Saturday, September 26, 2015

International literature

I am finally beginning to understand what Dieter Lamping is talking about. (See previous post on this subject.) Once, not so long ago, “German” literature was identified with certain writers — H. Böll, G. Grass, etc. — who not only wrote in German but also on German themes. But increasingly the “book market” is international, and Germans write novels that, even in translation, even with a German theme, e.g., Grass’s Crabgang, enjoy international repute. Another phenomenon is writers who write in German, but not on German themes. Their novels, although set in Germany or Switzerland or Austria, could be set anywhere. Peter Stamm seems to be doing well in this regard. Lamping mentions Peter Handke, whose novel Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht has a mixed cast and is set in various non-German locales, although I don’t how much international success Peter Handke enjoys, if one is talking about book sales. I don’t know a single American who reads Handke who doesn’t also know German.

According to Lamping it is this very internationality of literature is what comparative literature is all about these days. It no longer concerns itself solely with comparison: e.g., Racine vs. Shakespeare. It investigates literary forms, structures, subjects, and so on that may originate in one country but that travel. E.g., some German poets write haikus. Comp lit investigates not the national characteristics of literature, but the internationality of these characteristics. This reminds me a bit of Franco Moretti, who has done interesting work on such subjects as the detective genre, with maps, graphs, and trees.

Félicien Rops, Pornokratès (1878)
The 19th century would seem exemplary of the kind of process he is writing about. In fact, I am pretty sure that Moretti has concentrated on that century. Writers from one country after the other picked up on the subjects and forms of writers of other countries. For instance, drama. At the beginning of the century, dramatists still employed historical figures: Hebbel, Hugo; by the end they were all writing about bourgeois subjects. And then they were all subjecting the bourgeoisie to critical analysis, dissecting its hypocrisies and so on: Zola, Ibsen, Strindberg. So, I guess this would be “international” or at least a European movement. Decadence flourished in France, but had its adherents in Germany, Italy, and England. I would say that the novel is the international form par excellence. And its subject since its origins is about individual breaking free of the traditional bonds of society. So it re-creates in its form the break as well.

 This kind of literary commerce seems a function of trade in the modern period, as writers are more frequently and more quickly in contact with one another. There is an element of fashion about it, as one movement arises and then is succeeded by another. Boredom sets in, and, 100 years later, it is  hard to believe that the audience actually threw shoes at the stage during the premier of Afternoon of a Fawn.

Earlier literary commerce (one cannot avoid that word), however, was additive. The literary inheritance was passed down through the generations. There was a conscious process of absorption of a culturally privileged and traditional literary idiom. Literary works reflected the constructing of the present from the past, and suggested approval and identification.

International literature is competitive, like all products of the market. It does not build on what went before, but, by its nature, is dismissive of what went before. This dismissal is even its subject: “old” attitudes, “old” practices are constantly being scrutinized and found wanting. It is about process. Of course, every modern or contemporary writer hopes to be “lasting,” to leave a mark on literature, but he can’t expect to know in his own lifetime whether he has made such a mark. Modernity, as Lamping writes, puts tradition in question.

Picture credit: Matt Bromley

No comments: