Ian Foster, Juliet Wigmore, eds. Neighbours and Strangers: Literary and Cultural Relations in Germany, Austria and Central Europe since 1989. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2004. v + 284 pp. $81.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-90-420-1891-4.
Reviewed by Kathrin Bower (Department of Modern Literatures and Cultures, University of Richmond)
Published on H-German (January, 2006)
Critical Incoherence or Cultural Analysis?
In this collection of fifteen papers inspired by a 2002 conference held in Salford, England, the reader will find wide variations on the broadly stated theme of neighbors and strangers in the European context. Pulling together the diversity of essays is the main problem with the volume and one that the editors have done little to alleviate in their haphazard introduction. While they allude to the unification of Germany as the impetus and point of departure for the anthology, they offer no coherent argument for the selection and sequence of the essays included in the book. The reader is left to find the links between the topics or question whether there is any guiding logic to the organization of the volume. In the absence of chapters and sectional divisions and with contributions ranging from assessments of Shakespeare to Tom Tykwer, this reader at least was more than a bit frustrated with the lack of critical coherence and apparent randomness of the collection. The mix of languages in the contributions--eleven are written in English, four are in German, while citations from German texts are without exception provided only in the original--is another factor that detracts from the book's potential appeal to a wider readership (although to be fair, there is a certain consistency in that each essay is preceded by a brief abstract in English). Therefore, I will state my position at the outset: this volume taken as a whole is of limited utility, but scholars may find the occasional essay of interest. I will endeavor to give an account of the contents of the collection below, providing connections between essays as I see them and highlighting those that I found most useful or stimulating for future scholarship.
The anthology begins, for no particular reason I could discern, with an essay by Brigid Haines on the myth of Bohemia's seacoast in literature from Shakespeare to Libusa Monikova. Haines's essay is meandering but not entirely without merit and her ideas on the role of the literary imagination in contesting cultural and national boundaries could be pursued further. The next essay shifts from fantasies of liberation projected onto Bohemia to a focus on ethnic conflict. But Julian Preece fails to establish a structure for his analysis of three novels by Edgar Hilsenrath, Günter Grass, and Hans-Ulrich Treichel, and aside from revealing his admiration for Hilsenrath's Jossel Wassermanns Heimkehr it is not clear what he aims to achieve. The third essay, by Mariana-Virginia Lazarescu, explores intercultural identity in the work of Hans Bergel, whose Romanian roots play a central role in his writing. From the excerpts included in the essay, Bergel is treading a fine line between ethnic description and ethnic stereotype, an issue that Lazarescu only mentions in passing on the last page of her essay. Ultimately, she uncritically praises Bergel for his socio-cultural examination of Rumänität ("Romanianism") and argues for the inclusion of his works in German curricula promoting intercultural understanding (p. 53). The German-Romanian mix serves as the transition to the next essay by David Rock on the poet and novelist Richard Wagner, whose identity as a writer may be overshadowed by his better-known spouse, Herta Müller. In contrast to Hans Bergel, Wagner does not romanticize his Romanian roots, but examines the difficulties confronting the ethnic German in and outside of Germany. Common to both, however, is the emphasis on culture over geography and the desire to cultivate a Central European identity. Moving from the ethnic German as insider/outsider to the immigrant/migrant in the German-speaking context, Dagmar Kost'alova discusses the work of her former classmate, the Slovakian writer Irena Brezna, who moved to Switzerland in 1968. While the ethnic German writers of the previous two essays seemed to find ways to meld their mixed backgrounds into a hybrid identity they could embrace, Brezna assumes the position of the nomad whose alienated gaze enables her to critically comment on both her native country and her place of residence without being at home in either (pp. 74-75).
The next five essays all have some connection to Austria and its ambivalent relationship to its checkered past. Anthony Bushell's analysis of Anna Mitgutsch's Haus der Kindheit and Juliet Wigmore's reading of Elisabeth Reichart's Nachtmär both examine the impact of Jewish returnees on Austrians' confrontation with and attitudes toward their Nazi past and emphasize Austria's failure to reflect critically on the continuing legacy of antisemitism and the country's complicity in the Holocaust. It is this inquiry into the confrontation with the past and the Holocaust that provides the connection to Arthur Williams's detailed study of W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz. Williams displays his intimate familiarity with Sebald's oeuvre in an analysis of the blurring of fact and fiction and the rich intertextuality evident in the novel. In light of the burgeoning scholarship on Sebald since his untimely death in 2001, this essay with its well-supported accounting of numerous allusions and intertextual references (from Jean Amery to Ludwig Wittgenstein to Stephen Hawking) in the author's last published book should be of interest to Sebald enthusiasts.
Shifting from a critical engagement with the representation of memory in literature, the next essay focuses on memory politics and the cultural agenda of the Austrian Freedom Party under Jörg Haider in the 1990s. Perhaps the transition between Williams's essay on Sebald and Anthony Murphy's on the Austrian Freedom Party can be read as a warning that without the intellectual breadth and depth espoused by Sebald, political expediency and cultural shallowness will be the order of the day. Murphy looks at three artists who were particularly vilified by Haider and his party: Hermann Nitsch, Elfriede Jelinek, and Claus Peymann. Based on these examples, Murphy attempts to distill the main components of the Freedom Party's cultural policy, which he distinguishes as an emphasis on German language, an aversion to modernism, an embrace of "family values," and a concept of popular art supported by supply and demand rather than government subsidy (pp. 149-152). Although Murphy briefly mentions the party's cultural spokesman, Peter Sichrovsky, he unfortunately does not make any reference to the peculiarity of Sichrovsky's position as a Jew whose parents had fled Nazi Austria in a right-wing political party with xenophobic and anti-Semitic tendencies or to Sichrovsky's earlier interest in interviewing the children of Nazi perpetrators which culminated in the book Schuldig geboren. Ian Foster's essay on Christoph Ransmayr is largely devoted to the author's treatment of Austrian political hypocrisy regarding the history of the Habsburg dynasty, the false nostalgia for a past that never existed, a failure to critically engage with Austria's role in the Nazi period, and the willful suppression of memory. Foster challenges the vehemence of Ransmayr's critique and questions whether commemorative practice in Austria is quite as cynical and hypocritical as Ransmayr seems to suggest.
One of the most stimulating essays in the collection is Nicole Immler's analysis of recent histories of collective and national memory in Germany and Austria, using Pierre Nora's theory of "sites of memory" as a basis. The contrast between the French construction of a collective memory and the image of the French nation in Nora's study and that presented in the German adaptation, Deutsche Erinnerungsorte, sheds light on the extreme differences in the historical development of national identities and how these are figured in the present. Immler maintains that the explosion of interest in national and collective memory since the 1990s has much to do with the increasing influence of the EU and the subsequent destabilization of national identity. She faults both Nora's history and the German version for their failure to offer a pluralistic approach to memory, something she credits the Austrians with having achieved in the series Orte des Gedächtnisses, a combination of annual conferences and book series that explores how memory and sites of memory are constructed. Whereas both the French and the German attempts to write a history of collective memory focus on national concerns, Immler argues that the Austrian approach embraces a European identity. Immler concludes with a nod to Benedict Anderson that efforts to write histories of collective memory must not only investigate the construction of these memories and memory sites, but also reflect on the idea of place and nation as invented unities (p. 190).
In view of the post-1989 focus of the collection, the editors' inclusion of Ricarda Schmidt's essay on Irmtraud Morgner's 1968 novel Hochzeit in Konstantinopel is inexplicable. Read on its own merits, Schmidt's analysis of the imbedded critique of GDR life and culture in Morgner's misunderstood novel demonstrates her keen insight as a literary scholar as well as her obvious delight in the text. More relevant to the historical context of the anthology is the following essay by Renate Rechtien on a post-unification novel by Irene Böhme, an East German writer who moved to the FRG in 1980. Rechtien criticizes the German press for its exaggerated praise of the novel, arguing that the kudos it received were motivated more by political than aesthetic criteria. The critique of the GDR in Böhme's Die Buchhändlerin plays all too easily into a conservative West German bias and a desire to shift the blame of Germany's past onto the East German totalitarian system (p. 234).
The final two essays in the volume are perhaps the most disappointing, largely because both attempt to cover too much material in insufficient detail and draw conclusions about their subjects based on insufficient evidence. Birgit Haas looks at selected plays from the 1980s and 1990s that deal with the rise of neo-Nazi violence and xenophobia in Germany. While the degree of brutality and violence as well as the clarity of the political critique in the dramas she mentions are striking, Haas offers little substantive analysis of the plays themselves and does not address how the plays were received by the public and the press or whether they are really representative of the period. Similarly lacking in critical reflection on how representative her examples are is Alexandra Ludewig's discussion of the Heimatfilm in Central European cinema. Ludewig makes generalizations about Eastern European cinematic treatments of Heimat based on two films and then launches into a jumbled discussion of German film, interspersing plot summaries with references to Freud, Nietzsche, Caspar David Friedrich and Kant (pp. 267-268). Her agenda seems to be as mixed as her references. On the one hand, she raises the specter of revisionism in filmic and literary depictions of the Baltic region (pp. 270-271); on the other she praises the re-visioning of Heimat and the shift in focus from the Alpine south to the Baltic north in works by young German filmmakers such as Andreas Kleinert, Andreas Dresen, and Tom Tykwer.
Given that the purported intent of Neighbours and Strangers is to probe the erosion of national and cultural boundaries in the aftermath of 1989 and explore the possibilities of a new European identity, a generous reviewer could attribute the disparate array of perspectives summarized above to chaos by design. I am not that generous.
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Kathrin Bower. Review of Foster, Ian; Wigmore, Juliet, eds., Neighbours and Strangers: Literary and Cultural Relations in Germany, Austria and Central Europe since 1989.
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