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Change Your Direction

By (June 1, 2017) No Comment

Schadenfreude: A Love Story
By Rebecca Schuman
Flatiron Books, 2017

Memoirs are strange objects. Most readers associate them with great historical figures: your Golda Meirs, say, or your Dwight Eisenhowers. Though there are certainly exceptions, from Charles de Gaulle’s 3-volume World War II memoirs all the way back to St. Augustine’s Confessions, such works tend towards the dreadfully dull. My Life, Bill Clinton’s 1000-page memoir, which Joe Klein memorably called a “diary dump,” probably sets the standard for this very modern form of tedium. I would thus like to propose a new literary concept, which I hereby dub “The Clinton/Schuman paradox.” To wit: “the fame of the author and noteworthy quality of their life varies in inverse proportion to the literary value of the memoir they are likely to write.”

Because on the numbers, Rebecca Schuman’s life does not seem ripe for a memoir. Now in her late thirties, she spent so much time with German culture and language that after a few low-end artsy jobs she earned a PhD in German; she had a few fellowships and taught in some dead-end temporary gigs; and she then became a freelance writer, doing some really good work for Slate while maintaining a compulsively readable blog called Pan Kisses Kafka. It’s not exactly Monica Lewinsky, welfare reform and the bombing of pharmaceutical factories in Sudan. What Schuman’s Schadenfreude: A Love Story is, though, is literary: carefully crafted, socially and culturally astute, and on more than one occasion fall-off-the-easy-chair funny. Most refreshingly, it sets out to show why people choose to study languages, what sustains them in that lifelong vocation (hint: it’s not memorizing an endless array of irregular verb charts), and how that sustenance, ultimately, isn’t enough.

When I began the book, I expected that it would mostly be about this kind of learning: a portrait of what it’s like inside the world of university language departments. Schuman is Slate’s higher education columnist, first coming to fame in 2013 with her cautionary tale “Thesis Hatement.” “Don’t do it. Just don’t,” she wrote to those thinking about maybe getting a literature PhD. She went on to deploy Kafka’s “A Little Fable,” which also comes up a lot in Schadenfreude: A Love Story. Here it is, in its entirety:

“Alas,” said the mouse, “the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I am running into.”

“You only need to change your direction,” said the cat, and ate it.

In case any doubt about Schuman’s advice regarding graduate school lingered after her blunt opening, “Thesis Hatement” continues:

The mouse wasn’t going in the wrong direction so much as it was walking cat food the entire time. A graduate career is just like this, only worse, because ‘A Little Fable’ lasts three sentences and is made up, while graduate school lasts at least six years and will ruin your life in a very real way.

Schuman has built her reputation on this kind of stinging critique of the insane inequality of humanities academia in the United States, which is also the main subject of the last chapter of Schadenfreude. I’ve personally gotten the most, however, out of Schuman’s pieces in Slate about German culture: about the Aldi grocery story, Angela Merkel’s ubiquitous multi-coloured tunic, Grimm’s terrible ignorance of actual German, German PSAs about taking your horse on the subway, Nena’s 99 Luftballons, and the compound words (“Belästigungsvorwürfen”) that Germans use to describe Donald Trump, among others.

None of these essays have anything directly to do with Schuman’s scholarly work, which, as we learn in Schadenfreude: A Love Story, is centered on literature and philosophy: her dissertation—now published as a book—was about Wittgenstein and Kafka. But this is in fact what studying German really means: having nuanced, well-informed opinions about politics, everyday culture, language, and really bad pop music, in the world that is formed by the language. I’ve often thought that English departments have a lot to learn, in this respect, from their colleagues in the “language departments,” who aren’t bogged town by arguments about whether it’s OK to study Star Trek instead of Shakespeare. Star Trek is part of the world that the English language created, just as Nena is part of the world of the German language, Tintin is part of the world of the French language, and Brexit belongs to the world that the English language has created—the boundaries of academic disciplines are too often both narrow and artificial. So it fills my heart with joy to see someone with a PhD in German talking confidently about Angela Merkel, and to see that nobody finds that at all strange.

Schadenfreude: A Love Story is basically a linear narrative of Schuman’s life, starting in high school, when she began to take in interest in all things Kafka, and ending shortly after the birth of her daughter about twenty years later. The first chapter or two worried me a little. To be sure, there are some very funny and evocative moments. Here she is on the subject of her high-school lust, for example:

I made my move, need it even be said, in a note—the epistolary masterpiece of my short life, composed in the library while I was wearing my certified-best outfit: black crushed-velvet leggings and a massive olive-green t-shirt printed with an ankh, with the neck cut out. . . . Before I could think better of it, I unloaded my confession unto Dylan Gellner’s unsuspecting mitts, and then sat through a tortured session of AP Lit and half a tortured free period, in which I read the same incomprehensible page of Lucky Jim over and over again and wondered why it was supposed to be funny.

The precision of the imagery here is hilarious, right down to the epistolary qualities of the high-school note and the degree to which Lucky Jim, surely the funniest academic satire ever written, can seem pretty baffling to outsiders. We aren’t learning about much more than high-school madness, though, and I’m not convinced that this is a subject worth of Schuman’s writerly talent. Much the same could be said of her stories of her early undergraduate days, which recount culture shock, hopeless pretentiousness, and the often-insufferable (although generally unintentional) rudeness of most people in their early twenties. For all their amusing detail, these passages are only a half-step up in insight from pointing out that most undergraduates (like most high schoolers) are endearing but annoying.

The book hits its stride, though, in the chapter called “Ostalgie,” which is the word Germans use to describe a longing for the days of the divided Germany. (Each chapter of Schadenfreude is titled with a different hard-to-translate German word.) Seeing the new East Berlin through the eyes of an American college student is fascinating, not simply because Schuman is obsessed with having a good time (and the right kind of good time) but because she notices things no German would ever think to talk about. For one thing, she is always kind of cold. During one particularly ill-advised hook-up, she finds herself back in an English student’s hotel room:

“So,” he said, once I’d made my way past the disapproving gaze of the front desk clerk, “what do you like? Sexually?”

“Well,” I said—and then he opened the door to his room. “Holy shit, is that a down duvet?”

“Obviously,” he said. “Now, as far as oral sex, I find it blinding, and I can’t get enough. Do you share a similar proclivity?”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but can I just get under that comforter for a second while we talk? Wait,” I said, peeking into the bathroom. I saw a stand-up shower, presumably connected to a giant hotel-sized hot-water tank. “I’ll be out in forty to forty-five minutes.”

Always being kind of cold and wanting to just pause the conversation to slip under a comforter is a metaphor for the post-Communist world that is both endearingly American (that is to say, totally comfortable with its foreignness) and spot on in terms of the way that these places get under your skin. On the next page she zeroes in on

the venerable extinct creature known as the East Berlin Oma, or granny: violet of hair, slow of gait, thick of dialect, crotchety of disposition. If, in the late 1990s, you happened upon a purple-coiffed Dame of Friedrichshain, Prenzlauer Berg, Treptow, or Lichtenberg and asked her about reunification, chances are she would tell you without hesitation that she preferred things the way they were before.

Paradoxically, this kind of detail about local phenomena tends to proliferate more in an outsider’s account, making it possible to learn about important aspects of a culture from small aspects of daily life no insider would even notice. What exactly are those who experience Ostalgie longing to regain? Simple pleasures, perhaps, which certainly include a kind of community-mindedness that would become difficult to sustain in the capitalist version of a united Germany. The racism Schuman encounters ultimately puts the lie to her romanticism about Ostalgie, but she’s not willing to cynically turn her back on it all. That refusal of cynicism, that constant ethic of discovery and inquiry via the language, defines the best parts of this book, no more intensely than in this East Berlin interlude.

The chapters that follow have more to do with the United States than Germany, Austria, or Prague. Having said that, Schuman’s account of her return to Berlin for a home-stay and crash-course to prepare her for her PhD in German provides insights into how the place has changed that are just as keen as her sense of East Germany. She does this in a way that nicely balances the melancholy of où sont les neiges d’antan with an awareness that some of this change is just that she and her pals are older now. The linguistic angle of the trip is a mixed bag, as she recounts how many Germans condescendingly speak to her in English, amazed and incurably incredulous that she’s not just some stupid American unable to speak the language of the place she is in, cognitively unable to accept that she doesn’t really need the assistance of people whose English is often nowhere near as precise as they blithely assume it to be. “But alas,” she writes,

the linguistic confidence for which I had just paid a healthy sum still eluded me, and I returned to the U.S., left New York, moved—at the age of twenty-eight—back in with my parents for the summer, and moped about Eugene, fairly sure that I was about to begin doctoral-level study in a language in which nobody would believe I knew the word for ‘breakfast’.

The rest of the book is a narrative of graduate school, post-docs and adjunct professorships that is the mirror-image of her East Berlin narrative: taken from an insider’s perspective, just as highly detailed, but now a chronicle of someone who eventually does turn her back on it all, although out of defeat rather than cynicism.

This is the book’s twin task, really. On the one hand, it is an exploration of all things German, a great exemplar of everything language degrees are meant to introduce people to. Late in the book, Schuman writes

I certainly found German literature interesting—and German philosophy, and language, and culture, and art, and architecture. I was a grown-up now with a modicum of intellectual curiosity and maturity, and had legitimate favorites in each of these categories. (Nietzche’s ‘On Truth and Lying in an Extramoral Sense’; the word angeblich, or ‘allegedly’; tiny eyeglasses and ubiquitous bicyclists; Otto Dix’s Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia Hardin; anything Bauhaus.)

That’s a terrific summary of the enviable breadth and adventurousness that language degrees are supposed to create, and I can’t think of a better recruitment tool for getting undergraduates into that line of study. I also can’t think of a better tool to discourage graduate students considering the same thing than to read the last chapter of this book. Called “Schadenfreude,” it tells the story of Schuman’s attempt to get a job as a German professor. The last part of it recounts her lone on-campus interview—the final stage of a grueling winnowing process—which went simply horribly: “I just wanted to go home, sink into my wobbly red IKEA couch I put together myself, and wait for the slow embrace of death.” But she cuts to the existential heart of the bad-choices question two pages later:

I was now a thirty-six-year-old apprentice who could be expected to keep apprenticing for as long as it took. . . .Yes, of course I was just going to die in the end—we all are—but somewhere between declaring a German major in college and pulling on my ill-fitting Banana Republic suit for that campus visit, I had gone severely off track. And the walls were closing in.

In addition to examining all things German, then, Schadenfreude: A Love Story also explores all things young-intellectual. It reveals how following your bliss can lead to some intense experiences but can also leave you empty and lost, craving the (yes indeed, very German) comforts of stability and useful purpose. It shows how much modern graduate studies (especially in die Geisteswissenschaften) have to answer for: it’s a worrying meditation on the future of the humanities and the social purpose that it can, but often fails to, fulfill. Never moralistic or simply polemical, though, Schuman is witty, self-aware, and jaunty. Her debut book thus really is a literary object and not just a “diary dump,” not just a blow-by-blow of someone’s life up to the end of their thirties. Its voice, like its analysis, is sharp, original and eye-opening.

Jerry White is Canada Research Chair in European Studies at Dalhousie University and the co-editor of the Canadian Journal of Film Studies.