Two Entangled Projects

A family novel and a book on Shakespeare and seriality: Elisabeth Bronfen writes about her current book projects and traces the conceptual throughlines connecting them.




The family novel unfolds in two crucial moments: during the fall of the Nazi regime in the spring of 1945 in Bavaria, and 50 years later, once more in Munich (where my heroine is an Associate Professor of theater studies) and in New York City (where a murder has allegedly taken place). It is conceived as is a historical crime story, circling around two black boxes. A decorated WWII veteran mysteriously dies in a hospital in Manhattan, after having had a stroke. My heroine and her brother come to suspect that his common-law wife may have pulled out the tube of his ventilator, causing him to suffocate. In the process of mourning, the two siblings also begin reassessing their father’s activities during the war, particularly in light of his subsequent attempt to pass over the matter of his Jewish heritage.


Two theoretical Denkfiguren lie at the heart of this autobiographically inflected family novel. In his monograph Hamlet in Purgatory, Steven Greenblatt reads Shakespeare’s tragedy in relation to what he calls a “50-years-after-effect”. In the religious context of Elizabethan England, the place from which the paternal ghost says it has returned no longer existed as an official concept. Yet it is decisive that this spectral figure, who admonishes his son to remember him – and, indeed, revenge the crime that has been committed against him – should invoke the notion of purgatory. What returns with him is the effect that repressing Catholicism has had on the world in which Shakespeare’s theater intervenes. In a similar vein, my family novel takes the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII, which was globally celebrated in 1995, as a conceptual frame, in order to address the way residues of fascist and anti-Semitic thinking have survived not in spite, but precisely because they were subsequently officially repressed. Returning from a state of latency, they regain an uncanny traction, whose powerful effect is predicated on the ungraspability of this haunting. Within the narrative, this 50-year-after effect takes shape in the form of the murder of the war veteran, committed by his common-law wife, a woman from a middle-class German family, who was a child when the KZ in Dachau was liberated.


My second Denkfigur is taken from Annette Kuhn’s work on life writing in her book Family Secrets. The past, she argues, is comparable to a crime scene. While the crime – in my novel, the traumatic event of the holocaust – is itself irretrievable, what continues to exist are the traces it has not only left behind, but which have also undergone a subsequent maturing process. These traces, markers pointing to a past which overshadows the present, can afford a reconstruction of that which once took place, by virtue of reassembling individual pieces pertaining to these past events. When Hamlet’s ghost appeals to his son to remember him, he is asking him to “re-member his murder,” which is to say, to gather the various constituent pieces that make up the complex structure of this traumatic event. The work of memory which, in my novel, the children of the dead veteran undertake to discover a past they only know about through veiled references, turns into a parallel investigation, mirroring and contesting the criminal investigation by the NYPD. Like the detective, the children also work backwards. They look for clues, they try to decipher signs and traces, deduce a coherent narrative from them, and cobble together their reconstruction of what might have been from fragments of the circumstantial evidence obtained through the testimonies of those they ask to remember their version of the past.


Part of the conceptual wager of my novel, however, also has to do with my second book project, to be entitled Shakespeare: In Serie (to be published with S. Fischer Verlag). Following upon my most recent publication, Serial Shakespeare: An Infinite Variety of Appropriations in American TV Drama, this book will explore the philosophical, psychoanalytic, and aesthetic implications of seriality within Shakespeare’s dramatic works. This entails treating his oeuvre as a complex aggregate, in which each of the plays functions as an individual machine that itself is predicated on serial structures regarding character figurations, thematic constellations and poetic formulas. When individual plays are then crossmapped – based not on chronology or genre but on common themes and concerns – what emerges is an operative hermeneutics: A reading effect that traces transformations and refigurations developed from one play to the next.



In my novel, the daughter is, in fact, thinking through one of the chapters of this book for me, namely the one on secrets, ghosts and conspiracies in Shakespeare’s plays. Before she finds out about her father’s sudden death, she regularly meets up with her best friend, a photo historian, with whom she is involved in a Shakespeare project of her own. They converse about lines of connections between the secrets on which his romance plots are based and secrets that drive political conspiracies in his history plays. Once the brother gets the NYPD to investigate the mysterious death of the father, the myriad explorations of crypts, codes, clandestine plots, and secretive actions in Hamlet accompany my heroine in her hermeneutic adventures into the past. The concept that I have come up with to explore both her obsession with secrets in her own family romance and the excessive enjoyment of secret knowledge which Shakespeare’s plays unfold is “cryptomania” – a passion for that which is hidden, for vaults that preserve secrets, but also for a particular type of erotic desire. After all, to imagine the world to be shaped by secrets also means designating certain people as being particularly gifted in dis-covering and transmitting this classified knowledge – secret agents, detectives, neurotic daydreamers and literary scholars.