by Frank Berzbach
When reading certain books, I am sometimes tempted to jot down my thoughts in a blog. Reading the almost 450 pages of Wolfgang Herrndorf’s diary, first published online and now as a hardcover, took me about two weeks. During those two weeks, I could have written about it every single day. Herrndorf’s account begins with his being diagnosed with a brain tumour in March 2010 and ends with his suicide in August 2013.
I must admit that, when it comes to reading, what grips me is the prospect of identification: I rarely buy books in order to immerse myself in the study of abstract textual systems, and I am also committed to the – perhaps antiquated – belief that authors and humans really do exist. What Herrndorf is documenting is his own process of dying; this is something that goes beyond self-referential systems. It is the exploration of a borderline situation. As a genre, the diary affords us a direct insight into the daily struggles of its author: through it, we can immerse ourselves in a bygone age (Samuel Pepys), we can keep it handy as bedtime reading (Franz Kafka or Thomas Mann), can explore the depths of Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’, can try to understand life under the Nazi dictatorship (Victor Klemperer) – or we can follow the decline and death from cancer of its author, as with Christoph Schlingensief or, in this case, Wolfgang Herrndorf. It is the drastic nature of this extraordinary life situation which renders Herrndorf’s account one of those books that one must actively want to read; this is no holiday reading for the faint-hearted.
I immediately get stuck with passages where I am certain: I cannot continue reading this! The feeling is not unlike what I sometimes experience at the movies, when I place myself at the mercy of directors such as Lars von Trier or Michael Haneke. Herrndorf, having just watched Melancholia (2011), writes: ‘10 out of 10 points. And a bonus point for its Happy End: ample, green, and radiant. This is what it’s like, exactly like this. Never before experienced such a degree of correspondence between filmic and subjective reality. Perhaps for this reason judgment clouded.’ Melancholia may be the best film there is on the topic of depression, but in Herrndorf’s text psychology plays hardly a role: it is conspicuous only through its absence and this gap creates space for the reader’s own projections.
Reading is an active process. ‘One of the most unpleasant things about this illness: that one does not actually feel sick. When I feel worn-out or have a slight headache, it is better.’ Knowledge, in this existential situation, plays an important role, Herrndorf turns to Google for one medical study after another, but his life expectancy remains low, writing becomes a race against what little time he has left. The reader can follow the formation and editorial process of Tschick (2012), the novel that, at the end of his life, would make Herrndorf rich. But the moment the money arrives, it has lost all significance: what would one want money for, if one has no future left? The initial diagnosis unhinges him, one of the many doctors (Herrndorf resorts to numbering them), recommends ‘work and structure’. Both serve as support, both make him highly productive. Instead of forever tinkering with individual sentences, he writes two novels. Herrndorf throws himself into his work like a madman. At the same time, he displays a sober, atheist, reality-oriented take on the world and on his life: he only reads what he enjoys, loves the movies, goes swimming and plays football, at least whenever he is not inside a CT scanner. Life unfolds amidst noisy neighbours, regular meals at the nearby canteen, time with his closest friends, an agonizing odyssee of multiple brain surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation treatment and its consequences, approved and unapproved medications – many with side effects that seem as bad as, or worse than, any disease. At one point he gets hit by a car and tumbles onto the tarmac, off to the hospital again, though for a change it’s the A&E, not the Neurology Department. The driver of the car threatens to sue him. Yet there is not the slightest note of complaint in this book – until the very end: it almost defies belief. Can’t you complain just once, you have every reason in the world to! But no, he won’t.
Yet even in the absence of all hope, Herrndorf does not lose control. ‘I have resigned myself to the fact that I will shoot myself. I could not put up with being slowly demolished by the tumour, but I can put up with the prospect of shooting myself. That’s the whole trick.’ In his imagination, he installs a gun in his head: ‘This time, a simple voluntary resolution is not enough, and I need to install a – very lively imagined – Walter PPK pistol in my mind, in order to shoot down any nascent unpleasant thought: Bang, bang! Two bullets, and I immediately think of something else. […] With an ever greater success rate, it shoots down the very idea of dying.’ The reader is initially glad for this mental trick, only to be told slightly later that this method suppresses the thought of death for just ‘half an hour or longer’.
Those who mean well, but primarily treat him as someone who is terminally ill, make Herrndorf’s life especially miserable. For the whole three years that he is dying, he is constantly busy trying to banish univited healers, well-meaning ‘old friends’, sentimental letter-writers, but they simply will not leave him alone. The noble wish to help becomes condescending when help is no longer possible. An old female ‘friend’ looks up his new address, calls on him against his wish, ignores his requests to leave and finally decides to wait outside his flat, sending him an SMS from her car – as a reader, one can barely contain one’s furor: Why can’t people simply leave him alone? Because it would exacerbate the sense of helplessness. But who is the intended beneficiary of such intrusions – Herrndorf or the self-professed ‘helpers’ themselves? The personnel which surrounds Herrndorf – mostly the staff of the Zentrale Intelligenz Agentur, a group of freelance writers and designers – is hardly squeamish in its everyday interactions with one another: Kathrin Passig, who proofreads and comments on many of his drafts, repeatedly think it’s ‘all crap’ (alles Scheiße), and her flintiness, including some rather crude jokes about death, clearly get to Herrndorf. But they do not create additional suffering that would somehow be based in either his illness or their misplaced compassion. And why should the first drafts of the terminally ill be any better than those of other people?
Suddenly I have the idea to look up the same dates I have just read about in Herrndorf in my own diary. Page after page I seem to be complaining about my oh-so-terrible life and about practically everything else in the world – it is nauseating to find how much space I can devote to imaginary sufferings when, on the same day, somewhere in Berlin, Herrndorf is moved to tears by the anticipation of some fresh donuts because, according to the latest diagnosis, the remainder of his life will not be up quite so soon – which is to say he probably has four more months to live. While I was complaining, Herrndorf was getting up earlier each day, just after 4 a.m., so he could view the sunrise from his balcony – knowing that it might very well mark the beginning of the last day of his life.
Herrndorf was not a child of the educated bourgeoisie; he did not grow up in a household with a grand piano on one side of the salon and bookshelves full of leatherbound (yet unread) editions of the classics on the other. He was a self-made reader of the classics, and it is a joy to follow him into his literary world: Nabokov, Stendhal, Thomas Mann, Dostoyevsky are among his guiding lights, yet here too one finds productive friction and occasional exasperation. A large number of writers are commented on, personally and with a radical edge; there is distress at Martin Walser’s public interviews, comments on Uwe Tellkamp (in relation to Thomas Mann), Jeffrey Eugenides; Herrndorf’s nightmare of being compared with Juli Zeh, his appreciation of The Catcher in the Rye and youthful commitment to Hermann Hesse, a certain puzzlement with respect to contemporary literary criticism, and comments on colleagues such as Martin Mosebach whom Herrndorf deems to have ‘lost their marbles’.
Towards the end, Herrndorf decides not to buy any new books and insists that he does not want them as gifts either. ‘I do not learn anything new. I do not want to. It is the same with receiving books as presents: It reminds me of death. New things you need for later, books are to be read in the future. The word no longer has meaning for me. My thoughts reach no further than tonight, with nothing beyond. […] The future has been abolished, I make no plans, I hope for nothing, I look forward to nothing else but the present day. Most of the time I have the feeling that I am already dead.’ But it is even worse than this: he increasingly struggles with perceptual disorders, the impairment (and loss) of his speech, he can no longer orient himself amidst panic attacks and epileptic fits, does not find his way home. He tries to put on his slippers at home – and fails, since he can no longer distinguish left from right; he briefly considers marking them as ‘L’ and ‘R’, respectively.
Herrndorf lives on, as best he can. He turns neither to faith, nor to superstition, he has no religion, and not even a surrogate religion. This is what lends the book its uniqueness: Herrndorf did not, prior to his diagnosis, see any transcendent meaning in the world, and his illness does not change his view. Atheism is an endgame, writes Herrndorf, but he remains steadfast. Psychology, ideology, and religion are alien to him – yet few people can maintain their sanity by dispensing with all three. The remaining time gets shorter, the struggle for things that used to be taken for granted dominates, fear gains the upper hand, he observes and documents this process. ‘Left hand does not find its proper place on the keyboard. Glued a cutout piece of cardboard onto the computer, to support the heel of my hand, but in vain. Tried gluing my hand to the table, but it does not help. Left foot slides off the bicycle pedal. Day trip to Lake Tegel. C. prohibits me from swimming very far. Thunderstorm.’ How does one continue in such circumstances? ‘I sleep with the weapon in my fist, giving me a secure hold, as though someone had glued a handle onto reality. Its weight, the fine wood, the bronzed metal. Along with the MacBook the most beautiful object I have owned in my whole life.’Herrndorf is often gripped by the fear that a deterioriation of his condition might render him incapable of killing himself. This fear is greater than the fear of death itself, which over time almost dissipates. And no matter how terrible the diary’s entries are getting, how matter-of-fact or direct in their tone, the feeling that he will not let suffering wrest control of his life from him, is communicated to the reader, as is Herrndorf’s inevitable desire to compare, in every conceivable way, authors, texts, and everyday things. This, indeed, is a reason to read his book: so as to maintain the upper hand, come what may. So as not to be driven to madness, or to escape. This book has pained me, and touched me, more than most others. I am not even sure I can think of one that previously elicited the same set of emotions. It is an existential enrichment. ‘Taking stock of the past year: brain surgery, twice sent to the loony bin, radiation, Temodal, 1.75 novels, first big vacation, many friends, swam a lot, didn’t read a lot. A year in hell, but also a great year. On average I haven’t really been happier or unhappier than before the diagnosis, but the extremes on either end of the spectrum were more severe. All in all, perhaps it was even a little happier than in the past, because I now live the way I always should have. But never did, except perhaps as a child.’ Herrndorf’s book contains such sentences, an all-out assault on the banality of our everyday touchy-feely drivel, which each and every day makes our life, and that of others, miserable. This book summons us to lead a clear-sighted and autonomous life, without thereby getting on others people’s nerves.
Wolfgang Herrndorf: Arbeit und Struktur
Rowohlt, Berlin 2013.
Hardcover, 448 pages, EUR 19.95
Frank Berzbach teaches psychology and social sciences at the Cologne University of Applied Sciences (FH Köln). His most recent book is “Die Kunst ein kreatives Leben zu führen: Anregungen zur Achtsamkeit” (2013).
A German version of this review was first published on the website of the Berlin bookstore ocelot.de; (c) 2014 of the English version: The Berlin Review of Books.