I came to Heisser Sommer prepared not to like it. A book by a male author in his forties, looking back on his glorious youth twenty years previous. That Timm chose not to use quotation marks for characters’ speech added to my annoyance. Worse, it’s set in the overexposed late 1960s, featuring a male protagonist who is not only a student at the time, but one who considers his inability to finish writing a particular paper a major crisis in his life. Still worse, the first scene is Ullrich breaking up with his girlfriend while they are still naked in bed. Spare me, I thought. And I did. The first time I tried the book, I put it down after the first thirty pages or so, and no regrets.
But as I got closer to completing the Selected Munich set, I decided to give Heisser Sommer a second chance, and I’m glad that I did. It’s not that Ullrich becomes an especially likable figure over the course of the book; he remains a cad and a jerk a lot of the time, particularly to women. He can’t finish things, he lashes out, sometimes senselessly, often to his own detriment. He has a romantic notion of what revolution could mean, and he works to bring it about in Germany without thinking through what it could cost, and who would pay those costs. Ullrich, though, is more than just the sum of his flaws. He has a keen sense of the injustices around him, and he wants to correct those; he is willing to put his whole self on the line to make the society he lives in a better one. He sees the privilege he has as a university student — at the time, about five percent of Germans who finished school went to university afterwards — and he wants to earn that privilege, not just have it bestowed on him. He wants to be different from, and better than his father, who joined the Nazi party early and enthusiastically, and is struggling in postwar Germany as the owner of a slowly failing furniture business. I ended Heisser Sommer with considerable sympathy for Ullrich, and hope that he was finally on a path to making better choices, even as much remained unresolved.
The story begins in Munich, in a hot summer as both Ullrich and his flatmate Lothar are working on papers for their seminars in German literature. In contrast to Ullrich, Lothar works steadily, if eccentrically. Their top-floor apartment is almost unbearably warm, and Lothar has a distinct program for coping with it, involving an intricate schedule for opening and closing doors and windows, keeping wetted towels in specific places, and doing it all just so. I found it very German, very young-person, and low-key hilarious. (They live in Schwabing, an in-town neighborhood where I lived for several years, and which is the setting for other books in the Süddeutsche series including Schellingstrasse 48 and Herrn Dames Aufzeichnungen. Same streets, different eras.) Ullrich can’t find the motivation to care about his paper. He goes out, he goes to movies, he does almost anything but write, fooling himself with the excuses that anyone who has ever wrestled with a deadline and lost will recognize. This number of days left means that many pages per day to write, oh that’s easy. Days pass with less progress than planned, and the equation changes.
Before long, Ullrich has left Munich entirely, following a girl and unrequited lust, or maybe love after all, to Hamburg. At first, Hamburg is a revelation. Everyone seems so open and relaxed compared to uptight Munich. He meets people who are deep into Germany’s systemic opposition and seem to share Ullrich’s drive to correct injustice, to open up a society that seems unconscionably small and closed. Some of them idealize the situation “over there” (i.e., in East Germany), some are longing for something entirely new. Some are just playing at revolution, coasting on their parents’ money and position; others are playing at art, or maybe growing into being deep artists, it’s too soon to tell. Still others are just playing the field, hoping to get in the sack with as many desirable partners as possible. Timm shows people in their twenties in all their promise and excitement, their heedlessness and selfishness. They make art and they make mistakes, they leave marks and they leave scars.
Ullrich turned around and saw Conny and Bully waiting in front of the wall. A thought shot through his head: time to whistle “see you later alligator” [English in the original]. Then it would all be over, a fun excursion that tickled the nerves, one that maybe Bully and Conny would repeat the next night by themselves, but then Ullrich remembered Schrader who talked about “nigger music,” Christa who was maybe lying in bed with Bungert, he suddenly thought about Ingeborg and how she came out of the doctor’s house after the abortion looking pale, and how cravenly he had behaved, he thought about Renke and about Schrader again and about his father and about Albert, who had done time in a concentration camp.
What a mess, thought Ullrich and tried to concentrate. He had to laugh. There he was again standing in the rain and watching a building’s entrance. What a damned pile of crap he said softly to himself and laughed. Finally do something. Consequential.
Ullrich lit the cigarette they had agreed to as a signal. For a long time, he held up the burning match. (p. 165, my translation)
He has connected with a revolutionary group in Hamburg, and they are exploring their first direct action: tossing some Molotov cocktails into the parking area of a police station to set the cars on fire. Of course there isn’t a plan to connect it to a larger action, let alone an idea of what a revolution would mean. Just a sense that somebody should do something, and this is something. Ullrich is the lookout, Connor and Bully are the bomb throwers. The other names are people Ullrich has encountered along the way — Schrader a friend of his father’s who’s still on the far right, Christa the unrequited, Bungert her unfaithful and emotionally abusive boyfriend, Ingeborg the girlfriend from Heisser Sommer‘s opening scene, Renke the lit professor from Munich, and Albert the friend of a worker Ullrich met in a bar in Munich. They are a partial panorama of West Germany in the late 1960s, as people in their various ways were trying to change the apparent stasis of the economic miracle years.
Things go wrong soon after Ullrich gives his signal, and they are lucky to escape. Timm follows his cast further into attempts at radical change, whether that’s factory work and attempting workers’ organizing there or setting up free-thinking communes deep in the countryside. Ullrich chooses a different path, and the novel closes with him taking his first steps on it. His Bildung is far from finished at the end of this Bildungsroman, but maybe it is the end of the beginning. I’m glad I gave it a second chance.