On this Tuesday morning, after the sad news of his death, it seems as if Friedrich Christian Delius wanted to take stock at least once with his last book, The Seven Languages of Silence, which was published last autumn.
Although his books increasingly had autobiographical traits, he didn’t want to have anything to do with the tendency to take stock in old age: “If I could take stock, I wouldn’t write any books,” he said in a conversation in 2011, just before he received the Georg Büchner prize was awarded. “Balance means closing. Every book arises from new questions, from new experiences.”
In “The Seven Languages of Silence” Delius collected three autobiographical texts whose leitmotif is silence, not being able to speak. The book is about the fact that he is the “silent on duty” and that he was always “the quietest” at author meetings.
He tells how he once had a “non-talk” with his great fellow writer Imre Kertész at a spring conference of the German Academy for Language and Poetry in Jena, of which he was a member. And he also remembers how he contracted a mysterious virus shortly before his 65th birthday, was in a coma for two weeks on mechanical ventilation and then lost his voice and was sentenced to silence for a while.
It was in 1954 when all God’s tongs let go of him
With this book about silence, Delius made a wide arc into his childhood and youth. On the one hand, he grew up with the handicap of stuttering. On the other hand, he suffered from an authoritarian father who was traumatized by the war, a village priest, and was initially only able to defend himself against him by remaining silent.
In his perhaps most famous story, “The Sunday I became World Champion”, which was published in the mid-1990s, he made his stuttering as a child, psoriasis that plagued him and the suffering of his father the subject of discussion.
The relief from this was short-lived, in front of the radio when Germany won the soccer World Cup in Bern in 1954: “The reporter’s voice resonated throughout my body and the victory pushed me into a state of happiness in which I stuttered, shed and forgot nosebleeds, and forgot my conscience and all God’s tongs.”
Born in Rome in 1943 and then raised in Wehrda in northern Hesse, Delius freed himself from the hardships and constraints of his provincial existence when he went to West Berlin to study German at the FU and TU. Here he did his doctorate under Walter Höllerer, the founder of the Literary Colloquium, and it was here that he met Klaus Wagenbach, who immediately published a volume of his poetry called “Kerbholz”. In 1964, when he was only 21, Delius had his first appearance with the group 47 in Sigtuna, Sweden, where he survived his reading without major injuries.
Documentarist and typical ’68er
From that day on, his path “towards the books” was prescribed, Delius recalled in his book “When the books still helped”, published in 2012: “After the Sigtuna experience, I dared everything, almost everything on the big one Field of work of the language therapists and translators, in the workshops of the literary business, which gradually opened up.”
He then completed his apprenticeship extensively in those literary workshops: at the Wagenbach and Rotbuch publishing houses as an editor, who experienced and helped determine the paradigm shift in literature after the end of Group 47 and under the influence of the 1968ers. And as an author who, with his satirical commemorative publication “Unsere Siemens-Welt” (Our Siemens World), angered the Siemens group and had to take legal action.
As a result, Delius was primarily considered a documentarist and a typical 1968er who dealt with the student unrest, the German Autumn and, very skeptically, with the reunification.
Nevertheless, he managed to write some wonderful novels and stories. Like “Mogadishu Fensterplatz”, which is about the hijacking of a German passenger plane to Somalia in autumn 1977. Or “The Walk from Rostock to Syracuse”, the funny, extremely entertaining life story of the Rostock plumber Paul Gompitz, who flees before the fall of the wall in a sailing boat across the Baltic Sea. Or Ribbeck’s Pears, a story about Fontane’s Havelland village that consists of just one sentence.
As an author, Delius often pursued a documentary approach; he did not see himself as an opulent heap of material and a bulging storyteller. He came up with a lot of formal ideas for this, as in the miniature collection “The Minute with Paul McCartney”.
In it he describes in 66 different ways an encounter with the Beatles musician who is walking his dog. Sometimes as an anagram, sometimes as breaking news, sometimes as an eyewitness report. And once also as a review about himself: “Once again Delius fails. In his new novel, too, he cannot decide between novel and document, between lyrical short form and epic breadth, between realism, autobiography and literary play.”
Yes, Delius was vulnerable. It hit him without making a fuss that the Georg Büchner Prize did not meet with universal applause. But he also had a sense of humor, which in turn, when you met him, often only became apparent on second listening.
And he proved that two weeks ago, for example, when he announced his departure from PEN in the “FAZ”, completely on the side of Deniz Yücel. Only the bratwurst stand operators, he wanted to protect against Yücel. For him, the PEN in Gotha was “a club of small minds who have little or nothing to chew on.”
One of his most beautiful books: “Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman”
Delius later made a virtue out of always being “the quietest one” – a blessing in the narcissistic, loudspeaker-driven hustle and bustle of literature! – and these diverted into his books with their likewise quiet accuracy, but always committed to the language.
An example of this is the again autobiographical grounded “Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman”, which is perhaps one of his most beautiful and best books. It describes the walk of a young, heavily pregnant woman on a sunny January day in 1943, but even more so her thoughts, longings, memories and doubts.
Again it is only one sentence that makes up this narrative, this time on 120 pages. And again you never get the impression that a point is needed now, this sentence swings so wonderfully in all its ramifications, Delius leads through Rome so clearly and elegantly, he imagines his mother’s stream of consciousness so precisely.
Most recently, light and shadow alternated with his publications. In fact, he succeeded above all in what was based on his life, such as the book “The Future of Beauty” published in 2018 or “The Seven Years of Silence”. But his motto was right up to the end: “You have to be able to fail. You have to take risks, otherwise there’s no point in writing.” Friedrich Christian Delius died in Berlin on Monday. He was 79 years old.