The sun’s rays cast the shadow of the word “Marais” on the floor of a café of the same name in Munich’s West End. Maximilian Dorner, the author, walks in. We have agreed to meet to discuss his books, his travels and his life.
Dorner, 35, has an overabundance of talent. The German National Academic Foundation financed his drama studies at the Bayerische Theaterakademie (Bavarian Theatre Academy). “Since then I've made films and produced radio plays in addition to working as an editor, which I still do,” Dorner says, adjusting his black horn-rimmed glasses, which lend a touch of gravity to his youthful face. “But I didn’t find the courage to write until I became ill,” he says with a far-off look in his eyes.
Feeling at home in New York
That’s right, his illness. The black cane he leaned against the table as he sat down. In 2006 Dorner was diagnosed as having multiple sclerosis (MS), a progressive neurological disorder that in many cases leads to a loss of mobility. “Going shopping when there’s snow on the ground,” he says, glancing at the snowy streets of Munich in winter, “that’s tough."
But MS hasn’t stopped him — not only from writing, but also from travelling to New York. Four weeks in a city he’d never visited before, where he didn’t know a soul. What is that like? “I told myself I wouldn’t walk down the same street twice if possible,” he remembers. But he also recalls how he then found his favourite New York bistro, and how he always took the same route to get there.
Never walk the same street twice. “You have to have approached a place from all four cardinal points if you want to take it in…” I say, quoting from Moscow Diary, which the philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote in 1926/1927. “The flaneur,” says Dorner with a wry snort, “this whole theory of people who are somehow conceited, create their own cosmos regardless of where they are at any given moment, and don’t fade into the background.” That’s not his thing. For himself, Dorner prefers Stadtstreicher, a German term that essentially means “urban tramp”.
That’s bold for someone who calls himself “handicapped”, it occurs to me, someone who on bad days can’t do things spontaneously and loses mobility. Mein Daemon ist ein Stubenhocker (My Demon Is a Couch Potato) is the title of his first book, which captures the author’s illness with laconic humour — before it takes hold of him. A lengthy attempt to a take personal inventory, between the covers of a book? Self-pity has no place in Dorner’s world-view. He writes because he has something to say. And that’s what he writes, without filler.
The shame of the “couch potato”
He wants to be a kind of missionary, he says, by offering insights into the inner life of people with handicaps. But he doesn’t give the impression he would like this alone to be the basis of his career as a writer from now on. His New York book hadn’t even been published when he started to work on his next book: “It deals with shame, with being ashamed.” He explains what the listener can scarcely believe: he feels ashamed because he needs the help of a cane.
Dorner’s inner “demon”, which sometimes forces him to stay at home, has nevertheless only succeeded in focusing his attention on this theme, which he circles at a distance. He is still working on the book, which is scheduled to appear in 2010. For its author, it is more than just a collection of excursions into his own thinking: “Isn’t a court trial a shameful process for the accused, like the pillory we know from medieval justice?” Dorner asked not only himself, but also a judge who is a friend of the author’s. In this way he circulates his ideas among the people who are affected by them, even before the book is published.