- Comedy and Trauma in Germany and Austria after 1945: The Inner Side of Mourning by Stephanie Bird
Stephanie Bird begins her insightful study of comedy in post-1945 German-language literature and film with an analysis of Fateless (1975) and Fiasco (1988), the first two novels in Imre Kertész's semiautobiographical trilogy centered on the Holocaust and the postwar years in Communist Hungary. Bird provides close readings of key moments in both texts in order to analyze Kertész's conscious choice to embed comedic elements, specifically what might even be seen as dark or even tasteless jokes. The purpose of Kertész's comedic aesthetic, Bird explains, is to insert a certain ethical dimension that tragedy alone does not necessarily accomplish. This comedic disruption works against what are often ossifying effects of Holocaust piety, opening up spaces for a more complex interplay between texts representing genocidal violence and the readers and viewers who all too often apply a redemptive reading to the experiences of a survivor-protagonist and interpret this figure as a tragic hero. Comedy, when employed in a sophisticated manner, helps construct a greater critical distance between the text and reader, mitigating and potentially transforming readers' expectations. The problem that has arisen is that comedy, associated with a certain type of pleasure, has often been deemed an inappropriate and incongruous mode, particularly with regard to Holocaust representation. (Bird explains that Kertész referred to this censure against jokes and other comedic devices as a "moral stinkbomb," ). Despite critical hesitation, comedy has always played and continues to play an important role in cultural production related to the Holocaust and other [End Page 176] aspects of violence related to World War II. Bird argues that comedy helps us better understand the language and poetics of tragedy, particularly its relationship to the representation of historical trauma.
After opening with a larger exploration of the ethics of representation and the critical framework that guides her study, Bird turns her focus to the Germanlanguage context, which has been influenced and shaped in particular ways by an ongoing multilingual and transnational discussion about the Holocaust. Instead of aiming for a comprehensive overview, Bird's study teases out what she identifies as the often- overlooked undercurrent of comedy and its potentially positive and intellectually productive ethical framework in post-1945 German and Austrian literature and film, specifically in works that have not been typically investigated for their comedic elements.
In chapter 1, Bird examines the relationship between comedy and melodrama in Ingeborg Bachmann's works. Through an in-depth analysis of Malina (1971) and other texts, Bird argues that the element of the comic absurd in melodrama complicates the standard reading of Bachmann's key characters as overwhelmingly tragic figures. Chapter 2 examines how comedic elements in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's films open up a space for critical reflection, and argues that a well-executed comedy allows us not only to maintain a critical distance from the subject matter, but also develops and sustains seemingly disparate interpretations of the same text. Comedic melodrama and tragedy can thus operate simultaneously, provoking a complex analytical response that eschews a cultural preference for tragedy. Chapter 3 explores the relationship between melancholy and the comedic effect of satire in the works of W.G. Sebald, and the following chapter is devoted to an analysis of comedy's role in the conception of recent German history, as seen in Reinhard Jirgl's novel Die Stille (2009) and the filmic works of Volker Koepp. Particularly thought-provoking is the study's fifth chapter, devoted to a discussion of the significance of Ruth Klüger's specifically Viennese sense of humor—often biting but not wholly unplayful—within the larger framework of memory and traumatic loss in her work. Through an analysis of Edgar Hilsenrath's The Nazi and the Barber (1971 in English translation, 1977 in the German original) and Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones (2006, 2009 in English translation), Bird's final chapter...