Auch in der Literatur hat sich in den letzten Jahrzehnten so etwas wie Commodification ausgebreitet. Bestimmten Autoren ist es gelungen, so etwas wie ein Markenartikel zu werden. Ein charakteristisches Beispiel dafür ist Ernest Hemingway, und in einer Besprechung eines seiner Romane habe ich darüber auch kurz geschrieben. Ein Autor, von dem alle ein bestimmtes Bild im Kopf haben, dass sich gewissermaßen von seinem literarischen Werk abgekoppelt hat und dieses häufig komplett ersetzt hat. Es soll Leute geben, die Hemingway als Lieblingsautor angeben, auch wenn sie noch nie ein Buch von ihm gelesen haben. (Mancher wäre unangenehm überrascht, wie schlecht und schwer erträglich manches von Hemingway ist, würde er ihn denn lesen.)
Dazu kommt, dass der Autor/in, der/die häufig in den Medien erscheint, in aller Munde ist und dadurch auch zum beliebten Gesprächsthema sich als gebildet betrachtender Menschen bei Cocktailpartys und dergleichen Gelegenheiten wird. Dabei ist es gar nicht unbedingt notwendig, herausragende Werke zu verfassen, entscheidend ist das soziale Interesse der Konsumenten.
Ein Autor, der das ganz ausgezeichnet verstanden hat, ist Peter Handke. Schon bei seinem allerersten Auftreten in den 1960er Jahren provozierte er das gesamte literarische Establishment der Gruppe 47; später kam dann seine Publikumsbeschimpfung dazu, in der er das Theaterpublikum auf ähnliche Weise provozierte. Die Leute finden das natürlich unterhaltsam und man kann sich je nach Naturell auch wunderbar darüber aufregen. Beides ist gut für den Autor in unserer heutigen Aufmerksamkeitsökonomie. Und egal, welchen Skandal Handke später lieferte – körperliche Gewalt gegen die Lebensgefährtin, Fausthiebe gegen einen Literaturkritiker, zahlreiche abgebrochene Interviews des sich jeweils provoziert fühlenden Autors, Beschimpfungen aus der Genital- oder Analsphäre gegen kritische Zeitgenossen vorzugsweise weiblichen Geschlechts, eine fast zweistellige Zahl von Büchern, in denen er mal mehr, mal weniger subtil sein geschichtsrevisionistisch-völkisches Jugoslawienbild zeichnet und nebenbei Propaganda für serbische Kriegsverbrecher macht, Interviews in denen er einen Genozid leugnet oder relativiert -, er erinnert die Öffentlichkeit mit diesen Skandalen immer wieder daran, dass es ihn gibt und das verschafft ihm enorme Medienresonanz, die er mit seinen Romanen, Erzählungen und Theaterstücken allein nie auch nur annähernd erreicht hätte. Die Folge sind neue Leser und Literaturpreise wie am Fließband, zuletzt auch der Nobelpreis. Alle wissen heute, wer Handke ist – er ist ein Markenartikel.
Im Zeitalter der sogenannten Sozialen Medien ergeben sich natürlich noch mehr Möglichkeiten als früher. Wenn man sieht, wie ungehemmt narzisstisch sich viele Autoren auf ihren Social Media-Auftritten in Szene setzen, kann das ebenfalls als mehr oder weniger erfolgreiche Strategien der Selbstkommodifizierung sehen. (Ich nenne hier ganz bewusst keine Beispiele; jeder kennt solche Peinlichkeitsorgien.) Daneben gibt es aber auch die Autoren, die hauptsächlich damit beschäftigt sind, ihre Bücher zu schreiben. Und als Leser interessieren mich selbstredend Bücher mehr als irgendwelche Schriftstellerselfies, inszenierte Skandälchen oder Selbstvermarktungsstrategien von medienhungrigen Schreiberlingen.
Um nur ein einziges Beispiel zu nennen: ich kann mich nicht erinnern, jemals auch nur ein einziges Interview mit Hartmut Lange gelesen zu haben – wahrscheinlich gibt es ein paar, aber sie sind mir nicht erinnerlich; ich weiß nicht mal, wie er aussieht. Und auch sonst hab ich ihn noch nie weder in einer Talkshow gesehen – ok, das ist jetzt ein wenig geschummelt: ich habe nämlich seit vielen Jahren keinen Fernseher mehr -, noch ist er mir als Unterzeichner irgendwelcher Appelle, Propagandist irgendwelcher zweifelhafter Thesen oder Sympathisant irgendwelcher dubioser politischer Gruppierungen erinnerlich. Wie steht er zum Klimawandel? Keine Ahnung, wahrscheinlich so wie ich auch. Seine Werke lassen einen hochintelligenten und reflektierenden Menschen vermuten. Das ganze markenartikelhafte Gehabe gibt es bei ihm (und vielen anderen Autorinnen und Autoren) überhaupt nicht. Es gibt nur, so zuverlässig wie bei einem Schweizer Uhrwerk, Jahr für Jahr aufs Neue diese relativ schmalen, aber großartigen Bücher von ihm. Erzählungen und Novellen hauptsächlich. In einer sehr schlanken, eleganten und verdichteten Prosa geschrieben. Egal, zu welchem der rund zwanzig Bände in der Diogenes-Backlist man greift, man wird einfach nie enttäuscht, sondern auf intelligente Art unterhalten und oft auch zum Nachdenken angeregt. Da lasse ich die ganze langweilige, ärgerliche Markenartikelliteratur gerne links liegen.
Anstatt jedem Hype und jedem Skandal hinterherzuhecheln, sollten wir die richtig guten Autorinnen und Autoren lesen.
„Irgendwann mal würde ich gern mit ein paar Freunden auf einer kleinen Insel leben, sie müßte ja nicht zu den Bahamas gehören. Vielleicht eine Bar betreiben, nichts Mondänes, ein kühles Plätzchen am Hafen, durchs Fenster kann man die Boote sehen. Vielleicht ein paar Stühle draußen unter der Markise, für die Touristen. Ein Tagesgericht, sonst nur Sandwiches und Drinks, aber die besten der Gegend. Man könnte fischen gehen, ab und zu auf die Nachbarinsel, wo es ein Spielkasino gibt. Jeder macht in aller Ruhe das, was er will. Einmal in der Woche ginge ich mit dem Vizekonsul und dem englischen Romanschriftsteller und dem Schnapsschmuggler ins Bordell, der Geschichten wegen. Ich weiß, du magst keine Geschichten, aber vielleicht brauchst du keine. Erinnerungen sind ja Scheiße, aber Geschichten halten das Leben zusammen. Manchmal, wenn du den großen Horror hast, ist eine gute Geschichte das einzige, was noch hilft.“
...Ich habe in meinem Leben sehr viele schöne Frauenzimmer gesehen, aber seitdem ich in England bin, habe ich mehrere gesehen als in meinem ganzen übrigen Leben zusammengenommen, und doch bin ich nur zehn Tage in England. Ihr außerordentlich netter Anzug, der einer Göttingischen Obstfrau einiges Gewicht geben könnte, erhebt sie noch mehr. Die Aufwärterin, die mir täglich Feuer im Kamin macht und mein Bett wärmt (mit der Bettpfanne, versteht sich, Gevatter!), kommt zuweilen mit einem schwarzen, zuweilen mit einem weißen seidenen Hut…in die Stube, trägt ihre Bettpfanne mit soviel Graceals manche deutsche Dame den Parasol, kniet sich vor dem Bette…mit einer Nonchalance nieder…und spricht dabei ein Englisch, wie es in Euern besten englischen Büchern kaum steht, Gevatter! Wenn Euer Herz etwas aushalten kann, so kommt herüber, ich stehe Euch dafür, Ihr sollt das Englische weghaben, ehe Euch das Bette vierzigmal ist gewärmt worden.”
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: Brief an Johann Christian Dieterich
Verschiedene Handke-Adepten (darunter auch einige, die ein Eigeninteresse daran haben, etwa weil sie ihre akademische Laufbahn auf dem Werk dieses Autors aufgebaut haben oder Bücher über ihn geschrieben haben) bezeichneten in den letzten Tagen ihre Feinde – das Wort „Gegner“ passt hier wegen des extrem militanten und menschenverachtenden Habitus nicht – mit recht entlarvenden Ausdrücken. Entlarvend nicht für die so Bezeichneten, sondern für die, die ein solches Vokabular benutzen.
Als “windschiefe Gestalten” und “karge Lemuren” – das sind nur zwei Beispiele, man könnte leicht noch viel mehr in diesem Ton finden – werden in der laufenden Diskussion um Peter Handkes Nobelpreiswürdigkeit mittlerweile diejenigen tituliert, die die Frage stellen, ob es wirklich eine gute Idee war, ausgerechnet diesen Schriftsteller mit einem Preis auszuzeichnen, der an einen Autor oder eine Autorin gehen soll, deren Werk in idealistischer Weise herausragend sein soll.
Eine solche hasserfüllte Sprache ist entwürdigend und zutiefst unmenschlich. Wer, wie Handke oder seine Jünger so schnell den guten Ton vermissen lässt – Handke schlägt bei Kritikern ja wohl auch gelegentlich gerne mal mit der Faust zu oder bezeichnet Kritikerinnen als „Westhuren“ -, der sollte nicht arg so empfindlich sein, wenn Menschen Handkes Werk zitieren oder nochmal detailliert Revue passieren lassen, was der Autor gesagt, geschrieben und getan hat.
Niemand von Handkes Kritikern hat gefordert, dass seine Bücher nicht mehr gelesen oder verlegt werden sollen. Niemand von Handkes Kritikern hat gefordert, dass er ausgebürgert werden muss. In der peinlichen Solidaritätsadresse, die jetzt veröffentlicht wurde, wird so getan, als habe Handke seine Existenz aufs Spiel gesetzt, als sei er ein Dissident usw. usw. Davon ist nichts, aber auch gar nichts wahr. Er publiziert, wird gelesen (wahrscheinlich erheblich mehr als ohne seine provokativen Jugoslawien-Texte und die ganze Diskussion darüber), er bekommt Literaturpreis um Literaturpreis. Er ist gut im Geschäft, könnte man sagen. Er gewinnt neue(?) Freunde (Kubitschek & Co.).
Diejenigen, die im Gegensatz zu Peter Handke wirklich ihre Existenz aufs Spiel gesetzt haben, sind die, die Handkes Freunde von den Hügeln rund um Sarajevo über viele Monate beschossen haben, diejenigen, die damit rechnen mussten, dass sie täglich, beim Überqueren einer Strasse in der belagerten Stadt, aus der sie nicht herauskonnten, von einem Scharfschützen ermordet werden. Aber laut Peter Handke war das alles berechtigt, da ja „nur“ Revanche. Oder es hat gar nicht stattgefunden. Oder er hat es nicht so gemeint, falls er es gesagt oder geschrieben haben sollte. Oder er kann sich nicht genau daran erinnern, so was gesagt zu haben. Oder er hat es zwar gesagt, hat es dann aber nicht autorisiert. Oder er hat sich „verhaspelt“ (ein Schlüsselwort für das Wirken von Peter Handke). Und eigentlich wollten diese Leute, die da gemordet haben, seine Freunde, nur Indianer spielen.
Für diejenigen, die es immer noch nicht verstanden haben: die Kritik an Peter Handke hat er sich verdient. Nicht, weil er „Medienkritik“ übte, wie das jetzt einige Baudrillard zitierende Zeitgenossen behaupten – „Lügenpresse“ zu sagen (und nichts anderes tut Handke), ist keine Medienkritik, es ist dumpfe Propaganda -, sondern weil er seit Jahrzehnten das völkisch-geschichtsrevisionistische Narrativ von Leuten, die buchstäblich Blut an den Händen haben, verbreitet, weil er absolut jede glaubhafte Empathie mit den Opfern der von Serben begangenen Verbrechen vermissen lässt, weil er Täter zu Opfern umlügt.
In diesem Zusammenhang mache ich einen bescheidenen Vorschlag hinsichtlich des Literaturnobelpreises 2020:
Der Schwedischen Akademie schlage ich vor, nächstes Jahr Paul Goma mit dem Literaturnobelpreis auszuzeichnen, der ebenfalls ein geschlossen völkisch-revisionistisches Weltbild hat. Und wenn Goma den rumänischen Holocaust als Rache an den jüdisch-bolschewistischen Kommissaren entschuldigt oder sogar rechtfertigt, Opferzahlen herunterrechnet und Täter-Opfer-Umkehr betreibt, folgt er dem gleichen Muster wie Handke. Am Ende waren die Mörder die armen Opfer und wenn sie was Schlechtes getan haben, muss man für die Armen doch Verständnis haben, es war ja allenfalls überzogene Notwehr oder Vergeltung, also eigentlich menschlich verständlich und irgendwie gerechtfertigt. Und dann die schlechte Presse – wie unfair, über diesen Genozid (war es denn einer, werden Gomas Verteidiger fragen) – so einseitig zu berichten. Dahinter steckt bestimmt eine amerikanische PR-Firma. Eine solche Auszeichnung an Goma ist wahrhaft „idealistisch“, wenn ich die Schwedische Akademie richtig verstanden habe. Und im übrigen: Holocaustrelativierung hin oder her – man muss doch Autor und Werk immer schön auseinanderhalten… Wer das dann kritisieren wird, ist “hasserfüllt”, eine “windschiefe Gestalt” oder zählt zu den “kargen Lemuren” (die ja eigentlich keine Menschen sind.).Und mit solch minderwertigem Gesindel müssen sich wahre Humanisten und Idealisten wie die Freunde von Handke oder Goma in Stockholm und anderswo nicht abgeben.
Poetry is a genre that is rather neglected by the book blogging community. And I think that’s a real pity. Therefore I didn’t want to let this year’s edition of German Literature Month pass without including one or two posts about German-language poets.
One of the best German poetry books I picked up in the last years is the collection Transylvanian Speaking Exercise (Siebenbürgische Sprechübung) by Franz Hodjak. The book collects the best poems of several previous poetry books by him and includes also a few that were published in journals only. An instructive afterword by the poet and editor of the volume Werner Söllner gives additional valuable information on the author and his background.
Hodjak was born 1944 in Sibiu (Hermannstadt) in Romania and lived later for many years in Cluj (Klausenburg). Transylvania and the Banat are home to a German-speaking minority since hundreds of years; also a Hungarian minority lives there. The number of native German speakers is dwindling, migration to Germany has reduced the minority considerably in the last decades. Especially in the villages very few Germans have remained until today and it is not clear if this minority will survive as such the next generation, despite the fact that the President of Romania, Klaus Iohannis, is a prominent member of this ethnicity.
Romania has had a thriving German-language literary scene until recently; Herta Müller is the most prominent author among these, but there are plenty of other important writers. In Communist Romania there was a period from the mid 1960s to approximately the mid 1970s when Romanian literature written by ethnic Hungarians and Germans was promoted, and the censorship was for a few years relaxed to a certain extent. During this period, Franz Hodjak published his first poems and worked as an editor in a publishing house that would publish also Romanian-German literature. Hodjak, who publishes also prose, is additionally a congenial translator of Romanian literature. In 1992 he emigrated to Germany. He lives in Usingen near Frankfurt am Main.
Below you can read two of his poems in the original German and in my translation. Hodjak is an author whose work I like a lot and I am publishing this post in the hope to make a few more people aware of this poet who deserves to be read and also published in other languages. I would love to see a collection by him in English translation or any other language one day.
ignorant were even then
those who went along. snow dug them in
or a blooming torrent of words.
the socks are hanging on the balcony, it
up in the cemetery,
the blackbirds are conferring.
is there a death that grants death
posterity beckons from the train.
unwissend waren schon damals
die, die mitgingen. schnee grub sie ein
oder blühender wortschwall.
die socken hängen auf dem balkon, es
oben, im friedhof, konferieren
gibt es einen tod, der dem tod sinn verleiht?
die nachwelt winkt aus dem zug. Kelling 3
about ten die per year,
eleven wander off to the city,
twelve drive off to the brother.the acacias, small and crippled, bloom
with the courage of despair.
zehn etwa sterben im jahr,
elf wandern weg in die stadt,
zwölf fahren zum bruder.
die akazien, klein und verkrüppelt, blühn
mit dem mut der verzweiflung.
(Kelling/Câlnic is a village near Alba Iulia.)
Franz Hodjak: Siebenbürgische Sprechübung, Suhrkamp 1990
Everyone has their own way of dealing with the death of a friend or relative. I am very quiet on such occasions, turned inwards, and want to be left alone with my mourning. And certainly, the idea to exhibit my friendship and emotional closeness with a recently deceased by posting about it in social media is something alien to me, something I cannot understand at all.
Now that the news has become known that a very talented Bulgarian poet,Nikolai Atanasov, has died at the age of 41 years only, dozens of my FB friends expressed their grief and shared poems. But many also wrote very detailed personal reminiscences, anecdotes, descriptions of experiences, the respective person has had with the deceased, analyzing his life, his poetry, his health, his sexual orientation, his character, and what not.
What struck me and made me infinitely sad: out of everything what the friends of the deceased wrote, one thing became clear: here someone had died, who for a very long time was very sick, poor and socially completely isolated, someone who had practically no emotional support, according to many of his friends, someone who over the years showed clearly signs of poor and deteriorating physical and mental health. I would have wished that among those who claimed to have been friends with the deceased only one would have proved to be a true friend, and would have done something to save the poet from the abyss in which he now obviously perished. Maybe he would be still alive.
But that’s the way it is: once an artist or poet has died in misery, those who have let him/her down and who didn’t extend a helping hand when it was desperately needed, celebrate themselves and their “great friendship” with the dead post mortem. I wonder if at least one of these friends feels ashamed?!
West Germany, a short time before the fall of the BerlinWall. Fred, Nickel and Annette are three young people from the South Hessian provincial town of Dieburg. They dream of the big wide world, more specifically of Canada. They do not have any real ideas about this distant country, only that there everything is much nicer and more interesting than in their godforsaken hometown. Fred “Magic” Hoffmann, the one of the three who has a reputation of being a prankster, wants to plant an apple orchard there and produce apple wine (Eppelwoi), the signature drink of their home region – a project that seems almost as realistic as growing pineapples in Alaska.
What distinguishes this youthful dropout fantasy from many others is simply that the three go one step further than many peers in a similar situation. They are planning a bank robbery, which should give them the necessary seed capital. And they are not stopping at the planning phase: astonishingly, their robbery of a bank branch in a neighboring village is successful; the 600,000 marks, are not a gigantic sum, but enough to build an existence in Canada. But Fred gets caught – planning and executing the bank robbery is dealt with in the novel in a few lines only – and sentenced to four years in juvenile jail, which he does with stoic patience and without betraying his partners in crime – finally he has one goal: when he gets out, his share of 200,000 and his friends are waiting for him, and then: off to Canada! (After all, he uses the prison time to teach himself some English, which he then uses in every appropriate and inappropriate opportunity in his dialogues.)
How great is his surprise when his friends do not pick him up at the prison gate and their postal addresses turn out to be no longer correct. It must have come something in between and the friends also did not want to make themselves suspicious and therefore had little contact with Fred during his detention. Finally, the unsuspecting Fred finds out that his friends are now living in Berlin and he is soon on his way to meet them there. But in Berlin he experiences one surprise after another, and most of them are not at all pleasant …
We are in the novel Magic Hoffmann (that’s the title in the German original) by Jakob Arjouni, who has become famous for his books about the German-Turkish private detective Kemal Kayankaya. If you expect Kemal to appear here as well, you will be disappointed; however, what works quite similar to the Kayankaya novels is Arjouni’s art of developing a character, his often witty dialogues, his eye for the absurdity of certain things and situations, and his unsentimental view of Germany in the late 1980s and early 1990s, his seemingly cynical remarks and his sympathy for his main character, who, despite everything, is quickly taken to the heart of the reader.
The book is also largely a Berlin novel – whereby the city’s description pleasantly differs from many works that want to sell us the old-new German capital as the navel of the world. When Fred comes to the city for the first time, he is quite disappointed: Berlin looks the same way as Frankfurt, Darmstadt or Wiesbaden, except that the Berlin people obviously do not understand Fred’s special kind of humor; Berliners are regularly rude and unfriendly in this novel, a fact with which Fred has difficulty to cope with. And then there are things that are completely new to Fred: the reunited Germany, the frequent talk of the nation, the anti-Semitism, the presence of violent neo-Nazis in the subway, the police, who are not too eager to do their job and to protect the law, Russians who are doing all sorts of illegal business behind a legal cover, petty criminals and extortionate taxi drivers to watch out for, young people like Nickel and Annette, who think of themselves as progressive and hip, but who behind this façade, often have reactionary opinions and extremely conservative ideas about their aims in life. And everywhere it smells bad and the sky is gray in this city. Berlincan not really impress a Magic Hoffmann. Maybe it’s because he’s just passing through.
He realizes that his friends have changed a lot.Nickel studies to become a teacher, he has a family and the money of the robbery well-hidden in an investment scheme in Luxembourg. Fred has a lot of patience with him, but then he has to use some serious pressure to get his share. And Annette works on film projects that never get beyond the planning and discussion stage, otherwise she lives in her bubble of pseudo-artists who are looking down on someone like Fred with contempt; it is telling that both of them are very surprised when Fred asks them when they will be leaving for Canada, since neither for Nickel nor for Annette, this has been ever a serious plan.
But luck seems to embrace Fred nevertheless. He encounters the freaky dancer Moni, who does not bother with his completely unfashionable clothes, his strange look or his crime “career”. The two are getting closer and Fred is forging plans for a life together with Moni in Canada before fate is striking mercilessly.
A great novel in my opinion: it has a high pace, interesting characters and dialogues, it has wit and it allows the reader to take an unusual but very revealing look at the reunited Germany. Unusual because the reader identifies very quickly with the main character Fred Hoffmann. Fred is a modern literary relative of Eichendorff’s Good-for-nothing; he is an outsider for various reasons: bank robber, small town boy, traveler, a person without exaggerated artistic or intellectual ambitions, he is everything that would be described in Berlin as the opposite of hip. But unlike his fake friends, Fred has remained true to his dreams and ideals, with a mixture of naivety and mother wit that makes him very likeable.
The German edition of the novel I read has almost 300 pages; I read the book in one sitting. Highly recommended! What a great loss that Jakob Arjouni died relatively young!
Jakob Arjouni: Magic Hoffmann, Diogenes 2012; Magic Hoffman, Old Castle 2000, No Exit Press (Tr. Geoffrey Mulligan)
Alfred Döblin has left a huge literary oeuvre: novels, stories, essays, autobiographical and literary theoretical writings, and more. His importance as a writer has been emphasized by many of his contemporaries (Brecht, Benn, Tucholsky, Feuchtwanger to name a few) and some authors of the post-war generation. His work is available in German in several editions, including two paperback editions. In 1979, Günter Grass donated the Alfred Döblin Prize, which has become one of the most important literary prizes for German-language literature, and in 1984 the International Alfred Döblin Society was founded, which is intensively involved in the exploration of Döblin’s work.
Nevertheless, Döblin is not a very popular author in the German-speaking countries. The mostly read work is undoubtedly Berlin Alexanderplatz, a book that is frequently compared with Ulysses or Manhattan Transfer in terms of its literary importance. Despite this fact, it is a book that is not easy to digest, and it is hardly suitable for a cozy reading in bed. The impression this book left on many readers may have prevented them from discovering other translated works of this author. This lack of interest also applies to Döblin’s reception outside the German-speaking countries; only a fraction of his work is available in translations and here, too, at most Berlin Alexanderplatz receives some attention. (Translated works available in English are: The Three Leaps of Wang Lun, November 1918, Tales of a Long Night, Men without Mercy, Journey to Poland, or Destiny’s Journey; Manas and Mountains Oceans Giants will be released in English translation in 2020 by Galileo Publishers.)
In his text On My Teacher Döblin Günter Grass addressed in 1967 some of the reasons why Döblin could not really catch up with the German reading public after the Second World War:
“Döblin was not trendy. He was not popular. He was too catholic to the progressive left, too anarchic to the Catholics, he denied solid theories to the moralists, he was too inelegant for the night program, he was too vulgar for the school radio; neither the ‘Wallenstein‘ nor the ‘Giant‘ novel could be digested easily; and the emigrant Döblin dared to return home in 1945 to a Germany that would soon devote itself to consumerism. As for the market value: the asset Döblin was and is not listed on the literary commodity market.” (Translation T.H.)
And for many, one might add, this converted Jew, who returned from exile to Germany wearing a uniform of the French occupiers, was simply suspect – one who didn’t belong here and whose presence was rather embarrassing, for reasons that have also to do with a deep-rooted anti-Semitism that didn’t disappear just like that after 1945 but that only went into hiding for a while.
This year, Berlin Alexanderplatz is the subject of a readalong in the context of German Literature Month and I hope that this will increase the interest in Döblin. Personally, I have decided to discuss another work, which seems to be rather marginal, but which nevertheless makes it possible to contribute to the better understanding of this author.I am talking about the book “My address is Sarreguemines” (“Meine Adresse ist: Saargemünd“), a work that explores Döblin’s significant relationship with the French-German border region near the Saar, with Lorraine and the Saarland.(The book is available in German, as well as in a French translation.)
Döblin, who had a doctor’s practice in Berlin, volunteered for military service in 1915 and was assigned to Sarreguemines. The French town of Sarreguemines is now located directly on the German-French border, but between 1871 and 1918 Lorraine was part of the German Reich (it had been annexed after the victory in the Franco-German War in 1870/71). The volume “My address is: Sarreguemines”, which collects various texts that illuminate Döblin’s relationship to the German-French border region, begins with letters from this period (1915-1918), which he sent from Sarreguemines and later from Hagenau in Alsace (he had been transferred there briefly before the war after a conflict with a superior over the provision of food to the patients.)
It is interesting to see how Döblin’s attitude regarding the war changed over time. While he hailed in an early letter – although already ironically broken – a victory at the eastern Front, he becomes more and more disillusioned and skeptical about the war and its futility as the slaughtering is dragging on for years. Privately he may have spoken even more openly but due to the existing censorship Döblin was not elaborating on this topic in his letters from that period.
Most important for the reader, who is interested in Döblin’s literary work, are in the period between 1915 and 1918 his letters to Herwarth Walden. The journalist Walden – he was first married to Else Lasker-Schüler – was a close friend of Döblin since their youth. At the same time Walden was the publisher of the magazine Sturm, which became the preferred publication platform of many expressionist and modernist authors. In addition, Walden operated the Sturm Gallery and under difficult conditions made a contribution to the popularization of many expressionist artists that can hardly be underestimated. (Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, for example, exhibited at the Sturm Gallery, illustrated the first book by Döblin and later also painted his portrait).
Döblin, at the time a published (two volumes with stories and numerous contributions in magazines), but moderately successful author, used the Sturm during this time as the most important organ for the publication of his stories. With Walden he talks about book projects – his first novel The Three Leaps of Wang Lun and another book with stories are being published during this period, two more novels are almost completed or in preparation – but also occasionally on reading experiences that are often disappointing (e.g. he expresses complete disappointment over a novel by Heinrich Mann). In his letters to Walden, Döblin also describes his difficulties with his literary work in Sarreguemines. This is partly due to his work as a doctor – Verdun is about 100 km away, and the cannon thunder from there can be heard in Sarreguemines. For the work on a historical novel (Wallenstein will be published after WWI), that requires access to secondary literature, Sarreguemines is not a good location; only rarely can he get some of the books he needs urgently from the library in Strasbourg.
In addition, Döblin has financial worries (which get better later); he suffers from cramped living conditions, narrow-minded colleagues and superiors and his health is not always the best. Although he is vaccinated, he is contracting typhus and has severe necrosis, which necessitates several stays in German spas. As if that were not enough, Döblin also has a fling with one of the female doctors at the hospital; the young lady is being transferred to Berlin shortly before the arrival of Döblin’s family. (Walden, to whom Döblin confides these details, receives the Berlin address of the lady from his friend, with the cryptic remark that this may come in handy for him one day…)
Döblin’s feeling regarding the arrival of his wife and children who will live with him, are ambiguous. He is happy to have his growing family around him (his wife will bring their two sons to Sarreguemines, a third son will be born there, a fourth son in the post-war years; Döblin also has a son from an extramarital relationship whom he secretly supports financially). On the other hand, the noise at home, the frequent quarrels with his wife are obstacles that lead to a slowdown of his literary production. (Döblin’s marriage to his wife Erna, a trained physician, was extremely turbulent, but it lasted until his death. Döblin’s propensity to marital infidelity may have been one of the reasons for the frequent quarrels of husband and wife.) The situation only improves after the family moves to a slightly bigger flat in which Döblin is “smartly” (as he writes to Walden) arranging a spatial separation: while he is living upstairs, wife and children stay downstairs and don’t disturb him when he is working or needs a rest.
A little peace and relaxation Döblin finds during this time on occasional visits to Saarbrücken. By far the largest city in the region, it offers the urban life, a more open, cultured atmosphere compared to the Lorraine garrison town of Sarreguemines that he misses so much. However, the confrontation with his superior also takes place in Saarbrücken, which ultimately leads to his punitive transfer to Haguenau. (This event happens coincidentally at exactly the spot where the hospital in which I was born is located.)
After the end of the war and demobilization Döblin returns to Berlin (he later used these experiences in the first of his four-volume work November 1918). The twenties and early thirties are the time of Döblin’s greatest productivity and success as an author; he and his family can for the first time live without financial worries, if only for a few years.
Döblin didn’t burn the bridges to the Saar region, which was from 1920 to 1935 not a part of Germany but under International Administration by the League of Nations. He corresponds with the essayist Arthur Friedrich Binz from Saarbrücken who is publishing in 1924 an essay Alfred Döblin und das Saarland (Alfred Döblin and the Saarland); Binz mentions also that two of Döblin’s wartime stories are playing in the German-French border area: Der Geist vom Ritthof (The Ghost of the Ritthof) und Das verwerfliche Schwein (The reprehensible Pig), two grotesque ghost or horror stories still written in the spirit of Expressionism. (The essay of Binz is reprinted as well as the two stories by Döblin in the book.)Döblin also wrote at least two more texts, which were then published in Saarland media. And he campaigned for the publication of the first novel by Anton Betzner, an author that lived at the Saar region for many years; the then still very young author proved later to be a very important supporter of Döblin after WWII.
A drastic deterioration in living and publishing conditions began for Döblin in 1933. As a Jew and leftist, he had to flee; in France he worked for some time – together with the scholar Robert Minder, a professor for German literature – in the Ministry of Information (Minister: Jean Giraudoux). After the invasion Döblin had to flee again under adventurous circumstances. Via Portugal he finally arrived in the USA, where he was initially working as a scriptwriter at MGM; later, he and his family lived on the financial support of various aid organizations. Döblin’s conversion to Catholicism also falls into the period of his American exile.
In 1945 Döblin returned to Germany via France; he entered his country of birth as a French citizen and in the uniform of a French Colonel. Firstly in Baden-Baden and later in Mainz, he worked for the French Military Administration on the reconstruction of literary institutions; he also founded the literary magazine Das goldene Tor (The Golden Gate), which was to play an active role in the democratic transformation of Germans; it became a platform for new talents and authors that had remained in Nazi-Germany but had kept a distance to the regime; also exiled authors were published. Döblin was supported in this task by Anton Betzner, whom he could win as editor for the magazine. In addition, Döblin completed various of his own works. Radio broadcasting became an important publication channel for him. The letters to Betzner from the years 1946-1953 that are included in the reviewed volume reflect the editorial work in the magazine Das goldene Tor. But the letters show also an increasing disappointment of Döblin: despite Betzner’s efforts and publishing contacts Döblin can not secure a publishing contract for his Hamlet novel for many years; and he despairs more and more with the restorative tendencies in the post-WWII West Germany. (Betzner proves in the decades to come one of the few who on many occasions promoted Döblin’s literary oeuvre by essays and radio features.) Only occasionally Döblin’s sharp wit seems to be revived. But these last years are also a period of various health ailments for Döblin – he has an infarct and is struggling with progressive Parkinson’s disease. After West German President Theodor Heuss (himself a writer and author of several essay collections) intervenes in favor of Döblin in the financial compensation proceedings, the author finally receives a settlement, and is able to buy a tiny apartment in Paris. There he lives with his wife – apart from frequent visits of his friend Robert Minder – almost completely isolated from 1953 on. Döblindies during a spa stay in Emmendingen in 1957, already forgotten by most of his contemporaries. His widow will take her life a few months after his death.
Alfred Döblin and his wife are buried in the small village of Housseras in Lorraine (approximately 500 inhabitants), where his son Wolfgang (Vincent Doblin is the French version of his name), who died in tragic circumstances, is also buried. Döblin, who after his return to Europe found out that several of his closest relatives had been murdered in Auschwitz, had lost contact with his son Wolfgang (Vincent) during the war, who served as a soldier in the French army. Wolfgang, who was a highly gifted mathematician, had some conflicts with his father in his youth, who had always hoped during the time of the separation during the war to reconcile with his son one day. But this reconciliation could no longer take place, Wolfgang had died during the war, as the shocked parents learned in March 1945. Afterwards Alfred Döblin apparently suffered greatly from feelings of guilt. Döblin and his wife decided to be buried later at the side of Wolfgang.
The book reviewed here gives further details about the circumstances of Wolfgang’s death. To avoid imminent capture by German troops, the desperate young man had shot himself on a farm in Housseras. After he had been buried in a mass grave, he was later exhumed and buried in a solitary grave. The house where he died carries today a memorial plate with the note “mathématicien de génie”, and his grave plate mentions that he died for France (“mort port la France”). (Photos and further information can be found also in this interesting French-language article.)
A sealed envelope, which Wolfgang had sent to the French Academy of Sciences, was opened in 2000. The envelope contained a significant unpublished mathematical manuscript on stochastic processes Sur l’équation de Kolmogoroff, which anticipated findings of the Japanese mathematician Itō Kiyoshi. On Wolfgang Doeblin’s life and work there is an interesting book by Marc Petit, which I refer to at the end of the article.
The last text by Alfred Döblin in the volume reviewed here is his speech in Saarbrücken about the New Europe (Saarbrücker Rede über das Neue Europa). It was Döblin’s last public address and a powerful statement for a strong, peaceful and united Europe:
“Europe! [….] The current state […] is actually unworthy of the men and women who live here, in fact we are all Europeans, whether we speak German, French or Italian. But it doesn’t matter, tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, we have to confront each other again, because the border runs like this and the other runs like that, and we would have to put ourselves on this side or on that [….] The old state systems have lost their meaning, Europe is the reality of today [….] Show them that behind the old rusty reality there is a young and splendid new one. Show the power you have to tear down the old structure. Team up! No small slogans. The just fight, the true fight, the only fight. ” (Translation T.H.)
It would be the right time today to remember this encouraging call for peace and unity in Europe!
The reviewed volume is excellently edited. It contains a long and instructive afterword by Ralph Schock, the editor of the book, as well as references and a bibliography. Particularly noteworthy are the many historical photos from German and French archives; they make the numerous connections of Döblinto the German-French border region also visually tangible. The book has a hard cover with dust jacket, a bound-in book sign and is carefully bound and printed on good, acid-free paper. It was published in a series “Spuren” (Traces) of a regional small publishing house (Gollenstein), which illuminated the literary references of significant authors to the Saar region in outstanding editions. I have for example discussed a volume of Joseph Roth’s journalistic work in the past that was published in this series; other volumes are dedicated to Hermann Hesse, Philippe Soupault, Ilya Ehrenburg, Theodor Balk, Francois-Régis Bastide, or Harald Gerlach. It is a pity that the publisher has now disappeared from the scene without a trace.
Admittedly, this was a contribution that went well beyond the average length of my usual book reviews. This is mainly due to this really beautiful book itself, which I read with particular interest not least because of my own origin from this region. In addition, I learned many details from the life of Alfred Döblin, that were previously unknown to me. Although an English translation of this volume is very unlikely, I still hope that especially Berlin Alexanderplatz readers may find this article useful. And maybe a few readers will try one of the other translated, but rarely read books by this author. Döblin’s oeuvre is full of surprises; in any case it is worth discovering this interesting author!
Alfred Döblin: “Meine Adresse ist: Saargemünd”, Gollenstein 2009; Je vous écris de Sarreguemines, tr. Renate and Alain Lance, Serge Domini Editeur 2017
Marc Petit: L’équation de Kolmogoroff. Vie et mort de Wolfgang Doeblin, un génie dans la tourmente nazie, Ramsay 2003, Folio 2005; Die verlorene Gleichung. Auf der Suche nach Wolfgang und Alfred Döblin, Eichborn 2005