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Annette Pehnt’s novel “The Dirty Woman”: Rescue through language

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You can tell the story like this: A long-term marriage has gotten into a serious crisis. The husband buys his wife a nice apartment high above the city so that he can get rid of her, a deluxe disposal, so to speak. But the story can also be told in a different way: A marriage has gotten into a serious crisis, the wife wants to leave, wants to devote herself entirely to writing and moves into the apartment her husband recently bought. However, this second version is a subtle form of reality distortion: secretly, the woman knows that her husband is pulling the strings here and is cleverly disguising his decision as her wish so that she can feel better.

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Annette Pehnt’s new novel, told in verse from the wife’s first-person perspective, deals with the collapse of a marriage, power games, powerlessness and loneliness. Like most of the characters, she remains nameless, as does her husband, whom she calls “Meinmann”. The story, as the author is suggesting, is individual, but equally universal. Marriages erode because everyday life and childcare weigh on them, because at some point the deficits of the partner no longer seem tolerable. At the end of the day, the great exhaustion remains: “The tiredness after a day full of high voices and / knocked over glasses of juice (…) The sluggish thoughts that could no longer be polished / when they should have glowed”.

What wears this marriage down isn’t the big bang, it’s the small, subtle stressors that hit the wife like poisoned arrows. For example, when the man’s voice gets sharper as soon as his wife disagrees with him. Then her pulse quickens “as danger approaches.” She is rhetorically inferior to her eloquent husband, and he systematically exploits this and underhandly belittles her.

She pays a high price for taking the time to write

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This doesn’t stop even after she has moved out: he visits her unannounced, brings her food, cosmetics as if she were under house arrest, drags friends over without informing them first, he remains the boss even if they – in the sense of Virginia Woolf – has an apartment to herself. His excuse is simple, she doesn’t have a cell phone, so she can’t be reached because she doesn’t want to be disturbed. Here, too, his proven mantra applies: You wouldn’t have it any other way. Annette Pehnt describes the strategies of skilful manipulation in a nuanced way, her novel is a psychological lesson – fortunately without any psycho-jargon.

The wife pays a high price for having time to write. The beautiful dwelling above the city is a golden cage, and in it she herself is less a bird of paradise than a somewhat lame dove. Although she occasionally wishes for a lover, she ultimately seeks no contact with the outside world. She withdraws into herself, warms up with beautiful memories, the harmonious moments she experienced with her husband and their children. A loner who falls more and more out of the world – such characters are often encountered in Annette Pehnt’s work.

The motif of the woman who is lost to the world is duplicated in the novel: it is the “dirty woman” who does not wash and thus refuses to conform to social and hygienic norms. Annette Pehnt introduced this character in her Lexikon der Liebe (2017), now she is the main character in a series of stories that keep interrupting the plot. These stories are the texts that the wife puts down on paper when she sits alone in her cloud cuckoo land. The dirty woman with the green eyes, who keeps going with strange men to rest with them for a short time, is a distant relative of the narrator. Both are neglected in their own way, the one more externally, the other internally, both appear strangely unredeemed.

At the end of this story-poor novel, the wife leaves the apartment after all. She walks through the dark, empty city to end up ringing an ex-boyfriend’s doorbell. The scholar, a loner like her, who studies old manuscripts, takes her in – just like the dirty woman, the eternal vagabond who keeps staying with strangers.

Although Annette Pehnt’s intricate novel comes in verse, the story can also be read in prose, the author tells the story in a relaxed flow. The advantage of this form is that Pehnt can always emphasize individual sentences, often with surprising images, in which sometimes even a touch of humor flashes. For example, when the wife feels like she is in a whale’s belly in her apartment and thinks about how a lover could be smuggled in here at all.

The verse novel has a long tradition, going back to the chivalric novels of the Middle Ages, in which male heroes have to face adventures. The wife here is not a fighter and the novel is not a “heroine epic” either, as Anne Weber recently wrote about a Resistance fighter – also in verse. Annette Pehnt’s wife doesn’t rebel, but allows things to happen. She has another weapon with which she cannot defend herself, but which gives meaning to her new, isolated life: language. She is the real protagonist in this fine, offbeat novel about marital failure and self-empowerment through writing.

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Source: Tagesspiegel

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