Random Spottings of Avant-Garde German Literature of the 1950s

Post-war German literature never generated international household names except for Günter Grass and, later, W.G. Sebald. Anyone can recognize what it means for a character to read Sartre or Camus, but Johnson or Bachmann are likely to elicit only head-scratching. There’s something about German writing — its ‘interiority’, long sentences and paragraphs, tendency toward abstraction, and often quasi-mystical or fantastic elements — that makes it a bit of an acquired taste, although it’s one well worth acquiring.

That’s why name-checks of modern German writers tend to be rare. My favorite came from a very unexpected place: the ‘Parker’ novels, the best hard-boiled crime novels before James Ellroy. They were written by Donald E. Westlake under the pen name Richard Stark. Here is how Wikipedia describes Parker:

A ruthless career criminal, Parker has almost no traditional redeeming qualities, aside from efficiency and professionalism. Parker is callous, meticulous, and perfectly willing to commit murder if he deems it necessary. He does, however, live by one ethical principle: he will not double-cross another professional criminal with whom he is working, unless they try to double-cross him. Should that happen, Parker will unhesitatingly undertake to exact a thorough and brutal revenge.

So there I am, listening to one of Parker novels from the early 1960s. A peripheral female character has intellectual/beatnik tendencies, as evinced by the collection of avant-garde literature on her bookshelves, including books by Uwe Johnson.

Wait, what? A fictional early-60s beatnik living in a fictional town in the American West is reading Uwe Johnson in translation? Of course, it would have been über-beatnik if she were reading Johnson in German. (Or would it?) In any case, I checked, and yes, there were English translations of Johnson’s books available in the early 1960s.

And now, a second random upcropping of the German literary post-war avant-garde. This one is in an even stranger context: A book reviewer noticed the unusually large number of books with “horse latitudes” in the title, and decided to read every one of them. The result is worth reading, but what grabbed my attention was entry number 4:

4. The Egghead Republic: A Short Novel from the Horse Latitudes (1957), Arno Schmidt.

This is a deeply weird, out-of-print German experimental novel. It concerns itself with dividing walls, radiation, and juvenile sexual frolicking in about equal parts. A possibly unintended commentary on what was happening in Germany post-war, but also a deliberate commentary on punctuation. It’s sexist and racist and totally daffy and pretty wonderful.

Title Relevance: 4/5. The novel takes place aboard a jet-propelled island that can only safely inhabit the horse latitudes because the water is calm there. No actual horses are at risk.

Quote: “And upon renewed stroking and whispering: they snorted in exasperation (must also have been inhibited by their ridiculously thick gonads: half horse, half human: horse latitudes!)”

Describing Schmidt as “deeply weird” barely scratches the surface. I haven’t read this book either in German or in English, but it looks like I’ll be needing to soon.

“Jewish psychic Nazi leprechauns who enjoy S&M”

From a Facebook friend who doubtless wishes to remain nameless, this review of a 1966 ‘adult fantasy’ novel about … Nazi leprechauns. I give you The Little People. Grady Hendrix of Tor.com read this book so you don’t have to:

nazi leprechaunsChristopher … introduces us to the Gestapochauns: a gang of miniature people living in the castle and battling rats with their tiny bullwhips. He then clears the hurdle and jumps the shark all at once by letting us know that these are not just any Nazi leprechauns. These are Jewish psychic Nazi leprechauns who enjoy S&M, are covered with scars from pleasure/pain sessions with their creator, were trained as sex slaves for full-sized human men, and are actually stunted fetuses taken from Jewish concentration camp victims. And one of them is named Adolph.

Take a moment to wipe the sweat from your brow.

While all this information is being hosed into the reader’s eyes like a geyser of crazy, this book rockets from 0 to 60 on the Loony-meter and over-delivers on practically every front. From the moment the Gestapochauns play a mean practical joke on the old Irish washerwoman who works in the kitchen to the moment the lawyer/fiance realizes exactly what—my God!—the tiny Nazi Leprechaun named Greta is actually up to inside his pants, it’s one long, 50-page passage in which this book is firing on every cylinder, and then some cylinders that don’t even exist in our dimension.

German Words of the Week: Scheißen / Schießen

I’ve been neglecting this blog for a while, but one of my New Years’ resolutions is to revive the blog. Going to try to make it more regular.

Today’s German words of the week are probably familiar even to some of the non-German-Powered®. They are:

Scheißen (SHY-sin): to shit.

Schießen (SHE-sin): to shoot.

You can see the blunt Germanic roots of our Anglo-Saxon English. In German, you always pronounce ie or ‘ie’ according to which letter comes last. Weiner is VIGH-nehr. Wiener ist VEE-nur.

By the way, that ß is called, in German, the esszet. (ess-tzett) It looks like a stray bit of Thai. Foreigners love it almost as much as umlauts. The last reform of written German reduced the use of ß, which I found regrettable. Some people even want to ban it entirely. I say to them: you can have my ß when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

Where was I? Oh right the shoot/shit scheißen/schießen confusion potentialHere is a picture of a news brief from a Facebook feed called “Pearls of Local Journalism”, which collects gaffes from local news:


The translation:

No Medals for Ski-Hunters

Yesterday, the German men’s biathlon team failed during shitting. Today, the women are expected to make up for it. Page 19

It did require some tedious explanation, but it was worth it, no?