Twark, Jill, E. Humor, Satire, and Identity: Eastern German Literature in the 1990s. Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2007. 471 pp.
In her extensive study of humorous and satirical prose texts in postwall Germany, Jill Twark analyzes how Eastern German authors deployed a wide spectrum of strategies of humor to address political and social chaos, along with ills produced by unification, stereotyping between Easterners and Westerners, and problems of identity in the Eastern German unification experience. For Twark these texts reflect the pattern during the 1990s to merge self-irony and self-defensiveness with a more aggressive irony, a kind of “Rablelaisian with Goethean (esp. Faust I) blending of intellectualism with folk humor” (308).
Twark’s impressive knowledge of literary theory, GDR literature and culture, and the reception of her ten chosen authors and their specific texts by critics in the East and West, comes to the fore in her close readings of these texts. The texts are grouped into four major sections that analyze different techniques of humor: 1. Self-irony and defensiveness (Thomas Rosenlöcher, Die Wiederentdeckung des Gehens beim Wandern, Bernd Schirmer, Schlehweins Giraffe, and Jens Sparschuh, Der Zimmerspringbrunnen); 2. The Picaresque (Thomas Brussig, Helden wie wir, Matthias Biskupek, Der Quotensachse, and Reinhard Ulbrich, Spur der Broiler); 3. Ironic realism (Erich Loest, Katerfrühstück and Ingo Schulze, Simple Storys); 4. Grotesque Configurations (Volker Braun, Der Wendehals and Kerstin Hensel, Gipshut). Twark poignantly and successfully establishes in her close scrutiny of these prose texts, how satire, irony, parody, the picaresque, the grotesque, and the absurd became main ingredients of Eastern humor and have served as literary techniques during the merging of two incongruent societies.
One might argue that Twark could have included more than one female author (Kerstin Hensel), instead of the lesser-known writers Schirmer, Biskupek, and Ulbricht, in order to unearth gender-specific aspects of humor and satire and get a more balanced view of gender distributions within literary and socio-political aspects of humorous genres in post-Wende texts. In fact, in her concluding thoughts on her analysis of Kerstin Hensel’s Gipshut in chapter 4 (284), Twark opens the door for gender-specific analyses and comparisons by referring to Brigitte Burmeister’s satirical work Unter dem Namen Norma: “Apparently, the satire genre in East(ern) Germany was and still is dominated by a male perspective, as has been the case historically in Germany and in most, if not all, other world literatures. The few Eastern German exceptions to this rule include Brigitte Burmeister’s Unter dem Namen Norma (1994) and Katrin Schmidt’s Die Gunnar Lennefsen Expedition (1998).” In the same chapter on the grotesque, Twark makes another reference (footnote 89, 264) to a satirical work by the author Helga Königsdorf, Die Entsorgung der Großmutter (1997). In my estimation, the inclusion of Burmeister’s and Königdorf’s satirical novels would have been of interest to many readers and added another dimension to Twark’s investigation of the post-1989 trend of humor and ironic mockery in Eastern German literature. Perhaps elaborating on the gender relevance of humor and satire could be a future project for this talented literary critic.
Twark’s study is highly commendable for its wealth of insights into various functions, applications, and healing powers of humor and laughter in literature as Eastern Germans are coming to terms with postwall adjustments and identity-redefinitions on a personal and collective level. With its extraordinary scope, breadth, and depth of analysis, Humor, Satire, and Identity is highly informative and will be a great research tool for anyone with an interest in post-unification literature from students and literary scholars in German or comparative literatures to seasoned GDR scholars. Of particular usefulness for further research on post-unification literary trends is her unusually comprehensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources. Furthermore, her introduction contains meticulously defined and developed theoretical terms and concepts that shed light on Eastern German social, political and literary contexts. In her cogently argued concluding chapter, the author successfully extends her discussion of humor and satire into the task of building an Eastern German identity through sustaining and subverting past and present themes in German society. Her inclusion of five open and intense interviews with Eastern authors (Bernd Schirmer, Matthias Biskupek, Thomas Rosenlöcher, Jens Sparschuh and Reinhard Ulbricht) at the end of the book provides readers with additional insights and fodder for reflections on postwall issues of inclusion and exclusion as they impact on struggles with identity in united Germany.Barbara Mabee