The mental asylum is of course one of the major institutions explored by modern and postmodern literature, though I can’t say I’ve seen it done quite like Rainald Goetz does it in his debut novel Insane, originally published in German in 1983 and recently released by Fitzcarraldo Editions in Adrian Nathan West’s translation. I’m about 1/3 of the way through and the book is composed chiefly of brief (3 pages or less) pieces of stream of conscious narration or largely unattributed dialogue, hopping around among mental patients and their doctors. There is a definite punk feel to the text, elements of poststructuralism, bits of Thomas Bernhard. It is a very compelling exploration of the institution of the asylum and of the question of madness and modernity in general.
To find out more about this book and its author (who, indeed, is punk, see the video below (although maybe not if you’re squeamish)), I corresponded with its translator. Nate is a familiar person to readers of this blog and The Quarterly Conversation, who have seen interviews with him previously, as well as his excellent critical writings on world lit. What can I say other than that he has great taste, I’m finding Insane to be an excellent novel and translation, that his answers to my questions are illuminating and fascinating, and that I hope to see more Goetz appear in English before long. Below you’ll find the full Q&A.
Scott Esposito: This is Goetz’s debut novel, released over 30 years ago in 1983. It won a prize, and since then he has steadily racked up leading German prizes. Why has Goetz not established more of a reputation in English, and what do you think he offers us now that we can read him?
Adrian Nathan West: To begin with, it remains a stimulating piece of writing, funny, horrifying, and shocking by turns. It is also the cornerstone of an unusual body of work that I think should be viewed as of a piece: an attempt to realize the aesthetic principles of pop art, its collapsing of the distinctions between high and low art, its ambiguous relationship with artistic intention, through writings that approximate fiction, theater, or poetry without ever entirely submitting to the demands of genre. It also offers a portrait of a time when the passional nihilism of punk was beginning to crumble against the structures it had striven to oppose, when the hope that inspired various youth movements had gone adrift, when the idealism of ’68, as expressed here through anti-psychiatry, through the Black Panthers, and so on, had entered into terminal decline, so that the energies it once channeled would re-emerge in terrorism and in the mediatization of politics—two phenomena Goetz examines in-depth in later works.
SE: Reading through Goetz’s Wikipedia page, I found this anecdote, which, unfortunately, is sourced to a page on the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize website that no longer exists: “During a televised literary tournament in 1983, Goetz slit his own forehead with a razor blade and let the blood run down his face until he finished reading.” What can you tell us about this?
ANW: I recently spoke to a couple of authors who had participated in the Bachmann Prizes and they said it was sheer torture. You read in front of a panel of critics, and then you have to sit there in silence while they pick you apart. In one way, I think Goetz wanted to turn the tables. The piece he read, Subito, elements of which would make it into Insane, takes the prize ceremony as a theme: one of the judges falls asleep during the reading, another scratches his genitals under the table, a character announces: “That must be absolute shit, Klagenfurt, and if it is shit, then logically, you’ve got to go, all the way down into the shit.” Then again, the corporeality of the writer is important in Goetz. “The writer’s body must be capable of representing what he writes,” he says; “you cannot retreat into the safety of writing, in the position of observer.” Over and over there’s a stress in his work on being in the midst of things, on calling into question the possibility of critical distance. Finally, it was self-promotion: he knew it would make a splash, it did, and even after thirty-four years, it remains one of the most infamous episodes in German literary history.
Note: this video is graphic, if you don’t like blood and bodily incisions you may not want to watch.
SE: If you watch the video of Goetz during this infamous reading at the Bachmann Prize, there’s a definite punk vibe to him. He’s wearing a suit, but on his feet are athletic shoes, he’s got what looks to be a studded leather bracelet on, his hair is long and bleached blonde, and he just bobs and fidgets uncontrollably while he reads. What was the milieu that he came out of, and what kind of a presence has he been on the German scene in the years since Insane was released?
ANW: No one’s yet written a comprehensive biography, but the facts run something like this: born in 1953 in Munich, his mother was a photographer, his father a doctor. As a teenager, he spent a year in Flint, Michigan. He studied medicine and history, and briefly practiced psychiatry in a Munich hospital. He was involved in the punk scene in Munich in the late seventies and early eighties; the “subway action” he writes about before the F.S.K. concert actually took place, and you can read about it in contemporary sources. Even the bracelet you mention he writes about in Insane: he knees a punk who’s slashed his bicycle tires in the balls and says: “To celebrate my triumph, the next day I brought myself a big white studded leather band for my left wrist; looks supercool.” Even before Insane, he had published feuilleton-style pieces and reviews; there’s a good one from 1981 on Thomas Bernhard’s Frost that you can still find online. Since Insane came out, he’s been a continuous presence on the German cultural scene, with passionate admirers and detractors. He’s collaborated with DJs and artists—his sketches for Tannhäuser with Albert Oehlen are in the MOMA’s permanent collection—he has done a photograph book, CDs, an internet diary for Vanity Fair, and so on.
SE: Insane is regarded as the book that “made Goetz famous.” Why? What drew you into translating it?
ANW: Think of albums like Raw Power or The Velvet Underground and Nico, or more recently something like Ready to Die. For Germans of a certain generation, Insane is a classic in that sense. Goetz is a writer with very long antennae, and though there is a lot of shock and crassness and nose-tweaking in his writing, he’s thought long about the allurements and frustrations of youth culture, consumerism, drugs, and art. In the third section of the novel, any pretense to straight narrative falls apart and this protean figure emerges who is sometimes Raspe, sometimes Goetz the character, sometimes Goetz the author, and you have a series of skits, some of which mock writers like Günter Grass or Heinrich Böll, some of which vindicate pop culture, some of which are calculated to offend. It says something about Goetz’s acumen that Siegfried Unseld, one of the great editors of the twentieth century, tried to get him to cut that section, and Goetz refused, because it is precisely that part, with its refusal to accept any label, to brook any commitment, that so many of his readers have found inspiring.
The translation came by chance, in a way. When my first Josef Winkler translation was going to press, I was in Berlin and visited the Suhrkamp offices, and Petra Hardt, who was director of foreign rights, asked Nora Mercurio, who has since taken over for her, to bring me copies of Goetz’s books. What drew me into them was his respect for the autonomy of the phenomena he addresses, and his feeling that each must be examined on its own terms. It’s the opposite of what we see in so much American fiction, where with an MFA and a feeling of inspiration you can make these broad-brush statements about the Zeitgeist, and if you’ve got the right agent and publisher, people will take you seriously. The great Swiss writer Hermann Burger says something to the effect that if he opens a book and sees no specialized vocabulary, he can confidently close it, he knows it isn’t true—this doesn’t mean a novel has to read like a scientific treatise, but the fact remains that every sphere of life, whether it’s tending bar, dealing drugs, or managing political campaigns, has its own linguistic world, and writers who overlook that are really just talking about themselves. Goetz, who has one foot in the tradition of Weber and Niklas Luhmann, has more respect than most for what you might call, in sociological terms, the individuation of social spheres.
I have to say a word about the publisher here, too. Insane was not easy work, and it is not something I would have done on spec. I was translating my sample when the ARCs of Fitzcarraldo’s first two books were coming out. Just seeing the breadth of interests covered by Zone and Memory Theatre, I thought, this could be the one. I happened to meet Jacques for a coffee in early 2015 and we talked the book over; it didn’t hurt that Goetz won the Büchner prize in July of that year. An incalculable advantage with Fitzcarraldo is that Jacques can read a lot of the books in French; for a translator, that’s significant, because you don’t have to worry you’re overselling, and it gives you the sense that the book is a project in common rather than your own quixotic fixation destined to drive some unsuspecting publisher into insolvency.
SE: What were some of the things that made Insane such a difficult translation? What is some of the specialized vocabulary Goetz employs?
ANW: The obvious things: there’s a lot of slang, much of it specific to Munich in the eighties. There’s a great deal of technical psychiatric and anatomical vocabulary; again, much of the former is dated—the biochemical approach to mental disturbances, which is the prevailing approach at the hospital where the protagonist, Raspe, works, was in its infancy when Goetz was writing. You want all that vocabulary to carry the stamp of its time, but it shouldn’t be incomprehensible to the reader. There were lots of references that had to be tracked down: in one section, he talks about a film, Blutjunge Masseusen, which you might translate as something like fledgling masseusses; the English title was Swedish Massage Parlor, it’s an exploitation film by Erwin Dietrich, who was a kind of Swiss Russ Meyer. Toward the end, he says something about “Hamburgs schöne Aussichten”; this could be the beautiful views in Hamburg, but it’s actually the name of a café. I did a lot of googling and a lot of bothering native speakers (I’d love to thank Flowerville, Uwe Schütte, Marcel Inhoff, and Sven Meyer for their help). Finally, I don’t like to break up an author’s sentences if it’s not necessary—even if it’s English, something of the style of the original ought to be perceptible through the veil—and many sections, for example, those that discuss Karl Held, the brilliant social critic and leader of the Marxist Group, are extraordinarily knotty.
SE: I have a feeling that Insane is going to prove popular, at least among that sliver of the public who knows how interesting and important translated literature is. Were a publisher to take on more Goetz, where is the next logical place to go?
ANW: We’ve talked that over. A likely next candidate is Rave. Goetz was deep in the electronic music scene in the 1990s with people like DJ Westbam and Sven Väth who are still active today. It’s a lighter book than Insane, it shows an important aspect of Goetz’s work that I think is often overlooked: the question of optimism, of how an optimistic comportment may be maintained amid horror and decadence. I am also a fan of his most recent novel, Johann Holtrop, which is based on the rise and fall of German media mogul Thomas Middelhoff, who was convicted of fraud and tax evasion in 2014—after the release of the Panama and Paradise papers, it’s hard to imagine a more germane theme. Then there’s Kontrolliert, about the German Autumn and the Red Army Faction. Our news is consumed with terrorism and the generic reaction is bafflement and commonplaces like “they hate us because we’re free”; we’ve forgotten how widespread terrorism was in Europe in the seventies, and the extent to which intelligent people considered it a reasonable response to political oppression.