In springtime the thoughts of young (and not-so-young) authors turn to literary festivals. The city squares and rural valleys of Europe – and especially the British Isles - burst forth with book launches, poetry slams and esoteric debates like radiant early summer flowers. I am just back from the Guardian Hay Festival, the inspirational annual book-lovers’-knees-up on the Welsh borders (among this year’s guest were Anne Michaels, Alain de Botton, Sting and Desmond Tutu). On Monday June 8th I’ll be speaking at the Ingeborg Drewitz Bibliotek in Berlin-Steglitz. Then on June 12th I’m in County Waterford in Ireland at the Lismore Festival of Travel Writing.
Festivals don’t only give authors the chance to get out of the house. Their primary importance – for me at least – is that they give us the chance to meet and talk with readers (without whom we wouldn’t be here of course). This interaction never fails to produce something unexpected, giving the old grey matter a sharp kick up the back cranium, and as a consequence promotes more dynamic thinking and writing.
Take my talk at Hay. I presented my prepared text on travel literature then – as is usual – invited questions from the audience. This is always my favourite part of an event as one never knows what to expect. At first there were a number of pleasant and predictable questions – where do your ideas come from? how do you prepare for a journey? what are you working on at the moment? But then a Welsh member of the audience asked, ‘Mr. MacLean, you are living in Berlin now so can you tell us why no German has yet written the great post-unification novel?’
Great historical events almost always generate at least one great work of literature. In Germany the First World War produced Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. The ‘Golden Twenties’ spawned Alfred Döblin’s Alexanderplatz and Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin. The Second World War’s literary legacy includes The Tin Drum, A Woman in Berlin and much of Heinrich Böll’s work (to name but a few). Christa Wolf captured the ambitious optimism – and then bitter reality – of the East German socialist dream. These authors are master storytellers, so who are their peers today?
Germany is proud of its contemporary, world-class authors. Few other writers make me laugh – and think – as much as Thomas Brussig. Uwe Tellkamp’s The Tower, winner of last year’s prestigious German Book Prize, is a monumental work on the collapse of communism. Julia Franck’s Blind Side of the Heart, also a German Book Prize winner and published this month in English, is a sweeping and deeply moving family saga (I’ll be interviewing Julia in this month’s artists’ profile). But none of these works – apart perhaps from Brussig's Wie es leuchtet, an important book that is crying out to be translated into English – is der Wendemeisterwerk (the post-unification masterpiece). Why?
Perhaps it’s a question of time? Years can pass before an author finds that balance of detachment and engagement so necessary for the realisation of a powerful work based on an historical event. Or perhaps it’s a question of perception? Often seminal, enduring works aren’t recognised as such until long after their publication. Maybe Ingo Schulze has already written the Great Reunification Novel and I’m too dim to have noticed? Or perhaps it’s simply not going to happen? Ivan Klima wrote that after 1989 eastern European authors traded ‘totalitarianism for total entertainment’. Let me be the first to admit that drinking a café latte on Ku’damm or watching the new Star Trek movie is a whole lot more pleasant than plumbing the depths of your - and your nation’s - soul while staring at a blank computer screen.
Meanwhile, back at Hay, I didn’t have an answer to the question. But if I hadn’t travelled to the festival, if I’d stayed in front of my MacBook in Wilmersdorf, or drinking that café latte, I would never have heard cri de coeur from the Welsh hills. Where o where is the great German post-unification novel? Answers on a postcard please…