Rebecca Schuman and How to Study Kafka in East Berlin Without Really Trying

A review of Rebecca Schuman’s Schadenfreude, a Love Story, including some personal observations and self-identification that connect to a memoir with a really long title and lots of German words

Schadenfreude, A Love Story
Rebecca Schuman
February 2017

Did you give yourself a questionable punk haircut back in the early ’90s? Did you go to graduate school for lack of a better life plan? Are you frenemies with academia? Do you have a sense of humor? Are you in favor of dessert? Do you possess the ability to read polysyllabic words on a page? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you will probably enjoy this book.

I must confess I dove into Schadenfreude, A Love Story with the hope – the expectation – that I would find it pleasurable. I had read quite a few works by the author, Rebecca Schuman, whose articles for Slate magazine, ranging from topics in higher education to flipping infants the bird, are the stuff of legends, on Twitter anyway. I had therefore set myself up to enjoy her first book. Fortunately for everyone involved, the book was excellent.

Since my day job as a visiting instructor has me in the middle of teaching several sections of undergraduate communication courses in the English department of a state university (this information is relevant – I’ll circle back around, I promise) reading Schuman’s book, whose lengthy subtitle is Me, the Germans, and 20 Years of Attempted Transformations, Unfortunate Miscommunications, and Humiliating Situations That Only They Have Words For, took place between reading chapters of student textbooks with fascinating titles like “Clarity and Concision in Business Writing” and “Miriam J. Frankenstein’s Guide to Discourse Analysis”. Thus, reading a chapter about Schuman’s high school love affair with a teenage socialist was my reward – my dessert, if you will – for choking down an unsatisfying meal of “eliminating jargon from technical instructions” and prepping unappetizing lessons on misused metadiscourse and reflexive pronoun errors.

As hard as I tried to savor Schuman’s witty coming of age memoir set mostly in the early ’90s as she weighed the pros and cons of having sex in a European hotel room with a WASP who preferred Judith Butler to Franz Kafka, smoked excessive numbers of cheap cigarettes with recalcitrant (yet oddly familial) German 20-somethings, and listened to age-appropriate rock music in poorly lit barrooms with self-aware Eurotrash, I failed. I read it way too fast. That’s a good news/bad news thing. The good news is the book is enjoyable, amusing, and quickly consumed. The bad news is the book is enjoyable, amusing, and quickly consumed. Just like a big slice of apfelkuchen, I wanted more. (Find the recipe here: Apfelkuchen Streuseln. Instructions in German.)

Sadly, despite its title, the book did not enhance my nonexistent German language skills at all. In retrospect, I guess that was an unrealistic expectation. I still can’t pronounce any words longer than nein. That is, in fact, my only (admittedly unfair) criticism of the book.

Early on in the text, I tried very hard to read all of the German words, despite having no training in German. I don’t just mean the epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter, either, which helpfully provided an English dictionary definition and used the words in appropriately angst-filled sentences connected to the chapters’ contents. No, I also tried sounding out every German word throughout the text as well. This grew increasingly difficult as the book went on, mostly because the protagonist’s German language skills had improved over time and mine, of course, had not.

I don’t know why I thought reading the German bits was necessary or even a good idea, since the entirety of my German knowledge comes from having watched reruns of Hogan’s Heroes when I was a child. I’m not certain I’m even pronouncing the primary word in the title correctly. I’m saying it like show-den-fraud. That’s probably wrong. I do know what it means now, though (because it’s Chapter 9):


n. malicious happiness, from damage and joy.

ex. You could say I should have seen all this coming, but that would be unnecessarily schadenfroh.

In any case, I gave up trying to read the German bits after the first few chapters in favor of just skipping over all the italicized sections, which, by about halfway through the book, meant I was skipping over complete sentences. I don’t know whether that was part of the author’s plan or not. It certainly made the reading go faster.

German pronunciation is more important to me than you might think because I’m not even sure I know how to say my own name in German, which was translated by some tired immigration officer while my German immigrant ancestors waited in line at Ellis Island a few hundred years ago. Way to interpret Augenstein literally, 19th-century Customs and Border Patrol. Ach. [Feel free to take a short interlude for a kairotic discussion about CPB.]

But I digress. This article isn’t about me. Exactly. Although I did feel in places like the author was recounting tales of my wasted youth and grad school struggle rather than her own. This means that either Schuman and I led parallel lives or that she is a gifted storyteller. Probably both.

Like Schuman, I too outgrew high school awkwardness in the pre-Y2K era of post-punk grunge when it was not only appropriate but actually stylish to wear long underwear under cut-off corduroys and tattered flannels, and where rolling your own cigarettes was not only cool but economical (never mind that the poorly sealed pouch of Drum tobacco would only be viable for about 12 hours before turning to acrid smelling dust), so it’s no surprise that I identified so closely with Schuman’s younger, more risk-taking self. Condoms? Check. Tickets to a canceled REM concert in Prague? Check. Passport? Whoops. Where did that go? No worries: A punctual German woman will find it and return it unharmed.

For anyone who’s ever done stupid things as a youth and lived to not regret it, this book will bring back the memories. I found myself rooting for Schuman the Younger’s questionable life choices: “Should I sleep with this rando guy I just met on the street in a foreign country?” I mean, we’ve all been there, right? Do it, Becky. YOLO! For anyone who was mature and responsible as a youth, read it and live vicariously.

With age comes wisdom. Or a sudden end to a relationship that makes one question all of one’s previous life choices. Either way, graduate school and the pursuit of a Ph.D. (especially in the humanities) is a good fallback for someone whose main gift is being able to correct other people’s grammar in more than one language, while suffering inexorably from impostor syndrome – a highly debilitating affliction that nearly everyone gets in grad school but no one talks about.

A major hurdle for Schuman’s overcoming the paralyzing effects of the syndrome and her eventual success in a German Ph.D. program was discovering how to correctly title a lengthy essay or dissertation, according to the exacting standards of academia:

MILDLY CLEVER THING: Three-Part List, “Incomprehensible Scare Quotes” and an Extremely Convoluted Explanation with at Least One Made Up Word

The veracity of this titling formula for a graduate-level composition is only slightly hyperbolic. Never underestimate the power of a really long and convoluted title to impress people you don’t really like for reasons you don’t fully understand. Once she had the title trick down and had figured out how to function despite the syndrome (there is no cure), she was well on her way to the receipt of the coveted doctoral degree in German and was poised to teach basic language skills to erstwhile disinterested undergrads for crap pay and no insurance – the glamorous life of an adjunct instructor. Fortunately, she also fell in love with a real person who wasn’t a dead Bohemian philosopher. Marrying someone for their health insurance is only shady if you don’t love them.

The later chapters of Schadenfreude explore the trap of holding an advanced degree in a humanities discipline: Force yourself to conform to the straightjacket of academia, which for nonconformists (and women who won’t shut up) is especially uncomfortable, or accept defeat and a teaching position with no guarantee of employment beyond the current school year. As Schuman wisely notes in the book, a visiting instructor is an adjunct with health insurance, which is frequently the best deal that professors who won’t shut up can get. (Remember when I said I’d circle back around to my own teaching?)

If you’re moderately lucky (and perhaps marginally talented) you can augment your teaching by writing witty articles for online magazines. If you’re very lucky (and perhaps exceptionally talented) you can quit teaching altogether. Those of us in the first category look on those of us in the second category as the Rocky Balboas of academia who’ve escaped the dingy Philadelphia gymnasiums of adjunct teaching for the bright lights of Las Vegas notoriety. Eye of the tiger, Schuman. Eye of the tiger.

In case I haven’t been clear, Schadenfreude, A Love Story is a memoir. There’s no big climax or fancy denouement (my French is much better than my German). Schuman just, you know, grows up. The book recounts the predictable and existential – one might even say Kafkaesque (ha ha) – crises of youth and academic incommensurability, not the least of which is what to do with a crap-ton of esoteric knowledge and a Ph.D. in the humanities, what I refer to as “Last Boarding Call for the Tenure Train”. Toot-toot!

Speaking of trains, Schuman spends a good deal of time on public transit vehicles over the course of the text. (She goes through a lot of passports.) It is a journey, after all. One might even call it a real-life bildungsroman, which is a relevant German word I know. Not coincidently, I have had the song “The Passenger” stuck in my head ever since I read it. Being the contrarian that I am, though, I prefer the Siouxsie and the Banshees cover version. I don’t apologize – even Iggy Pop liked Siouxie Sioux’s vocals.

It’s obvious by this point that I related so much to the book that this review is as much about me as it is about Schuman’s love affair with Franz Kafka. At times, I was so engaged with her story, that I imagined my 20-year-old, cigarette-smoking, punk-haired self accompanying her around the back streets of Prague and East Berlin. I think that’s the point of good literature: to absorb the reader into the narrative. Color me absorbed. What else can I tell you? Eat your apfelkuchen.