Mareike Fallwickl: Die Wut, die bleibt (The Lasting Rage)
Anke Stelling: Schäfchen im Trockenen (Keeping Your Sheep Safe – translated as ‘Higher Ground’ by Lucy Jones, Scribe)
Back in 2014, I read Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs and encountered a woman’s raw, unfiltered anger for the first time. I loved it, although it divided readers and led to an upsurge in debate about ‘unlikeable’ characters (which seems to be even more of a no-no when it comes to female characters). There have been other books since which explore what might happen when women refuse to go along with the script handed to them, live up to people’s expectations, be meek, silent people-pleasers: Naomi Alderman’s The Power, Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment, Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. Generally, these women are condemned, viewed as unnatural, earn a bad reputation that lingers on for centuries (Medea, anyone?). No one likes a loud shriek of rage, too shrill, too hysterical, right?
Yet I can’t help but be fascinated by these books, where women are suddenly allowed to enact those fantasies of verbal (and in some cases physical) revenge that we daren’t let ourselves think about. I think I have a natural predisposition to be very gentle and kind, but I occasionally wonder if my tendency to be so forgiving is merely cowardice and conflict avoidance.
The two German-language novels I recently read both start with women being perceived as victims and then transform into women as avenging creatures (angels or demons? up to you to decide). Both Germany and Austria are more conservative when it comes to women’s place in society, so it is refreshing to see that this literary trend is making its way there too.
Austrian writer Fallwickl’s novel is set in Salzburg and at the very start, Helene, a mother overwhelmed by family demands during Covid lockdown, commits suicide by jumping from the balcony while the family is having dinner. Her best friend Sarah, a childless writer, used to slightly envy but mostly pity Helene, but she steps in to help out with the children, thereby making the widower’s life far too easy, as Helene’s teenage feminist daughter Lola keeps scolding her. Lola and her friend are assaulted by some boys at the skatepark and the two girls resolve to learn how to fight to protect themselves… and soon become part of a group who call themselves #WeAreKarma, taking revenge on the men who have wronged women. It’s an interesting glance at generational differences in interpretation of feminism, and how the desire for stability or family makes us compromise our most treasured principles and values as we grow older.
Unlike Lola, who seems more concerned with the wider social oppression of women, from domestic violence issues to abuse of minors, from body shaming to gender fluidity, Sarah is discovering how motherhood in a society where the political and domestic issues mirror each other, and that doesn’t offer much support for mothers, often spells the end of self-realisation:
‘You can’t imagine how bitter you can become about the father of your children… motherhood is a ship and at some point you realise that you are sitting in it all on your own. You are surrounded by dark currents, you have no oars, no compass.’
‘But who is steering the ship?’ asks Sarah.
‘You realise that only later,’ replies Helene, ‘It’s the men. The politicians, society. We mothers have no power. We have the entire burden, but no power.’
The moment of awakening, when Sarah chooses to replace the rhetoric of self-pity and doubts with a fighting spirit, comes when she is called into school because Lola pushed her PE teacher, who was insulting her and another classmate about their body weight. Sarah’s initial reaction is to apologise, to smooth things over, but suddenly the resentment that has been building up over the years spills out of her and she stands up for Lola, even threatens to create a scandal for the school.
When they were told back then that it wouldn’t hurt to give in, to apologise, to not kick up a fuss, to keep your head down, how did they know that it wouldn’t hurt? Maybe it did hurt them. Maybe it hurt them greatly.
German writer Stelling’s novel is set in Berlin, against the backdrop of the city’s increasingly problematic housing situation but has some similarities with Fallwickl’s story: an angry woman in her forties trying to explain things to a teenage daughter – except in Stelling’s case we don’t get to hear much of the daughter talking back and educating the mother.
Resi is an author, married to an artist; they have four children but not all that much disposable income, and are subletting from one of Resi’s old schoolfriends. However, Resi’s latest book took a swipe at her friends, for their bourgeois attitudes and love of material comforts, upon which she is served an eviction notice and, unsurprisingly, her friendships unravel. The novel is in fact the narrative she writes for her teenage daughter, reminiscing about the past, how she always felt less accepted by the group because of her social background. It is a howl of disappointment, self-justification and social critique, entertaining, relatable, but also quite revealing of a stubborn character with a chip on her shoulder, keen to emphasise her ‘higher moral ground’.
Just like in Fallwickl’s novel, we can understand the frustrations of the character up to a certain point, but we might question some of her choices or her interpretation of events. Resi recognises that she has fallen victim to society’s expectations of what a happy family should look like and what they should do, but she cannot help building up her expectations every weekend, and then being bitterly disappointed. The description of the Saturday breakfast is funny – but the laughter is painful, because so recognisable. Nobody wants to come to the table, nobody cares about the fresh pastries from the bakery, they sit silently and glumly, or complain about the food, or they make noises while eating.
I’ve fallen for the Weekend Lie again: the one that says it’s nice to have breakfast together on Saturday, when no one has to rush off anywhere, with fresh pastries and smiling faces, with Nutella and love and fruit…
The Weekend Lie is powerful indeed.
It operates on the basis of a ruthless causality: If I’m not sitting with you, it means I don’t like you.
It operates on the basis of simple contrasts: If it’s stressful during the week, the weekend will be blissful at last.
It operates with dogged obstinancy: reappears every five days, all year round, come sun, come rain.
Two interesting though problematic books, with flawed characters but relatable rants. I’ve seen some readers say that these women are speaking from a position of privilege and entitlement that they don’t even recognise – and it is true that compared to women in other parts of the world (or in other generations), their lives are not that hard. But they are, quite rightly, comparing themselves to others closer to them in their own society: rich or childless women, or simply men. Perhaps they also feel a sense of betrayal that earlier feminists told them that once they were working, earning their own money, once employment legislation stopped discriminating against them, they would have it all and be able to do it all. If only they would lean in more… Meanwhile, they’ve leaned in so far that they are toppling off balconies, yet structural problems in society and other people’s attitudes are still not changing enough.
Coincidentally, some of the themes also resonated with a film I’ve recently watched Everything Everywhere All at Once: what happens once women stop being overwhelmed victims or hankering after lost, often illusory possibilities? Can anger be used in constructive as well as destructive ways? I enjoyed the chaotic energy and genre mash-up of the film, as described by the title. This sense of overwhelm and general assault on the senses, thoughts, feelings, memories is what we are all perhaps feeling at the moment, although the film’s resolution was understandably (for we all desire some clarity and simplification) a little too pat. In real life, there are far too many people, including mothers, who never achieve any insight into themselves, and never have a fully-developed character arc. As for using rage constructively, well… we’ve seen how bad we humans tend to be at that.