Posts Tagged ‘higher ground’

Higher Ground

March 23, 2021

“Bea is fourteen and needs to be taught the facts of life,” her mother, Resi, decides in the opening pages of Anke Stellig’s Higher Ground, originally published in Germany in 2018 and now translated by Lucy Jones. She does not mean, however, the ins and outs of reproduction, but literally how we live our lives. She begins with a revelation of her own when she is in her twenties:

“Fuck! If my parents had lived somewhere else, we’d have had a different kitchen floor.”

The realisation is not that a different mother in a different place would have chosen a different floor, but that her circumstances were such that her mother did not choose:

“I was now convinced my mother had thought the floor tiles were ugly too, but had accepted them because they were all she could afford, they just happened to be there, and had nothing to do with her. But that’s where she’d made a mistake; now the floor stood for her.”

That flooring should have such symbolic significance seems appropriate in a novel where housing is central. The novel also begins with the news that Resi, her husband Sven, and their four children are going to be evicted from their flat. The eviction is personal: four years ago they took over the lease from Resi’s friends, Frank and Vera, who have now terminated the contract by letter:

“The letter is a comeuppance for what I’ve done, and that’s why it’s not addressed to Sven, or to both of us, but just to me.”

And what has she done to deserve this? Written a novel about her friends, many of whom she has known since school. Written about Frank and Vera, about Friederike and Ingmar, about Ulf and Carolina, about Christian and Ellen. And written about them in such a way that they don’t like what they see, in particular her view of their grand project, K23, a building where they all live together in separate apartments. Resi, too, was invited to be part of the project, but could only have bought into it with borrowed money offered by Ingmar, a ‘kind’ gesture that reveals the imbalance of power which has always existed in her friendships.

This is what lies at the heart of the novel: her wealthy but ‘progressive’ friends are oblivious to their privilege, and only willing to accept her as long as she doesn’t point it out. Looking back at her life, she sees that the disparity in class, which they all conspired to ignore, was in fact profound. When she was in a relationship with Ulf they “really believed there was no difference between us, and that it didn’t matter where we came from.” And yet he happily goes skiing with the others knowing she cannot ski. When she points out that she wouldn’t be able to join in, he replies:

“I realise that, but it’s not my fault, and it’s not the others’ either.”

When visiting Ulf’s family at Christmas she has no answer to the question, “And what do you play?” (“I instinctively knew that my two years of learning the recorder in primary school didn’t count in this context”). Despite this, Resi fools herself: she knows her parents do not have much money but “the poor were people who had never heard of Le Corbusier…” Her parents’ jobs (a bookseller and a draughtsman) allow her to imagine she is higher up the class ladder than their salaries can justify. Even in the present she is caught between her middle-class education and her working-class income:

“I prepare myself a working-class lunch – tinned ravioli – and eat it in posh style, with freshly grated Parmesan on an Iittala plate.”

It takes her years to realise that Ingmar’s offer to lend them money was an attempt to distract from K23 as an enclave for the rich (“Well, we also have low wage earners on board…”). Resi’s message to Bea is the same as her message to Ulf:

“I think we have extremely different starting points in life, which we ignored at all costs, and I think it’s still the case, or even more the case, and it’s being ignored more than ever – or worse, it’s being glossed over with neoliberal rubbish about opportunities of moving up in the world…”

Higher Ground is therefore a political book, though it does not read like one; here the political and the personal are the same. It’s written in a chatty tone as befits a mother addressing her daughter, and runs through a range of emotions, with as much humour as there is anger. It also has a conversational structure, moving backwards and forwards in time (which Resi also blames on having to write in a broom cupboard: “I won’t pretend that I have the same conditions as, say, Martin Amis”). It’s almost always entertaining.

The structure allows Resi, looking back, to see parallels between her own life and that of her mother, despite her intention to live it very differently. (Her mother’s first boyfriend was also from a wealthier family and ended the relationship). Now she asks whether she can free her daughter from repeating her own mistakes by warning her, in a way that will resonate with many parents. The address to Bea is an effective conceit, though Bea herself does not really come to life as a character, perhaps because she is always addressed rather than active. The novel wears its rage lightly, but it is a potent reminder that, although money can’t buy happiness, it can buy what we are expected to accept is happiness, and woe betide anyone who points out otherwise.