Die Überwindung der Schwerkraft
Communing with the Dead
Now, in his third and latest novel, Helle tells the story of a difficult reconciliation between two very different brothers. Helle is a versatile stylist. In contrast to his previous two novels, here he writes in long, meandering sentence cycles, some spanning several pages, which are so elegantly constructed that the reader is able to follow them effortlessly. A stream of consciousness, an attempt to remember, a work of mourning.
Two brothers go out drinking. The elder of the two is the kind of guy you typically try to avoid, especially in a bar at night. He talks a lot and is convinced of the weight and validity of everything he says. He is highly intelligent and deeply misanthropic. And as is so often the case with such figures, we soon come to realise that he is a humanist who has gone over to the dark side, a man who has had to let go of his hopes. He is obsessed with the evils of mankind; he has delved into the history of the Second World War and can tell you the minutest details about the Belgian paedophile Marc Dutroux’s despicable acts. He who has seen through the façade of the human, one might conclude, has no other choice but to turn his back on humanity.
His brother, the narrator, is twelve years his junior and serves initially only as a conduit for this endless torrent of words. But the elder brother, as we quickly discover, is dead. And hence what appears at first to be an unmediated monologue is in fact a reconstruction based on the younger brother’s unreliable memory. On the one hand, this act of writing is his attempt to get closer to his deceased brother. On the other hand, of course, this also means that the younger brother has ultimate authority over the narrative: he decides what his brother says and how he says it.
Helle has this enormously dense web of images, perspectives, and temporalities firmly in his grasp. Overcoming Gravity is a novel about the peculiar combination of affection and distance that informs the relationship between siblings (though strictly speaking in this case they are half-siblings) and also about the question of guilt and responsibility—especially also in the context of family. And last but not least, it is a novel whose twists and turns frequently lead into the realm of the grotesque. As this uncommonly intelligent author well knows, there is a close relationship between comedy and despair.
By Christoph Schröder, 11.09.2019
Christoph Schroeder is a freelance writer (Süddeutsche Zeitung, Tagesspiegel, Die Zeit) based in Frankfurt am Main and is a lecturer in literary criticism at the university there.
A couple of beers, and then a couple more – that’s all it takes for a sense of closeness. Yet the two brothers know that the warmth of the alcohol is not really a match for the cold outside as they go from pub to pub. The older brother has long been one to cradle a drink with no special occasion required, simply saddened or furious at a world governed by pain and suffering, wars and violence. That evening however he talks to his younger brother not only about Stalingrad and Marc Dutroux, he also tells him that he is soon to become a father. What neither of them know is that this is the last time they will see each other. They talk on the phone once. The next call, nine months later, brings the news of the older brother’s death. What he leaves behind are memories and questions: What is it all about? What is it we are looking for in the world? What is the meaning of it all, this living and dying?
With virtuosic skill, Heinz Helle interweaves the quest for traces of the dead brother with the quest for answers to the major questions of life. The precision with which he dissects the brothers’ personalities is painfully beautiful: a carefully aimed punch in the stomach, shot through with solace and hope.
(Text: Suhrkamp Verlag)