Michael Kumpfmüller on his novel “Oh, Virginia”


Michael Kumpfmüller in conversation with Frank Meyer

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Virginia Woolf encouraged many women to go their own way and died a lonely suicide. Michael Kumpfmüller talks about this in “Oh, Virginia”. (akg-images / Archive Photos)

Tormented by depression, the writer Virginia Woolf committed suicide in the spring of 1941. Michael Kumpfmüller portrays the last ten days before her death in his new novel. Her clear view of her own suffering fascinates him.

“Dearest, I am sure that I will go crazy again, I can no longer fight it,” wrote Virginia Woolf in a farewell letter that her husband Leonard will find ten days later. On March 28, 1941, the author put an end to her life. The Berlin-based author Michael Kumpfmüller describes how this came about in the novel “Ach, Virginia”.

Torment of the soul or source of creativity?

His book is not only a portrait of the English writer, but also an intimate study of a person who is experiencing episodes of severe depression and who at the same time reflects it clairvoyantly. In her letters and diaries, Virginia Woolf precisely describes the chaos of her mood, says Kumpfmüller. There she calls her depression a “learning place for the soul”.

“I believe that mental illness is linked to the source of its creativity,” says Michael Kumpfmüller. A clear distinction between “madness” and “normality” is not possible at all: “As a writer, I was interested in the extent to which this can be understood and understood without treating them as victims or perpetrators, but rather as someone who is involved in this difficult terrain operated. “

Suicide – a taboo to this day

Virginia Woolf’s biography touches on a topic that is still taboo today: suicide. “The suicide is an act of desperation – but very often it is also an external aggression,” says Kumpfmüller. One time the word “treachery” comes up in the novel: This is how Leonard Woolf felt that his wife made the decision to end her life and left him uncertain until the end.

Historic black and white portrait of the writer Virginia Woolf in the garden of her house in Rodmell, 1926. (akg-images / Mondadori Portfolio)A clear look into your own chaos: Virginia Woolf in Rodmell, 1926. (akg-images / Mondadori Portfolio)

Michael Kumpfmüller shows in close-ups the brutal egocentricity of a depression: Little by little, the view narrows completely to your own damaged self. In Virginia Woolf’s destructively exaggerated “I-addiction”, the author recognizes a pattern that he also finds in our way of life today:

“With caution, that seems to be one of the problems of Western societies – one can also speak of ‘narcissistic society’ – that the ego ends up in an empty state of despair.”

Feminist thought leader

How risky did it seem to the author to reinterpret Virginia Woolf in his own way? A writer who not only radically expanded the formal language of the modern novel, but also wrote one of the basic texts of feminism with her essay “Your Own Room”. Wasn’t it a huge risk, especially as a man, to acquire such an author as a literary figure?

Portrait of the writer Michael Kumpfmüller, 2016. (picture alliance / dpa / Horst Ossinger)Operate in difficult terrain: Michael Kumpfmüller. (picture alliance / dpa / Horst Ossinger)

Michael Kumpfmüller did not have these concerns: “Of course, as a man, I’m limited to slip into every female thought line, but first of all I’m a human being.” He does not believe in “gendering the speaking license”, which is ultimately based on “external attributions”.

Courage to androgynous: “I’m a woman too”

Kumpfmüller recalls the concept of androgyny, which was still very present in the eighties: “It seems to me to be absolutely progressive because I would always say: I am also a woman. I also have female parts, which I also have can live.” It goes without saying that a male voice can also write about a woman.

“The much-discussed view, especially in the USA, that in the future please only speak to those who are affected by them, I think this left-wing identical thinking is an absolute catastrophe,” says Kumpfmüller, “because it actually leads to that the we groups speak about themselves and in the end only the ego about them, and that is the only legitimation. “

Who could she have been?

For three months he was immersed day and night in Virginia Woolf’s literary and personal writings and tried to understand “who she could have been – in the text, because I have nothing more from her.”

And how about if a book with the title “Oh, Michael” appeared in 120 years, which in turn made the writer Kumpfmüller a literary figure? The author takes this speculation very calmly: “Nothing bothers me as a dead person anyway. And if I am not dead, I will definitely read it.”


Michael Kumpfmüller: “Ach, Virginia”
Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne 2020
240 pages, 22 euros

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