IMBO: Welcome to I Must Be Off!, Marcus! Finally! Let’s talk about the expat in you. How long did you live in London and then Italy and then New Zealand? And what took you to these places?
Speh: Thanks. What shall I call you? IMBO? MBO? Sounds like Management Buy-Out. But I’m too old to worry about acronyms, and too ADD to stay with my own thoughts for too long. You ask so many questions! Let me answer them quickly to get the so-called facts out of the way: first I lived in Italy for four years (rather, I had an apartment in Munich, Germany and in Trieste, Italy, and commuted between the two); then I lived in London with my family for nine years; lastly, we moved to New Zealand where we stayed for one year. I notice that you didn’t mention LOVE in the English question: a mistake? Or do you actually believe German is the more romantic idiom? About the reasons for those moves: on the surface, I followed love to two of these places (Italy, UK; and earlier, Argentina), women were my visible motif. But deeper than that I used to be a nomadic character: even as a student, I made sure I’d leave Germany every year for a few months at least; even the Netherlands seemed more exotic and promising than boring old home. I’m still a little like that though I don’t like traveling much anymore, at least not without my family. Only lately I feel more settled and I’ve taken my eye off the travel-ball because writing has become such an important force in my life that everything else, or almost everything else, is subordinate to it. But most of our family live in the US, so we’ll still burn plenty of miles.
IMBO: Then let’s get right to your writing. Your stories seem to flow from an unbound imagination. Have you really stopped traveling? Aren’t you now probing and plumbing and mining the depths of Marcus Speh?
Speh: I’m not sure about that traveling thing. I’ve resisted traveling to a large extent over the past decade apart from trips to our US family, but traveling is a wonderful way to recharge those batteries of imagination, isn’t it. On the other hand, there’re these depths: and indeed, I’ve found that it is difficult to pursue anything deep and possibly painful, too, while distracting yourself with traveling. Travel costs so much energy! It’s dispersive rather than focusing. It precipitates change. It can be quite purging, too. But as you say, probing/plumbing/mining is what I’m trying more of these days. I find that the long form (anything upwards of 20,000 words) requires a different depth of attention and focus than the short form, which I’ve done a lot of these last few years. That “unbound imagination” sometimes seems to stand in my way: it needs to be tamed and channeled to keep the water in the riverbed. If you want to reach the ocean, that is, and I do.
"Returning to my homeland after such a long absence felt a little like coming back to a story rather than to my own past. It still feels like that at times."
IMBO: Did you begin writing in English when you lived in London, or did you start before? Is there a different Marcus Speh Birkenkrahe when you write in German? Do different languages open different doors?
Speh: I believe I began to write in English when I went to school in London in the late 1970s; much later, again in London, I wrote 300 English poems in one year, but they were no good. I stopped writing German in New Zealand in 2002. Both when I speak and when I write, I feel (and, I think, sound and read) like a different person. You can hear this in my podcasts — here is an example — but I’m not sure how to describe the difference. I’m more playful in English and much less inhibited, not just off but also on the page. And I’m not just talking about the disregard for proper grammar…yes, different languages do open different doors in one’s mind. Somerset Maugham says «the French language tends to rhetoric, as the English to imagery», and German writing, I think, lends itself more easily to the expression of ideas: philosophy is both our bane and our burden. Whatever the true correspondence, each language resonates more strongly with another aspect of inner/outer reality, and I do feel that. I relate well to images, perhaps that’s why I write in English. Though the more immediate reason is that my American wife is my first muse and my first reader. But I’m (always and forever) seriously thinking about writing in German, and the energy is growing. In the last issue of Frieze, Vincenzo Latronico wrote compellingly about English as a literary Lingua Franca—this really is the language I wield, not the English you speak or write (as a native speaker). There probably hasn’t been a time in history when languages and literatures influenced each other so deeply and changed so quickly.
IMBO: Your English voice is pure gold. I’ve told you this so many times, but I’ll say it again. Gold. There. Is this really a different person, though? Aren’t we, at least in some way, the characters we create in, from and of ourselves?
Speh: Thank you! I’ve been asked to do voice work and I’d like to, in another life. I think identity is a true paradox. I’ve just begun some research work in the direction of “online identities”. This was originally motivated by my activity in 3D virtual worlds like “Second Life”, but I realised then my proclivity towards pseudonyms and identity changes, which are so much easier to facilitate online than in real life, with all those processes attached to fixing you in lifelong patterns both ancestral and accidental, both endogenic and exogenic. Without these processes of fixation, we wouldn’t know who we are—we might wake up as cockroaches any time; but it also engenders limitations, and I’ve never much liked limitations of any kind, I’m a tad ashamed to say. (That shame may be a remnant of my German personality.) This creation of characters off and on the page serves us well to overcome inbuilt and adopted limitations—it’s one of the great perks of being a writer, I think. And yes, we are all these people we imagine and project. I've just read a rather bitchy review of Dostoyevsky’s life and work by Somerset Maugham, who I reckon was a little scared by the depth of Dostoyevsky, but he demonstrates beautifully how most of the characters created by Dostoyevsky were actually him. It doesn’t destroy the pleasure of reading the novels at all. It made me wonder if there’s another way — put differently, if any writer can write convincingly about characters that don’t live inside him.
IMBO: What’s it like to return? Have the characters within you changed since coming home? Is Germany home?
Speh: I feel a little exiled, as if I’ve never really returned, which is ridiculous since for all practical purposes I’m German and live a thoroughly German life except that I don’t speak German with my loved ones—I can’t even get my bilingual daughter to speak German with me. Returning to Germany ten years ago after a decade abroad was eerie. I had difficulties with all the usual issues foreigners struggle with, too: the endless complaining at a super-high level of sustenance; the lack of expression on German faces; the general sense of obedience mixed with irritability. But I was also happy to be home in some sense hard to define: Germany feels safe, solid and sensible; public transport is paradise. Once I enjoyed traveling to Weimar and sitting in Goethe’s house in a quiet corner while the guided tour noisily moved onward: there was a sense of the forbidden which I felt Goethe would have approved of. I liked going to London, Paris and Rome for the weekend. On a consulting job in Vienna I visited the Freud museum located in his former practice rooms, and I did group work in the festival room of Palais Lobkovitz where Beethoven’s Eroica symphony was first performed. The past seems littered with such flash memories: I expect over time they’ll turn into fiction just as everything turns into fiction eventually. Returning to my homeland after such a long absence felt a little like coming back to a story rather than to my own past. It still feels like that at times.
IMBO: It's always fascinating to hear you talk about your writing, Marcus. Thank you so much for stopping by, and I'm looking forward to breakfast again in Berlin--next time it's on me.
I must be off,
Cover art by Carlye Birkenkrahe
Marcus Speh Birkenkrahe's first collection of short fiction, Thank You for Your Sperm, is available now. Read more about that HERE.
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Christopher Allen is the author of the absurdist satire Conversations with S. Teri O'Type.