By Anke Stelling
Translated by Lucy Jones
Resi is a writer and mother of four in Berlin who has just received her eviction notice. Her friends live together nearby in a building they designed themselves, a cross between commune and architectural showpiece. Resi wrote a book mocking them and their pet project, and now they cannot forgive her. Unfortunately, one of them holds her lease. As she faces the prospect of moving to an unfashionable suburb, she writes a letter to her eldest daughter, Bea. She wants Bea to know that the German promise of equal opportunity is a lie. You can’t escape where you’re from.
The setup of Anke Stelling’s new novel, “Higher Ground,” is also most of the story. Resi — whose name comes from parrhesia, Greek for unfettered speech — spends much of her time in a broom closet, typing angrily. She recalls her mother’s early disappointments in love, as well as her own. She writes accusatory letters and deletes them. It’s not that she was excluded from the building plan. Her friends asked her to join them and offered to cover the down payment. But she resents the offer, and begrudges them their steady jobs and docile children. Above all she seems to resent herself: for not getting a degree, for marrying another artist, for having four kids and no steady income.
“Higher Ground,” out now in an uneven translation by Lucy Jones, promises a biting critique of bourgeois norms. Resi is meant to be the outsider who can see how shallow and delusional her well-off friends really are, the visionary truth-teller punished for her honesty. The problem is that Resi is an outsider only in her own imagination. In fact, she is, like the rest of her group, a smug middle-class woman from a thriving manufacturing city in West Germany, who came to the struggling capital in the 1990s expecting it to lie at her feet. Berlin’s traumatic history of separation and forgetting doesn’t touch her. Its immigrant population — around a fifth of Berlin residents are foreign-born — is a punchline. At one point Resi pictures her friends considering whether to offer their worst apartment to refugees, that is, if they don’t “have really high expectations” or behave like “animals.” The scene seems to reveal the casual prejudice of Resi’s social circle, but the kicker is that it never happened. It takes place only in Resi’s mind.
Resi’s life as an artist has not given her nobler values or desires, only less money to pay for them. She is not poor, as she occasionally realizes: “I remind myself that none of us has to starve.” As a German citizen, she receives child benefits, subsidized day care, free education through university and accessible health insurance. But she cannot afford to fly four children to Majorca, so this will have to do for righteous indignation. The novel’s latter half is overshadowed by the anxiety of the ominous pending “autumn holidays,” when the family will be forced to spend time together at home, in the center of one of Europe’s most vibrant cities. Ultimately, Resi’s greatest fear is not of living a hollow, hypocritical life, but of having to mix with “overweight people wearing polyester T-shirts with logos” in the boonies.
A novel does not need a gripping plot or a likable protagonist. But if it forgoes these dependable pleasures, it should offer readers something else: a compelling voice, a startling point of view, scintillating language. The novelist Thomas Bernhard was renowned for writing unpleasant characters who ranted about the pettiness of Austrian society, but their interminable tirades were funny and sharp. One wanted to be on their side. Resi’s monologue is all bitterness and no wit. The most frustrating thing about “Higher Ground” is that by the end, one sympathizes with the people it was meant to denounce.