Schaden­freude, A Love Story

  • Review
By – March 31, 2017

Rebec­ca Schuman’s new mem­oir, Schaden­freude, A Love Sto­ry, which boasts pos­si­bly the longest sub­ti­tle I have ever seen on a book cov­er (Me, the Ger­mans, and 20 Years of Attempt­ed Trans­for­ma­tions, Unfor­tu­nate Mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and Humil­i­at­ing Sit­u­a­tions That Only They Have Words For) is a fun­ny book. Hilar­i­ous, even: it actu­al­ly made me snort with laugh­ter, which one might expect from read­ing a humorist, but not nec­es­sar­i­ly a memoirist.

It is not sur­pris­ing that Schu­man is a colum­nist at Slate, the online mag­a­zine known for its wit­ty, irrev­er­ent angle. This is her first book.

Rebec­ca is, as she puts it, selec­tive­ly Jew­ish” (by which she means that her father is Jew­ish, but also that she is Jew­ish when it is use­ful or inter­est­ing) and this, pre­dictably, makes for amus­ing col­li­sions with the sub­ject of her obses­sion: Ger­man cul­ture and lit­er­a­ture (but most­ly Kaf­ka, even though, she is con­stant­ly told, Kaf­ka him­self was not Ger­man but Czech Jew­ish). She decides to mine her host fam­i­ly for guilt about the Holo­caust; she won­ders about her host father’s col­lec­tion of Nazi coins. She is brought to this obses­sion, which ulti­mate­ly shapes her edu­ca­tion and her career, in the first place by anoth­er kind of obses­sion: a roman­tic fix­a­tion with a male class­mate. It’s rare to read an account of high school romance that cap­tures its inten­si­ty with­out an ounce of cliché or mawk­ish­ness, but Schu­man has done it here.

The nar­ra­tive is vivid and rol­lick­ing; Schu­man brings you along for the ride. She ren­ders her quirky teenage and then twen­ty-some­thing self, and the nineties world in which she came of age, in full col­or, employ­ing an ener­getic prose style and a blunt, self-dep­re­cat­ing yet con­fi­dent voice that is unfor­get­table. Indeed, some­times the utter voicey-ness is grat­ing. Schu­man has cer­tain nar­ra­tive tics, such as the gim­mick she uses to con­vey the chal­lenges of lan­guage immer­sion, express­ing half-under­stood bits of Ger­man dia­logue in a bare-bones for­mat, with the parts of speech she assumes make sense in the sen­tence in brack­ets, like so: You [adjec­tive] want to [verb]”. At first, that was amus­ing; after the twen­ti­eth time, it became tire­some. Nev­er­the­less, Schaden­freude is as accu­rate a take on the idio­syn­crasies of acad­e­mia, obses­sion, and aca­d­e­m­ic obses­sion as any I have ever read. And it is cer­tain­ly the fun­ni­est. Those who have fall­en in love with an aca­d­e­m­ic dis­ci­pline, attend­ed a lib­er­al arts col­lege, stud­ied abroad, or attempt­ed to nav­i­gate the land­scape of grad­u­ate school will almost cer­tain­ly find res­o­nances of their own expe­ri­ences here.

Schu­man con­veys with razor-sharp acu­ity what it is like to live in an eso­teric cor­ner of one’s own mind, while also try­ing to live in the world – but the result is any­thing but eso­teric, and that is a triumph.

Miran­da Coop­er is a recent grad­u­ate of Williams Col­lege, where she stud­ied Eng­lish and Jew­ish Stud­ies and received high­est hon­ors for a the­sis about Philip Roth’s image in con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish Amer­i­can fic­tion. She has writ­ten for Tablet and New Voic­es Mag­a­zine, interned at Fig Tree Books and Tablet, is a cre­ative writer and a Yid­dishist, and will be a 2017 – 2018 Fel­low at the Yid­dish Book Center.

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