Novel about old and young fathers: Relax the teeth

His own father did not set a good example for Paul Brodowsky. How much anger rubbed off on himself? The harsh and honest novel “Fathers”.

Paul Brodowsky is standing at the open window of an apartment in an old building

Searching and finding the role of father: Paul Brodowsky in his working apartment Photo: Sebastian Wells/Ostkreuz

Among the Brodowsky siblings in the novel “Väter” there was a code term for the father’s tantrums in childhood: “slaughtering sheep”. As an inconspicuous warning of the storm of aggression that could erupt arbitrarily (“Not that sheep will then be slaughtered again”) or as a formula that one whispered to oneself in exasperation when it had just happened again (“That’s why sheep were slaughtered earlier”) .

When the father slaughtered sheep, then the face twisted into the so-called father grimace, then the jaw was clenched and the air was sucked in sharply; then there was no talking, but barking.

When Paul Brodowsky, the first-person narrator, the youngest of the eight siblings, is a father himself, his face keeps trying to grimace. When six-year-old Milan drives him mad, a screw has rusted, when a friend posts something legitimate on Facebook. Then he gets a fright, thinks “the father grimace!” and tries to relax the grinding teeth.

For Paul Brodowsky, the real one, this anger he discovered in himself was one of the story engines for “dads.” On a Wednesday, he’s now sitting in his work apartment on Berlin’s Maybachufer, a room that’s functional and student-style, a dripping tap, a bit drafty, an old lease.

Paul Brodowsky: “fathers”. Suhrkamp, ​​Berlin 2023, 302 pages, 24 euros

years on the Napola

The 42-year-old has written a novel, his first, about a man named Paul Brodowsky, father of two and son of a professor, who grew up with many siblings in Schleswig-Holstein; a dramaturge and lecturer at the university living in Neukölln, who, when his first child is born, begins to deal with his own father’s childhood. Interviewed him over a long period of time about his years in the Napola, the National Political Educational Institute, where young people during the “Third Reich” were to be trained to become the future Nazi elite. Who wants to find out how his father’s trauma shaped him and writes a novel about this venture.

So far, so meta, because all of this also applies to the real Paul Brodowsky, which makes it a bit tricky to ask questions about him and the book: so don’t constantly deny the fiction or prematurely the first-person narrator from “Fathers”. to draw conclusions about the life and psyche of its inventor. The novel is “fictionalized and subjectivized”, according to Brodowsky, some things far away and alienated, some things close and possibly the same.

With the decision to give the hero of the novel his own name, Brodowksy wanted to characterize “fathers” as clearly autofictional material on the one hand, and on the other hand try to be as “crash, open and honest” as possible, especially when it comes to his family’s past as a perpetrator : Paul Brodowsky is named after his great-uncle, NSDAP functionary and the one who sent his father to Napola at the time.

For the first-person narrator, as for Paul Brodowsky, the birth of the first child changes the way they place themselves in time. If life was previously divided into easily digestible weekly and annual rhythms, without the need to look far into the future or into the past, the 30-year-old Brodowsky suddenly thinks in terms of generations with a newborn in his arms. Calculates 30 years forward and 30 years back and back again, the year is 1950, which is only 30 years before his own birth, five years after the end of National Socialism.

post-war rubble

“I believe that with this new perception of time comes a new kind of responsibility and politicization,” says Paul Brodowsky. A confrontation with what one’s own parents carry around with them from the war and post-war period in terms of “unlit rubble”, as the novel calls it, and how this “rubble and mud” shaped one as one grew up. What of it might have settled in you. And how to get rid of it. Which brings us back to the anger.

For Paul Brodowksy in the book, the years of the “emotional mezzo” end with paternity. Late adolescence, the twenties, in which he experienced strong feelings, but not the great shocks, the “cold, covered anger”, which eventually turned into screams and the urge to step on something.

For the first-person narrator, the mezzo years are a phase in the world that is opening up and turning towards him, in which everything seems to just happen to the young man from a middle-class background. Own theater productions at the school, a place in the writing course in Hildesheim, first publications of his texts.

Even as a child, he was taught that all of this had to happen. There is a kind of superiority thinking in the family, the “Brodowsky Exceptionalism”, the causes of which the first-person narrator wants to approach with the father interviews.

struggle for care work

The real Paul Brodowsky in his work apartment on Maybachufer does not yearn for that “half-conscious self-confidence” before his first child, which for him was almost a “colonisatory gesture”, something “world-conquering and unbroken”, today he finds it frightening .

For him, the new emotional state of emergency as a father is also related to the permanent struggle for a fair division of care work, the attempt to advance professionally between all of this and of course to be there for the children in a different way than his own father.

In the book there are stretches of pages on which Paul and his partner Judith carefully plan daycare handovers and visits to the doctor in advance, only for these everyday choreographies to collapse afterwards because, for example, the lock on the cargo bike breaks.

In between, the first-person narrator tries to find out which father he actually wants to be. He mainly uses the shortcomings of his own for orientation, he dissects what he did wrong and draws his conclusions from it. Do contemporary fathers have no positive role models? Do they only find their role through demarcation?

moments of realization

Even as a child, Paul Brodowsky decided never to be like his own father, and that is of course a strong thought, but “that doesn’t create any framework for the plot at first, it’s like you’re on an empty level”. Nevertheless, for him fatherhood has a lot to do with “unlearning”, i.e. recognizing and breaking down family dynamics that you grew up with.

In the novel, this results in moments of realization: when the first-person narrator threatens to leave the house and leave the two alone during an argument with the children, he then notices that they react with existential fear – and not with relief, as it is like himself when he was a child and his father just took off.

The longer the first-person narrator works on his novel project, the more natural metaphors he uses to describe it become: sometimes he has to enter a mountain massif, cross the folded mountains or dive into the dark waters of the Baltic Sea. And for the reader, too, “Fathers” is a challenging expedition, on which one occasionally questions the route – especially when the feeling creeps in of being lost between childhood memories, contemporary anecdotes, academic analysis of power fantasies and historical reappraisal of the family past. Or the first-person narrator draws all too daring parallels between the toxic male image that must have been instilled in his father and himself.

For example, when he tries madly to chase a wild cat out of the house and thinks he recognizes in it “the same cold rage” of the “perpetrators of pogroms”. One wishes for him to simply drop the project, to leave the father in peace in his steadfastness, because it is clear early on that he will only minimally engage in the work-up sessions with his son.

Search and find a role

“Fathers” is strongest when you can watch the hero searching and finding his role in his own small family, his efforts to be present to the children not as a man but as a human being and at some point to give them as little “unlit rubble” as possible. to leave.

The mercilessness towards his father, the patriarch, is hard to bear at times and is only alleviated by the harshness with which he analyzes himself and exhibits his own everyday little things. The first-person narrator reports every scene with the children, no matter how absurd, with such seriousness that one sometimes wonders where the humor actually went.

But this seriousness is also touching and the core of the novel. When it comes to paternity, Brodowsky doesn’t even begin to try to detect ridiculousness, his protagonist is dead serious, when he recounts disputes about bringing up children with his mother-in-law or describes putting the children to bed. And indeed, the absence of any irony here is refreshing in its own way.

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