The Appointment, the first novel by Katharina Volckmer, a German writer exiled in London, has dazzled critics and English-speaking audiences. The book, which tells the story of a woman’s attempt to change her sex, questions the possibility of such a gesture, not in the absolute, but for the German woman who is performing it. Resolutely provocative, mixing sexual fantasies about Hitler and sharp insights into our contemporary society. Julia Christ gives us her reading of Katharina Volckmer’s provocative and satirical parable, over which the shadow of Philip Roth, Woody Allen and Thomas Bernhardt hovers.
On the uncomfortable exam-table of her English gynecologist’s office sits a woman. With her legs spread, her genitals bared, she confesses. The hatred she felt, as a child, toward her mother and the disgusting maternal body that she dreads becoming hers. The desire she felt as a child at the sight of her father’s member, to possess, too, a penis, which she went looking for in the shelves of the toy stores of her hometown without ever finding one available for sale. The joy that had been hers when she discovered that she had had an older brother who had died before she was born and whose imagined Aryan beauty she had envied as an gawky child.
The woman is German. The English doctor is Jewish. She speaks. He listens. Rather, he endures. For throughout Katharina Volckmer’s first novel, The appointment, one never ceases to wonder why he listens, he who is not a psychoanalyst but a gynecologist, he, the Jew with a German-sounding name – his name is Seligmann – the fate of whose family is easy to imagine. Why does he listen to a young German woman waxing philosophical about death (the German occupation par excellence) which is rarely “violent” but something that “grows inside us?” Why does he listen to her say that the real problem with the genocide of the Jews, according to her, is “that I always had the impression that it was ourselves that we had eradicated?” And why does he accept to be called a “priest” performing her baptism, granting her rebirth, in short, ensuring her redemption? Why does he put up with these misunderstandings fed by the young woman’s boundless narcissism, does he listen to her family history and her ridiculously banal grudges, her endless complaints about her difficult life, and her fantasies, admittedly invented but just as painful for a Jew’s ears, about her masochistic sexual relations with the Führer and the tickling of his moustache on her sex that makes her cum? Why does he listen and never retaliate? Without contradicting? Without commenting? What is this fantasy of the docile, silent, subservient and basically harmless Jew that is not so much recounted by the novel as staged in a way that cannot fail to arouse a sense of unease?
Critics have praised the novel to the point of comparing the author to a young Philip Roth or Thomas Bernhard at his most wickedly verbose. It is more reminiscent of the works of Austrian director Ulrich Seidl: those films that make you laugh out loud for the first twenty minutes until you realize that what you are finding incredibly funny is rape, abuse, child abuse, forced prostitution. When reading the novel, one is also amused by the first few pages, which explain, for example, that German women are unable to perform oral sex properly because of the dry bread that they eat throughout their lives and that the Germans insist on promoting as the best on earth. We laugh at the descriptions of the sexual misery of the contemporary world which leads to seeing people “admitted to hospital with half their living room up their ass.” One even smiles a little when one reads that in German schools they make these dear young blond children sing “Hava Nagila” in Hebrew who have never seen a Jew in their life. Then the unease sets in. It settles in at the same time as the never accomplished and impossible to accomplish mourning that this half-naked young woman wants to talk about. Because the mourning that she cannot manage to do as a German, the gaping hole that the extermination of the Jews has pierced in German history and identity, what does one have to do with it in view of the very fact of the extermination? Why should the Jew she is talking to care about German sadness, about Germany’s inability to recover from its crime, to invent a history that is sufficiently ambiguous to leave room for individual interpretation, to give its children an identity other than that of being children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren of murderers? For this is what she complains about, the heroine of the novel, of an identity that is absolutely fixed and without any positive content on which the individual could rely to build a life that would have a wider meaning than his simple biological life and survival that he transmits as such, naked, to his children whose only glory will be, once again, to have lived their life, their poor singular life starting at their birth, ending at their death, without any source or outlet. And it is in order to escape from this identity, which does not provide any space or resources for the individual, that she needs her Jewish gynecologist, who is not only obliged to listen to her complaints but also to free her from her identity prison, by constructing a “beautiful circumcised cock” – a Jewish penis – in place of her German vagina.
The redemption of the German woman will come through the Jewish penis. Not inside her – the narrator has considered this possibility but has dismissed it, understanding that her desire for a Jewish lover is only the desire to be brought back to the world before, “to retrieve a fragment of what has been so irretrievably lost” but she knows that “there is no way back.” The Jewish penis must make the hole she feels herself disappear entirely, it must stand in place of this hole, not fill it – which would give the bearer of the magic penis the power to withdraw – but close it definitively. No room is left for the real Jew, for the one who could withdraw, or even be tired of being the one predisposed to filling the German hole; an artificial Jew is needed, a Jewish penis that is Jewish only in the fact that it was constructed by a Jewish doctor (because any penis resulting from a phalloplasty is necessarily circumcised) and that belongs not to a Jewish man but to the German woman transformed into a man. But this radical unrealization of the Jews also indicates another characteristic of the German woman’s redemption: it will pass through the disappearance of the Germans, because no life will be born from the transformed body of the narrator, and this is the essential point. As provocative as the passages on the narrator’s transsexuality are intended to be, and as salutary as her descriptions of the female condition today, where most women still construct themselves from the powers of their vagina or the pride of maternity, the young German woman’s desire to do away with her femininity is never more than a metonymy of her desire to do away with the Germanness inscribed in her body, this potential Germanness coiled up in her reproductive system. The “Jewish cock”, of which the critics have made so much of, is only the sign that it is not a desire for transsexuality that is at stake but a desire to do away with Germany.
The strength of the novel, and its truly hilarious power, consists in the failure of the enterprise it stages. For even if, at the end, the narrator has her “Jewish cock” – paid for with the inheritance of a great-grandfather who was the stationmaster of the last station before Auschwitz and responsible for the smooth flow of full trains to the camp and empty trains back – nothing has changed. The Jew, until the last line of the novel, does not speak. He listens, fulfills her desire for redemption, and, by giving her a Jewish penis, he even agrees to put on an equal footing her suffering as a woman trapped in a man’s body and the suffering of the Jewish people: he is entirely at the service of her fantasy. Now, nothing is more German than the conviction that the Jew is only an object at the mercy of the German fantasy. The narrator herself says it at the very beginning of the novel: “We [the Germans] are so used to being in control of our victims, and that’s why even after all these years I cannot quite suppress my amazement that you are alive outside our history books and memorial sites” Certainly, the fantasy now remains in the realm of fantasy. But the novel magnificently shows that the Jew, in the eyes of the Germans, must not object to what the German makes him do. The German makes him understanding and forgiving, strong and combative, glorious and humanistic, peaceful and morally superior, weak and persecuted: he does exactly what he wants with him, but above all he does not want to accept that there are living Jews who might have something to say about what they are, or perhaps who would not want to talk to them or listen to them. For the Germans, the Jew belongs to the Germans. He has the right to have survived on condition that he has no say. This is the unbearable truth about the Germans that the author tries to make us hear. And she tries to make it heard with a bang by having her Jewish gynecologist, who is powerless to utter a single word, listen to all the protagonist’s fantasies and clichés, by making him, at the very end of the novel, a warrior for her cause.
The author has had the intelligence not only to talk about this relationship between the Germans and the Jews – she talks about it a lot – but to ensconce her character in it without any possibility of escape. The uneasiness that one feels does not come from the content of the novel – admittedly raw, often bordering on vulgarity – but from the situation in which what is said is said. For what is revealed by this situation, where the narrator speaks alone until the end, in contrast to Philip Roth’s Portnoy, for example, where the last word is left to the psychoanalyst, who thus acquires an autonomous existence, is that for the German woman who is the narrator, a Jew is a being that a German fantasizes about in order to be able to bear his Germanness. He exists, for the German, as Katherina Volckmer’s metaphor superbly lets us perceive, to fill the hole that the extermination of the Jews has left in German identity and history. It is there so that we can forget the mourning that has never been done and is perhaps impossible to do. It is there as the base to access a new identity. It is there so that the Germans can begin a new history. It is there as a fantasy that one uses to be able to live.
The great merit of Volckmer’s novel is to have underlined that one can indeed use one’s fantasy of the Jew to live, but that the life thus acquired will reach an impasse.
|1||The Appointment. A novel. Fitzcarraldo Editions, London, 2020.|