ETaking a Heinz Strunk novel with summer in the title for light reading on the beach is like having a rum and coke in the midday sun of a Baltic Sea resort. Roth, the vacationing protagonist of “A Summer in Niendorf”, is conveniently offered it directly by his landlord Breda, who also runs a liquor store as a part-time job. “‘Just right for the heat, huh?’ – Actually exactly the wrong thing to do in the heat. Oh well. ‘Well then, cheers. Have a great summer.’”
Roth, a commercial lawyer in his early 50s, takes a three-month sabbatical before starting a new job and rents an apartment in Niendorf near Timmendorfer Strand. Roth wants to write his family history, for which he has endless hours of tape recordings of his late father.
Netflix film adaptation in sight
While he already dreams of a sold-out book tour and film adaptation on Netflix – “Can turn his life around. But it doesn’t have to“ – occurs to him at first Writer’s block gets in the way, combined with procrastination, which brings Rum-Cola and related soft drinks back into play. “This time Breda is bottling it with a beer-aquavit combo. ‘That’s what we drink here on the coast.’”
Heinz Strunk, at least since “The Golden Glove” in 2016, German champion in the discipline of depicting misery, only needs a few pages, two or three dialogues and very little action to turn an everyday situation into paralyzing desolation. Hardly anyone describes the horror of mediocrity and the swamp of the banal as maliciously and precisely as Strunk.
Anyone who knows his diary parody “Intimate Box” from “Titanic” (published as a book in 2019 as “Nach Notat zu Bett”) will recognize some of the gastro criticism – “Seaside Lounge (Crêpes, Croques und MEER)” – to the mood report, which combines the finest gradations of hungover completion with sentences: “Drop by drop, time trickles away, it drips out of the calendar.”
Roth suspects early on that the sensational literary debut will not work out under such high-percentage circumstances. As retardations of the rapidly turning downward spiral, Strunk builds in unexpected encounters that promise the staggering Roth a moment’s support: his daughter calls (only to brazenly pump him); an elderly couple in the neighboring apartment takes care of him with surprising care, a long-suppressed one-night stand comes for a night, which then ends in severe embarrassment. As a chronicler of painful speechlessness and insensibility, Strunk is mercilessly precise, right down to the last mendacious phrase. “‘It was nice’ – ‘I thought so too.'”
Brachial comedy and nausea
What remains is the crash, which Roth indulges in with a growing desire to sink, almost professionally guided by drinking buddy Breda, whose broken world, pregnant with alcohol fumes and the smell of putrefaction, triggers both longing and disgust in his victim. Every Strunk afficionado knows this “double bind”: being torn between brute comedy and nausea, voyeurism and an escape reflex.
“A Summer in Niendorf” entangles the reader in the same circle of fascination with decay and self-destruction. “Another awakening to utter devastation. At least he didn’t grab his face. He lifts the covers and notices an unfamiliar smell on himself that paralyzes him, clogs his nose and stays there, he can smell the inside of his nose. The aroma of decay, rot, doom, the stench of the old goat. Niendorf Flavor.”
Such a state of mind was classically called “decadence” – Strunk’s novel quite openly follows the model of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice”. Where Mann’s writer Gustav von Aschenbach succumbs to the charms of the boy Tadzio and loses himself in homoerotic fantasies, Roth obsessively works his way into daydreams of blissful love with the unapproachable waitress Savina. He transforms into one of those devastated bar characters unable to articulate, whom he initially treated with the biting sharpness of his misanthropy, becomes aggressive and violent, even criminal.
The well-heeled summer vacationer with artistic ambitions is rapidly approaching physical and mental collapse, downright happy to be able to give up the semblance of individuality in a drunken stupor. “Then issasaus, then there’s EDEKA,” says Breda. Edeka, end of career.
Thomas Mann called his “Death in Venice” a “tragedy of degradation”, knowing well, as a Schopenhauer and Nietzsche connoisseur, that deep down in the human being there is an urge for self-abandonment that needs to be kept in check every day. In Strunk’s grandiosely dark, near-death summer story, this tragedy has a different ending, but it is anything but a happy one.
Heinz Strunk: “A summer in Niendorf”. Rowohlt Verlag, 240 pages, 22 euros.