What If Kafka Was the Best Relationship of My Twenties?
Rebecca Schuman on the Shameful Joy of a Life Devoted to German
In 2013, Rebecca Schuman, a German literature PhD, blew up on Slate.com with an essay attacking the American academic community’s job hunting system, in which just six percent of American humanities PhDs find full-time jobs. Schuman wrote that she regretted her PhD, and argued that if you want to do a PhD in literature… don’t. It will destroy your life.
The brutal, frank essay went viral and got Schuman a column on Slate writing about academia and other topics. Soon after, she was given a book contract to write a memoir of her two-decade tortured relationship with the German language, Germans and Germany.
The resulting book is Schadenfreude, A Love Story: Me, the Germans, and 20 Years of Attempted Transformations, Unfortunate Miscommunications, and Humiliating Situations That Only They Have Words For. Beneath the impossibly long title is Schuman’s rich and comic story of growing up in a small city in Oregon, falling in love with a literary bad boy at 17, and thinking that Franz Kafka was the way to his heart. She lost the boy, but kept the Kafka, winding up in the Berlin of the mid-1990s, a city still recovering from the Wall that ripped it in half for three decades. With no desire to be a professor, Schuman embarked on a five-year PhD. program in German literature, mainly because a California university gave her money to do so.
Now out in paperback, the book follows Schuman’s transformation from earnest American to chain-smoking Berliner-in-training to struggling New York literati, and finally to the tough PhD with a gimlet-eyed view of American academia.
“For years, people have asked me why I study German literature,” said Schuman in a telephone interview from her home in St. Louis, Missouri. “I usually just brush them off, but the true story is I wanted to impress a guy named Dylan Gellner. He was angsty and pained, which I thought was very attractive at that time. His pain was sublimated into Franz Kafka’s angst and pain. By reading and understanding as much Kafka as I could, I thought I could get into his psyche. Dylan was a shutdown and standoffish person. The more that I broke down Kafka, the more that his character would come rushing forth and we’d be soulmates forever. It didn’t work out that way.” Gellner dumped Schuman before the end of high school.
Franz Kafka wrote The Castle and The Trial in German, the language favored by Prague’s vibrant Jewish community at the turn of the 20th century. Almost every German Schuman meets in the book scornfully reminds her that Kafka was not German.
Schuman takes her infatuation with Kafka to college and studies German so she can read him in his original language. She then travels to Munster for a summer program and at 18 becomes the Exchange Student from Hell for her uptight host family who don’t get her vegetarianism or her punk haircut, and are furious when Schuman takes expensive hot showers and makes overpriced local phone calls.
“By being so intractable, the Germans have such a low baseline of unacceptability for everyone,” she said, “that they are actually very forgiving, because no one will live up to their standards.”
“Everyone from that area in Germany is very uptight,” said Schuman. “Uptight people go to Munster to settle down to be uptight. I think you could say I was perplexing to my host family in the way a weird exchange student was perplexing.”
The 41-year-old Schuman is the master of the two-line satirical description, from her overbearing homestay parents in Munster to an arrogant young American travel companion in Prague who turns out to be bad in bed.
Making her way to Prague to pay homage at Kafka’s grave, she picks up an American college student in a fit of loneliness. ”He was smart,” she said. “He was ridiculous in the way that overconfident people are ridiculous.”
On their one night together, the sun was setting in Prague, a beautiful moment, her Ethan Hawke/Before Sunrise opportunity for a kiss with a random traveling companion. “My romantic experience had been pretty much informed by shattering rejection,” said Schuman. “It didn’t take much for me to capitulate to overtures. I figure this was my moment. It’s not perfect, but I am not going to get it again. I’m imperfect, so it is probably right for me.”
Schadenfreude, A Love Story really begins to sing when Schuman returns to Germany for an eight-month program in 1996. First, she lives in a still-downtrodden East Berlin, in a room not much better than a concrete cell. Then she’s turned on to a loft, a Loftschloss, an air castle, in Kreuzberg, where the Wall had cut right through.
Schuman, an illegal subleter in an illegally renovated loft, was put to work building Sheetrock walls by Leonie, de facto dictator of the whole place. She yells for tools that Schuman doesn’t know the word for, then doesn’t know how to use. “[M]y true introduction to the loft and its inhabitants—and to speaking German all day long and finally slipping uncomfortably into fluency—coincided with a crash course in interior renovations,” writes Schuman.
“That loft was like the world’s weirdest concept café, but it was everyday,” said Schuman. “You almost didn’t need to go outside. Something strange was always happening at the loft.
To fit in, Schuman had to play it cool with things that might otherwise have freaked her out. “I was never scared,” she said. “I trusted my roommates, even though they had terrible judgment. I went wherever they went. ‘Today, we are going to car graveyard out of town.’ ‘Tonight, we are going to a tire-fire party behind a squat in Kreuzberg.’ I never had to plan anything.”
Berlin was a freewheeling town in the mid-1990s with illegal bars all over the place. “Berlin was still recovering from the Wall,” said Schuman. “I was 20 and was not even old enough to drink at home. Suddenly, I can go to any bar. The authorities in Berlin could not keep up with the enterprising weirdos who wanted to have a good time. They would have an unlicensed party night in a place they shouldn’t have it. They’d knock a hole in the wall and serve beer through it.”
The Germans Schuman was hanging out were the children of the rebels from 1968, who fought the police in the Berlin streets. “People don’t think about this chaos when they think of the Germans,” said Schuman. “They think of a very orderly people who follow the rules. What they don’t realize is that as a reaction to the Holocaust, Germans developed a healthy skepticism to authority and following orders. They still value order, but they don’t really value orders.”
“After the war, there had been pushback against authoritarianism, the so-called ‘68 group,” said Schuman, “who learned the hard way. Their children were coming of age when I was in Berlin. It was about flouting authority in a harmless way, mostly trespassing.”
While in Kreuzberg, Schuman loses her wallet and ID. She receives a stern letter, directing her to come pick them up, from an elderly woman—the meeting takes a creepy turn.
“It was a chance to get out of my comfort zone, to talk with a real East German, someone who’d lived her life there,” said Schuman. “The whole scene was surreal, like being on the set of a lesser, nonviolent Kubrick movie. Her apartment was chintzy and unchanged since the 1970s. She was so awkward and stared at me like she’d never seen anything like me. I don’t think she’d ever met an American before.”
Schuman and the woman are having a painful conversation about the woman’s dead daughter, when the women veers into nostalgic comments about East Germany and ominous remarks about how black foreigners are moving into Berlin. “She had these views which were so common in East Berlin,’ said Schuman. “Though the Wall went up in the 1960s, the racial attitudes were still in the 1950s. They preserved themselves in time when the Iron Curtain went up. With the exception of a few North Vietnamese, there were no people of color in East Germany or Poland. That’s why it was so easy for people to return to ethno-nationalism, because they sort of never left it.”
After finishing college, Schuman moved to New York with some friends, to become a writer. “Everybody wanted to move to New York to get quasi-famous,” she said. “At this time, print magazines were everything. I wanted to get a job at Details, and write snarky men’s humor.” Instead, she wound up at the editorial backwater of Dance Teacher Magazine.
Schuman also fell into two crappy relationships in tandem, a controlling post-college boyfriend, then a short, abusive marriage. “There are a missing eight years in the book,” said Schuman. “I wrote the chapters, but they didn’t fit the narrative.”
“Both my jerk post-college boyfriend and my husband hated my relationship with German,” said Schuman. “They disguised it with jealousy over other guys I had been with. The first one forbade me to talk about my time in Germany, and the second one said that he would never set foot in Germany because I’d been with another guy there.”
“I was very young and didn’t understand what a healthy relationship was,” she said. “Both of these relationships were abusive in their own way, the first much more than the second. I thought that’s what you did in long-term relationships, that you got bossed around.”
While recovering from the nasty boyfriend, Schuman cemented her devotion to Kafka by getting a “K.” from The Castle tattooed on her lower back.
Schuman eventually wound up with a kind and quirky actor, who helped support her as she renewed her romance with German and Kafka. At the same time Schuman was beginning to think of PhD programs in German literature, the actor boyfriend was offered a TV pilot. Schuman was accepted to the University of California at Irvine. She thought they would move to California as a couple. The boyfriend’s pilot tanked. He broke up with her.
In 2005, in her late twenties, Schuman found herself in the sterile city of Irvine, driving an ancient Volvo, living on a tiny stipend, with no friends, “staring down 30” and immersed in the mind of Kafka. “I realized I wanted to study Weimar Germany and post-modernity. I finally had the intellectual maturity to appreciate this relationship.” Schuman picked a particularly tough topic, linking Kafka to the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein.
During her dissertation period, the ghost of Dylan Gellner came back as a kind of superego. “I have definitely always wanted his approval, in some way,” said Schuman. “I picked this very difficult dissertation topic, the hardest topic I could find because I wanted to show the entire scholarly world that I could do something extremely rigorous.”
“Look, you [Dylan Gellner] didn’t take me seriously when I was 17, you thought I was a dilettante, but now I am a serious-ass scholar. That’s a weird aspiration to have. It’s almost in the ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ category.”
On a more positive note, Schuman fell in love at Irvine with a handsome, talented philosophy PhD candidate with a wry sense of humor named Witold. After she defended her dissertation, they settled in St. Louis for her partner’s non-tenure track philosophy professorship.
Thus, Schuman started her own four-year job hunt, going to the Modern Language Association conventions, where 150 applicants would vie for one German literature job, where the job would finally go to an in-house candidate. It seemed like there would be 10 jobs nationally, with hundreds of applicants. She did campus visits, demonstration classes, and had faculty dinners to impress possible employers. Her boyfriend complained about the search: “’Your job market woes,’ he said, ‘have sucked 95 percent of the fun out of this relationship.’”
Nonetheless, Schuman married Witold, and the two had a daughter several years ago, despite the ongoing frustrations of searching for work.
“I don’t think people understand how much the academic job search controls your future,” said Schuman. “That’s what is so hard. Not only had I put myself in a scholarly career, it was that self that was being rejected. Because I wasn’t able to settle into a career, it was going to be a series of one-off jobs for the rest of my life. That was going to lock me into a lifestyle or personal life that I don’t think anybody deserves. You should either be in a patriarchal marriage with a wife and children that follow your everywhere, or if you are a woman, you should happily give up having a family.”
Schuman’s job-hunt rants on Facebook attracted the attention of an old editor acquaintance, now at Slate. The editor urged her to write 1,500 words on her job quest, which she did in 2013. She was rewarded with her Slate column, which lasted for three years.
“When the election of Trump happened, Slate informed me that they were getting rid of the non-political columnists,” she said. “They told me I could write for them freelance.”
“The column at Slate was an accidental fourth act, but it came to a natural conclusion after I had my daughter. I didn’t have time to be part of the outrage industrial complex anymore.”
The hardback of Schadenfreude: A Love Story had the misfortune of coming out in February 2017. “The book came out two weeks after Donald Trump’s inauguration,” said Schuman. “It was steamrollered by my despair and the world’s despair. The paperback is a chance for me to enjoy the book again.”
“I work hard not to be angry all the time,” said Schuman. “One way I avoid this is by writing exclusively thoughtful prose. The market for that is not very robust, but I’ve carved out a niche.”
Schuman had a column for The Awl, which folded in January. “At The Awl, I didn’t have to write for click-bait. The good thing about The Awl was the same reason why they folded. They didn’t care about big audiences. They only cared about publishing good writing.”
Schuman had originally conceived the book as a series of essays, but the editor coaxed her to write it as a memoir. Schuman headed each chapter with the appropriate German word for the time of her life. The chapter that chronicled the original sin of falling for both Dylan Gellner and Kafka is called “Jugendsunde,” which means teenage folly. The interlude with the racist East German woman, features in in the chapter called “Ostalgie,” aka the pining for old Communist East Germany. Finally, my personal favorite is “Schadenfreude,” the chapter on Schuman’s brutal job search (shameful joy).
“I wanted to use the German words to show how appropriate they were for whatever I was experiencing at the time,” said Schuman. “The whole point of studying German for me was that there are things that German can express, where the English is more awkward. German can do this with one word, one expression or concept.”
“I’ve been speaking German for 22 years now,” said Schuman. “I noticed that the Germans seem to enjoy watching people struggle with their language and culture. Looking at my book, I think the Germans are the Schadenfreude and I am the love story.”