Reviewed: Anke Stelling, Higher Ground, Scribe
In Bodentiefe Fenster (2015), Anke Stelling’s second novel, a woman called Sandra lives in an alternative housing project in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin. So did Stelling at the time of writing. The book is a critique of the class ignorance and privilege embedded in Sandra’s social circle, comprising mostly artists.1 Once released, Bodentiefe Fenster offended people in Stelling’s own life—to the extent that it led to the dissolution of several of her friendships.
Enter Higher Ground (trans. Lucy Jones), Stelling’s third novel, and the first to have been translated into English. Resi, the book’s protagonist, is a writer who lives in Berlin with her husband and four kids, in an apartment owned by two friends, Vera and Frank. When Resi writes an article critiquing the hypocrisy of her bourgeois friends, who live nearby in a fancy co-op they built together, they are furious: Vera ends her friendship with Resi, and Frank terminates their lease.2
Higher Ground is a novel of ideas, and those it interrogates are legion—but all its questions are ultimately those of class. What do class divides do to friendships? Does money dictate who gets to have children?
And if Resi had married her wealthy friend Ulf, who had been her boyfriend in high school—rather than her now-husband Sven, an artist—would she have a different kind of kitchen floor?
Spurred on by these questions—and by her fury at her friends, herself and the general unfairness of the world—Resi sits in her broom cupboard whenever her kids are at school or asleep, and types out her thoughts on her laptop. These are presented in the form of a sprawling address to Resi’s 14-year-old daughter, Bea. ‘Listen, Bea,’ she begins, ‘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.’
Resi is not writing to or for Bea, though— not really. Often, she abruptly switches from addressing Bea directly to describing her in third person:
I’ve decided to tell you everything. Nothing is natural; everything is constructed and connected; everything helps or harms somebody or other; and anything that’s taken for granted is particularly suspicious.
Bea is fourteen and needs to be taught the facts of life.
This form of address is the first of many constructs at which Resi directs her relentless analysis: ‘Is it violent’, she wonders, ‘to address my text to her?’ This concern kicks off a thread that runs through the novel, interrogating the power relations between parents and their children, as well as the complicated power that parenthood can bestow more broadly. ‘When it comes to being power hungry,’ Resi reflects, ‘children come in very handy.’
Resi is an ironic narrator. Although she is often angry and outraged, her tone is saved from preachiness by a wry sense of humour. She makes jokes at her own expense, and bitter ones out of anger. ‘The Wi-Fi is always on the blink,’ she writes at one point, ‘but that’s normal. Networks are fragile—I should know, I used to be part of one.’
Resi’s irony often serves to let us know she is aware that there are worse things than having a PVC tile kitchen floor over a pulped chipboard one, for example. But Resi attacks the hypocrisy of the ‘leftie’ upper class even as she and her family ‘are a long way from living under a bridge’. In some ways this is a refreshing approach, because to pay attention to the mental gymnastics of wealthy lefties (a ‘leftie’ being defined by Resi as someone who is ‘pro-justice, pro-respect, and pro-everybody-being-equal’) is to identify and trouble an oft-overlooked power asymmetry. As Resi says in one of her many earnest, aphoristic moments: ‘It’s nice to move in these circles. Until you realise that something’s not right. That it’s necessary to share or even give up privileges instead of merely being ashamed of them or badmouthing them a bit.’
However, Resi’s attitude towards other working-class people creates an undercurrent of tension throughout Higher Ground, and her flashes of ironic self-awareness are not quite enough to dispel it. She is wont to make quips that, while tongue in cheek, expose genuine prejudice and fear. ‘Have you ever taken the M8 tram towards Ahrensfelde at around five in the afternoon?’ she asks Bea. ‘It’s full of overweight people wearing polyester t-shirts with logos, giving their toddlers imitation Red Bull and cuffing them around the ear now and then out of boredom.’
The pace and energy of Higher Ground are driven by Resi’s rage at class inequality. Yet the gaps in Resi’s class consciousness—displayed through sweeping stereotypes such as the one above—meant that my comfort levels with her as a narrator frequently turned on a dime. The question I found myself wrestling with as I read and re-read Higher Ground was this: has Stelling knowingly bestowed these blind spots on Resi to comment on the privilege and hypocrisy of upwardly mobile artists and intellectuals? Or: are some of these stumbling blocks actually shared by Stelling, creeping into the subtext of Higher Ground unbidden? Ultimately, it hardly matters whether or not Stelling is aware of the cognitive dissonances that are at play in her book; they work to move the plot regardless, creating a discomforting effect. And class, either way, remains at Higher Ground’s core: as Stelling has noted in an interview (see note 1):
I believe that class permeates everything. That capitalism divides the world into winners and losers and turns people into victims and perpetrators. That the old Brecht saying is actually true: ‘If I weren’t poor, you wouldn’t be rich.’
It’s easy to lose your bearings as you read Higher Ground—Resi’s thoughts loop, returning obsessively to the same moments to worry at them from slightly new perspectives. The effect of these repeated revisits—which include an email from Vera and three stories her mother told her from her past—is that seemingly insignificant moments are gradually infused with nuance. It becomes hard to know where you stand, not only in linear time or in the chronology of the book, but because Resi is an unreliable narrator: she overtly second-guesses herself and introduces memories and reflections that contradict her earlier ideas.
One morning, worrying that she’s passed on her internalised shame about bodily functions to Bea, Resi recalls a memory from four years earlier:
When Bea was about ten, we saw a woman at Friedrichstraße underground station, squatting next to the lift with her trousers down. You could see everything—her arsehole, her vulva, the lot. People walked past her, or stood right next to her, waiting for the lift, or came up from the lower floor and saw her when they got out. The way she squatted there. Peeing. She seemed alert, not drunk at all, just very dirty and fat, with several plastic bags filled to bursting next to her. She just let it all out, peed right in the middle of the underground station as if it were the most normal thing in the world.
This is another moment Resi keeps returning to—this ‘woman next to the lift’ becomes a symbolic freedom from social mores, an enviable absence of shame. When Resi fleetingly identifies with people who have less social capital than herself, she does so selectively. She equates herself to ‘the woman next to the lift’ when she climbs onto a recycling bin to peek into her former friends’ courtyard. She makes a point of thinking that the ‘common people’ who live out in Marzahn are ‘her kind’. When Resi draws parallels between these characters and herself, she is either being self-deprecating (the working-class people in Marzahn are ‘stupid, and that makes them dangerous’), or she is romanticising the freedom she perceives them to have. ‘I want to become the woman in the lift,’ Resi writes, reflecting on her own shame at being unwashed when she wakes up in the morning. ‘How did she manage to be so free?’
By interpreting this assumed lack of shame as ‘freedom’, Resi is perhaps affording ‘the woman next to the lift’ more dignity than pity would. But her projected connection to this woman is complicated by the fact that, elsewhere in Higher Ground, Resi’s class analysis is built on an unwavering equation: less money = lower class = a worse life. Even if Resi may want a shame-free life, she also resents the unfairness of class disparities as it affects her and her family. There is nothing wrong with holding both these feelings at once, but this is to say that Resi’s class analysis, while astute, is fundamentally self-centred. This points to the many complications that come with class consciousness in a capitalist society, and troubles the many questions concerning shame, power, class and privilege that Resi asks explicitly.
Stelling may believe that ‘capitalism divides the world into winners and losers and turns people into victims and perpetrators’, but Higher Ground belies the idea that the separating line is as straightforward as she suggests. And it’s in this slipperiness— the ways in which Resi is both winner and loser, perpetrator and victim, justified in her rage and blinded by self-interest—that Higher Ground crackles with energy and does its best work.
Caitlin McGregor is a writer, editor and critic living on unceded Jaara land. See www.caitlinmcgregor.com.
- While I can’t read German and thus have never read the book, according to Stelling, via an online translator, she ‘grew up with a clique in which everyone went into the creative industry: artists, actors, filmmakers, that sort of thing. At some point [she] noticed that we all do the same thing, but not all of them have to make a living from it.’ It was this revelation that prompted her to write Bodentiefe Fenster. (Philipp Daum, ‘Klasse durchdringt alles’ (Class pervades everything), Zeit Online, <https://www.zeit.de/kultur/literatur/2021-02/mittelschicht-anke-stelling-schaefchen-im-trockenen>).
- It makes me uncomfortable to open a review like this. There is a tendency for domestic novels to be conflated with their author’s life, particularly if those authors are women. I don’t want to assume that Stelling couldn’t possibly have written a book this nuanced on purpose. I think she could have; I also think, in this case, that she didn’t. But I will come back to this.