Plessen, Elisabeth 1944- (Elisabeth Charlotte Marguerite Plessen)

views updated

Plessen, Elisabeth 1944- (Elisabeth Charlotte Marguerite Plessen)


Born March 15, 1944, in Neustadt, Holstein, Germany; daughter of Carl and Anita Plessen. Education: Studied in Paris and at Technical University of Berlin; Free University of Berlin, Ph.D.


Home—S. Filippo Lucca, Italy; Hamburg, Germany.


Writer and translator.


PEN Germany.


Critics' Prize for Literature, 1976, for Mitteilung an den Adel; Droste-Preis Meersburg, 1988, for Kohlhaas.


Fakten und Erfindung: Zeitgenössische Epik im Grenzgebiet von fiction und nonfiction (title means "Facts and Fiction: Contemporary Epic Literature in the Border Area of Fiction and Nonfiction"), Hanser (Munich, Germany), 1971.

(Editor, with Michael Mann) Katja Mann, Meine ungeschriebenen Memoiren, Fischer (Frankfurt am Main, Germany), 1974, translation by Hunter Hannum and Hildegarde Hannum published as Unwritten Memories, Knopf (New York, NY), 1975.

Mitteilung an den Adel: Roman (novel; title means "Message to the Aristocracy"), Benzinger (Zurich, Switzerland), 1976, translation by Ruth Hein published as Such Sad Tidings, Viking (New York, NY), 1979.

Kohlhaas (novel), Benzinger (Zurich, Switzerland), 1979.

Zu machen, dass ein gebraten Huhn aus der Schüssel laufe(title means "To Make a Fried Chicken Walk Out of the Serving Bowl"), Benzinger (Zurich, Switzerland), 1981.

Stella Polare (novel; title means "North Star"), S. Fischer (Frankfurt am Main, Germany), 1984.

Lady Spaghetti (short stories), S. Fischer (Frankfurt am Main, Germany), 1992.

Der Knick (novel), Nagel & Kimche (Zurich, Switzerland), 1997.

Lina: Erzählung, Merlin (Gifkendorf, Germany), 2004.

Das Kavalierhaus (novel; title refers to a boarding school for girls), Kiepenheuer & Witsch (Cologne, Germany), 2004.

Also contributor to Kursbuch.


(With Ernst Schnabel) Ernest Hemingway, Die fünfte Kolonne (title means "The Fifth Column"), Rowohlt (Hamburg, Germany), 1968.

(With Ernst Schnabel) Ernest Hemingway, 49 Sepeschen (title means "49 Dispatches"), Rowohlt (Hamburg, Germany), 1969.

(With Ernst Schnabel) Robert Lowell, Prometheus am Pranger (title means "Prometheus Bound"), Rowohlt (Hamburg, Germany), 1970.

(With Ernst Schnabel) Ernest Hemingway, Inseln im Strom (title means "Islands in the Stream"), Rowohlt (Hamburg, Germany), 1971.

Marguerite Duras, Savannah Bay, S. Fischer (Frankfurt am Main, Germany), 1985.

John Webster, Die Herzogin von Malfi, Rowohlt (Hamburg, Germany), 1985.

William Shakespeare, Wie es euch gefällt (title means "As You Like It"), Rowohlt (Hamburg, Germany), 1986.

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Rowohlt (Hamburg, Germany), 1986.

William Shakespeare, Der Kaufmann von Venedig (title means "The Merchant of Venice"), Rowohlt (Hamburg, Germany), 1988.

(With Ulrike Zemme) Anton Tschechow, Ivanov, Rowohlt (Hamburg, Germany), 1990.

Henrik Ibsen, Wenn wir Toten erwachen (title means "When We Dead Awaken"), Rowohlt (Hamburg, Germany), 1991.

C.F. Ramuz, Die Geschichte des Soldaten (title means "The Story of the Soldier"), Rowohlt (Hamburg, Germany), 1994.

William Shakespeare, Antonius und Cleopatra (title means "Antony and Cleopatra"), Rowohlt (Hamburg, Germany), 1994.

(With Peter Zadek) Harold Pinter, Mondlicht (title means "Moonlight"), Rowohlt (Hamburg, Germany), 1995.

(With Ulrike Zemme) Anton Tschechow, Der Kirschgarten (title means "The Cherry Orchard"), Rowohlt (Hamburg, Germany), 1996.

William Shakespeare, Richard III, Rowohlt (Hamburg, Germany), 1997.

(With Peter Zadek) Sarah Kane, Gesäubert (title means "Cleansed"), Rowohlt (Hamburg, Germany), 1998.

William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Rowohlt (Hamburg, Germany), 1999.

Henrik Ibsen, Rosmersholm, Rowohlt (Hamburg, Germany), 2000.

Tennessee Williams, Die Nacht des Leguan (title means "The Night of the Iguana"), Projekt Verlag (Dortmund, Germany), 2002.

(With Peter Zadek) Harold Pinter, Krieg (title means "War"), Rogner & Bernhard (Berlin, Germany), 2003.

August Strindberg, Der Totentanz (title means "The Dance of Death"), Rowohlt (Hamburg, Germany), 2005.

Sheilagh Delaney, Der bittere Honig (title means "A Taste of Honey"), Gustav Kiepenheuer Verlag (Berlin, Germany), 2006.

William Shakespeare, Was ihr wollt (title means "Twelfth Night"), Rowohlt (Hamburg, Germany), 2006.

Luigi Pirandello, Die Nackten bekleiden (title means "Naked"), Rowohlt (Hamburg, Germany), 2007.


Elisabeth Plessen is the author of a handful of critically acclaimed novels that provide insight into issues vital to a generation of Germans born after the trauma of World War II. Her fiction belongs to a German literary movement centered around the term "Vergangenheitsbewältigung," or "coming to terms with the past." Plessen's writings—especially her 1976 novel Mitteilung an den Adel: Roman—vocalize some of the conflicts that a postwar West German generation underwent about their parents' generation and its role in the Nazi era. "Plessen's novels contributed to the ‘documentary literature’ of the 1970s and 1980s, in which actual public and private records were incorporated into fiction and drama," wrote Helga W. Kraft in an essay on the author in the Dictionary of Literary Biography.

Plessen was born into an old German aristocratic family in 1944. She grew up on the family estate in Holstein, Schloss Sierhagen, located in what would become, after the end of World War II and the postwar division of the country, part of West Germany. As a child, she was sent to boarding school and later studied history, philosophy, and German philology in both Paris and Berlin. In the latter city she became active in the student movement, a rebellion against her privileged upbringing, and eventually earned her doctorate in German from the Free University of Berlin. Her dissertation discussed experimental writing based on historical research, which is what she would pursue herself as an author, and it was published in 1971 as Fakten und Erfindung: Zeitgenössische Epik im Grenzgebiet von fiction und nonfiction. In it, she discusses work of Franz Kafka and Truman Capote, among several other writers.

After earning her degree, Plessen traveled a great deal, including sojourns in South America and the Soviet Union, and also began writing poetry and short stories. She then lived in Berlin, Munich, and even the United States, but would eventually settle in Hamburg. In 1974 she gained renown as the editor, with Michael Mann, of Meine ungeschriebenen Memoiren, the memoirs of Katja Mann, the wife of German novelist Thomas Mann. Plessen then turned to fiction.

Her novel, Mitteilung an den Adel relates the semiautobiographical story of a young journalist named Augusta—one of Plessen's given names—who learns her aristocratic father has just died. She travels from Munich to Schleswig-Holstein, across West Germany in a diagonal line, for the funeral, and along the way reminisces about her life and her strained relationship with her father. As the narrative shifts to various points and places in her life, she remembers her incidents from her rather severe, though privileged childhood, and later the circumstances surrounding her involvement in a left-wing radical milieu as a student in Berlin. As an activist, Augusta had signed an official document of protest, for which her conservative, nationalistic father disowned her. Augusta knows that she is partly to blame for his death. As she drives, she conducts imagined conversations with him, and realizes she has inherited some of his traits.

Plessen also integrates into her novel some narrative fragments that her father once wrote long ago in preparation for a novel. He had written this just after Germany's defeat in World War II, but "his attempt to shape his war experiences into a novel are embarrassingly trivial and naive," wrote Kraft. "Instead, there is praise for heroic deeds and the contention that there will always be war." As Augusta approaches her family estate, she realizes the hypocrisy of her presence at the funeral, and turns back. "Although Augusta admits her own inability to reform society and expresses disappointment with the student movement, she has at least learned to recognize the problems plaguing the country that is symbolized by her father," observed Kraft. "Plessen's personal history thus serves to criticize the fatherland as well as the father."

Plessen's next work was Kohlhaas. Its title character was borrowed from an 1810 novella by Heinrich von Kleist, "Michael Kohlhaas," a homage to an actual figure from German history. Her novel recreates the legend surrounding this sixteenth-century peasant whose horses were illegally seized at a border crossing. In vain, Kohlhaas attempts to regain his possessions. In response, he organizes a small rebellion in which local peasants burn and loot in protest against their harsh treatment at the hands of the government and nobility. Kohlhaas is apprehended, tortured, and executed for his acts. In Kleist's story the horses are returned, which provides the older work with an uplifting message that justice does prevail. In Plessen's version, however, the narrator's historical research reveals that the horses died, as did Kohlhaas, a slow and painful death. In the end, an even more repressive and unfair climate prevailed in the aftermath of the rebellion, for authorities then used the uprising to their favor to gain popular support for increased powers.

In Kohlhaas the narrator is conducting her own research into the story, evaluates it, and reflects on personal experiences and contemporary society. "To her horror, she sees that nothing has changed much since Kohlhaas's time; she finds that human rights continue to be violated and that material concerns, corrupt governments, terrorism, and failed rebellions are still part of human life," noted Kraft. "Plessen wrote the novel at a time when grass-roots movements had sprung up in Germany; she demonstrates that the grass-roots methods of Kohlhaas do not work," continued Kraft. "The novel constitutes her coming to terms with the realities of the 1970s, when the political climate in Germany became more conservative if not reactionary and introspection and a withdrawal into the private sphere became common."

The book Zu machen, dass ein gebraten Huhn aus der Schüssel laufe is Plessen's next work, a collection of essays and other prose. Remarking on this book, Kraft wrote: "Plessen's stream-of-consciousness narration often imperceptibly blends realistic observations with the expression of a deep inner urgency, imbuing the prose with a magical quality." Her novel Stella Polare also features a female, literary-minded protagonist. The writer Luise von Kai is living in northern Italy with another German, physician, and writer named Max Fischer. As a series of guests sojourn at the villa, Luise reflects upon the conflict she feels as a woman in love who still battles to maintain a sense of independence. She is forced into the uncharacteristic job of hostess and is plagued by dreams of having a child with Fischer. "Plessen shows how seductive it is for a woman to abandon herself to traditional love," pointed out Kraft.

Plessen told CA: "I have written essays on literary subjects, radio plays, radio features, and travel reports. I have worked on cultural programs for radio and television. In recent years I have published occasional collections of poems. (When I started my ‘career’ in a very strict boarding school for girls in Heidelberg, I started with poems. At the time I was afraid of not having enough breath and experience of the world for what I always wanted to write: a novel). At the moment I am working on three very long short stories, concerning partly the past. In them an old man, a former World War II reporter, remembers and finally speaks up at the end of his life about, among other things, the chaotic day when East Berlin and West Berlin finally become administratively one city. I travel a lot in Europe because of my translations of plays that Peter Zadek presents throughout Germany and soon in Zurich, Switzerland."



Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 75: Contemporary German Fiction Writers, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1988.