Ingo Schulze's re-imagining of Faust abstains from simplistic critiques of late capitalism, writes Sam Munson.
New Lives Ingo Schulze, translated from the German by John E Woods Knopf 608 pp. Dh107
The German novelist Ingo Schulze - both a critical favourite and a commercial success in his own country - finds something Satanic about the power of money. In holding that belief, he participates in a long literary tradition that includes everyone from Germany's city-sacking Protestant revolutionaries to fully-ensconced members of the intellectual gentry like William Wordsworth. Schulze's most recent work, New Lives (translated with customary strength and intelligibility by John E Woods), is an ironic, lyrical and disturbing evocation of this theme.
Goethe's Faust, one of the most powerful touchstones in German literature, looms large here. Schulze's Mephistopheles, however, is no Prince of Hell, but a comical aristocrat and serial entrepreneur named Clemens von Barrista. And the Faust Schulze gives us is not a philosopher in extremis but the repulsive, likeable and finally elusive Enrico Türmer, a failed novelist turned failed playwright turned media businessman (and, according to a glancing, reality-blurring observation in the book's "foreword", an old schoolmate of Schulze's). They make their pact not in a dark alchemist's laboratory crowded with astrolabes and sorcerous materia, but in the cramped offices of a fledgling newspaper in the East German city of Altenburg in the months after the Berlin Wall fell.
New Lives is presented as an edition of Türmer's letters with an appendix containing samples of his prose works. Through these writings, we learn that Türmer's seduction was ongoing long before the arrival of Barrista (whose very name conjures up Starbucks, the epitome of comfortable Western mediocrity). Though Turner is in his early 30s by the time he meets Barrista, he has already dedicated a large part of his life to the pursuit of various false gods: art, love, worldly fame. We learn this through his letters to three people: his sister, Vera, his friend, Johann Ziehlke, and a photographer named Nicoletta Hansen whose relationship with Türmer is unclear. These dispatches tell of a constricted, wretched life - a boyhood in Dresden, years of compulsory service in the army, an unhappy entree into romantic life and a broken-off career as a dramaturge in Altenburg. Schulze also has Türmer recount, with equal parts lack of awareness and brutal self-scrutiny, the desperate wish to be talented and famous that plagued him from early adolescence onwards, his slavish but transient emotional fealties and the tortures he inflicts on himself as he attempts to write. When Barrista appears, he only has to make a minimal effort (he agrees to finance Türmer's share in a small weekly paper) to draw him under his influence.
Soon afterwards Türmer's fortunes change: as a journalist, as a potential émigré to the West, even at the roulette tables of Monte Carlo, where Barrista sends him to learn the thrill of nihilistic risk-taking. By the book's end, he has happily accepted his failure as an artist, and we last see him in a state of moral readiness for further adventures in media business. Schulze leaves the specific contours of Türmer's abrupt rise and equally abrupt downfall - to which New Lives serves as a psychological preface - murky. But he makes clear in the foreword that Türmer's empire has crumbled, that he is being sought by the police and that his current whereabouts are unknown.
This sounds, in quick summary, like a simplistic morality tale, a parable of the mistake Germany itself made in its enthusiastic embrace of market capitalism, with Barrista as a neurotic and menacing Mephisto and Türmer as a Faust tinged with the weakness and neediness of Nietzsche's Last Man. But a number of factors vitiate this interpretation. The first and most obvious is that Schulze refuses to serve as an apologist for the East German government: he presents life in the East as concrete-coloured and petty, shot through with fear and eruptions of repressive violence. The second is that Türmer's intellectual opponents - his newspaper colleagues Jorg and Marion, who object to Barrista's financial involvement, and his actress wife Michaela, who considers him a traitor to art - appear as morally small, as slightly nauseating in their righteousness, as would-be tyrants. In short, they are figures as problematic as Enrico Türmer himself, attracting and disgusting us by turns. Consider Türmer's observation of Michaela, the archetype of a socially-conscious European artist, announcing what her friend Thea has suffered at the hands of the Stasi:
"Bad news," Michaela said. It seemed to me as if at some basic level she was proud of the fact ... Michaela took time to give her speech, rarely raised her voice, and let everyone sense that she was struggling to be factual and understood that she had to hold her emotions back ... Once again Thea had been a step ahead of her. That's what Michaela found unbearable! Her famous friend was to blame for Michaela's conviction that she would lose face if she didn't risk her own neck.
This dead-on diagnosis of the fake political agony of the intellectual bourgeoisie is heightened by the fact, revealed much later in the book, that Michaela has taken up with Barrista. Türmer's desires, held up next to those of his coworkers and companions, seem far less laughable and mediocre. Indeed, what makes Schulze's vision of money and the superstructures it helps erect far more subtle and sympathetic than what you might expect from an artist of the contemporary German Left is his (apparent) belief that despite its moral murkiness, the capitalist way of life has something considerable to be said for it. Even when uttered by a figure as bathetic as Türmer, the phrase "I want to go to the West!" cannot but invoke a cleared horizon, the beginning of limitless-seeming possibility: the very things that - despite the just and trenchant criticisms that can be levelled against its economic arrangements - have made the West and its way of life, its appalling and fascinating mixture of grandeur and banality, such a bottomless subject of conversation and interest, so massively alive.
In this sense, Schulze's book finds a closer antecedent in the Austrian writer Robert Musil's The Man without Qualities than in Faust (or even Doktor Faustus, Thomas Mann's novelistic re-imagining of Goethe's opera). In that book, Musil accomplished something remarkable. His protagonist, the magnate and intellectual Paul Arnheim, stands as one of modern literature's most penetrating and empathetic portrayals of a powerful businessman. Arnheim is obsessed with the concept of soul and apparently unaware that he long ago lost his own, without the aid of any emissary from hell. Türmer is a man headed towards the same lofty and splendid isolation that Arnheim occupies, towards a paralysis of desire through the superfetation of satisfactions - knowledge, money, insulating comforts.
Towards, in short, the widespread spiritual condition of late capitalist humanity. Which is not, for Schulze, something to be wholly mocked or pitied, but to be considered with all due literary care. After all, Türmer should be as recognisable to unhappy young slaves of media conglomerates in Manhattan as he must be to any German ambivalent about his or her country's postwar economic history. Whether this condition is hell or not remains an open question. But we are - none of us - out of it.
Sam Munson has written about books for The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times Book Review, Commentary and numerous other publications.