Tag Archives: Georg Büchner

A disturbing fairy tale

The by far most disturbing fairy tale I ever came across in my life, and also one of the most disturbing literary texts I ever encountered goes like this:

“Once upon a time there was a poor little child and had no father and no mother all dead and was no-one left in the whole world. All dead, and it went off, crying day and night. And since on earth there was no-one left it wanted to go up to heaven where the moon looked at it so kindly and when it got finally to the moon it was a lump of rotten wood and so it went to the sun and when it got to the sun it was a withered-up sunflower. And when it got to the stars they were little spangled midges stuck there, like the ones shrikes stick on sloes and when it wanted to go back to the earth, the earth was an overturned pisspot and ‘t was all alone, and it sat down and cried, and it is still sitting there and is all alone.”

(„Es war einmal ein arm Kind und hat kei Vater und keine Mutter war Alles tot und war Niemand mehr auf der Welt. Alles tot, und es ist hingangen und hat gerrt Tag und Nacht. Und wie auf der Erd Niemand mehr war, wollt’s in Himmel gehn, und der Mond guckt es so freundlich an und wie’s endlich zum Mond kam, war’s ein Stück faul Holz und da ist es zur Sonn gangen und wie’s zur Sonn kam, war’s ein verwelkt Sonneblum. Und wie’s zu den Sterne kam, warn’s klei golde Mücken, die warn angesteckt wie der Neuntöter sie auf die Schlehe steckt und wie’s wieder auf die Erd wollt, war die Erd ein umgestürzter Hafen und war ganz allein und da hat sich’s hingesetzt und gerrt, und da sitzt’ es noch und ist ganz allein.“)

Georg Büchner, the author of the enigmatic and unforgettable play Woyczek from which this short fairy tale is taken, lets the grandmother tell this tale to the children that are present. The grandmother speaks in a slightly archaic and dialect-flavoured language which adds to the “gothic” effect. This is not the place to analyse the role of this dark tale within the play but it still gives probably everyone a feeling of utter hopelessness. It is a post-apocalyptic fairy tale, a text without any hope or consolation – and probably a very appropriate text for the situation of mankind today -; the powerful language of Georg Büchner has an incredible effect on the reader, especially when you can read the German original.

In his short life (he died at the age of 23), he created a few works that stand out not only in German literature. His Lenz is for me the best German story and it still blows me away every time I read it. The same goes for his plays Woyczek, Danton’s Death, and Leonce and Lena, or his revolutionary pamphlet – co-authored with Friedrich Ludwig Weidig – Der Hessische Landbote (The Hessian Courier) with the famous slogan “Peace to the shacks! War to the palaces!” („Friede den Hütten! Krieg den Palästen!“)

I will for sure come back to this extraordinary author. If you have an opportunity to find an edition of his Collected Works, get and read it. You won’t regret it.

Büchner’s works have not only been an inspiration for many authors – the most prestigeous German literary award is named in honour of this man who was once a young refugee wanted by the police of his home country with an arrest warrant because of his fight for a democratic and more free society -, also many composers, film directors, and performance artists take inspiration from him. Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck, Werner Herzog’s movie Woyczek (with Klaus Kinski), and Tom Waits’s song Children’s Story from the album Orphans come to mind. The lyrics of that song: the text of the fairy tale quoted above (in a different translation).

Georg Büchner’s early death was without doubt one of the biggest losses for the world of literature, a real tragedy. His small number of works show an accomplished genius already at a very young age.


Georg Büchner, Complete Plays, Lenz and Other Writings, translated by John Reddick, Penguin Classics, 1993

The translation from German in this blog post is by Thomas Hübner.

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Shady Side

Norman Tweed Whitaker, the “hero” of this biography is a Dickensian figure: he was both, full of genius and a devil at the same time. Coming from an educated upper middle class family – his father was a high school principle in Philadelphia – Whitaker (1890-1975) became a patent attorney that held also a degree in German literature; his great talent as a chess player made him a dangerous opponent for any player and earned him the US Master title and in 1965 the title of an International Master (that was before the “title inflation” when this title meant still a lot).

Among the masters he defeated in serious games were the legendary players Frank Marshall, David Janowski and Samuel Reshevsky, for decades America’s strongest player (all of them were contenders for the World Championship title); in simuls he even won against Emanuel Lasker and the young Capablanca. The book contains more than 500 games played by Whitaker, some of them annotated. Whitaker was a dangerous tactician with a good endgame knowledge, but the patience for positional play was something he obviously lacked – a mirror of his personality maybe.

Also as a chess promoter Whitaker did more than probably anybody else in the United States for decades to make the game popular: he gave countless exhibition and simultaneous games, organized tournaments, raised funds, worked as a trainer and founded chess clubs, traveled a big deal in the U.S. and abroad to promote the game, co-authored a chess endgame book  – and quarreled a lot with the U.S. Chess Association and people who prevented him to earn the recognition he thought he deserved. He saw himself frequently as a victim of some conspiracy of vicious people that used the threat to expose very personal information about him in order to discredit him and to sidestep him whenever it was possible for them.

This all may be not particularly interesting outside the very specialized circle of chess players or those interested in chess history. But there is an element in this biography that makes it interesting for a wider audience. Whitaker, the cultivated, well-educated patent attorney from a good family and with the chess interest and talent was also a ruthless con man with a long criminal record.

Whitaker was convicted for crimes such as interstate car theft, insurance fraud, extortion and blackmailing (he claimed to know the whereabouts of the kidnapped and murdered Lindbergh baby and was arrested when he tried to extort money for allegedly returning the baby), selling morphine and other drugs via mail, and finally also child molesting. (This list is not complete.)

Grandmaster Arnold Denker who knew him well said about Whitaker:

“His advanced education, high intelligence, command of foreign languages, expensive wardrobe, plentiful ready cash, skill at chess, and confident personal manner all aided in fooling many unsuspecting victims.”

A criminal “career” that spanned over several decades and that earned him various convictions and many years in the jails of Leavenworth and Alcatraz. Therefore it is not surprising that in this well researched and written biography by chess historian John S. Hilbert not only chess masters, but also the Lindbergh family, J. Edgar Hoover and Al Capone (with whom he made friends while serving time in Alcatraz) play a certain role.

What turns a talented, intelligent and rather successful man with a good profession into a criminal? And how did this part of his personality coexist with that of a serious, energetic chess promoter with good contacts in many places? The rather unsettling and surprising answer is: we don’t know. There is no warning sign, no early childhood trauma, no history of being depraved of love and affection by his family that turned Norman T. Whitaker into the ruthless criminal he was. It seems that after the first arrest in 1921 and the following conviction – which was so shocking to his father that he died of a heart attack when he learned about the car theft – Whitaker’s life was like on an inclined plane from which there was no turning back.

An interesting book not only for chess players – thanks to the author’s clever choice of documents and his ability to present us his subject as a person with such contradictory characteristics that they hardly seem to fit into one human being, we get to know a fascinating, weird personality.

„What is it in us that lies, whores, steals, and murders?” (Georg Büchner: Danton’s Death) – that enigma remains still unresolved.

John S. Hilbert: Shady Side: The Life and Crimes of Norman Tweed Whitaker, Chess Master, Caissa Editions, Yorklyn 2000 (ed. Dale Brandreth)

Arnold Denker: Stormin’ Norman, in: ibid, The Bobby Fischer I Knew And Other Stories, p. 262-274, Hypermodern Press 1995

Norman T. Whitaker / Glenn E. Hartleb: 365 Ausgewählte Endspiele: Eines Für Jeden Tag Im Jahr, Selbstverlag, Heidelberg 1960

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.