Eckhart Nickel is adept at mysterious first moves. In his first novel, “Hysteria,” he initially said, “Something was wrong with the berries.” This simple, brief and menacing start, then also seduced the jury of the Klagenfurt Ingeborg Bachmann competition, in which the writer participated in the year 2017 of the manuscript of a lecture in literary revelation.
Nickel’s new novel, Spitzweg whose cover shows Der Hagstolz by Karl Spitzweg, surprises at first with an occasional remark from the narrator: “I never cared much about art.”
The cynical first-person narrator is not interested in art
But he is by no means average as ignorant as a high school graduate would imagine. In his opinion, most of the works “watched” by the young man so far “are either ugly or meaningless. Sometimes both are at the same time.”
But his lack of interest in art does not prevent the satirical first-person narrator from immediately drifting into a short talk about the meaning and purpose of the paintings, in which the main themes of the novel appear: “Before I hang a landscape on the wall, I look but I prefer to look at it through the window.
And when I feel like seeing someone, I put a mirror in there. Art often attempts to be a window and a mirror, and yet it cannot replace one or the other.”
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Oddly enough, Eckhart Nickel’s literature is just that: a window and a mirror at the same time. But rather than wanting to depict any “real” reality, Nickel explores the world by describing man-made transformations from natural to synthetic. The raspberries of “hysteria” no longer come from the bush, but from a laboratory run by environmental purists who believe that only the plant’s artificial fruit does no harm to the environment.
Thus Nickel’s new prose work can be seen as a masterful reversal of its predecessor. Because in “Spitzweg” art is now the second nature of the main characters – which is also reflected in literature: everything in this text seems artificial. The scenes resemble Spitzwig miniatures with many details not immediately recognizable. The new nickel plate is also a compact narrative maze where there are many branches, stunning secondary threads and reflections that only add an overall work of art when read again.
[Eckhart Nickel: Spitzweg. Roman. Piper Verlag, München 2022. 254 Seiten, 22 €.]
The plot, which is only recognizable as such, begins with a misguided verdict from Mrs. Hügel, a strict art teacher. Students must make a self-portrait. Kirsten, the ‘only talent’ in the class, was soon able to make an ‘almost complete drawing’. Mrs. Heigl, however, explained “in a mellow voice” that Kirsten had “the guts to be ugly”. Which the sensitive schoolgirl doesn’t find funny at all.
After all, the talented Kirsten is adored by two of her classmates. In addition to the narrator, who reports elegantly from halfway distance and remains anonymous to the end, the charismatic Carl has his eye on the young lady. The universally educated young man seems to spend his spare time in a dark attic room, which he calls “the lair of art”. The atmosphere in this enigmatic sanctuary is slightly reminiscent of Carl Spitzweg’s famous painting “The Poor Poet,” although there is no canopy hanging from the ceiling and no collage pages of manuscripts in the corner.
Karl owns a copy of Spitzweg
In fact, the fictional character Carl owns a stunningly adorable version of another Spitzweg image, “Hagestolz,” which shows a bachelor in a hat from behind, taking care of walking couples. Carl’s mother allegedly made the Spitzweg version. But what is original, imitation, or even forgery in this novel always remains in the balance.
As in “Spitzweg”, new questions arise with each sentence anyway: What is the significance of the character of a reclusive person today or again? What time period does Nickel’s novel take place? The story seems to be taking place in the present, yet the narrator’s attitude seems to come from distant times.
Romance can develop an effective force
In any case, the art-loving novel teaches us that paintings of the Romantic period can still have a great influence even today. At Carl’s lair, not only do guests engage in witty conversations about music, literature, and the evolution of Spitzweg’s visual aesthetics, this is also where the friends come up with a cunning plan of revenge to get back to the art teacher.
There is also friction within the asymmetric triangular. The third party doesn’t like the fact that Karl is increasingly interested in Kirsten, for two reasons. The narrator does not want to give up his exclusive friendship with Karl, nor his tender feelings for Kirsten. But perhaps jealousy is just misinterpretations, and Karl is a type of Haag’s pride that arose from the famous painting.
As intellectual as the novel, Nickel still creates suspense at the end. To the furious ending including a chase in the museum, however, it may be about art theft, picture destruction and a German teacher going to read downstairs: in a cheerful, well-lit book cache. Also this dr. Elephant is a “totally misguided alien ball”, a broken but at the same time shimmering character who doesn’t need windows, only literature to see the world.
We are all, as the narrator understands (and so are we), looking for fairly secret hiding places for art. Photo bubbles in social networks is not mentioned, but the novel can also be read as a criticism of the desecration of today’s flood of images. Nickel offers an anti-aesthetic program, asking for dedication to supposedly trivial things that make the difference, like comparing the original to the fake.
The world is not that ugly
‘Spitzweg’ is a wonderful and wonderful celebration of stubbornness and a remarkable beauty in a world that, despite all global evils, is not so ugly. The namesake Spitzweg embodies a mindset that attempts to overcome common time periods and taste judgments.
In order to describe every detail of this wonderful novel, you will need a novel-length text. Appropriately, the book is preceded by a quote from Carl Spitzweg, which also explains Eckhart Nickel’s fine handwriting: “Every line is clever, everything is well thought out, the uninteresting is interesting.”