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The magician of the banal

Ulrich Greiner reads Ingo Schulze's new collection of short stories, and learns to love life's distractions.

"Ev'rywhere is wonderland
Ev'rywhere is life,
In Auntie's rubber garter-band
As in the whole wide land."

So wrote the good old Ringelnatz, bizarre and frivolous as he was, melancholic and whimsical, with the curious eyes of a child and the mockery of an old man looking down on the world.

And that Ringelnatz feeling is as present in Ingo Schulze's new stories as it was in his 1998 reuinification novel "Simple Stories." After his wide-reaching novel "Neue Leben" (new life, 2005), he's returned to what came before, but this time he seems a little weirder and, at first glance, almost "outside himself," because these "13 stories in the old style" (as the subtitle reads) rarely have a point or a central theme.

It's true that among them are some of the most beautiful love stories imaginable today, told with intelligent, disguised sentimentality but realistic enough that love is always portrayed as at least part luck. Schulze treats this luck with a boldness that borders on audacity. "Before I tell you about our days in Käsmu, I'd like to mention something that actually has nothing to do with this story," he writes and what follows is really nothing other than a huge digression. You have to be pretty confident to play with the rules like this, and fiddle about with such seeming negligence, but the surprising and wonderful effect works: it's a perfect illusion of reality. We listen to this steady narrative voice as though it were telling us the most exciting things. It's as though we were witnesses of real, tangible events, and not just readers of a story that someone had set down on paper, full of artistry and intention.

The art of non-art, the seemingly non-literary literature is a stroke of genius, and this becomes more apparent, the further you read. Take for instance the story "Eine nacht bei Boris" (a night with Boris). The narrator is somehow befriended with Boris, who is getting on in years. They knew each other in school and their paths have crossed several times since. "We ran into each other after Christmas, at the defective bottle-recycling machine in Extras (a supermarket chain -ed). Boris' excitement seemed exaggerated." The defective bottle-recycling machine – anything that starts like that is either going to be a disaster or quite interesting.

So there's an invitation to dinner. Boris likes cooking. The evening begins with extraordinary awkwardness: the narrator, his wife and the four further guests hardly know each other, Boris keeps busy in the kitchen and his new ridiculously young girlfriend Elvira, doesn't say a word. They get through the meal. "Until we left the table and moved over to the four-seater, nothing happened that's worth recounting."

Another one of those impertinent sentences that comes after four pages that we've read with a considerable degree of interest. Why? Because, for one, Schulze is a wonderful story-teller who can depict people and situations with very few words. But also because every reader is familiar with the awkwardness of such evenings. Every now and then something gives, something bubbles over - perhaps aided by alcohol – into a minor catastrophe.

Indeed, catastrophe is hanging in the air - nobody can ignore the mounting tension between Boris and Elvira. It becomes evident the minute the pale girl finally begins to talk, to tell a harmless little everyday story. The more animated she becomes, the more frequently Boris interrupts her, always knowing better, and he becomes so unbearable that another woman starts telling a story which is then recounted in conjunction with her husband ("Now wait," says Pawel, "the way you're telling it, nobody can understand.") As soon as they're done, someone else starts another story to prevent embarrassment from returnig and so it goes on – drinking, telling stories – until someone notices that Elvira has fallen asleep. As a reader, you feels as though you're sleep-walking, as though everything that happens deserves mention and as though nothing can go wrong as long as the conversation continues.

None of these minor tales are spectacular. They involve an exciting boat trip on a holiday or an unsuccessful romantic encounter and only the narrator – a certain Ingo Schulze – admits, "I haven't told you anything. Nothing happens to me that could be made into a story." Nonetheless it occurs to him that he recently heard something on the radio that he could turn into a story and just as he is about to tell it he writes: "Ines and Pawel said they were going to leave. Boris nodded but nobody got up." And everyone knows it's going to be a late night. And the reader is gripped by such a fatigue that he too falls asleep. The next morning, he learns from Boris the surprising reason for his agitation, but that need not be explained here.

Ingo Schulze is a magician of the banal. He illuminates, by pretending that he's a mere reporter of all that happens anyway. In the telling of a further, extremely unusual everyday event, he says, "A few weeks later, I wrote down these stories. Maybe I could use them for a newspaper article. But then, I had never copied reality. And that's what made the project a bit eerie."

Copying reality? If you wanted to, you could give a lot of thought to that phrase and probably never reach a conclusion. The only thing that's certain is that Ingo Schulze plays a tricky and, in the end, liberating game with the possibilities of writing. He pretends that the narrator and Ingo Schulze are one and the same, but when we look more closely, we realise that the various narrators are multiple forms of Schulze, and that these various aspects embody a multiple, almost monstrously observant and receptive personality which is as much Schulze as it is Notschulze.

There's a clever businessman, for instance, in "Die Verwirrung der Silvesternacht" (the confusion of New Year's Eve), perhaps the best story in this collection. It begins with the collapse of the GDR and the equally tumultuous relationship between the narrator and a young actress. Both play an active role in this joyous uprising which brings – for a moment – heaven down to earth and for this moment, they are both heaven in each other's eyes.

But then normality sets in. The narrator, who had copied pamphlets for demonstrators, opens up a photocopy shop and while Julia is away, engaged at a theatre in a faraway city, he expands his business and hires a certain Ute. "When it came to sex, it was as though Ute and I had been made for one another. 'We're at it like rabbits,' Ute once said. She said it as if she were saying 'We're making lots of money.' But she could have said exactly the opposite. D'you know what I mean?"

The great love nears its inescapable end, the reader notices it faster than the narrator who holds on to his lost love like a wonderful dream. And when – ten years later – New Years Eve of 1999 is approaching, he meets Julia again. But this night is highly confusing, as though Kuttel Daddeldu (a seaman in a Ringelnatz story – ed) had come ashore to wreak havoc. Because somehow a very attractive Claudia enters the picture and when he finally has Julia in his arms, he writes, "We held one another tight, two actors at a rehearsal, waiting for instructions from the director. I tried to get my hand under Julia's blouse but gave up quickly." At this point, we see the former revolutionary as nothing more than a little photocopy shop owner who is being nicely serviced by his Ute (who he stays with in the end).

Told like this, the story seems fast and without digression, which is not really Schulze's thing. There's a JCB that hits a blind passer-by; there's the view of the window opposite where a couple make love on the night before the century turns. Much like in the story of the neighbour's son Kevin who falls into a coma after an accident, a mouse-trap plays an unclear, eerie role.

Nothing is superfluous on closer consideration, wonderland is everywhere and what Schulze shows in his collection, as comforting as it is beautiful, is an illustration of what Kafka once noted: "Life is nothing other than one huge distraction that doesn't even allow you to think about what it's distracting you from." The difference is that with Ingo Schulze, you learn to love the distractions.


Ingo Schulze (website) was born in Dresden in 1962. His first collection of short stories "33 Moments of Happiness" was published in the US in 1997 and the New Yorker went on to call him one of Europe's five most promising writers. His novel "Simple Stories" won him the Berliner Literaturpreis and has been translated into numerous languages. Read Ingo Schulze's "Berlin Bolero" here

Ulrich Greiner is a journalist and critic at Die Zeit

The article originally appeared in Die Zeit on 22 March, 2007.

Translation: nb - let's talk european