Heinritz on Kliems, 'Underground Modernity: Urban Poetics in East-Central Europe, Pre- and Post-1989'

Alfrun Kliems
Alena Heinritz

Alfrun Kliems. Underground Modernity: Urban Poetics in East-Central Europe, Pre- and Post-1989. Translated by Jake Schneider. Leipzig Studies on the History and Culture of East-Central Europe Series. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2021. Illustrations. 340 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-963-386-397-8

Reviewed by Alena Heinritz (Universität Innsbruck) Published on H-Socialisms (September, 2022) Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57295

Underground Literature in Eastern Europe

The underground affects us all because it is a reflex to modernity. This is the far-reaching and immensely convincing thesis of Alfrun Kliems’s monograph, Underground Modernity: Urban Poetics in East-Central Europe, Pre- and Post-1989, which was published in German in 2015. The translation of the book into English by Jake Schneider has now been published by the Central European University Press and its Leipzig Studies on the History and Culture of East Central Europe series, edited by Christian Lübke and Stefan Troebst. Kliems is a professor at the Institute of Slavic and Hungarian Studies at the Humboldt University of Berlin and heads the Department of West Slavic Literatures and Cultures. She is one of the most renowned experts in the field of East-Central European literature of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In her preface, Kliems briefly describes the intention of the book and presents the most important theses. This is followed by an introduction in which the author introduces the central concepts of the underground, the epochal turn around 1989, and the city and describes the interrelationship between them. The chapters that follow contain case studies of individual representatives or representative groups of the underground in the ČSSR (Czechoslovak Socialist Republic; now, the Czech Republic and Slovakia), PRL (Polish People's Republic or Poland) GDR (German Democratic Republic or East Germany), and Soviet and post-Soviet Ukraine and Russia. In each case, the focus is on a major city that conditions the artistic work of the respective representative. With the chapters, Kliems spans an arc from Prague of the 1970s with the underground’s iconic figure Egon Bondy to Berlin in the early twenty-first century. To investigate the East-Central European underground as an aesthetic phenomenon, Kliems works with different conceptual constellations. She examines the underground, the “Wende” 1989-91 (the author uses the German term meaning “turning point”), and the city in its interrelations. Furthermore, she is interested in the relationships between center and periphery, “overcity” and “undercity,” city and country, and East and West that characterize the underground. Lastly, she is concerned with continuity between romanticism and the underground.

The author pursues two theses. First, she argues that the city conditions underground aesthetics. Whether the urban was judged positively or negatively by the underground representatives, the city is the central reflective space of modernity. And this is where Kliems’s second assumption comes in: the author argues that the underground in East-Central Europe cannot be seen solely in the context of state socialism, as is often claimed, but has its origins in romanticism and lives on in postmodernism. This argument assumes that the art of the underground—like that of romanticism, the avant-gardes, and postmodernism—represents a “response to a fundamental problem of modernity”: the conflict between “art as life versus politics and alienation” (pp. 49, 52). Against the background of these conditions of modernity, Kliems argues, it can be stated that “aesthetic life and art can only be successful beneath the politicizable domain: not within the bourgeois system and is parlors.” From this consideration, Kliems develops her idea of the poetics of verticality. The underground, she claims, meets the conflict of modernity with “imposed and self-imposed exclusion” and the means of literature (p. 54). Closely related to this is the author’s thesis that the underground lived on even after the fall of communism. She argues against the Czech author Jáchym Topol, one of the central representatives of the Czech underground, who postulates that after the fall of communism in 1989 the underground came to an end because it lost its legitimacy. Kliems argues against this: as a critical reflex of modernity, the underground is firmly anchored in modernity. The dialectical movement will continue: modernity appropriates the underground and brings it “up,” which in turn develops new subversive forms “underneath” (p. 282). Particularly interesting in this context is the author’s thesis about the birth of the underground from the spirit of romanticism. Using the example of a story by E. T. A. Hoffmann, “The Poet and the Composer” (1813), she develops the idea of verticality as a metaphor for a possible, at least temporary, way out of the problems of European modernity into the mythotopography of the underground.

To substantiate her convincing arguments, Kliems first distinguishes the underground as a subversive and transgressive aesthetic form from such phenomena as pop culture, counterculture, and subculture, which are often mentioned in connection with the underground, and she traces overlaps between the phenomena in each case. In contrast to pop, the underground is not self-sufficient; at the same time, however, the underground with its transgressive poetics differs decisively from engaged art. In contrast to subculture, the underground has a sacred, messianic component. Informed and with many examples, Kliems characterizes the underground with such terms as the “primitive,” “filth,” “freedom,” and “transgression,” and as a game with such dichotomies as high and low culture, center and periphery, culture and nature, above and below. The underground turns against all restrictions and rules and tears down the boundaries between art and life, between high and low culture. Here Kliems traces the parallels and generic relationships between the underground and avant-garde expressions, such as surrealism, Dadaism, and situationism. Although Kliems locates the roots of the phenomenon in romanticism, she sees the development of the East-Central European underground as rooted in paranoid schizophrenia in state socialism. The underground is located outside the three production contexts of state socialism: official literature, exile literature, and samizdat. The underground as “second culture” opposed everything that was established and privileged and thus also turned against so-called dissidence.

In a total of fourteen self-contained yet interrelated case studies, Kliems explores different manifestations of the aesthetic potential of the underground. The first chapter is set in 1970s Prague and is dedicated to the Czech poet and writer Bondy, whom Kliems portrays as a figure who decisively shaped the underground throughout East-Central Europe. His “trapná poezie” (translated as “awkward poetry”) plays with bad taste, careless poetry, and vulgar everyday language. The second chapter focuses on Ivan Martin Jirous, who closely collaborated with Bondy. Jirous’s underground combines archaic simplicity, primitivism, dilettantism, and authenticity comparable to punk. In her third chapter, Kliems takes the reader from Prague to Vladimír Archleb’s Bratislava. Kliems reads his works against the background of Slovak literature that was traditionally opposed to the urban. Archleb in turn shapes the urban underground in Bratislava. He paints a bleakly desolate picture of the socialist city, one of coercion and boredom. Irony and seriousness go hand in hand in his elaboration of camp and trash aesthetics. The fourth chapter explores the relationship between the underground and pop in Marcin Świetlicki’s Krakow underground. Kliems describes Świetlicki’s poetics against the background of the group bruLion, who stylized themselves as barbarians and deliberately exposed the accusation of not writing committed literature. In this brute poetics, the city emerges as an attacker and loses its status as a refuge for the underground. The fifth chapter points back to the iconic Bondy examining the report of a pilgrimage to Bratislava in search of Bondy written by Jacek Podsiadło. This fictitious report creatively exhibits failure: because Bondy is simply not at home, the pilgrims spend the night in a cemetery and return home. Kliems investigates the fictitious travelogue as an aesthetic exchange between two poetologies and two generations, and between the underground and pop. The sixth chapter leads into Peter Wawerzinek’s East Berlin and the underground of Prenzlauer Berg. Here, Kliems introduces the Prenzlauer Berg scene, also called “Beatniks of the East,” with its concept of “lived art.” Kliems focuses on “Kwerdeutsch,” a mixture of different language forms, slangs, and dialects, and she draws connections between Wawerzinek’s poetics of the city to Bohumil Hrabal’s.

The seventh chapter then deals with the band Psí vojáci by the brothers Filip and Jáchym Topol, who combine elements of rock, pop, and punk into a unique underground entity. In sound and text, tribal structures of community are evoked, with borrowings from anti-civilization aesthetics, though always reflecting the city Prague. Chapter 8 on the multiethnic Prague of Jáchym Topol’s novels is directly related to this. Here, Kliems looks at Topol’s novels Sestra (City Sister Silver, 1994) and Anděl (Angel Station, 1995). Influenced by underground aesthetics, Topol develops in these novels a “Kanakspraak,” the language of the multiethnic political class, an intentional underclass. This leads Kliems to her conclusion that in Topol’s novels the underground forms its own synthetic ethnicity. In the ninth chapter, we move from Prague to Vladimir Makanin’s post-socialist Moscow. Makanin, too, shows that the underground is still alive after the fall of communism, and in his poetics of the romantic hero he follows the underground of classical Russian literature: Mikhail Lermontov’s Geroi nashego vremeni (A Hero of Our Time, 1840) and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Zapiski iz podpol’ia (Notes from the Underground, 1864). With his character Petrovich, Makanin draws on the myth of the Soviet-era writer and takes expectations of him as a poet-prophet and social truth-seeker to absurdity.

Postimperial Moscow—along with Lviv—is also at the center of the tenth chapter, in which Kliems presents Yuri Andrukhovich’s postcolonial version of the underground. Andrukhovich first appeared in connection with the Bu-Ba-Bu group, which mixed avant-garde with mass culture, Ukrainian neo-baroque, and American beat literature with the goal of a totality of poetic expression. Kliems investigates Andrukhovich’s “aesthetics of junkspace” dealing with the remains of modernization: airports, train stations, shopping malls, gas stations, and office complexes. The eleventh chapter is about Andrzej Stasiuk’s Warsaw. Stasiuk’s nature-inspired aesthetic is characterized by intoxication, excretion, violence, and self-destruction; it is male dominated with a romanticization of a wild animalistic lifestyle in packs. Kliems then turns to an analysis of Stasiuk’s urban crime fiction that is according to her not like ordinary crime literature, fixated on the resolution of a case, but is concerned with the question of how to survive an urban crime culture. The city, unlike the countryside, is portrayed as negative yet inspires an artistic poetic technique. In the twelfth chapter, Kliems then takes a closer look at the city versus country debate in Stasiuk’s and Andrukhovich’s work through the aesthetics of “aggressive localism”: the preference of a place beneath or beside the center, of the local over the global.

Based on this, Kliems reads their essays on the concept of “Central Europe” in relation to East and West as a postcolonial “third space”—fluid, unstable, flexible, and at risk—and examines related reflections on the self-designation as “small nation” of the so-called Central European states. In the thirteenth chapter, she elaborates, among others, on the so-called Orange Alternative in Wrocław. Based on these currents, Kliems, using the conceptualization of Sylvia Sasse and Caroline Schramm, explores the idea of the so-called co-option or “subversive affirmation,” an aesthetic procedure of critique through a superficial taking seriously and reenactment of the one being critiqued, using its own discourse. Kliems concludes her case studies with a study of the Club of Polish Losers in Berlin, an artistic project exploring Polish-German auto- and hetero-stereotypes and a self-exoticization of Poles in Berlin. Again, an aesthetic of trash plays a role here: sloppy implementation and bad writing. The group takes bourgeois evaluations of failure seriously and exaggerates them in a self-stylization as losers. The book closes with a conclusion in which Kliems once again summarizes her arguments as to why the underground still exists after 1989.

Kliems offers an immensely knowledgeable and argumentatively convincing new perspective on the East-Central European phenomenon of the underground. Her approach is innovative and highly appropriate to the subject matter: she finds an ideal middle way between deduction and induction. By theoretically assuming a conceptual entanglement of the underground, the “Wende,” and the city, she has a methodological tool at hand to examine the individual manifestations of the underground comparatively and at the same time to consider the specific historical-cultural circumstances. In this way, she arrives at valuable and convincing results. The book clarifies complex phenomena in appropriate complexity but uses extremely readable language and structure for this purpose. The chapter structure contributes greatly to this. In this way, a wide-ranging panorama of different aesthetic manifestations of the East-Central European underground is laid out before the reader, from which Kliems then comprehensibly derives transferable concepts that establish comparability.

Right in her introduction, Kliems addresses the interesting question of why the representatives of the underground that she mentions are all men. Why are there basically only men in the texts (apart from the one or another female companion who is mentioned)? Kliems cites three reasons for this blank space. First, texts by female authors were not noticed by the underground scene; second, activities by women were followed with less interest by the security services of the socialist states; and third, female representatives of the underground were overlooked by scholarly consideration after 1989. Kliems accuses herself of this last point. From this listing, the gender aspect seems to be of great importance to the underground as aesthetic and social phenomena. In the individual case studies, Kliems analyzes male-dominated rituals and the organization of male underground representatives into groups called packs or clans playing a major role. It would have been of great interest to know who exactly the marginalized female underground representatives were and what their role was in the obviously male-dominated field. Future research could follow up on such an outlook and work on this blank space. In relation to the city, however, Kliems analyzes the gender issue in an exceedingly convincing way, drawing on Sigrid Weigel’s reflections. While cities in underground texts are often imagined in feminized images (e.g., as “Madame Prague” or femme fatale in Bondy’s writing), in underground poetics the subjects of the city are in most cases imagined as male. The view of the city is through an active male subject, male inhabitants, male urban planners, conquerors, flaneurs, or writers.

Kliems’s merits with this book are numerous. First, with a comprehensive heterogeneous and multifaceted study, she succeeds in understanding the phenomenon in a scope that has not been done before. In terms of cultural and literary history, this is a great merit. Moreover, against the backdrop of recent events related to Russia’s war against Ukraine, the book is a step toward understanding the constellations: after all, the intellectual-historical conflicts described prepare the current debates and help to understand them. Finally, her approach of understanding the underground phenomenon as a reflection of modernity offers innumerable points of connection for the present. Such key words as “authenticity,” “consumption,” and “identity” are addressed here, and these are undoubtedly of crucial importance for the current debate on contemporary literature, not only in East-Central Europe. The book is therefore highly recommended not only for those who study the literature of East-Central Europe but also for anyone interested in the complexities of modernity.

Citation: Alena Heinritz. Review of Kliems, Alfrun, Underground Modernity: Urban Poetics in East-Central Europe, Pre- and Post-1989. H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. September, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57295

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