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.
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 "fouling her own nest" by 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.
Reading The Hunger Angel, Potsdam, July 2010
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 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.
Letter from Liu Xia
Herta Muller wrote foreword for the first publication of the poetry of Liu Xia, wife of the imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo, in 2015. Muller also translated and read a few of Liu Xia poems in 2014. On 4 December 2017, a photo of the letter to Herta Muller from Liu Xia in a form of poem was posted on Facebook by Chinese dissident Liao Yiwu, where Liu Xia said that she was going mad in her solitary life.
Müller signing one of her books in September 2009
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)
^Due to Scheck's many grammar and vocabulary errors in the interview, it can be assumed Scheck didn't really mean "from those letters she was recombining her own literary texts" (3'45") and instead meant she was recombining the letters to write texts.
Thomas Daum (ed.), Herta Müller, Frankfurt am Main 2003.
Norbert Otto Eke (ed.), Die erfundene Wahrnehmung, Paderborn 1991.
Valentina Glajar, "The Discourse of Discontent: Politics and Dictatorship in Hert Müller's Herztier." The German Legacy in East Central Europe. As Recorded in Recent German Language Literature Ed. Valentina Glajar. Camden House, Rochester NY 2004. 115–160.
Valentina Glajar, "Banat-Swabian, Romanian, and German: Conflicting Identities in Herta Muller's Herztier." Monatshefte 89.4 (Winter 1997): 521-40.
Maria S. Grewe, "Imagining the East: Some Thoughts on Contemporary Minority Literature in Germany and Exoticist Discourse in Literary Criticism." Germany and the Imagined East. Ed. Lee Roberts. Cambridge, 2005.
Maria S. Grewe, Estranging Poetic: On the Poetic of the Foreign in Select Works by Herta Müller and Yoko Tawada, New York: Columbia UP, 2009.
Brigid Haines, '"The Unforgettable Forgotten": The Traces of Trauma in Herta Müller's Reisende auf einem Bein, German Life and Letters, 55.3 (2002), 266–81.
Brigid Haines and Margaret Littler, Contemporary German Women's Writing: Changing the Subject, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.
Brigid Haines (ed.), Herta Müller. Cardiff 1998.
Martin A. Hainz, "Den eigenen Augen blind vertrauen? Über Rumänien." Der Hammer – Die Zeitung der Alten Schmiede 2 (Nov. 2004): 5–6.
Herta Haupt-Cucuiu: Eine Poesie der Sinne ("A Poetry of the Senses"), Paderborn, 1996.
Herta Müller, Berlin, 1992.
Herta Müller, Munich, 2002.
Ralph Köhnen (ed.), Der Druck der Erfahrung treibt die Sprache in die Dichtung: Bildlickeit in Texten Herta Müllers, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1997.