The German poet and novelist Marcel Beyer considers avian preoccupations, history, and the dubious nature of memory in his new novel, Kaltenburg.
There are amazing scenes in this book, such as zoo animals interacting with Dresdeners in the razed city in 1945, and the fight that breaks out between artist Martin Spengler and Kaltenburg’s raven. How much of this actually happened?
Mostly, they are invented. When I moved to Dresden from Cologne in 2000, I realized that the bombing was still deeply embedded in the local psyche. This was often expressed by fascinating stories, like an incident that’s often recounted about escaped lions that mingled with residents after the bombing, and who even spent the night with them in the Great Garden. It’s doubtful this actually happened. Growing up, I was very interested in the artist Joseph Beuys, and of course with the ethologist and ornithologist Konrad Lorenz [who actually knew each other], the inspiration for Ludwig Kaltenburg. But the details are purely fictional.
Marcel Proust seems to inhabit your novel to the point where I wondered if it shouldn’t have been called Proust rather than Kaltenburg. Why is he such a significant character?
The Proustian idea of involuntary memory, or telescoping memory, is critical. The way we construct our lives isn’t based on facts so much as on fantasy wish-fulfillment scenarios. Konrad Lorenz was an ambiguous character who incorporated National Socialist propaganda into his findings. After the war, he never mentioned the Holocaust. He would speak euphemistically, or perhaps describe the fall and degradation of humanity in general, but he could never face the full horror of the genocide. Proust was a gay, Jewish writer. He would undoubtedly have been deported and sent to a concentration camp if he hadn’t died before the war. In Dresden, I became interested in the small social circles that emerged after the war. The obsession that Klara Hagemann [the narrator’s wife] develops with Proust is a way to maintain the “high ideas” of bourgeois society under the debilitating Soviet thought-control apparatus. You couldn’t address politics directly in the GDR, even with your closest friends. One had to devise a kind of alternative language. I also think Proust is nearer to reality when it comes to describing how we recall the past than official memoirs can ever be. Ask someone about their dog, and something completely different will emerge.
Where did your ornithological insights, such as all the details about sparrow taxidermy, come from?
I read a lot of specialized articles and all the reference editions I could find. Growing up in the Rhineland, I was weaned on Konrad Lorenz as well as the nature documentary filmmaker Heinz Sielmann, who is the character Knut Sieverding in the book. I also had an uncle who had an extraordinary way with animals, and who would take me on long walks in the woods. He told me that if one will merely listen, one will notice that the creatures of the forest are continuously chatting away, and that they also talk to us. The idea of communicating with other species has always fascinated me.