The work of Birgit Vanderbeke (1956–2021) is playful and arch. Her taut novellas deal caustically with consumerism and capitalism, family and gender, the media and advertising. Their mode is typically satire or irony. The challenging and unsettling nature of her writing is exemplified by the following assertion from Geld oder Leben [Your Money or Your Life] (2003): ‘Wenn alle daran glauben, heißt es, es funktioniert’ [If everyone believes it, it means it’s working]. This wry statement illuminates the writer’s scepticism with regard to dominant discourses, and her awareness of the operations of power.
Vanderbeke was born in Dahme/Mark in the GDR, and moved with her family to West Germany in 1961. She was brought up in Frankfurt am Main, where she later studied Law and French. Her first novella, Das Muschelessen [The Mussel Dinner] (1990), received the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize. In 1993, Vanderbeke moved to the south of France. She is the author of sixteen subsequent novels, a cookbook, and a travel guide. A volume of essays, interviews, and reviews concerned with Vanderbeke appeared in Germany in 2001. In Anglo-American German Studies, however, her work has hitherto received little attention. This neglect has perhaps to do with the brevity of Vanderbeke’s works; they are not hefty, obviously ‘important’ novels. But the very slyness and subtlety of Vanderbeke’s work makes it worthy of attention.
Das Muschelessen, for example, tells of a mother and her two children waiting for the father of the family to arrive and join them in eating the pile of mussels on the table around which they sit. The events of the evening are filtered through the daughter-narrator’s point of view. As the trio wait, uncomfortable truths about the power dynamics between the family members arise, with the father being revealed as a petty, even deranged tyrant. Information is teasingly drip-fed to the reader. What emerges is a scathing depiction of neurotic, destructive masculinity. At the same time, the narrative comments on the soulless functionalism of post-war West Germany, in which creativity and emotionality are viewed as useless and unprofitable.
Fehlende Teile [Missing Parts] (1992) is a rewriting of Max Frisch’s 1964 novel Mein Name sei Gantenbein [Gantenbein] that takes the figure of Lila in the latter work as its focus. The novella incorporates quotations from Frisch’s novel, forming an intertext that exposes the blind spots in Frisch’s account of subjectivity. This is a first-person narrative, but the ‘I’ here is unstable and elusive, as in Frisch’s work. In moving the focus to the female subject, Vanderbeke opens up feminine subjectivity in particular as shifting and constructed: performative, in philosopher Judith Butler’s terms. This is a complex, frustrating work that poses profound ontological and epistemological challenges.
Ich sehe was, was du nicht siehst [I Spy With My Little Eye] (1999) tells of its narrator’s decision to move from Germany to the south of France, and of her and her son’s attempt to establish a new life there. The narrative returns repeatedly to the questions of seeing and recognition, as its title suggests, problematizing the questions of communication and representation. The narrator and her partner – an expert on the forgery of paintings – debate the colour of stars, for example. The narrator struggles to write a radio programme about Vincent van Gogh. The end of the work sees her determined to do so, however, and also affirms her new-found sense of community.
Vanderbeke’s work is politically charged. Geld oder Leben mounts a bitingly funny critique of capitalism, for example, and the recent novella Das lässt sich ändern [That Can Be Changed] (2011) describes the formation of an alternative community in provincial Germany, one that rejects xenophobia and espouses ‘multiculturalism’, a hot topic in Germany. This community also stands in opposition to the widespread obsession with brands and status that Vanderbeke lampoons elsewhere in her work. Vanderbeke’s questioning, unsettling work is ripe for translation – two of her novellas have indeed now been translated into English – and discussion.
Compiled by Emily Jeremiah (London)
Das Muschelessen [short-story] (Berlin: Rotbuch, 1990)
Fehlende Teile [short-story] (Berlin: Rotbuch, 1992)
Gut genug [short-story] (Berlin: Rotbuch, 1993)
Ich will meinen Mord [novel] (Berlin: Rowohlt, 1995)