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Judith Schalansky: “History is never complete”

The power of the literary fragment

Image for Judith Schalansky:

Judith Schalansky on the power of the literary fragment. Photo: IMAGO / VIADATA

There are book lovers – and then there is Judith Schalansky. The Wahlberlinerin is not only one of Germany’s finest authors, she is also a celebrated book designer and publisher. Her most recent book, the award-winning An Inventory of Losses, was designed by Schalansky herself. This genre-bending reflection on memory and loss takes the form of 12 distinct essay-stories of equal length, each dedicated to one vanished thing: the extinct Caspian Tiger, Sappho’s fragments, the seven books of Manicheanism, the Palast der Republik. We met Schalansky at Charlottenburg café to discuss her book and its reception – and to hear what’s so special about the printed page.

An Inventory of Losses is unique, both as a physical book and a piece of writing. It’s also very personal. Were you surprised at how well it was received?

Back when I started working on it – and it took five years to write – it was supposed to be a slender little book, a side-project. But it kept expanding, and with all its various protuberances, it began to grow into something really global in scale – something totalising, some- thing that wanted to become a kind of museum, a repository of knowledge, a Wunderkammer. Of course it’s concerned with things that means something to me personally – things that I miss, that I would count among the losses of history. It’s very personal. I knew from the beginning that it would be hard to categorise, and hard to understand. The amazing discovery for me has been that, well, it has been understood – and that this, of all my books, has been translated into the most languages: Mongolian, South Korean, Chinese, although the French are still resisting (laughs). It’s been such a pleasant surprise.

Your work seems to be concerned with histories that are too authoritative and don’t permit any doubt – whether that’s GDR-era schoolbooks or brutal interpretations of evolutionary biology.

We are perpetually making and remaking history – it’s never complete, you can always re-interrogate it and discover new lines of connection. Like with the rediscovery of forgotten Black authors, for instance, or new research suggesting Stone Age cave paintings were mostly by women. There are also ways of writing history that aren’t completely human-centric.

In the book I use this great quote from the Jewish intellectual Theodor Lessing’s history of WWI: “What do historical sources preserve? Not the fates of the violets trodden underfoot in the Battle of Liège, nor the sufferings of the cows as Leuven burned, nor the cloud formations on the approach to Belgrade.” In Siberia, there is even a monument to the mice that were used in genetic research.

How well do you think Berlin relates to its turbulent past?

Berlin is bizarre because it is both completely amnesiac and completely obsessed with its past. Its history is being presented as one big Prussia fetish, combined with a bit of Babylon Berlin fetish. I wish there were more recognition for the wastelands, the fragments, the blank spaces that were here, and the possibilities that they opened up. It was a serious misstep to do away with them all. It would have been a great provocation to take these free spaces, which came about due to specific historical anomalies, and not to turn them into museums but instead to sustain them – to fill them with life, and with people.

One of the book’s chapters is a gorgeous essay that connects Sappho’s poetry, the historically “unspeakable” nature of lesbian love and the debates over gendered language in Germany. Is there something more inclusive about a fragmentary book? Absolutely! The fragment makes the unsayable into a theme; it points to the limits of language. It’s something I find totally interesting, not just in literature, but also in typography. How do you make absences visible? In mathematics, too, as soon as there was a zero, suddenly there were new possibilities and dimensions. I also find it cool with Greek sculptures, which have only come down to us only incompletely – but then when people start reconstructing and restoring them, we realise that something is actually being lost.

It seems that you have an interesting double perspective on these themes, as a lesbian Berliner and as somebody born into the GDR.

It was a formative experience to see a whole frame of reference suddenly change. Monuments taken down, street names changed, certain names suddenly taboo. That’s what I find most interesting. The moment where the story suddenly doesn’t go in straight lines anymore.

You are a trained book designer, and designed An Inventory of Losses yourself . Did you always have this form in mind – the 12 symmetrical chapters, with these lovely black-on-black illustrations in between?

That was there from the beginning. Even before I began writing, I spoke with the manufacturers at Suhrkamp Verlag about what would be possible within the domain of industrial book production. I really wanted to realise this concept of having tapped-in black pages between each section, which would encase the text. For the hardcover, the pages themselves are coloured black, with illustrations printed on. They’re also a little thicker, like the divider pages in a big registry book. That concept was absolutely central.

Is there a creative tension between the highly structured forms in your books and your view of history as being dynamic and unstable?

I’m actually a very disorderly person. That’s why I love books: because they’re such an ordered medium. For me, having uniformity in the typography – and a formulaic system in the layout – allows me to write as wildly as possible, to let all the disorder of the world take place inside. The order means I can act freely within the text. In this book, for example, the stories try out all kinds of genres and

The future, everywhere, is something that you can only invent once you have retold the past. perspectives – almost like a sample book of literary styles.

What’s your relationship to books as objects?

I love it when books show that they’ve been read – that’s the greatest thing, that books offer the possibility of being both original and multiple at the same time. They’re democratic. You can buy them relatively cheaply, at least mine you can. I’m not so fond of these fancy Bibliophile limited editions with fancy hand-laced this and that. They have their justifications, but they don’t interest me. I prefer when when you can take books with you, get your hands on them, feel them. The book is unrivalled. It has a trans- mission time of hundreds of years, because it’s such a conservative medium, in the most literal sense. You can read a book from the year 1500; if you have the language, it’s accessible to you. A book doesn’t need electricity: it can simply hibernate. It can just lie there in some attic, in some unbeloved dusty corner, until you pick it up and suddenly it speaks to you. 

Judith Schalansky, born in 1980 in GDR-era Greifswald, is an original voice in Berlin’s German-language literary scene. Trained as a book designer, she has won design awards and is also the publisher for the Naturkunden (Natural Histories) series at Berlin publishing house Matthes & Seitz. Her work has been translated into over 20 languages, winning prizes for her essay and map collection Atlas of Remote Is- lands (2009) and for her dark novel The Giraffe’s Neck (2011), which features an embittered, evolution- obsessed biology teacher in a left- behind eastern town after Reunification. For An Inventory of Losses, released in Jackie Smith’s excellent translation in late 2020, she has been celebrated globally, including places on the International Booker longlist, and most recently, winning the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.