Bad Literature Doesn’t Equal Genre – On Judith Hermann’s Aller Liebe Anfang (2014)

Aller Liebe Anfang

Edo Reents, the critic of the FAZ – Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung – wrote about Judith Hermann’s long-awaited first novel:  “Judith Hermann has two problems. She cannot write and she has nothing to say.” – “Judith Hermann hat zwei Probleme: Sie kann nicht schreiben, und sie hat nichts zu sagen”. I wouldn’t go as far as that, but I too felt that the muses were absent while she wrote this. It’s particularly disappointing because she took a long time to write this novel. Her last book came out in 2009. You’d expect a masterpiece after five years of silence.

Edo Reents’ review wasn’t the only one I read and most critics share his opinion; they just don’t word it as a personal attack. I’m not keen on this type of exposure of an author, but there were other elements – in the reviews and the book – that were incredibly annoying.

Aller Liebe Anfang is a stalker novel. Yes, another one. It’s the choice of theme that led the critics to the most stupid analysis I’ve read in a long time. Because this is a topic often used in genre literature and because the book isn’t great, they deduce that it must be genre. Some critics even mentioned Stephen King. Now, you may like Stephen King or not, but the guy knows how to write great genre and, funny enough, if you read Aller Liebe Anfang as genre – it’s even worse. Clearly those critics just know about Stephen King, they haven’t read him or any other genre writer or they would know that plausibility and logic are key in most crime novels. Unfortunately you don’t find a lot of that in Hermann’s book. Nor do you find compelling and precise descriptions, but blurred settings and faulty imagery. The characters too are blurred and their occupations seem vague. I’ve never heard of a nurse doing people’s shopping or of a carpenter designing houses.

What’s the novel about? Stella and Jason have been married for five years. They live with their small daughter in the suburbs. Where? We don’t know. That’s another annoying trait of this book: Everything is vague. Jason is mostly gone for weeks and Stella is alone. She loves to sit in the living room, in front of a huge window, reading. She doesn’t realize that she’s probably watched all the time until one day a guy rings the door bell demanding to talk to her. She refuses and, Mister Pfister (yes, that’s his name, not Herr Pfister), insists. He returns daily, leaves messages, photos, small things in her letter box. Stella is passive at first and when she finally reacts it’s too late. Things go very wrong.

Why does she not react? Because she’s unsettled by Mister Pfister and starts to look at her own life from outside. Is this really the life she wanted? Has she ever decided what kind of life she wants or has she just been drifting?

The reflections circling around Stella’s life were well done. I also liked her prose in these sections because some of the descriptions stood out like scarecrows on an empty field. She does more telling than showing but it’s often interesting telling. She takes risks.

In spite of some good elements, this isn’t a book I would recommend. I seriously wonder what went wrong here. I have a suspicion. Judith Herman is one of a few German authors who has been highly praised and translated into English – and many other languages. This book feels as if it had been written with an international market in mind. Knowing that the US and UK market is much more interested in plot, she added a stalker element to an otherwise quiet and introspective novel. The names she chose are very telling too. Stella, Jason, Ava, Mister Pfister  – really? I haven’t come across these names in Germany very often. And then there’s the  setting. It’s deliberately vague – with a bit of imagination it could be set anywhere in the world.

I once thought that Judith Hermann was one of the most important younger writers. I still think her shot story collections are wonderful. But she isn’t a novelist and she shouldn’t add a dodgy plot to her story just because she has an international market in mind. Considering how very few German books are translated into English, I would wish, this one wouldn’t make it and leave room for something that’s really good. Sadly, without the stalker element – and maybe 100 pages shorter – this could have been another of her memorable short stories.