- Revolting Families: Toxic Intimacy, Private Politics, and Literary Realisms in the German Sixties by Carrie Smith-Prei
Revolting Families is an important study that expands our understanding of the role of the body and sexuality in society by examining texts by four West German authors considered to be representatives of the so-called new and black realism: Dieter Wellershoff, Rolf Dieter Brinkmann, Gisela Elsner, and Renate Rasp. The point of departure for Carrie Smith-Prei is [End Page 420] Richard Langston’s concept of corporeal realism, as defined in his book Visions of Violence. She extends this concept by adding the descriptor negative to show that “corporeal negativity” in literary texts can engage readers to take social, political, or ethical actions. The 1960s was a decade marked by many changes, including the politicization of the significance of the private sphere. Smith-Prei analyses the aesthetics of narratives in the contemporary philosophical and social debates of the long 1960s, while employing a number of key theorists—Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, and Sianna Ngai—to further develop an innovative theoretical approach to examine “the appearance of negatively coded bodies” in the literary texts by these German authors.
In her introduction Smith-Prei argues convincingly for the importance of the family and the private sphere in Germany after 1945. By carefully working through the main concept of her study, “negativity,” she gives an excellent overview of the literary development of realism while outlining her theoretical background. In particular, she draws extensively on the concept of negativity in art as developed by Wolfgang Iser, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse to argue that “the negative and negation are oppositional positions, countering dominant thinking, normativity, or passively accepted practices; the negative and negation destabilize the status quo.” The literary texts that she explores use “the negative workings of the body” to critically discuss “the social and psychological effects of authority, excess, and repression of the 1950s on the private sphere in the 1960s.” This analysis is embedded in the structure of the monograph: its aim is not to present a chronological narrative but to explore the discourses of the “new” and “black” realism of the 1960s as “an atmosphere of thinking” to discuss how these texts tackle the negative corporeality not only in the private sphere but, more specifically, in the private sphere of the family.
In chapter one Smith-Prei focuses on the writings of Wellershoff, an editor at Kiepenheuer & Witsch and the founder of “new” realism, to demonstrate how in the novel Ein schöner Tag (a beautiful day, 1966) the repressed wartime trauma and neurosis of the protagonist Günther exacerbate the dysfunctional relations in the family that also lead to a disconnection from reality, ending in his psychosis. According to Smith-Prei, Wellershoff’s text exposes the relationship between corporeal negativity and social history. Chapter two analyses Brinkmann’s short story “In der Grube” (in the ditch, 1962) and the collection Die Umarmung (the embrace, 1965) to show how repressive expectations of conforming to the social mores of bourgeois society can result in disgust relative to sexuality and desire. Smith-Prei also draws on Brinkmann’s theoretical writings to problematize the negative effects of authoritarian institutions on sexuality. [End Page 421]
Chapters three and four shift to “black” realism to examine two novels: Elsner’s Die Riesenzwerge (the giant dwarfs, 1964) and Rasp’s Ein ungeratener Sohn (a family failure, 1967), respectively. Smith-Prei examines the institutional hierarchies of the Church and school through the violent overconsumption of the 1950s Wirtschaftswunder to show that “Elsner’s critique is not based in individual subjectivity, but in the structures and institutions that form individual subjectivity.” Finally, Rasp’s family novel, in which a stepfather and mother attempt to transform their son’s body into a tree, is discussed as a grotesque satire of the disciplinary pedagogical practices of the 1960s that also references Nazi practices, thus connecting the private sphere of the family to the broader national context.
The use of the body as a...