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literature

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German and Austrian Literature: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries  
 
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The gay liberation movement came slowly to the German-speaking countries, so a sharp increase in production by and about gay and lesbian people first appears in the 1980s. Prior to that, individual works appeared, but no general liberationist trend can be discerned.

In Ingeborg Bachmann's (1926-1973) story "Ein Schritt nach Gomorrah" ("A Step towards Gomorrah," in the collection Das dreißigste Jahr [The Thirtieth Year] [1961]), a lesbian offers another woman the chance to break out of her unfulfilling marriage, but she cannot take it.

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In Martin Sperr's drama Jagdszenen aus Niederbayern (Hunting Scenes from Lower Bavaria [1966]), a homosexual man becomes the latest victim of a fascist mentality still alive in German society.

Influenced by the American gay liberation movement of the 1970s, the new consciousness of an affirmative, politicized gay identity finally produced a new kind of German literature: Verständigungstexte (roughly: communicative texts). Mostly nonprofessional authors wrote autobiographical sketches, poems, and short stories about their own experiences, using literature as a means toward emancipation.

Through this kind of writing, gays talked to each other, created their own identities, and found their voices. Anthologies such as Schwule schreiben (Gays Write [1977]) and Andere Verhältnisse (Other Relationships [1984]) were common.

Two books from 1975 spoke directly to the experiences and desires of lesbians and gay men.

Verena Stefan's Häutungen (Sheddings [1975]) narrates the growth of Cloe, the main character, from a naive young woman who defines herself through relationships with men to a strong, independent female in control of her life. Crucial in shedding these skins of tradition and oppression are the love relationships she forms with other women.

Alexander Ziegler's Die Konsequenz (The Consequence [1975]) reached enormous audiences when Wolfgang Petersen's 1977 film adaptation was shown on national television in all the German-speaking countries. The autobiographical story of a love destroyed because society deems it unacceptable and illegal, Die Konsequenz renders this love understandable and sympathetic.

The film's romantic tone underscored the novel's plea for tolerance and resonated so deeply that Petersen brought out a volume of letters he had received from viewers, Die Resonanz (The Resonance [1980]).

Another book that voiced experiences common to gays and lesbians and that achieved much critical attention is Ronald Schernikau's kleinstadtnovelle (small town story [1980]), published when its author was only nineteen years old.

Its unique style (a mixture of first- and third-person perspectives, lack of capitalization, minimal punctuation) helped make the novel more than the usual coming-out story, especially by connecting the personal narrative to the political context in which all desire lives. With the support of his mother, the main character (identified only as "b") refuses to capitulate to institutionalized homophobia and ultimately escapes the confines of the small-town mentality that would silence him.

The number of lesbian characters in German literature increased enormously in the 1980s. (One critic has found only five works in which lesbians appeared between 1950 and 1969, but 130 in the 1980s.) The women's movement of the 1970s produced new kinds of literature and opened space for lesbian experience to be included in ways never before possible.

An example is Marlene Stenten's Albina (1986), which describes the dissolution of a lesbian relationship without laying blame for its demise on society or even on the partners. These qualities are new in lesbian fiction and bear the positive influence of feminist philosophies.

A few male authors have made careers by writing about gay topics for a largely gay audience. Detlev Meyer is a gifted poet, satirical cultural critic, and successful novelist. His works present a portrait of gay life painted with both humor and affection.

He is equally well known for poems about love and desire (Heute nacht im Dschungel [Tonight in the Jungle], 1981; Stehen Männer an den Grachten [When Men Are Standing at the Canals, 1990) and for the trilogy of novels under the title Biographie der Bestürzung (Biography of Dismay): Im Dampfbad greift nach mir ein Engel (In the Sauna an Angel Reaches out to Me [1985]); David steigt aufs Riesenrad (David Climbs upon the Ferris Wheel [1987]); and Ein letzter Dank den Leichtathleten (A Final Thanks to the Track Athletes [1989]).

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