Schneider, Peter 1940-
SCHNEIDER, Peter 1940-
PERSONAL: Born 1940 in Lübeck, Germany; son of Horst (a composer and conductor) and Anneliese (Rademacher) Schneider; married. Education: Attended University of Freiburg, University of Munich, and University of Berlin, 1959-64.
ADDRESSES: Home—Berlin, Germany. Offıce— Department of German, Georgetown University, Intercultural Center 468A, 3700 O St. NW, Washington, DC 20057-1048. E-mail—german@georgetown. edu.
CAREER: Freelance journalist and author. Speech writer for the Social Democrats party, 1965; student activist in Berlin, Germany, and Trento, Italy, 1966-72; visiting professor or writer in residence at various universities, including Stanford University, Princeton University, Dartmouth University, Harvard University, and Washington University, 1985-96; Georgetown University, Washington, DC, Parker Distinguished Writer in Residence, 2000-01, 2003—; Halle Institute, Emory College, distinguished fellow, 2002.
AWARDS, HONORS: Young Generation prize from city of Berlin, Germany, 1969; Woodrow Wilson Center fellowship, 1996-97.
Der Mauerspringer (fiction), Luchterhand (Darmstadt, Germany), 1982, translation by Leigh Hafrey published as The Wall Jumper, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1983, published as The Wall Jumper: A Berlin Story, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1998.
Extreme Mittellage: Eine Reise durch das deutscheNationalgefühl, Rowohlt (Reinbek bei Hamburg, Germany), 1990, translation by Philip Boehm and Leigh Hafrey published as The German Comedy: Scenes of Life after the Wall, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1991.
Paarungen (novel), Rowohlt (Berlin, Germany), 1992, translation by Philip Boehm published as Couplings, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1996.
Eduards Heimkehr (novel), Rowohlt (Berlin, Germany), 1999, translation by John Brownjohn published as Eduard's Homecoming, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2000.
Unser Münsterland: Landschaft, Geschichte, Volk undBrauchtum: Eine Heimatkunde für Schule und Haus, Aschendorff (Münster, Germany), 1966.
Ansprachen, Wagenbach (Berlin, Germany), 1970.
Lenz: Eine Erzählung, Rotbuch Verlag (Berlin, Germany), 1973.
Schon bist du ein Verfassungsfeind: d. unerwarteteAnschwellen d. Personalakte d. Lehrers Kleff, Rotbuch Verlag (Berlin, Germany), 1975.
Atempause: Versuch, meine Gedanken über Literatur und Kunst zu ordnen, Rowohlt (Reinbek bei Hamburg, Germany), 1977.
Die Wette: Erzählungen, Rotbuch Verlag (Berlin, Germany), 1978.
Messer im Kopf: Drehbuch (screenplay), Rotbuch Verlag (Berlin, Germany), 1979.
Die Botschaft des Pferdekopfs und andere Essais aus einem friedlichen Jahrzehnt, Luchterhand (Darmstadt, Germany), 1981.
Niemands Land, photographs by Monika Hasse, Frölich und Kaufman (Berlin, Germany), 1982.
Totoloque: Das Geiseldrama von Mexiko-Tenochtitlan:Stück in drei Spielen (three-act play), Luchterhand (Darmstadt, Germany), 1985.
Vati (fiction), Luchterhand (Darmstadt, Germany), 1987.
Am Rande von Bethlehem (puppet play), Marionettentheater Wieslocher Puppenstube (Wiesloch, Germany), 1987.
Deutsche Ängste: Sieben Essays, Luchterhand (Darmstadt, Germany), 1988, edited and with introduction in English by Colin Riordan, Manchester University Press (New York, NY), 1993.
Nicaragua; oder, die Arbeit der Ameisen am Fusse derWahrheit, Helbing & Lichtenhahn (Basel, Switzerland), 1990.
Wie die Spree in den Bosporus fliesst, Babel-Verlag Hund & Toker (Berlin, Germany), 1991.
Die chinesische Nachtigall (puppet play), Wieslocher Puppenstube (Wiesloch, Germany), 1992.
Bhima suarga, HWF (Heidelberg, Germany), 1993.
Geschichten des Wayang purwa (Mahabharata), HWF (Heidelberg, Germany), 1993.
Vom Ende der Gewissheit, Rowohlt (Berlin, Germany), 1994.
"Berlin—tolerant und weltoffen," Ausländerbeauftragte des Senats (Berlin, Germany), 1994.
(With Margarethe von Trotta and Felice Laudadido) Das Versprechen; oder, Der lange Atem der Liebe (screenplay), photographs by Noreen Flynn, Volk & Welt (Berlin, Germany), 1994, published as Das Versprechen; oder, die Jahre der Mauer, 1995.
Der Rattenfänger (puppet play), Marionettentheater Wieslocher (Wiesloch, Germany), 1997.
Die Diktatur der Geschindigkeit, Transit (Berlin, Germany), 2000.
"Und wenn wir nur eine Stunde gewinnen—": wie ein jüdischer Musiker die Nazi-Jahre überlebte, Rowohlt (Berlin, Germany), 2001.
Das Fest der Missverständnisse (fiction), Rowohlt-Taschenbuch (Reinbek bei Hamburg, Germany), 2003.
Contributor to Three Contemporary Germany Novellas (includes Lenz), edited by A. Leslie Wilson, Continuum (New York, NY), 2001. Also contributor to English-language periodicals, including the New York Times, Time, Newsweek, New Republic, Harper's, and New York Times Magazine. Contributor to other periodicals, including Kursbuch, Der Spiegel, Die Zeit, Frankfurter Allgemeine, Le Monde, La Reubblica, Corriere Della Sera, Libèration, and Dagens Nyheter.
ADAPTATIONS: Das Versprechen; oder, die Jahre der Mauer was produced as the film Das Versprechen, Concord, 1995; Vati is being adapted as a film, directed by Egidio Eronico.
SIDELIGHTS: An author of novels, essays, and screenplays, German writer Peter Schneider has made it his main concern to write about the problems of guilt and identity that the German people have suffered since World War II. He writes about the guilt of the generation that followed the Nazis, and about how Germans have dealt with—or ignored—the schizophrenic identity of their nation while it was split between the communist East and capitalist West. Having lived in Berlin since 1962, Schneider has been particularly obsessed by the Berlin Wall, and how this monumental symbol of division affected the personal lives of the people who have lived on both sides of it, both before and after the wall's destruction in 1989. Schneider illustrates in his writings, too, how even though the two Germanys have been politically reunited, the actual healing between East and West is still in progress.
Schneider, who has spent much of his career working as a political journalist, was heavily involved in student activism during the 1960s, and he spent a year as a speech writer for the Social Democrats party in Germany. After giving an influential speech at the Free University in Berlin in 1967, Schneider rose to the forefront of the student protest movement in Berlin when he criticized the pretensions of Germany's academia. However, he eventually became disillusioned with political activism's inability to resolve people's problems on an individual level, a sentiment that became the main motif of his first well-known work, Lenz.
Originally published in 1973 but not translated into English until 2001, Lenz is a bildungsroman that takes its inspiration from the Georg Büchner story fragment about Sturm und Drang dramatist Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz and his descent into madness. In Schneider's version, Lenz is transformed into a young 1960s German intellectual suffering through a crisis of conscience, feeling "alienated from both his environment and his former convictions," as one Times Literary Supplement critic explained. Wandering the countryside in the same way as Büchner's character did, he involves himself in various political and social debates with other intellectuals but finds no satisfaction there. In an attempt to escape this impasse, he travels to Italy, where his experiences teach him to "no longer trust words," a revelation that rejuvenates him and helps him regain a connection with other people on an individual, rather than idealistic basis. Having resolved his inner conflict, he regains the strength to return to Berlin. "Lenz," concluded the Times Literary Supplement reviewer, "is a courageous book, written against the grain: an attempt at a rapprochement between progressive writing and progressive politics." David Roberts, writing in the Australian Book Review, further observed that it "is regularly cited as the most important work to emerge from the student movement." Roberts also explained that Lenz "touched the nerve of the time and signaled the turn from the political 1960s to the politics of the personal, the new subjectivity, as it was called, of the 1970s."
A series of books in which the main character can be considered to be the Berlin Wall, rather than the people who populate the author's text, began with the publication of Schneider's Der Mauerspringer, which was later translated as The Wall Jumper. Written several years before the wall was knocked down in 1989, The Wall Jumper is a fictionalized depiction of the motives of the people who risked their lives to cross the wall from East to West and, surprisingly, from West to East. People, Schneider shows, were not crossing the wall for reasons such as political freedom in the West or a guaranteed job in the East, but rather for the most frivolous, even nonsensical reasons. For example, in the story one group of youths regularly risk their lives to go to West Berlin so that they can watch their favorite movies; another man, Herr Kabe, becomes a compulsive border crosser in both directions "to the bewilderment of both sets of authorities," related Colin Russ in a Times Literary Supplement review.
But while the political systems and lifestyles of East versus West Berlin are obviously different to the Germans, Schneider reveals that they share something in common: a division between individual citizens and the state that seeks to manipulate them. Crossing the border therefore does not change this aspect of people's lives. Berliners, unable to reconcile themselves to the existence of the wall, have thus resolved to ignore its very existence, Schneider concludes. By the end of the story, the book's narrator joins the other wall jumpers as he becomes "aware of the inadequacy of the identities offered by East as well as West Germany and refuses to adopt either state as representing German nationality," noted U. Love in World Literature Today. Despite this resistance in acknowledging the wall, though, Schneider asserts that the division the Berlin Wall created has been very real and reaches deeper than the material existence of stones and mortar. "It will take us longer to tear down the walls in our heads than any wrecking company will need for the wall we can see," he predicts in his book. It is a declaration he would readdress in his future literary work.
Schneider next received considerable attention for his 1987 novel, Vati. Written not long after German magazine Bunte published an account by journalist Inge Byham about how the son of infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele visited the Auschwitz criminal in Argentina, Vati reprints some of the article's text almost verbatim. The result was that Schneider was accused of plagiarism. But Schneider overcame the accusations in that his fictional account of a meeting between a Nazi war criminal and his son was sufficiently different from the nonfiction story. Dealing with the issue of guilt felt by the generation that followed the Nazis, Vati, unlike other German novels concerning the same issue, lays some blame on the children of the Nazis for, as Rodney Livingstone noted in Modern Language Review, "their inability to communicate with their fathers, and, more seriously in this case, with Rolf's [Mengele's son's] failure to reveal his father's whereabouts to the German authorities." The fictional narrator in Vati is responsible for his own weakness of character in being unable to resolve his inner debate: on the one hand, he knows his father is a horrible criminal, but, on the other, he cannot overcome the feeling that his father is entitled to a son's loyalty. In the end, silence is the ultimate crime of which this second generation is guilty. As Critique writer Birgit A. Jensen said, "Peter Schneider's Vati thus explores how the world views of their progenitors have 'tainted' the offspring of the German Nazi generation; their outright rejection of their parents only serves to perpetuate the guilty silence that those parents maintained about their past crimes. Thus the guilt shifts—at least psychologically—onto the shoulders of the next generation."
Soon after the reunification of Germany, Schneider released his Extreme Mittellage: Eine Reise durch das deutsche Nationalgefühl, translated as The German Comedy: Scenes of Life after the Wall. In a different way than Vati did, this nonfiction work is also an attack on Germans who would remain silent about various political crimes, both local and international. Schneider, for example, attacks his government for not defending democratic interests abroad, as well neglecting to prosecute members of the former East German regime for crimes perpetrated against its own citizens. "It is [the Germans'] unflinching pacifism that really riles Schneider," reported Josef Joffe in a Los Angeles Times review—"and for good reason." For instance, Germany lacked the political willpower to support the Solidarity movement in Poland or to assist with the more recent political troubles in the Middle East.
Schneider considers the lack of character in Germany's pacifism to be a "double standard" that threatens political stability around the world. He also criticizes Germany for its continued xenophobia. Not only does anti-Semitism still exist, but with the influx of immigrants from countries such as Turkey, there is a growing risk of hate crimes. Whether or not Germany has learned its lessons from World War II remains to be seen, Schneider concludes in what Joffe described as a "biting commentary [that] is softened by wit and irony." Stephen Vizinczey, writing in the New York Times Book Review, further reflected that The German Comedy "brings home to the reader the strains and conflicts that flow inevitably from the sudden union of the poor and the rich, the weak and the strong." But although Schneider can find his countrymen to be "exasperating," added Peter Graves in the Times Literary Supplement, he remains "cautiously positive."
The German Comedy takes stock of the German character both just before and just after the destruction of the Berlin Wall. Schneider does the same with a pair of novels that illustrates the author's assertion that the wall was more than just a physical manifestation of the schism existing in modern Germany. Paarungen, originally published in 1992 and translated as Couplings in 1996, is set in the mid-1980s. Three men are featured here, including molecular biologist Eduard Hoffman, whose low sperm count is causing him ego problems, and his two Jewish friends: Theo, an anarchist poet, and Andre, a music composer. When Eduard makes the unusual observation that romantic relationships cannot last more than four years in Germany due to what he labels a "separation virus," the three men make a bet that they will still be successful in their current relationships one year from now. Each man takes a different approach to win the bet. Eduard vows that he will get his longtime lover, Klara, pregnant; Andre promises his wife, Esther, that he will remain completely faithful to her despite his reputation as a philanderer; and Theo, believing that familiarity breeds contempt, tries to abstain from sex with Pauline so that romance will become more exciting. They all fail spectacularly in their quest, especially Eduard, who manages to get two other women, but not Klara, pregnant.
Along with the theme of the unviable nature of modern monogamy, which serves as a metaphor for the problems of German reunification, Schneider's novel touches on other themes, including the guilty hangover from Nazi Germany as Eduard wonders whether his grandfather collaborated with Adolf Eichmann. Other sly bits are thrown in, as well, such as a dog who is afraid of crossing thresholds, and a remarkable Jewish wedding that brings together relatives from France, Russia, Germany, and America in a scene that New York Times Book Review critic Suzanne Ruta said "gets the mix of comedy and melancholy just right." Couplings mixes humor, irony, and a gloomy subtext in an attempt to capture the conscience of a nation. As Richard Eder put it in his Los Angeles Times review, it "is a book of shrewd irony and a trenchant sense of what is unhealed in a Germany that carries its economic and political heft on legs that are still shaky. In Eduard, Andre and Theo, Schneider has devised three characters whose individual absurdities are oddly sensible reflections of an unsound national condition."
Schneider brings back the character of Eduard Hoffman in his 1999 novel, Eduard's Heimkehr, translated the next year as Eduard's Homecoming. A blend of black humor and serious thematic statements characterize this story of middle-aged Eduard's return to Berlin after living in the United States as a Stanford University molecular biologist. Having learned that he has inherited an apartment complex in East Berlin, he comes to Germany to start a new job at a research institute there and, he hopes, enjoy the benefits of owning what could become a valuable piece of real estate. But Eduard soon discovers that his apartment building is occupied by very irate squatters who refuse to move or pay rent, leaving him to pay the utility bills and taxes. Furthermore, Eduard is portrayed in the newspapers as being no better than a Nazi when he tries to remove the squatters from his building. He also fears that his grandfather, who left him the building, obtained it illegally in 1933 from the original Jewish owner. Later, though, he learns that his grandfather was actually involved in protecting a number of Jews from persecution, only adding to Eduard's internal confusion.
But Eduard's problems as a landlord form only one plotline in this complex novel. Schneider also throws in marital problems (Eduard's wife, Jenny, and children are reluctant to move to Germany, and his sexual relationship with Jenny is also on the skids), as well as difficulties with office politics at his new laboratory job. Some critics found that the introduction of the subplot with Jenny detracts from the rest of the book. For instance, Gregory Miller, writing in theSan Diego Union-Tribune, felt that it "leads the novel off track. Schneider strives to balance sociopolitical satire with domestic drama, but they are so laboriously paralleled here that the characters and events become unconvincing." Characterization, added other reviewers, is less important to the author than his message, as it has been with his other novels as well. As Newsday contributor Brigitte Frase commented, "Schneider is more interested in sociology and politics than he is in plot or character. Eduard is less a person than a catalyst. There's a wholly unnecessary second plot involving his wife, Jenny, and his obsession with finally bringing her to orgasm. Some happenings are never explained."
But despite such drawbacks in literary technique, many critics found Eduard's Homecoming to be a convincing depiction of a troubled German city. As Ulf Zimmermann commented in his World Literature Today assessment, Schneider "has succeeded at making these conflicts and hopes, as well as the city itself, palpable and immediate." Along these same lines, Frase added, "The real protagonist of Eduard's Homecoming is Berlin, that gray, sly, often malicious giant." It is Schneider's home town, then, that becomes the continuing protagonist in The Wall Jumper, Couplings, and Eduard's Homecoming. International Herald Tribune writer Michael Blumenthal consequently labeled these books Schneider's "Berlin trilogy." While Blumenthal quoted the author as saying that writing a trilogy was "absolutely not my plan from the beginning," the books do work together to form a literary portrait of Berlin: "'I wanted,' Schneider says, 'to create a further work in which not a person, but a city, would be the protagonist.' And the 'new' Berlin which Schneider calls 'the most cited, and least known, construction site in the world' does indeed play a starring role, along with Eduard."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Schneider, Peter, Der Mauerspringer, Luchterhand (Darmstadt, Germany), 1982, translation by Leigh Hafrey published as The Wall Jumper, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1983, published as The Wall Jumper: A Berlin Story, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1998.
Australian Book Review, October, 1994, David Roberts, "Peter Schneider," pp. 58-59.
Booklist, September 15, 1996, Brian Kenney, review of Couplings, p. 222; August, 2000, George Needham, review of Eduard's Homecoming, p. 2116.
Chicago Tribune, October 20, 1996, Thomas McGonigle, "Heeding the Past Memory, Responsibility and What It Means to Be German," p. 5.
Critique, fall, 2001, Birgit A. Jensen, "Peter Schneider's Vati: Contesting a German Taboo," p. 84.
German Quarterly, summer, 1993, Susan C. Anderson, "Walls and Other Obstacles: Peter Schneider's Critique of Unity in Der Mauerspringer," pp. 362-367.
International Herald Tribune (Paris, France), July 25, 2000, Michael Blumenthal, "Peter Schneider Takes Berlin's Erratic Pulse," p. 20.
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 2000, review of Eduard'sHomecoming, p. 914.
Library Journal, August, 2000, Cheryl L. Conway, review of Eduard's Homecoming, p. 161.
Los Angeles Times, March 11, 1984, Harry Trimborn, "A German with His Back to the Barrier," p. 4; November 3, 1991, Josef Joffe, "The Other German Wall," p. 1; September 22, 1996, Richard Eder, "Separation Anxiety," p. 2; August 20, 2000, Jonathan Levi, review of Eduard's Homecoming, p. 4.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 3, 1991, Josef Joffe, "The Other German Wall," p. 1.
Modern Language Review, October, 1990, Peter Carrier, review of Deutsche Ängste, pp. 1039-1041; April, 1995, Rodney Livingstone, review of Vati, pp. 529-530.
Nation, March 17, 1984, Robert Houston, "Up against the Wall," p. 328.
New Republic, March 5, 1984, Dorothy Wickenden, review of The Wall Jumper, p. 36; October 9, 1995, Stanley Kauffmann, review of The Promise, p. 26.
Newsday, August 7, 2000, Brigitte Frase, "A German Tries to Go Home Again," p. B2.
New York Times Book Review, October 6, 1991, Stephen Vizinczey, "Watching the Rhine Again," p. 12; September 22, 1996, Suzanne Ruta, "Berliners," p. 17.
Publishers Weekly, August 30, 1991, review of TheGerman Comedy: Scenes of Life after the Wall, p. 72; August 19, 1996, review of Couplings, p. 51; July 3, 2000, review of Eduard's Homecoming, p. 48.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, summer, 1997, Rod Kessler, review of Couplings, p. 273.
San Diego Union-Tribune, August 20, 2000, Gregory Miller, Books Section, p. 5.
Seattle Post, January 5, 1996, William Arnold, "Director's Long-awaited Return to Germany Yields a Touching 'Promise,'" p. 24.
Times Literary Supplement, June 14, 1974, "Rootless Radical," p. 643; April 22, 1977, Peter Lananyi, "Investigation of a Citizen," p. 494; July 30, 1982, Colin Russ, "Divide and Misrule," p. 814; October 8, 1993, Peter Graves, "Goodbyes in Berlin," p. 40.
Wall Street Journal, October 29, 1991, Lee Lescaze, "The Shadow of Kristallnacht," p. A20; July 17, 1992, Peter Graves, "No Laughing Matter," p. 26.
World Literature Today, spring, 1983, U. Love, review of Der Mauerspringer, p. 288; spring, 1988, Robert Schwarz, review of Vati, p. 280; winter, 2000, Ulf Zimmermann, review of Eduards Heimkehr, p. 145.*