I am a natural writer

Writer Dieter Wellershoff"Life gets its value even through death"

He completed his studies in Bonn with a doctorate on Gottfried Benn. As an editor for the Cologne publishing house Kiepenheuer & Witsch, he worked with literary greats such as Heinrich Böll and Nicolas Born. Wellershoff is considered to be the founder of a "New Realism" in our literature since the Second World War.

He read from his first novel "A beautiful day" on Deutschlandfunk on December 29, 1964. His books about the death experiences as a soldier, the unwholesome consequences of the economic boom, but also about the psychological turmoil in married life today cemented his reputation as an excellent storyteller. "Der Liebeswunsch" (2002) is considered to be his greatest literary success.

Hajo Steinert: Hajo Steinert at the microphone. - I am happy and grateful that someone celebrating his anniversary came to my studio for his 90th birthday. It's Dieter Wellershoff, the great German novelist, narrator, essayist, editor, contemporary. One can certainly say, Dieter Wellershoff, that you are an experienced writer.

Dieter Wellershoff: Actually, every writer should be an experienced writer. But there are, so to speak, different types of access, some more inspired by the visual impression, others through a deeper look into the situation that is represented ...

Steinert: In the human soul.

Wellershoff: Yes / Yes.

Steinert: You were born on November 3, 1925 in Neuss in the Rhineland. You spent your childhood on the Lower Rhine, which was suddenly interrupted when we talk about your horizons of experience, through the experience of the war.

Wellershoff: The war was undoubtedly a deep, deep experience for me, also because I only survived it by chance. I've been wounded too, I've seen dying, I've heard it, I've seen the moments when I thought, yes, maybe I'll be saved if I get on that train. That is, life was suddenly life-threatening in its everyday things, fetching bread in the barrage and similar situations of this kind. But at the same time it was a strange experience that I can only describe as the experience of chance or the grace of chance.

Steinert: The coincidence that you survived?

Wellershoff: Random survival, yes. I have seen the dead all around me. I was hit too, but I survived. And in a hospital train I saw how infinite the row of dead and dying gathered up was, who were being driven away from the battlefield. The strange thing is that I think it's a very important experience of staying alive. In other words, something was handed to me that I definitely didn't want to waste.

"Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka were the unsurpassable in experiences"

Steinert: You weren't 18 years old. You were first drafted into the labor service in 1943. Then you were an infantryman in military service. You were wounded in Lithuania in 1944. They were taken prisoner of war. After the war you were able to catch up on your Abitur, in 1946, the so-called "Abitur for war participants". As the son of a father from the construction industry - he was a district builder - you came to Bonn immediately after the war to study German, psychology and art history, before you received your doctorate in 1952 with a thesis on the poet Gottfried Benn, which is still known today. How did you get into literature? What experiences have contributed to this? Not just the war, right?

Wellershoff: It was also a matter of chance that the art historian Heinrich Lützeler made contact with a sculptor who, after a short conversation, gave me access to the course. Coincidence, opportunity, life was something that did not proceed according to fixed plans, but one had to be lucky and then be able to acquire happiness as something that belonged to one.

Steinert: The good fortune to be able to read what you wanted to read after the war, books by authors that were banned under the Nazis during the decades.

Wellershoff: Yes. The great thing was that I read a lot of books that I didn't know, at most as a shadow of memories of name connections, books that had appeared somewhere, but which I didn't know yet.

Steinert: For example?

Wellershoff: Above all, it was the many Americans and French. They left the most powerful impressions I've had.

Steinert: After the war, the paperbacks, Rowohlt's rotary novels, appeared. Hemingway, for example, was brought in. But you also dealt with German literature. You came across Gottfried Benn. You have published an important edition of Gottfried Benn's works at Limes Verlag. But I can't imagine that you've got around authors like Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann.

Wellershoff: Those were the deeper impressions, even deeper than when I was dealing with Benn. Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka, that was the unsurpassable part of experiences, so to speak.

"The great experience of literature was the appearance of a truth"

Steinert: The literary experience, reading, made you a writer or, at first, a lecturer. After your phase as an editor at the Deutsche Studentenzeitung, you joined the publishing house Kiepenheuer & Witsch as a lecturer at the end of the 1950s.

Wellershoff: One day a big BMW came driving. Someone got out and walked up to me, a very self-confident person. That was the publisher Joseph Caspar Witsch. Back then he was one of the most prominent publishers in Germany with many interesting ideas and human contacts. When he saw, he asked me: "You live very modestly here, don't you. Would you like to become an editor in my publishing house? Then you can also afford another apartment. Do you dare to do that?" - "Yes, without further ado, I trust myself to do it!" I knew that I had a keen interest in these things and that dealing with books and manuscripts was the right choice for me. Then I got the offer, which I wasn't actually prepared for, to set up a scientific department. I was able to fall back on historical acquaintances from my studies, among others with Jürgen Habermas and Hans-Ulrich Wehler, these are prominent people of my generation. Then I built up the so-called scientific library, which was a publishing success at the time. These were books with central thematic collections of distinctive essays on these topics. They are still in my apartment today. An unexpected success because there was so little literature of general importance at the time.

Steinert: The war, the literary experience, and now there are also encounters with individual personalities in literary life. As a lecturer, you had to cultivate face-to-face contact with writers. Is that also a background experience for you, that you switched to the literary field yourself in the early 1960s? The encounters with other writers - I only mention names like Heinrich Böll, whose title you invented, "Group picture with lady", and other encounters with Nicolas Born, Günter Steffens, authors who are no longer alive today. How did the authors, with whom you had practical contact, shape?

Wellershoff: In the strict sense of the word, it was a human experience that was in line with deepening one's own knowledge. I have really had a lot of experience with people and found a fundamental similarity between literary books and people. What I read in books, I found in people and vice versa. It was the convergence of two media: the immediate personal experience and the fantastic. There were products in which this was salvaged, thought further, passed on. They were fantastic encounters. The great experience of literature for me was the appearance of a truth that surrounds you, at first shadowy and fragmentary, but then because it is a text that you can penetrate further, it becomes more and more complex. Writing was a medium of experience. In doing so, I applied the same standard with which I looked at other manuscripts: what has it been seen here, so to speak, how does it become visible there, in what way? Those were the questions I asked myself and which the young writers I worked with asked themselves at the time.

"Everyone experiences failure"

Steinert: Rolf Dieter Brinkmann, for example, to name an author from Cologne. You got it on the way. Many others too, who then went down in literary history. - A formative motif in your literary work, also in your essays, is the experience of love and sexuality. A bestseller - it was also made into a film - is, for example, your great novel of 2000: "The Desire of Love". Squaring the circle with four people: a lawyer, a doctor, a surgeon and a student. A kind of elective affinity. It ends tragically. The experience of love, sexuality, the experiences of a man who - may I reveal it - has been married to the same woman for 63 years, Maria Wellershoff?

Wellershoff: Yes. It was clear to me that the fundamental experiences always have to do with personal encounters and that beyond them one is also able to recognize the same traces of experience in new dimensions in order to develop them further.

Steinert: The dimension of love and sexuality is a constant motif in your work.

Wellershoff: It is the same with love, it is the same with a career, it is the same with loneliness and failure, also with winning. These are all the fundamental human experiences. Actually something taken for granted. But I found that it is not a matter of course. The topic is actually in front of our eyes, we are right in the middle of it, and we have to write about it, we recognize ourselves in that.

Steinert: You just mentioned failure. The experience of failure, has it impressed itself in your life in the 90 years that you have lived now? Are there any things that still run after you today?

Wellershoff: Everyone experiences failure, ultimately and above all because they know that they have to die, and then of course that our society is also something very complex, changeable and questionable. In any case, writing about it is like entering a dangerous area.

Steinert: Eros and Thanatos, love and death, always a unity with you. Do you see dying as a form of failure? Have I understood that correctly?

Wellershoff: No. - No no! There is a dying that is failure. That is when you try to repress something in a process of appeasement, which is actually an experience that you should have, namely that life is limited. Living with this experience is actually a grandiose experience if one does not put neurotic fears over it. The experience of the limited is also the experience that what we experience is something changeable, changes that we have to recognize and so on, on which we work. Literature is, so to speak, the manifestation of what may be in store for us, because it is fundamental things that you do. It is a form of prior experience and final experience.

"Life gets its value even through death"

Steinert: Are you an intellectual, a writer who, in the remaining years that you have, faces death with serenity, with serenity, without any fear? What can you do with that? As far as I know, you have no metaphysical ideas, you find no consolation in religious ideas or even - I say the big word - in God.

Wellershoff: No. I think dying is our own business, and that is nothing more than the experience of being part of something essential: life. In a sense, however, life is not something solid like a package that you receive, but rather an impetus that you get into, a situation that you find, in which you then suddenly experience that it is me who is doing this now See, it's me who this happens to and so on.

Steinert: Death as a personal experience. That is a thoroughly utopian thought. In an essay, "Future and Death", you once developed the image of the slowly burning candle and the utopia of natural death, of having your own death, not a violent death that comes from outside. I explain that to myself now, going back to the beginning of our conversation, that it is in contrast to what shaped you as a youth, namely the experience of death at the front, the dying of soldiers. There are other death experiences that you have had: the dying of your brother. You also wrote a great text about it: "View of a distant mountain".

Wellershoff: The death of my brother was so fundamental because it became so clear to me that death can take everything away from you and that you experience it as a terrible horror and still perhaps accept that it is a necessity to have this experience. That was a very important experience for me. He died courageously, but not without despair, and it was precisely this mixture that was so complex that it fascinated me. I have been asked what can we write on his grave. I wrote a text that expresses the complexity of the situation for me: "Death with his black lips carries a singing blackbird in his hand". For me, that's this incredible contrast. Life gains its value even through death. Life is what we have to tell, also because it is taken from us, or into which we come because we make it our own and thereby make it our own thing, i.e. a gain in experience.

"I think this type of broadcasting that is cultivated here is also something very important"

Steinert: Dieter Wellershoff, who will be 90 years old. Tonight a big celebration in the town hall. Many will come and cheer them up. Are you looking forward to the evening, or aren't you also a little afraid of the buoyancy that will be there in Cologne's town hall?

Wellershoff: No, I am not afraid. I have the feeling of real affection from people, people who have read me, people who have heard of me, people who just want to look at me and talk to me. That's the great thing about it. Literature is, so to speak, also a social medium. It is not just something that you are concerned with, rather it is the attempt to create a center of meaning, perspective, mutual understanding from everything together. And when I walk through the broadcasting station, where I've spoken so often, it sometimes feels like I have to meet myself in these long corridors, because I've gone to such a studio so often and we have talked about many things. I also find this type of broadcasting that is cultivated here something very important, something very elementary. There have to be places in which people, to a certain extent, carry on their thinking, but very close to the experience that they bring with them, that surrounds them, that they are currently grappling with. Not in the sense of a, so to speak, previously shaped view of things that respond with ready-made solutions, it is a way of being there, that one has experiences.

Steinert: Dieter Wellershoff's experience. Thank you, Dieter Wellershoff, for your report on your 90th birthday. - A collection with selected stories entitled "In the Thicket of Life" (Kiepenheuer & Witsch) with an afterword by Peter Henning has just been published. And the little book that I want to draw your attention to is called "Capturing the vast diversity of the world". Dieter Wellershoff, Gabriele Ewens and Werner Jung published this book in the publishing house Klaus Bittner. This is a volume that also shows the joy of experimentation and the lyrical side of the writer Dieter Wellershoff. Here we find texts that were written between 1961 and 1964 for the magazine "Rhinozeros". We also get to know his journalistic forms of writing here: early glosses, smaller science journalistic essays, commentaries, reviews from his student days, early poems and poetological texts. A very nice text on the principles of novel writing from 1960. From this I would like to quote: "Represent real people, never moralize, only the suffering of the people themselves. The phenomena contain everything. No help for the reader, not at hand to take." That is the poetological self-image of Dieter Wellershoff, who is 90 years old today. - So much for today in the "book market". The editor at the microphone was Hajo Steinert.

Statements by our interlocutors reflect their own views. Deutschlandfunk does not adopt statements made by its interlocutors in interviews and discussions as its own.