Schadenfreude, A Love Story by Rebecca Schuman
Schadenfreude, A Love Story:
Me, the Germans, and 20 Years of Attempted Transformations,
Unfortunate Miscommunications, and Humiliating
Situations That Only They Have Words For
Schadenfreude, A Love Story by Rebecca Schuman is a memoir of learning a language and, therefore, a culture. Each chapter brings us along on major, though not all, chapters of Schuman's life, involving her love and study of German, starting in high school, with her introduction-via-boyfriend to the writer Franz Kafka (who, as numerous Germans remind her, was not actually German but part of the German-speaking population of Prague, in what is now the Czech Republic). So enamored of Kafka is Schuman that she vows to be able to read him in his original language, which she ends up doing (that's not actually a spoiler) though along the way she comes across other writers in German, like Bertolt Brecht and Nietzsche, and not incidentally learns about herself. Or learns to be herself, thanks to German culture, or cultures.
Schuman is funny, which is the only way a memoir like this would work. I love the idea of centering a memoir around learning a language, but in order to do so, one has to be able to laugh at one's self, and all the blunders one makes in trying to communicate in a foreign language and live in a foreign culture. Schuman has plenty of things to make fun of about her experiences with German culture, but that only works without the writer being unfair or cruel. It helps when the person making fun can also make fun of herself, which Schuman does in almost every paragraph, as here where she references Richard Linklater's movie Before Sunrise in her awkward hookup with "train station guy":
"I had by no means been expecting a great frenching session like Celine and Jesse's epic spit-swap on that Ferris wheel, but the train station guy's unfortunate combination of stale nicotine saliva and mealy-mouthed lapping technique was lacking enough in physical chemistry that even the perfectly curated romantic moment couldn't save it. And yet. Have you ever gotten to the point in an ill-conceived adventure when you decided, for whatever reason, that you'd sunk enough time and effort into it that you might as well see it through? (See also: obtaining a literature Ph.D. But I digress.)"
Schuman's framework for the book is to have every chapter embody, as the subtitle says in part of "the Germans," "Transformations, Unfortunate Miscommunications, and Humiliating Situations That Only They Have Words For." For example, "schadenfreude" is taking pleasure in other people's suffering, and here Schuman enjoys seeing spoiled American rich kids get in trouble on a train bound for Prague:
"'HOW LONG TO PRAGUE?' said the girl....
The girl pointed theatrically to her watch. "HOW MANY HOURS UNTIL WE GET TO PRAGUE?"
. . . To answer the girl's question, it took about an hour to travel eighty kilometers by rail but on that day, the train was subject to a fifteen-minute delay, on account of the fact that Ms. How Many Hours and her colleagues attempted to present the conductor with Eurail passes, which were not valid in the Czech Republic in 1995. The trail squealed to a halt, the girls surrounded in an instant by the stern-looking border cops and three more conductors . . .
'What about DEUTSCH?' she asked. 'Will you take DEUTSCH?'
. . . 'Yes,' said the conductor. 'We will take deutsche marks.'
'THEN MAYBE WE DON'T HAVE TO WASH DISHES!'
I pulled on my cigarette and exhaled dramatically in the girl's general direction."
So that you not think Schuman too snooty, the rest of that chapter is how she hooks up with the train station guy, capturing the experience in all its awkwardness, a la Lena Dunham. In total regret, she ends up seeing that very person in town and thinks she would have been better off hanging out with her.
What I like about Schadenfreude, A Love Story is that, while laughing, sometimes out loud, I was learning. Each chapter is a mini-lesson in German, along with German culture, and contains mini-essays on German writers. I also love that, while Schuman went on to obtain a PhD in German Literature, she escaped academia to work as a staff writer for Slate.com. And although I think she'd make a good teacher, because she's funny, she also ended up a good writer, not locked into academic language. This is what a refugee from higher education can do: write a good book.
About the Author: Born in Puerto Rico, John Yohe grew up in Michigan and lives in Oregon. He has worked as a wildland firefighter, deckhand/oiler, runner/busboy, bike messenger, wilderness ranger, and fire lookout, as well as a teacher of writing.