Books In Conversation
THERESIA ENZENSBERGER with Elvia Wilk
(Dialogue Books, 2019)
I first met Theresia Enzensberger while we were both undergrads at Bard College in the late aughts. Several years later, she published her first novel, Blueprint, a deeply researched historical work about life at Germany’s Bauhaus school during the years of the Weimar Republic. The book is also a quintessential campus novel: a coming-of-age story rife with juicy romantic drama set against a complex political hurricane leading up to the Second World War. Theresia is one of the smartest people I know and the only person who could so accurately capture a historical moment as told through the social lives of a bunch of college kids. On the occasion of the book’s translation into English, we talked about how to write Nazi characters who aren’t clichés; about reviving the legacy of overlooked women artists and architects; about why fiction can be truer than reality—and about how our current political debates and challenges are not so far from those of 100 years ago.
Elvia Wilk (Rail): Your protagonist, Luise, is a reliable narrator, but she’s also a self-doubting and insecure one. We can trust her to say what’s going on, but she doesn’t trust her own reactions—so there is often a double layer to the narrative, where she second-guesses herself. Her insecurity makes sense given who she is: a young woman at a time when women were not particularly able to express their opinions. In terms of her background and personality, she’s relatively inexperienced, naïve, and very enthusiastic. But her insecurity also seems specific to her unique historical circumstance at the Bauhaus, where she’s faced with very intense, high-stakes, and conflicting political positions that she has to choose between. Do you think her inability to trust her instincts is partly symptomatic of her living in what is essentially a social, cultural, and economic experiment?
Theresia Enzensberger: It’s true that Luise is often very hard on herself and her own intellectual capacities. She’s never sure if her unease with certain positions is justified or if the people adopting these positions are simply smarter than her. And, as you say, there are certainly a lot of conflicting ideas at the Bauhaus around that time. Luise’s story starts in 1921, so only two years after the founding of the institution, and this is a time where these discussions are especially prevalent at the Bauhaus. But the kind of conflictual microcosm she lives in is also a sign of the times. There were so many different and often conflicting ideas swirling around, fundamental ideas about how society and politics should work and, of course, that affected the political climate in the Weimar Republic. This fragmentation, or polarization, led to a lot of confusion about what was actually happening in politics. And then there were also actual political conspiracies. Personally, I found one of the conflicts that emerged at the Bauhaus particularly interesting: the one between the technology fanatics and the students with more spiritual leanings, between the people who wanted to make the Bauhaus into a crafts-oriented school, and the ones who had a more purist understanding of art.
Rail: When you say there was a lot of confusion and paranoia—essentially the inability to distinguish between hysterical rumors and shocking truths—it emphasizes that Luise’s particular subject position is indicative of the Weimar era in general. I definitely have a certain fantasy about the Weimar Republic, which I think many people do, about it being a “party before the storm.” The interwar period is described as a time when all the fun was had and everybody was blind to what was coming; Christopher Isherwood, Alfred Döblin. In a previous talk you gave, I heard you describe the tone of the book as “post-teenage sincerity” coupled with “historical innocence.” So the “post teenage sincerity” is Luise’s, but the “historical innocence” is of the era. How do those relate to each other?
Enzensberger: Luise possesses this attitude, but other people in the book do too. Luise’s discussions with her fellow students have this heavily sincere tone—it’s a sincerity that’s typical of young adults, of early college. I was thinking of that time when you first learn about abstract political concepts and then you get to discuss them with fervor, with an attitude that’s much less jaded than the one adults generally have. But I also wanted to try and portray this “historical innocence” or historical naiveté—the idea that people were talking about socialism knowing nothing of the Soviet Union, for example. I was trying to put myself in that place, and obviously you can only ever approximate that type of historical discourse, but the fact that all these political ideas hadn’t been tried yet, or proven wrong yet, was fascinating to me.
Rail: When you were researching this time period, I can imagine it wasn’t easy to find out how people were actually talking about these things and feeling about them. How did you try to get the tone or the flavor of these discussions, like that earnestness, right?
Enzensberger: I was trying to understand it by reading letters and diary entries and so on, but I did make a conscious decision not to try to emulate the language. I didn’t want the tone of the book to sound like the 1920s, because I wanted to do something different with the genre of the historical novel. I decided to have the tone and the style be as neutrally contemporary as possible, so not anachronistic in either direction. More generally, I was interested in this idea of craft and how to map that onto literature, like, what would it mean for a novel to be well-crafted like an object from the Bauhaus workshops? There is even an odd symmetrical thing in my book, where the two parts kind of mirror each other: The first half is set in Weimar and the second in Dessau, and Luise falls in love and into a new circle of friends each time. She also makes a lot of the same mistakes twice, because that’s kind of how it works, no?
Rail: That’s how it works! You don’t need research to know that. The backdrop to her decision-making, though, is based on an unbelievable amount of research. But the contemporary tone is noticeable. Do you think writing a historical novel told in a contemporary way allows you draw parallels between the past and the present?
Enzensberger: It is called Blueprint, so I’m not shying away from the parallels. But I do think that, politically, it can get a bit simplistic if you just compare the Weimar Republic to current times without qualifying. I discussed this with a friend of mine while I was writing, and she said to me, “Just amuse yourself with the parallels,” which was helpful because it made me stop thinking of it as an argument, where all the pieces have to fit neatly, and start thinking about it as a story, which allows for a bit more ambivalence about how much resemblance there is between the Weimar era and current times. But of course there are a lot of parallels. There are the obvious ones, like increasing nationalism, and then there are less obvious ones, like the rise of new technologies, the reactions to them, and the fact that artists had to think about how to position themselves towards them. In general, I think historical specificity matters, even or especially when thinking about the rise of contemporary fascism.
Rail: One of the historical parallels that’s being really hammered home right now is about women, design, and architecture. With the 100-year anniversary of the Bauhaus in 2019, there’s been a lot of emphasis of the “lost” women of the Bauhaus, bringing them back to light. An element of the book deals with Luise’s struggles as a woman. For instance, she wants to be an architect, but she is sent to the weaving workshop because that’s where women supposedly belong. Johannes Itten says “Most women are deficient in three dimensional visualization, it has nothing to do with you.”
Enzensberger: Which is actually something he said!
Rail: An actual quote! With this he sums up, I suppose, the attitude towards women’s abilities. She’s sent to weave on the looms instead of working in the architecture department. In the context of today, where everyone is talking about the women at the Bauhaus, I imagine you’ve gotten a lot of questions about feminism as a framework for this kind of story.
Enzensberger: I often get asked the question of why I wrote this from a female perspective, which I find an odd question. It posits the male perspective as the norm—nobody would ask a man why he wrote from a male perspective. But I do notice how the female perspective brings certain things to light that maybe weren’t as known about this time period. All the characters in my book are fictional, except for the “important” figures at the Bauhaus, like Klee, Kandinsky and Gropius. They make appearances, but remain mostly on the sidelines, while the main characters are these fictional students. And because I made them up, I wanted the historical framework to be as accurate as possible. That’s why the book is very research-based, and that research is why it’s so much about her difficulties as a woman. All these things that happen to her, the subtle and not-so-subtle discriminations, are just things I read about women at the Bauhaus.
When it comes to feminism, there is another thing that I rarely get asked about. I won’t get into the specifics, but there is a story about domestic violence in the book. I wrote this almost a year before #MeToo, but think it’s #MeToo story in a sense, because it’s about the shame afterwards, about gaslighting and about society’s complicity through silence. It’s also about a man who gets away with it because he is considered an artist. This obviously happens in any milieu, but in the artistic sphere, there is this tendency to trivialize and even romanticize violent behavior towards women, as the “antics” of an “eccentric” artist.
Rail: That rings very true to my experience in the art world. Another thing I didn’t realize until reading your book was just how fragmented the Bauhaus was as an institution. The first part of the book is set in Weimar and the second part in Dessau a few years later, when the school had moved and splintered and a lot of people had left. I think the Bauhaus is historicized so often as an institution with a cohesive set of principles with a director, Gropius, leading the way and the students falling in line, and so I was really surprised by how fractured the politics were.
Enzensberger: Yes, when I read about Johannes Itten and how important he was in the early period of the Bauhaus, I thought it was fascinating, because there is something quite counterintuitive about that. This guru-like teacher, who always wore a monk’s gown and was really into fasting and exercise, but also purity and spiritual transcendence, seemed so out of place at an institution that we know for its commitment to functionality and technological change. But it turns out his teachings were actually quite important at the early Bauhaus, and even representative of some currents of thoughts within Germany at that time. I think this neo-romanticism was a reaction to the fascination with technology, with America, with progress, a reaction to this feeling that the world had become calculable—“disenchanted,” to say it in Max Weber’s words. In that way, I also see quite a lot of parallels with contemporary reactions to big technological change. The Bauhaus was one of the only institutions where, for a while, these two ideological currents coexisted in a small microcosm. Of course that led to conflict and debates, some of which I think could be instructive for our current discussions about technology and the arts.
Rail: In the first part of the book, Luise makes friends with the circle around Johannes Itten. The frustration that Luise constantly has with the group is that they’re so withdrawn, not only from the school but also from the rest of the world and from the political landscape. Also, their kind of purity politics are twinned with what one character calls “mystic nativism,” which is pretty straightforwardly racist. Luise grapples a lot with the fact that her friends are drawn into this ideology despite all of its contradictions. Itten’s stance is indicative of tension that runs through the whole book, which is between the reclusion needed for artistic production and the necessity to participate in the politics of your time. And the campus novel is a great way to do that, because the campus is a bubble, a reclusive space, but it’s also the place where people often become radicalized. How does this tension play into the form of the book in the tradition of a campus novel? Where did that inquiry lead you, personally, as to the tension between participation and reclusion?
Enzensberger: I think there is one banal psychological reason for Luise’s frustration with her friends, which is that she badly wants to belong to that circle, but she can’t reconcile her admiration for them with some of the things they think. And this affects her very directly: they sort of sneer at architecture and crafts, and that’s exactly what Luise wants to do before she meets them. As for the tension between participation and reclusion, her friends are, as you say, very removed from what is going on in the world, which for Luise is hard to bear. She’s naïve but engaged and she’s trying to learn as much as she can. She feels a moral obligation to get politically involved or at least be aware of what is happening in the world. It’s obviously hard to tell what this time actually felt like, but I’m guessing it felt like everything was constantly in crisis. The glamorous 1920s Berlin existed, of course, but all around that, or maybe as a part of that, things felt very unstable. The Weimar Republic was constantly threatening to fall apart, the population was polarized, there was inflation and always another war looming on the horizon. So I think in a time like that, this question of how much one should be involved becomes much more pressing. There seems to be very little ground between actively engaging and escapist withdrawal and I think the internal conflicts of the Bauhaus are one way in which this really shows.
Rail: It’s not only the Itten followers whose progressive ideology has racist undertones. There’s also a character who is an abortion rights activist, but her women’s liberation talk is laced with eugenic philosophy, and there’s a communist who has such confused allegiances that it becomes difficult to trust his motives. So with all of the characters it’s much more complicated than just having one total political position; they all possess an inherent contradiction that makes moralizing hard. I find this insightful toward understanding how movements form and also why they fall apart. The internal contradictions are perhaps most stark in the character of Hermann, who is Luise’s boyfriend in the second half. His latent fascism takes a long time to become clear to Luise—and also to the reader.
Enzensberger: Well, partly she doesn’t recognize it simply because she has a crush on him and he’s generous with his affection towards her. But the other part is that these ideas were everywhere. One thing that gets really complicated when writing about the Weimar Republic is that it’s often treated exclusively as a phase before the catastrophe. That means that for my readers, no matter what I do, every plot point becomes a huge signpost for what is about to come. I wanted to try and see it through the eyes of a character who doesn’t know what is about to happen in Germany. And for somebody like that, these ideas about eugenics and race theory, while not excusable, might seem a little more innocuous than they seem to us now. In hindsight, it’s really hard to write a fascist character and not just write a cliché. In this case I found it helpful to think about fascism today. And one thing I felt strongly was that a lot of people—many more people than the ones we comfortably put in the category of “classic” neo-Nazi—just don’t mind what comes with the ideology that suits them, be it racism, sexism, or antisemitism.
Hermann is an example of this attitude. He is drawn to the “Strasser wing” of the early NSDAP—supposedly the socialist wing. He fashions himself as fighting against the establishment and for the workers, but he clearly also isn’t bothered by the antisemitism, which masks itself as anti-capitalism. Luise’s brother Otto is another character who uses Nazi rhetoric and is blatantly anti-Semitic, but he wouldn’t identify as a National Socialist at that time—he would describe himself as a fiscal conservative. This is where the parallels become almost too poignant.
Rail: Hermann is but one of several male characters who embody political positions. I have been asked about my own novel many times why my main character is a woman surrounded by men. I don’t know if that’s exactly the right reading of either my book or your book, but I’m curious about the fact that, in moving through relationships with men (and a couple of women), Luise comes to define her own subject position and claim her own political agency. Is each of them a foil for her to practice her ideas and arguments?
Enzensberger: I don’t know if this relates to gender, per se, but I was interested in this moment when the political becomes so personal that it can actually affect friendships and romantic relationships, maybe even end them. Luise doesn’t break up with Hermann because of his views, unfortunately. But I think that moving through these relationships can be a way of figuring out the moral and personal stakes of politics and the political stakes of personal relationships. Can I ask how you answer this question about your own book?
Rail: Sort of the same way. I think my main character tries on the political attitudes of the men she’s close to, and each time finds out that they don’t suit her—not because she can articulate what’s wrong with them, which she can’t for a long time, but because they feel wrong in her body. Ultimately none of the male worldviews is suitable to her as a subject, because she’s not in a man’s body. She has to use her bodily reactions as evidence for their lack of universal applicability, before she can intellectually respond.
Enzensberger: This is an interesting point, because of course there is a specificity to gendered viewpoints. It’s something that Luise struggles with especially in her relationship to Hermann, because she can’t relate to his attitude toward creativity—which could probably just be described as entitlement. But Luise doesn’t have those analytical tools, so she constantly questions herself.
Rail: One thing that Hermann constantly causes Luise to question is the conflict between creative freedom and restraints and the amount of structure or rules you need to have in a school, a society, a political system, a social group, while still allowing creative freedom and coexistence and liberation. This is a particularly important set of questions to her, because she wants to be an architect, traditionally a field where you have a strict blueprint, so to speak, but you’re also often trying to exercise creative agency. Architecture and design are so important to the Bauhaus because the conflict between functionality and creativity come to the fore in those fields. Is that partly why Luise is an architect?
Enzensberger: Luise comes from a Prussian industrialist background with a lot of rules and structure, and of course she wants to liberate herself from that. But the complete freedom she experiences at the Bauhaus also overwhelms her, it almost feels like chaos to her. She does her best to just go with it, to “loosen up” and be like the cool kids—also because there is a kind of peer pressure to be free and non-bourgeois. But then she starts to realize that part of her fears about this chaos, or this lack of boundaries, is actually legitimate, that it obscures the structural sexism that she faces, and maybe even facilitates it.
These questions of how we should coexist, how we should structure our lives and what liberation means, are of course questions that are pertinent to her professional interests as well. Luise is really invested in this Bauhaus idea about architecture, that it shapes our lives and our society, which is why she eventually has to answer the questions for herself.