I am well aware that to disconnect from university, or cruel news about Ukraine, it is better to read books that have nothing to do with your studies. Yet, over the holidays, I found myself down the rabbit hole of finishing the books by Maxim Biller that I hadn’t read for my German Jewish Literature module. His stories fascinate me. Wenn ich einmal reich und tot bin (“Someday when I’m rich and dead: stories”) and his novel Esra are probably the ones that impressed me the most. Prior to Hilary’s tenure, I only knew of Biller from a widely followed legal dispute over that latest novel. I also saw him in person as a poetry teacher in Heidelberg. I knew he was a German writer, columnist for the big newspaper Die Zeitand a highly contested figure as he never holds back his opinions.
Now I can say that I’ve read most of his novels and short stories, listened to an eight-hour interview on a podcast, and consumed many of his pointed newspaper columns. Closing the last page of Bernsteintage (“Amber Days”) and opening the newspaper, I came across a new article by Biller. The title (in translation) was “It was all for nothing. Why I don’t want to be a writer anymore. After initially thinking it was just another one of his provocative statements, I realized he was serious this time.
While I was devouring Maxim Biller’s books, Russia had simultaneously unleashed a war against Ukraine. About a month of deadly attacks on people, their homes, and their past lives lies between the start of this war and Biller’s proclamation that he wanted to quit being a writer. This leaves us with the existential question of whether and how one should be an author in this time of war.
I’m not talking about Ukrainian authors who are and will be willing to write about their immediate experiences, but authors like Biller who live in another European country. There seem to be two fairly drastic responses: protest or resign. While many famous writers, such as Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie, publicly defend Ukraine and condemn the Russian invasion, Biller takes another path. He announces the end of his career as an author, no doubt by putting himself in the spotlight. This career, while definitely considered controversial, is quite significant. Winner of numerous awards, Biller has been an integral part of the German literary scene for more than 30 years. He is one of the greatest contemporary names, alongside authors such as Daniel Kehlmann or Christian Kracht.
It seems surprising that he proclaims to end his career so abruptly, especially because of a war that is not even taking place in his own country. To find answers that give meaning to Biller’s statement beyond claims of self-centeredness, Biller’s background must be considered. Being a Jew who emigrated from Prague to Germany at the age of ten, Biller belongs to the so-called second generation of German Jewish writers after 1945. He may not have been born when his people and his ancestors were ruthlessly killed in the Nazis. concentration and extinction camps, but these gaping wounds still accompany his life and his writing. He recently explained that in his stories he tries to translate post-war reality into fiction. However, in the face of the way people kill and denounce each other once again, these fictions become a cruel reality again. Something quite unthinkable is happening in real life.
Perhaps the difference between Jewish and non-Jewish writers becomes quite obvious in such a delicate question as the one Biller raises in retiring from writing fiction. If we wanted to zoom out a little more, we might ask ourselves, is there a point in time when producing art is inappropriate? Of course, what can be said is that art has always been something productive, even in the darkest times. However, I don’t want to go so far as to imply that Biller is addressing this existential question, but rather that he is giving a personal answer to the dilemma of whether he should continue writing. Lack of sympathy in wartime, when he values sympathy as one of an author’s most important traits, drives him to his decision.
Biller has always been a German writer who has emphasized his German-Jewish background, and so it seems reasonable that he speaks not just for himself, but for a larger group of German-Jewish authors. From the terrible history of the Jews in Germany, this literature has always been more receptive, more aware, more human. Who could have grasped the nature of the world in fewer words than Franz Kafka – a mere coincidence that he was born in Prague, like Biller. We’ll have to see if others react the same way and if Biller picks up a pen again at some point. For now, I’m glad I read his books because they give me a way to reflect on the reality of this war and the deepest questions of human nature itself.
Illustration credit: Ben Beechener.