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January 21, 2020

Lance Olsen's Playlist for His Novel "My Red Heaven"

My Red Heaven

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Lance Olsen's novel My Red Heaven is bold and inventive in its form without sacrificing readability. Another must-read book from a writer never afraid to take chances.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Each stylistic change brings a wholly new voice, allowing the reader to perceive the same day through many minds ... this meditation on the effects of a specific moment in history and the human condition reaches past cultural barriers and time to create a narrative that pushes boundaries and reflects on what is means to dwell in the here and now."

In his own words, here is Lance Olsen's Book Notes music playlist for his novel My Red Heaven:

My new collage novel is set on a single day in 1927 Berlin — that interwar moment of extraordinary cultural energy and fiery imagination, when all fences in Germany’s capital seemed down, all possibilities open, and the grim future utterly inconceivable.

Structurally inspired by Otto Freundlich’s abstract cubist painting by the same name, My Red Heaven tracks a number of characters (some historical figures, some invented) — among them Vladimir Nabokov, Otto Dix, Werner Heisenberg, Käthe Kollwitz, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Hannah Arendt, a serial killer, and a butterfly ghost ― as they crisscross Berlin on the tenth of June.

In the end, for me, it’s a novel about how pastness is always a problem. That is, it’s about how cultures and individuals are in an ongoing process of writing and rewriting history.

But it’s also an invitation to think about the relationships between the rise of a grisly populism and its consequences in Germany during the Twenties and Thirties and our own contemporary versions of it in the U.S.

Plus, it’s my love letter to Modernism.

“Ich hab’ noch einen Koffer in Berlin,” by Marlene Dietrich

Let’s call this the epigraph to this playlist. The title translates to something like “I still have a suitcase in Berlin,” and listening to Marlene Dietrich’s voice sing that line later in life, long after she was forced to flee her country in the leadup to World War Two because of her anti-Nazi views, well, it just puts a hole in your heart. I spent six months at the American Academy in Berlin in 2013, and another twelve in Berlin on a D.A.A.D. fellowship that bridged 2015 and 2016. During the latter, the idea for My Red Heaven arose, shot through as I increasingly was by an awareness of the …

“Ghosts of Berlin,” by Andrea Schroeder

Because one of the myriad things that fascinates me about that city is how the past is always present there, how Germany — unlike, say, the U.S. with its barbarities (think the murder of indignous peoples; think slavery) — has chosen as its continuous project a questioning of how to come to terms with a history that houses both one of the greatest atrocities of the twentieth century and some of Western culture’s most exquisite art and music and literature. How, Germany asks itself daily, does a country come to terms with the image of the Auschwitz Orchestra with its more than forty members, all Jewish women, who escaped death in the gas chambers by playing Bach beautifully at the death camp as their peers became smoke?

“Die Moritat von Mackie Messer,” music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Bertolt Brecht, sung by Ute Lemper

It’s impossible putting together a playlist for a novel set in the Weimar Era without including a song from one of the most famous and important pieces for Berlin theater from that period — Die DreigroschenoperThe Threepenny Opera — whose sound is brilliantly suffused with the seedy atmosphere of the capital’s cabarets with their fare of political satire and gallows humor in the face of growing social turmoil. “The Ballad of Mack the Knife” takes the form of what’s called a murder ballad, a medieval genre rife with crimes and gruesome deaths meant to serve as exempla. In this case, it catalogues the arson, robbery, rape, and killings perpetrated by the musical’s amoral protagonist, while implicitly asking: Are these run-of-the-mill criminals any worse than those who are currently governing? Needless to say, when the Nazis came to power they wasted no time in banning Weill and Brecht’s undertaking.

“Six Little Pieces,” by Arnold Schoenberg

The Weimar Era was a celebration of openness, experimentation, and progressive democracy in a swarm of manifestations. Women were emancipated like nowhere else in the world. The Berlin public was obsessed with innovative art, dance, writing, striptease shows, and a cult of transvestitism. So it makes perfect sense Schoenberg’s explorations into the atonal — music not written in a specific key, described by one critic in the Twenties as combining “the best sound effects of a of a hen yard at feeding time and practice hour at a busy music conservatory” — would arise in such a space. Granted, even today Schoenberg is not for the faint of hearing. Nearly a hundred years on, his work still defamiliarizes the very idea of music, teaches and unteaches us how to listen, what listening is, again and again. If tonal music always wants to return to the domestic, find its home chord, atonal music reminds us of Heidegger’s observation: The fundamental human condition is one of not-being-at-home.

“Wozzeck,” by Alban Berg

Alban Berg was Arnold Schoenberg’s student. The latter’s influence on the former’s atonal investigations is obvious in this piece, an excerpt from Berg’s opera, Wozzeck, based on Georg Büchner’s incredible, prescient, hallucinogenic play, Woyzeck, which was left incomplete when he died of typhus in 1837 at the age of 23. Berg’s opera, like the original, is an extended condemnation of militarism, exploitation, and sadism. In My Red Heaven, there’s an extended scene where Schoenberg and Berg stroll through the Berlin neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg, chatting about their musical theories as the first Brownshirts appear here and there on streetcorners. The chapter is rendered as a silent film in conversation with Walter Ruttmann’s remarkable 1927 visual ode, Berlin:Symphony of a Metropolis, which everybody should see tonight.

“I Love My Baby,” performed by Julian Fuhs and His Concert Orchestra

There’s cabaret music. There’s avant-garde atonality. And then there’s a third sound that epitomizes Twenties Berlin’s sense of artistic license and exuberance: jazz. One of the most popular home-grown jazz musicians then was Julian Fuhs. Let me deploy him as marker of another sort of cultural narrative about the period. Educated as a classical musician at the prominent Stern Conservatory in the German capital, Fuhs emigrated to the U.S. in 1910. He fell in love with American jazz, returned to Germany in 1923, and became one of the major promoters of the genre throughout that decade. With the stockmarket crash in 1929 and the resulting global economic crisis, Fuhs was forced to dissolve his band and eek out a living as owner of a dingy bar, which came under increasingly violent attacks because Fuhs was Jewish. He once again left for the U.S., but, because he was also German, his version of jazz was pretty much ignored here. He died impoverished and forgotten in Florida.

“Berlin,” by Lou Reed

The first track on Reed’s 1973 dark eponymous concept album, a kind of anti-rock opera about a doomed couple dogged by drugs, prostitution, physical abuse, depression, and ultimately suicide, in my mind conjures up those Weimar Era cabarets I talk about above (not to mention the artistic Berlin of the Wall years, inhabited by expat star-staring visionaries and nihilists who thought World War Three would erupt in their streets any day, and so felt they had nothing left to lose existentially or aesthetically: think Iggy Pop; think Nick Cave; think David Bowie), while signifying a will toward the adventurous in all areas of human experience. By my lights, this song is an homage to Berlin as let’s call it a state of mind.

“König von Scheißegalien,” by Udo Lindenberg

The title of this song, a tribute to Lou Reed that samples “Walk on the Wild Side,” translates to something like “The King of The Land of I Don’t Give a Shit.” What I adore about it, besides its timeless, echt sardonic Berlin attitude (called by the locals Berliner Schnauze, Berlin Mouth, characterized by outspokenness, rudeness, and coarse humor), is its mode of generation: a collaboration with the dead. That mode in many ways works as the engine of My Red Heaven, during the writing of which I found myself continually asking: How does one write the contemporary without simply perpetuating or simply forgetting the past? I wouldn’t be the sort of author I am today without the Modernists — perhaps particularly a number of the Germanic ones — having come before me. So My Red Heaven is in part my way of saying thank you to them all; here are some things I have learned.

“Deutschland,” by Rammstein

Instead of going on myself about the fraught iconography of Rammstein, founders of Neue Deutsche Härte (The New German Hardness) in the Nineties, let me quote Slavoj Žižek’s provocative reading from The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology: “The German hard rock band Rammstein are often accused of flirting, playing with the Nazi iconography. But if one observes closely their show, one can see very nicely what they are doing…. The minimal elements of the Nazi ideology enacted by Rammstein are something like pure elements of libidinal investment. Enjoyment has to be, as it were, condensed in some minimal tics: gestures, which do not have any precise ideological meaning. What Rammstein does is it liberates these elements from their Nazi articulations…. The way to fight Nazism is to enjoy these elements, ridiculous as they may appear, by suspending the Nazi horizon of meaning. This way you undermine Nazism from within.” Within My Red Heaven, the Rammstein Function is to draw attention to the new rise of populism in the West by representing the old (Hitler and Göbbels make absurd cameos), thereby connecting the anti-democratic Weimar trends with Trump’s current regime, jamming the authoritarian by italicizing its kitsch, its pure dangeous foolishness.

“Helden,” by David Bowie, performed by Andrea Schroeder

Here is another gorgeous collaboration with the ghosts of Berlin: Andrea Schroeder’s moving pop-noir rendition of Bowie’s “Heroes.” The story goes that the original was animated by the sight of Bowie’s producer-engineer, Tony Visconti, embracing his lover by the Berlin Wall. And some actually point to Bowie’s performance of it on June 6, 1987, at the Reichstag in West Berlin, as one of many of the forces that helped bring the Wall down. Be that as it may, listening to Schroeder’s infinitely sad, enervated, contemporary version — in a voice reminiscent, by the way, of Marlene Dietrich’s in “Ich hab’ noch einen Koffer in Berlin” — brings all my walls down every time I listen to it, and suggests a Berlin always broken and unbroken.

“Where Are We Now?” by David Bowie

Released 8 January, 2013 — Bowie’s 66th birthday, and five days after I arrived at the American Academy in Berlin for my first extended stay — “Where Are We Now?” represented the first new song from Bowie in ten years. At its heart is a Heralictean sense of change. Listen, and you will hear a voice washed through with time — frailer, more spectral, yearning, candid than its earlier iterations as Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, and so forth. You will hear Bowie hanging out with Iggy Pop and Lou Reed at the club Dschungel in the late Seventies, throngs of East Germans passing across the Bösebrücke, the first border crossing that opened as the Wall fell on 9 November 1989 — 20,000 in the first hour alone, each unsure whether he or she was allowed to do what he or she was doing. But you will also hear Bowie’s heart attack back stage during a 2004 performance in Germany, his rush into emergency surgery for an acutely blocked artery. What moves me most about the piece is how shot through it is with that blue-eyed boy Mr. Death, how it could never have been written by a musician in his forties or thirties, let alone his twenties. After sixty, it says, your face becomes an accomplishment. Or, as Thomas Pynchon writes in his introduction to Slow Learner: “When we speak of ‘seriousness’ in fiction ultimately we are talking about an attitude toward death — how characters may act in its presence, for example, or how they handle it when it isn’t so immediate.” The death of individuals, yes, but also of art forms and cultures.

“Road Movie to Berlin,” by They Might Be Giants

The second line of this song is: “Can’t drive out the way we drove in.” Written in 1988, at a moment when John Flansburgh believed the Berlin Wall would never come down, the song now seems to argue the opposite. As with “Where Are We Now,” it’s all about Heraclitus as a way of being, all about how the two things we’ll never be able to know with any certainty are the past and the future — in other words, the core of My Red Heaven. After all, who can possibly drive out of the state of mind called Berlin the way she or he drove in? And so let’s call this the unfinished finale, the never-ending epilogue.

Lance Olsen and My Red Heaven links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Booklist review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for [[ there.. ]]
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for Dreamlives of Debris
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for Theories of Forgetting

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