Who is Johann Holtrop? Here are four possible answers. He is the grandiosly dislikeable main character of Rainald Goetz’s eponymous novel which was published in September. He could also be Thomas Middelhoff, the former chairman of the board of the German multinational media corporation Bertelsmann – a portrait slightly retouched by Goetz, although the novel is not at all about Middelhoff the person but rather about characteristics like ambition and moral ruin. Holtrop also appears as ‘one of my many great-great-grandfathers and the inventor of the so-called “Heliotrop”, a light machine for treating extreme depression’ , whom Goetz introduced as a first person narrator in his earlier novella loslabern (blabbering off, 2009), or to be more precise: in the book’s sinister middle section, a report from the 2008 autumn gala hosted every year by the conservative German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Finally: Johann Holtrop might just be Goetz himself.
This last answer seems most likely – at least if one considers how Goetz reacted on September 12 when he found out that the jury members for the German Book Prize decided not to move Johann Holtrop from the longlist to the shortlist of finalists for this year’s award. Goetz filmed himself in his Berlin writer’s nest and posted a venomous video on YouTube and his website johannholtrop.de. The title: gefeuert (fired). We see the writer angrily banging bad reviews of his novel, one after another, onto his desk – Neue Zürcher Zeitung (‘hard to bear’), Süddeutsche Zeitung (‘disappointing’) and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (‘poisonous dwarf prose’)… Then, completely identifying with his main character, Goetz declares: ‘Judgement Day. How has Holtrop fared? Fired, fired, fired, fired!’
In the novel, Holtrop is a ruthless, self-infatuated manager with nothing to offer except charisma, who gets sacked by the owners of the Bertelsmann-like Assperg AG. Apart from in autobiographies, seldom does one see such overlapping between an author and a character – not to mention a fusion between the content of a new book and the performance around its publication. Goetz started a full-on publicity offensive before the book was published – in a way analogous to his protagonist, who seeks the media limelight even more aggressively when he realizes that his career is on the brink. Last May, the author gave a Mosse Lecture with Diedrich Diederichsen in an overcrowded auditorium at Berlin’s Humboldt University. This appearance was about the media, among other things. Goetz plastered the wall behind the podium with giant blow-up cuttings from the arts and culture section of several newspapers. In the audience: journalists from the newspapers. He emphasized his love of printed dailies while complaining about the publishing house Springer and the weekly magazine Spiegel, as if wanting to stir up the press about Johann Holtrop and himself. Finally, when it came to distributing advance copies of the novel to the book reviewers, Goetz invited them instead to come over to the press office of his publisher Suhrkamp so that he could hand out the copies personally. (There is a YouTube clip of this performance, too.)
‘The body of the writer should be able to stand up for what he writes!’ insisted Goetz during a literary seminar which he taught in spring as this year’s Heiner Müller guest professor at Berlin’s Free University. ‘One must not retreat behind the text, to the position of an observer. When I hear that Elfriede Jelinek couldn’t attend yet another premiere of one of her theatre plays because she is mentally unable to do so, I think: She shouldn’t write plays. But she does anyway.’ For Goetz, this demand for the non-negotiable presence of the author seems to turn into – well, it’s hard to tell. Into a competition between himself and his main character? Or into a staunch protectorate which calls on the author whenever his novel is called into question? It’s almost as if Goetz has a problem with being alienated from his labour of writing, as if he would like to stand right beside anyone who happens to be reading Johann Holtrop, regardless of where. His decision to film himself doesn’t really fit with this scenario though, for what could be more alienating than YouTube?
At the end of September, when Goetz gave a reading at Berlin’s Deutsches Theater, Holtrop – who by the end of the book ends up clinically depressed – seemed more present on the stage than his creator. By then, the first damning reviews had been followed by a whole row of positive ones, and Johann Holtrop was already in its third printing (no previous work by Goetz has sold so quickly). Instead of acknowledging these facts, Goetz stylized himself as having failed with the format of the novel, made his book sound worse than it is and seemed to want to brush aside his adoring public. One day later, he uploaded what appeared to be his last video clip – at least for the time being. We hear only his voice murmuring ‘It’s over, it’s over’ to footage of blue monochromes which he might have painted himself. The great writer: speechless, blue, in art therapy? And what could be next? Perhaps an extended version of the history of the ‘Heliotrop’, Holtrop’s psychotherapeutic light machine.
Translated by Dominic Eichler