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Indiscreet Fictions

University of Freiburg Germanist Johannes Franzen publishes his dissertation on the “roman à clef”

Freiburg, Feb 14, 2018

Indiscreet Fictions

Source: Wallstein

The “roman à clef” describes a literary genre that is distinguished by doubt. It inspires recognition of real people behind apparently fictitious characters. As a result, it can be used as a tool for divulging intimate details or defamation. In his dissertation, “Indiscreet Fictions,” University of Freiburg Germanist Johannes Franzen shows how, in the case of the "roman à clef," particular moral issues become clear in a special way. Franzen explains, “The work enters into a realm where literature can and should cause pain.”

The dissertation spotlights the reception of a number of novels of this genre which have dominated the literary field in the form of critical debate since the 1960s. These include the scandals surrounding Thomas Bernhard’s “Woodcutters”, Martin Walser’s “Death of a Critic,” or Norbert Gstreins “Das Handwerk des Tötens.” In addition to examining theories of classification and fiction of these types of work, Franzen’s primary aim is to present the "roman à clef" as a continually productive, disruptive factor that raises fundamental questions of literary theory, namely: What responsibilities must authors assume for their works? What is literature allowed to do?

Franzen writes that the reconstruction of debates and scandals of past decades demonstrates, above all, that the media plays an important role in the events surrounding "romans à clef." Franzen looks at the bottom line and points out a contradiction: “On the one hand, commentators damn the genre as subliterary and unrefined, yet on the other, they join in the controversies with great enthusiasm.” Franzen uses the debate over Hellmuth Karasek’s work “Das Magazin” to illustrate this. Karasek made the subject of the book his workplace, the German weekly news magazine “Der Spiegel.” Franzen notes that although the critics officially disparage the characters’ coded identities, at the same time they function as accomplices because they are the ones, if anyone, who disseminate the knowledge needed to decode the novel and discover who is who. Franzen simultaneously reconstructs the ethical conflicts that go along with the genre. In doing this, he examines the “perpetrators” – the authors, who invoke artistic freedom – as well as the “victims” – people who have been made into literary characters against their will.

Johannes Franzen studied German, History and English at the University of Freiburg. In 2016, he received his doctorate in Modern German Literature with the dissertation that is appearing now.

Original publication:
Franzen, Johannes (2018): Indiscreet Fictions (Indiskrete Fiktionen). The Theory and Practice of the "Roman à Clef," 1960 - 2015 (Theorie und Praxis des Schlüsselromans 1960-2015). Göttingen.


Johannes Franzen