“Missouri” by Gregor Hens – book review

When his debut novel “Himmelssturz” appeared in 2002, critics spontaneously celebrated Gregor Hens’ book as a “masterful work of art about the transience of love”. The “Literary World” even named the work “Debut of the Year”. Hens, born in Cologne in 1965 and now at home in Berlin, had chosen the USA as the narrative background for his novel. He had spent much of his life in America’s Midwest himself.

His book unfolded the story of a university professor whose relationship with a bustling art dealer faltered when a young woman came into his life. “Himmelssturz” gave rise to great literary hopes – but none of the books that followed over the years gave Hens the breakthrough expected by many. Not the flawless German-American collection of stories “Transfer Lounge” from 2003. Not the novel “In this new light” (2006). And neither is the volume “Nicotin”, which appeared in 2011 and has been translated into various languages.

Smartly built

This is surprising, given that there is a classically realistic narrator at work here, whose books proliferate with everything that makes up literature that is easy to sell: cleverly constructed stories that sometimes unabashedly touch the heart of their readers. In addition, there are vividly drawn characters that can be imagined spontaneously on the cinema screen.

So now, 17 years after his much-praised debut, Hens is returning to America with his new novel. To where it all began for him. And there is much to suggest that he could finally have achieved the big hit. Because “Missouri” can be described as his most mature and undoubtedly best book.

In it he unfolds the noticeably autobiographically motivated story of the young assistant teacher Karl, who – just like his creator once did before him – leaves Germany at the age of just 23 to lead a different, more intense life in the USA than he did Homeland Cologne has been able to offer so far. And when he meets the charismatic student Stella in Missouri, with whom he begins a love affair, the new US existence suddenly makes sense for Karl.

Gregor Hens unfolds his second American love story in a gripping manner. And for a long time the happiness between the German and the young American, who has very special abilities, seems inviolable. Until Karl stands across from Stella’s mother, Janet, in the hills of Missouri – and his relationship with Stella becomes unbalanced. Janet entangles Karl in an erotic game. “What did she want from me? Had I done something to encourage her behavior? Could there be a more grotesque temptation?”

For a while, Karl was still able to evade Janet’s advances. Until he finally gives in to her – and loses Stella. “She had taken what she wanted to take, she had coerced and seduced me, me, the friend of her own daughter. There was only one possibility: disappear.”

Karl flees to Berkeley, where he takes up a new position at the university there – and the connection to Stella is finally broken. Hens confidently prevents his material from slipping into the overly emotional or merely veiled epigonal. Because the story of the young man who loves his daughter and who ends up cheating on his mother is in itself a story – and at least since Mike Nichol’s classic movie “The Graduation” from 1967 it has been mined.

But by increasing his material to the story of a doubt that has become comprehensive, Hens gains something new from it. “Missouri” tells of people who each try to save themselves in their own way: Karl, who has reached his limits emotionally and disappears. Just like Janet, who tries to forget the failure of her marriage in the liaison with him. And also Stella, who quickly disappears into a new relationship, will remain trapped in her memories for a long time.

In the end, the narrator of this rousing novel takes refuge in the description of its story in order to gain distance from it. From a literary point of view, this is not exactly new – but in its psychological accuracy it is very convincing here.

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