“We all know German literature, it’s deep, boring and plotless”, these words of introduction greeted my first public reading in England. I was proud that my “Next World Novella“ had at long last made the breakthrough on the English book market, – and then this. But in a few sentences and in her utterly charming manner, my host deflected the attention from this common English appraisal of German literature back to me saying how “refreshingly Ungerman” I was. Only a brief relief, and she next described me as surprisingly funny and ironic “by German standards”, yet perhaps this was not meant as a compliment? The English regard themselves, as we are firmly convinced in Germany, as world champions of comedy and irony, so why should a witty German interest them?
And so the dye was cast, wherever I appeared since then, the cliché of being Ungerman obstinately clung to me. Be it the Guardian columnist, Nick Lezard, who openly pokes fun in his review of a book presentation at the German Embassy about all those involved and not involved, and counts me, I’m not sure why, as a “good egg“; or whether Susanna Nicklin, Director of Literature at the British Council, more discreetly remarks after five days at the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, “You have definitely made me think differently about contemporary German literature …“. It always boils down to the undoubtedly bad cliché of “the German”, and the relief when one German or another does not live up to it.
For a while, this can be flattering. But in the long run surely it is depressing to be understood and appreciated only as an exception to the rule. I am German, indeed, I like being German, and I think even that I am a fairly typical German. Admittedly, I hail from the younger generation, meaning I am no World War Two veteran, and let’s say it openly: not a Nazi, as this nearly extinct type of German is still implied by the English cliché, though not in so many words. It is as though history were not allowed to carry on without the time-tested stereotypes of the enemy being available as a source for comedians, hooligans and ‘Stuka’ or ‘U-boat’ film enthusiasts.
There is no question that people need clichés to find their bearings in an increasingly confusing world. Wherever I show my personal I.D., people express amazing and distorted views about Germany. But nowhere in the world – not in Mongolia, Burundi or Polynesia – do I come across such hair-raising old-fashioned clichés about us Germans as in England. In essence, they suggest something like this: (…)