Thinking about what my thesis has become and how to explain it to other people is something I now realise I should do more often. Reading back through older posts I have been impressed by how everyone seems to have it so ‘together’ while in my mind’s eye the sprawling piles of information and half-explored avenues of investigation I have accumulated over three years seem to resemble the house of a compulsive hoarder. Thankfully, my project had a pretty clear focus from the beginning and I am managing (trying) to keep on topic by filing lots of things away under the heading ‘definitely going to write an article when I’ve finished’.
The focus to which I am so doggedly clinging is deceptively simple: how does memory inform the structure and content of Herta Müller’s writing? But whose memory? Memory of what? What forms of remembering? Can we talk about a common structure of memory when memory is a wholly personal – as well as universal – experience? Isn’t all fiction founded on memory? All this can lead to occasional feelings that I have bitten off more than I can chew… Yet memory theory has been fantastically rewarding as a framework for studying Müller, an author whose position as German/not German and fascinating biography has kept her somewhat outside the vast memory debates with which we are all familiar.
In my project I have sought to position Müller more firmly within the tradition of German writing on memory, and bring forward the collective memory of the Nazi past as a prime theme in her writing. This is something of a departure from existing scholarship which has tended to focus only on National Socialism as a presence in her descriptions of ethnic German culture in Romania (and autobiographical writing on her parents) but has proven illuminating in various ways. I investigate how cultural memory of fascism informs Müller’s creation of textual images and personal sensitivity to signs, using ideas of the ‘concentrationary imaginary’ to describe the historical contingency of the sensations she produces through metaphor, metonymy and association. I also look at the way she reveals memory to be transnational, multidirectional, or palimpsestic, following scholars such as Rothberg and Silverman to explore how the representations of the fascist past and the communist regime in Romania inform each other in Müller’s writing, as well as how these pasts play into her representations of contemporary Europe.
The most unexpected and perhaps most rewarding aspect of my research in terms of my contribution to Müller scholarship has been thinking about the way in which Müller appeals to memory as a driver of ethical behaviour in the present. Her vision of empathetic behaviour relies on knowledge of the past, both in terms of being aware of the history which surrounds us and the experience of the Other, and the presence of the past in sensation. Müller promotes a sustained openness to this knowledge – learned and felt, to put it crudely – in her writing as a prompt to ethical engagement in the realm of imagination as well as politics, which is captured quite well in the concept of futurity, an important part of my theoretical framework.
When I first read Müller in my excellent final year literature class (thank you, Caroline), the impact her words had was profound, not because of what she was writing about but because of what her writing did. Trying to grasp and describe aspects of this effect continues to fry my brain (perhaps it is telling that, for me, Kafka and Celan are the authors whose work her writing evokes most often) but there’s some kind of magic there that keeps me hooked.
Jenny was awarded a fellowship at the Institut für deutsche Kultur und Geschichte Südosteuropas (IKGS) in Munich, in March 2015. During her time at the Institut she looked at Müller’s early work and the contemporary literary scene in Romania.
For more about Jenny’s research interests see: