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Deviation From The Norm, or The Realistic Fantast

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A look at the work of writer Urs Widmer
By Roman Bucheli, Literary Editor of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung

Urs Widmer, born in Basel in 1938 but for many years now an inhabitant of Zurich, is without doubt one of the most significant and versatile talents currently at work in the field of contemporary German-language literature as well as one of the most successful. His sales are invariably in the high five-figure bracket and, as for prizes, the Friedrich Hölderlin Prize awarded to him last year was merely the latest in a collection which already included the 2002 Grand Literature Prize of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts (Grosser Literaturpreis der Bayerischen Akademie der Schönen Künste, awarded to a writer for a lifetime’s work). Widmer studied German, French and history at the universities of Basel and Montpellier. After completing his PhD he worked briefly as an editor at Suhrkamp Verlag, but left the publishing house during the Lektoren-Aufstand (‘Editors’ Revolt’) of 1968.*
 
That was also the year in which his literary debut, Alois, was published. Since then he has created a body of work which is hard to beat for its technical versatility and thematic breadth. Widmer has also had success as a playwright, an essayist and a short story writer. To date he has only produced one published poem, but it would come as no surprise if, tucked away in a drawer, were some stabs at lengthier verse. He has also translated books from English and French, among them Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and dramatic works by Alexandre Dumas and Eugène Labiche.
 
Urs Widmer’s technical virtuosity is perhaps most evident in the books he published between the years 2000 and 2006 and which form a sort of informal trilogy. Der Geliebte meiner Mutter (‘My Mother’s Lover’) was the first to appear. It is a thinly veiled depiction of the unhappy love affair between Widmer’s mother and the musician and patron of the arts Paul Sacher. Both a quiet maternal requiem and a savage critique of the corrupting power of money, it manages to accentuate the potential pathos of suffering and grieving both by emphasising the sensual element and adding touches of burlesque. Following this novel four years later came Das Buch des Vaters (‘My Father’s Book’). While in the mother’s book the figure of the father was almost ghost-like in its absence, here the father receives his narrative due. Now the mother is in the background, a figure seen to be suffering in silence; while, in stark contrast, the father takes centrestage, eccentric, obsessed with literature – when he dies, he leaves his son a notebook completed almost to its very last page. If in the mother’s book grieving is kept at bay by narrative ingenuity and linguistic wit, the life of the father, apparently richly imbued with humour, sensuousness and zest for life even in dire times, is peppered with gentle melancholy. This, too, is a book of farewell, and thus also a kind of requiem; and yet Widmer counterpoints his father’s own biography, a man less at home in the real world than in the imaginative worlds of writers, with a realism that occasionally drifts into the fantastic. In his Frankfurt lectures on poetics ** (Vom Leben, vom Tod und vom Übrigen auch dies und das, 2007), the author said that literature is always ambivalent and that in everything lies its opposite: ‘When literature concerns itself intensively with death, it is concerned in equal measure with life.’
 
This ambivalence of narrative that constantly casts its subject in a light tinged slightly with its converse is beautifully executed in both these books. Finally Urs Widmer undergoes a further transformation with the third book in this unofficial trilogy: in 2006 Ein Leben als Zwerg (‘Life as a Dwarf’) was published and, following on from the books of the mother and the father, this is a kind of autobiography. In it Widmer recounts his childhood and youth – albeit from the perspective of one of his toy dwarves made of hard rubber which he’d loved playing with as a boy. The ageing writer has kept one of these dwarves from his childhood; it stands aloft on a shelf in his study and tells his own story and the stories of the other dwarves who were lost over the years – and through this dwarf’s tale we learn a certain amount about the life of the writer as a child. Though this seemed to be a never-ending playsession with the dwarves, the book strikes the reader as a merry, but serious, memento mori: for what the dwarves speak of is nothing less than the irrevocable process of their material disintegration. They are at one and the same time the cheeriest and yet saddest actors in this spectacle of transience.
 
In his Frankfurt lectures Urs Widmer emphasised that literary writing is based upon a subtle shift, a deviation from the speaking norm. It is this difference that defines the work of art, but it also gives rise to the critical awareness that makes us question the world and the effectiveness of its institutions. Particularly in his plays, Urs Widmer poses insistent critical questions of the time. In the play Frölicher – ein Fest (premiered in 1991) Widmer discusses the role of Switzerland in the Second World War through the figure of the controversial Swiss envoy to Berlin who stubbornly stayed put to the bitter end, while in Top Dogs (premiered in 1996) he examines the relentless nature of an achievement-orientated society. Managers themselves made redundant try to feel their way into their new existence, but not one of them succeeds in returning to ‘normal’ life. What they dealt out as bosses to their employees in spades is now happening to them. Just a moment before still top of their game, they’ve now fallen victim to their own criterion of success. With razor-sharp analysis Widmer explores in this play the inhumane ideology of maximising profit and efficiency.
 
Yes, a moralist certainly lurks in Urs Widmer, but a moralist with humour and linguistic wit who recognises the human comedy implicit in tragedy and knows the melancholy of cheerfulness.
 
 
Translated by Rebecca Morrison
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* A group of editors and authors approached the then publisher Siegfried Unseld asking to be more involved in the decision-making and running of the house, following a ‘model of participation’; when he refused they left, some setting up their own publishing house, Verlag der Autoren – Urs Widmer was one.
 
** This renowned series of lectures began in 1959/60 with Ingeborg Bachmann, who was followed by names such as Böll, Enzensberger, Christa Wolf, Dürrenmatt, Muschg, Grass and Jandl. They are held in Lecture Hall VI at the University of Frankfurt – where Adorno once taught and the tumultuous events of 1968 took place.
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