Von Julia Müller. Köln: Böhlau, 2014. 324Seiten + 9 s/w Abbildungen. €44,90.
South African novelist and activist Nadine Gordimer (1923–2014) famously claimed not to be a political person by nature yet is forever associated in the minds of her readers with her principled opposition to apartheid. An accident of birth determined her subject matter, though not her courage, about which she was modest. Her German-Romanian fellow Nobel-Prize-winner Herta Müller (1953–) is similarly associated with her outspoken critiques and literary representations of the Romanian dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu, yet claims that it was the regime that made her a dissident. Julia Müller’s carefully researched volume seeks to trace the development of the writer behind the public image and the politics. The result is not exactly a new reading of Müller, but it is certainly a helpfully nuanced one that serves to situate her output locally against its contexts of production, and correct some inaccuracies.
Three things that are commonly known of Müller: she came to writing through her association with the Aktionsgruppe Banat, a radical group of writers led by her first husband, Richard Wagner; she is mainly a writer of novels but has latterly started to produce poetic forms in volumes of postcard-collages; and her—for most German readers—estranging German prose is heavily influenced by her second language, Romanian, a language which she learned properly after leaving her village home as a teenager to attend the German Gymnasium in Timisoara. While not denying some truth to these statements, Julia Müller fills in some gaps, in particular with regard to Müller’s formative years, and broadens out the contexts within which her works may be read. Specifically, she traces the development of Müller’s literary style from her earliest publications in the Romanian-German Banat onwards, in the constant awareness of Müller’s indebtedness and contribution to an international, modernist sense of uncertainty. Four chapters trace the development of her literary style in her school-girl poetry (1969–1976) and early short prose (1978–1985), including the breakthrough work Niederungen (1984); in the novel, in particular, Der Fuchs war damals schon der Jäger (1992); and in the volumes of German postcard collages, Der Wächter nimmt seinen Kamm (1993) and Im Haarknoten wohnt eine Dame (2000). They are entitled, respectively “Sprachsuche,” “Spracherforschung,” “Sprachzeichen,” and “Sprachspiel,” implying a successful journey of discovery. [End Page 726]
Rather than merely moving in the slipstream of the somewhat older and exclusively male members of the Aktionsgruppe Banat, it is demonstrated here that, while subject to similar pressures, Müller pursued her own literary course from the start. Julia Müller records how much effort was invested by their elders in promoting writing among the Romanian-German youth in the vain hope that they would preserve and renew the moribund culture. Some, like the poet Oskar Pastior, rejected this burden and left the country as soon as they could. The Aktionsgruppe Banat members refused to play along with either their exile heritage or the conformity required by Nicolae Ceauşescu’s regime, producing instead socially engaged work inspired by Brecht and other radical thinkers. Müller’s earliest schoolgirl writings, which Julia Müller has painstakingly collected from various sources and reproduces here, were, by contrast, subjective expressions of a modernist “Sprachskepsis,” if anything somewhat disengaged from everyday realities. Müller, we read, did not even like some of the members of the Aktionsgruppe, whom she considered arrogant. Most of the earliest works were poems, and thus show a continuity with the collage-poems for which she is increasingly known. This should not actually be a surprise: after all, poetry and prose have always been interdependent in her work, as noted in the Nobel citation, which describes her as an author “who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.”
Julia Müller’s chosen examples and close readings demonstrate the development of Müller’s style through repetition, rhythm, and the increasing use of parataxis, which...