Literature and gentrification: Social critique as a surrogate for literature

For the protagonist of the novel, the greatest pain to be feared is that, as a mother of four living in precarious circumstances, she will soon no longer be a member of the Prenzlauer Berg clique of the Baugruppen milieu, as a result of her impending move to Ahrensfelde.

Read the text in German.

There is very little that causes people to reflect back on themselves as much as pain. Pain is complex and subjective, it is the body's message that something is wrong, and those who feel it usually want it to stop. Oddly enough, literature is always supposed to hurt, however: Ever since Franz Kafka's bon mot, it has been considered a seal of good quality when a book strikes us “like some misfortune that causes us considerable pain. (...) A book must be an axe with which to cut through the frozen seas in us”.

When the Berlin author Anke Stelling was awarded the Leipzig Book Fair Prize back in March for her seventh novel “Sheep in the dry” (Schäfchen im Trockenen), the jury explained its decision by describing her work as “a sharp-edged, harsh novel that seeks to cause pain and indeed must cause pain, that protests against the incessant desire to be soothed and calmed, that rips an opening in our so solid-appearing self-image, thereby freeing our minds so that we can hopefully think more clearly”.

In her novel Sheep in the Dry, Anke Stelling extracts political conclusions from her private world until it hurts. The fact that the author was awarded the Leipzig Book Fair Prize for her work was probably one of the reasons why not everyone liked it.

The literary critic Iris Radisch subsequently gave free rein to her indignation over what she held to be a Kafkaesque jury decision: A naive literary work is being commended here because it is so bold and socially committed”, she reproached in a review in Zeit (link in German). For jury chairman Jens Bisky, who praised the “sociological precision” of the book, she only had ridicule and scorn. He, in her words, is celebrating “vulgar sociology”.

This little drama surrounding this review is interesting in that it takes one right to the centre of the novel, namely to the obstacles against which a (female) writer in the first person tries to assert herself.

For the author Resi, the protagonist of the novel, the greatest anguish she fears is that the impending move to Ahrensfelde [a municipality at the city limits of Berlin] will mean that she, a mother of four living in precarious circumstances, will no longer be part of the Prenzlauer Berg clique of the Baugruppenmilieu [co-housing building groups].

 “First World Problems” you may say. Then shed some tears!

At the beginning of this precarious development, it would appear, was yet another injury, which Resi had inflicted on her circle of friends for no real apparent reason, through an article and a novel in which she publicly roasted her wealthy neo-bourgeois friends, born with a silver spoon in their mouths, who had moved from Swabia to Berlin. Whereupon she received an eviction notice from her Berlin flat in an old historical building, which was owned by one of her former friends. The traitor, who also comes from Swabia, albeit from more modest circumstances, is thusly punished.

This plot itself already suggests that other topics at a deeper level are being dredged up here, topics that go above and beyond mere winsome criticism of social realities. Because while we are busy musing over the latte-macchiato-mom bashing, Stelling forces her readers to at least partially identify with the ones taking the bashing, as Resi used to be one of them herself and engaged in the bashing herself.

This book is not a hatchet, but rather a multifunctional tool that saws, grinds, chops and mashes. Stelling tears away the rugs of clichés concerning origin and gender until the old floorboards become visible. There are gaps between them, where dust and dirt, old and new, accumulates.

Every paragraph a cliff

What language can do and how it can mangle and maul people: That is what it is all about, and that is what makes the novel unpredictable and exciting, constantly moving outside and beyond its descriptions of the milieu as it does. Almost every paragraph is like a cliff, almost every idiom uttered a semantic bomb that often goes off many pages—or generations—later.

The injuries and wounds, as it were, lie much farther back.

Like the case of the unruly Willi, one of her friends' sons, who ascends to the metaphor of free will simply because the author has the power to raise him: "Willi ain't at home!", Resi's grandfather once screeched as he swung a coat hanger at his daughter, Resi's mother, letting her know that "your will means nothing here".

Resi, who was not named after Saint Theresa, but rather Parrhesia, the courage to speak out freely, does not have the pluck to show the eviction letter to her husband, a free-lance artist (to top it all off!). Anyhow, various lies and self-deception characterise everyday life here all the same: Resi stuffs the packaging of the instant lunch full of flavour enhancers that she warms up at noon into the bottom of the rubbish bin because she does not want anyone to notice that she preaches the virtues of water, but drinks wine on the sly. Well well.

It is astonishing how the spot-on critic Radisch employs a deliberately elitist language to distance herself from the others, as if she herself were part of the derided and scorned Baugruppen: the narrator rejects any sophisticated literariness as inappropriate (presumably because it is also neo-bourgeois)”, modifying her tone to conform explicitly to the lowlands and depressions of the everyday madness of having to care for children between the demands of the working world and the imponderables and uncertainties of day-care (taz).

And isn't this book also really a sort of introspective navel-gazing in view of the really pressing political problems of our times, an accusation levied at the author even before the prize was awarded?

Stelling has responded to this claim in an essay: The navel-gazing accusation is a power tool designed to prevent subjectivity, suppress opinion and preserve hegemony. She is serious about the Willi who has been cooped up for generations and, decades later, despite all the promises of social participation and inclusion through education, is still beating his head against a brick wall: When I say ‘I’ and affirm something and assert myself on the basis of my example”,Stelling writes, then I do so in the face of opposition. And that is why what I am saying is about those obstacles.

The whole novel, this monologue of resistance, is directed at Bea, the teenage daughter of the narrator. Resi explains to her everything in terms of war and combat: she intends to arm” her with knowledge and stories and the insight that nothing is black and white”. Unlike her own parents, who raised her to believe that one can ascend if only one is industrious enough, Resi wants to burden” her children with the truth, make things difficult for them. “After all, armour and weaponry are heavy”.

Ever more Stelling exposes the supposedly purely cultural core of group-related resentment as material in nature. And transforms it into a narrative technique that treats what others say like building material as well. She is constantly confronted with the pat phrases it's your own fault and you should have known better. She even uses these phrases herself. And just when you, the reader, are thinking: Wow, this is all constructed very elegantly, Resi is already mocking you: “righty right, literature and the worlds we live in, we want everything to be properly built, preferably in the dimensions 90-60-90. Sitting in her pantry, which harks back to an age when people had personnel, she scribbles a note about one of her friends: He reads only real literature, that with “personnel”, people who are dying to be part of a story. Of course, this aims at a reception that is intent on action and figures and—just like in real life—is not really interested in knowing exactly how all these language constructs and vehicles are crafted, how manipulative they are, whom they benefit, whom they annoy or whose power they augment.

Stelling's novel engages in social criticism as literary criticism, which is why Radisch's invective against the author's alleged naïveté is puzzling. Because Stelling herself rolls up the heavy artillery more quickly than one can deploy the usual arsenal that readers have at their disposal when reading. She always manages to pull the parquet flooring of clear categories and opinions right out from under your feet. In this respect, her scenario of everything starting to get out of whack is an exercise in a form of pain that is most in tune with the times: It's okay, she writes laconically, adding: Many will feel the same way over the course of the next few years.”

Already back in Stelling's novel Bodentiefe Fenster [Floor-to-Ceiling Window] the protagonist fancied herself as a sort of “Kassandra of Prenzlauer Berg. Resi actually looks to the future: she sees herself winning a book prize quite similar to the one at the Leipzig Book Fair, endowed with 15,000 euros.

Stelling, who has meanwhile also been awarded the city of Bad Homburg's Friedrich Hölderlin Prize, remarked after the actual award ceremony that she was by no means reconciled, as becoming marginalised and humiliated and capitalism, patriarchy, paternalism—that's all there is”.

And she is remaining in Prenzlauer Berg for the time being. As if she were planning something like Herbert Achternbusch once put it: This place has ruined me, and I will stay until you notice it.

Anke Stelling: Schäfchen im Trockenen. Verbrecher, Berlin 2018, 272 p., € 22.

First published in the Journal of Social Democracy/Neue Gesellschaft Frankfurter Hefte, the article was translated from German by James Turner. For more information on the Journal of Social Democracy visit the designated website. 

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