“A Great German Joke Is to Say the Meanest and Most Tragic Thing Possible”

A conversation with Rebecca Schuman about German humor, Kafka, and her new book Schadenfreude: A Love Story.

Kreuzberg, Berlin, July 2016.
Kreuzberg, Berlin, July 2016.*

Lisa Larson-Walker

Last week saw the publication of Slate columnist Rebecca Schuman’s Schadenfreude, A Love Story, a funny and winning account of the writer’s not-entirely-requited crush on German culture. Schuman’s bildungsroman channels the weltschmerz of a former wunderkind rejected by the professoriat and exiled to the creative lumpenproletariat. We spoke by email about Kafka, pretentiousness, and the Germans’ surprising inability to form an orderly line.

Your book is in a way the story of a persistent crush on German culture. You spend the book banging on doors trying to get in—to win over a Kafka-obsessed boy, to communicate with German-speakers, to find a spot in a university German department. Why did you keep banging? What was the romance of German culture for you?

That is the question I have had the hardest time answering. In a way, I wrote the book to answer that question. For years people at parties have asked me “Why German?” Especially when I was in a Ph.D. program, people would ask me why, and I’d just freeze up. I’d start to cry sometimes! I’d do anything I could to change the subject: “Did you know that Austrians market a special kind of tampon meant JUST for use during sexual intercourse?” If all else failed, I’d leave the room.

Since I can’t leave the room now, I’ll say that part of it was that German-language authors (mostly Austrians and Swiss!)—Kafka, Robert Walser—spoke to my own fears and insecurities in a primal way. But was it, in the end, a good idea to indulge and enable those insecurities? I often wonder, in Kafka-parable fashion, if my obsession with him made me prone to waiting outside doors meant not to let me in—or if I was drawn to him in the first place because I was already that way.

Kafka is the muse of the book. Does his work encapsulate the German character—even though, as you are reminded again and again in the book, he wasn’t German at all? Do Germans find it annoying that the German-language writer who’s most widely read in English wasn’t even German?

They find it SO annoying, and I actually think that particular arc—someone saying, “Oh, you’re German—I love Kafka!” and then the German getting an opportunity to be pedantic (Ektually, zet’s not right is the national phrase of Germany, and I say that with love)—is the single most German thing in the world.

His work, though, definitely encapsulates the Austrian character (Prague, where he lived, was nominally Austrian for a lot of his life) with its endless bureaucratic entanglements. When I lived in Vienna for a year—a chapter, by the way, that got cut from the book—I had such a hard time getting registered for the university. I had to wait in line for 5 hours, and then when I finally got to the front, the worker was just like, Oh, I forgot to move you from one column to the other one, like it was the most normal thing in the world to require someone to come in for five hours to ask for a minor clerical task they didn’t know needed to be done. I got back to my desk at the research institute where I was doing my Fulbright and I said to my Austrian colleague: “I just realized that Kafka wrote nonfiction.”

You write about beginning a Ph.D. program without any particular intent to become a German professor, even though that’s the one thing a Ph.D. in German qualifies you for. You never became a German professor. What did you hope you’d get from the program? Did you get it?

Well, as soon as I got to the program and started it, like less than a month into it, I realized I did want to become a German professor. My mind was completely blown by all the difficult reading I was doing, and by the fact that I could actually work through that reading and come up with interesting insights. After all those years, I found something I was actually really good at: reading the difficult texts, and also exposing students to them. I still sort of wish I was a German professor—though only esoterically! I want nothing to do with American academia, which our readers will be surprised to learn, I believe is a toxic morass of corporatization and poor social skills.

Do you have German friends who’ve read the book? What do they think of your portrait of their culture?

Just one so far, and he thinks it’s spot-on—but he’s very Americanized and has a great sense of humor about his mother culture. One of the most endearing things about Germans is that they neither understand nor enjoy exaggeration as humor. Given that hyperbole is my primary form of communication, I imagine many Germans will disagree with their culture’s portrayal. However, the second-most-endearing thing about Germans is that a sign of true friendship with a German is that you stay up all night screaming at each other in disagreement but still remain best friends. Germans don’t really believe in small talk and they don’t think that “certain subjects” are to be avoided in polite company, and they are pedantic as hell, but they don’t get offended easily. It’s one of the best things about them.

Is there a humor mechanism that replaces comic exaggeration, for the Germans? Or are they as humorless as some stereotypes suggest? (I grew up in England where the trope about Germans is that they always barge to the front of queues. I think this mostly speaks to the profound respect the English have for the queuing process.)

Oh, the queue thing is true. When I lived in Berlin I went to a Blur show in the dead of winter and had to check my coat. (It was a great show, by the way; Damon Albarn did an A-level in German and addressed the audience in German!) Afterward, I spent no less than 45 minutes in an obscene grinding mosh pit of German bodies, when a proper queue would have taken 5 tops. For a culture that prizes order so much that the idiom for “everything OK?” is Alles in Ordnung? the queuing habits are inexplicable.

As far as the humor thing—well, the stereotypes are true and they aren’t. The two most popular types of humor in German are slapstick and just bone-dry sarcasm. A great German “joke” is to say the meanest and most tragic thing possible and then follow it with a slight grimace. (Somehow it works.) Kafka, for example, was absolutely, rip-roaringly hilarious, obviously in a very dark way. Most people don’t know this about him, and early translations of his work (most of which are canonical) don’t play this up at all.

At the end of the book you talk about looking forward to taking your newborn child to Germany, Austria, and Prague. Have you done that yet?

Oh god no, she’s 2; I’d rather die than subject myself to an international flight with Fluffy Trouble. (That’s the nom de guerre my daughter gave herself at 14 months, and it fits.) Maybe when she’s 7. Maybe 17. Maybe 27. Ask me again in 10 years. I really, really want to do this, just not yet; I want to show her everything. She already speaks a little German; she loves German kids’ songs, and she recognizes German when she hears it and answers in the few words and phrases she knows. I can’t wait to take her there—but I will wait. Oh, I will.

*Correction, Feb. 17, 2017: Due to a production error, a photo caption on this article originally misspelled Kreuzberg.