Linda Karlsson Hammarfelt

"Zeitgenossenschaft" - narrating the present

According to Günter Grass, the literary author's attitude towards the present diverges from traditional history writing. Whereas historians typically strive to bring clarity in complex circumstances, the author as a 'Zeitgenosse' (coeval) adds "an absurd dimension" to reality and "buries important dates and events under thousands of smaller incidents" (Grass 1987), thereby engaging in the process in which the meaning of 'the present' is negotiated.

Thus, researchers concerned with 'Gegenwartsliteratur' (contemporary literature) must continuously reflect on what the present comprises as choice of time period and criteria for selecting texts are dependent on this definition. But the contemporary appears to be hard to grasp: The present continuously changes, it has a moveable beginning and an unforeseeable end (Braun 2010). This may be why debates on contemporary literature often revolve around discussions of epoch-making dates (1945, 1968, 1989/90), generations or landmark works.

Our conference explores how presentness is narrated and how the term 'Gegenwartsliteratur' is conceptualized in literature and research. By addressing various literary texts from different perspectives, we aim to show how authors transform the being into the present, but also how the present is positioned in relation to other time spaces. The contributions range from documentary to fictional genres and from autobiographical texts to dystopic visions of the future.
Final report

Conference report: “Zeitgenossenschaft” – narrating the present
(Gothenburg, 5-7 October 2017)

In the beginning of October 2017 literature scholars from five European countries gathered in Gothenburg for the conference ”Zeitgenossenschaft” – narrating the present, that was arranged at the department of Languages and Literatures, Gothenburg University, with financial support from Riksbankens Jubileumsfond. Using the concept of ”Zeitgenossenschaft” as a point of departure, our conference explored how presentness is narrated and how the term ’Gegenwartsliteratur’ is conceptualized in literature and literary research. By addressing various literary texts from different perspectives, we aimed to show how authors transform the being into the present, but also how the present is positioned in relation to other time spaces. The contributions range from documentary to fictional genres and from autobiographical texts to dystopic future scenarios.

The following papers were presented at the conference

M.A. Iginia Barretta (Gothenburg): Zur Gestaltung von Gegenwart in Gerhard Köpfs literarischen Essays

Docent Frank Thomas Grub (Uppsala): "Da hört sich denn doch die Weltjeschichte uff". Zeitdarstellung und Zeitgenossenschaft im erzählerischen Werk von Kerstin Hensel

Prof. Elisabeth Herrmann (Stockholm): Weltliteratur: Für oder gegen ein Erzählen von Zeitgenossenschaft?

Fil. dr. Linda K. Hammarfelt (Gothenburg): Evolution und Revolution – das Erzählen von Zeitenwenden in Judith Schalanskys Romanen

Prof. Albert Meier (Kiel): Grundlegendes Wissen ist nicht da. Rainald Goetz Dekonspiratione als Erzählen am Ende einer Welt

Fil. dr. Caroline Merkel (Stockholm): Zeitgenossenschaft architektonisch erzählt

Docent Inez Müller (Paderborn): Vielstimmige Zeitzeugenschaft als poetologischer Ausdruck des Möglichkeitssinns in Alfred Anderschs Efraim, Die Rote, Winterspelt und Kirschen der Freiheit

Prof. Stefan Neuhaus (Koblenz-Landau): Inszenierte Authentizität. Die Erzählerfigur als Vermittlerin von Zeitgenossenschaft in der Gegenwartsliteratur

Fil. dr. Thorsten Päplow (Kristiansand): Schriftsteller als "Hüter der Verwandlung" in Silke Scheuermanns poetologischen Schriften sowie in Die Stunde zwischen Wolf und Hund

Prof. Edgar Platen (Gothenburg): "[...] ein Mann, der dem Wasser von heute vom Wasser von gestern erzählt". Vom Fließen der Lebenserinnerungen in Hugo Loetschers War meine Zeit meine Zeit

Fil. dr. Petra Platen (Gothenburg): Der Körper als Ort der letzten Dinge in Valerie Fritschs Romanen Die VerkörperungEN und Winters Garten

Fil. dr. Christian Rink (Helsinki): Saša Stanišićs Roman Wie der Soldat das Grammofon repariert

prof. Beatrice Sandberg (Bergen): Vergangenheit der Gegenwart. Zur Darstellung von Zeitgenossenschaft bei deutschsprachigen Autorinnen und Autoren der Gegenwart (Ursula Fricker, Sibylle Berg, Christian Kracht, Lukas Hartmann)

Fil. dr. Maike Schmidt (Kiel): Neurealistisches Erzählen in Saša Stanišićs Fallensteller

Prof. Gonçalo Vilas-Boas (Porto): Zeitgenossenschaft in Krimis: eine weibliche Perspektive von Verena Wyss, Gerlinde Michel und Petra Ivanov

Fil. dr. Bärbel Westphal (Växjö): Vom Umgang mit Zeitgenossen. Zeitgenössische Kunst und internationales Milieu in Silke Scheuermanns Roman Shanghai Performance (2011)

Fil. dr. Sabine Zubarik (Erfurt): Gegenwartsentwürfe zwischen Kontingenz und Bestimmung: Wolfgang Herrndorf / David Mitchell

Scientific results and follow-up questions
The listed contributions map different dimensions and meanings of ”Zeitgenossenschaft” through analysis of a broad spectrum of contemporary authorships, genres and literary topics. The concept of ”Zeitgenossenschaft” served as a tool for illuminating how the present is defined and negotiated in literature, but also for stimulating and encouraging reflections on what "Gegenwartsliteratur" is, a question that is crucial for literature studies and especially scholars specializing on contemporary literature. The following results could be observed:

1.    Narration is in the investigated texts a means of structuring and interpreting time and presentness, but not primarily in a linear, chronological manner or with regard to key historical events as so often in historical overviews. Rather, the present is defined in spatial terms: ”Zeitgenossenschaft” can in literature for example be represented as a community created through networking contacts and formations; it can be manifested as movement through and attachment to contemporary spaces; or it is generated through the literary medium itself when a reader sets foot in a “literary universe” and vitalizes it through imagination.
2.    In several cases, the process of narrating the present includes conceptions or images of the past and the future. Thus the concept of ”Zeitgenossenschaft” relates to strategies of localizing the present in relation to other “time spaces”: Questions regarding how the past has formed the present and how acts in the present might affect the future were negotiated in several texts analyzed during the conference. These questions are also central within the discourse on sustainable development, and in the closing remarks it was noted that the question of how contemporary literature and literature studies can contribute to a (social, cultural) sustainable development deserves further attention and investigation.
3.    Finally, the papers presented at the conference illustrated different ways, in which literature takes on the role of a (often critical) interpreter of the current, its topical issues and challenges. Regarded this way, ”Zeitgenossenschaft” is not simply an issue of which “generation” one is born into or of the shared/common experience of certain historical dates and key events (such as 1945, 1968, 1989). Rather, being a “Zeitgenosse” means a mode of critically and reflectively engaging with the present. In the context of the role of literature as a reviewer or commentator of (present) reality, the question was also raised how literature and literature studies can enhance our understanding of present phenomena such as migration, globalization and medialization.

Reflections on the integration of the project within the organization and on further assignments
The conference was open for students at Gothenburg university as well as the public. Especially since several students, doctoral students and postdocs from (German) literature studies were involved in different ways (as speakers, co-organizers, audience), the conference gave young scholars the opportunity to meet senior researchers from other European universities, to network and discuss work in progress with international colleagues. Today, German studies is a small field in Sweden and German language and literature is only taught at a few universities in the country. Thus, national and international cooperation of this kind is essential for upholding quality in research as well as teaching.
    Since the conference, the papers have been expanded into articles that will after peer review be published in a conference volume in the summer of 2018 at the German academic publishing house Iudicium within the book series “Zur Darstellung von Zeitgeschichte in deutschsprachiger Gegenwartsliteratur”. Thus, the project will be continued, first of all in the form of text revision and the compilation of an anthology, in order to make sure that the findings of the conference are documented in print and made available for other scholars and the public.

Grant administrator
University of Gothenburg
Reference number
SEK 50,000.00
Research initiation
General Literature Studies