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.

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