Jonathan Franzen - Fulbright Student to Germany, 1981

November 28, 2012
video
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Germany, 2009:
So, Jonathan, first I want to say thank you for sitting down with me and with the Fulbright program for this interview, or this conversation, I am really honored to be here, obviously. The first thing I want to ask you is, I know that you spend a lot of time in Germany studying abroad as a junior at Swarthmore, and I guess I was wondering why did you decide to go back and why did you apply for the Fulbright?
 
Jonathan Franzen:
I had an interest in being a playwright in those years. My first semester I studied Holfmanstatem and my second semester I studied Karl Krause. I was familiar with Krause from my earlier German studies and we were doing his amazing play, The Last Days of Mankind, and he is so hard. I put the hour per page in that was necessary to understand Krause and at the end, the last week of the class, I delivered a paper that I worked very hard on and the professor said hand it to the American, they know how to work, which felt great to me
 
Branden:
You were there before the wall fell, which was a huge moment in German history and I was wondering if you could describe a bit to me what that experience was like?
 
Jonathan:
The wall was very much up, they were very tense, that was a very tense year, the Soviets had these SS20 rockets that they were deploying and there was a lot of saber-rattling on Reagan’s side and riots when Reagan came to Berlin. That all happened during my stay. They were rough years. Living at what was then still one of the cruxes of the Cold War made a deep impression on me, shaped my work for at least two novels and something I still want to go back to. It was good to get out of the American bubble and to be in a place where people were talking about guilt and go see movies like Deblionatzite, which was about 60’s radical terrorists in Germany, but that is a movie about how a sense of guilt and outrage over what the Nazi’s had done had poisoned those kids childhoods and had deformed them. To feel that that was still, that there were matters more important than just raising a family or being a consumer, which was kind of the horizon in the world I had grown up in, to go in a place where history really mattered and mattered to individuals. You could see people wrestling, they would talk about it, certainly in the paper, it is a more serious culture.
 
Branden:
Can you talk to me a little about your experience as a Fulbrighter in Germany, what was it like for you?
 
Jonathan:
I was a scared kid and one of the reasons that I am a writer is that I like to control things and the idea of uttering German sentences that were less than perfect, I knew I could make them perfect if I wrote them. It was really painful for me to speak because I could just hear myself making mistakes, so I became very self-conscious and it was kind of agony. It was the first time I had lived by myself, I had my own squalid one room apartment across the street from Tagel Airport. It was a grim place. I did a couple of things. I really made an effort to reach out to some Americans that I knew there and got to be friends with them. I got out of that place as quickly as I could and roomed for the rest of the year with a Canadian. We had our own adventures. The two professors that I had, in the two classes that I dutifully took, were really good. If a student came to them and had worked hard on something, they didn’t hold it against him that he was an American.
 
Branden:
What kind of an impact did your experience in Germany have on your as a writer?
 
Jonathan:
I got excited about literature as literature reading the Germans. I began my first novel there and to start my second novel I went back to Europe and did some of the best work on the early part of that. When I was working on Freedom I just never got it going here, and I went over once, spent six weeks in Berlin, got nowhere, went back a year later to the American Academy and wrote the first pages of the book.
 
Branden:
Was there a specific experience that you had as a Fulbrighter that was particularly transformative for you?
 
Jonathan:
When I think about the most intense experiences I had in Berlin it was probably the family I lived with for six weeks when I first got there. It is a chance you don’t get that often as an adult to be dropped in as if by parachute into another family and to get to watch all of the interactions among those family members and to be sort of implicated, but mostly apart. That was kind of my own position in my own family because I came along so late, I was always watching. The Germen writers, Kafka, Wilhelm and Mann showed me how to understand what I was seeing in my family. I would say the most intense experience was living with that family and staying in touch with them.
Branden:
Do you feel like the Fulbright has made you a better citizen in some way?
 
Jonathan:
A certain credulity about your own country will be lost in a very good way. I would say in some ways that is the most valuable thing of all. To come back and to have some sort of objectivity about your own country, which you can’t get when you go for two weeks in the pretty places in Italy, you can remain 100 percent American when you do that. When you go an live in a student slum in some other country for a year you can’t maintain the bubble, it just can’t be done without going crazy and being sent back. To me, being a good citizen, is having a mature appreciation of your countries strengths and weaknesses, but that is just my opinion of what a good citizen is.
 
Branden:
Why do you think that students today should apply for the Fulbright program?
 
Jonathan:
The Fulbright program was a great idea when it was conceived and I think it is still a great idea. The idea was, we just had a couple of global wars in the space of three decades and wouldn’t it be nice if people who might grow up to be influential, or are maybe in some cases are influential, had the experience of going and spending a year in a culture very different. The dream, the hope, it was a very good 50’s notion that we could actually understand one another better. I am so personally changed by having spent those three years in Europe that I did when I was young. I can’t help wishing it on anyone else who has any interest in it because it will change you. Opening out and engaging is more valuable than fearfully staying in the bubble.
 
Branden:
Thank you so much for you time and thank you for sharing your Fulbright experiences and we look forward to the next book.