Peter Wortsman

Stimme und Atem

Out of Breath, Out of Mind

"To have reached at age 66, after years of considerable creative effort in English, the beginner's level in another language is in my view no small feat, something on the order of digging a hole so deep into New York granite that you come crawling back up in China, filthy but still breathing. If as an adult I stutter and stumble with the shaky spoon of my tongue back into the still fluid forecourt of consciousness that German constitutes for me, I do so in full consciousness as an English speaker reminded of other syllables that say more to me about the unspeakable than yes and no." So writes the New York-born author, son of Austrian-Jewish émigrés, in the foreword. "I harbor a stillborn scribe of the German tongue in me," he maintains. In this collection of stories, some quasi-autobiographical, some nightmarish, most of them originally written in German and thereafter translated, or rather, adapted by the author himself into English, Wortsman creates a compelling, albeit disturbing, portrait, not only of himself, but also of our shattered age. Despite all, with his writing, Wortsman harbors a hope: " Perhaps we Germans and Jews of the Post-War generation, as children of a shattered cultural union, can still achieve something productive together, perhaps we can pick a few rags of reason from the ruins of the past and therewith pitch a tent big enough to hold all our dreams."


"Born in the shadow of the flames of the World War II generation, Peter Wortsman is a master of short prose. Though a native New Yorker, he is essentially a European. His prose harkens back to that of such masters as Dino Buzzati, Clarice Lispector, Juan Rulfo, Tonino Guerra or Paul Bowles. Wortsman's short stories are breathtakingly astonishing: his take on the unbearable lightness of being reveals the inescapable banality of evil."

– Julia Kissina, author of Frühling auf dem Mond and Elephantinas Moskauer Jahre


Peter Wortsman has the voice of a symphony orchestra that starts out softly, but soon builds to a crescendo that leaves no reader unmoved.

– Deborah Feldman, author of Unorthodox and Überbitten


Text Excerpt:


Family members are not like other people. They are attached to each other by thin invisible wires at every moveable part. As distinct from marionettes, however, whose strings all stretch upwards to the fingers of the puppeteer surreptitiously directing their fate, the wires of domestic life are horizontally strung, binding spouses and their progeny like the members of a chain gang. One could well compare these domestic desperados to a wagon team, though the family drags nothing forward but itself. It advances rather like a jellyfish, teased by the tides, driven hither and thither by the currents of jealousy and love, never going anywhere, until, one by one, the members miraculously break free, each in his own way defining himself and dying in the process.


Autorenfoto: Ricky Owens

Autorenfoto: Ricky Owens

The son of Austrian-Jewish emigrés, born in New York in 1952, Peter Wortsman was raised bilingually in German and English, i.e. linguistically confused. He is the author of a novel (Cold Earth Wanderers, 2014), two volumes of short fiction (A Modern Way to Die, 1991, second edition, 2019; and Footprints in Wet Cement, 2017), plays (Burning Words, premiered in 2006, in German translation, 2014; and The Tattooed Man Tells All, 2018), a travel memoir (Ghost Dance in Berlin, 2013), and of a book of nonfiction (The Caring Heirs of Doctor Samuel Bard, 2019). Wortsman is also a literary translator from German into English, of works by Chamisso, the Grimms, Heine, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Kafka, Kleist, Musil, and Mynona, among others. Recipient of the 1985 Beard's Fund Short Story Award, the 2008 Gertje Potash-Suhr Prosapreis of the Society for Contemporary American Literature in German, the 2012 Gold Grand Prize for Best Travel Story of the Year (Solas Awards Competition), and the 2014 Independent Publishers Book Award (IPPY), he was a 1973 Fulbright Fellow at the Albert Ludwig Universität in Freiburg im Breisgau, 1974 Fellow of the Thomas J. Watson Foundation in Vienna, 2010 Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, and in the summer of 2016 a Fellow of the Österreichischen Gesellschaft für Literatur in Vienna. His travelogues were selected five years in a row, 2008-2012, and again in 2016 for inclusion in The Best Travel Writing. His short fiction appeared, in German translation, in the magazines, Manuskripte, in Graz, Schreibheft, in Essen, Cicero, in Berlin, and in the anthology AmLit: Neue Literatur aus den USA, published by the Druckhaus Galrev, Berlin. His essays were published, in German translation, in Die Weltand Die Zeiterschienen. His interviews with survivors of the Nazi concentration camps comprise the "Peter Wortsman Collection of Oral History" at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.