What happens when a German provocateur turns to the subject of love?
Maxim Biller often expresses an acute dissatisfaction with his country. “Why, Adonai, am I different? Because I don’t want to be German?” Biller, one of Germany’s most popular essayists and fiction writers, wrote in 2001. He has threatened to move to Israel; he wonders if life “would have been more fun” as an American. Yet here the forty-seven-year-old remains, still rooted in Berlin, castigating and criticizing the country he has called home for more than thirty-five years.
His newest collection of stories, Liebe Heute, which will appear in English under the title Love Today this month, reveals a more romantic side of the author. The stories, two of which appeared in The New Yorker last summer, are spare, compressed, and melancholy. Biller has said that the collection is “about men and women who are looking for the right person; although they know that there is no right person, they keep looking. That’s why my love stories are so sad, but optimistic, too, I guess.”
For those familiar only with Biller’s more explosive work, the book will seem like a departure. “It’s boring for me to explode all the time,” he explains over a cup of tea in Cafe Makom in Berlin’s hip Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood. “Now, it’s more interesting for me to prepare a climax. I used to need more climaxes,” he says, offering a small, coy smile.
Indeed. Biller cemented his reputation back in the ’80s and ’90s, as one of the star writers of Tempo, a now-defunct German magazine that served as a bible for the young and irreverent. In his monthly column “100 Zeilen Hass” (“100 Lines of Hate”), he offered no-holds-barred commentary on German political and social neuroses. His fiction—such as the 1990 story collection Wenn ich einmal reich und tot bin (Someday When I’m Rich and Dead), a dark satirical take on Jews who returned to Germany after the war, and his first novel Die Tochter (The Daughter), which follows a traumatized Israeli ex-soldier living in Germany—didn’t shy away from controversy either.
(Other works have incited outrage of another sort. Though praised as a tender love story, Biller’s 2003 novel Esra was banned from distribution in Germany shortly after its publication and has never appeared here: Biller’s ex-girlfriend and her mother claimed they were both recognizable as characters and their privacy had been infringed upon. A verdict earlier this year held that Biller had to pay his ex 50,000 Euros. A decision is still pending on whether her mother is to receive the same sum.)
Despite Biller’s tendency toward harsh pronouncements—he has criticized German writers as producers of Schlappschwanzliteratur (direct translation: “limp-dick” literature) and branded the postwar German generation as “self-absorbed, neurotic cowards driven solely by the fear of losing their well-being”—he’s courteous in person. Slim, casually dressed, with his dark eyes behind horn-rimmed glasses, he’s an alert, earnest talker prone to sarcasm (but not, as one might expect, ranting).
Perhaps his honesty can be traced back to personal circumstance. Biller, who was born in 1960 in Prague to Russian-Jewish parents, still considers himself an outsider. His parents moved the family to Germany when he was ten years old. His upbringing, he says, was completely secular. He spent his late childhood in Hamburg, studied German literature and journalism in Munich, and then moved to Berlin, where he’s been a fixture in trendy Prenzlauer Berg for the past seven years. Biller says being a “wandering Jew” is both “tiring and inspiring”; it has fueled the contradictions apparent in his persona and his writing. “I grew up with the intellectual spirit of the 1960s in Czechoslovakia. The first five years I was in Germany I read in Czech,” he says. His family took an annual trip to Tel Aviv. He spoke Russian at home. To this day, he edits himself meticulously, often enlisting the help of German journalist friends because idiomatic German still makes him feel insecure.
He’s far less insecure about his ideas. When discussing the difficulties of being Jewish in Germany—a country in which some natives still go quiet at the mention of the religion by which many have negatively defined their collective identity for decades—Biller says, “[The Germans] are confused. They think they’re not anti-Semitic, but they have a problem with people who are different. They don’t react by saying ‘I hate you,’ or by being curious. They react by saying ‘be like me.’ I didn’t have many anti-Semitic experiences when I was young. But they always asked me, ‘Why do you have to be Jewish?’”
While his next book, a memoir entitled Heart of Glass, slated for German publication in 2009, considers how he became a “public Jew” in the 1980s, Love Today takes on the subject of Jewishness with a more subtle, integrated approach. Some of the characters are Jewish, some are not, some may or may not be. They are all peripatetic, dancing around each other in cities such as Prague, Berlin, Munich, Ljublanja, and Tel Aviv. They meet in cafés, in a synagogue, in a slick metal elevator. In one story, a father whose wife has died realizes that the woman he speaks to on a hotline is a neighbor; in another, a Jewish writer meets an old friend in a Hamburg synagogue, carrying on an affair until she suddenly disappears. Most of Biller’s stories seem be about the spaces between rendezvous—about yearning or waiting—rather than events themselves. In a review for O magazine, Francine Prose called Biller’s fiction “deceptively transparent,” and praised the stories for their ability to “simultaneously elude and haunt.”
In the story “Mein Name war Singer” (“My Name was Singer”), which traces the narrator’s relationship with a woman whose family knew Isaac Bashevis Singer, Biller writes, “In my last life I was a Polish wonder-rabbi in the 18th century. That was better. Now I’m a modern Jewish novelist who writes in German. Of course I’d rather it be English or Hebrew.” Such regret is very much in keeping with Biller’s public persona. “I’m finding the audience that understands what I’m doing,” he says about the American publication of his stories—the first time his work will be published in English. “I don’t want to sound kitschy, but it’s a little bit like coming home.”
When asked why he doesn’t simply leave Germany, Biller grows exasperated. “Of course I want to leave. But it’s not easy. I have a daughter in Hamburg. I need to stay at least a couple of years more for her,” he says, then pauses briefly. “I’m still hoping that I’ll make it…maybe it’ll just be in a coffin.” He finally breaks into a full smile. For all his complaining about Germany, he knows it has certain advantages. “Had my parents gone to America, maybe I’d be a much worse writer, because I wouldn’t have had these cultural problems. Maybe it’s very good for me to be different. It’s much better to be different than to be the same…as long as they don’t kill you for it.”