"This book is a wild and wonderful ride. Your guide, Rebecca Schuman, is a super-smart and very funny person who writes brilliantly about Germany and Germans (who are not what you think) and being young and insane and life in general and… just read it, OK?"
Sometimes Love Gets Lost in Translation
You know that feeling you get watching the elevator doors slam shut just before your toxic coworker can step in? Or seeing a parking ticket on a Hummer? There’s a word for this mix of malice and joy, and the Germans (of course) invented it. It’s Schadenfreude, deriving pleasure from others’ misfortune. Misfortune happens to be a specialty of Slate columnist Rebecca Schuman—and this is great news for the Germans. For Rebecca adores the Vaterland with the kind of single-minded passion its Volk usually reserve for beer, soccer, and being right all the time.
Let’s just say the affection isn’t mutual.
Schadenfreude is the story of a teenage Jewish intellectual who falls in love – in love with a boy (who breaks her heart), a language (that’s nearly impossible to master), a culture (that’s nihilistic, but punctual), and a landscape (that’s breathtaking when there’s not a wall in the way). Rebecca is an everyday, misunderstood 90’s teenager with a passion for Pearl Jam and Ethan Hawke circa Reality Bites, until two men walk into her high school Civics class: Dylan Gellner, with deep brown eyes and an even deeper soul, and Franz Kafka, hitching a ride in Dylan’s backpack. These two men are the axe to the frozen sea that is Rebecca’s spirit, and what flows forth is a passion for all things German. First love might be fleeting, but Kafka is forever, and in pursuit of this elusive passion Rebecca will spend two decades stuttering and stumbling through German sentences, trying to win over a people who can’t be bothered.
At once a snapshot of a young woman finding herself, and a country slowly starting to stitch itself back together after nearly a century of war (both hot and cold), Schadenfreude, A Love Story is an exhilarating, hilarious, and yes, maybe even heartfelt memoir proving that sometimes the truest loves play hard to get.
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About the Author
Rebecca Schuman is a frequent contributor to Slate, where she writes about higher education, Germany, popular culture and parenting. She holds a PhD in German from the University of California, Irvine. Schadenfreude, A Love Story is her first book.
Read an Excerpt
Schadenfreude, A Love Story
Me, the Germans, and 20 years of attempted transformations, unfortunate miscommunications, and humiliating situations that only they have words for
By Rebecca Schuman
Flatiron BooksCopyright © 2017 Rebecca Schuman
All rights reserved.
n. teenage folly, from youth and sin.
ex. Among the most egregious of her Jugendsünden was the intellectual gravitas she granted to Pinky and the Brain.
Dylan Gellner wasn't German. He was a nonpracticing half-Jew from Oregon, just like me. But all of this is still largely his fault, or rather my fault for falling in love with him.
The first time I ever heard of Dylan Gellner was at the beginning of senior year, when he became a household name at South Eugene High School for getting a 1450 on his SATs. I realize that doesn't sound like much nowadays, when a 1450 is what you get for spelling your own name with just one typo. But in 1993, it was the best board score at my twelve-hundred-student public school — the best, in fact, I had ever heard of in real life. Certainly much better than mine.
I had already taken the test twice, the first attempt resulting in an underwhelming 1160. My parents — who met in 1965 on their Stanford junior year abroad in Italy and married shortly before beginning joint Ph.D.s in English at the University of Chicago — had many opinions and much advice. "The only thing the SAT predicts is the aptitude of parents to force their kids to spend lunchtime doing practice tests," said Sharon Schuman, Ph.D., the night before my first ignominious showing. "My SATs weren't great, and I turned out fine. I got a Ph.D.!" She went back to grading her hundredth freshman paper of the night.
"It's like studying for a urine test!" added David Schuman, Ph.D., J.D., as he dug into his usual postdinner snack of Crispix cereal dipped in I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! My dad's own Ph.D. had been supplemented by a law degree after the English-professor employment crisis propelled him to law school just before I started kindergarten. Of course, he'd then snuck back into academia as a law professor, so he had never done anything exciting like defending murderers or helping teenagers divorce their parents.
"Just go to bed early, and do your best," he counseled. "I mean, look at Grandpa. He never even took the SAT, and he played football at the University of Michigan with Gerald Ford!"
"That's because it was 1933, Dad."
"Yes, back when they had active discrimination policies against Jews. So did Stanford when I went there, by the way. Quotas. Good night!"
The Schumans' laid-back attitude, it turns out, was borne not of their generation's antiauthoritarian progressivism so much as by the secret assumption that their daughter, who could talk at six months and read her alphabet at a year, was so preternaturally intelligent that she would make a 1500 and be admitted to the elite university of her choice without studying or trying. But they learned in short order that you should never underestimate the mediocrity of your own child — a mediocrity that brought about a universal change in the Schumans' conception of both my abilities and my future, and their idea of what constituted both parental involvement and a worthy extracurricular activity.
"You," proclaimed my dad some scant handful of weeks after the urine test/Grandpa conversation, thudding an onerous-looking tome in front of me on the table, "are going to SAT prep class." (I was still, mercifully, allowed to eat lunch.)
Late nights in the school newspaper office were hastily supplanted by practice tests under the semiwatchful eye of a very bored tutor at a storefront private school in downtown Eugene, which at the time consisted of a handful of record and outdoor-supply shops; my old gymnastics academy; a public library that largely served as a daytime napping station for the less-fortunate; and, of course, every drug dealer and rapist in the greater Willamette Valley. Downtown's flagship establishment, right around the corner from my new tutoring digs, was a boutique of "imports" that was the only place in town you could get Chuck Taylors in all the colors, but which did most of its business renting porn and selling bongs. The Aerie Academy, where the Schumans laid down substantial dollars to shame their oldest child back into the realm of the exceptional, was sandwiched between a thrift store run by the Junior League, which specialized in mismatched china and shoulder pads, and a place that hosted hacky-sack competitions. Obviously these were the ideal environs to develop some academic rigor at last.
After seven diligent months of drill questions and vocabulary building, the fruits of my labor resulted in a modest 100-point jump in my verbal score. "Oh look," I said to my mother after ripping open the dread carbon-paper missive from the College Board after yet more months of agonized waiting. "Slightly less mediocre mediocrity." And this was what I could accomplish with a focus I had never before applied to academics, and would not again until my first year of graduate school. So, to my parents' shock and my resignation, it was averageness that constituted (to bastardize Ludwig Wittgenstein) the limits of my language, and thus also of my college application pool. Would I be following my parents to Stanford, creating a Schuman legacy? I would not. I contented myself with the fact that my hard-fought improved score made me seem smart enough.
Until, early on in senior year, I realized that among the sea of thirty-nine other college-credit aspirants in my AP Civics class was the infamous Dylan Gellner. "When you apply to colleges, your real competition is the people from your high school," my guidance counselor had said. And there, three rows back from me, was Dylan Gellner with his damn 1450. On the first try, obviously. (Possibly as a sophomore.) I might as well start that correspondence degree in TV and VCR repair already.
The second thing I learned about Dylan Gellner was that he, who as a junior took all of his math and science classes with seniors, had dated Margaret O'Grady, who was a year older than we were and now went to Princeton.
"Sounds like a match made in dork heaven," I said to my friend Samantha one rainy afternoon in late September, left again to my own devices now that SAT purgatory was over and my parents had given up. Samantha was busy sifting through brochures for colleges that were now out of my league. "I bet they whispered sweet fractals into each other's ears," I said. As Samantha took careful note of Stanford's on-campus housing policy, I surreptitiously flipped through the yearbook to get a better look at Dylan Gellner — staring during AP Civics would have been (a) rude, (b) obvious, and (c) somewhat impossible, as he normally sat a few rows behind me with his preppy ski-team friends.
"Whoa," I said to an indulgent Samantha, after I finally found his junior-year mug shot (she hadn't expected Dylan Gellner's 1450 and dating history to be worthy of an entire afternoon's discussion). "He looks like he just got home from his bar mitzvah, and like his mom lays out his clothes in the morning while he reads Dostoevsky for fun, or whatever." What I conveniently left out was my recognition of Dylan Gellner's rather arresting eyes: large, obstinate, and startlingly deep ebony. Amid the blank (often stoned) gazes of our classmates, Dylan Gellner's peepers betrayed a serious something that my teenage self did not yet understand but could not stop thinking about.
"What do you care?" asked Samantha, twisting her perfectly straight cocoa-brown hair into a quick bun and dipping a pita into some tzatziki. "You have a boyfriend. A nice one." This was true. His name was Travis; he was a head taller than me and perpetually shiny (but I say that in a sort of affectionate way). He had a disconcerting habit of sticking his butt out about three feet when he hugged anyone, and he was indeed very nice. He was a hip-hop superfan and computer enthusiast who got in early decision to MIT. What I was too classy to tell Samantha was that Travis's primary usefulness to me (and mine to him) was for the drawn-out but eventually successful dispatching of virginity. Still, she was right. I had a boyfriend, and I was busy with all sorts of shit, such as being captain of my noncompetitive jazz dance squad, working as managing editor of the school paper, and applying to liberal arts colleges that, like me, were too iconoclastic to care much about such conformist trifles as SAT scores. I promptly resumed ignoring Dylan Gellner and his 1450 and his weird, penetrating stare. Until he stole my seat in AP Civics.
Advanced Placement Civics, with Mr. Rasmussen, was widely known in South Eugene High School as the easiest of all the APs (if not the easiest of all classes, period).
"I am seven months away from my pension," Rasmussen would remind us fairly regularly, with the subtext being that he no longer gave a single flying fuck about whether or not we actually understood what "social cleavage" was, or whether we got high in the parking lot before class and giggled about "cleavage" for fifty-five minutes. All you had to do to ensure an A in AP Civics was bring Mr. Rasmussen a cup of coffee now and then. Sure, technically there was no food or beverage allowed in the halls or classrooms of South Eugene High School. And yet, if one wanted to get out of even AP Civics's most basic "discussion" of American government and jurisprudence, one could get a sort of Rasmussenian papal dispensation to go off-campus and get a giant cup of Joe, to be shuttled brazenly through the proctored halls ("It's for Rasmussen!") and directly into the classroom, where college-bound twelfth-graders would be finishing a ten-minute "silent period of contemplation" (i.e., naptime). If you wanted to go ahead and take the AP exam at the end of the year for fun, you had Mr. Rasmussen's sincere blessing, but if you thought anything that transpired in that room in the preceding nine months would earn you college credit, you were gravely mistaken.
Unsurprisingly, there were no assigned seats in AP Civics. ("Sit wherever you please. Don't even come to class if you don't want to; don't do me any favors.") Still, as has been true through the ages and will be for time immemorial, in the first week or so of school, students claim "their seats" and remain more or less tethered to them for as long as the class is in session. (It's like it's their blankie, a security object that protects them from the cliques and the multiple-choice tests and the permanent processed-meat smell of the hallway.) So you can imagine my outrage when one day I tromped into AP Civics wearing my finest outfit (a Guatemalan-print vest, polar-fleece sweatpants, and Tevas), only to find Dylan Gellner's keister parked in my seat. Thus the first words I ever spoke to the first person with whom I ever fell in love were "Hey, that's my seat," and the first word he spoke back to me was "Tough." As he said it, he smiled a little, and those odd eyes of his flashed at me, and I had the means, motive, and opportunity to give him a good staredown in person for the first time ever. Dylan Gellner had matured considerably since his junior-year picture, and now, to my annoyance, possessed a chiseled jaw and five o'clock shadow that matched his shock of endlessly thick, jet-black hair, which in turn matched those goddamned eyes.
Hmmm. Mr. 1450 was cute — and it appeared, in a sort of fifth-grade kind of way, flirting with me. Being now in possession of a real-live sexually active relationship, I was an undisputed expert in courtship rituals, and the correct response in this delicate situation was to turn on one heel, huff to the other side of the room, and refuse to speak to or acknowledge Dylan Gellner again — until radical politics turned everything tits-up, as it has been known to do.
It was mid-February, and, according to Mr. Rasmussen, the perfect time for the students of AP Civics to learn how Our Democracy worked. And what better and more accurate way to do this than immediately bifurcate the class down acrimonious party lines? Two-thirds of us were gazing out the windows — placed just above student-head-level so that we could see outside only if we craned our necks — at the blue sky, anathema for Oregon that time of year. Ah, to be anywhere but a twelfth-grade civics classroom; to be sitting at the outdoor tables of a coffee shop, nursing the same small cup for four hours as we read the personals in the free Eugene Weekly. ("Solipsist seeks solipsist for rubdowns, astral projection, light anal play. No fatties.")
My friend Lisa — Travis's friend, actually (the girlfriend of Travis's friend, technically), who was far better-looking and more popular than I was, with supple muscular legs, pillowy lips, and what I would later learn to term "bedroom eyes" — had just passed me a note, proclaiming her desire to spend the weekend watching Monty Python movies and smoking weed.
"Rebecca," said Rasmussen, midway through a halfhearted sentence about the correct process for ratifying a party platform. "Is that a note? Jesus tap-dancing Christ."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Rasmussen," I said. "We were just comparing the difference between simple anarchy and anarcho-syndicalist communes." (Technically not completely false.) I shoved the note in my pocket. I thought I heard an impatient snort from the back of the classroom, somewhere near Dylan-Gellner-o'clock. "I'm sorry," I said again.
Rasmussen put both his hands on my desk and leaned down so that I could smell how recently he'd enjoyed his last cup of coffee (not very; possibly the source of his sour mood). "Rebecca?" he said. "I don't care." He returned to the front of the room and picked up a stack of Scantron forms.
"Here," he said to the whole class. "Fill out these questionnaires about your political beliefs. I don't care if you're honest or not. Just do it." This clearly had the added benefit of cutting into about thirty more minutes of teaching time, during which Rasmussen would be able to daydream about cigars.
"What are these for?" asked Jacob, who sat next to me. He was a smart-ass I'd befriended in trig sophomore year when he antagonized our teacher so cleverly that half the class got notes sent home about our behavior problems. ("Rebecca herself doesn't have a problem," Mrs. Kuroda had clarified to an aghast David and Sharon Schuman. "But she's encouraging the bad kids.")
"Just fill it out, Jacob," said Rasmussen. There were twenty-four questions, and all of them had to be answered with either full agreement or full disagreement. There was no political gray area in AP Civics, just as there was no gray area about anyone's desire to do actual work in AP Civics.
All the statements were either somewhat conservative ("I believe in limited government") or downright reactionary ("I believe there should be no restriction on firearms whatsoever"), and every time you agreed with one, you got a point. If you scored 12 or above, you moved to the right side of the classroom, toward the hall, where the AP Civics Republicans would nominate a candidate and mount a mock election campaign. Under 12 and you went leftward toward the windows, where you and your fellow AP Civics Democrats would presumably copy the Bill Clinton agenda verbatim and attempt to rerun on it. (Everyone in our class was an exact replica of his parents' politics, except without the added gravitas of having lived through the Nixon administration.) As Violet and Alyssa, the two beautiful and popular students Rasmussen "entrusted" with his "grading" so as not to have to rouse himself, returned from the Scantron machine in the teachers' lounge (and, coincidentally, a quick pit stop at a coffee shop ten blocks away), they motioned me over.
"What?" I asked. They pointed to my Scantron.
"You got a zero, Rebecca."
I was such a knee-jerk baby liberal that I was the first person in the history of Mr. Rasmussen's class ever to score 100 percent left-wing answers. And, it turned out, I was in some interesting company.
"And check it out," said Violet, violating every paragraph of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. "Dylan got a three."
When it came time to split up, Rasmussen read off the names of everyone else in the class, until only Dylan Gellner and me were left.
Excerpted from Schadenfreude, A Love Story by Rebecca Schuman. Copyright © 2017 Rebecca Schuman. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
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