Ishiguro – Kehlmann – Houellebecq, a European triad of literary fame

Writers are said to represent the conscience of their time, the finest seismographs for the tectonic shifts of the soul. The three writers mentioned above are among the greatest in their respective linguistic areas, the English, the German and the French. What conclusions can be drawn from their works with regard to the state of mind prevalent among Europeans?

Butler Stevens, main character in Kazuo Ishiguros great work ‘The Remains of the Day, is a model of correctness, a born servant, who in the faithful fulfillment of duty sees the true task and dignity of his existence. We see how this man constantly suppresses his feelings, especially with regard to the housekeeper Miss Kenton. He does so, because he would not allow the private sphere to interfere with his official position in the service of his master, Lord Darlington. Again and again we call on the man to put that dreadful corset of duty aside and give some vent to his innermost feelings. Please forget for a moment your role of being a butler; just be a human being with your own rights like everyone else!

All in vain. Stevens will not take off the mask until his death, it is already firmly glued to his face, but strange enough – the narrowness of the character never lets the man be really unsympathetic, in his peculiar way he is even a lover. After all, it is he who in utter self-denial sacrifices himself to procure dignity and beauty to the things surrounding him. In moving words he appraises the beauty of southern England when making his trip to Miss Kenton, but in the same way he succeeds in moving us when through his daily exertions he confers dignity and beauty to the things under his jurisdiction: the castle he manages and where he gives comfort to the great gentlemen to whom he devotes his life. Not that he serves them in utter blindness. Lord Darlington is not the dazzling figure of light his servant used to see in him at the start of his career. The Lord had received German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop and had been lured by other Nazi leaders as well. At the end of the day, the butler understands that outer dignity and beauty may conceal deep and disturbing shadows. But the reader of Ishiguros great novel leaves the day with the same feelings as its hero. In spite of those shadows, what he keeps in his mind are beauty and dignity.

In his two best-known books, in the ‘The Elementary Particles’ (or ‘Atomized’) and in ‘Submission’, Michel Houellebecq describes France in apocalyptic colors. To use such words as beauty or dignity in connection with his writings would be considered absurd. Houellebecq’s literary works rather emanate the same perfectly painful gloom that we feel when confronted with the paintings of Francis Bacon. In ‘The elementary Particles’ sex scenes are portrayed in a garish manner and with a brutal directness that was still disturbing at the time of publication. Undoubtedly, such directness served as bait that made this book a sensational success. The utter lack of inhibition in the description of the escapades of the flesh, where love hardly played any role, was still something shockingly new at that time. But this alone does not explain the overwhelming impact of this book – after all such directness could be found in pornographic publications as well. What made Houellebecq’s work so unique was the ideological firewall he managed to erect against any pornographic misinterpretation. Intellectual readers were well aware that this book was meant as a scathing criticism of capitalist society.

“See,” so the message read, “this devastation, this humiliation is what capitalism has wrought in your souls.”

Those who believed Houellebecq, were likely to read ‘The Elementary Particles’ as a kind of modern Tale of Passion: it is the suffering human being deprived of all ideals who succumbs to the inferno of unbridled instincts. That was the reading the author suggested to his audience in order to absolve himself and his readers from any suspicion of lecherous voyeurism.

Was the leftist sentiment true or was it faked? This question is by no means unjustified, for the author completely forgot his political leanings when he wrote his second book of global success, namely ‘Submission’. In this book we may find what we had looked for in vain in ‘The Elementary Particles’, namely beauty and dignity. But no, that’s not correct. They are not to be found here either; coming from the wrong side, they turn out to be treacherous, evil and misleading. It is the aspiring Muslim party led by Mohamed Ben Abbas, which in the name of the one only true god Allah usurps both for itself. The French socialists are ready to follow the Muslim brothers, as they are unable to oppose the unconditional will to power, which the brothers represent with all the self-assurance of true believers. Succumbing to their pressure, the Socialists soon sacrifice all the former ideals of the Republic – the human rights of the individual as well as the emancipation of women – both together they gradually transform France into a Muslim dictatorship.

When this book appeared, the French left-wing camp was appalled. With enthusiasm they had celebrated ‘The elementary Particles’ and had elevated its author to the rank of a literary Guru of anti-capitalist criticism. Now they felt utterly betrayed. Indeed, they would never forgive its author.

All the while Houellebecq experienced his own moments of triumph: he had poured scorn and biting ridicule at all those politicians who willingly sacrifice their own convictions as soon as a stronger force opposes them. At the same time, he made no secret of his own deeper convictions – or should we rather call them changeable instantaneous impulses like his leftist leanings?”

Perhaps it would not be the worst alternative for France (and for Europe as well), if they completely forget their own past. As for himself, he could see no more in this past than a painful history of aberrations and sufferings. So ‘Submission’ may be the right thing after all.” Such thoughts may be voiced by a French intellectual, even Germans who suffer so much from their history would not hit on a similar idea.

Michel Houellebecq is a tormented man. In the world as he sees it, there is nothing but gloom accompanied by hollow and dead ideals. When such a state of mind leads to submission, it is as if someone picks up the opium pipe.

On the contrary, Kazuo Ishiguro has written a work of sensitive, loving gentleness, in which a narrow character in the end seems endearing, because there is so much left at the end of this day: we are faced with a world that, despite all its shadows, is still beautiful. How we would like to get to know the green landscapes of southern England and, of course, Darlington Castle itself! How we would enjoy seeing all this with the loving and understanding eyes of Ishiguro himself!

As for Houellebecq, he certainly does not evoke any desire to encounter the characters of his novel. With sharp and intransigent intelligence, this author has written incredibly destructive works, whose oppressive truths one must enjoy with caution, so as not to be mentally infected and to seize the opium pipe. If the books of this currently most famous French writer say anything about his nation’s frame of soul and mind, then it is by no means a positive message.

Which frame of mind and soul, which view of reality may we derive from Daniel Kehlmann‘s work, ‘Measuring the World’ and his ‘Tyll’?

In the first of these two bestsellers, the author picks up a theme that has long fascinated philosophers, including the American Edwin A. Burtt, who reflects on the systematic measuring of the world that began in Europe in the 17th century. In the following passage he vividly describes his conclusion: “The world that people had thought themselves living in – a world rich with color and sound, redolent with fragrance, filled with gladness, love and beauty, speaking everywhere of purposive harmony and creative ideals – was crowded now into minute corners in the brains of scattered organic beings. The real important world outside was a world hard, cold, colorless, silent and dead; a world of quantity, a world of mathematically computable motions in mechanical regularity.”

In the first of his two bestsellers, Kehlmann introduces two protagonists: a formerly world-renowned naturalist and a famous mathematician, each one obsessed in his own way by the science of reducing the world to measurable quantities. What the philosopher Burtt notes about the role of man in the face of this obsession, Kehlmann illustrates with narrative exuberance by means of these two men, who soon turn out to represent anti-heroes. On the one hand, we are faced with a rather unsympathetic ruffian, often acting brutally against his closest relatives – a mathematician, for whom numbers are everything and the human soul nothing. On the other hand, we get to know a world-traveling researcher, a man at home in the most elegant salons of Paris and Berlin, but who disregards half of humanity, namely women, and who treats his staff with repulsive arrogance that time and again even verges on sadism.

Kehlmann manages to show in a sometimes ironic, sometimes humorous, or even scathing way, how the uncanny fascination by a dead world of mere numbers and quantities, suffocates the lives of those who completely commit themselves to this delusion. Seen in this way, “The Measuring of the World’ is a philosophical book by a narrator who presents its main thesis with playful ease.

But at the same time Kehlmann’s book is a lot more than just that – and this addition does not put Kehlmann’s work near that of Kazuo Ishiguro, whom he admittedly admires very much, but rather near that of Michel Houellebecq. This is because the author has chosen two great historical figures as points of reference and anti-heroes: the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss and the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. For reasons that presumably say even more about the German frame of mind than that of the author himself, both persons bear little resemblance to their historical models. Houellebecq refuses to take any positive look at a past that has discredited itself by producing the hell of capitalism. Submission to a dictatorship of the Muslim Brotherhood, though not the best his compatriots could hope for themselves, had perhaps to be accepted as the only solution left to them. To be sure, Kehlmann is far less pessimistic; wit and humor, largely absent in Houellebecq, protect him against the dangers of raving radicalism, but in his distorting portrayal of two eminent Germans, who undoubtedly count among the luminaries of their country, he knows no scruple. In this influential novel, which sold no less than six million copies, he portrays the great Gauß as an arrogant choleric, repulsive because of his undiplomatic directness and ruthless or even inhumane treatment of friends and relatives. Humboldt does not fare any better. He is described as narrow-minded, cold-blooded and mischievous.

The historian Frank Holl has revealed how far this description differs from historical reality: “Alexander von Humboldt was not a man of small stature, who like a robot in uniform, rapier in his hand, busied himself with studying the jungle. He was no pedophile, arrogant, humorless, mostly bad-tempered and chauvinist researcher. Nor was he the positivistic lice counter, that he has become in Kehlmann’s novel.” The true Humboldt was a man, who during all his life was an outspoken advocate for human rights and against slavery.

The mathematician Frans Oort likewise criticizes Kehlmann’s obvious falsifications. “Kehlmann reduces these two highly interesting figures to rather flat and simple-to-understand characters.“ And „the character of the main protagonists is misrepresented in a most offensive manner.“ So the impression conveyed by Gauß’ personality is „highly unjust and biased“. These persons would hardly have spoken such a crude language as the author all too often puts in their mouth. The most worrying aspect of the book is that it conveys the wrong impression of a well-researched historical narrative while it really produces a thoroughly distorted image of two eminent public figures.

In fact, both were men of worldwide influence in their time. Ralph Waldo Emerson called Alexander von Humboldt: “one of those wonders of the world like Aristotle, like Julius Caesar … which appear from time to time, as if to show us the possibilities of the human mind. A new Humboldt biography bluntly states: “It is quite possible that no other European exercised such a great influence on the spiritual culture of Latin America in the 19th century.” In his day, Alexander von Humboldt was as famous as Napoleon. The paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould called Alexander “the world’s most famous and influential intellectual “. (Peter Watson)

Now, it is certainly part of the novelist’s artistic freedom that he must not slavishly adhere to historical reality if such deviations further his purpose. This, however, leaves us with the decisive question as to what these purposes may possibly be and what they tell us about the frame of mind and soul to be found in the author and his time.

We immediately succeed in getting much closer to answering this question once we start looking for the word ‘German’ in Daniel Kehlmann’s second important work, the ‘Tyll’. Apart from the majority of cases, where it has only a neutral indicative function (the Germans, the German language, etc.) it appears in a positive sense only in three places (pages 313, 435, 446), but we find a decidedly negative evaluation in a total of six positions (230ff, 359, 363, 460, 461, 464). With reference to the German language, for instance, we hit upon the following passage: “It sounded like a brew of moans and hard grunts, it was a language that sounded like someone was fighting against choking, as if a cow had a fit of coughing, just as if someone’s beer was coming out of his nose.”

Now, it would be absurd to identify the statements an author puts into the mouth of his characters with those he entertains himself, all the more if he oviously wants to produce some comic effect. On the other hand, an author does, of course, carefully select his characters and what they say. In his second great novel ‘Tyll’, Kehlmann continues a trend that was already apparent in ‘Measuring the World’. The weak and the small, the losers and the deadbeats of the terrible Thirty Years War are portrayed with moving and often upsetting poignancy. This applies to the fictitious figure of Nele as well as to the historically rather elusive main character, Ulenspiegel. The same attraction we feel with regard to such historically insignificant figures like the Winter King Frederick V and his wife Elizabeth Stuart who represent human failures in all their fragility.

But things change immediately when Kehlmann meets the great men of history – then he becomes inexorable and has no qualms in turning facts into fakes! The German scholar Athanasius Kircher was in his time not less famous than Alexander von Humboldt one and a half centuries later. Why does Kehlmann in his novel ‘Tyll’ transform him into a ridiculous, narrow-minded personage just like he had done before with the two protagonists in ‘Measuring’? Why does he slander this important historical figure by making Kircher appear as a henchman of the Inquisition, while in reality the great savant had to protect himself from it? And anyway – why is the term ‘German’ as it appears in ‘Tyll’ mostly used in a sense of derogation and derision?

To be sure, Ishiguro too is concerned with ‘Great History’ – after all, big names and big symbols are additional magnets that attract the curiosity of large readerships. Darlington Hall and its ruling Lord serve as symbols for the British nobility. Ishiguro makes a deliberate use of Great History and by no means does he conceal its hidden shadows. But Ishiguro totally abstains from making a fun of history. That is exactly what Kehlmann does. As long as the German author freely invents history, the latter finds mercy before his eyes, but as soon as he is confronted with true history, that is, with once famous men like Gauss, Humboldt or Kircher, he feels an irresistible urge to dismantle it with acrimonious mockery.

We know, authors too are children of their own time and they have to adjust themselves – consciously or unconsciously – to the expectations of their audience. One might think that it is the persistent trauma of Nazi crimes that still forbids a successful author to refer to the past and even to the term ‘German’ itself in other ways than with an unrelenting critical attitude.

But this explanation seems beside the point, as the Frenchman Houellebecq is even more radical in his pessimism. The state of mind, which compels these two leading modern writers to think so negatively about the past or even to make it the object of deliberate falsification, must have more deep lying roots. Could it be true that the ruthless questioning and destruction of what was once admired as cultural heritage has turned into a global trend prompted by the onslaught of industrial civilization? The latter has successfully reduced man to the two functions as a producer and a consumer of technical novelties, which leaves hardly any place for such niceties as history and great man of times past.

In other words, could it be that even artists are unable to resist the global trend, so that they too have become its puppets like everyone else? If this is true, the measuring of the world, once restricted to outward reality, would now have conquered even man’s soul. Victorious technical civilization orders him to turn his eyes away from useless history or even to make it the object of mockery.

Or should we look for an alternative, perhaps even more urgent motivation? Is this aversion to and maltreatment of the past due to a panic fear of nationalist pig heads of the extreme fringe? If some far-right fool makes a positive statement about Gauß, Alexander von Humboldt, Schiller or Frederick the Great, does this suffice to make all left-wingers blacken these figures or dispose of them in the dustbin of history? Supposed this explanation were true, then again we would find it hard to admire our leading writers as seismographs of the collective soul. They would rather turn out to be controlled by their foes.

In any case, these two explanations are perfectly congruent with the fact that teaching in German and History has successively been reduced in schools and universities for several decades. And they are perfectly in line with that decline of literary knowledge that prompted Marcel Reich-Ranicki to create his own canon of exemplary books. Furthermore, everybody knows that the so-called Bologna Process tends to replace education as understood by Wilhelm von Humboldt with mere educational training that primarily serves economic interests. In the cultural sphere governments are on the retreat, so that schools and universities have to content themselves with the alms of private sponsors.

Michel Houellebecq and Daniel Kehlmann are, each in his own way, leading intellectuals of our time. Certainly, they would fiercely reject the accusation of acting like the obedient puppets of the prevailing zeitgeist. But since Freud we know that substantial differences may occur between a person’s conscious utterances and his unconscious behavior. As soon as we turn away from the sublime literary intelligence of both authors moving down the ladder to where the prevailing zeitgeist expresses itself with crude directness, we are confronted with a formula of frightening simplicity: “Fuck you Göthe!” This is Kehlmann turned brutal and trivial but still with a funny undertone. It is our modern zeitgeist put into a nutshell.

What a difference when we turn to the Englishman Kazuo Ishiguro. The remains of a day in and around Darlington are shown to us in an unforgettable way. Although the author describes a narrow character, he manages to bring him close to us like a friend. We understand: the same narrowness we share – each of us in his own way – with this man, perhaps we may even at times be as amiable. In Ishiguro’s work, small and big history come together; with their splendor and shadow they make up the identity of its protagonists. This common history, this fundament of collective identity, certainly deserves to be caringly kept alive even if it does not only consist of fascinating reminiscences alone but of many very painful ones too. Perhaps it is the outsider’s privilege – Ishiguro being, as his name implies, an immigrant from Japan – to face his new environment with that deep amazement that it is much more rare to find among natives.