„How does one do it well?“ – Nele Pollatschek’s „Small Problems“

This author, let me say right away, is one of the smartest we have in this country. However, if it were up to her, it would be said: Nele Pollatschek is one of the smartest authors in this country – to exclude the idea that she only belongs to the smartest female authors, but to the smartest writing beings, whether female, male, non-binary, whatever. In 2020, she emerged in the Tagesspiegel with an article about articles (wordplay and Pollatschek, they can’t be separated as little as Pollatschek and politics), in which she objected to being called a „female writer“. „Gendering is a sexist practice whose goal is to fight sexism.“ One does not have to share this argument, but it is worth considering, and expressing it is courageous.

The 35-year-old Pollatschek currently writes feuilletons for the Süddeutsche Zeitung and also novels; now her second novel has been published, like her debut „Das Unglück anderer Leute“ from 2016, it is a kind of family novel. Although we only hear one voice, the father who speaks here is constantly occupied with the small system to which he belongs, consisting of himself, his wife, son, and daughter, in a house in the countryside. Legally inconspicuous and of German descent, the mother is a teacher with a permanent position, the father writes freelance for television, and the children are on the verge of becoming independent; a family without a dog and cat, but otherwise embodying the academic middle class. Everything seems fine, one might think, but of course it is not.

However, what is not okay is the question being discussed here. From the perspective of an individual who always considers the positions of others – he has already heard every sentence they could utter at least once. It is inevitable when living together and eventually, the children’s eyes become glassy with boredom as soon as the parents open their mouths. Or in this case – because the mother seems to be a beloved respected person – the protagonist and narrator Lars Cornelius Messerschmitt, 49, a househusband and in his self-perception, filled with good intentions.

Especially on this December 31st, when Pollatschek has him report, at the end of those „shimmering five days between the years, in which the old has already wheezed to the ground and the new has not yet struck and everything can still become completely different, namely good.“ It must be different if it is to at least get better, that much is clear, when the first-person narrator wakes up late in the morning, sleepy, disheveled, and probably hungover, and looks at his to-do list, whose 13 points, alternating between trivial and fundamental, allow for a panoramic view of the crisis: From „gutter“ to „life’s work“, from „pasta salad“ to „doing it right“, how is that supposed to be accomplished by the New Year’s Eve party?

On one hand, such a list appears to be a tragedy, albeit with comedic elements. On the other hand, who hasn’t had such lists, whether written or simply in their minds? And isn’t contemporary overwhelm characterized by this juxtaposition of concrete and external problems with self-imposed educational tasks, for which the insightful phrase „The problem is the problem“ is most suitable? Don’t we all constantly strive to become better, more competent, reliable, and happier individuals, engage in more physical activity, quit smoking, and never disappoint our loved ones again? So, is Lars Cornelius Messerschmitt’s misfortune – who also considers himself an artist hindered by everyday life and a lack of willpower from creating something significant – an average fate? Or is this man, who is carried, whipped, tempted, and soothed by his thoughts, alternating between despair, self-awareness, optimism, and a likable touch of megalomania, a pathological case?

Die Frage, mit wem das Publikum es zu tun hat, überlässt Pollatschek: ebendem. Darin liegt die Kunstfertigkeit ihres Romans, der sich auf dem Grat zwischen Innenschau und Satire, zwischen Empathie und Psychiatrie mit Anmut und Geschwindigkeit bewegt. Das Urteil über den mit sich und der Welt ringenden Lars fällt, wie in jeder Beziehung – und eine solche entsteht durch Pollatscheks suggestive Autorschaft –, im Kopf des anderen. Und ist je nach Stimmung und Selbsterfahrung des Lesers womöglich selbstreflexiven Schwankungen ausgesetzt. Wer seine Ambiguitätstoleranz trainieren will – eine aktuell ja hoch im Kurs stehende Tugend –, hat hier eine literarisch geglückte Gelegenheit.

Nele  Pollatschek: Kleine Probleme. Roman; Galiani Berlin, Berlin 2023; 208 S., 23,– €, als E-Book 19,99 €