Critics have often viewed Barbara Honigmann as a representative figure. They have seen her as emblematic of the emergence of a literature written by Jews who were born towards, or after the end, of World War Two and who spent their formative years in Austria, the GDR, or West Germany. According to Guy Stern, Honigmann’s texts are also paradigmatic of post-exile writings by German-Jewish authors. In addition, they offer examples of literary reactions to the demise of the GDR by its decamped intellectuals, and represent the articulations of a new generation of women writers. Such claims, perhaps paradoxically, highlight the multiplicitous significance of Honigmann’s work, which, in fact, refuses easy categorization under the banner of any one tendency or trend.
Honigmann was born in 1949 in the GDR. Her mother, Litzi Friedmann, was a Hungarian-born Viennese communist of Jewish origin, and her father, Georg Honigmann, was a German Jew. The couple met in London, where they were living as refugees, and settled in the GDR in 1947. They parted shortly after Honigmann’s birth. Honigmann studied Theatre Studies at the Humboldt University in Berlin, completing her degree in 1972. She subsequently worked as a playwright and director in Brandenburg and at both the Volksbühne and the German Theatre in East Berlin. She became a freelance writer in 1975. Following the birth of her first son in 1976, Honigmann began to engage with her Jewishness, joining the East German Jewish community and marrying in a Jewish ceremony in 1981. In 1983, she gave birth to her second son and in the following year, left the GDR. A painter as well as a writer, she now lives with her husband Peter Honigmann in Strasbourg.
Honigmann’s work, largely auto-fictional in nature, seems direct and simple. At the same time, it deploys a wide variety of devices. The letter-form features prominently. Diaries, inscriptions, and quotations from other literary texts also appear. The apparent simplicity of her texts is deceptive for in fact they construct a rich collage of effects.
Honigmann’s work reflects on love, family, and the nature of art. It is important, too, in its exploration of Jewish-German relations. Throughout her work, Honigmann affirms, ironizes, and reconfigures the Jew/German binary in unsettling ways. The 1991 novel Eine Liebe aus Nichts [A Love Made out of Nothing] tells of the narrator’s move to Paris from Berlin and of her relationships with her father and with Alfried, a non-Jewish East German man. The ambivalent and difficult relationship between Alfried and the narrator offers a challenge to consolatory fantasies concerning a German-Jewish symbiosis. Bilder von A. [Pictures of A.], published by Hanser Verlag in 2011, offers a complementary depiction of a complex relationship between the narrator and the titular A., a man who refuses to countenance the narrator’s claim to ‘difference’.
In Eine Liebe aus Nichts, the narrator begins to write in her father’s diary, using its blank pages to record her own reflections and thus affirm her lineage. Honigmann’s ‘Von meinem Urgroßvater, meinem Großvater, meinem Vater und von mir’ [On my Greatgrandfather, my Grandfather, my Father and Me] in Damals, dann und danach [At That Time, Then and Later], an essayistic piece concerning location and origins, performs a similar gesture of reconnection or reinscription. The text weaves in details of the biographies of Honigmann’s forefathers, at the same time tracing a history of Jewish-German relations.
The quest for history and identity pervades Honigmann’s work, which explores the complexity and multi-valence of Jewish subjectivity. Yet to describe Honigmann (only) as a Jewish writer leaves out her indebtedness to and situatedness within German literature and language. In ‘Selbstporträt als Jüdin’ [Self-Portrait as a Jew] in Damals, dann und danach, the narrator terms herself ‘eine deutsche Schriftstellerin’ [a German writer], since a writer’s identity is bound up with what (s)he writes, and above all with the language in which (s)he writes. German literature has formed the narrator, who cites, in this context, Goethe, Kleist, the Märchen of the Grimms, and German Romanticism. She reflects that while as a Jew (‘als Jude’), she has left Germany, in her work, she is always returning to it. While this is no symbiosis, we have here, perhaps, a form of hybridity. Honigmann’s work, both appealing and disruptive, readable and challenging, demands our attention.
Compiled by Emily Jeremiah (London)
Das singende, springende Löweneckerchen [play] (Berlin: Henschelverlag, 1977)
Der Schneider von Ulm: Don Juan [plays] (Berlin: Henschelverlag, 1981)
Roman von einem Kinde [novel] (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1986)
Eine Liebe aus nichts [novel] (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1993)
Soharas Reise [novel] (Berlin: Rowohlt, 1996)
Am Sonntag spielt der Rabbi Fußball [short prose] (Heidelberg: Wunderhorn, 1998)
Damals, dann und danach [poetic reflections] (Munich: Hanser, 1999)
Alles, alles Liebe [novel] (Munich: Carl Hanser, 2000)
Ein Kapitel aus meinem Leben [novel] (Munich: Carl Hanser, 2004)
Das Gesicht wiederfinden: Über Schreiben, Schriftsteller und Judentum [essays] (Munich: Carl Hanser, 2006)
Das überirdische Licht: Rückkehr nach New York [essays] (Munich: Carl Hanser, 2008)
Bilder von A. [novel] (Munich: Carl Hanser, 2011)
Chronik meiner Straße [poetic reflections] (Munich: Carl Hanser, 2015)
English Translations of Honigmann’s Work
‘A Grave in Two Places’ [Translation by Avi Kempinski of ‘Doppeltes Grab’ from Roman von einem Kinde, pp. 87-97] (Prairie Schooner 73.3, Fall 1999, pp. 47-52)
A Love Made Out of Nothing: Sohara’s Journey: Two Novels [Translation of Eine Liebe aus Nichts and Soharas Reise by John Barrett] (Boston: Godine, 2003)
Balint, Lilla: ‘“Laßt uns doch mal wieder einen ‘Nazi’ verspeisen”: Unverdaute deutsch-jüdische Geschichte bei Barbara Honigmann’ (Germanica 57, 2015, pp. 83-97)
Engel, Amir: ‘“About the Abyss of Time”: Barbara Honigmann, Gershom Scholem and German-Jewish Culture after the Shoah’ (Weimarer Beiträge 60.1, 2014, pp. 68-81)
Goepper, Sibylle: ‘“Wer weiß, wann die Stimmung umkippt”: Holocaust, Symbiose und Antisemitismus in Barbara Honigmanns Werk’ in Störfall? Auschwitz und die ostdeutsche Literatur nach 1989 ed. by Carola Hähnel-Mesnard and Katja Schubert (Berlin: Frank & Timme, 2016, pp. 41-62)
Garloff, Katja: ‘Interreligious Love in Contemporary German Film and Literature’ in Judaism, Christianity and Islam: Collaboration and Conflict in the Age of Diaspora ed. by Sander Gilman (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2014, pp. 153-164)
Jeremiah, Emily: Nomadic Ethics in Contemporary Women’s Writing in German: Strange Subjects (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2012)
Stern, Guy: ‘Barbara Honigmann: A Preliminary Assessment’ in Insiders and Outsiders: Jewish and Gentile Culture in Germany and Austria ed. Dagmar C.G. Lorenz and Gabriele Weinberger (Detroit, MI: Wayne State UP, 1994, pp. 329-46, p.329)