Category Archives: Dörrie Doris

Love, Pain, and the Whole Damn Thing by Doris Dörrie

German literature monthDoris Dörrie is one of my favorite German filmmakers (Cherry BlossomsNobody Loves MeAm I Beautiful?), so I was delighted when I discovered a few years ago that she was also a published author, and, what’s more, that some of her work is available in English. This makes her a perfect read for German Literature month. Back in 2011, I read her wonderful novel Where Do We Go From Here? , a very funny look at how a middle-aged couple seek Enlightenment in various ways. In Dörrie’s short story collection: Love, Pain and the Whole Damn Thing, the theme is the toxicity of domestic life and in these 4 stories, we see people altered by suburbia and routine go off the rails in spectacular ways.

love pain and the whole damn thingIn the first story, Straight to the Heart, a young impoverished, seemingly unconventional music student named Anna, who has blue hair and plays saxophone in the park, accepts an offer from a middle-aged dentist named Armin to become his mistress. To Armin she seems both exotic and approachable:

“I sense an excitement that unfortunately has been missing in my life for the most part until now.”

She understood at once. “What sort of excitement is that?” She smiled because her blood suddenly began to course faster.

“The excitement of just for once becoming a different person than you already are–because of a second person.” Now he was grinning. “An illusion. But so much more intriguing than reality.”

He installs her at his country farmhouse with a year’s contract and pay of 2,000 marks a month. The relationship is awkward at first, but Armin is an attentive and considerate lover. The couple make a trip to America together, and Anna gets a brand new red fiat for her 21st birthday. But all that is unconventional about Anna dries up with the routine of domesticity, and the story’s focus is what happens when Anna realizes that the contract will not be renewed.

The second story is Men, and if you’re familiar at all with Doris Dörrie’s fabulous films then you will recognize the title. In this story, middle-aged Julius Armbrust, who “designed packing concepts,”  is told by his wife, Paula, that she is having an affair with the very scruffy, penniless Stefan. Julius has had many affairs of his own, but after hearing the details, Julius feels threatened:

Was the same age, he was, she said. Name? Unimportant. Occupation? She didn’t know exactly, something in the artistic line, she hadn’t asked him, the most important thing after all was that … That he was good in bed? After that, she had nothing to say to him.

While Julius heads to the office every day, Paula spends time with her lover, a man who drives an old Beetle, and Julius begins spying on the couple. Julius disappears from Paula’s life, using a fabricated affair as an excuse, and he reemerges and reinvents himself as Stefan’s new roommate. Men argues that we lose our identity in the day-to-day grind of making money, paying bills, and holding down tedious 9-5 jobs. Over the years, our relationships stale and we lose sight of who we used to be.

Marriage is also examined in Paradise, my least favorite story in the collection. In this story, the relationship between a long-married husband and wife shifts when an acquaintance from the past re-enters their lives.

My favourite story is Money. This is the tale of a married couple, Carmen and Werner Müller, in debt, hounded by consumer-driven teenagers, and facing losing their home, who turn to a life of crime. This is really a very funny story with some twists and turns. The emphasis is on humour and proletariat reclamation:

Carmen Müller, thirty-five years old, married to Werner Müller for fourteen years, two half-grown children, Karin and Rainier, with a house, a car, television and VCR, a deep freeze, but no vacation for five years now and debts galore, Carmen Müller, cleaning lady with fourteen years experience, she thought to herself as she wiped up the flooded bathroom where a hose on the washing machine had burst during the night, while Karin aloofly scrambled over her, heading for the mirror and ardent application of her make up.

I am my children’s employee.

Karin and Rainier are critical of their parents, and Karin tells her mother that they “could do a little better job keeping yourselves up.” That criticism comes easily and doesn’t stop the teenagers from seeing their parents as living, breathing never-empty wallets. Carmen and Werner are now “fat and flabby,” and Werner hibernates in the bedroom with a terminal case of depression. He works in a toy factory which produces war toys, but, according to Werner’s boss the business is crashing:

“Our specialty is war toys, after all, and orders have been… this whole peace movement thing has played havoc with us. We’ve got to rethink things, here, look at this” –he pointed to small plastic men meant to look like policemen, while down the belt next to them little barbarians rolled. “Those are the demonstrators, and these are the police. The game’ll be called Battle at the Reactor, and if that doesn’t sell, we can close up shop…”

While in Men, one of the characters reinvents himself, in Money, Carmen and Werner undergo a transformation with hilarious results. Leaving suburbia (Carmen doesn’t know what to pack for “the underground,“), and their ungrateful children behind, they embark on a life of crime. Through these stories we see stale relationships worn out by time and familiarity, and husbands and wives who lose sight of who they really are through the day-to-day drudgery of working lives. Doris Dörrie’s mischievous, spirited take on domestic life shows us how people hang on to the familiar and the comfortable, and yet once they’re set loose, things may never be the same….

 Translated by John E. Woods.

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Where Do We Go From Here? by Doris Dörrie

As part of Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature month, I chose Doris Dörrie’s novel: Where Do We Go From Here? Dörrie is one of my favourite German filmmakers, but unfortunately not all the films she’s made or the books she’s written are available in English. If you are at all familiar with her films, you know that her off-kilter work sometimes includes Buddhism (Cherry Blossoms, Enlightenment Guaranteed).  I should mention that Dörrie is a buddhist, so she’s certainly qualified to set the novel Where Do We Go From Here? in a Buddhist retreat. I’ll admit that I had some concerns that perhaps Dörrie’s beliefs might weaken the novel as veiled attempts at ideological conversion can ruin a novel. My concerns, however, were not realised, and Where Do We Go From Here? is a warm, witty, and wise look at the frailties of the human condition told through the eyes of a middle-aged man in crisis.

The man in crisis is Fred Kaufmann. He and his eminently organised, admirable, and practical wife Claudia owned a chain of vegetarian restaurants which they’ve now sold. The void in their lives left by the sudden departure of business responsibilities reveals that they’ve grown apart, and their marriage is on the rocks. Claudia turns to Buddhism,  he has a wild affair, and a weekend in London to repair their relationship serves only to reveal just how bleak things are. Meanwhile their only child Franka has announced that she’s in love with a Buddhist lama named Pelge. When the book begins, Fred leaves Munich with 16-year-old Franka in order to deliver her to a Buddhist retreat in the south of France. There Franka is supposed to reunite with Pelge before they leave for India together. The plan is for Fred to monitor Franka and bring her back to Munich when she comes to her senses. Nothing goes as planned….

Before Fred and Franka get to the retreat, they find themselves reluctantly picking up a depressed passenger, middle-aged hen-pecked-husband Norbert who decides he needs some time at the retreat too. While Fred is initially annoyed by this turn of events, he finds it somewhat reassuring to be confronted with a peer who’s in an even worse state of mind.  As it turns out, the retreat is packed with dozens of similar people–middle-aged lost souls, haunted by lost dreams, broken by failed careers & wrecked by bad marriages. Everyone is there for answers or some sort of peace of mind. There’s a strange other-world atmosphere at the retreat: there are those who are unhappy with the spartan accommodations, and others who appear to thrive on the hours of meditation, vow of silence and the meagreness of a rice diet. Fred is one of those who’s horrified by the sight of what’s in store:

I know we’ve come to the right place, because we’re already passing some of them.

They’re worse than my wildest dreams. Men with long, sparse hair in pale green tracksuit bottoms, women with massive buttocks in baggy lilac pants, their pendulous, braless boobs wobbling beneath faded pink T-shirts, children with fringes in front and page-boys behind. So these are the Enlightened Ones–or the candidates for Enlightenment.

Since Claudia has managed to effectively tune out Fred through her Buddhist meditation, he arrives at the retreat ready to loathe the suckers who’ve lined up to receive wisdom from Lama Tubten Rinpoche, author of How to Transform Happiness and Suffering into the Path of Enlightenment: How to be Happy When You Aren’t. Fred and Norbert are given a daily schedule and shown to a bleak room which holds three smelly foam mattresses. Here’s the schedule and the rules:

5:00 Getting-up time

5:30 Meditation

7:00 Breakfast

9:00 Lectures

12:30 Lunch

14:00 Working Meditation

18:00 Supper

19:30 Meditation

21:30 Lights Out

Please observe noble silence. We request you, during your retreat, to abstain from tobacco, alcohol, drugs, and sex.

You won’t find that too hard, I say to Norbert.

Not where three out of the four are concerned, he replies with a grin, and this time I get a chance to put an admonitory finger to my lips. Norbert gives a start and peers around anxiously, as if scared of being arrested on the spot.

To give away too much of what happens would spoil the experience for any potential readers, but I am going to include a quote which captures some of this wonderful novel’s flavour:

After fifteen minutes the monk strikes the gong once more. Everyone jumps up at once, chattering, and goes to get a bit more brown rice.

I get up too, intending to take my plate over to the plastic sinks, when the telephone in the kitchen rings and something quite extraordinary happens. They all come to a halt in mid-movement and fall silent as though transfixed, as though the sound has put them into a Sleeping Beauty trance. I see Franka standing there with a broom in her hand, more erect than I’ve seen her for years, because she usually keeps her head down so her hair hides her face.

Nobody seems to be going to the phone. I don’t know what to do. Embarrassed to be the only one in motion, I also halt with the plate in my hand. At children’s birthday parties in the old days we used to play a game in which we had to freeze suddenly, whatever we were doing at the time. If someone in the big tent were fucking–which god forbid–would they have to stop short and wait?

After the phone has rung seven or eight times, everyone abruptly comes back to life and carries on as if nothing had happened. I make a beeline for Franka.

You might at least have explained the rules, I say reproachfully. I feel like an absolute idiot. What the devil happened just now?

You’ll find out, Dad, she whispers.

This eternal whispering is getting on my nerves, I say loudly. She simply laughs and turns on her heels.

It seems we each have to wash up our own plate at the series of sinks. We dip it in the malodorous, lukewarm broth and hand it to our neighbour, who dips it in some slightly less malodorous broth and hands it on in turn. Meantime, we go to the end of the washing-up queue, take our plate, and dry it on an already sodden and not particularly clean drying-up cloth. The local hygiene leaves a lot to be desired.In my bagel cafés I’d have had the health inspector breathing down my neck a long time ago.

A bacterial paradise, I mutter to myself.

The story is loosely divided into thirds–with the trip to and from the retreat framing the time spent in France. The book follows Fred’s struggles with the retreat’s rules as he sneaks off for cigarettes and food, tries to meditate and mingles with people he feels he has nothing in common with. Over time Fred discovers that he shares more with the other guests than he initially realised, and alone with his thoughts he must confront the truth about his failed film director career and his marriage to Claudia. With piercing wit and a generous view of human nature Where Do We Go From Here?  explores how the unrealised dreams of youth reappear to haunt us, how we try to imbibe our lives with meaning as we try to adjust our lives to what they’ve become, and just how easy it is to blame others for the choices we’ve made.

Translated by John Brownjohn

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