Understanding modern literature

by Alexander Meier

“The Structure of Modern Literature” – this is the title of the much-anticipated greatly expanded and thoroughly updated 6th edition of the standard work by Prof. Dr. Mario Andreotti, author and lecturer in Modern German Literature. It provides a unique, fascinating approach to the literature of the 20th and 21st centuries.

The starting point is the frequent lack of resonance of modern literature or even the distrust it is met with.

Enormous intellectual
and social change since 1900

Modern novels in particular often disappoint reading expectations. The break with traditional forms, with traditional structures of bourgeois realist texts is irritating. A probably primal human desire for harmony and balance is not served.
    Why is this so? Why do modern authors write differently from Jeremias Gotthelf or Gottfried Keller, for example?
Andreotti considers such questions in the context of the change in social conditions and the influence of spiritual forces since the beginning of the 20th century.
    The rapid progress in technology brings man almost unlimited possibilities. New modes of transport and communication are leading to an increasingly interconnected world. Today, the exchange of files is largely done digitally via the virtual world of the internet. This has changed our awareness of space and time.
    Has everything become better? A wide field. Many things have changed. Values have shifted since Christianity was increasingly questioned.
    Especially after the Second World War, modern man finds himself in a mass society: without identity, anonymous. He feels at the mercy of technology and social conditions. Feelings of isolation set in. Rationalisation and globalisation of the economy lead to an increasing scarcity of labour. Man gradually becomes redundant, ultimately a waste product of society, which simply discards its useless members. The anthropocentric view of the world, according to which man is the centre of meaning in the world, seems to have been finally abandoned. A circumstance that Nietzsche foresaw with his thesis of the death of man.
    It goes without saying that literature has reacted to the change and continues to do so. But how does it do so?
    The author describes the innovations with many well-explained textual examples. Only three of them are mentioned here. In “Homo faber” by Max Frisch, the narrative style has obviously changed in comparison to older texts. How can this be seen? Frisch no longer tells the story chronologically. The past is experienced in the form of flashbacks. This discontinuous narrative reflects modern man, who has a different awareness of time and epoch. Since Freud at the latest, reality has been perceived in particles. The past and the future are mixed together. In “Homo faber”, the death of Professor O is communicated, and twenty pages later Professor O is alive again.
    The image of man is also no longer the same. There are hardly any unique personalities in modern literature. The hero no longer exists, there is no longer any talk of the “big guy” as in the time of Sturm und Drang. What is modern now is the anti-hero.
    Often the characters are nameless. In Franz Kafka’s “The Trial”, the world is experienced as a court, as a vast bureaucracy. K. is mercilessly at its mercy.
    In Elfriede Jelinek’s “The Lovers”, no character emerges from the collective of characters. Everyone, absolutely everyone, is reduced to their market value. Quite the opposite of the traditional romance novel.
    The innovations also affect the role of the narrator. In the traditional novel, for example in Gotthelf’s work, he looks down from above. An authorial narrator has the sovereign overview. The poet has a fixed view of the world. That no longer exists. The narrator, or more correctly, the personal narrator has a limited view. In Kafka’s novel, he knows nothing about the reason for the arrest, just as K. does. Reality eludes all interpretation.

Variety of themes and
topicality of the 6th edition

At the book launch in St. Gallen, it was said that “The Structure of Modern Literature” is actually a volume consisting of many volumes. Rightly so, because the variety of topics is extraordinarily large. The development of modern literature is analysed from the montage novel to digital literature, to the mobile phone novel and mobile phone poetry using cutting-edge examples. The chapter “Book and Market” provides exciting insights into the laws of the literary business. The term “modern” is defined according to new, holistic criteria. Complex issues are always brought to the point in an excellent way. Never, and this must be said to avoid misunderstandings, is it a devaluation of older literature. Nevertheless, the question remains: what is good literature? Andreotti addresses the problem in the extended final chapter by inviting readers to reflect on twelve criteria that can contribute to the aesthetic quality of a literary text if they are considered with restraint. Quintessence, pointedly: Technique is not everything.
    “The Structure of Modern Literature” is a reader-friendly book aimed not only at students and teachers, but quite deliberately at a broad audience interested in literature. It is also aimed at authors, to make it easier for them to get started with modern texts. It reads with great insight and with great intellectual pleasure.


(Translation Current Concerns)

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