Ingo Schulze’s “New Lives”

Reviewed by Robert Buckeye

Image of Ingo Schulze’s “New Lives”

In his foreword to New Lives, Schulze writes that he had been casting about for ideas for a new novel and had begun to collect material on a newspaper tycoon, Heinrich Turmer. When he discovers that Heinrich is actually Enrico, a classmate of his in Altenberg and brother of Vera, the woman he loved, he revisits his own past and discovers in the Turmer letters a novel of the period from January 6 to July 11, 1990, shortly after the sudden and precipitous collapse of Communism; "a panorama of a period when everything in Turmer's life—and just not his—stood in the balance."

New Lives is a collection of Turmer's letters, selected, edited and with a foreword by Schulze, followed by an appendix of stories that Turmer wrote on the back of these letters. Turmer's letters to Nicoletta (his muse) describe his life as a theater dramaturge under Communism, although at the time he considers himself a novelist. His letters to Johann, a classmate, describe his work as a newspaper editor, a budding capitalist in the new world after the fall of the Wall. He falls under the influence of Clemens von Barrista, a West German capitalist and Turmer's Mephistopheles, who asks him, "Do you or do you not want to get rich?" (Nicoletta considers von Barrista "unadulterated evil.")

Schulze, who was in the same gym class as Turmer and had given his own stories to Vera to read, is a harsh editor, correcting mistakes, disputing comments, criticizing style, dismissing pretensions, one snide comment after another. In his turn, Turmer dismisses Schulze, referring to "those puppy-dog eyes that followed Vera everywhere." In a footnote, Schulze complains "his image [was] distorted in Turmer's funhouse mirror."

Turmer is, in fact, the pretentious intellectual Schulze now takes him for; one who skates over inconvenient facts and disturbing realities in order to maintain his standard of living. The parallels between the lives of Turmer and Schulze, however, raise the question whether Turmer is the man Schulze might have been. Schulze was, like Turmer, a theater dramaturge in Altenburg. After the fall of the Wall he too began a newspaper. He was in love with Vera and Turmer says his sister is the only woman Schulze ever loved.

New Lives is less the epistolary novel Turmer tells Nicoletta he is writing, than a scholarly text with a critical apparatus, similar to Nabokov's Pale Fire whose method subverts—or expands —the form of the novel. As editor, Schulze plays the same role that Professor Kinbote, the editor of John Shade's poetry, does in Pale Fire; like Kinbote, he does not let the text stand for itself but directs us how to read it. Kinbote, however, is clearly not Nabokov; he serves as a foil for Nabokov to skewer those who appropriate texts for their own purposes. In New Lives, Schulze (the editor) is often indistinguishable from Schulze (the novelist).

If the fall of the Wall was a defining moment—"everything stood in the balance"—and provided possibilities for fresh starts, new lives, what should have happened, Shulze concludes, did not. Turmer is the same man in the new world of the free market as he was under the subject state: calculating, selfish, greedy, "the shifty character everyone takes me for." (Michaela, his wife, an actress and revolutionary activist, comes to understand the man he is and leaves him for von Barrista.)

"In our normal understanding of European civilization," the Croatian poet Dubravka Oraic Tolic writes," it is normal for there to be two sides, right and left, an East and a West, and it doesn't cross anyone's mind to suggest they are identical." It is a commonplace notion today that those who ruled under Communism often also do so under capitalism.

In Europe today (and among intellectuals in the West), the fall of the Wall has been followed by what is termed ostalgie, "less nostalgia for the return of the socialist collective," Charity Scribner writes, "than 'the awareness' that something is missing from the present." For Schulze, something is clearly missing, but he can neither embrace the new world nor yearn for the one lost.

"What was I as a writer going to do without a wall?" Turmer asks. In the last story of Turmer's Schulze includes Corporal Turmer leaves his unit, finds a place in a field where he can shit everything out of him, strips himself bare, takes off his watch, drops to all fours and howls at the moon. He must become naked, as Walter Benjamin says the writer must do in the face of capitalism, "in order to be able to begin again at the beginning."

The tone throughout is no more than bleak; the narrator's voice, Richard Eder notes, "of an unvaried chill." One assumes it is Schulze's style as much as his perspective, and one is chilled by Turmer as well as the editor who calls himself Schulze. Certainly, the writing is otherwise detailed, complex, rich in Woods's translation.

Robert Buckeye has had two works of fiction published, Pressure Drop and The Munch Case, and has written on film and art as well as literature.