I’d like to resume the subject introduced in last week’s post: Why We Write, which examines the question of what exactly drives a writer to take up the pen.
The subject of the first post, William Gass, attributed his beginnings as a writer to his need for escape from a dysfunctional home life. He writes of how his blustering, berating father showed him the power of language—negative though it was then. A diaphanous mother modeled the passivity of the meek. Sadly, she eventually succumbed entirely to alcoholism.
The power of words and a belief one’s inability to control circumstance—these two parental lessons, Gass claims, landed him in the comfortably distant chair of the narrator. Believing himself too weak to change the world, he changed himself.
I don’t know really how commonplace Gass’ story is: Would a hyper virile writer like Hemingway ever admit they had turned to writing out of a personal weakness? It seems unlikely. Yet the next writer I will introduce in this thread, Herta Müller, shares a similar tale of crisis, alienation and disempowerment. Unlike Gass however, her childhood was not tainted from within.
Müller is Romanian born; her isolation and powerless were a direct result of living under the authoritarian regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Even a cursory reading of Romania’s history leaves one’s head spinning; perhaps more than any of the mysterious and dysfunctional states of the former Eastern Bloc, Romania epitomizes the political struggles and societal upheavals of Europe in the 20th century. With its Latinate roots and exotic nobility—it is the country in which the infamous region of Transylvania can be found—its silent orphans and brow-beaten citizens, Romania arouses in the imagination the same mixture of fascination and repulsion that a lunatic might arouse in a small town.
It was in this atmosphere of oppression and forced isolation that Muller grew up. The ethnic German community to which she belonged had been incorporated into Greater Romania at the end of WWI. Not soon after, her family was stripped of its land holdings under the Agrarian Act of 1921, and as a child, she tended cattle on the now collectivized farmland of her forebears.
In addition to this literal dispossession of place, she inherited historical dispossession as well. Though the German and Hungarian minority had lived in the region during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Communist Romania viewed them as outsiders, upstarts. During WWII Romania had bounced back and forth in allegiance, caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Initially sympathetic to the Allies, Romania balked when mainland Europe fell before the Blitzkrieg of the Germans and under duress, the Romanian king was encouraged by Hitler to join his cause.
After the war, Romania quickly switched allegiances again and the country, like most of Eastern Europe, came under the influence of Stalinist Russia. Müller’s most famous book, The Hunger Angel, tells the tale of the forced eviction of Romanian Germans into Stalinist gulags.
In such times and in such privation, what is one to do? In a stirring and intimate interview recently published in the Paris Review, Müller talks much of her incredible sense of isolation. On one side were the prohibitions on speech and religion, on the other was the parochial nastiness of her small German community. Left to her own devices as a child, she grew up semi-feral, with no knowledge of the outside world; like others in such a situation, she invented her own literature.
From the interview:
People often ask me what books I had at home, and I find the question strange. As if you couldn’t write unless you grew up in a home with a library, or parents with some degree of higher education. But really from a certain age on, our upbringing is up to each of us, we do it on our own.
None of this [higher intellectual life] was familiar, and I was so hungry. But first I had to discover it. And at one point I realized that literature was the continuation of what I’d done as a child—using my imagination. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but essentially I had been turning everything into literature, in my head, without knowing what literature was.
In a dictatorship, every word is weighted, every utterance, loaded with connotation. Silence is a necessary currency for self-preservation, but it also tells its story. Forced into an economy of speech, those she had left—in all the languages: Romanian, her native German dialect, Russian, Hungarian—took on nuances that we, in our grossly expressive society, would be hard pressed to imagine. This terribly powerful efficiency of language, laconic and poetic, infuses her work.
So what “portrait of the artist” are we left with then? Raised in a society of duplicity and betrayal, where language and even the plants of the land, became either tools for the authorities or pockets of resistance, Herta Müller, searched for a way to escape her loneliness.
At the end of the essay she tells of her origin as a writer.
…I wrote because I had to, as a matter of self-assurance, because all doors were closed. I didn’t know where to turn, didn’t know how things would go on, my father had died, I couldn’t go back to the village, I didn’t have any perspectives at all, and there was a lot of fear because the secret police were harassing me daily. It was an absurd situation—they’d kicked me out of my office but I still had to work. I couldn’t leave the factory, couldn’t give them a pretext to dismiss me. And so I started writing, and suddenly there was this rearview mirror, and everything started coming back about my life in the village. It wasn’t trying to write literature, I just put it down on paper to gain a foothold, to get a grip on my life.