Kirchzarten, a scenic Schwarzwald town, lies in the heart of the Dreisam Valley from where you can take the train to Titisee and the Black Forest. A tranquil place to go for extended walks and bike tours. And it was in Kirchzarten where I met Hanns-Josef Ortheil. To be precise: at Katrin Beltran’s Kirchzartener Bücherstube. Katrin studied Geography and went to work with microsoft in Munich where he met her husband. The two of them decided to overtake her Mom’s Bücherstube when she retired, where she loves to arrange author-readings. Katrin said, ‘I don’t earn much during the readings but we get attention from the media, and that’s good for our Bücherstube.’
Die Erfindung des Lebens is the story of a young man in the style of a Bildungsroman, an educational novel, in the tradition of Goethe’s The Sorrow of Young Werther and James Joyce’s Stephen Hero, which was eventually published as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Hanns-Josef Ortheil looks good for his age, has a lot of blond hair, shows no signs of greying, and is soft-spoken and works sympathetic and quiet. He has a pleasant voice which he keeps modulating to suit the text he’s reading, sometimes loud, fast and calm. A lecturer who knows his way around in the reading circuit in Germany, Switzerland and Austria.
This novel tells us about a biography that has to be re-invented every time after fate strikes a blow. What comes out is a thrilling account of a young pianist, and later a writer who’s fate takes a happy turn. The subject matter is organised chronically in five major chapters: I The Mute Child, II The Flight, III Rome and IV The Return.
Hanns-Josef Ortheil was born in 1951 in Cologne and lives in Stuttgart, Hildesheim. He belongs to one of the most important contemporary authors and has received many literary prizes. He works as a professor for Creative Writing and Cultural Journalism at the University of Hildesheim.
As to the treatment, I must say that it shows an extensive study into the protagonist’s life and his art of thinking and psyche as a person with a ludicrous autism, after all this ‘Ich-Erzähler’ is writing about himself in the first person singular. He describes his symbiotic relationship with his mother, his journey with his father to a family homestead, life there and separation from his dear mother, who’d actually curbed his life, development and social contacts with his peers through her omnipotent muteness. His father’s unconventional methods of teaching and the development of the young mind are noteworthy in this novel.
The book reveals the author’s life as a young man, his childhood and youth and his early success as a writer, after he had to give up playing the piano due to a chronic inflammation of the tendons his fingers. As the only surviving son of his parents, who have lost two sons during the World War II, and two other sons after the War, he grew up in Cologne with his parents. The mother has become mute, and in her muteness she communicates with her husband and son only through small, neat chits written during the day, stacked and held together by a rubber. He, the only surviving son, lives also mute beside her. It takes years for him to free himself from the clamour of his family and goes to Rome to begin his career as a pianist.
Talking about his mute days as a child he says: ‘sometimes I used to believe, nothing could separate me and mother at any time, no one and nothing in this world.’ A deep mother-son attachment. He goes on to say, ‘Father used to come early in the evening, and he belonged to us two. He was the third in our alliance, he used to leave the common apartment early morning and spend the entire day in the free Nature. My father worked as a survey engineer. When he returned he’d give my mother a kiss on her forehead. Then he’d ask her a few questions: how are you, is everything okay, anything new? Mother reacted always mute by shoving a small packet of chits she’d written during the day. Hans-Josef was also mute and there was no one whom he could ask.’ You have to imagine how it feels to live in a traumatised family, where the mother and son do not speak and only write and read small letters as a form of communication.
I’ve left out the other two chapters just to make your curious. The way Ortheil describes his visit to the Conservatorium in Rome with Marietta, whom he has taught the piano, and now tells her what questions to ask her prospective piano teachers, their choice of a warm and spontaneous pianist and how they leave him for an hour with a Steinway piano is delightful. The description conjours up images akin to Patrick Süskind’s Jean-Baptiste in ‘Parfume,’ the man with the extraordinary smell. Whereas Süskind’s descriptions of scents and fragrances are a sensual experience for your olfactory glands, Ortheil’s confrontation with this piano is like the taming of the shrew, as he begins to play Schuman’s Fantasie in C-Major. He sweats in Rome, takes off his shirt, improvises, switches over to Phil Glass, and comes back to Fantasia again and again like in a trance. He flirts with the seventh piano sonate by Sergej Prokofieff. When it’s over, the applause comes from the street below. But the pianist doesn’t take a bow and chooses to remain unknown and undiscovered. The memory of bygone days overwhelms him.
Ortheil always told his parents about his piano studies in Rome but never about the separation from Clara. This time he comes home without prior announcement. He has long hair, and not even the local taxi driver recognises him. He returns home after two years in Rome and decides then and there never to leave his beloved home again. His mother greets him with, ‘Johannes! My good boy!’
After a visit to the university hospital in Cologne he decides to end his career as a pianist. He goes with his mother to one of her readings. She reads Balzac for an audience. At home, she reads Stendhal, Flaubert and Proust. In the meantime, Ortheil dreams of Rome, Clara and calls Signora Francesca. A-major, that’s the most tender and also the saddest major-tone ever…Beethoven and Schubert wrote poems in A-major.
Ortheil meets his former teacher Walter Fornemann, who can’t believe that his pupil now to work as a waiter and give up his career as a pianist virtuoso. He says he wants to go for walks, be underway and write. He wants to rewrite his notebooks and diaries. He’s written thousands of rough notebooks. So he becomes a writer.
Fornemann says to Ortheil, ‘In reality you were not only a pianist but a writer since your childhood.’
When I asked whether his book was an autobiography, Ortheil said in his own words that ‘it is not a classical autobiography because it isn’t detailed and pragmatic.’ On the other hand, it is an excellent novel that has been inspired autobiographically. It is a tale about the psychological dependence, almost an addiction, to the world of his ancestors. At the same time, it’s a homage to his parents who learn to live again after years of sorrow, misery, deprivation during, and after the World War II. He also mentioned that he has a lot to thank the German literary pope Marcel Reich-Ranicki who appreciated and praised his work. Ranicki, it might be noted, can make or break an author.
Ortheil’s work has been recently awarded the Literary Prize of Brandenburg, the Thomas Mann Prize, the Georg-K.-Glaser Prize, the Koblenz Literature Prize, the Nicolas Born Prize, the latest being the Elizabeth-Langgässer Literature Prize. His novels have been published in 20 languages. His German book-titles are: Die grosse Liebe 2003, Die geheimen Stunden der Nacht 2005, Das verlangen nach Liebe 2007. His other books are: Wie Romane entstehen 2008 and Lesehunger 2009.
Apropos Kartin Beltran, she’s bringing out a book about the beautiful Dreisam Valley. You bet I’ll review it. The book will be published by Herder Verlag, Freiburg. Welcome to the Schwarzwald (Black Forest).
Ortheil, Hanns-Josef Die Erfindung des Lebens, Luchterhand Literaturverlag, 590 pages,ISBN 978-3-630-87296-4.