Author photo: Jean-François Paga
When Katharina Volckmer and I first met over Zoom, her in London and myself in Baltimore, I couldn’t stop talking, not unlike the narrator of Volckmer’s debut novel, The Appointment. The novel is bracingly frank, acerbic; some might call it transgressive, though I don’t think that’s the right term. The novel’s titration of wit, directness, and erudition made me feel a bit like the narrator: full of nervous, excited, voluble energy. I said that if Volckmer didn’t like any of the questions I’d prepared, she could skip them. She wryly offered to “do a Klaus Kinski on me,” alluding to the German actor’s notorious hostility in interviews. Our conversation could not have been more unlike a Kinski interview: Volckmer was measured and patient, generous with her time and humor. This is not to say that our conversation was comforting, which makes sense, as Volckmer’s work refuses comfort. Elsewhere, she noted, “We cannot spend our lives wearing woolly socks and drinking tea and expecting books and art to broadly reconfirm what we think already—I’m much more in favour of thinking of art as some sort of ice pick,” recalling Kafka’s notion that “we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”
The Appointment, out this month from Simon & Schuster, is reminiscent of a Bernhardian monologue, one half of the conversation between a German patient living in London and her Jewish doctor. Over the course of her appointment, the speaker “tests the ice,” demarcating the boundaries of the sayable and the unsaid. Superficially, the novel offers a garrulous tide of sentiments that many might find upsetting (we begin with the narrator’s Hitler sex fantasies). But it is also deftly subtle, never binding the narrator to a determined gender identity or to a specific historical or national inheritance. At once sexy, hilarious, and subversive, the book is also acutely sad. Desire, in this novel, takes many forms: the desire to be heard, the desire to be otherwise, the desire for a different past and a different future.
It was not lost on me that my meeting with Volckmer staged, at least formally, the conversation in the book: Volckmer was born in Germany; I am Jewish; the structure of an interview begs confession. But there the similarities stopped. We spoke, on this recent September evening, about identity and desire, the inheritance of the Holocaust, the difficulties with which German readers might receive the book, the impossible definition of a “trans novel,” nestbeschmutzers, Tolstoy, and form. “Every writing worthy of its name wrestles with the Angel and, at best, comes out limping,” French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard wrote in Heidegger and “the jews”; Volckmer’s novel comes out limping in the finest sense, ice pick aloft, frozen sea shattering.
When people ask you to sum up the book, how do you sum it up? Because the only way I’ve been able to do so is to say something like, It starts with a Hitler sex fantasy and goes on from there. But that part is so peripheral to the novel.
For me the easiest has been to say it’s about identity. It’s obviously about gender identity. One of the questions I often ask myself is, What is it about your identity you can possibly change? Is there anything you can really change about it? Or is there nothing you can change about it? Obviously you can’t change the fact of the language you’re born into or the geographic location you’re born into. And she’s trying. She doesn’t want to be German necessarily, she doesn’t want to live with that burden and that guilt. But the only thing she can really change is her gender, that’s something she can do. And she decides to do it with a Jewish doctor. The original title for the book was A Jewish Cock. That’s the point where she tries to mix these two aspects of her identity, her gender and her national identity. Obviously it’s slightly absurd because she thinks, “If I get a Jewish cock I won’t be as German anymore.” But for me the book was about exploring what things you can permanently change about yourself and what you can’t, and some of the sadness that comes with that.
Could you speak a bit about Dr. Seligman? He’s very reticent. How do you see that character both in silence and, simultaneously, in dialogue with the narrator?
To me, he’s always been as important as the narrator. He’s very present and—I’m going to keep saying this until someone does it—I’d love to see it on a stage because it’s quite theatrical. His presence was also important because a lot of the stuff she says I didn’t want to be spoken into a void. It’s always her feeling her way along that fine line of the stuff she can say and the stuff she can’t say. Even though he’s silent, and it’s technically a monologue, it’s got strong elements of a dialogue. I hope it has. Of course, it also makes her at times less secure. If he was talking back it would be no different, but there’s an opacity and she has to work it out by herself.
Do people have different readings of what kind of doctor he is?
They do, and I find that quite strange. They often think he’s a psychoanalyst. Some people get it, and understand that he’s obviously not. We talk a lot to our doctors, we confess to them. They probably are the people we do this most with nowadays, even though we have to credit the Catholic Church with this brilliant invention.
I’m teaching a queer literature class right now, and I’m imagining teaching this book. I’m imagining how students would respond and the questions they would ask. I think one of the first questions students would ask is, How do I make sense of this person’s identity? At one point she uses the phrase “people like me.” And I paused over that and thought, What does she mean by that? I thought, at first, the phrase referred to her gender identity, and the reason she’s visiting Dr. Seligman, her desire for “a Jewish cock.” But I wondered, too, if she’s referring to something about being German, about a certain national inheritance, or financial inheritance, or the secret we learn at the end of the novel—how these things are not separable for her.
I think that’s people who are different, right? She struggles with the identity she’s born into on many levels. One of them is the gender she’s been assigned at birth. She was raised as a woman, but that’s not who she feels that she is. For me, that’s very important and that’s also why her love story doesn’t work. And obviously Dr. Seligman knows about her gender identity, right? She’s not hiding that from him. But she’s hiding it from the reader in the beginning while hiding her other secret from Dr. Seligman. So there are both of these things going on at the same time and in many ways it’s a confession. It’s the first time she has this space where she’s comfortable enough to talk about her body because he already knows. To him, she doesn’t have to explain that part of herself anymore, and that made it very interesting to me to create this space. But the book has been criticized for that. Some felt that if you talk about the Holocaust, it has to be the center of the book. Because the body is considered something slightly vulgar, or inferior, or not as important. But I think you’re guilty with your body, too. It’s not only your mind. And it’s your body that does the thing, and it’s your hands that pull the trigger. I think if you want to explore identity, you can’t do that without exploring your body.
Speaking about the materiality of the body, I found myself wondering if is this a trans novel. I don’t know what a trans novel even is.
I don’t know that either. I think, at the moment, some things have become unhelpfully binary. I know that we need certain identities and categories for certain things but sometimes I struggle with that as well. I think it’s hard to always expect people to label themselves and to always have this answer ready. I find it interesting sometimes when you talk to people who are bisexual, which is something that a lot of people struggle with. I once heard someone say, It comes in waves, it’s not the same every day. And I quite like that explanation, it comes in waves, because I think a lot of things come in waves and forcing people to be constantly in the same place and same identity, to wake up and feel the same, is unhelpful. I personally don’t really understand gender, I find it hard to always relate to. Something I try to explain to people is that, for me, it’s my perception of people as much as it’s my perception of myself. When I look at people, I can see something feminine, I can see something masculine, I can imagine them in a dress, I can imagine them not in a dress. I find that beautiful. I think there’s so much beauty in not labeling something and just letting it breathe. And the thing I don’t understand about the transphobia debate—there a lot of things I don’t understand about the transphobia debate—is that even if you remove gender in the way we are accustomed to it, you gain something. I think by living rigidly in these structures, people deprive themselves of so much. But people are scared. They’re terrified. It makes them angry, it makes them so angry. And I don’t quite understand why.
The book is going to be published in Germany next summer. Do you have any expectations for how it will be received?
I think it can go both ways. Some people will definitely be upset. I know this. There’s this term, nestbeschmutzer, for someone who kind of dirties their own nest. It famously was used for Thomas Bernhard. I think there’s an element of that. And there’s also this hierarchy of languages because to many Germans, the fact that you gave up good German language in order to write in English, which they consider slightly inferior because it doesn’t have grammar, is problematic. There are lots of popular writers in Germany who come from places like Georgia or Ukraine and they write in German and people love that because … they’ve seen sense, you know? But to give up German to write in English, that in itself I think people find upsetting. And of course, there’s the text itself.
But to be in the same company as Bernhard!
I guess it’s the same in other countries as well … people can’t really laugh about themselves. They immediately get quite defensive. My parents are going through a really interesting process whereby my dad’s reading the book and translating it for my mom. They find it all very funny and have been very supportive, but they’re also like, What’s wrong with our bread, you know? That’s the one thing, they’re like, No, that’s not funny. We know you’re a vegetarian, and German food, yes, okay, but … not that joke, no, not funny. It’s going to be an uncomfortable read for a lot of Germans, I think, and not just because of the joke about bread.
Comparing the monologue form, it seems that one major difference between your work and Bernhard’s is that there’s space in yours. It’s not just one paragraph.
Yes, and it’s not just once sentence. I don’t like things that are formally overwhelming. I quite like things that are on some level readable. Somehow there’s something soothing about paragraphs, right? I do love Bernhard. I love Bernhard for how strict he was as a writer. I love watching interviews with Thomas Bernhard. There’s one called Monologe auf Mallorca in which he says that some writers waste sixty pages until they reach the garden gates, right? So descriptive… I’ve always admired all the things he doesn’t allow himself to do.
Growing up, and going to a Jewish elementary school, it was always impressed upon us that in Germany they learned that painful histories can be dealt with, and can be dealt with well. Seeing it described in your book as “hysterically non-racist” was a compelling description.
This whole concept that we have of Vergangenheitsbewältigung—a German term for coming to terms with the past, particularly World War II—is wrong in a sense. I feel like we’re always looking for the point at which we can be comfortable with our history, where we can say that we’ve dealt with it, and I think that’s the wrong way of looking at it because you’ll never be able to do that. There’s never going to be a point of comfort or of being at peace with it. It’s not like doing your laundry. The mere fact that Germany lost the war meant that they were no longer in charge of their history books … so obviously they had to face that fact. But I think the way they like to present it and the way it actually was are quite different. For instance, when my father when to school in the fifties and early sixties, they didn’t mention the Holocaust. It wasn’t until the student revolutions, the Eichmann Trial, the Holocaust film, all of these things were mentioned. And I think they still haven’t gone as far as they could have. There’s also what some people refer to as the second guilt, the almost total failure in bringing people to trial who were responsible for these crimes. That is in itself really shocking.
Vergangenheitsbewältigung is a narrative, something they tell themselves and I think the problem is that many people—once again—think in terms of solutions. They want to reach a point that is finite and, if you really think about it, that’s always very sinister. I’m also really interested in the history of the guest workers—how these people were treated. There were twenty-six million forced laborers, prisoners—thirteen million in Germany itself, the rest in occupied territories. That established a hierarchy of thinking about how much people were worth, beginning with French people being the fanciest, and Jewish and Soviet people being the least human. And this hierarchy is still very much in place in many ways, if you think about the ways in which the later generation of guest workers and their descendants have been treated. I keep thinking that there must be stories of people who used to be forced laborers and returned as guest workers. Or if you think about the fact that since 1990, 187 people have been killed in Germany by neo-fascists. I’m really interested in the continuities of these things. There’s this big myth of hour zero. We started from scratch in 1945. You wish! You wish. They were so smart when things started happening in the United States with George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests—the first reaction was, Oh, we don’t have this kind of racism here. And I was like, excuse me… What? But again, they found it much easier to point fingers, and to say look at America and how racist they are all and their problems. And I think there is—I’m going back to the Holocaust—I think there’s always been and continues to be an inability to mourn for those victims as our own people. They were othered, even in that process. Of course, all countries in the West have dirty histories, they all do. But it’s not a competition. I think we should stop thinking of getting to that place of comfort.
Thinking again about inheritance, are there writers you return to?
There’s a new German translation of War and Peace, which is brilliant. I love the way Tolstoy structured it, among many other things. It makes it very readable. I find it quite overwhelming, and I’m totally in love with that book. Even the epilogue. People say it’s boring, but no, you need the epilogue. If you don’t read it, you haven’t understood anything.
I think Russian—I’m really bad, but I started learning Russian, a few years ago, without much success—there’s stuff that you can do in German, that you can do in Russian, that you can’t do in English, because all of the cases and the grammar. Russian is so condensed as a language. I don’t want to wind you up with the Nabokov thing, but didn’t he say that about Tolstoy? That you can read it in English, but you’re not going to read Tolstoy. I always admire Tolstoy’s love, right? He wrote from a point of love and that’s important. I can’t think of another writer who knew the human soul like he did. To me the most important scene is when Bolkonsky sees the sky. And his death, the two scenes. I don’t know how he does it, but I’m quite overwhelmed. My only explanation is it’s because he writes from a position of love. He doesn’t hate his characters. Apart from Napoleon.
It’s an interesting question. It’s very clear to me when a writer hates their characters. How do writers love their characters? Is it so important?
I think it’s important because otherwise you’re going to be arrogant and the characters will not reveal as much. A part of them will always remain closed off if you don’t treat them with devotion. That’s something I don’t like when I read fiction, when writers are being condescending or arrogant toward their characters. I always find that quite jarring. I think you have to be modest in front of them. And that’s what Tolstoy does brilliantly, I think, like no one else.
RL Goldberg is a Ph.D. candidate in English and humanistic studies at Princeton.
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