Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 20, 2021

Higher Ground, by Anke Stelling, translated by Lucy Jones

Another title for #WITmonth, this time a recent release from Melbourne publisher Scribe Publications.

Higher Ground (Schäfchen im Trockenen) by German author Anke Stelling and translated by Lucy Jones won the Leipzig Book Prize and the Friedrich-Hölderin Prize.  According to Scribe’s website:

Anke Stelling was born in 1971, in Ulm, Germany. She studied at the German Literature Institute in Leipzig. Stelling is a multi-award-winning novelist whose previous works have been much acclaimed. Higher Ground is the first of her novels to be translated into English. Stelling lives and works in Berlin.

Higher Ground is an absorbing novel that kept me interested from start to finish.  Laced with dark humour, it’s very contemporary, skewering complacency and hypocrisy among the moneyed classes in Berlin.  This is the blurb from Scribe’s website:

A prize-winning novel about class, money, creativity, and motherhood, that ultimately reveals what happens when the hypocrisies we live by are exposed …

Resi is a writer in her mid-forties, married to Sven, a painter. They live, with their four children, in an apartment building in Berlin, where their lease is controlled by some of their closest friends. Those same friends live communally nearby, in a house they co-own and have built together. Only Resi and Sven, the token artists of their social circle, are renting. As the years have passed, Resi has watched her once-dear friends become more and more ensconced in the comforts and compromises of money, success, and the nuclear family.

After Resi’s latest book openly criticises stereotypical family life and values, she receives a letter of eviction. Incensed by the true natures and hard realities she now sees so clearly, Resi sets out to describe the world as it really is for her fourteen-year-old daughter, Bea. As Berlin, that creative mecca, crumbles under the inexorable march of privatisation and commodification, taking relationships with it, Resi is determined to warn Bea about the lures, traps, and ugly truths that await her.

Written with dark humour and clarifying rage, Anke Stelling’s novel is a ferocious and funny account of motherhood, parenthood, family, and friendship thrust into battle. Lively, rude, and wise, it throws down the gauntlet to those who fail to interrogate who they have become.

Resi is an unreliable narrator.  While the narrative is ostensibly an attempt to prepare her teenage daughter about the realities of life, a lot of it is self-talk, which vacillates between self-hatred, self-justification, guilt about her own privilege, and a very bad case of resentment.  She’s also panic-stricken at the prospect of having to move out of her home, and too petrified of his reaction to tell her husband Sven.

All this is because Resi has been living on the edge of a social class that she can’t quite fit into, and the novel which has aroused such a furious reaction from her friends and co-residents, is an exposé of their phony egalitarianism.  She is tired of being patronised, of having to conceal her economies, of being dependent on their largesse in order to keep up with them.  She’s also very tired of parenthood: she has four children whose obnoxiousness varies along with her capacity to deal with it.  She also has a ‘lovely’ husband who is always the ‘nice one’ which means she gets to do all the discipline.

This novel could of course have ended up being a monumental whinge, but it’s not.  It’s often laugh-out-loud funny, and it’s often wise as well, even when she’s sending herself up:

I am the Queen of Understanding.

Understanding is a highly effective means of numbing hungry painful hearts; it’s much better than anger, because, at some point, anger needs to erupt so that you don’t choke on it or burst.  And who knows, it might strike the wrong person or be over-the-top in the first place — unjustified even.  In any case, it’s risky because it’s loud and very visible.  An angry person is already a victim; an understanding person is in control. (p.81)

She writes about how her mother never risked getting angry either. 

‘I could slit somebody’s throat,’ she would sometimes say.  She would play down the brutal image with a mocking tone, a friendly calm expression, and restrained posture, all of which erased any suspicion that she would ever slit anybody’s throat.

We talked for hours; Renate’s right about that.

We discussed hundreds of questions and situations, but the lesson she taught me was to be understanding — as a weapon of defence and evasion, the opposite of justified anger and incisive insight.

Do you think, Bea, that I had the slightest clue what made my mother so angry that she felt like slitting somebody’s throat? (p.82)

Here’s a sample of the incisive insight that’s missing in contemporary Berlin:

This is one of Berlin’s top locations.  The old gaps between buildings caused by bombs and explosions in the old Wilhelmine quarter have been filled by discreet blocks of new flats; small boutiques and attractive cafés line the pavement with outdoor seating or ice-cream shops that offer hot chocolate to lure in passers-by in winter.  Small children wheel around on balance bikes, big children on skateboards.  Teenage wannabe gangsters have a hard time looking threatening, even when they’re drunk and playing beer pond in the park — they’re too well-dressed and fragile, and you won’t catch them rolling around in the dirt or getting blood on their clothes.  It’s not a test of courage to go to school here.  It’s very peaceful.  Or tastefully subdued, I should say.

You can disparage it.  To do so is even in fashion, but not in any way that would actually change something.  It’s just a ritual to prove your power of discernment and appease the haters.  Because there are more takers than flats available here, of course.  And no one in their wildest dreams would leave here of their own accord.  (p.93)

#Correction: not just in Berlin, eh?

I’d like to quote Risi’s draft of a Bea’s YouTube Mum script where she’s going to show them how to say goodbye to fear and constant anxiety which concludes with an earnest plea for ‘likes’ and a promise to talk about teeny boobs and padded bras. But my wrist is sore and I want to head off to the Edinburgh LitFest to hear Zoë Wicombe talk about ‘Questioning South Africa’s Colonial Story’…

Author: Anke Stelling
Title: Higher Ground (Schäfchen im Trockenen)
Translated from the German by Lucy Jones
Published by Scribe Publications, 2021, first published in German in 2018
ISBN: 9781925849905, pbk., 275 pages
Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications


Responses

  1. My understanding is that home ownership in Germany is low and renting is the norm. Rents are controlled so there’s no incentive to become a landlord and profit off others. I worked with a German woman in London and she could not understand the British obsession with getting on the property ladder. I wonder if things might have changed in Berlin and this book is a response to that?

    Like

    • I don’t know, and I did find myself wondering about how the market operates there. And also about how they managed the transition for property during unification.

      Like

      • This is an interesting article (from 2014) https://qz.com/167887/germany-has-one-of-the-worlds-lowest-homeownership-rates/

        Having done a bit of a Google, I see that there’s currently a property boom in Germany so something must have changed…

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        • A lot of foreigners moved into Berlin and bought up property so there was less available for rent. Also, there has been some liberalisation of rent control and so rents have gone up. However, they have now started building more on the outskirts, so the housing pressure should ease, my friends from Berlin predict. As you can see, I am keeping a close eye on things…

          Liked by 1 person

          • I’m guessing that there must have been some kind of government intervention to manage the East-West transition?

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  2. I read another review of this a while ago and ordered the book from Germany. I’d like to move to Berlin in a few years’ time and this sounds like the perfect preparation for it.

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    • I really liked the book, I particularly enjoy reading this kind of contemporary fiction that tackles social issues.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds great Lisa, I really like the quotes you’ve chosen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Cathy, if you could see my book with all the sticky notes all over it, you’d see how hard it was to choose just these few:)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve never managed to work out how rent control works, or how you can pay an enormous price to move into a rent controlled unit (in NY).

    I never had any problem being angry parent. Shouting was my default. Good thing Milly was/is always calm.

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    • I’ve never understood it either, but when I was a teenager my BFF lived in gorgeous art deco block of flats on the seafront, where they’d rented for decades… long term lease and a rental that became peppercorn as inflation rolled along.
      I think in the end they had to wait till all the tenants died before they could sell it for redevelopment.

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  5. Such a powerful quote on anger and understanding. Thought-provoking!

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    • Yes, I thought so too. I think we can make an argument that there’s a time and a place for anger, but it’s easy for uncontrolled anger to lose focus and direction and end up doing more harm than good.

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