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New Lives

A novel in letters offers a lens on the reunification of Germany.

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The essayist Joseph Epstein once wrote a piece addressed to people who thought they had a book in them. The gist of it was that they should try their best not to let it out. Among the people who might have benefited from this advice is East German citizen Enrico Türmer, the protagonist of Ingo Schulze’s massive new novel New Lives.

All his life Türmer has wanted nothing so much as to write a novel, to pour experience onto the page and make it ripple. “If writing was a blunder, then I was a blunder,” he believes.

But he never manages to create a shaped and formed work. The only writing he produces is a series of long letters about his agonies to his sister, friends, and love interests.

As it happens, all of Türmer’s letters are all composed in the first half of 1990, in the months between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of East and West Germany –  a strange era, at once a kind of twilight and a dawn.

Despite his failure to write a novel, when Türmer re-reads these letters, he finds his literary aspirations renewed. Some of the descriptions and metaphors are “so close to perfect I was afraid I had pilfered them from Babel or Mailer.” He believes he now has the material for an epistolary novel in his hands, a work that will “essentially write itself.”

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