Gisela Elsner - a German novel of the absurd, a dark comic exercise with no plot to speak of and only peripheral concern with character -- the anti-novel as satire.

giant dwarfs
Gisela Elsner, The Giant Dwarfs: A Contribution, Trans. by Joel Carmichael, Grove Press, 1967.          
full text or  pdf

       Last summer at Salzburg, The Giant Dwarfs was awarded the Formentor First-Novel Prize; the next day Nathalie Sarraute's The Golden Fruits captured the Formentor Literary Prize. Some members of the international jury called Mme. Sarraute's work ""a classic""; others, including the Indian delegate, considered it ""unreadable."" A milder polarity of opinion is in store for Frau Elsner: no one in his right mind could call The Giant Dwarfs a classic; whether or not it is readable remains a question. Certainly Frau Elsner's technique is quite good: precise, cutting, monochromatically evocative, capable of various effects, from surrealist distortions to wild hilarity. Yet this reviewer, with the best will, found it difficult to keep turning the pages. For one thing, the theme is a modernist cliche; the bourgeois world, seen through the eyes of a child, remains continually in double-focus, humdrum and puritanical, brutal and sex-ridden. For another, the nagging parents, going through the ritual frustrations of domesticity, are too much like the non-characters Mme. Sarraute has made fashionable. And the obsession with objects (the father fuming over his unworkable collar button) or with information (the family doctor's spiel on a tapeworm), though funny enough arias in themselves, resemble too closely Ionesco's ""proliferation"" skits. Finally, this plotless work is annoyingly symbolic. Even the few memorable scenes (especially the child's forest outing where he ""discovers"" sex) do not energize the programmatic inertia.  - Kirkus Reviews  

I thought we’d go for a more literary bent with today’s post so here’s Gisela Elsner’s Formentor Prize winning novel, The Giant Dwarfs. Mine is a rather grubby 1967 Panther edition with cover art credited to David Bellamy and Jill Taylor.
This is a German novel (translated by Joel Carmichael) written in 1965 and is very much a part of the literary heritage of that country’s post-war period. Out of that time of immense emotional upheaval the literary association Gruppe 47 formed, a group of authors who wanted to bring their country out from the shadows of Nazism and promote democracy to the German people. Freed from the constraints of traditionalist propaganda, these authors introduced a second wave of literary modernism. Gisela Elsner was one of their number. Here she is, looking suitably bohemian:
gisela elsner
Although not strictly speaking a ‘horror’ novel, I’ve never been one to compartmentalise things and it does contain enough grotesque, Kafkaesque imagery to warrant an inclusion on the blog.
Written in the first person, our narrator is Lothar Leinlein; a young boy describing the world he lives in. He describes it in great detail. Elsner has Lothar narrate the tale with a cold detachment. He does not take part in the absurd actions which surround him, he merely observes. We rarely witness any emotional responses from Lothar, even when he learns of the tapeworm living inside him.
This novel deals with the minutiae of life in much the same way as, say, Proust. But if Proust has the memory of his narrator involuntarily  brought to life by the smell of delicate Madeleines and Lime blossom tea, then Elsner would have poor Lothar Leinlein having to suffice with the smell of great slabs of meat and “heaps of food” mashed flat onto the plate. Elsner writes every tiny detail with a clinical precision which sets into contrast the grotesquery and chaos of the subject matter. She uses repetition to hypnotic effect, particularly in the opening paragraph of each chapter.
The first chapter is entitled ‘Dinnertime’ and we’re immediately plunged into watching, through Lothar’s eyes, the ritual of the hulking figure of his father gorging himself on these “heaps” of food. The father is a gourmand rather than a gourmet, it’s all about the excess. This sets the tone for the rest of the novel, being a satire on the excesses of mindless consumerism among the bourgeoisie.
This mindless consumerism brings to light the petty monotony of the adult world as seen through the eyes of a child. It throws into stark contrast the grotesque absurdity of the adult’s actions.
This is a world where people go through the motions. Elsner reduces humanity to its bestial nature, people gorge themselves on food without pleasure and have sex without passion. She creates a world where there is no room for the individual; in a chapter where Lothar and his father lose his mother in the busy streets they realise the only way they could identify her is by the clothes she always wears, a light coloured blouse and a dark coloured skirt; an outfit which all of the other women of the town wear; neither are aware of the physical characteristics or the personality of the mother. Later in the same chapter Lothar become separated from his father and finds himself alone. A woman in a light coloured blouse and a dark coloured skirt calls him in for dinner; as he sits at the dinner table we have an exact repeat of the opening pages of the novel where Lothar eats with his own family. Lothar is just an anonymous boy, the adults are just anonymous parents. People are interchangeable.
Elsner even reduces language to a base level. Lothar describes a framed quotation on his grandmother’s wall but, as he cannot read, Elsner has him describe the shapes the letters make in great detail; some authors would skim over this but not so Elsner, she devotes six pages to this. Here’s a very short excerpt to give you an idea:
“At its upper half and actually at the right of the stroke hangs a half-circle that opens to the left but is closed off by the half-stroke, and that is just as big as the two half-circles of the fifth letter that’s just been described. The seventh letter following after the gap as big as a letter consists, like the sixth one just described, of this vertical stroke as well as of this half-circle that hangs to the right of the stroke and opens to the left but is closed off by the half-stroke.”
And verbal communication becomes equally base in this novel. People fill the void of silence with stock phrases which, en masse, become nothing more than the braying of livestock.
I keep referring to this book as a novel, but can it really be classified as such? There is really no linear narrative running through the 239 pages; it’s a series of vignettes taken from Lothar Leinlein’s life. Each of these vignettes is equally absurd and unrelentingly bleak. There may be the faintest glimmer of hope that young Lothar will find a way to escape this nightmarish world but probably not, as the world Elsner portrays is the world we all live in, just viewed through a microscope. - Jason Lineham

Gisela Elsner was born in 1937 in Nuremberg into a wealthy family. Her father was a member of the executive board of Siemens, and Elsner was chauffeured to the convent school she attended. Before finishing school she left her family home to live with Klaus Roehler, who was later to become an author and editor, and whose bohemian student lifestyle seemed to offer Elsner the freedom missing in her bourgeois family. Her parents were strictly opposed to the relationship and even turned to the police in order to end it. The correspondence between Elsner and Röhler documenting the struggle with her family was edited and published as Wespen im Schnee (2002). Around this time, in 1955, Klaus Röhler made his début at a meeting of the Gruppe 47 and, one year later, Elsner and Roehler published Triboll (1956), a collection of surrealist prose miniatures. After finishing school, Elsner studied German Literature, Philosophy and Theatre studies in Vienna for two years. During this time she continued living with Röhler, whom she married in 1958. When she gave birth to their son, Oskar, she left university without a degree.
The relationship did not last and, in 1962 after Elsner had left her husband and their three year-old son, the marriage ended in divorce. In the same year she read an extract from the novel she was working on at one of the Gruppe 47 meetings. The piece received very mixed praise, but attracted the attention of the copy-editor of the renowned Rowohlt publishing house where it appeared as Die Riesenzwerge. Ein Beitrag in 1964. The grotesque novel is an enquiry into the life of the lower middle-classes in post-war Germany as viewed through the eyes of a child. With uncanny precision little Lothar Leinlein registers the brutality lurking behind the façade of conventionalism and petty bourgeois decorum, exposing the world and everyday routines of the adults surrounding him as full of monstrosities. At the time it was  published the novel created a stir in the media and was even classified as harmful to minors in Austria. Yet it was received favourably by literary critics, translated into twelve languages and Elsner was awarded the prestigious prix Formentor for it. Even if Die Riesenzwerge in many respects set the tone for much of Elsner's later writing, it remained her only critical and commercial success.
In the following decades she published various novels which, in characteristically complicated and over-long sentences, dealt with the collective amnesia of West-German society with regard to the Nazi past and the terrors of family life. Although a critical examination of gender relations is a recurring theme in her novels, in particular in her modern-day Madame Bovary adaptation Abseits (1982) and the 1984 novel Die Zähmung, Elsner gained no popularity among the emerging German women's movement, arguably due to the fact that contemporary ‘Frauenliteratur’ consisted mostly of heartfelt confessional literature while Elsner's highly artificial language rendered an identificatory reading impossible. In addition, her texts put an emphasis on women's complicity in their own oppression, a notion which was at odds with the predominantly radical feminist theory which informed much of the German women's movement of the time.
Another theme to be found in many of Elsner's writings is that of class relations. From the 1960s on, Elsner had attended the meetings of the Dortmunder Gruppe 61, a group of writers who sought to engage with industrial production in a different way than the Bitterfelder Weg had in the GDR. Elsner herself publicly voiced her sympathies for the GDR in several interviews and joined the West-German Communist Party (DKP) in 1972, but she never subscribed to the aesthetics of socialist realism in her writing. Much like her female characters, the blue- and white-collar workers appearing in texts like Das Windei (1987) and Otto der Großaktionär (published posthumously in 2008) are mere negative mirror-images of their oppressors and provide no positive role model. In the late 1980s her publishing house cancelled her contract because her works were no longer commercially viable. Elsner was not able to attract the interest of a new publisher, leaving her feeling artistically isolated and powerless. Moreover, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the GDR, Elsner lost her hope of a social alternative to capitalism. She committed suicide in 1992.
While Elsner has often been termed 'Jelinek's older sister' for her merciless satirical style and choice of subjects, there is very little research on her works. In 2000, Oskar Roehler, Elsner's son, directed a film, Die Unberührbare, based on his mother's last years. Although the film was a success, it did not heighten interest in Elsner's writing. Only recently, Verbrecher Verlag, a small publishing house in Berlin, has begun re-editing Elsner's writing, among them works which have never before been published.
Compiled by Anja Henebury


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