Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Biller’s Will

Maxim Biller does not sit before the expectant audience—he slouches and hooks his hands on his jeans, as though his plastic chair were a combination La-Z-Boy and barstool. This living-room posture contrasts strangely with the anxiousness written across his features as he waits for the audience to respond to his inquiry. It may seem like an act of ego-preening for one of Germany’s most-lauded authors to ask a room of university students why they like him, yet the recipient of multiple literary awards, hailed by the Suddeutsche Zeitung as the bringer of Jewish literature back to Germany, is rather skeptical of himself. He pauses in the middle of speech to pronounce a recent utterance “idiotic” or says of a story he reads aloud, “that didn’t sound very good to me.” This confidently-expressed self-deprecation smacks a bit of Woody Allen, an impression aided by his horn-rimmed glasses and slight stature, yet Biller isn’t interested in shtick.

He has ostensibly come to this white-walled classroom in Berlin’s Humboldt University to read from his upcoming book, but as the afternoon wears on, it becomes clear he is out to gain something himself. He wants to know what makes his works stand out in the German literary landscape as “Jewish” books, and whether they can simply be “German.” In the following discussion about what is “German,” Biller asserts that a country with a genocidal past that until recently “still used blood to decide who belongs…will never be a fully just society.” (He is referring to how German citizenship prior to 2000 was not guaranteed to those born on German soil without German parents.)

He also accuses the German language of being hindered by a preponderance of Prussian, bureaucratic terms, such that instead of replying to an invitation to dinner with “I don’t know,” someone might say, “I can’t definitively confirm that.” Jewishness brings a looser flavor to the language, he contends, although his latest stories sound less Jewish than simply straightforward-yet-lyrical, reminiscent of Hemingway without the self-conscious ascetism.

It’s a shame Biller hasn’t been published in English. Although the unnaturally frequent swooning women populating his literature also recall the babes who mysteriously fall for the wimpy protagonist in Allen’s films, Biller’s tales also have a meaty lesson to offer American readers. Ordinary people are blown about by fate, tossed aside by the whims of dictators, overwhelmed by “the people;” in short, in works like Land der Väter und Verräter [Land of Fathers and Traitors] Biller presents a world where political intervention wildly disrupts the notion of self-determination.

As Jeremy Rifkin among others has pointed out, Americans expect to be able to control their life, to take the bull by the horns and make their own fate. If they work hard enough, things should naturally, according to a God-given plan, fall into place. As his mother told him, “Jeremy, in America, you can do anything you choose to do and be anyone you choose to be, if you want to do it or be it badly enough.”[1] That is, while we see our political freedom as exceptional, we have also grown normatively accustomed to self-determination as a individual’s God-given birthright.

For subscribers to the man-is-master-of-his-own-destiny worldview, Biller’s tellings of shattered lives would provide a mournful, yet fascinating window on a sort of tragedy fairly foreign to American soil. Biller himself is a refugee who left Czechoslovakia in 1968 after the Soviets crushed the uprising there, fleeing to Germany and learning the language in which he now writes.

However, I ask Biller if his stories, with their tension between individual will and historical forces, are meant to illustrate that capitalism is a system of ultimately more control over one's own life, a natural rejoinder for an American recoiling at unhappy endings. Biller explains that every society has rules to which one must bend and that the individual will be very unhappy if s/he doesn’t conform to fit into what is expected. He then proclaims that the Bohemian non-conformists of any society are freer and happier than the obedient mass. But not to worry: this trite Euro-intellectual creed barely wiggles into his mournful work, leaving its fascinating study of fate untainted.

A recent New York Times article also addressed free will, or rather, tried to. Author Dennis Overbye examined the proposals of various scientists to conclude that some people believe we have free will, some don’t, but the smartest ones seem to believe the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Perhaps this middle ground, rather than his presumed “Jewishness,” is what makes Biller’s work so interesting. His characters may be pummeled about by history’s unfair evilness, but they cling tenaciously to the illusion of their own freedom, making audaciously strange choices about how to lead their lives as though responding in defiance to the unseen controlling forces. Biller, naturally, takes after them: his reading for the students may have been fate, and his views on Bohemians may be an inevitable part of his identity, but his hubris in deconstructing his listeners’ homeland and language was all his own.

[1] Jeremy Rifkin, The European Dream: How Europe’s Vision of the Future is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream (New York: Penguin, 2004), 12.


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