"Literature and Accidents": Ingo Schulze's Mr. Neitherkorn und das Schicksal
In 1999, I gave a paper  at the First Carlisle Symposium on Ingo Schulze's acclaimed novel Simple Storys, a series of tales about life in the East after German unity. This collection of interwoven stories sheds light on ordinary, confused and desolate people who find themselves thrown into the unfamiliar, alien world of the West which they grapple to understand. The book was published in 1998. I did not know at that particular time that there existed a kind of a precursor-piece, an experimental narrative called "Mr. Neitherkorn und das Schicksal," ("Mr. Neitherkorn and Fate/Destiny") which was written in 1996 but published only recently, in 2002 by the Mariannenpresse. A translation is still awaited. In this text, a ficticious Mr. Neitherkorn - a landlord, mentor, advisor and partner in dialogue - asks an unnamed young narrator a decisive question: "Warum schreiben Sie Ihre Geschichten hier, und nicht in Deutschland, wenn sie doch von Deutschland handeln." ("Why are you writing your stories here and not in Germany. They are about Germany.") Indeed, there is a reason. This small text deserves our attention because it foreshadows the Simple Storys; it sheds light on the author's indebtedness to the American short story tradition with its idea of a turning point, a chance encounter as well as a formative moment; furthermore, it reveals his indebtedness to American cinematic techniques like cross-cutting or "short cuts"; and - last but not least - it demonstrates his fascination with the socio-cultural melting pot situation in the city of New York.
Schulze, born in East Germany in 1962, has been heralded as one of the most important new voices in the united Germany. In 1995, he created an international sensation with his debut collection of stories called 33 Moments of Happiness, which is set in St. Petersburg where Schulze ran an advertising weekly in post-Communist Russia for approximately six months. The book was applauded all over the world. The Los Angeles Times, for example, observed that "this supremely confident debut of a young German writer ought to silence the jingo bells set off by the recent purchase of Random House by Bertelsmann. It is hardly appeasement to say that our pallid American bestseller realists can learn much from writers like Schulze." This review, however, was unconsciously ironic, for the young German writer had earlier come to the US, read and studied those "pallid American bestseller realists," and learned new skills from them. He then exported his own German stories to the very culture that had informed his writing.
Schulze is part of a new generation of young German authors whose writing practices are strongly influenced by the media. In a volume called Zuerst bin ich immer der Leser. Prosa schreiben heute  ("I am a Reader First. Writing Prose Today") which is a collection of essays by several young writers, Schulze sets the tone for the team because the words in the title are taken from his own contributed essay. Reading other authors' works creatively - that is his priority. Schulze outlines two profound experiences in his own background: the collapse of the GDR and its transition into the new socio-economic structures of the Federal Republic on the one hand, and knowledge of Russian as well as American literature on the other hand. He comments:
Es war Zufall, daß ich nach Abschluß meines ersten Manuskriptes Carver las. Plötzlich hatte ich einen Ton im Ohr, mit dem ich meine hiesige Gegenwart ansprechen konnte. Dadurch, daß ich versuchte, den Stil der short-story eines Anderson, Hemingway und Carver auf die ostdeutsche Provinz nach '89 anzuwenden, ließ sich etwas mitteilen. Zufällig war ich auf eine richtige Frequenz gestoßen. (It was an accident, that after completion of my first manuscript I read Carver. All of a sudden, I had found a tone which was appropriate for addressing our German reality. By attempting to use the style of short story writers like Anderson, Hemingway and Carver for the East German provinces after 1989, I had found my mode of communication. All of this, by accident.)
In short, Schulze sees his career as an author who is dependent primarily on "Literatur und Zufälle" (ZL 90) ("literature and accidents").
Through accident, effort, talent, luck - surely a combination of all of these - he received in 1996 a generous fellowship from the German "Stiftung Kulturfonds," which enabled him to move to New York, where he lived on Manhattan's Upper West Side; he spent his time constructively and productively: reading, observing, and writing. In the same year, between the publication dates of 33 Moments of Happiness and The Simple Storys, he wrote Mr. Neitherkorn and Fate/Destiny, a mosaic of episodes or snapshots about seemingly unconnected people, but revolving around a young German narrator on a quest and his questioning landlord, Mr. Neitherkorn. Neitherkorn directs the protagonist unobtrusively yet authoritatively toward an investigation of the ominous power called "fate" or "destiny," which would involve the possibility of escape from or interaction with fate or destiny, the power of free will, and the degree of human control over the future through individual effort.
Ingo Schulze himself told me about the genesis of this little narrative. He and the Russian conceptualist Mamlejew were asked to give a reading about a topic that Schulze was to choose. A chance encounter in a barbershop provided him with an idea: he met a Russian barber, a former Soviet architect, who explained his presence in NYC laconically with the Russian word "sudba", meaning in English both "fate" and "destiny." Did the barber mean "fate," this mysterious, static, inflexible, often sinister power over which we have no control, or did he rather mean the broader, more yielding force of "destiny," which allows a certain degree of interaction, like a seemingly impossible dream we may aspire to and may even turn into reality: per aspera ad astra? Schulze, the astute observer and collector of stories, had found his topic. He wrote and strung together several episodes concerned with the complexities of the "fate/destiny/chance" concept which he then presented at the "reading." What he probably considered to be an experiment or an exercise in writing, not to be taken seriously, turned out - I believe - to be a literary gem, a skillfully crafted amalgam of glittering fragments, mysterious and intriguing, and - as the multifaceted title suggests - a demonstration of the incisiveness of fate, destiny, chance or of a turning point which touches a person's life, yet never becomes completely tangible for the reader.
Mr. Neitherkorn wants to tell his young German friend tales "von einem der auszog - und so weiter" ("about somebody who went forth to [...] - and so forth"). Inadvertently the reader thinks of the Grimm Brothers' fairy tale, "Märchen von einem, der auszog, das Fürchten zu lernen", ("A Tale About the Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was"), which is about a man who - in a series of trials - was not afraid of anything until the unexpected, the baffling happened. Pouring a bucket full of cold water and fish on him, his wife exposed the unheroic in the hero: he got the creeps and shuddered. In New York, Schulze consciously looked for the so-called unpredictable/predictable, for strangeness concealed behind the banal or trivial; and he acquired the tools to turn this newly found awareness into literature. An "Americanized" approach one could say, and Schulze modestly confirms just that: "Ich habe keinen eigenen Stil, [...] sondern ließ den Stil aus dem Stoff kommen (ZL 94) [...] Bin ich ein Plagiator (ZL 93)" ("I do not have my own style. My style is dependent on the topic. Am I a plagiarizer?").
He certainly is not. Against the backdrop of an American literary tradition, Schulze creates something new. In his own German stories - the Simple Storys and Mr. Neitherkorn ... - he replaces the precise clarity of the unspoken word - so typical of (for example) Carver's work - with precise obscurity, vagueness, intangibility. Entering a "dialogue" with the short story, Schulze finds new models and kinships: Raymond Carver, Sherwood Anderson, Richard Ford, Ann Beatty. And, last but not least, the American film director Robert Altman has to be mentioned, whose movie "Short Cuts" is based on ten of Carver's stories. Altman, who published these ten stories in a special volume , added an introduction in which he acknowledges the cinematic equivalents of Carver's literary material: Carver's focus on the individual moment, the incidental, "the arbitrary nature of luck in the scheme of things" (A 8), unexpected turning points, "things that just happen to people and cause their lives to take a turn." (A 7) Initiative and, of course, luck turned the author Schulze's life around: in New York he was stimulated to find his topic, style, and language.
Schulze's Neitherkorn- narratives have a circular structure. They start and conclude with the above mentioned episode about the Russian barber who had explained his immigration to the United States with the term "sudba," meaning fate/destiny - a term in suspension throughout the entire plot of the Neitherkorn-stories. Toward the end of the circle the same barber elaborates what exactly he had meant by "sudba": not an inexorable outcome beyond his control, but rather the result of free will, of causal effects and self-reliance. He perceives his destiny to be a result of his tardiness and negligence, his having waited too long, having missed chances and endless opportunities. The young narrator - despite his general objection to his former East German state - can't escape the social conditioning of his background. Soon it becomes obvious where his affinities lie. In the Goethe Haus library in NYC he checks various encyclopedias and finds vast numbers of philosophical - primarily religious, cultural or existential - definitions. Unable to refute them, he also finds them elusive and wanting. The individual narratives present stories with manifestations of what people "believe" to be fate/destiny, chance, accident, turning point, coincidence, and they describe how they deal with the arbitrary nature of luck, with doom or adversity. Here Mr. Neitherkorn himself may serve as a model. Whenever he, the German Jew, speaks German with his young friend and discusses the topic of "fate/destiny", his questioning, skeptical manner and his laconic tone are indicators of how he himself survived and deals with the horrific event that turned his life around: "Wenn der alte Mr. Neitherkorn deutsch spricht, steckt darin schon Schicksal genug," concludes a critic. ("When the old Mr. Neitherkorn speaks German, this is a manifestation of how he deals with destiny.")
The narrator meets all kinds of folks in the ethnic melting pot New York who either experienced some kind of a turn in their lives or whose lives remained static, programmed, "predetermined." When do we have to perceive fate/desitiny as a relentless force, he marvels in his dialogues with Mr. Neitherkorn, and when is it "man-made," predictably the result of convention, ritual, human error, prejudice, crime? The narrator remembers Goethe's notion of fate as a manifestation of the arbitrariness and randomness of life's experiences ("Schicksal, für dessen Weisheit ich alle Ehrfurcht trage, mag an dem Zufall, durch den es wirkt, ein sehr ungelenkes Organ haben"), and with irony he reminisces about the East German ideological stereotype of the proletariat being in power through the workings of a historical law. Questioning people's often thoughtless usage of the word "fate" or "belief," he optimistically propounds a philosophy of self-confidence and interaction within a world rampant with random occurrences: "Das Schicksal - das ist Ödipus, das Schicksal - das ist meine Sprache, das Schicksal - das sind meine Genossen oder meine Gene. Das Schicksal des Menschen ist der Mensch. Ich bin das Schicksal." (" Fate - that is Oedipus, fate - that is my language, fate - these are my comrades or my genes. Man's fate is man. I am fate.")
Throughout the stories, the narrator consciously or unconsciously tests his philosophy. He has a Jewish friend who takes him to Crown Heights where various Chassidic sects are practicing their religion. Their women's fate - by implication a man-made fate, ruled by strict rituals - is to get married before they are eighteen, meeting their husbands for the first time on their wedding days. And the precarious relationship of Jews and Germans is alluded to. Is it not unequivocally wrong and morally unacceptable to perceive the holocaust, even vaguely, in terms of a "Jewish fate" rather than the result of heinous crimes committed by German perpetrators? The narrator receives a fax from Germany which talks about the plight of desperate and destitute Gypsies: "small wonder that bicycles disappear." He resolves: "Schicksal ist schlicht das Leben, das man ändern müßte." ("Fate is life that has to be changed.") Fate is largely what we believe in, he muses, noticing a man at a subway station who distributes flyers with home-spun spiritual advice; and fate - he observes furthermore - is manifest in the rigidly religious, simple life-style of the Mennonites who - "a miracle" - experience heart disease to a far lesser degree than other groups of people. Fate means believing in the Lord, so an Afro-American customer informs him in a Japanese restaurant, or - as the "sushimaster" responds - fate is believing in UFOS. Confirming his own belief in more mundane and earthly phenomena, the narrator disagrees: "Ich glaube", sagte ich, "daß der Fisch hier wirklich frisch und gut ist." ("I believe," I said, "that the fish here is really fresh and good .")
The tone of the Neitherkorn-complex is upbeat and animated. The narrator roams the big city of New York with endless curiosity, resembling a tourist with a camera who takes snapshots, the focus set on segments, detail, the moment. This is to become the textual fabric of the Simple Stories, a portrayal of seemingly isolated but formative moments in a larger web of social events that stand under the auspices of the historical change of 1989/1990. But Schulze's tone is different in this new novel: subdued, detached, minimalistic, and yet funny and touching. This detachment allows the individual narratives, one critic says, "to run as if on autopilot." Schulze's characters are confused and traumatized, caught in the unfamiliar thicket of capitalism. They desperately try to cope in their shattered world. Selecting the city of New York as a locale for chapter 17 of his book, Schulze skillfully reveals and magnifies the unease, anxiety and disorientation in the life of a young couple who probably viewed their trip to the US as something exotic, distracting and exciting. However, arriving in the scorching heat of a typical New York summer day, they feel overwhelmed by the city and find themselves captive in a rented studio, probably a sublet of a sublet of a sublet. Here Christian Beyer, editor-in-chief of a small provincial weekly in the former East Germany, and his girlfriend Hanni try in vain to escape from what they fear most in the Federal Republic of Germany: their financial uncertainties, unfamiliarity with new Western ways of accounting, and errors in bookkeeping that could be interpreted as illegal and criminal. Their fears - expressed more by subtext, clues, and allusion rather than text - are unleashed by a certain Chinese gentleman who knocks at the door, introduces himself as Robert Vanderbilt, and claims to be a real estate agent who wants to inspect the apartment. The Germans are confused. Unfamiliar with such a situation and the inherent dangers, they open the door and let him in. Nobody knows who the man really is, "maybe just a gangster with a stupid story" (SS 161) or just another guy in financial trouble. Vanderbilt lived in Texas, so he says, but he left because of debts. Later on, Christian Beyer marvels:
He thought at first he could live with his debts, that's what he said at least. When an overdue statement landed in his mailbox, he just tore it up. But one fine day he suddenly woke up thinking about all those overdue bills. And the next morning, too, and the one after. He felt defenseless. The first thing he thought about was his debts. Especially when he was alone. He couldn't get the money together. And so he bailed. (SS 160)
Hanni's answer speaks volumes: "Who are you talking about? The Chinese guy?" (SS 160)
Having returned to Germany, Beyer is in a state of unmitigated despair. Hanni affectionally and heroically tries to console him. Reminiscing about a dead fly she once found lying on its stomach rather than its back, she remembers Beyer's explanation of the strange occurrence:
You said you feel like a fly, a fly caught between the window and the curtains, I thought it was a funny way to put it at the time. You said that the fly can save itself only by accident, by doing something counterintuitive, because its own logic says that it can get through the windowpane. And it does not stop until it's dead. Remember? (SS 221)
Later on, Beyer tries to fall asleep on his couch: "It was cold only when he tried turning over completely on his stomach or his back." (SS 224). He is wide awake and tries to escape the existential cold, hoping for an "accident," the possibility of life. Interacting with destiny - whether futile or successful - facing up to the destabilizing turning point, Schulze's ordinary, hard-luck characters from the East German provinces are tragic but not bare of the tragicomical. They encounter their destiny with quiet dignity or giddy terror, and their sad, yet grand attempts to defy adversity makes them survivors: "Why should we be spared really? We have been spared until now, that's all, simple good luck, incredibly good ..." (SS 218).
Schulze's eye is obviously focused on the laconic and disquieting short stories by Raymond Carver which revolve around fearful moments and Angst. But his characters are distinctly German, products of a decisive historical moment. Everything in the two united Germanys is in flux, unclear and still unpredictable. So are Schulze's characters. They speak the same language as before, have the same neighbors, live in the same provincial town. Yet they exude with mesmerizing power agonizing feelings of anxiety and uprootedness. They are speechless. A character from Carver's story "So much Water so Close to Home" could function as their mouthpiece:
[...] our lives have been set in motion [...] one day something happens that could change something, but then you see nothing is going to change after all. What then? Meanwhile, the people around you continue to talk and act as if you were the same person as yesterday, or last night, or five minutes before, but you are really undergoing a crisis, your heart feels damaged [...] (A 78-79)
Schulze's stories, the Neitherkorn-complex and the Simple Storys, were written in an atmosphere of a productive dialogue with Carver's oeuvre in particular, and against the backdrop of the American short story in general. With his literary method of developing his own style in dialogue with a given text ("den Stil immer wieder neu im Dialog mit dem Stoff zu entwickeln," ZL 94), Schulze has not only produced one of the finest, most original pieces of contemporary literature made in Germany, he has also demonstrated the workings of a teacher-student relationship in its most constructive manner. Indeed, in unsettling times when national and cultural differences seem to matter more than mutualities, Schulze presents an example of a cultural exchange between two nations at its very best.
1 Christine Cosentino, "Wirres und Wahres in 'einfachen' Geschichten aus der ostdeutschen Provinz: Ingo Schulzes 'Simple Storys'," glossen 10 (special issue, 2000): Taking Stock - German Literature after the Unification (www.dickinson.edu/glossen)
2 Ingo Schulze, Simple Storys (Berlin: Verlag, 1998). The English translation appeared in 2000: Ingo Schulze, Simple Stories, trans. John E. Woods (Vintage, 2000). Abbreviated in the body of the paper with SS.
3 Ingo Schulze, Mr. Neitherkorn und das Schicksal, (Edition Mariannenpresse, Band 107, 2002). Ingo Schulze provided the text by email attachment.
4 Ingo Schulze, 33 Augenblicke des Glücks (Berlin: Berlin Verlag, 1995); the English translation appeared in 1998: Schulze, 33 Moments of Happiness, trans. John E. Woods (New York: Knopf, 1998).
5 Jonathan Levi, "Cultures Collide, Commingle in Russia; 33 Moments of Happiness: St. Petersburg Stories by Ingo Schulze," Los Angeles Times 30. März 1998.
6 Zuerst bin ich immer Leser. Prosa schreiben heute, hrsg. v. Ute-Christine Krupp und Ulrike Janssen (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 2000) 42. Abgekürzt im Text der Arbeit mit ZL. Muß noch ins Englische übersetzt werden.
7 Schulze, "Lesen und Schreiben oder 'Ist es nicht idiotisch, sieben oder gar acht Monate an einem Roman zu schreiben, wenn man in jedem Buchladen für zwei Dollar einen kaufen kann?'" ZL 93.
8 The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, Translated and With an Introduction by Jack Zipes (Bantam, 1987) 12-20.
9 Raymond Carver, Short Cuts. Selected Stories, with an introduction by Robert Altman (New York: Vintage, 1993). Abbreviated with A. Quotations from this book are in the body of the paper..
10 Nicole Henneberg,"Das Glück wird Schicksal. Ein fein edierter Nachtrag von Ingo Schulze aus und über New York," Frankfurter Rundschau 2. November 2002.
11 Noah Isenberg,, "East meets West," Book Magazine July/August 2000.