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The feeling that came in from the cold

With her first novel "The Hour Between Dog and Wolf," Silke Scheuermann has written her way to the top league of young authors.

Being young and female is not always advantageous in the literary business. Silke Scheuermann, who won the Leonce and Lena Prize for Poetry in 2001, at the age of 27, received nothing but applause as long as she was writing poems. To be young and writing poems is folly that is happily forgiven. But for her stories which were published in 2005 as "Reiche Mädchen" (Rich Girls), she received both praise and decimating critique. It became clear that the Judith Hermann Syndrome had caught up with her.

"Die Stunde zwischen Hund und Wolf" (The Hour Between Dog and Wolf) by Silke Scheuermann. Schöffling & Co., 2006.

Judith Hermann's volume of stories "Sommerhaus, später" (1998) could also have been called "Reiche Mädchen," because it is about young women, full of grace and melancholy, walking through unspectacular lives and it was so beautifully written, that one got a little melancholic reading it. A new chord was being played that struck deep in many readers.

But when the first progressive German teacher made Judith Hermann stories mandatory reading on the curriculum, as more and more young women starting writing Judith Hermann-style, the pendulum of taste began to swing in the other direction. Then the high-speed SUVs came into fashion, such as "The Corrections" by Jonathan Franzen or "Middlesex" (2003) by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Ah, the Zeitgeist, that least faithful of whores. True authors don't pay attention to such trends and true readers are oblivious to them. Silke Scheuermann is a child of the times and that means that the hero's problems are luxurious everyday ones that she shares with Judith Hermann and most of her readers. But her tone is more laconic, ironic and here, with her first novel, we have a story that goes well beyond the sensibilities of young women, a story that builds touchingly on that great old theme: love.

Love here means first sibling love, or better yet, sibling hate. The narrator, a young single journalist, likes to go swimming in the mornings and one day at the pool, she meets her sister Ines. The two have had no contact for years. "She sat on a plastic stool in the entrance hall, slightly sunken, with a red and blue sports bag on her lap. Her face was spotty, without make-up and she had tears in her eyes – it was the face she used to get what she wanted, I knew it, her "negotiation face."

The reason behind this deep aversion is only hinted at. Ines is four years older, she is prettier and more successful, she was daddy's favourite girl. They drink coffee in the unnamed narrator's kitchen, in silence. On leaving, she gives Ines her parka and that's the beginning of the story of involvement, disguises and intersections. Ines is an alcoholic and her life becomes of more and more interest to the narrator as she reluctantly notices that she is falling in love with Kai, Ines' boyfriend.

When the narrator visits her sister in hospital (she was admitted after a break-down), she brings a bottle of whiskey. That's the first sign of a gradually awakening love, which strengthens as the sister weakens. Soon, the narrator will sleep with Kai. "I was no longer aware of where we were and the room had no opinion about us; I felt the penetrating, expressionless, fixed look of the walls, that were no longer part of somebody's apartment but rather the setting for an ancient ritual. We didn't tire or maybe we just didn't want to stop, didn't want to have to think."

When it's over, the woman dissolves in tears. We don't understand why at first because she doesn't understand herself. But then it becomes clear that she loves the man that her sister loves and that is the basis of an irresolvable conflict.

At this point, we turn our attention to the narrator. We see that an inconsolable sensibility hides behind her apparent heartlessness. She wanders with eyes wide open through Frankfurt, as Malte Laurids Brigge once did through Paris. The bird that lies dead on the balcony; the lifeguard that looks like a fat pastry cook; the sadistic games of two young boys in a backyard; the woman at the drink stand who looks like an animal in a terrarium - the narrator takes cold notice of it all.

Of course the comparison with Rilke falters. But it seems that the ennui, that combination of annoyance and tedium that was once the property of bourgeois men, is now spreading among intelligent young women. It's the other side of their emancipation. Our narrator feels it when she's invited to dinner at her colleague's place. From this scene, described with aphoristic sharpness, we learn that nobody can be so subtly cruel to women as other women.

The narrator's cold attentiveness is also her salvation. After the harrowing encounter with Kai, she visits a colleague and friend who has recently been left by his wife but who seems to be taking it with indifference. His little son is with him. "He greeted me, the strange woman, with the composure of a divorce kid." She reads to the little one and after he's finally gone to bed, they sit on the sofa drinking cognac and cuddling. "Despite our incredible fatigue, we saw fit to sleep with one another and I was happy to lose myself in the familiar movements." Later she gets up and leaves the random partner of the night. "It was as if we had been sitting together on a park bench to enjoy a nice view and I just happened to be the first one to get up and go."

All the characters in this novel have something roaming, homeless about them. Feelings are not foreign to them but suspicious. Helmut Schelsky's talk of the "skeptical generation" (1957) can be applied to many generations but especially to this one which has seen every feeling and sensual experience represented and exercised a thousand times, before it has had a chance to actually feel them.

Silke Scheuermann responds to this with intelligence and subtlety. On the one hand, her language remains a tick behind the drama of the action, as though it was going on above the waterline while the language is a cool, slowly underwater movement. So the reader realizes with a slight delay that he has to close the gap with his own powers of imagination, making the fates come all the closer.

All of this would be nothing more than technique if Silke Scheuermann weren't able to conjure up great pathos. The reconciliation between the sisters, which strangely begins with their loving the same man, reaches its pinnacle on a last long walk together – after, the narrator will take her sister to a detox clinic. And here, in a clearing in the woods, the narrator reaches the Utopia of a successful life (Handke would call it a "prayer"): "I gave myself in to the hope that these woods could rid us of all the harm by giving us souls governed by gentleness and patience." This final picture is painted with such fervor that it would be kitsch in any other language (but this translator did her best). Some feelings only work when they come in from the cold.

Silke Scheuermann's "The Hour Between Dog and Wolf" is published by Schöffling & Co., 2006.


This article originally appeared in Die Zeit
on January 11, 2007.

Ulrich Greiner is a journalist and critic at Die Zeit.

Translation: nb - let's talk european