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Feature: ‘Borders’

Gerhard Henschel
On Satire, Saxony and Sandpits

By Stuart Parkes

The events of 1989/1990 which culminated in German unification changed not just political boundaries but also the boundaries of public debate. It was not just the German Democratic Republic that came under scrutiny but also the Federal Republic. The writing of Gerhard Henschel is dominated by subjects relating to this pre-1990 Federal Republic.

One group that attracted particular attention was West Germany’s leftist writers and intellectuals, who were accused – amongst other things – of having acted as collaborators with the GDR. Henschel’s criticism of this group, in a 1994 polemic entitled Das Blöken der Lämmer (‘The Bleating of the Lambs’), is aimed especially at its discourse, much of which he condemns as kitsch. He mocks its impractical emotionalism and self-importance, not sparing such famous names as Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass. Henschel has also published two volumes aimed at the notorious tabloid Bildzeitung. His response to Bild’s practice of regularly publishing Bible editions was to publish his own Bild Bible, highlighting the newspaper’s pernicious and unholy practices. Relying on humour rather than sorrow or anger, Henschel belongs to an unsentimental generation of satirists, who have no time for the excesses of the German idealist- Romantic tradition. However, not all his subjects are serious. He has co-authored a book about reactions to England’s third goal in the 1966 World Cup Final – a question related to another kind of frontier, the goal line!

Henschel’s reputation as a polemicist was already established when he began writing novels, all of which are at the boundary of fact and fiction. The basis for his first novel Die Liebenden (‘The Loving Ones’, 2002) was 120 files of letters and documents which tell the story of his parents Richard and Ingeborg. After the war, Richard has to resettle in the West, where he makes his way as an engineer working for the armed forces. Ingeborg is a foreign language correspondent. Starting from nowhere they enjoy the prosperity of the ‘economic miracle’: a family car, holidays abroad and their own house. However, everything soon turns sour. The core elements of their life are shared by millions of Germans in the post-war era, and the novel questions what might be called the West German dream.

With the exception of Der dreizehnte Beatle (‘The thirteenth Beatle’, 2005), a fantasy in which a time traveller from the twenty-first century seeks to prevent the first meeting between John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Die Liebenden provides the foundation for all of Henschel’s later novels. They are written from the perspective of one of their children, Martin Schlosser, who is to be regarded as the author’s alter ego. These works are not traditional self-contained novels, but instead reflect Arno Schmidt’s belief that novels should resemble ‘strings of miniature pearls’. The pearls include meticulous attention to detail, with great care taken to reproduce the language of the time, and much humour. Readers of the appropriate generation are taken back into their own pasts but certain recurring themes are universal: strained relationships with parents and siblings and the difficulties of adolescence, not to mention the reminder they provide that people used to write personal letters. These qualities are what, over the years, have made many await the next in this sequence of novels.

Dr Stuart Parkes is emeritus professor of German Studies at the University of Sunderland. He has written extensively on post-1945 German literature and society, producing two books on writers and politics. He has co-edited numerous works on modern German literature, including volumes on the Gruppe 47 and Martin Walser, on whom he has written numerous essays. He now lives in France.

Gerhard Henschel Photo: Jochen Quast
Gerhard Henschel was born in 1962 in Hanover. He spent his childhood and adolescence in the Koblenz area and Meppen before going on to study German, philosophy and sociology in Bielefeld, Berlin and Cologne. As a member of the editorial team of the Frankfurt-based satirical magazine Titanic, he became associated with what has been dubbed the New Frankfurt School, not just because of geography but because it shares the same emphasis on cultural criticism as its predecessor. His prolific writing includes articles for numerous other satirical magazines as well as translations and the staging of literary events in Hamburg. With his reputation as a novelist fully established, he now lives as a freelance writer near Berlin. His achievements have been recognised by the award of the Hannelore Greve Prize in 2012 and the Nicolas Born Prize in 2013.

The Martin Schlosser Novels:
Published by Hofmann & Campe Verlag

Kindheitsroman (‘Childhood Novel’ 2004) takes Martin from the sandpit to his first love. He causes his strict parents frequent displeasure, not least by an act of shoplifting. The family’s unhappiness appears even more acute from the child’s perspective.
In Jugendroman (‘Youth Novel’ 2009), following the family’s move to Lower Saxony, Michael quickly detests his new home. His dreams of a glamorous attacking role in the local foot­ball team are thwarted when he is chosen to play in defence. At the height of 1970s West Ger­­man terrorism, he begins to take an interest in politics – wanting, among other things, to replace Königsberg by Kaliningrad in the name of a meatball dish.
In Liebesroman (‘Love Novel’ 2010) Martin’s interest in politics continues, with the political juxtaposed against the continuing horrors of family life. Despite the title, it is only at the very end of the novel that love arrives.
Abenteuerroman (‘Adventure Novel’ 2012) again finds Martin unhappy in the field of love. His ‘girl friend’ Heike prefers protracted discussions about their ‘relationship’ to sex. Adven­ture takes the form of demon­strating against nuclear power and travels to Amsterdam and Venice. In civilian service, Martin is assigned to a tyrannical para­plegic. Politics offers no respite. Nevertheless, he remains an avid reader searching for intellectual adventures.
Bildungsroman (‘Education novel’ 2014). We are now into the 1980s. Martin’s studies are less than inspiring, whilst happiness in love remains a distant prospect, until he meets Andrea. Still, there is always reading, especially Theodor Adorno, and the music of Bob Dylan. It is the age of communal living and muesli. Eventually, he decides to move to West Berlin, which turns out not to be much better. The novel confirms Henschel’s originality as a writer who proves that what might seem mundane can be the basis for high-quality literature with a broad appeal.