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Juli Zeh

Fighting the Tide

Author Juli Zeh Photo: David Finck
Dear Goethe-University of Frankfurt

Many thanks for your letter. It’s an honour to be offered your annual guest lectureship in literary poetics. Unfortunately I shall have to decline. In 2013 I will be fully occupied with the writing of several novels, plays, essays, scripts, e-mails, tax returns, diary entries and shopping lists. Consequently I won’t have time to prepare a lecture series on poetics.

Sincerely Juli Zeh


Writers who talk about their writing stop being writers and become readers of their work – writes Juli Zeh in Treideln (Schöffling, June 2013). The book, from which Zeh read aloud over the course of this year’s Frankfurt lectures, is composed of a series of letters and other communications, beginning with a note to Frankfurt University, turning down the invitation to lecture. Through letters and emails to academics – and to some curiously named friends and other correspondents, including Zeh’s publisher, the local council, journalists and the tax authorities – the book explains why writers should never be trusted to explain the process, or outcome, of writing.

I remember only too well those mornings in German grammar schools, the pupils flocked there by decree for me to be wheeled out in front of them, living proof that contemporary literature exists.

Writers, protests the writer of the letter, don’t have intentions. What does the writer want to tell us? Nothing! Writers can either write – or theorise about writing. A novel isn’t planned like an expedition. It starts with a situation, a feeling, a coincidence – or so the letter-writer says. And from situations, feelings or coincidences, the contours of a protagonist may emerge …

Early forties, living – where else? – in Berlin. Long-term lodger in the infinitely expandable transition phase between university and career. An expert in the art of refusing to grow into the world of wage-earners, family-founders and home-builders. A representative of extended puberty beyond the big 40. In short, the essence of a twenty-first-century urban man. Sneakers, stubble […] Wolfgang Treidel? Or Karl?

Clearly, as the letter-writers – variously, Juli Zeh, J.Z., Frau Zeh, Juliette – keep insisting, writers can’t be trusted to talk about their work. Ostensibly a series of anti-poetics lectures about the futility of writers explaining writing, Treideln is all about how writing happens, from the sudden birth of a forty-something protagonist to a long-standing preference, instilled by Balzac, Musil and Mann, for third-person narratives. Accompanying and illustrating these reflections on authorial intentions are extracts, or readings, from novels – Zeh’s debut, Eagles and Angels, which she rewrote halfway through from the perspective of its protagonist; Spieltrieb, a novel about the ‘great-grandchildren’ of the nihilists, recounted with metaphorical flourishes and narratorial interjections – a challenge to Zeh’s tutors at the creative writing institute in Leipzig who ruled that contemporary fiction should be personal in perspective and plain in style; then Dark Matter (for US readers, In Free Fall), a metaphysical detective story about God and quantum physics that nearly wasn’t written owing to an overly detailed plan; and The Method, a stage play that grew into a novel about a society in which health is the highest good.

Dear Herr Würmer
Welcome back to our correspondence course on Political Literature, which, in line with the learning outcomes of our last lesson, can now be renamed Creative Works By Political Individuals Who Happen to be Writers and Sometimes Write Texts That May Be Political But Aren’t Necessarily So.

Zeh, who holds a doctorate in international law, is known for speaking out on political matters, most recently in an open letter challenging Angela Merkel over Prism. Here the letter-writer notes that precisely because fiction is necessarily ambiguous, authors who happen to be political individuals will tend to choose other formats in which to present their political views – open letters, newspaper articles, televised statements and so forth. From which it should not be assumed that their fiction is also political or even that literary works by political individuals will always engage with political themes. Indeed, writers who happen to be political individuals may choose to write psychological thrillers about scubadiving – like Nullzeit, Zeh’s most recent novel.

No, I’m not a business. I’m not a registered trader. I don’t have a sideline in agriculture. Nor am I a political party, a paramilitary unit, or an allotment club. But I don’t see why – unlike these and various other organisations – I’m not entitled to apply for a second blue recycling bin. Sadly, experience tells me that I don’t have to be a multitude in order to pile up avalanche-towers of paper. I can do it on my own.

An excess of waste paper; disputes with the tax authorities over tax-deductible expenses for which there are no receipts; the difficulty of distinguishing between prevarication and needing more time. Treideln is all about the practice of writing and the practical problems of writing. The title comes from our protagonist, Karl Treidel, who dies at the end of the book – an inevitable consequence of a writer talking about writing, or so the anti-theoretical letter-writer says. ‘Treideln’, though, is also a German verb that describes laborious movement against the current. What is the writer trying to tell us? Evidently, readers can make of the metaphor what they will.

Juli Zeh’s fifth novel, Nullzeit, will be published in English in spring 2014 (Decompression, Harvill Secker/Random House UK). Other works available in English include Eagles and Angels (Granta Books), Dark Matter (Harvill Secker) and The Method (Vintage).

As of spring 2014, four of Juli Zeh’s titles will be available in English.

Sally-Ann Spencer Photo: private
Sally-Ann Spencer
is currently completing a PhD in German literature at the University of Victoria, Wellington, NZ.