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Creative Writing Critique: Die Erfindung des Lebens, Hans-Josef Ortheil (Review: Satis Shroff)

Katrin Beltran, Kirchzartener Bücherstube (c) satisshroff, freiburg-kapel 2010

Creative Writing Critique: Satis Shroff

Ortheil, Hanns-Josef Die Erfindung des Lebens, Luchterhand Literaturverlag, 590 pages,ISBN 978-3-630-87296-4.

Kirchzarten, a scenic Schwarzwald town, lies in the heart of the Dreisam Valley from where you can take the train to Titisee and the Black Forest. A tranquil place to go for extended walks and
bike tours. And it was in Kirchzarten where I met Hanns-Josef Ortheil. To be
precise: at Katrin Beltran’s Kirchzartener Bücherstube. Katrin studied
Geography and went to work with microsoft in Munich where he met her husband.
The two of them decided to overtake her Mom’s Bücherstube when she retired,
where she loves to arrange author-readings. Katrin said, ‘I don’t earn much
during the readings but we get attention from the media, and that’s good for
our Bücherstube.’

Die Erfindung des Lebens is the story of a young man in the style of a Bildungsroman, an educational novel, in the tradition of Goethe’s The Sorrow of Young Werther and James Joyce’s Stephen Hero, which was
eventually published as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Hanns-Josef
Ortheil looks good for his age, has a lot of blond hair, shows no signs of
greying, and is soft-spoken and works sympathetic and quiet. He has a pleasant
voice which he keeps modulating to suit the text he’s reading, sometimes loud,
fast and calm. A lecturer who knows his way around in the reading circuit in
Germany, Switzerland and Austria.

This novel tells us about a biography that has to be re-invented every time after fate strikes a blow. What comes out is a thrilling account of a young pianist, and later a writer who’s fate takes a
happy turn. The subject matter is organised chronically in five major chapters:
I The Mute Child, II The Flight, III Rome and
IV The Return.

Hanns-Josef Ortheil was born in 1951 in Cologne and lives in Stuttgart, Hildesheim. He belongs to one of the most important contemporary authors and has received many literary prizes. He works as a
professor for Creative Writing and Cultural Journalism at the University of

As to the treatment, I must say that it shows an extensive study into the protagonist’s life and his art of thinking and psyche as a person with a ludicrous autism, after all this ‘Ich-Erzähler’ is
writing about himself in the first person singular. He describes his symbiotic
relationship with his mother, his journey with his father to a family
homestead, life there and separation from his dear mother, who’d actually
curbed his life, development and social contacts with his peers through her
omnipotent muteness. His father’s unconventional methods of teaching and the
development of the young mind are noteworthy in this novel.

The book reveals the author’s life as a young man, his childhood and youth and his early success as a writer, after he had to give up playing the piano due to a chronic inflammation of the tendons his
fingers. As the only surviving son of his parents, who have lost two sons
during the World War II, and two other sons after the War, he grew up in Cologne
with his parents. The mother has become mute, and in her muteness she
communicates with her husband and son only through small, neat chits written
during the day, stacked and held together by a rubber. He, the only surviving
son, lives also mute beside her. It takes years foryes""> him to free himself from the clamour of his family and goes to
Rome to begin his career as a pianist.

Talking about his mute days as a child he says: ‘sometimes I used to believe, nothing could separate me and mother at any time, no one and nothing in this world.’ A deep mother-son attachment. He goes on to
say, ‘Father used to come early in the evening, and he belonged to us two. He
was the third in our alliance, he used to leave the common apartment early
morning and spend the entire day in the free Nature. My father worked as a
survey engineer. When he returned he’d give my mother a kiss on her forehead.
Then he’d ask her a few questions: how are you, is everything okay, anything
new? Mother reacted always mute by shoving a small packet of chits she’d
written during the day. Hans-Josef was also mute and there was no one whom he
could ask.’ You have to imagine how it feels to live in a traumatised family,
where the mother and son do not speak and only write and read small letters as
a form of communication.

I’ve left out the other two chapters just to make your curious. The way Ortheil describes his visit to the Conservatorium in Rome with Marietta, whom he has taught the piano, and now tells her what
questions to ask her prospective piano teachers, their choice of a warm and
spontaneous pianist and how they leave him for an hour with a Steinway piano is
delightful. The description conjours up images akin to Patrick Süskind’s
Jean-Baptiste in ‘Parfume,’ the man with the extraordinary smell. Whereas
Süskind’s descriptions of scents and fragrances are a sensual experience for
your olfactory glands, Ortheil’s confrontation with this piano is like the
taming of the shrew, as he begins to play Schuman’s Fantasie in C-Major. He
sweats in Rome, takes off his shirt, improvises, switches over to Phil Glass,
and comes back to Fantasia again and again like in a trance. He flirts with the
seventh piano sonate by Sergej Prokofieff. When it’s over, the applause comes
from the street below. But the pianist doesn’t take a bow and chooses to remain
unknown and undiscovered. The memory of bygone days overwhelms him.

Ortheil always told his parents about his piano studies in Rome but never about the separation from Clara. This time he comes home without prior announcement. He has long hair, and not even the local taxi
driver recognises him. He returns home after two years in Rome and decides then
and there never to leave his beloved home again. His mother greets him with,
‘Johannes! My good boy!’

After a visit to the university hospital in Cologne he decides to end his career as a pianist. He goes with his mother to one of her readings. She reads Balzac for an audience. At home, she reads Stendhal, Flaubert and Proust. In
the meantime, Ortheil dreams of Rome, Clara and calls Signora Francesca.
A-major, that’s the most tender and also the saddest major-tone ever…Beethoven
and Schubert wrote poems in A-major.

Ortheil meets his former teacher Walter Fornemann, who can’t believe that his pupil now to work as a waiter and give up his career as a pianist virtuoso. He says he wants to go for walks, be underway
and write. He wants to rewrite his notebooks and diaries. He’s written
thousands of rough notebooks. So he becomes a writer.

Fornemann says to Ortheil, ‘In reality you were not only a pianist but a writer since your childhood.’

When I asked whether his book was an autobiography, Ortheil said in his own words that ‘it is not a classical autobiography because it isn’t detailed and pragmatic.’ On the other hand, it
is an excellent novel that has been inspired autobiographically. It is a tale
about the psychological dependence, almost an addiction, to the world of his
ancestors. At the same time, it’s a homage to his parents who learn to live
again after years of sorrow, misery, deprivation during, and after the World
War II. He also mentioned that he has a lot to thank the German literary pope
Marcel Reich-Ranicki who appreciated and praised his work. Ranicki, it might be
noted, can make or break an author.

Ortheil’s work has been recently awarded the Literary Prize of Brandenburg, the Thomas Mann Prize, the Georg-K.-Glaser Prize, the Koblenz Literature Prize, the Nicolas Born Prize, the latest being
the Elizabeth-Langgässer Literature Prize. His novels have been published in 20
His German book-titles are: Die grosse Liebe 2003, Die
geheimen Stunden der Nacht 2005, Das verlangen nach Liebe 2007. His other books are: Wie Romane
entstehen 2008 and Lesehunger 2009.

Apropos Kartin Beltran, she’s bringing out a book about the beautiful Dreisam Valley. You bet I’ll review it. The book will be published by Herder Verlag, Freiburg.

Welcome to the Schwarzwald (Black Forest).


Autor Biographie

Satis Shroff ist Dozent, Schriftsteller, Dichter und Kunstler und außerdem Lehrbeauftragter für Creative Writing an der Albert Ludwigs Universität Freiburg. Er hat sechs Bücher geschrieben: Im Schatten des Himalaya
(Gedichte und Prosa),
Through Nepalese Eyes (Reisebericht), Katmandu,
(Gedichte und Prosa mit Nepali autoren) Glacial Whispers
(Gedichtesammlung zwischen 1997-2010).
Er hat zwei Sprachführer im Auftrag von Horlemannverlag und Deutsche
Stiftung für Entwicklungsdienst (DSE) geschrieben, außerdem drei Artikeln über
die Gurkhas, Achtausender und Nepals Symbolen für Nelles Verlags ‚Nepal’ und
über Hinduismus in „Nepal: Myths & Realities (Book Faith India). Sein
Gedicht „Mental Molotovs“ wurde im epd-Entwicklungsdienst (Frankfurt)
Seine Lyrik sind in Slow Trains, International
Zeitschrift, World Poetry Society (WPS), New Writing North, Muses Review, The
Megaphone, Pen Himalaya, Interpoetry publiziert worden. Er ist ein Mitglied von
Writers of Peace, poets, essayists, novelists (PEN), World
Poetry Society
(WPS) usw.

Satis Shroff lebt in Freiburg (poems, fiction, non-fiction) und schreibt über ökologische, medizin-ethnologische und kultur-ethnische Themen. Er hat Zoologie und Botanik
in Nepal, Sozialarbeit und Medizin in Freiburg und Creative Writing in Freiburg
und UK studiert. Da Literatur eine der wichtigsten Wege ist, um die Kulturen
kennenzulernen, hat er sein Leben dem Kreatives Schreiben gewidmet. Er arbeitet
als Dozent in Basel (Schweiz) und in Deutschland an der Akademie für medizinische Berufe (Uniklinik
Freiburg). Ihm wurde der DAAD-Preis verliehen.

© 2010, Satis Shroff. You may republish this article online provided you keep the by-line, the author's note, and the active

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