A novel in letters offers a lens on the reunification of Germany.
The essayist Joseph Epstein once wrote a piece addressed to people who thought they had a book in them. The gist of it was that they should try their best not to let it out. Among the people who might have benefited from this advice is East German citizen Enrico Türmer, the protagonist of Ingo Schulze’s massive new novel New Lives.
All his life Türmer has wanted nothing so much as to write a novel, to pour experience onto the page and make it ripple. “If writing was a blunder, then I was a blunder,” he believes.
But he never manages to create a shaped and formed work. The only writing he produces is a series of long letters about his agonies to his sister, friends, and love interests.
As it happens, all of Türmer’s letters are all composed in the first half of 1990, in the months between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of East and West Germany – a strange era, at once a kind of twilight and a dawn.
Despite his failure to write a novel, when Türmer re-reads these letters, he finds his literary aspirations renewed. Some of the descriptions and metaphors are “so close to perfect I was afraid I had pilfered them from Babel or Mailer.” He believes he now has the material for an epistolary novel in his hands, a work that will “essentially write itself.”
It is these letters, with their mixture of ambition and naiveté, that are presented to us in “New Lives” as collected and annotated by a skeptical but fastidious literary scholar named Ingo Schulze.
Among the things Schulze (who was born in Dresden in 1962) successfully captures in “New Lives” is the power of the phrase “the West” in the lives and memories of East Germans like Türmer.
To them it means bigger, brighter, better: a realm of marvellous goods and enviable freedoms.
On a trip across the wall, Türmer finds that “to my eyes even the snow had a Western look that morning.” Of his sister, he remarks, “Vera is not a beauty, but she didn’t have a GDR face. I can’t explain to you just what a GDR face is, but you recognized one at once.”
Türmer becomes a manager at a new newspaper, The Altenburg Weekly, and his letters often reprise, in something close to real time, the difficulties involved in setting it up. Among his colleagues is a garrulous but enigmatic nobleman, Clemens von Barrista, who is a fund of moneymaking schemes.
Ugly to look at but at ease in any situation, Barrista is “a logician and a philosopher,” a “poser of Socratic questions.” His notions, and the conviction with which he voices them, are reminiscent of Dr. Tamkin in Saul Bellow’s “Seize The Day,” or, more recently, the figure of Chuck Ramkissoon in Joseph O’Neill’s “Netherland.”
Barrista does not give to art the respect that Türmer accords it. Instead, he serves as the herald of changing values.
“Life’s experiences are not to be found in the theater nowadays, but in commerce, in the marketplace,” he insists (Türmer has just given up a job as a dramaturge). “The things we see daily are not only more exciting than Shakespeare, but also can no longer be grasped through Shakespeare.”
Schulze’s novel has some lovely moments, but readers may find it hard to warm to the unprepossessing figure of Türmer, who is not particularly appealing either as an individual or as a lens on a changing world. The narration is also bogged down by its massive sprawl.
Schulze’s translator John E. Woods, whose translations of the novels of Thomas Mann and Arno Schmidt have been highly acclaimed, renders the more lyrical registers of “New Lives” perfectly: “the inconsolability that is part of experiencing something all alone,” or “the premonition of a redeemed world in the midst of our own.”
But ultimately Schulze’s convoluted structure and knotty material – along with the narrator’s incurable navel-gazing and his references to obscure events – work against the success of “New Lives.”