Dissed by a Nobel Prize winner, vindicated by the keepers of the holy grail of literature, spat on by the media elite: HELENE HEGEMANN was the enfant terrible Germany always wanted and finally got.
At the age of 15, HELENE HEGEMANN was already decorated with several awards for her film Torpedo (2008), shown in cinemas across Germany. It was her book, however, that brought her widespread fame. Written when she was 16 and published a year later, her debut novel, Axolotl Roadkill (2010), about a young girl fighting through the country’s seedy subcultures in order to find out who she is and whom she loves, had everyone abuzz. The book became a best-seller, with translation rights sold to more than twenty countries. The temple of Kulturkritik was split in its critical response. On one side there were the torrents of hate from those otherwise too timid to speak their minds, and the other side you had outpourings of admiration from those not usually drawn to the florid. Within days, Hegemann was accused of plagiarism: a frenzy began that left the author beyond the pale and Germany’s feted critical tradition wallowing through hysterialand.
In her first interview since the storm died down and on the eve of the publication of her new novel, the young writer speaks about revenge, emotional safety, and the unbearable lightness of pleasure when all you want to do is punch someone hard, really hard.
MARA DELIUS: Helene, you’re back! How are you equipped for a return to the hysteria of media criticism?
HELENE HEGEMANN: I return carrying a giant, sparkly, pink, penis-shaped pump-gun. What else? I don’t want to sound like the typical bloodthirsty victim, but you obviously want to hear me talk about what happened to me three years ago. I still love talking about it. It was nasty: a disgusting kind of mania that spun violently out of control. At some point I got a Google alert for trashy drugstore mascara. The tagline was that it produced a “Helene Hegemann effect.” I loved that. It was one of the very few things that actually had some value in this so-called scandal!
So what, in your view, caused the media frenzy?
Honestly, I believe it was due to idiocy and stupidity and a painful incapacity to think outside the comfortable categories my critics live their sick lives in. No courage, no principles, just a petit-bourgeois idea of consensus culture we all have to obey.
“You get turned into whatever pleases the critic and whatever he or she views as being in the public’s desire.”
You felt you were boxed in by your critics, to put it mildly.
To put it mildly, yes. What happened to my novel was that it was branded as a standardized coming-of-age novel and portrayed me as the voice of a generation. A neat but explosive package to be let loose on the public, with promises I could never have fulfilled. I never made those promises. In fact, I wanted to do the complete opposite.
Do you think it happened out of ignorance, or was it something more sinister?
It was the lack of intellectualism or an unwillingness to be imaginative in a productive, light-hearted way. I know that’s nothing new, but I learned that you just get grabbed and judged as whatever they want to see you as – from people who don’t care to imagine your way of thinking. You get turned into whatever pleases the critic and whatever he or she views as being in the public’s desire. It’s somehow about the journalist having to pay his or her rent, it’s not necessarily arrogance. Often it’s just laziness or maybe a longing for something else. There was actually one review so hysterically favorable that it fell just short of a love letter. It was like when someone tells you he really loves your pink jacket because the pink is so unusual, when you’re in fact wearing a black one. It was staged euphoria. After that review I just knew, that this was it. It’s the Messiah syndrome. They hail you, and then, the next moment, they nail you to the cross. I’m not sure which part I liked better.
Hegemann’s debut relies on associative powers on every level: in the imagined worlds, the neologisms, there are sprinkles of theory scattered throughout. In one paragraph, you may find a quote by Herbert Marcuse turned on its head, a character high on cocaine being fucked senseless in a post-industrialist wasteland, and another one wandering through the beautiful silence of a Berlin street at night. Axolotl Roadkill appeared like the courageous take on a city that had turned its grittiness into a cliché, both for the uninitiated outsider and for the scenesters jaded by their surroundings. Hegemann was accused of having copied passages from a blogger named Airen. All major papers ran features on what they saw as the copy and paste attitude of a generation raised on a genetically modified diet of popular culture that allows for sampling as a cultural technique.
Helene, did you plagiarize or not?
We’re talking about 16 modified sentences that I took from other contexts, no more. If you put them together, it was one page out of 205. There’s no legal basis to call that plagiarism.
Why did you take those sentences?
Because authors sometimes need to put their own boring thoughts in relation to someone else’s boring thoughts. The case was treated as if there had been a natural disaster.
“I’ve never been a girl who could rely on her looks, if you know what I mean. Well, bad luck? I’ll probably get used to it one day.”
Well, I’m sure it felt like that for some, it was the end of sincerity and authenticity, the destruction of the sense of what constitutes a work of literature. Have you postulated on this episode?
I always have theories, though I must tell you that most of them might be sensational nonsense. You have to adhere to certain standards, you have to embody and act out a look that everyone can relate to. You have to be either the person who finishes school with straight A’s or the complete failure, a junkie who hangs herself on a dark side-street off Alexanderplatz. That’s what these critics would call “authentic,” because that’s easy to get. It’s less laborious and intricate than tolerating the ambiguity of individuals.
The obsession with the pseudo-underdog.
Sure. You could see that from how everyone got obsessed with the fact that some parts of the book take place at Berghain – the legendary Berlin nightclub. That was enough for some to expect a darkness from which they felt excluded and yet strangely drawn to. All the middle-aged men in sensible turtlenecks and Buddy Holly glasses would never go into a club like that because they would never even want to get into a club like that. And who could blame them. But they did it in public, through the press – an institution people take seriously – which I had too, before it all happened. Theirs was a longing for authenticity that always had to be performed qua the authentic. At first I thought this was sick, but then I realized that it’s just boring as hell.
What would you say to your critics today?
I would talk to them – in a friendly and composed manner – about animals or yoga or where in Berlin you can buy coffee without paying extra for soy milk. You know why? Because I’m just as opportunistic as they are, sad but true.
Some male reviewers referred to you as Fräulein Hegemann, in a tone that to me sounds paternalistic and patronizing.
I should probably sue for sexual harassment, shouldn’t I? Either they saw the Fräulein-thing as edgy or it was just the downright lecherous fantasy of guys who have nothing left but their mantle of stupid fantasies. I’m too young to think in such categories, male versus female. I don’t get worked up by being suppressed by old men – they’ll die soon anyway.
How important are your looks to you?
When I was 13, I was badly underweight. At 15, my anorexia turned into a habit of overeating, a real eating disorder. I put on 25 kilos in four months, I’m not kidding. Suddenly I was considered fat. An interesting experience – people treated me completely different. Fortunately, all this crap turned back to normal after a while. I’ve never been a girl who could rely on her looks, if you know what I mean. Well, bad luck? I’ll probably get used to it one day.
People took you to be the main character of your story, usually one of the deadly sins of literary criticism.
I know, theirs was an analytical equivalent of a comic book love story from a teen magazine. I have always made it quite clear that I haven’t experienced any of this myself, or at least that the novel wasn’t my personal story: the drugs, the dead mother, the absent and irresponsible father. It’s a closeted autobiography, perhaps? My life is much too boring to render an entertaining novel.
Maybe it’s the famous father syndrome? You’re the daughter of Carl Hegemann, the well-known dramaturge and director.
That’s a presumption bordering on insult. Among the flurry of outlandish accusations, the most absurd was that my father had written the book – to which I could only reply, that yes of course he had written the book for me, but only after I had slept with him. Just because you’re under the age of 20 automatically means that you don’t have any capacity for clear thinking? Anything you say can be invalidated, just because you’re not a frustrated creature of habit that looks like Hilary Clinton. Sexism is an issue too – a woman always gets judged by her looks. I don’t mean just beauty but the question of whether her looks are compatible and can be understood without further thinking, without further challenges. You see something and then you associate it with random experiences you then project onto that person. That’s middle class conformist thinking: neat, safe, and comforting. It probably would have been better for me if I had been a junkie traveling to every damn talk show in this country, showing off scars from cutting myself or some such.
What surprised me in the discussion was the rather dim idea of what literature is, what you expect from a text, and its potential force. Small minds with timid voices: always an obstacle that cannot be removed. Why?
For all the fast-paced flurry of associations and radical breaks in the narrator’s voice, there’s an element of stillness to Hegemann’s prose. Relationships, or rather elective affinities, are steady undercurrents in her work. Even if Mifti, the main character in Hegemann’s debut is alone, she is not lonely, seeking connections as she pleases rather than being consumed or confined by them.
How important is family to you?
I love my father, I love my stepmother, I love all my non-blood-related siblings. I would die for all of them. But I never lived in what you may see as a typical family setting. I choose the girls that I want to call my sisters all by myself.
You think of family as an elective affinity?
My father was absent, my mother had tough junkie tendencies and died when I was 13, so of course I never knew how to deal with traditional family models. About family in general: I think some years ago we were much more advanced than we are now. Look at the Nouvelle Vague, or Charlotte Rampling living with a chimpanzee in the film Max Mon Amour (1986). Today feels like a rollback to the 50s compared to that. The trouble is that you can’t quite change a family setting unless you kill them all – which means you need to find your own connection, relationships, and ways of trusting people. You’re on your own in this.
I ask because I’m wondering whether you see yourself as speaking for a generation.
Absolutely not! I’ve always been against that generational argument. That’s just lazy; people want to label someone an old-fashioned and wise teenager just because that character happens to listen to a Bowie record. That’s apparently enough for some. I mean, my novel is truly about discrepancies in behavior – it’s about love and the desire for living through contradictions, and real passion. Love as the ultimate power you just succumb to, but without the esoteric bullshit of intuition and devotion.
“I never believed the Protestant belief “do your best and you’ll be fine.” When I was a child, I always did my best, and everything simply got worse and worse. Hope is just an invention to keep us on this side of hell.”
Love? Please excuse the yellow-pressy question, but do you have to be lovesick to write about love?
Well, when I started writing I was living with my mother in this concrete block, a council estate in Bochum West, so in altogether rather grey surroundings. Of course I was lovesick. Mine were always complicated stories, not in the sense of fancying the unattainable guy who’s already dating the sexy head of the volleyball team. When I was younger, I only fell in love in extremely hopeless ways, and into stories that were just not livable. Stories about older woman or the gay dancing teacher. Anyway, love is a force that doesn’t translate neatly into text. It’s something that forces you to compose a text or a film. You are both drawn to this power and yet want to free yourself from it. Do you know what I mean?
Of course. How did this make you see yourself as an outcast?
I never believed the Protestant belief “do your best and you’ll be fine.” When I was a child, I always did my best, and everything simply got worse and worse. Hope is just an invention to keep us on this side of hell. Anyway, I refused to go to school after the age of 13, a typical teenage move, awfully dark and awfully boring, actually. For a long time, I suffered bouts of depression. I couldn’t just make myself follow the path I was supposed to follow. I’d rather sit aimlessly on the train for eight hours straight than go to school. I could have fallen in love with the alcoholic punk from the gas station and I probably wouldn’t be here. This is probably the moment where I should tell a joke.
Helene’s new book, out this summer, is called Jage zwei Tiger (Chasing Two Tigers). Again it’s built on radical breaks of the character’s consciousness and the narrator’s awareness of it, this time set in a bright, utopian future world. One of the first passages reads: “You know that I’m telling you this story not for nothing. For various reasons I have forced myself to stay calm, excitement is bullshit, which brings us to questions that should have excluded from our discussions ages ago for the same reasons why we should have been excluded excitement altogether. This is about the death of Ivana Checker.”
Tell me about your new novel.
It’s about three different teenagers, all of them total freaks who are thrown into situations which could kill or at least fundamentally change them. If you wanted to brand the story you could probably say that it’s the love story of two people under the age of 18 whose existential challenge is to experience the end of the world; or how they get through apocalypse because of their attitude. It’s a lot about attitude. Of course they still fret about whether their bum looks too big in pink stretch jeans.
At one point in a recent draft, you write about a character sitting around in an apartment between scented candles, Balinese wood, and an Eames chair. Explain the aesthetics to me.
I think it represents the most perverse form of exhibitionism you can imagine, that attitude held by so-called creative individuals who let online-magazines publish pictures of their apartments; these invented frictions and pseudo-radical questioning of traditional forms of living. It’s utterly exchangeable. They all follow the same pattern of creating a disruption: it’s always calculated, scheming almost. It’s the comforting aesthetic of creating an edgy profile of your life – it’s just so faux gemütlich, and safe, and bland. My reaction to it is a hysterical longing for avoiding such categories – almost like being neurotically “anti”.
Please, let’s not talk about square plates.
How did the idea of being radical become so dull, hackneyed almost?
I think people are reluctant to tell stories. It’s a lack of courage that produces this aesthetic of comfort. René Pollesch always says that in New York people act, in Berlin they play to act. Oh well.
You look like you need a cigarette.
You noticed that? Now I really want to marry into your family.
Let’s speak about sensibility then.
Oh my God.
Fine, onto men then.
One of the greatest compliments I ever got was when a guy who would usually call every girl “baby” called me “dude.” Great, no? I actually feel like a 50-year-old man most of the time. That’s why I always assume that people are afraid of me. Then I look into the mirror and realize that I still look like a harmless clumsy Nirvana-fan, and then I’m embarrassed.
A 50-year-old man? How come?
It has to do with the people who shaped me intellectually. Wow, that sounds extremely precocious, but I hope you know what I mean. It’s the guys whose mental excesses I wanted to recreate to help me make decisions, to create my kind of perception of things and moods. Anyway, thinking of yourself as a middle-aged guy helps you stay out of trouble in many ways – those dull debates about sexism for instance.
Wait, I always took you to be a feminist of some sort.
Ha! I grew up with the mantra that girls are smarter than boys. I really couldn’t care less about any of this hetero-normative bullshit. Those studied images of how to behave in love and in relationships, how to frame your passions. Facebook groups in which 16-year-old Goths discuss matters of love are often much more interesting. When I grew up there was nothing, not a book, not a film, that I felt was speaking to me.
How would your outlook be different had you grown up in, say, Los Angeles?
No Germany bashing here, that’s too boring.
Okay. Your novels rely heavily on the Berlin context. Mitte, Torstrasse, King Size Bar, the Volksbühne. You’re part of a scene yourself.
Am I really? I believe I’m adaptable enough to move in such circles, but I don’t see myself as being part of them. First of all I can’t think of one scene that would want me, I’m too annoying. I have a different take on things like the people who head large galleries in Mitte but shop for their leek at Aldi.
How do you write and where?
When my first novel came out a lot of people actually thought that I would hang out at Berghain for days and then schlep myself and my laptop to a cafe to be part of what they called the digital bohemia. Ridiculous. That’s why I would always respond that my days were excessively structured: first a jog in the morning, then six hours straight at my desk. Which was a joke of course. I wanted to get people away from the romantic idea of an writer’s lifestyle. You always need breaks, moments where you don’t work and just hang around and watch 50 episodes of a stupid TV show. It’s during these times when ideas grow.
Maybe we should speak about armadillos. Or dogs.
I love dogs, yes. I have five or six of them at home! Can I add something on being structured, though? That’s why passion and seduction are so interesting: there are moments of play, or a combination of play and strategic thinking. I love the structure of a game. Shall we talk about sex now?
With Helene, every conversation segues at some point into the surreal – a quick succession of thoughts somehow meaningfully connects eating the flowers on the table, gulfing down ice-cream the shape of a bull’s testicles, and a famous female talk-show host doing precisely that, filmed by a 20-year-old.
It’s definitely an influence. I mean not actual sex, but the obsessive need to be with a person. Ideally someone you can’t quite have. Someone who – to some extent – remains a fantasy of yours, a light possibility. That influences my writing.
In some way since I started thinking about writing. Another huge influence was television. As a child, I would watch it for 10 hours straight. Really trashy stuff. My mother’s only request was that it wasn’t animated. It shaped my vision more than anything. One night, by chance, I watched Weekend (1967) by Godard. The scene where the main characters step out of their roles and the woman says, “Well, it was you who wanted to act for Godard!” – that really changed my way of thinking. If I hadn’t seen that film, I’d probably be a carpenter or a welder. That scene cut across anything that I had known. That’s why I love breaks, cuttings, short clips in my writing. They force you to work yourself through things that aren’t there yet.
Who else influenced you?
Sophie Rois. Madonna. The Volksbühne’s storied dictum: “Don’t ever be boring!” Art is entertainment. Forget that nonsense about suffering for your art. Follow those you love for see how entertaining they are. That’s why Quentin Tarantino is so great: he’s always in love with his actors, or at least celebrates them as these legendary artists, no matter how important they are. You don’t have to suffer or become one with your character in this forced, painful way – like Romy Schneider and Claude Chabrol. They ended their working relationship because he thought she was too devoted and emotionally involved, suffused with impressions of her surroundings. She was too boring for him, because she wanted to feel too much. You don’t need trauma. It’s such a crucial distinction in responding to suffering: either you use it for something or you act from it as your vantage point.
The way you speak, you must be into critical theory.
I don’t know. Holy shit, I’m repeating myself, but I think my interest in theory was also sparked by those who I fell in love with.
Tell me about The Outcasts’s “Loving You Sometimes” (1968).
One of my favorite songs! Maybe my all-time favorite song. Did I really just say all-time favorite? Fuck.
Do you have a favorite book?
You’re so funny. I’m not going to answer that. Ha!
How dear is independence to you, being by yourself?
I don’t buy the idea of waiting for a knight: a guy or a girl who gets down on their knees and tells me, “I want you!” That idea of love is over. Which doesn’t mean that the flipside is something to aspire to: to be so independent that you don’t exhaust the other person with responsibility. The notion that, “you can only be loved if you don’t need the other person to love you” – that’s bullshit. Devotion is tricky.
What are the options then? Melancholically waiting for the fierce English Romantic?
Independence is a bummer. We’re so free and autonomous in our lives that we’re at a loss when we have to choose between existence and love. I never had to call into question of living for love. I mean I could date an 85-year-old monk and I wouldn’t have to change how I live.
Would you ever stop writing to be with someone?
No. I’d have to become deeply into S&M to do that. I fall in love easily. The drama of my life! “The same thing that makes you live, can kill you in the end.” Quote from Neil Young. Word.