On a wintry day in November 2009, I boarded a rattly train bound southwards over the Pennines in the dark hour before the dawn. Sleet turned to snow as the little train climbed higher into the mountains. I had a cold at the time, and the train was unheated; the white flurries whirled over the ruins of industrial mills and I shivered uncontrollably in my seat. The snowy journey was gloriously atmospheric, even if in my woe-stricken state I didn’t quite grasp its poetic potential, and it was wonderfully appropriate, for I was travelling to meet the author of Under Snow, Antje Rávic Strubel, at a symposium held in her honour in Nottingham. Despite the icy flurries, I arrived safely, was warmly greeted, and even managed to splutter out my admiration to the author, between coughing fits, when I met her in the corridor.
Perhaps not my most dignified hour, but I was so glad to be invited, as otherwise, I mightn’t have had a chance to read Strubel’s shrewd, sexy, cerebral novels. I had just begun developing my theories of queer resistance and lines of flight in Sebald, and was intrigued to learn about another author whose work circled around the same questions of German identity, queer resistance, the power of landscape and the tugging of the past. Though it’s unfair to class the fiercely independent and inventive Strubel as in any way derivative of Sebald, and her poetic project is very different to his. Strubel comes from East Germany and grew up in the final decade of the GDR, so the boundaries of her imagined Heimat are drawn in different places to those of Sebald; she is a far more self-consciously queer writer, and her work carries a feminist kick which is most welcome. Strubel’s novels are about women moving across continents and countries in pursuit of love, switching gender, fleeing the past; they are pared-down, acutely observed, at times dazzling with their brilliant literary conceits, at times soberingly harsh in their depictions of homophobic violence. Strubel writes about questions of gender identity and politics of the re-unified Germany while probing the ways in which the ghosts of the German past return to haunt the present.
The wintry theme in my journey with Strubel’s work continued; a year later, at Christmas of 2010, I wrote up the piece I had presented at Nottingham and sent it to Women in German Yearbook. A year later, I received full corrections, revised and, at New Year of 2012, resubmitted. The revision and editing process was extremely rigorous, and I learned a ferocious amount from the patient and wise editors in the process. This week, again in the depths of winter, my article has actually been published. Apart from being thrilled at getting the chance to write about a writer I admire so much, and delighted to have had an article accepted in a prestigious feminist journal, I have a geeky delight at having my very first jstor article published. Hooray!
But less about me, my coughs and colds and thrills; what did I actually write about? I focussed on three novels that centre around queer love affairs, one of which, Snowed Under is available in English translation, and two of which, Fremd gehen and Kältere Schichten der Luft, really should be. I tried to show how important Strubel is for debates about contemporary German literature and identity, by arguing that her portrayals of female-female relationships are not simply celebrations of lesbian love. Rather they are enigmatic affiliations between ghostly figures that tug at the boundaries of self and other, life and death, present and past.
Strubel’s versions of queer identity disrupt and reconstruct post-unification German nationality, so my article shows how repressed collective memories create and disrupt national and personal identity. I also draw out the key role of narrative in constructing genderqueer identities. These identities don’t only challenge traditional boundaries of gender and nation, destabilizing conventional German hierarchies of male and female, West and East German, but also disrupt boundaries of the unitary self. I conclude that, in Strubel’s novels, the subversive potential of this play with identities is undermined by the spectral return of the German past and by the realities of the present. Because of the dangers inherent in living out a queer identity in a homophobic and capitalist world, the protagonists of these three novels desire a nihilistic dissolution of the self rather than celebrating a liberated genderqueer identity.
So that’s what I had to say about Strubel, and of course I’d be thrilled if you read my article – but I’d be even more thrilled if you went and read her fantastic books. The richness and brilliance of her imagination is just a delight, and after all, the winter dusk is closing in…
(Article ref: Helen Finch, ‘Gender, Identity, and Memory in the Novels of Antje Rávic Strubel’, in Women in German Yearbook, Vol. 28, (2012), pp. 81-97)