Jonathan Franzen and The German Genius

The main goal of Berlin Logs is to capture the bravest points of view from those who proudly call themselves Berliners, mostly because we ourselves are not. We are strangers, entangled travellers, those who make this city so impure, so un-German, and, curiously enough, so comfy. On this line I wouldn't let go Purity, the newest novel of the loftiest Jonathan of modern literature, who, by the way, is not a seagull, though he is ever fond of birds, and, like an owl, can spot the softest heart beating under the thick snow of attitudes. He is not Jonathan Livingston, although he seems as much concerned with his own abilities, and his bibliography matches curiously well the seagull's stages of self-improvement: Strong Motion – How to Be Alone – The Corrections – Farther Away – Freedom – Purity.

Neither is he the firework of talent embodied by the author of Everything is Illuminated—that would be Jonathan Safran Foer, whereas the author of whom I speak is Jonathan Franzen. But with a nod to the previous Jonathans Livingston and Safran Foer, what this Jonathan is most keen of is when everything is illuminated. His eagle's eye exposes thought and doubt and mystery and implication, every inch detailed within his wide-ranging stories, and within himself. This Leonardian instinct to capture the fluttering wing of ideas, the smudged nuance of feeling, must be related to his bird­watcher’s skill. Such precision also reminds me of Nabokov, who not incidentally was very fond of nailing butterflies. And Leonardo and Nabokov both had a certain consideration of unsaid too, of the understatement.

Now, in his latest novel, Jonathan Franzen's scrutiny drives a nail to the core of Germanity. I wouldn't dare spoil a plot for you any more than I would shoot a bird, though I shall quote a few bright sentences, after attempting to frame a bit Jonathan Franzen’s eagle-like radiance.

Franzen was crowned the most popular of serious writers seemingly overnight. That happens with popularity but is quite atypical for seriousness, let alone for writers. Passing time blurs the details, and as for Jesus and Napoleon is not that easy now to retrieve if he was crowned before by success or by himself—swift prompter as he is of what people think, like the expert nailing the butterfly. It happened with his third novel, The Corrections. At best, he managed to exploit Oprah's endorsement by demeaning it publicly, culminating in his being cancelled by the show's guest list. The cancellation shone brighter than the invitation and worked quite well in promoting his name abroad.

Each of Franzen’s books since forces a smile into the reticent countenance of Gogool, the God of Good Literature, who must admit, “High literature still strikes!” Franzen was a nefarious counsellor of Gogool, breaking the news to him that another Catch 22, a novel that shook a nation, was not an option anymore in the Google age. Yet only a few years after this bleak prophecy, he came out with his shuddering masterpiece, achieving the effect of breaking a spell.

His fourth novel, Freedom, alarmed some sensitive clubs who denounced the hype and critical praise even before the official release of the novel. Franzen agreed, and this again managed to win further hype to the actual release. With Purity, his last novel, the praise has reached such fever-pitch, like a Harry Potter for adults, only with giddy intellectuals instead of shy teenagers chewing magic.

Let’s be clear, Jonathan Franzen writes superbly intelligent novels as a simple consequence of his being superbly intelligent. Or being “a rhetorically airtight, extremely smart, extremely knowledgeable, middle aged writer”, as he confessed to the Paris Review, revealing the mask he donned as a younger writer.

Apart from that you normally reveal what is under the mask, not the mask itself, but every disclosure must be applauded, along with his humility of not mentioning that it takes only a few corrections to seem middle-aged, but it takes nothing but a genius to act like a genius. Vonnegut warned us, we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful of what we pretend to be. But again, Franzen's prose survives whatever opinion he has of himself, and I wouldn't pass along the unnecessary accusation of arrogance. His results might well stand a few sprinkles of arrogance in the lake of talent, in the lagoon of self­awareness, even in the ponds of extreme honesty, up into the puddle of onanism.

Still, the impression flutters in me that he masters the art of dialogue—not just inside his novels or mumbling on a bus like the rest of us. Rather he whispers through the voice of the New Yorker and similar soundboxes. I wouldn't prim if, quoting Jack London, he turned out to be mercenarily inclined, but more likely he does ply that flat honesty that Americans inherited from Germans. He is not German, but a German translator of Norwegian roots. He studied in Berlin, hoping to find more girls—as he let us know.

At last, his novel, Purity, is quite German. Not only for being mostly located in Berlin—and not much for the disinfected title, exquisite for a fairy tale as for a Nazi novel. No, this Purity is not an idea but a girl who hates her name. But, of course, it is also an idea. Such a righteous writer would never flaunt a title like this without interlacing realism and idealism. If nothing is purer than an idea, what can be more ideal than purity?

Weigh on the symbolism that the novel traces in the form of a famous fairytale: Purity grows up in a hut in the woods and ends up wandering in a forest inveigled into the mouth of a man called Wolf, a killer disguised as a hero. But it is not for good literature to nail ideas, unlike philosophy and politics. Franzen knows better than that. Instead, from literature arise questions and scenarios. Accordingly, his novel unrolls different versions of the idea of Purity, all marvellously flawed: a woman who refuses to be a billionaire, a whistleblower fleeing his sins, a girl struggling with her moral inheritance.

Meanwhile, the white idea of purity backlights a certain Germanity described in some crucial part of the novel. One opinionated San Francisco outcast, called nothing less than Dreyfuss, depicts his German guests, “spies, with their all too typically German earnestness and nosiness...The first thought when they walk into a house is how to take it over.” Quite a spunky-punky opinion that curiously, some 500 pages later, turns out to be not completely wrong.

Then comes the German Annagret spelling out, “nothing more threatens a German man, even a good man, than women being close friends behind his back, it really upset him, like it's something wrong with how the world would be.” This is a strong suggestion of how the idealism of Germans, the world how it should be, is a handicap in actual human relations. And the same Annagret a few lines later, “(maybe it was a German thing?) not very good at getting cues.”

But significantly we find a more committed analysis in the only part of the book narrated in the first person, by a successful journalist, “East Germany may have been a giant penitentiary administrated by the Russians, the Stasi may have embodied the worst excesses of German authority and bureaucratic thoroughness, and anyone with brains and spirit may have fled the country before the Wall went up, but the inmates who'd remained behind to expiate the country's collective guilt had paradoxically been liberated from their Germanness(...) Humble, unpunctual, spontaneous, and generous with what little they had.(...) their real loyalties were to one other, not to the state.

The clarity of these scenes helps to frame even the slippery melting plot of today's Berlin. So un-German, I wrote above, but it is as well so inextricably the outcome of German history, the list of traumas inflicted, bombs and defeats and shame, and finally a wall that made the city the main ping-pong table of Cold War. It’s not only strangers who make this city a bit more human of German standards. As usual, the rape of history worked quite well too, leaving here the sensitivity of someone grown with an out­of­phase heart.

I don't like to close this essay leaving German-ness nailed to the labels of stinginess and stiffness. I am still a German guest, and I want to pay some respect to some German quality. Honesty—this is something that I would accredit to German nature ahead of all others. By the way, honesty seems to me the open secret of good art. Its first rule: tell the truth. Hence comes the clarity of Hermann Hesse or Nietzsche. Franzen's clarity too displays a challenging honesty.

But this reminds me of a finer rule of good art—an understatement, the art of shading that bestows a third dimension to expression, hinting instead of blurting out, letting the reader unpack the message nicely brought to his mind. And this is not German, more English we must say, in which English literature finds the room for its humour, for instance.

And by the way, I am grateful to Franzen for never displaying a humourless attempt of describing humour itself, in spite of his luminescence and of the importance that he declares humour has for him as a human, a reader, and a writer. His own humour is quite non­committal, belonging to his realistic story rather than to his prose. Maybe this is out of tidiness or for high literature. But eventually, I nailed the sensation that Franzen's bright prose leaves in me... When a young Borges reviewed the glorious movie Citizen Kane, he called it “a work of genius, in the ugly German sense of the word”—reading Franzen, I have a sensation of a contemporary genius, in quite a German sense of the word.

By Paolo Tacchini
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