Thursday, 13 November 2014

'Blumenberg' by Sibylle Lewitscharoff (Review)

Three years ago, during the first edition of German Literature Month, I was lucky enough to win a German-language copy of Eugen Ruge's In Zeiten abnehmender Licht (In Times of Fading Light), one of the German Book Prize longlisted titles kindly given away by Lizzy.  As it happened, Ruge took out the prize that year, but there was another of the shortlisted books which caught my eye, and this year I've finally got around to trying it.  It's a book about a philosopher, an elderly man who prefers to be alone with his thoughts - that is, until he acquires an unusual companion...

Sibylle Lewitscharoff's Blumenberg is a novel with a rather Kafkaesque beginning.  We're in the north-western German city of Münster in 1982, and philosopher Hans Blumenberg is working at his desk one evening.  Suddenly, he looks up from his work, only to see an unusual object lying on the floor of his study - a lion...

The unexpected visitor is placid, unmoved - as, strangely enough (after the initial surprise), is Blumenberg.  He begins to think about the creature's provenance, wondering how best to approach his guest:
"Mit einem Löwen zu konversieren, das hatte Blumenberg nicht geübt.  Bisher hatte es ja keine Gelegenheit gegeben, solches zu tun."
p.11 (Suhrkamp, 2013)

"Conversing with a lion wasn't something Blumenberg had ever practiced.  To this point the opportunity to do so hadn't really presented itself."
*** (my translation)
This is the start of a strange relationship, one in which the lion has a calming influence on the old man.

While the lion generally stays in Blumenberg's study, he does venture out occasionally.  On one excursion, he's seen by a sharp-eyed nun, the only person apart from Blumenberg to do so.  Shortly after his arrival, he ventures into Blumenberg's lecture, and while he isn't visible, four of the students sense something unusual in the room.  Like the philosopher, the reader is perplexed by the lion's presence - what on earth is going on?

Don't expect me to come up with many answers here: Blumenberg is a rather tricky book to work out.  It's based on the figure of a real-life philosopher, and it's a story that plays with the metaphor (or the reality?) of the lion to explore the themes the writer is interested in.  There's another similarity to Kafka here - this is a book with an obvious metaphor that defies unravelling...

An easier place to start is with the four students, the only ones in the crowded lecture hall who seem to sense the presence of the lion.  There's the nervy Isa, a beautiful middle-class girl with a crush on the elderly professor; her boyfriend Gerhard, a brilliant student with a troubled past; Richard, a lazy ladies' man with an urge to travel; and Hansi, handsome, unusual and obsessed with poetry.

The longer the story goes on, the more we learn about the four, and leaving Münster, we follow their fates after the near-encounter with the professor's mysterious companion.  It's perhaps no coincidence that they were able to sense the lion.  You see, the four are connected by their future more than their past - all are in for a tough time.

Blumenberg is a gentle, amusing book to begin with, and the reader will enjoy the bizarre appearance of the lion and Blumenberg's grumpy old man, very quick to accept the appearance of his new companion.  Lewitscharoff starts off with a gentle sarcastic tone, half mocking, half smiling at Blumenberg, and the other characters are introduced similarly.  Isa's intended gift of flowers to Blumenberg is one example of a humorous, farcical misadventure.

Gradually, however, the story becomes darker, allowing us to see a pattern emerging.  The past starts to intrude, specifically the Second World War, with the setting of the early eighties beginning to impose its weight on how the characters act and react to events.  Richard, for example, is shown to be running away from the burden of a German past, but his experiences overseas make him reconsider his beliefs:
"Die moralische Rigorismus seiner eigenen Generation, die verbockte Kampflust gegenüber den Eltern, eine Haltung, die wenig davon wissen wollte, wie es sich im einzelnen unter dem Faschismus gelebt hatte, wurde ihm allmählich suspekt." (p.162)

"The moralistic dogmatism of his own generation, the pigheaded confrontational attitude towards their parents, a position that didn't really want to know how individuals actually lived under fascism, gradually began to seem suspicious." ***
Perhaps the past isn't quite as black and white as he'd thought after all...

While the students are trying to find their way in the bleak Cold-War atmosphere, Blumenberg puts all his energies into his work.  However, with the arrival of the lion, he begins to reconsider his way of life, wondering whether his academic endeavours are merely a distraction:
"Für den Moment wußte er nicht, was er tun sollte.  Sein Produktionseifer, der enorme Fleiß, der ihn immer ausgezeichnet hatte, all das war ein Kampf gegen die Leere.  Ein Kampf, der nicht zu gewinnen war, wie er im geheimen wußte, ein Abwehrzauber, ähnlich dem Singen von Kindern im finsteren Walde." (pp.151/2)

"For the moment, he didn't know what to do.  His enthusiasm for work, the great industriousness which had always distinguished him, it was all a struggle against the void.  A struggle which couldn't be won, as he secretly knew, a kind of defensive charm similar to the songs children sing in the middle of a dark wood." ***
After a lifetime spent grappling with philosophical matters, the arrival of the mysterious lion might be the biggest conundrum of all.  It's not giving much away to say that the novel ends in a much darker manner than the one in which it began.

Blumenberg is a book which is both intriguing and puzzling, and it really takes a while to see where Lewitscharoff is going (I'm still not sure I got it completely).  More than with most of the books I've read for German Literature Month, there was a distinct culture gap here, with the writer assuming shared knowledge of Blumenberg himself and the prevalent mental state of Germany in the early 1980s.  I frequently had the feeling I was missing something hinted at between the lines.  In addition, the narrative was interrupted twice by the intrusion of the narrator, foreshadowing events from the characters' later lives.  It all makes for a confusing read.

Despite all this, it's certainly a very good book.  If I had to define the lion at all, I'd mix my metaphors and say that it's the elephant in the room, forcing the characters to think about something they'd rather just ignore (what exactly that might be is probably best left to other reviewers...).  In 2013, Lewitscharoff won the Georg-Büchner Prize, one of the most prestigious German-language career awards, and I can see why after reading Blumenberg.  I'm definitely keen to try another of her books - I just hope there are no lions next time ;)