes and dreams as part of reality, rather than in opposition to it. By seamlessly incorporating these imaginary worlds, Hoppe achieves a higher level of truth and possibly offers a more authentic representation of herself and other historical figures. She is thus perhaps more aptly positioned between the Romantic tradition of the poetisation of the world and the contemporary urge for the construction of meaning, while remaining aware of its fictionality.
From the early prose miniatures of Picknick der Friseure, in which characters beat each other up in comic-strip-style, children suddenly grow red hair, and customers fall off a balcony only to be tied up in parcels; through the nocturnal conversations with a ship’s poltergeist in the seafarer novel Pigafetta (‘Pigafetta’, 1999); to the sorrowful knights and the character portraits of Verbrecher und Versager, Hoppe succeeds in making her characters supremely likeable. This is surprising if one considers the complete absence of psychological realism and sentimentality in her writing. But it is probably their unflinching way of walking through life that makes her characters so appealing, a courage that turns these antiheroes into heroes after all.
Svenja Frank
teaches German language and literature at Oxford University. She started working on Felicitas Hoppe in 2008, when she wrote her Magister thesis on the author. Hoppe will be Writer in Residence at Oxford University in early December 2012.