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Reading: Getrud Fussenegger, Dame am Steuer (Woman Driver), a Review

Updated on May 27, 2015
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Authentic but compromised?

Reading: Gertrud Fussenegger, Dame am Steuer (Woman Driver), in: Richard Newnham ed., German Short Stories 1 / Deutsche Kurzgeschichten 1, Penguin Parallel Texts, Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1978, ISBN 0 14 00.2040.3

This intriguing short story is by Austrian writer Getrud Fussenegger (1912-2009).

I say intriguing, because of a number of its features, among which is the fact that it is not conclusively stated whether the car crash which claims the life of the protagonist of the short work is an accident or whether it was intentional. More broadly, the story seems to be a commentary on the theme of self-destructiveness, whether actively deliberate or passively reckless.

This review is being written shortly after the announcement of the death of Günter Grass (1927-2015). In 2006 it was revealed that this Nobel prizewinning German novelist had a Past. And so we may recall that voices were raised to suggest that Günter Grass would not have received the Nobel Prize for Literature if his Past had been known. Or that his writings were either not as authentic after 2006 as beforehand. Or that really they never were so. Or, on further reflection, because his problematic Past occurred when he was aged 17, then this somehow re-authenticates his writings. Or that they were never really damaged in the first place.

From this, what suggests itself for the reader is the need to look at the totality of a writer's experience and his or her place against the broader, historical background.

Gertrud Fussenegger also had a Past. Her principal, published writings date from 1937 and some of her ideas until 1945 were undoubtedly repellant. In later years, Getrud Fussenegger concentrated on Roman Catholic themes in her published writings, and thus in the eyes of some readers she will have partly redeemed herself from her earlier themes, and in the eyes of others she will only have damaged such causes as she may be discerned to have espoused. Be this as it may, does the fact that her earlier writing career was checkered prove that any of her subsequent insights into the human condition — as she saw it — were of little value? Does this, for example, make her description of die Gier nach dem Nichts ('the yearning for the void') in Dame am Steuer, in the context of a person having unsatisfactory human relationships, somehow inauthentic?

Like Günter Grass, Gertrud Fassenegger was from a background deemed ethnically incorrect after World War Two. In the case of Günter Grass, he was an ethnic German from Danzig, renamed Gdansk by the Polish government, whose Danziger Trilogie forms a major part of his work. In the case of Gertrud Fussenegger, she was an Austrian German from Bohemia, an ethnicity little tolerated by post-war Czechoslovak authorities. (This begs the question also, were the British Foreign Office encomiums — or bleatings — of Sir Walter Runciman in favour of Sudeten Germans in any way more 'authentic' in 1938, at the time of the infamous Munich Agreement, than they were after 1945?)(1)

Again, with regard to a writer such as Getrud Fussenegger, what suggests itself for the reader is the need to look at the totality of a writer's experience against the historical background in question. If called for, strident disapproval of major aspects of a writer's life should not only be tolerated but welcomed; but the sometimes brutal complexity of a writer's past and background should not nullify attempts at objective assessment of his or her writings.

May 27, 2015

MJFenn is an independent writer based in Ontario, Canada.


(1) It is interesting that Czechoslovak — and later Czech — President Václav Havel (1936-2011) made a special effort to encourage a respectful reconciliation between Czech people and German-speaking exiles from Bohemia.


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