"Female Sobriety":Feminism, Motherhood, and the Works of Julia Franck
Following the renewed interest in the role of motherhood in Germany, a wave of articles and books has recently reassessed the women's movement of the 1970s. The author Julia Franck, winner of the 2007 German Book Prize, is an active participant in these discussions, not only in speeches and essays but also in her works of fiction. In telling the story of an unwilling mother, her latest novel, Die Mittagsfrau (Lady Midday, 2007), both participates in and fundamentally undermines the terms of the motherhood debates. In this essay I contextualize Franck's work within popular discourse around feminism, focusing in particular on Franck's own term "female sobriety," which she uses to characterize her style of writing and that of many female colleagues. Based on Silvia Bovenschen's theory of a feminine aesthetic, "female sobriety" is just one facet of Franck's engagement with women's issues and feminist theory. (AMH)
In recent years, a wave of articles and books has emerged in the German media that reassesses the women's movement of the 1970s. Inspired in part by the debates surrounding motherhood and the decline in the German birth rate, journalists, television personalities, literary critics, and authors are taking positions that either oppose or defend feminism. These discussions exhibit a significant disconnect from the developments within academic feminism in the past twenty years: the majority of female participants in this discussion are heterosexual, white, middle to upper-middle class and highly educated. Notably absent are the voices of lesbian, minority, and working-class women. These texts also reflect little or no awareness of developments in gender studies, relying instead on what are often essentialist understandings of male and female nature. Nonetheless, the renewed interest in achievements of second-wave [End Page 209] feminism suggests a popular awareness of feminist issues that is worthy of note.
Among the many women to participate in these discussions is the author Julia Franck, who won the German Book Prize in 2007 for her novel Die Mittagsfrau (Lady Midday, 2007).1 This novel explores the life of a woman who unwillingly becomes a mother and ultimately abandons her child shortly after the end of World War II. Although Die Mittagsfrau is the most controversial of her works, it is not the first to speak to popular discourse about women, and indeed all of her works are predominantly concerned with women's experiences. Franck entered the literary scene in 1999, not with her debut novel (Der neue Koch, or The New Cook, which was published in 1997), but with the advent of the Fräuleinwunder phenomenon. The "Girl Wonder" was a term coined in 1999 by Volker Hage in an article for Der Spiegel. In this article, Hage grouped together young female authors and characterized them thus: "The young authors write about the erotic and love [ … ] in a matter-of-fact way and without illusions" (246).2 Scholars universally reject the term as a category based on presumed commonalities that do not exist among the female authors, but the media and publishing companies picked up this catch phrase and used it to market books by women in the late 1990s. Inclusion in the Fräuleinwunder guaranteed the author greater media coverage and higher sales figures, but it came at the cost of neglecting the more serious qualities of the works and relying instead on superficial representations of the writer.
Franck critiqued this superficiality and by so doing began her association with popular conceptions of feminism. In 2000 the German newspaper Die Welt commissioned Franck to comment on the recent popularity of German women authors, and Franck wrote the essay "The Wonder (of) Woman" ("Das Wunder Frau"), a piece that condemns the literary category of the Fräuleinwunder as a sexist and potentially damaging marketing label, and which I discuss in greater detail below. The editors, however, declined to publish it, finding Francks essay "fundamentally feminist" (Franck, "Re: Ihre Frage").3 Yet when asked whether she is a feminist, Franck responded, "Yes, I do regard myself as a feminist-minded woman, but I do not know whether I am a feminist author" ("Re: MLA Vortrag").4 Indeed, as evidence of a lack of feminism in Francks work, her critics have pointed out that she often represents women unsympathetically and that the characters, without exception, fail (Franck, Interview).5 All these assessments of Franck rely on a conception of feminism derived from the German women's movement of the 1970s, one characterized by an insistence on equal treatment for men and women, a critique of patriarchy, and an unfailingly positive representation [End Page 210] of heroines as role models. Critics and scholars are interested in the extent to which Franck demonstrates a connection to 1970s feminism, and whether her work can be read through a feminist lens. These seemingly related investigations result in two distinct readings of Franck and her works: one as a feminist woman according to a popular understanding of feminism in the media, and another as a feminist author along the lines of scholars working with feminist theory.
In this article I examine the tensions that exist between Franck's feminist persona and her ambiguous representations of women. I begin with the popular discourse around women, feminism, and motherhood in Germany today, as well as the mediascape that provides the context for the publication of Die Mittagsfrau and for Franck's public statements and appearances. Connecting Franck's popular image as a feminist with the philosophy that informs her work, I draw a connection between Silvia Bovenschen's theorization of a feminine aesthetic and Franck's term "weibliche Nüchternheit," which can be translated as "female sobriety."6 I argue that Franck's attitude toward women in contemporary society in fact reveals considerable indebtedness to the women's movement of the 1970s, and that it is thus worth analyzing her own uncertainty regarding her connection to feminism. Her novels and short stories, though not obviously feminist, fundamentally question the basis of popular discussions of feminism by destabilizing conventional assumptions of female identity and desire.
The Motherhood Debate
The historical role of feminism in Germany has been a topic of general discussion since 2006, connected as it is with the perennial concern that "the Germans are dying out" (Radisch, Schule 15).7 The blame for the decline in birth rates is put on professional women who are so busy focusing on their careers or their Selbstverwirklichung (personal development) that they have few, if any, children (Herman, Eva-Prinzip 37). This is certainly not the first time that the birth rate has declined in Germany: both in the nineteenth century and since the middle of the 1960s there were marked decreases in the number of births (Beck Gernsheim 9). Other Western European countries have also experienced population decline: the birth rate per woman is lower in Greece, Italy, and Spain than in Germany, and in Eastern Europe the birth rates are even lower (11). Yet the German media quickly inflated these statistics to create a national crisis, employing a highly classed, racialized, and gendered discourse that blamed middle-class, white German women for [End Page 211] denying the nation a baby boom with their educational and career aspirations. Der Spiegel was among the first news periodicals to report on the crisis, with the dramatic cover story, "Each for Himself: How the Child Deficit Created a Society of Egotists" (Wolf).8 One of the primary questions raised both in this article and in the debate itself was whether feminism has encouraged women to become more selfish in pursuing careers over starting families, an attitude toward women that fundamentally undermined the right to choose a career, children, or both.
Many women have contributed to this discussion, but I will give a brief overview only of the two prominent women whose articles Franck critiques in her essay on motherhood: Eva Herman and Iris Radisch. These women represent the two most common "solutions" to this crisis: either to return to traditional conceptions of motherhood and declare feminism as failed, or to further women's emancipation with more support from men and the government. In the political magazine Cicero, Herman published an essay titled "Emancipation—a Mistake?" in which she directly faults feminism for the decline in birth rates: "We are dying out. This is because the role of woman was problematized, discussed and reformed for so long that the uncertainty drove women to reject the maternal role—and men to reject the provider role. When woman becomes man's competitor, he feels neither connection to nor responsibility for her" ("Emanzipation" 116).9 According to Herman, the consequences of feminism (represented by both Alice Schwarzer and Simone de Beauvoir, and perpetuated by the field of Gender Studies) include the masculinization of women, the feminization of men, higher divorce rates, and developmental delays in children whose mothers are employed (114). In both this article and in her subsequent book, Das Eva-Prinzip: Für eine neue Weiblichkeit (The Eve-Principle: For a New Femininity, 2006), Herman relies on the Bible, biological determinism, and anecdotal evidence from friends and acquaintances to substantiate her claims. Many women responded negatively to Hermans provocative article, including the Federal Minister for Family Affairs Ursula von der Leyen in the June 2006 issue of Cicero, and numerous others in a variety of venues.
Literary critic Iris Radisch is one of the louder, leftist voices in this discussion, and she dismisses Herman's prescription for the future of women in German society. A staunch supporter of feminism, Radisch nonetheless critiques it: "Equality of man and woman is a wonderful thing. We must defend it, even if it doesn't work. With children, it doesn't work" ("Preis" 59).10 Feminism has allowed women to both work and be mothers but, according to Radisch's analysis, men have not adjusted their workloads accordingly. She claims that they refuse to live up to their [End Page 212] responsibility as parents; even paying child support simply allows men to be dads "per Online-Banking" (59). Radisch asserts that women's equality is only illusory as long as men are not supportive, a situation that already existed, for example, in East Germany, as working women came home at the end of the day to their second and third "shifts" of housework and childcare. As Franck states more pointedly, "Iris Radisch really believes that her generation is the first to try to manage the balancing act between career and children" ("Re: Mutterschaft").11 In some respects, Radisch's contribution is insightful, for example in connecting the concern about declining birthrates with the fear of the "impending collapse of the West" inspired by the flood of immigrants into Germany since the "Economic Miracle" of the 1950s (Radisch, "Preis" 59).12 For the most part, however, her book, Die Schule der Frauen (The School of Women, 2007), continues to reinvent the wheel, rather than move forward with the help of contemporary feminist thought or a strong understanding of the achievements of 1970s feminism. Ultimately, Radisch presents a solution to the birth rate "crisis" that preserves an old-fashioned, elitist, and white definition of Germanness: she argues that men must chip in and help shoulder the burden of parenthood in order for educated German women to want to combine motherhood with a professional career.
Franck's essay "Lust am Leben" (Zest for Life) in the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger brings another perspective to the motherhood debate by questioning the class-specific assumption that both Herman and Radisch make: namely, that women can choose to stay home to care for their children. From the beginning of her article, Franck makes her position quite clear: "In the meantime, career and children belong to my responsibilities, which I cope with daily under constant stress. I support my children with my career. If I did not do so, no father could. Instead, I would live off of the government" ("Lust am Leben").13 Single parenting and financial need are all but wholly absent from Herman's and Radisch's publications since both women propose solutions that assume financial stability, if not affluence, and a two-parent household. Yet Franck feels that work is not only an economic but also a personal necessity: "In my eyes, children are no replacement for that which I can experience (in addition to supporting our existence) in my job," she writes.14 She also observes, "Myself the daughter of a formerly employed, single mother—and a woman who eventually lived for decades on social welfare—I would like to point out that I remember the time when my mother worked as much happier and stronger than the time that followed."15 As a woman who was born during the feminist movement and who became a mother in a post-feminist society, Franck demands the sense of self-fulfillment and identity that comes from pursuing her career. [End Page 213]
Unlike the two authors discussed above, Franck does not see the decline in birth rate as a problem, nor does she feel the need to blame feminism for it.16 She also strongly disagrees with Herman's suggestion that mothers return to the home and that society re-embrace the nuclear family: "I do not know whether greater harmony ruled in the families of a hundred years ago, but I will venture to doubt it. I consider it a pretty and false idea that women a hundred years ago were less drained and exhausted than today. [ … ] In earnest, the challenges placed on the modern woman in Western Europe today are numerous and not easy to master—let alone while constantly flushed with happiness."17 Franck does not believe that feminism is to blame for the difficulties that women face today. Rather, she points out all that women have gained: "The values that democracy and emancipation have achieved are for me undoubtedly great. Without them I would not have received an education and could hardly choose with which man or woman I share my bed and thoughts today."18 Without drawing a distinction between the women's movement of the early 1900s and that of the 1970s, Franck adds, "Strictly speaking, I must thank emancipation even for cycling, for swimming, for writing, for learning."19 Notably, Franck does not distinguish among different periods of the women's movement. Instead, she represents women's emancipation as an evolving, presumably unfinished process.
Franck belongs to a generation of women who were too young to participate in the women's movement but benefited from its achievements. Yet she distinguishes herself from her many contemporaries, who express a naïve belief that feminism should have solved all of women's problems by now. Herman and Radisch, in both their books, voice considerable frustration at the continued challenges they face as working mothers. A younger generation of women has penned their own contributions to this discussion, some positive, others more critical. Meredith Haaf, Susanne Klingner, and Barbara Streidl, authors of Wir Alphamädchen: Warum Feminismus das Leben schöner macht (We Alpha-Girls: Why Feminism Makes Life Better, 2008), demonstrate a solid understanding of the goals, philosophy, and achievements of 1970s feminism. They begin their book by tackling the lingering discomfort with the term: "Enough of this nonsense! We are feminists. All of us. Because we all want exactly that which feminism wants: equal circumstances for women and men" (Haaf 13).20 Yet the majority of their cohorts are not only unfamiliar with the theoretical underpinnings of feminism but also express no sense of appreciation for what the women's movement has achieved. The author Jana Hensel, for example, has co-written a book with Elisabeth Raether on young women's experiences in Germany today called Neue deutsche Mädchen [End Page 214] (New German Girls, 2008). Hensel betrays an ignorance or superficial understanding of women's emancipation, wondering, for example, what happened to the "equality" achieved for women of the GDR, suggesting that she thinks of the former East as a kind of feminist utopia. During an interview with Hensel, the journalist Claudia Voigt sums up Hensel's perspective with the following question: "Women want children, women want to be employed. And why, damn it, is that still so difficult?" (Voigt 168).21 Sociologist Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim describes this generation as follows:
In the eyes of many young women the glass seems to be half empty. Because they grew up with the credo of equal opportunities, because they take them already as a matter of course to be a standard, historical progress becomes a kind of background framework that they no longer perceive. What they do notice, by contrast, are the deficits, the shortcomings, the not honored promises.(135)22
Caught in the frustrating position of expecting equality while experiencing inequality, young women are looking for examples of women's emancipation and ways in which women's current situation can be improved.
Franck is younger than Alice Schwarzer's generation on the one hand, and older than the Alphamädchen on the other, and she represents a current of thought that bridges the two. Franck has worked publicly with some of the icons of German feminism, such as Schwarzer and Silvia Bovenschen and remains actively engaged in discussions surrounding women's role in contemporary German society. For example, Schwarzer invited Franck to participate in a public discussion with Austrian author Marlene Streeruwitz about the relevance of Simone de Beauvoir for the current status of women in German-speaking countries.23 Again, Franck's public persona as a feminist woman is becoming more pronounced, as the feminist magazine Emma not only asked her to serve as a judge for their "Emma" prize for women journalists but has also declared Julia Franck to be an author "who, since her first novel appeared in 1997, belongs to the most important German women authors of her generation" (Dürr 16).24 As an author, her relationship to women's emancipation is less clear but no less strong. She reveals her indebtedness to the women's movement in statements like the following: "Unfortunately, in contrast to Herman's cheerful fiction, the classic division of [gender] roles never led to lasting harmony and peace, not anywhere in the world, neither in the family nor in society."25 Indeed, her novels and short stories represent non-nuclear familial constellations: single mothers and ineffectual or absent fathers, [End Page 215] none of whom embrace the traditional roles of mother-housewife and father-breadwinner. Franck's writings reflect this and other struggles in women's lives, and she remains a feminist voice in German literature in her commitment to representing women's experiences, particularly how they negotiate the mother-child relationship, both as mother and as child. Yet to claim that Franck, by virtue of being a woman and an author, is marginalized as an author who writes only for women would be incorrect. In this next section of my article, I turn to the status of women's literature in Germany.
"Female Sobriety" and Women's Literature
The sudden popularity of the Fräuleinwunder in 1999 reopened discussions of literature by, for, and about women, both in the popular press and academic scholarship. While the term Fräuleinwunder was rejected as a condescending and sexist term, there was considerable discussion about the continued value of grouping authors together by gender, though preferably with an alternative title. Christine Frisch and Hester Baer propose two different approaches to contemporary German literature by women. One argues against, and the other for the continued use of the term Frauenliteratur. Inseparable from the discussion of the term is its connection to the women's movement.
Frisch bases her article on the assumption that Frauenliteratur (by which she means political literature affiliated with the women's movement) and contemporary women's fiction have little, if anything, in common. This thesis should not be understood as a critique of contemporary literature; on the contrary, Frisch finds contemporary literature by women to be very promising: "Is the women's movement dead? Do women not write anymore? I think this [claim] can and should not remain uncontested. Quite the opposite. I believe there has never been such a variety as in recent years" (103).26 She argues that, through this very variety, women can no longer be relegated to the Schublade or shelf of Frauenliteratur. Yet the examples of alternatives that Frisch uses fall within their own Schubladen: "from trivial every-day fairy tales and humorous satires to women's Krimis and grotesque-surrealistic or downright so-called splatter novels" (104).27 Frisch also compares novels by German women to soap operas (105) and makes reference to the category of the Powerfrau literature, which is similar to American and British "Chick Lit" (106-08). All of these examples refer to genre literature. I do not mean to discredit the subversive potential in genre literature, yet, according to Frischs interpretation, women authors, while [End Page 216] no longer pigeonholed within the category of Frauenliteratur, are still confined to specific genres such as crime novels (Krimis) and Chick Lit.28 Furthermore, the association between genre literature and television serials (soap operas, sitcoms, Krimis) underscores the impression that women produce the "short, easily-consumable" (105),29 which in turn reinforces a gendered division of fiction into Trivialliteratur (feminine) and Literatur (masculine). In the end, although this interpretation celebrates today's spectrum of women's literature in German, it leads to the unsettling conclusion that women still do not write within the unqualified category of literature.
Hester Baer, in contrast, makes a strong argument for the continued relevance of the term Frauenliteratur.30 Although the term implies a level of feminist engagement that counters the reality of contemporary literature, Baer's interpretation of Frauenliteratur leaves room for the ambiguities of contemporary authors' positions in relation to feminism. Responding to the authors' oft-cited claims that they do not identify with German women writers of the 1970s, Baer points out that literary scholars can easily challenge this assertion (5–6).31 She does critique the term Fräuleinwunder as derogatory and inaccurate, but she also faults scholars for not seeing past this alignment of the Fräuleinwunder with Chick Lit: "Yet despite their many connections to the longstanding tradition of women's writing in the German context, however, even the few critics who do regard these young authors as serious writers have generally considered Frauenliteratur as an irrelevant category for analyzing their work" (6).32 Choosing to move beyond the Fräuleinwunder versus feminism dichotomy, Baer expands the concept of Frauenliteratur to include women's literature written "after feminism," as her title suggests (1). Using Rita Felski's book Literature After Feminism to move away from post-feminism in the sense of anti-feminism, Baer concludes, "I mean to suggest that feminist conceptions of literature can be brought to bear productively in analyzing current cultural production by women" (10–11). She sees potential in an updated concept of Frauenliteratur to provide the framework for discussing contemporary literature by women:
Always a controversial term, Frauenliteratur has been linked historically to the stereotype of Trivialliteratur, a link that certainly informs the rejection of the category "women's literature" by Hermann and other young writers. Yet, as feminist critics have argued, Frauenliteratur has also consistently posed a challenge to the aesthetic and thematic conventions of German literature, offering a critique of language, and/or intervening in mainstream writing and [End Page 217] reading practices to highlight the gendered positions of both authors and readers.(2)
I am uneasy with this conclusion, since it still relegates women's writing to its own category, yet I agree with Baer that the concept of Frauenliteratur may continue to provide scholars with a fruitful means to explore women's writing. I would stress that the problem with the term Frauenliteratur, just as with the Fräuleinwunder, is that it separates women's writing from other male-dominated categories of fiction, including the "high" category of literature. There is, after all, no Herrenwunder or Wunder der Jungs (Man or Boy Wonder). As Franck has pointed out, there is no Männerliteratur (men's literature), and she finds it useless to group together writers simply because they are women ("Re: MLA Vortrag").
Yet Franck developed the term "weibliche Nüchternheit" because she sees both the style and the subject matter of her work to be genderspecific. From its very inception, the Fräuleinwunder was predicated on the gender-specific commonalities among the authors in question. Hage justifies his creation of the Fräuleinwunder by asking (rhetorically), "Is it coincidence that the female beginners for the most part appear less halfhearted and fussy than their male colleagues—without the narrative safeguarding strategies which have long been prevalent and are used arbitrarily in this century?" (245).33 Peter Graves was among the first to refute this claim in his seminal article on the Fräuleinwunder, and in turn scholars such as Anke Biendarra have based a critique of this term on the absence of "a supposedly unifying approach to the erotic" (Graves 196; Biendarra 213). Franck, on the other hand, finds that a unifying approach does exist, and that this approach is divided along gendered lines. In the essay "The Wonder (of) Woman," Franck writes:
However, in the case of a woman the same writing style must unfortunately have a feminist tint in order to avoid suspicion of feminized sentimentality or adolescent, foul-mouthed provocation. I have noticed in the books of my female colleagues that they prefer an unemotional narrative style. [ … ] The fear of the sweet and the nice, of the touching and the maudlin, is great.34
Thus, Franck does not deny but rather embraces this difference. She would gladly dispel the category of the Fräuleinwunder, and proposes "weibliche Nüchternheit" as an alternative. This term groups together female authors because of their style, their treatment of subject matter, [End Page 218] and possibly their examination of women's life experiences—but not primarily because of an author's gender.
"Weibliche Nüchternheit" can be seen as Franck's answer to the question Silvia Bovenschen posed in the 1985 collection Feminist Aesthetics: "Is There a Feminine Aesthetic?"35 In her essay, Bovenschen considers the difference between male and female perception and asks whether it creates gendered aesthetics. Bovenschen makes an important distinction: "Is there a feminine aesthetic? Certainly there is, if one is talking about aesthetic awareness and modes of sensory perception. Certainly not, if one is talking about an unusual variant of artistic production or about a painstakingly constructed theory of art" (49). In other words, she sees neither the necessity nor the advantage of creating a specifically female style of art. In fact, she cautions against it, warning that such art would be co-opted or institutionalized by men, only to be ultimately belittled or dismissed: "Feminist art is not a stylistic trend," Bovenschen maintains. This statement then begs the question that Bovenschen both poses and answers: "How can the specifically feminine modes of perception be communicated?" (37).36 Bovenschen finds the answer in "the predisposition to feminine/sensual cognition and perception." That is, the feminine is inherent in perception, not in the style or manner in which a perceived reality is communicated. In other words, art created by a woman and informed by a feminine perspective will de facto exhibit a "feminine aesthetic." Such a close connection between aesthetic and gender would support the continued relevance of categories for women authors like Frauenliteratur or "weibliche Nüchternheit."
Yet Bovenschen's approach is delimited by its location within a certain period of German feminist thought. Her theory suggests a universalism that connects all female experience, an idea that all women who experience life as women will demonstrate a "feminine aesthetic." Similarly, the terms "weibliche Nüchternheit" and even Frauenliteratur seem to imply a basic commonality of experience among women—regardless of social, economic, and cultural factors—that flirts with essentialism. Furthermore, all three theories depend on a clear conception of females as opposed to males, a binary that has been critically undermined by Judith Butler's Gender Trouble (1990). Regardless of whether one has internalized Butler's theory, the idea of women's "nature," a la Eva Herman, is regarded as highly objectionable in feminist scholarship. Yet where does this leave the idea of gender-based categories of writing? Would not this instability of gender roles undermine such categories as the Fräuleinwunder and even Frauenliteratur? [End Page 219]
This need not be the case with "weibliche Nüchternheit," since it proceeds from the idea that women write differently from men—not because gender dictates writing style but instead shapes reception. In "The Miracle (of) Woman," Franck points out that certain stylistic devices, like "foul-mouthed provocation," are more acceptable for men. Heiner Müller, for example, may use the word "fuck" more freely than women authors. "Weibliche Nüchternheit" has more to do with the gendered reading of texts than with the genders of those who produce them. Franck does not assert that all women write the same way or that they share a common way of perceiving the world. Instead, she develops a term that applies to authors whose mode of communication is influenced or limited by stereotypes of "masculine" and "feminine" writing. Barred from the use of language supposedly appropriate for men, yet unwilling to pursue a style expected of women, Franck and her colleagues create a third path and develop another way of communicating experience that fits into neither category. In the next and final section of my article, I consider some of the ways in which feminist theory can illuminate Francks works of fiction.
Bodies of Fiction
The vast majority of scholarship on Franck reads her work through a feminist lens. Anke Biendarra, for example, reveals the subversive potential in the incestuous relationship between two sisters in the short story "Bäuchlings," or "On Her Stomach." Beret Norman considers the power relationships constructed by surveillance in Franck's works, paying particular attention to the role of gender in these complex constellations. In the collection Pushing at Boundaries, Lucy Macnab examines the construction of gender and identity in Franck's first novel, Der neue Koch. Nearly all of the growing body of scholarship on Franck's work is informed by feminist or gender theory.
There is some debate as to whether Franck is "a successor of women's literature of the 1970s," as Biendarra phrases it. Franck does not see her work as a continuation of the feminist agenda commonly associated with Frauenliteratur. "These texts, in [Franck's] opinion, were written with a conventional understanding of women's roles in society and all too often portrayed them as idealized models" (Biendarra 217). Instead, Franck prefers (female) characters who fail and who are flawed, an approach that critics condemn: [End Page 220]
[Franck's] renunciation of moral judgments, combined with her use of the narrative perspective, provokes uneasiness especially among female reviewers. They often characterize her prose as cold and heartless and ask if her bad girls even have a soul [ … ]. These reviewers seem to find it difficult to set aside their political expectations when Franck consciously refuses to speak out in favor of the improved possibilities of women in contemporary society.(218)
For example, many have cited Franck's prize winning short story "Mir nichts, dir nichts" ("Just Like That") as an anti-feminist example of women betraying each other for a man.37 Certainly, there is no feminist utopia to be found in Franck's works: they lack a universal solidarity among women (though there is support and closeness between some of the female characters), as well as a sense of female independence from patriarchal society and strong female role models. On the other hand, Biendarra sees Franck and her colleagues as belonging to "a new, post-feminist generation that is motivated to portray relations between the sexes and between women more ironically and distantly than its predecessors," and as one that sees gender roles as fluid (232).
Yet, despite Franck's protest that she does not feel a connection to women's literature of the 1970s, her works of fiction remain stubbornly connected to this literary legacy. In "Is There a Feminine Aesthetic?" Bovenschen points out:
Just to refresh our memory, Simone de Beauvoir established long ago that men mistake their descriptive perspective for absolute truth. The scandalous situation, then, is: the equation of truth with the masculine perspective, that is, with everything observed, examined and portrayed from a male point of view, which we were made to adopt very early in life.(26)
Because Franck's work concerns itself primarily with representing the perspective and experience of women, it moves toward correcting this "scandalous situation," much as over fifty years of women's writing had done before. Returning to Die Mittagsfrau, Franck uses the novel to capture a careful, at times painful illustration of one woman's experience of motherhood, daughterhood, and womanhood. In a review of Die Mittagsfrau in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the author muses, "The book shows that literature can try to come to terms with something that the non-literary treatment only unwillingly messes around with: sharpening our gaze for the abyss, for which neither the progressive nor [End Page 221] the regressive is a category and that will not be reached by the deliberations of social desirability" ("Das kalte Herz").38 In other words, literature can provide insight into a situation that is otherwise made abstract and lifeless by polemics and statistics. With her fiction writing, Franck continues to consider the questions that motivate the public debates surrounding motherhood and women's roles, giving voice to women who represent a less visible perspective. In this way, she continues a dialog with the media and scholarly considerations of mothering, contributing to the discussion with her own insights into women's experiences.
Although not a clear polemic in the same manner as "Lust am Leben," Die Mittagsfrau forces readers to question some of the basic assumptions underlying the debates surrounding motherhood in Germany today. For example, Eva Herman declares, "The mother's need for closeness to her child is, as described, a constant of human behavior" (Herman, Eva-Prinzip 131).39 In the novel, however, neither the protagonist Helene nor her mother expresses a desire for each other. Helene, furthermore, expresses no desire for her child. When she suspects she might have become pregnant by her lover Carl, Helene has an abortion. At the beginning of the novel, she fears that a child would interfere with her professional ambitions. By the novel's end, she fears that her son will need more of her than she is able to give. Those searching for a clear message on motherhood or female emancipation in this novel will be disappointed. Very much grounded in its historical context, the novel represents the increasing—but by no means unlimited—freedom available to women of the time period. For example, Helene wishes to study medicine and become a doctor. While her friend Leontine does reach this goal, Helene is unable to attend medical school for financial reasons. The young women in the novel smoke, attend parties, and bob their hair, reveling in the freedom of Weimar Berlin. Their education and training enables them to work as nurses or doctors and thus become financially independent. Yet this novel raises more questions than it answers. Certainly, Franck chose to represent an atypical, emancipated woman, yet she does not hold Helene up to the reader as an example or heroine or woman to be emulated. Although Helene rejects motherhood, it is not clear whether this action should be condemned or condoned. In sum, it is difficult to draw conclusions about Francks view of motherhood based on the novel alone.
Yet, despite its historical context, Die Mittagsfrau continues to engage with today's motherhood debates. It illustrates Radisch's point: "Children need [ … ] more than matching socks. We remember: they need loving speech, reading aloud, singing, story-telling, common [End Page 222] experiences" ("Preis" 59).40 Franck's novel provides an example of what happens when children do not receive these things, when a child is emotionally neglected, regardless of a woman's status as mother or worker. It asks whether all women want children, regardless of their socio-economic status. It asks whether women should have children. Perhaps most radical: Franck tells the story of a woman who rejected her son not because of a desire for Selbstverwirklichung or for freedom, but because motherhood cost the protagonist more than she was capable of giving. The subtext of the press coverage that refers to Helene's "monstrous act" is the role of women—more specifically, of mothers—in contemporary German society.41
As discussions of feminism in Germany continue, Franck will remain an active and important participant in the debate. Owing a significant debt to the women's movement of the 1970s, Franck and her colleagues act as a bridge between feminism's past and future achievements. Certainly, as even Eva Herman points out, the intensity of the response to the issue at hand makes clear that "We have not—by far—reached the end of the discussion about feminism" (Eva-Prinzip 12).42 But who said that we have? The assumption that one, single form of feminism existed and is now "over" is tantamount to saying that there is one, universal female experience that all women know and have accepted.
Alexandra Merley Hill is Visiting Assistant Professor at Williams College. She has presented on Julia Franck and contemporary German literature at the GSA, MLA and WiG conferences and has published on Franck and contemporary German art. Currently she and Florence Feiereisen are co-editing an anthology on Sound Studies titled German Soundscapes of (Post)Modernity.
1. At the time of publication, the proposed title of the English translation is The Blind Side of the Heart, with a tentative publication date of 2009.
2. All translations from the original German are my own. "Über Erotik und Liebe, [ … ] schreiben die jungen Autorinnen allesamt nüchtern und ohne Illusionen."
3. The editor used the term "fundamentalfeministisch."
4. "Ja, ich halte mich schon für eine feministisch denkende Frau—ob ich eine feministische Schriftstellerin bin, weiß ich nicht."
5. This lack of solidarity among women is mentioned by Andreas Nentwich in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, an anonymous author writing in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and Anke Biendarra in her article "Gen(d)eration Next," to name a few. Franck also recognizes the pattern of flawed protagonists in her works and simply offers the response that she finds flawed characters much more interesting than heroes. See Interview. [End Page 223]
6. See Franck's essay "Das Wunder Frau" in this volume.
7. The original German is "Die Deutschen sterben aus." For a more measured approach to the decline in birth rates, see the book Die Kinderfrage heute (The Child Question Today) by the sociologist Elizabeth Beck-Gernsheim.
8. "Jeder für sich. Wie der Kindermangel eine Gesellschaft von Egoisten schafft."
9. Original title: "Die Emanzipation—ein Irrtum?" Original German quotation: "Wir sterben aus. Und das, weil die Rolle der Frau so lange problematisiert, diskutiert und umgeformt wurde, bis die Verunsicherung die Frauen in die Verweigerung der Mutterrolle führte—und die Männer in die Verweigerung der Versorgerrolle. Wenn die Frau zur Konkurrentin des Mannes wird, spürt er weder Bindung noch Verantwortung für sie."
10. "Die Gleichberechtigung von Mann und Frau ist eine wunderbare Sache. Wir müssen sie verteidigen, auch wenn sie nicht funktioniert. Mit Kindern funktioniert sie nicht."
11. "Iris Radisch glaubt wirklich, ihre Generation sei die erste, die den Spagat zwischen Beruf und Kindern versuche zu schaffen."
12. "drohenden Kollaps des Westens"
13. Note that this was written before Franck won the German Book Prize, which changed her economic situation. Before the win, Franck supported herself and her two children on less than 15,000 Euro per year. See Großman. Original German: "Inzwischen gehören Beruf und Kinder zu meiner Verantwortung, die ich tagtäglich im Dauerstress meistere. Mit meinem Beruf ernähre ich meine Kinder. Würde ich es nicht tun, könnte es kein Vater, sondern läge ich dem Staat auf der Tasche."
14. "Aber wäre mein Leben wirklich ruhiger, und wären meine Kinder glücklicher? Kinder sind in meinen Augen kein Ersatz für das, was ich neben der Erwirtschaftung unserer Existenz im Beruf erfahren kann."
15. "Selbst Tochter einer ehemals berufstätigen, alleinstehenden Mutter und schließlich über Jahrzehnte von der Sozialhilfe lebenden Frau, möchte ich darauf hinweisen, dass ich die Zeit, in der meine Mutter gearbeitet hat als eine weit fröhlichere und stärkere in Erinnerung habe, als die Zeit danach."
16. In a different venue, Franck has commented, "I see no reason why, from a long-term perspective, the Germans (of all people) should not and may not die out" ("ich sehe keinen Sinn darin, warum ausgerechnet die Deutschen langfristig gesehen nicht aussterben sollen und dürfen"; "Re: Ihre Frage").
17. "Ob in den Familien vor hundert Jahren größere Harmonie herrschte, weiß ich nicht, wage es aber zu bezweifeln. Dass die Frauen vor hundert Jahren weniger ausgelaugt und erschöpft waren als heute, [End Page 224] halte ich für eine schöne und falsche Idee. [ … ] Tatsächlich sind die Herausforderungen an die moderne Frau in Westeuropa zahlreich und nicht einfach, geschweige denn im ständigen Glücksrausch zu bewältigen [ … ]."
18. "Die Werte, die Demokratie und Emanzipation geschaffen haben, sind für mich zweifellos große, ohne sie hätte ich keinerlei Bildung erfahren und könnte mir wohl kaum aussuchen, mit welchem Mann oder welcher Frau ich heute mein Bett und meine Gedanken teile."
19. "Selbst das Fahrradfahren muss ich streng genommen der Emanzipation danken, das Schwimmen, das Schreiben, das Lernen." Franck also raises the issue of race in her essay by briefly posing the question, "Are we talking about genetic Germans when we talk about childlessness?" ("[S]prechen wir vom genetisch Deutschen, wenn wir von unserer Kinderlosigkeit sprechen?"). However, she does not pursue this point.
20. "Schluss mit dem Quatsch! Wir sind Feministinnen. Alle. Weil wir doch alle genau das wollen, was auch der Feminismus will: gleiche Verhältnisse für Frau und Mann. Also sollten wir auch etwas dafür tun!"
21. "Frauen wollen Kinder, Frauen wollen berufstätig sein. Und warum, verdammt noch mal, ist das noch immer so schwierig?"
22. "In den Augen vieler der jungen Frauen sieht das Glas halb leer aus. Weil sie mit dem Credo der Chancengleichheit aufgewachsen sind, weil sie diese schon selbstverständlich zum Maßstab nehmen, sind die historischen Fortschritte eine Art Hintergrundrahmen, den sie gar nicht mehr wahrnehmen. Was ihnen dagegen auffällt, sind die Defizite, die Mängel, die nicht eingelösten Verheißungen."
23. This was part of a three-day lecture series, "Beauvoir in Berlin," held from 7–9 March 2008, and organized by Alice Schwarzer. For more, see Beutel.
24. Julia Franck is an author, "die schon seit ihrem ersten, 1997 erschienenen Roman zu den wichtigsten deutschen Autorinnen ihrer Generation gehört."
25. "Leider hat die klassische Rollenaufteilung im Gegensatz zu Hermans frohgemuter Annahme noch nirgends auf der Welt zu dauerhafter Harmonie und zu Frieden geführt, weder in der Familie noch in der Gesellschaft."
26. "Ist die Frauenbewegung tot? Schreiben Frauen nicht mehr? Ich denke, dies kann und darf nicht unwidersprochen bleiben. Ganz im Gegenteil. Ich glaube, nie hat es eine solche Vielfalt wie in den letzten Jahren gegeben."
27. Frisch lists a variety of genres: "vom trivialen Alltagsmärchen über humorvolle Satiren bis zum Frauenkrimi und grotesk-surrealistischen [End Page 225] order regelrechten so genannten Splatter-Romanen."
28. Contributing to a growing interest in feminist approaches to genre fiction, for example, Elizabeth Bridges and Faye Stewart organized a panel for the 2006 MLA conference in Philadelphia, titled "Contemporary German Genre Fiction by Women," which dealt with women's participation in Popliteratur, horror, and (Frauen)Krimis.
29. Original German: "Kurze[s], schnell Konsumierbare[s]."
30. The page numbers for this article reflect an unpublished manuscript.
31. Baer begins her article with a quotation in which Judith Hermann rejects this connection. Biendarra, as discussed above, draws attention to a similar claim by Franck.
32. Here Baer uses the article by Peter Graves as an example.
33. "Ist es Zufall, daß die weiblichen Debütanten zumeist weniger verzagt und unstandskrämerisch als ihre männlichen Kollegen daherkommen—ohne die erzähltechnischen Absicherungsstrategien, die doch längst geläufig und in diesem Jahrhundert beliebig verfügbar sind?"
34. "Allerdings muß dieselbe Schreibweise bei einer Frau leider sogleich feministisch gefärbt sein, um nicht in den Verdacht einer weibischen Gefühligkeit oder adoleszenten, unflätigen Provokation zu geraten. An den Büchern meiner Kolleginnen ist mir aufgefallen, daß sie eine nüchterne Erzählweise bevorzugen. [ … ] Die Angst vor dem Süßen und Netten, die vor dem Anrührenden und Gefühlvollem ist groß."
35. In fact, Bovenschen was Franck's editor for many years, during which they worked together on several of Franck's books. As their professional relationship has been a long one and of personal significance to Franck, the extent to which Bovenschens works have informed Francks is not surprising.
36. The italics in this quotation are Bovenschen's.
37. See for example the review of Bauchlandung by Döbler. In 2000, Franck won the 3sat-Preis in the Ingeborg Bachman competition for the story "Mir nichts, dir nichts." Iris Radisch served on the judging committee that awarded Franck's story the prize.
38. "[Das Buch] zeigt vielmehr, dass Literatur etwas verhandeln kann, worauf sich die nichtbelletristische Befassung nur ungern einlässt: uns den Blick schärfen für Abgründe, für die weder das Fortschrittliche noch das Rückständige eine Kategorie ist und die von Erwägungen sozialer Wünschbarkeit nicht erreicht werden."
39. "Das Bedürfnis der Mutter nach Nähe zu ihrem Kind ist, wie beschrieben, eine Konstante des menschlichen Verhaltens."
40. "Kinder brauchen [ … ] mehr als sortierte Socken. Wir erinnern uns: Sie brauchen liebevolle Ansprache, Vorlesen, Singen, Erzählen, [End Page 226] gemeinsame Erlebnisse."
41. Several articles referred to Helene's "ungeheuerlicher Tat." See "Das kalte Herz" for one example.
42. "Wir sind noch längst nicht am Ende der Diskussion über den Feminismus angelangt."