On Thursday 23 February, in an event linked to the theme of an IMLR/OWRI conference entitled ‘Unsettling Communities: Minor, Minority and Small Literatures in Europe’, we were privileged to hear the writer Barbara Honigmann, currently writer-in-residence at the Centre for Ango-German Cultural Relations at QMUL, in conversation with Dr Robert Gillett, Reader in German and Comparative Cultural Studies at QMUL.
Famously, Barbara Honigmann does not like to be defined – as she often is – as a ‘German-Jewish’ writer, or as a ‘GDR writer’ or an ‘emigrant writer’ (though born in Berlin, she now lives in Strasbourg). She herself declared during the conversation that she preferred to be asked about her texts, rather than what for her were now ‘boring’ details about her life or status as a writer – tellingly, she felt this might clarify things for her too. Robert Gillett responded to this invitation through the format of the conversation, which developed in the main from readings in both English and German of excerpts from her recent book Chronik meiner Straße.
Her powerful sense of both displacement and familiarity, in both Berlin and Strasbourg, is striking in her writing as well as in the way in which she describes her everyday experience – as a confusing state where places transform themselves while essentially remaining the same. This sense of confusion, she admitted, might entail a fear of confronting the contradictions in herself over the complex subject of her Jewishness and her rootedness in German language and literature, as well as her life in France.
Some of these issues were explored in the initial discussion of her early essay on three female Jewish writers – Glückel von Hameln in the late seventeenth century, Rahel Varnhagen in the early nineteenth, and Anne Frank. All three were interestingly characterised as ‘not really writers’ who were ‘not really writing in German’, and in this context a reference was also made to the Dutch essayist and diarist Etty Hillesum.
Despite her biographical caveat, the author mentioned in passing fascinating details about her background (for example, her remarkable, elusive mother’s second husband was Kim Philby) and her own early life (such as the ambivalent relationship between the intellectual and cultural – and often Jewish – elite and the East German authorities). As she described it, it was relatively easy to lead a kind of parallel, Brechtian artistic life in the GDR, but the bubble burst with the forced exile of Wolf Biermann in 1976, and she was among those who decided to leave rather than make the necessary compromises in order to further their careers. We also touched on the influence of her theatrical background and her work as an artist in creating vivid, memorable images and focusing on the significance of everyday domestic objects, which sometimes take on a life of their own.
Chronik meiner Straße is a meditation on time passing, as revealed in series of anecdotes linked by the perspective of the writer seated, over a period of more than thirty years, at her desk in front of her balcony, perceptively observing her gradually changing, varied and mainly immigrant neighbourhood while also playing an active role in the lives of these neighbours, and reflecting the wider changes in society. This small-scale but incredibly vivid historical montage of unforgettable characters and scenes is the author’s response to the daunting ‘big history’ lived by her parents in the twentieth century. As she put it, the composition of the population in this area, so close to the German border, changed from ‘melting-pot’ to ‘salad bowl’, with the complementary flavours of different ethnicities, but it was a form of ‘de-territorialisation’ rather than homogenisation – not an easy situation for immigrants in France where assimilation is seen as a requirement for successful social integration. Yet her book suggests that the small cosmos of her street still manages to live in peace and the melting-pot had never been a reality.
Overall, the most powerful impression I gained from this rewarding event was of a thoughtful, gently humorous, compassionate observer of humanity. Barbara Honigmann’s deceptively simple, calm, conversational prose matches her public persona of warmth and sincerity to an extraordinary degree.
Margaret May, IMLR MRes student 2016/17