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Maxim Biller and Ukraine: The resignation of a German-Jewish author?

Paula Odenheimer discusses the German-Jewish author's take on writing in times of renewed conflict.

I am well aware that for the sake of switching off from university, or from the cruel news about Ukraine, it is better to read books that are unrelated to your studies. Still, over the vacation, I found myself in the rabbit hole of finishing the books by Maxim Biller that I had not read for my module in German-Jewish literature. His short stories fascinate me. Wenn ich einmal reich und tot bin (‘Someday when I’m rich and dead: Narratives’) and his novel Esra are probably the ones that stuck to me the most. Before Hilary term, I only knew Biller from a widely followed legal dispute about the latter novel. I have also seen him in-person as a poetics lecturer in Heidelberg. I knew he was a German writer, a columnist for the major newspaper Die Zeit, and a highly disputed figure because he never holds back his opinions.

Now I can say that I read most of his novels and short stories, listened to an eight-hour interview on a podcast and consumed a lot of his sharp newspaper columns. Closing the last page of Bernsteintage (‘Amber Days’), and opening the newspaper, I stumbled across a new article by Biller. The title (in translation) was “Everything was for nothing. Why I no longer want to be a writer.” After initially thinking that this was only another of his provoking statements, I realised that he was serious this time.

While I devoured Maxim Biller’s books, Russia had simultaneously started a war against Ukraine. Around a month of deadly attacks on people, their homes, and former lives  lies in between the beginning of this war and Biller’s proclamation that he wished to stop being a writer. This leaves us with the existential question on whether and how one ought to be an author in the current time of war.

I am not speaking of Ukrainian authors who are and will be willing to write about their immediate experiences, but of authors like Biller who live in another European country. There seem to be two quite radical answers: protest or resignation. Where many famous writers, like Margaret Atwood or Salman Rushdie, are publicly standing up for Ukraine and condemning Russia’s invasion, Biller goes down another path. He announces the end of his career as an author, arguably by putting the spotlight on himself. This career, although definitely considered controversial, is quite a substantial one. The winner of numerous prizes, Biller has been an integral part of  the German literary scene for over the last 30 years. He is one of the biggest contemporary names, next to authors like Daniel Kehlmann or Christian Kracht.

It seems astonishing that he proclaims to end his career so abruptly, especially due to a war that isn’t even taking place in his own country. To find answers that make sense of Biller’s statement beyond allegations of self-centredness, Biller’s background has to be considered. Being a Jew who migrated from Prague to Germany at the age of ten, Biller belongs to the so-called second-generation of German-Jewish writers after 1945. He might not have yet been born when his people and ancestors were callously killed in Nazi concentration and extinction camps, but these gaping wounds still accompany his life and writing. He recently explained that in his stories, he tries to render post-war reality into fiction. However, facing how people kill and denounce each other once again, these fictions turn back into cruel reality. Something quite unthinkable happens again in real life.

Maybe the difference between Jewish and non-Jewish writers becomes quite evident in such a delicate question as the one Biller raises with stepping down from writing fiction. If we wanted to zoom out a little further, we could ask if there is a moment in time when producing art is inappropriate? For sure, what can be said is that art has always been something productive, even in the darkest times. However, I do not want to go as far as to imply that Biller addresses this existential question, but rather that he gives a personal answer to the dilemma of whether he should continue to write. The absence of sympathy in a time of war, when he values sympathy as one of the most important traits of an author, leads him to his decision.

Biller has always been a German writer who stressed his German-Jewish background, and so it seems reasonable that he is not only speaking for himself, but a bigger group of German-Jewish authors. From the terrible history of Jews in Germany, this literature has always been more receptive, more conscious, more human. Who could have grasped the nature of the world in fewer words than Franz Kafka did – merely a coincidence that he was born in Prague, like Biller. We will have to see if others react similarly, and if Biller takes up a pen again at some point. For now, I am glad that I have read his books because they give me a way to think about this war’s reality and the most profound questions of human nature itself.

Artwork credit: Ben Beechener.

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