Review by A. MAURICIO RUIZ
A woman writes to her fourteen-year-old daughter. Not letters but a manual. She tries to offer advice on how to live in Germany in the early twenty-first century. There are the practical matters, the dos and don’ts that are imposed on each member of society depending on the stratus he or she belongs to. There are also the more nuanced aspects of human interaction such as friendship, why it matters, and how it could be lost. The woman writes in present tense, without much ornament, it flows and flows, and in the act of writing the woman is being transformed.
Yet writing is what brings about the woman’s downfall. Resi, the protagonist of Anke Stelling’s novel Higher Ground, is a novelist in her mid-forties living in Berlin. She’s married to Sven, a painter, and their family life seems to be no better or worse than any of their close friends’, all of whom live nearby in a house they have built together. They are wealthy but choose to experience what it is like to live communally. Resi’s relationship with them is tipped off balance forever because of something intangible yet powerful: words. Sentences strung together. That’s what ostracizes her from her friends.
This conflict is revealed at the outset. Resi rents her apartment from a childhood friend, yet in her quest to observe the world with a critical eye, she publishes a stinging essay in which she condemns her closest friends’ way of living, some of whom have gone out her way to help her in the past, even financially. The response is immediate and unforgiving: An eviction notice is sent and Resi has to vacate the apartment. The novel follows Resi as the consequences of her decision reverberate through her life. Shaken, she will reflect on the social structures she had tried to fight against but that now seem somewhat less irrelevant than before. Motherhood, family, and the meaning of friendship are to become a constant ingredient of rumination for her.
Translated from the original German by Lucy Jones (Scribe, 2020), Higher Ground is an exercise in self-revelation on the page not only for Resi, but also for the author herself. “Resi ultimately enlightens herself and in doing so, I also enlighten myself by letting her enlighten herself,” said Stelling in an interview with the German radio station Deutschlandfunk Kultur. While reading Higher Ground, the first thing that becomes evident is the freedom which the author gave herself into while writing the manuscript. At times, the narrator seems to be addressing an undefined listener: “I could have given birth to Bea in a modern hospital, but a midwife with an ear trumpet came to our house instead,” but shifts to address her daughter later in the same paragraph: “That was crossing a line, Bea, we thought. Bea, are you listening?” Jones manages to keep the erratic yet playful voice of Resi in English, while preserving some German words in the translation: “Bähmullig, for example. Do you know what a Bähmull is? A tetchy – or just pretty annoying – fourteen-year-old, but possibly even forty-year-old, who turns up her nose at everything.” This dynamic narration keeps the protagonist’s thoughts, insecurities, and desires present at all times.
The novel takes place in Berlin, spanning nearly five decades (from Resi’s birth until the mid 2010s). There are, however, practically no setting descriptions, which is a pity because Stelling is able to render a crisp image of the city with a handful of well-chosen words:
The old gaps between buildings caused by bombs and explosions in the old Wilhelmine quarter have been filled by discreet blocks of new flats; small boutiques and attractive cafés line the pavement with outdoor seating or ice-cream shops that offer hot chocolate to lure in passers-by in winter. Small children wheel around on balance bikes, big children on skateboards. Teenage wannabe gangsters have a hard time looking threatening, even when they’re drunk.
The lack of description across the 274-page novel may at times have a detrimental effect in terms of pacing. The constant train of thoughts becomes dry, even tiresome. Much of the book is being filtered through Resi’s consciousness and we don’t get to see or hear her friends for too long before the narrator jumps in to frame what we have just read. Several characters are introduced (Vera, Friederike, Ulf, Ingmar, Frank, Renate), but there are no fully developed scenes where the characters are allowed to speak and act enough to be recognizable. Stelling’s interest in meta-literature, though, suggests these choices were deliberate: “It is important to write without compromise, and to make one’s own perspective very strong,” she said to Deutschlandfunk Kultur.
Interspersed with Resi’s narration of her own experiences in first person, there are passages that show fragments of Resi’s mother’s life. We see Marianne fall in love with Werner in 1963, then later be dumped by him in 1967. Marianne is hurt but goes on with her life, gets married to Raimund, and gives birth to Resi. All of this we learn from the voice of a third person narrator whose judgment seems a bit skewed. It soon becomes clear that the narrator is Resi, and that she has a stake in the matter: “That’s how Marianne saw it, but I want nothing to do with that anymore. No change of perspective, no understanding, and no pity.” The reader understands the portrayal that’s been offered is not completely reliable. But what are the thoughts of those who, like Marianne, are not offered the chance to speak? While telling segments of Resi’s mother’s life, Stelling might have missed an opportunity to use a different narrator and thus offer a contrast, another facet to what Resi wants the reader to believe.
Yet with the Marianne scenes, we get to see Berlin in the 1960s, and we’re offered a glimpse of how the narrator makes sense of that period – before her birth – by imagining what her own mother makes of that period of her life. Interweaving different narrative arcs to create meaning of one’s existence is something that appeals to both Stelling and her protagonist. “We learn from stories, you see,” says Resi. “We’re surrounded by stories.”
As a German citizen, Resi seems to be aware of her benefits – “I remind myself that none of us has to starve” – but some readers will find many of these stances marred with inauthenticity. In this tension readers can also see Stelling’s authorial hand trying to prove that dislikable characters have something to teach us: every human being struggles with their blindspots. For instance, there is a section of the novel where Resi frets about the autumn holidays. The reason? Given their financial situation – Resi’s husband is also an artist – the family will be forced to spend time together at home, in Berlin. She’d much rather go to Spain or Portugal, and in the midst of her frustration, her acid observations might not sit well with every reader. Resi states she does not look forward to sitting next to “overweight people wearing polyester T-shirts with logos.” And perhaps this is where Stelling’s style excels, portraying characters that are packed with contradictions, most of which are located in a locus of deep obliviousness.
Resi denounces the lives of her higher-class friends for being too caught up with the material world. Meanwhile she commits similar microaggressions to those around her. After a short exchange with Renate, a friend of Marianne’s, where Renate mentions that Resi’s essay has unfairly accused Marianne of being overbearing and unhelpful on how to succeed in the world, and warns her that maybe her children could do the same to her in the future, the reader can see that Resi is not comfortable with that kind of remark. “She said it with that facial expression: poorly disguised smugness, fake meekness.” When she replies to Renate, her words denote something but connote something else entirely: “Yes, thanks a lot.” Or when Resi’s friends Frank and Vera move to their new communal house, and offer Resi the possibility to take over their apartment lease, what Resi thinks is: “A stroke of luck, because ours was already too small with three kids…What a stroke of luck that we knew somebody with an eighteen-year-old lease who no longer needed it.”
Resi seems to understand the implications behind writing her critical essay but she sees nothing wrong with it. The artistic and philosophical motivations are too strong: “Knowing something and saying it out loud – or even writing about it and publishing it – are two different things.”
“What are women writers allowed to do when they make contemporary literature? That’s a moral question. What about the gray areas when people recognize themselves? Is that allowed? And how far can you go?” said Stelling to Deutschlandfunk Kultur. In Higher Ground, Stelling makes clear that her loyalty is not with digestible entertainment but with one of literature’s main tasks: to challenge readers’ beliefs.
A. Mauricio Ruiz was born in Mexico City. His work has appeared in The Masters Review, Words Without Borders, Catapult, Letras Libres, Gatopardo, Revista de la Universidad, The Common, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, among others. He’s been shortlisted for the Bridport and Fish prizes, and received fellowships from OMI writers (NY), Société des auteurs (Belgium), Jakob Sande (Norway), Can Serrat (Spain), and the Three Seas Council (Rhodes). His second collection, Silencios al sur, was published in 2017, and some of his stories have been translated into French and Dutch.