Anke Stelling's award-winning novel Higher Ground, translated from German by Lucy Jones, is out tomorrow from Scribe. An examination of class, friendship, and parenthood in contemporary Berlin, the book follows the escalating conflict between Resi, a writer, and her comparatively wealthy circle of friends. In the excerpt below, Resi discovers that her most recent book has alienated her friends—with severe consequences for herself and her family.
A letter came for me. It’s addressed to me and contains a neatly folded sheet of paper, which is the termination of the lease on our flat. No, that’s wrong. It’s a copy of the termination of the lease on our flat for my attention. Because our flat is really Frank’s; Frank’s name is on the contract, and he’s terminated the lease.
We’ve lived here for four years. When Frank and Vera moved into K23, we took over their flat. A stroke of luck, because ours was already too small with three kids—and by then, we had four. A stroke of luck that we knew somebody with an eighteen-year-old lease who no longer needed it.
But what comes around goes around.
This letter is a comeuppance for what I’ve done, and that’s why it’s not addressed to Sven, or to us both, just to me. The whole mess is my fault. I put Frank in a position that made him do this. I only have myself to blame for everything that’s happened, and that’s what I’m doing here in my broom cupboard, my two square meters next to our old-style Berlin kitchen, which is really the pantry, which is really the rear section of the loo that it shares a window with. The kids are at school or childcare, and Sven is at his studio, which he’s only temporarily able to lease, until the investor has reworded and resubmitted the rejected planning application. It all comes down to the wording. I stare at the letter.
Dear Sir/Madam it says impersonally, addressing the housing agent, and for me, there’s an extra stamp saying: For Your Attention, and no salutation whatsoever. Just the green rubber stamp. Very official and very strange, because Frank isn’t an official, he’s an old friend. Where on earth did he get that stamp? Couldn’t he have phoned?
No. Frank doesn’t want to talk to me.
“There’s no talking to you,” Vera would say.
Vera sent me an email months ago, which said: “This is where we part ways.” Which I hadn’t interpreted as: “You better figure out pretty quickly where you’re going to live, because I’ll get Frank on to you next.”
I’d understood that she was terminating our friendship, and that she didn’t want to see me anymore.
She’d also written “I love you,” and it wasn’t until the termination of the lease arrived that I realized there are two ways of saying this: simply and passionately, because it’s true. Or threateningly, to show that action will be taken. Parents talk like this. And gods.
The rule I had broken was: “Don’t wash your dirty laundry in public.”
When I held that termination letter in my hands, I realized Vera had been using it in the second instance, because even though I’m not her child, I’m a very, very old friend, a member of her chosen family. In other words, family rules apply to me too.
In Vera’s family, love was always emphasized very strongly, no matter what horrors were going on at the time or followed later. Vera’s declaration of love should have made me suspicious; after all, I had “seriously broken the rules” and therefore “shouldn’t be surprised.”
The rule I had broken was: “Don’t wash your dirty laundry in public.” It’s a nice phrase that holds families together. “Laundry” stands for privacy, “dirty” for “unpresentable,” and “wash” for spilling the beans, snitching, and telling stories. And when I say that telling stories is my profession, Ulf says: “You can’t use that as a smokescreen.” Because in the end, I chose my profession.
There’s a children’s book by Leo Lionni that defends the profession of the artist. The book was a best seller forty years ago and is now a classic, but that doesn’t mean its message has sunk in.
In the story, a group of mice is busy collecting food supplies for winter, and it’s hard going. One of them lies in the sun all day and says he’s collecting smells, colors, and impressions. Will he have the right to eat from the supplies when winter comes? But behold: at some point, during the darkest, hungriest period toward the end of winter, the lazy mouse’s moment comes, and he saves the other mice by describing the colors and smells and tastes out there in the world. “You’re a poet,” say the other mice, and the artist mouse blushes and nods.
I wonder whether Leo was also chased out of his flat because of his story? I bet some of his friends with full-time jobs recognized themselves in the depiction of the humdrum gatherer mice, and his ex-wife said how arrogant he was to recast himself from failed breadwinner to world savior. But who knows? Perhaps they all laughed, and Leo’s book was a favorite birthday present for friends and relatives; perhaps they were proud, and grateful to him for managing to express their ambivalence and their never-ending struggle with life choices.
In any case, Vera, Friederike, Ulf, Ingmar, and the rest were not grateful to me for finding words for the mess we were in. Quite the opposite, in fact: they even thought “mess” was an unsuitable description. Because everything was fine.
Excerpted from Higher Ground by Anke Stelling, translated by Lucy Jones. Available May 4 from Scribe Publications. By arrangement with the publisher.