Herta Müller (born 17 August 1953) is a Romanian-born German novelist, poet, essayist and recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature. Born in Nițchidorf, Timiș County in Romania, her native language is German. Since the early 1990s she has been internationally established, and her works have been translated into more than twenty languages.
Müller is noted for her works depicting the effects of violence, cruelty and terror, usually in the setting of Communist Romania under the repressive Nicolae Ceaușescu regime which she has experienced herself. Many of her works are told from the viewpoint of the German minority in Romania and are also a depiction of the modern history of the Germans in the Banat and Transylvania. Her much acclaimed 2009 novel The Hunger Angel (Atemschaukel) portrays the deportation of Romania's German minority to Stalinist Soviet Gulags during the Soviet occupation of Romania for use as German forced labor.
Müller has received more than twenty awards to date, including the Kleist Prize (1994), the Aristeion Prize (1995), the International Dublin Literary Award (1998) and the Franz Werfel Human Rights Award (2009). On 8 October 2009, the Swedish Academy announced that she had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, describing her as a woman "who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed".
Müller was born to Banat Swabian Catholic farmers in Nițchidorf (German: Nitzkydorf), up to the 1980s a German-speaking village in the Romanian Banat in western Romania. Her family was part of Romania's German minority. Her grandfather had been a wealthy farmer and merchant, but his property was confiscated by the Communist regime. Her father had been a member of the Waffen SS during World War II, and earned a living as a truck driver in Communist Romania. In 1945 her mother, then aged 17, was along with 100,000 others of the German minority deported to forced labor camps in the Soviet Union, from which she was released in 1950. Müller's native language is German; she learned Romanian only in grammar school. She graduated from Nikolaus Lenau High School before becoming student of German studies and Romanian literature at West University of Timișoara.
In 1976, Müller began working as a translator for an engineering factory, but was dismissed in 1979 for her refusal to cooperate with the Securitate, the Communist regime's secret police. After her dismissal she initially earned a living by teaching kindergarten and giving private German lessons.
Müller's first book, Niederungen (Nadirs), was published in Romania in German in 1982, in a state-censored version. The book was about a child's view of the German-cultural Banat. Some members of the Banat Swabian community criticized Müller for her unsympathetic portrayal of village life. Müller was a member of Aktionsgruppe Banat, a group of German-speaking writers in Romania who supported freedom of speech over the censorship they faced under Nicolae Ceaușescu's government, and her works, including The Land of Green Plums, deal with these issues. Radu Tinu, the Securitate officer in charge of her case, denies that she ever suffered any persecutions, a claim that is opposed by Müller's own version of her (ongoing) persecution in an article in the German weekly Die Zeit in July 2009.
After being refused permission to emigrate to West Germany in 1985, Müller was finally allowed to leave along with her then-husband, novelist Richard Wagner, in 1987, and they settled in West Berlin, where both still live. In the following years she accepted lectureships at universities in Germany and abroad. Müller was elected to membership in the Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung in 1995, and other honorary positions followed. In 1997 she withdrew from the PEN centre of Germany in protest of its merger with the former German Democratic Republic branch. In July 2008, Müller sent a critical open letter to Horia-Roman Patapievici, president of the Romanian Cultural Institute in reaction to the moral and financial support given by the institute to two former informants of the Securitate participating at the Romanian-German Summer School.
The critic Denis Scheck described visiting Müller at her home in Berlin and seeing that her desk contained a drawer full of single letters cut from a newspaper she had entirely destroyed in the process. Realising that she used the letters to write texts, he felt he had "entered the workshop of a true poet".
The Passport, first published in Germany as Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf der Welt in 1986, is, according to The Times Literary Supplement, couched in the strange code engendered by repression: indecipherable because there is nothing specific to decipher, it is candid, but somehow beside the point, redolent of things unsaid. From odd observations the villagers sometimes make (“Man is nothing but a pheasant in the world”), to chapters titled after unimportant props (“The Pot Hole”, “The Needle”), everything points to a strategy of displaced meaning … Every such incidence of misdirection is the whole book in miniature, for although Ceausescu is never mentioned, he is central to the story, and cannot be forgotten. The resulting sense that anything, indeed everything – whether spoken by the characters or described by the author – is potentially dense with tacit significance means this short novel expands in the mind to occupy an emotional space far beyond its size or the seeming simplicity of its story."
In 2009, Müller enjoyed the greatest international success of her career. Her novel Atemschaukel (published in English The Hunger Angel) was nominated for the Deutscher Buchpreis (German Book Prize) and won the Franz Werfel Human Rights Award. In this book, Müller describes the journey of a young man to a gulag in the Soviet Union, the fate of many Germans in Transylvania after World War II. It was inspired by the experience of poet Oskar Pastior, whose memories she had made notes of, and also by what happened to her own mother.
In October 2009, the Swedish Academy announced its decision to award that year's Nobel Prize in Literature to Müller "who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed." The academy compared Müller's style and her use of German as a minority language with Franz Kafka and pointed out the influence of Kafka on Müller. The award coincided with the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism. Michael Krüger, head of Müller's publishing house, said: "By giving the award to Herta Müller, who grew up in a German-speaking minority in Romania, the committee has recognized an author who refuses to let the inhumane side of life under communism be forgotten"
In 2012 Müller commented on the Nobel Prize for Mo Yan by saying that the Swedish Academy had apparently chosen an author who 'celebrates censorship'.
Although Müller has revealed little about the specific people or books that have influenced her, she has acknowledged the importance of her university studies in German and Romanian literature, and particularly of the contrast between the two languages. "The two languages", the writer says, "look differently even at plants. In Romanian, 'snowdrops' are 'little tears', in German they are 'Schneeglöckchen', that is 'little snow bells', which means we’re not only speaking about different words, but about different worlds." (However here she confuses snowdrops with lily-of-the-valley, the latter being called 'little tears' in Romanian.) She continues, "Romanians see a falling star and say that someone has died, with the Germans you make a wish when you see the falling star." Romanian folk music is another influence: "When I first heard Maria Tănase she sounded incredible to me, it was for the first time that I really felt what folklore meant. Romanian folk music is connected to existence in a very meaningful way."
Müller's work was also shaped by the many experiences she shared with her ex-husband, the novelist and essayist Richard Wagner. Both grew up in Romania as members of the Banat Swabian ethnic group and enrolled in German and Romanian literary studies at Timișoara University. Upon graduating, both worked as German-language teachers, and were members of Aktionsgruppe Banat, a literary society that fought for freedom of speech.
Müller's involvement with Aktionsgruppe Banat gave her the courage to write boldly, despite the threats and trouble generated by the Romanian secret police. Although her books are fictional, they are based on real people and experiences. Her 1996 novel, The Land of Green Plums was written after the deaths of two friends, in which Müller suspected the involvement of the secret police, and one of its characters was based on a close friend from Aktionsgruppe Banat.
- Niederungen, (short stories), censored version published in Bucharest, 1982. Uncensored version published in Germany 1984. (Published in English as Nadirs in 1999 by the University of Nebraska Press)
- Drückender Tango ("Oppressive Tango"), stories, Bucharest, 1984
- Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf der Welt, Berlin, 1986. (Published in English as The Passport, Serpent's Tail, 1989)
- Barfüßiger Februar ("Barefoot February"), Berlin, 1987
- Reisende auf einem Bein, Berlin, 1989. Published in English as Traveling on One Leg, Hydra Books/Northwestern University Press, 1998.
- Wie Wahrnehmung sich erfindet ("How Perception Invents Itself"), Paderborn, 1990
- Der Teufel sitzt im Spiegel ("The Devil is Sitting in the Mirror"), Berlin, 1991
- Der Fuchs war damals schon der Jäger ("Even Back Then, the Fox Was the Hunter"), Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1992
- Eine warme Kartoffel ist ein warmes Bett ("A Warm Potato Is a Warm Bed"), Hamburg, 1992
- Der Wächter nimmt seinen Kamm ("The Guard Takes His Comb"), Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1993
- Angekommen wie nicht da ("Arrived As If Not There"), Lichtenfels, 1994
- Herztier, Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1994. Published in an English translation by Michael Hofmann as The Land of Green Plums, Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company, New York, 1996
- Hunger und Seide ("Hunger and Silk"), essays, Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1995
- In der Falle ("In a Trap"), Göttingen 1996
- Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet, Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1997. Published in English as The Appointment, Metropolitan Books/Picador, New York/London, 2001
- Der fremde Blick oder das Leben ist ein Furz in der Laterne ("The Foreign View, or Life Is a Fart in a Lantern"), Göttingen, 1999
- Heimat ist das, was gesprochen wird ("Home Is What Is Spoken There"), Blieskastel, 2001
- A Good Person Is Worth as Much as a Piece of Bread, foreword to Kent Klich's Children of Ceausescu, published by Journal, 2001 and Umbrage Editions, 2001.
- Der König verneigt sich und tötet ("The King Bows and Kills"), essays, Munich (and elsewhere), 2003
- Atemschaukel, Munich, 2009 (The Hunger Angel, Metropolitan Books, 2012)
- Immer derselbe Schnee und immer derselbe Onkel, 2011
Lyrics/ Found Poetry
- Im Haarknoten wohnt eine Dame ("A Lady Lives in the Hair Knot"), Rowohlt, Reinbek bei Hamburg, 2000
- Die blassen Herren mit den Mokkatassen ("The Pale Gentlemen with their Espresso Cups"), Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich, 2005
- Este sau nu este Ion ("Is He or Isn't He Ion"), collage-poetry written and published in Romanian, Iași, Polirom, 2005
- Vater telefoniert mit den Fliegen ("Father is calling the Flies"), Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich, 2012
- Müller, H. Nadirs. U of Nebraska Press. ISBN 9780803235830.
- On Google Books Retrieved on 7 October 2009
- Review Retrieved on 7 October 2009.
- The Hunger Angel
- Theodor Kramer: Die Wahrheit ist, man hat mir nichts getan ("The Truth Is No One Did Anything to Me"), Vienna 1999
- Die Handtasche ("The Purse"), Künzelsau 2001
- Wenn die Katze ein Pferd wäre, könnte man durch die Bäume reiten ("If the Cat Were a Horse, You Could Ride Through the Trees"), Künzelsau 2001
- 1993: Vulpe – vânător (Der Fuchs war damals schon der Jäger), directed by Stere Gulea, starring Oana Pellea, Dorel Vișan, George Alexandru etc.
- 1981 Adam-Müller-Guttenbrunn Sponsored Prize the Temeswar Literature Circle
- 1984 Aspekte Literature Prize
- 1985 Rauris Literature Prize
- 1985 Encouragement Prize of the Literature Award of Bremen
- 1987 Ricarda-Huch Prize of Darmstadt
- 1989 Marieluise-Fleißer Prize of Ingolstadt
- 1989 German Language Prize, together with Gerhardt Csejka, Helmuth Frauendorfer, Klaus Hensel, Johann Lippet, Werner Söllner, William Totok, Richard Wagner
- 1990 Roswitha Medal of Knowledge of Bad Gandersheim
- 1991 Kranichsteiner Literature Prize
- 1993 Critical Prize for Literature
- 1994 Kleist Prize
- 1995 Aristeion Prize
- 1995/96 City-writer of Frankfurt-Bergen-Enkheim
- 1997 Literature Prize of Graz
- 1998 Ida-Dehmel Literature Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award for The Land of Green Plums
- 2001 Cicero Speaker Prize
- 2002 Carl-Zuckmayer-Medaille of Rhineland-Palatinate
- 2003 Joseph-Breitbach Prize (together with Christoph Meckel and Harald Weinrich)
- 2004 Literature Prize of Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung
- 2005 Berlin Literature Prize
- 2006 Würth Prize for European Literature und Walter-Hasenclever Literature Prize
- 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature
- 2009 Franz Werfel Human Rights Award, in particular for her novel Everything I Possess I Carry With Me
- 2010 Hoffmann von Fallersleben Prize
- 2013 Best Translated Book Award, shortlist, The Hunger Angel
- Zentrum gegen Vertreibungen. Z-g-v.de (2002-01-17). Retrieved on 2009-10-26.
- Chad W. Post (April 10, 2013). "2013 Best Translated Book Award: The Fiction Finalists". Three Percent. Retrieved 2013-04-11.