When I notice myself fantasizing too much about moving to Berlin, I resort to a cure that always works: looking for a place to live. The tingles of longing – to become a bicycle messenger, to go dancing all night, to work at an art gallery – disappear once I join the impossible frenzy of searching online for a flat. The herd of young, privileged people like me who can afford to yearn, even during a pandemic, to live it up in the trendiest city, floods every advertisement with over-eager comments. Post after post disappears within minutes. A glimpse of the Berlin-bound youth trampling one another’s cosmopolitan dreams on the internet is enough to make me exit out of the browser window, relieved not to have to find a place in that city after all.
Anke Stelling’s Higher Ground, translated by Lucy Jones and published by Scribe in May 2021, takes place in an adjacent realm of housing-related troubles. As Berlin transforms around her, Resi, our narrator, sits in her broom closet and types away at her laptop. She’s a writer by profession, crafting in real time the very thing we’re reading. Hiding from her children and husband, she spews out neurotic descriptions of kitchen floorboards that absorb food into their cracks, parents’ nights at school that devolve into catfights, and the frenzied headache of children stuck at home during the holidays. The book is one long-winded complaint, as Resi dramatizes and decries the events playing out in her family and social circle.
Resi’s written reactions to her circumstances eventually reveal that her chaotic and humorous take on motherhood is a vehicle for her to obsessively explain and justify the catastrophic falling out she had with her group of closest friends. When this crew, together since high school, starts a cooperative housing project in their up-and-coming Berlin neighborhood, they exclude Resi from the final arrangement, partly because of her lack of funds, and partly because of the polemical and abrasive behavior that comes through so strongly in her writing. As a result of this affront, Resi publishes an expository article, complete with personal attacks and individualized caricatures, proclaiming the whole pursuit to be misguided and phony. This prompts her friends, who are also her landlords, to terminate the lease in her own apartment. From within her writing closet, Resi depicts an elaborate nest of woes that she attributes to her lack of a wealthy background, and the myth of upward mobility; her friends, on the other hand, blame her for her own egotistical behavior and self-victimization. Higher Ground takes place in the aftermath of Resi and her family’s friend-initiated eviction, and reads like a retrospective commentary on the incident itself, while also branching out into descriptions of her social circle, her childhood, her neighborhood, and her everyday life as a mother and writer.
Our narrator takes her own problems quite seriously, which is admirable and understandable, as they are serious problems: losing connection to a group of people who support you, having to move to a new place in a city growing more expensive by the minute, and coming from a background that grants you no safety net. But throughout the novel, Resi’s ability to consume herself entirely with her own hardship, while fully ignoring the fact that her struggles are relative, occasionally makes it difficult to believe in her integrity as a human character. There’s just never quite enough wavering in her voice as she laments the difficulties she faces, having been spurned from the glitzy co-op; she doesn’t seem aware of how relative her hardship is. Resi’s critique isn’t of the structures that inflict much more far-reaching suffering, but rather, the stuck-up yuppiness that personally offends her.
What saves her narrative is that she’s so unapologetic in her characterizations. Resi fills pages upon pages with character studies, fashioning villains and heroes out of herself and the people close to her. The machinations of her writer’s brain feel within reach, and just beyond those, one can sense the hand of Stelling crafting her own protagonist. It’s exciting and heartening to witness these writers fashioning and exploring the humans they encounter and create. Resi’s explanation of her situation, which she impulsively lets out during a confrontation with one member of the co-op squad, reveals that her ultimate purpose is indeed driven by language. Her writing is an attempt to put words to the difficulties she faces and feels go unspoken: “I think we had extremely different starting points in life,” she begins, “which we ignored at all costs, and I think it’s still the case, or even more the case, and it’s being ignored more than ever or worse, it’s being glossed over with neoliberal rubbish about opportunities of moving up in the world and Everybody knows that, and I hate to say it, because you’ve joined in with that horrible mantra I’m making myself out to be a victim, but… I think it’s right to think and talk about what’s at the bottom of all this, because it’s just too easy to make me a scapegoat and declare me insane” (226). Higher Ground is 274 pages of Resi doing exactly that – putting honest words to what plagues her, and writing to exorcise or explain the difficulties she has faced.
The primary audience of Resi’s complaints is her fourteenyearold daughter, who plays a starring role in the very first sentence: “Listen, Bea, the most important thing and the most awful, and the hardest to understand – but if you somehow manage it, also the most valuable – is this: nothing in life is black and white” (1). From the outset, Resi introduces the tone she’ll master for the rest of the novel – a timbre somewhere between cloying maternal advice and sardonic reality check. A direct command to her daughter to “listen up” reads like a spoken exclamation, but her pursuit in crafting the book as a whole is so clearly located in the act of writing. Her words feel impulsive, as if the time between thinking a thought and recording it is exceedingly short; just enough to have been measured into an impressively consistent, biting tone. You can feel the twists that Resi has invented since observing the reality she conveys, showing that in her world, the distinction between writing and thinking falls under the umbrella of her most urgent maternal life lesson: that nothing is black and white.
When pulled in so many directions by four children and a career as a writer, it makes sense that the two realms would blur – thoughts and conversations broken up by haphazard paragraph breaks, combining reflective musings at one moment with urgent outcries during the next. Resi herself attributes this disjointedness to her innate nature, half-apologizing for the unwieldiness. “I’m sorry everything is so disjointed,” she writes, again addressing her daughter. “I’d like to be stricter, have a more straightforward narrative, and be a comfort for all those in need. But I am who I am, and I won’t pretend…” (38). At its core, Higher Ground is a novel about the power of recording a narrative that feels utterly honest, no matter how messy or fragmented, and the turmoil that comes when those who read it aren’t ready to be as honest with the truths that they perceive.
For Resi, writing is both the cause of pain, and a source of catharsis, but never clearly good or bad, helpful or harmful. At various points throughout the book, she commands her daughter: “speak, don’t write” (194). Resi’s written word has caused the structure of her life to fall apart – almost directly dismantling the safe shelter of her home – perhaps making the directness of spoken communication all the more appealing. In fact, her writing itself often feels like a conversation with her daughter, a reader, or even herself – as if only one step away from being spoken, mumbled screamed, or cried. In translation, as a result, the language must walk a line between a self-conscious apprehension of the potential consequences of writing, and unabashed, German directness. Lucy Jones does a masterful job of conveying that very German tone, while at the same time finding passable English equivalent for distinctly German terms like Abitur (in Jones’s English, “A-levels”) and basteln (in translation, “doing DIY”). Though, as someone who grew up speaking German, I initially found this a questionable choice, I ultimately agree with the decision to naturalize these German terms, since it falls in line with the spread of English as Berlin becomes an increasingly cosmopolitan city.
The very influx of Berlin-bound youth I’ve watched search the internet for their own higher ground somehow manages to escape Resi’s narrative unscathed. It surprised me at first, having witnessed many conversations held by Berliners, who would probably run in the same circles as Resi, disgruntled by this phenomenon. But Stelling’s brilliance is to keep her novel constrained into something that reads like a confessional, haphazard, personal document. In her translation, Jones passes on the feeling of intimacy and despair that Stelling has conjured within the four walls of Resi’s broom closet, never violating her privacy and respite. As a text addressed to the narrator’s daughter, it conveys a feeling of closeness, as if to be shared in confidence between narrator, child, writer, translator, and ultimately, reader. Precisely because Resi’s page-bound self-pity is showy, raw, unabashed, sometimes petty, and always vulnerable, one can’t help but feel that she is representing the world as she perceives it with complete personal honesty. It’s an honorable feat, in the end.
Stelling, Anke. Higher Ground. Translated by Lucy Jones. Scribe Publications, 2021.
Elizabeth Yearsley is a translator and museum educator from Ithaca, NY. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2020.