Category: Fiction

Peter Schneider
Die Lieben meiner Mutter
[My mother’s loves]

Novel

Review

​Peter Schneider, born in 1940, was one of the leading voices of the student revolt in Germany in the 1960s, and is still considered one of the most prominent and controversial left-leaning writers of our time. His first published story, “Lenz,” dealt with the dashed hopes and delusions of the '68 generation and was a bestseller in 1973. Partly documentary, partly autobiographical, his literary work focuses on the intersection between personal and political events through the lens of a generation that was forced to come to terms with the legacy of their parents’ historical guilt and the profound difficulty of talking about it.

Schneider's latest book „Die Lieben meiner Mutter“, a hybrid between autobiography and novel, depicts a new, almost intimate attempt to reconnect with the previous generation. At the center of the book are letters from his mother, who died at the early age of 41 in 1948. Schneider recalls having had a heated argument with his mother at the age of eight and then never seeing her again afterwards. His descriptions of the trauma he incurred through this childhood betrayal of the mother, of the flight from the East, and the bitter war and postwar daily life in a Bavarian village, while truly impressive, comprise only one aspect of the narrative framework for the “unheard of event,” which is the actual focus of the book: while deciphering his linguistically gifted mother's letters to her husband and her husband’s best friend, the seventy- year-old Peter Schneider discovers not only a truly extraordinary woman , but also that she was in love with both of the men.

At first the mother thought she had to choose between them because: “I had far too little reverence for higher laws, because I did not know at the time that one should neither demand - nor deny-when fate commits one: to love.” In the end, she embraced the fate of the ménage à trois. As the letters evince, Schneider's father had accepted the situation, even supported her loves, and in her own way, she was never unfaithful to him. The son, whose generation was more uptight and less serious about experimenting with models of free love, was truly stunned by the mystery of his father’s tolerance: “How could father bear these unreasonable demands?” he asks and then speculates: “Perhaps such intimate bonds between “soul mates,” during the war years were not as rare or as scandalous as they appear to us today. People facing death every moment probably had a very different idea of what happiness is.”

Through the mother’s letters and the son’s shreds of memory about her life, we learn that in many ways she is exemplary of the everyday lives of women in the war and postwar period. But Schneider’s book is not simply a, “study of the morals and mores of an era,” rather it tells of the possibility to go against, and with, the customs, desires, hopes and fears of a generation, and of a woman’s will to forge a path that would lead her away from ways of life and feelings in which, “we truly are rooted.” She refused to be reduced to being a, “mother machine,” but her life ended in exhaustion and loneliness. At the same time, she insisted - and this distinguishes Schneider’s mother from many of her contemporaries - that she did not belong to those disappointed by life, rather she belonged to the women for whom life had given too much. A remarkable but also frightening statement in this post-war era.

In relating this unusual story of his parents and childhood, Schneider’s real feat lies in making visible the complexity of a social and emotional structure that all too often is missing in run of the mill war and postwar novels. On the other hand, the limited understanding he has of his parents remains palpable. He is astonished by his mother’s demands, for example, but never once questions why his father was more concerned about his professional career than taking care of his beloved wife who was ill and dying. Instead, the son proclaims to his mother: "No man in the world (...) should ever receive such letters, because no man in the world is capable of such devotion.” Doesn’t that underestimate man’s capacity for awareness and human coexistence? Such passages expose the author’s inability to deal both with his mother’s and his own ideas about love, and it is precisely this openness that makes „Die Lieben meiner Mutter,“ an important and unusual literary testimony to the social and psychological state of present day Germany.
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By Insa Wilke, 18.02.2014

Insa Wilke is a freelance literary critic contributing to publications such as TAGESSPIEGEL, ZEIT online and to Deutschlandfunk. She is in the jury for the Peter Huchel Prize and the Italo Svevo Prize and contributes regularly to the literature program “Gutenberg's World” on WDR3. Insa Wilke was awarded the Alfred Kerr Prize for Literary Criticism in 2014.