If you are a reader who likes a good biopic novel,( and I for one love them, see my reviews on novels about Kafka and Stefan Zweig), then this novel may be for you. The eponymous protagonist is the German philosopher Hans Blumenberg (1920-1996) and the novel is set in the early 80s when he was a Professor of Philosophy in Münster. Now, I have to confess that I didn’t come to this novel through an interest in Blumenberg, but rather because I hugely enjoyed Lewitscharoff’s novel Apostoloff and wanted to read something else by her. This novel won the Georg Büchner Prize in 2013 and came recommended by a critic whose opinion I value highly.
The novel starts with Blumenberg in his study at night, where he spends much of his time working, reading and thinking, relieved to be alone. He glances round and finds a lion lying on the rug- groß, gelb, atmend– big, yellow, breathing- a real lion, possibly an older specimen, looking straight at him. Thoughts go through his mind- is it real, should he be scared, why has the lion done him the honour of turning up in his, Blumenberg’s study? For Blumenberg, according to Ijoma Mangold’s review in die Zeit, was interested in the power of metaphor and imagery and one of his favourite images was the King of the Beasts, the lion.
While gazing at the lion lying peacefully on the rug, several instances of the lion’s appearance in art and literature go through Blumenberg’s head. This is characteristic of the man whose mind operates, as one might expect from a philosopher, on a higher plane than the rest of us, but who can also conjure up in amazing detail examples of world art and literature at the drop of a hat. Blumenberg is presented to us as a great thinker, a genius, no less.
The lion does not go away. One of the next scenes is the lion appearing at one of Blumenberg’s lectures, lying peacefully as before in the central gangway of the lecture hall. Blumenberg can’t help himself looking over to the lion to the extent that his students wonder why he keeps staring at that spot on the floor. This scene introduces us to the second strand in the novel, the group of students who attend Blumenberg’s lectures and are all affected by him to a greater and lesser extent. Their stories are told in parallel to that of Blumenberg and the lion and when their paths cross, this seems to have little impact on Blumenberg. We see this most tragically after the death of the young student Isa, when he doesn’t connect the woman in the newspaper report with the eager student on the front bench of the lecture hall who no longer shows up. He seems to be a lecturer who excels in and enjoys the public performance of the lecture but does not engage in a more personal relationship with students.
The students belong to their era, that of the early 80s and take their time over their studies. Richard goes off travelling in South America and Lewitscharoff treats us to a fabulously atmospheric and evocative description of the Amazonas with fantastic detail of the animals he encounters there. There is an equally arresting account of a trip Blumenberg takes to Egypt with his wife and friends in 1956, pre Suez, where the Nile is described in lush and wonderful detail- with the Mercedes they have shipped over to ferry them around providing an amusing and thought provoking counterpoint.
Now the novel has been criticised for not bringing these two strands together enough, for not providing us with a coherent enough narrative with a message- what is the point of the lion? Why do the young people have tragic ends? I must say, this didn’t bother me particularly. I found Lewitscharoff’s writing so compelling, whether it was the description of the lion, the exotic landscape, or the way poor Isa gradually loses a grip on reality that I didn’t find myself seeking more explanation. It may be that readers who know more about Blumenberg than I do will feel this more. Alternatively, with a greater understanding of his ideas about the power of metaphor, they may find a straightforward interpretation for the presence of the lion. Whatever your response may be to that lion, the novel contains some passages of superb writing which transport you to Egypt, to the Amazon and, sadly, to that motorway bridge and the grief of Isa’s parents. If you liked Apostoloff, you will enjoy Blumenberg. It’s available in English translated by Wieland Hoban, published by Seagull.