Tag Archives: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

German Literature Month 2015 – wrap-up

literatur_2015_gold-2

German Literature Month in November was again an extremely interesting event, just like last year. The two unfatigable hosts Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) and Lizzy (Lizzy’s Literary Life) once again created an event with plenty of opportunities to join in. In the end 44 bloggers had published 166 posts, mainly about fiction and poetry, but also including some featured articles and several non-fiction reviews.

Over the years, this event has become increasingly popular and the index on the website that links to all articles that were published in all editions of the German Literature Month has become a major resource for anyone who wants to get informed about German literature. Check it out, the variety of authors and opinions is truly amazing! (Thanks, Lizzy!)

Interestingly, the most reviewed author this year was Stefan Zweig (14 reviews of 12 works), followed by Schiller (10 posts related to Schiller’s works and books about Schiller). Goethe on the contrary was ignored by everybody – maybe we should include a Goethe week next year?

After several months of being not very active, this event has brought me back to blogging on a more regular basis. I discovered plenty of new books, got reminded of some others I should re-read again in the future and I also discovered a few book blogs which I hadn’t known before but will follow in the future. It was fun to read the comments and to comment myself sometimes. I read literally all reviews, but time restrictions prevented me so far to comment on all of them.  Just like last year  I thoroughly enjoyed this event, and just like last year, I won a giveaway, Ulrich Plenzdorf’s Werther novel which I will review one day of course. (Thanks, Caroline!)

This year, I published ten posts – compared to eight last year. Beside a featured anecdote about Jean Paul, nine of the posts were reviews:

Veza Canetti: The Tortoises

Thomas Kling: Collected Poems

Schilleriana (9 publications of Deutsche Schillergesellschaft)

Hans Magnus Enzensberger: New Selected Poems

Walther von der Vogelweide: Poems

Detlef Opitz: The Books Murderer

Jean Paul: The strange company at New Year’s Eve

Joseph Roth: Letters from Germany

Gertrud Kolmar: Poems

Several of the books I had intended to read for German Lit Month, I had to postpone for the time being, while others popped up in the last moment. I reviewed/presented more poetry than last years and a bit less prose by contemporary authors. Who knows what I will be up to next year?!

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. 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.

An early “Dying Earth” scenario

literatur_2015_gold-2

This blog post is part of the German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzie (Lizzies Literary Life) and Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

The narrator of this story, a man with a rich imagination, and prone to both bouts of migraine and frequent visions is walking up and down his study for hours. It is New Year’s Eve of 1799, the last day of the 18th century. The writer waits for the return of his wife who is out for a visit to a sick friend, promising that she will be back “still in this century.”

The last day of a year, and even more so the last day of a century is reason for contemplation, but our narrator has again a terrible migraine attack – and suddenly it happens:

after closing his eyes for a while and upon reopening them again he realizes that there is a group of five people, among them a little child in his room and he has no idea who they are or how they entered. The group’s appearance is rather odd, not so much frightening and a dialogue between the narrator and the group is developing that covers most of the story. This dialogue deals mainly with the prospectives for the future. The tone, partly serious, partly humorous keeps a kind of balance that makes us readers wonder what the author is up to. One of the narrator’s guests gets more and more excited and develops a truly apocalyptic scenario for the future that is the climax of this story:

“Es gibt einmal einen letzten Menschen – er wird auf einem Berg unter dem Äquator stehen und herabschauen auf die Wasser, welche die weite Erde überziehen – festes Eis glänzet an den Polen herauf der Mond und die Sonne hängen ausgebreitet und tief und nur blutig über der kleinen Erde, wie zwei trübe feindliche Augen oder Kometen – das aufgetürmte Gewölke strömet eilig durch den Himmel und stürzet sich ins Meer und fährt wieder empor, und nur der Blitz schwebt mit glühenden Flügeln zwischen Himmel und Meer und scheidet sie – Schau auf zum Himmel, letzter Mensch! Auf deiner Erde ist schon alles vergangen – deine großen Ströme ruhen aufgelöset im Meere.”

“There will one day be a last man – he will stand on a mountain under the Equator, and look down upon the waters which welter over the wide earth – firmly from the poles gleams upward the unchangeable ice – the moon and the sun hang broad and bloody over the little earth, like two eyes full of hate. For the earth’s spiral orbit has brought it nearer and nearer to the sun, and the moon’s spiral has enlarged the face with which it looks ever steadfastly toward our planet, and their strong attraction caused the oceans to roll together round the Equator – and then the whole atmosphere with its vapors rushes up from the poles after the water, and still as the attraction increases, a frightful flood of electric fluid pours and swells over all. The clouds, piled up in mountain-towers stream quickly across the sky, and plunge into the sea, and then rush upward again, while the lightning  on burning wings flashes from Heaven to the Ocean and cleaves them asunder. Look up to the Heaven, thou last man! All on thy earth has disappeared – all its rivers have been swallowed up in its sea.” (translation by J.F.C., The Western Messenger, November 1838) 

Believing that midnight is approaching, the uninvited guests are leaving – but it turns out that when the authors wife comes home from her visit it is one hour before midnight. Remarking her husband’s mood, the wife sings and plays on the piano one of his favourite tunes and the usual order of things is re-established. The vision was most probably something only imagined by her husband. 

This short story by Jean Paul Friedrich Richter – known in Germany as Jean Paul only – Die wunderbare Gesellschaft in der Neujahrsnacht (The strange company at New Year’s Eve) is rather typical for this remarkable and not well-known author who wrote in the traditions of Swift and Laurence Sterne and who had a tremendous influence on authors like Hoffmann, de Quincey (who wrote an essay about him) or Arno Schmidt and among the contemporary German authors I could mention Walter Kappacher and Ludwig Harig (who was by coincidence my teacher when I was a first grader) as examples of novelists that are writing in Jean Paul’s tradition.

The story from which I quoted is witty, well-written and despite the bleak quote very entertaining. And it is according to some SF experts most probably the first literary Dying Earth scenario ever published – and thus a kind of predecessor of a certain category of the Science Fiction genre.

Jean Paul lived most of his life in pre-Wagner Bayreuth, but he paid also longer visits to Weimar (Goethe and Schiller were rather distanced, partly because of literary reasons, partly because of the fact that Jean Paul, then a bachelor had several relationships with women which were considered a scandal; Wieland and Herder on the contrary liked him very much), and to Berlin – here he made friends with the Schlegel brothers, Schleiermacher, Fichte, and other important intellectuals.

Jean Paul is a great master of the German language; and he is also a master of the digression – his novels are usually very long because he is a true follower of Laurence Sterne here.

Who wants to discover this literary giant who was standing between Classicism and Romanticism can start with this rather short work that inspired also many famous illustrators (I have a beautiful edition with sketches by Alfred Kubin.). Unfortunately it seems that there is no collection of stories on the market that contains this story in English translation. Why, dear publishers?

A book I can heartily recommend for those with an interest in Jean Paul is Günter de Bruyn’s biography Das Leben des Jean Paul Friedrich Richter (The Life of Jean Paul Frederick Richter), a beautiful dedication by the novelist de Bruyn to his literary ancestor Jean Paul.  I fell a bit under the spell of Jean Paul after I had read this well-researched and brilliantly written book.

A translation of this book and a recent good edition of Jean Paul’s shorter works in English is missing – but who knows, maybe a publisher is already working on it. That would be a great pleasure!

Kubin

Jean Paul: Die wunderbare Gesellschaft in der Neujahrsnacht, dtv, München 1979, ill. by Alfred Kubin

de Bruyn

Günter de Bruyn: Das Leben des Jean Paul Friedrich Richter, S. Fischer, Frankfurt am Main

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. 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.

Magister Tinius – Priest, Book Collector, Killer

literatur_2015_gold-2

This blog post is part of the German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzie (Lizzies Literary Life) and Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

The Books Murderer (Der Büchermörder) by Detlef Opitz is a novel that is remarkable for various reasons. It is an extremely well-researched historical novel; it is a novel that tries to resolve the mystery of a series of crimes – including murder – that are all linked to the insane passion of a priest for books; and it is a novel that uses in a most virtuous way probably all existing writing styles in German language from the 18th to the 21th century.

As an additional interesting element there is a “we”-narrator that takes certain liberties in filling in the gaps that the documents that he uses leave in order to tell us the story of his “hero” – and who this “we” is, a single person or indeed a small group of persons the reader will never know for sure. And even if the “hero” really committed those terrible crimes is not absolutely sure…

I am a quite compulsive book buyer and collector myself, and maybe that’s why I am particularly drawn to novels or stories about obsessive book lovers. That was what made The Name of the Rose so appealing to me, that was why I immediately grabbed The House of Paper by Carlos Maria Dominguez when I saw it in a book store some time ago. Peter Kien and Don Quijote belong of course also in this category of book addicts. I even collect news stories from the media about obsessive book lovers, such as the story of the civil servant from Darmstadt (a city where I worked for a few years) who stole about 25,000 books from libraries – not for pecuniary reasons but because of his wish to own a big library himself.

No wonder I stumbled sooner or later over a quote by Arno Schmidt from his The Stony Heart (Das steinerne Herz):

“Ich dachte lange an den Magister Tinius, den Bücherverfallenen, der mit seinem Hammer durch die öden Heiden des Fläming schlich: wenn andere das Geld haben, und er braucht doch die Bücher?!”

“I thought for a long time about Magister Tinius, the book addict, who creeps with his hammer through the barren heaths of the Fläming: if others have the money, but he needs the books?!”

Arno Schmidt, a great expert when it comes to obscure German writers of the 18th and 19th century must have been referring to a real, not an invented person, so I thought. And indeed, the “Neue Pitaval” (“New Pitaval”), a very popular collection of real crime stories that was used as source material by many German authors contains a chilling story about a man who had turned from a small protestant Parish priest to a biblio-maniac, and finally to a criminal and murderer as a result of his insane book love.

Johann Georg Tinius (1764-1846) was a priest in a small town in Saxony who had aspirations to be a writer and scholar and who loved books. So far, so good. But somehow things got out of hand and over the years he bought more and more books and had even to rent a barn for his library. People were getting suspicious: how was it possible that a priest with an income that was a mere pittance could acquire such a vast and expensive book collection? The good priest may have been the beneficiary of a small inheritance and his wife who died comparatively early (some suspected foul play) came from a family with a small wealth; too bad that at that time financial irregularities regarding the budget of the parish church were also becoming obvious and an investigation started. But somehow the priest was able to pledge for “not guilty” and because the final evidence that he was the reason for the sudden disappearance of a certain sum of money from the coffers of the church was missing, he got away – this time.

After his wife had passed away, Tinius hurried to remarry a wealthy wife. And, you guessed correctly, he started immediately to put his wife’s money (much to her dismay) to a good use, i.e. by buying much more books. After his book collection had reached a number of 50,000 to 60,000, he ran again out of money. And almost at the same time, robberies, and even a murder and an attempted murder happened in which everything hinted at the man in black with the book hobby.

Tinius got arrested and the court proceedings lasted almost ten years. His defence strategy was very simple: “I am innocent”. Nevertheless, the evidence was overwhelming and he got a long prison sentence. He lost everything: his wife divorced him, and – much worse for him – his book collection was auctioned off. Even Goethe bought books from the auction!

Tinius used the time in jail to try to prove his innocence; he wrote a short autobiography which is for sure one of the strangest texts of the 19th century, so utterly inadequate is what Tinius has to say about his book addiction and the crimes he had obviously committed.

After twelve years in prison, Tinius was released because of his old age and poor health. He lived another eleven years in obscurity, some distant relatives had taken care of the man in his last years.

As I said already, Opitz’ novel is not only well researched, it is also extremely well written – but the virtuosity of the language may be a reason why it is untranslated so far. Still, I hope this masterpiece will be available one day also to readers who don’t read German.

The author, and that’s a nice irony, had collected a huge library himself in his younger years – but he lost it all in a game of poker. (And if it’s not true, it’s at least well invented.)

Opitz

Detlef Opitz: Der Büchermörder, Eichborn Verlag 2005

 

Johann Georg Tinius: Merkwürdiges und lehrreiches Leben des M. Johann Georg Tinius, Pfarrers zu Poserna in der Inspektion Weißenfels. Von ihm selbst entworfen. Mit einem Essay von Herbert Heckmann, Friedenauer Presse, Berlin 1986 (written 1813)

Julius Eduard Hitzig / Georg Wilhelm Heinrich Häring (eds.): Der Neue Pitaval, Brockhaus, Leipzig 1843

Arno Schmidt: Two Novels: The Stony Heart and B/Moondocks, translated by John E. Woods, Dalkey Archive 1999

Translation of the Arno Schmidt quote by Thomas Hübner

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. 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.

Schilleriana or The Pleasures of a Literary Archive

literatur_2015_gold-2

This blog post is part of the German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzie (Lizzies Literary Life) and Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

Friedrich Schiller Week opens the German Literary Month this year officially and I am looking forward to reading what my blogger colleagues will post in this context. Lizzie, one of the co-hosts of German Literary Month has just published a very interesting introduction to Schiller’s life and works, obviously inspired by a recent visit in Weimar.

Weimar is definitely worth a visit and not only because of Schiller as you know. But there is a second place which can be similarly inspiring if you are interested in the work of this literary genius: Marbach am Neckar, his birthplace. It is not only the house in which he was born but of course also the Deutsches Literatur Archiv (German Literary Archive; address: Schillerhöhe 8-10) that preserves an incredible amount of manuscripts and belongings of German writers, and that showcases frequently extremely interesting exhibitions. The catalogues and other publications of the Archive are a treasure for those that are interested in German literature (and with a knowledge of German).

Great plans and projects: Schiller was usually thinking big. But the fact that he was not wealthy and his life a permanent struggle to secure an income and regular employment influenced his writing. For some time he took a break from drama writing in order to focus on the more lucrative publication of historical works. These tensions between his idealistic plans and his precarious existence as a writer who was not independent from market requirements were in 2005 the subject of an important exhibition at the Deutsches Literatur Archiv (DLA), and the beautiful catalogue is a treat for Schiller fans.

Götterpläne & Mäusegeschäfte

Frank Druffner und Martin Schalhorn: Götterpläne & Mäusegeschäfte. Schiller 1759–1805, 2nd edition, Marbacher Katalog 58, Deutsche Schillergesellschaft Marbach 2005

It was for sure a very tough experience for Johann Caspar Schiller, Friedrich’s father, when his son – then a regiment doctor – deserted from the army and fled Württemberg. Not only was Johann Caspar a loyal officer in the same army from which his son ran away, he was also for 21 years the responsible supervisor of the Duke’s garden at Schloss Solitude and therefore in a quite close working and personal relationship with the Duke and thus in a particularly delicate position. The letters written by the father to his famous son are interesting documents; while after young Schiller’s desertion shame and disappointment are the dominating feelings from Johann Caspar‘s side, he had later to acknowledge that his son achieved more than his father could hope for.

Johann Caspar Schiller

Jean-Baptiste Joly: Johann Caspar Schiller auf der Solitude, Spuren 27, Deutsche Schillergesellschaft Marbach 1994

Schiller’s older sister Christophine wrote memoirs of Schiller’s youth which are a valuable source for Schiller scholars. Although she was like most women of her time forced to lead a life according to social conventions that limited women mainly to homework, education of children and representative tasks, she had an artistic talent of her own, as her drawings and watercolors that are in the possession of the DLA show. The reproductions of her works are one of the highlights of a small catalogue dedicated to her.

Schiller3

Edda Ziegler in cooperation with Michael Davidis: »Theuerste Schwester«. Christophine Reinwald, geb. Schiller, Marbacher Magazin 118, Deutsche Schillergesellschaft Marbach 2007

The catalogue „Aus dem Leben eines Hofrats“ is the indispensable guide book if you visit the Schiller House in Marbach in which Friedrich Schiller was born.

Schiller4

Michael Davidis and Sabine Fischer: Aus dem Hausrat eines Hofrats, Marbacher Magazin 77, Deutsche Schillergesellschaft Marbach 1997

An original way to approach the person Schiller and his work is via some of his belongings which are now a part of the DLA collection: a hat, headband, three vests, two pairs of pants, two pairs of socks, seven shoe buckles, finger rings, hand warmers, toothpicks, dressing gown button and pocket, a walking stick and numerous curls attributed to him – all of these items have their own history, a history that says a lot about the person Schiller and about his work.

Schiller5

Heike Gfrereis, with an essay by Wilhelm Genazino: Autopsie Schiller. Eine literarische Untersuchung, Marbacher Magazin 125/126, Deutsche Schillergesellschaft Marbach 2009

While still in Württemberg, Schiller visited the poet, journalist and musician Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart in his prison at Hohenasperg in November 1781. Schubart was incarcerated for ten years without trial and verdict, the most famous victim of the „justice“ of Duke Carl Eugen. A slender booklet informs the reader about this fascinating episode in Schiller’s life that triggered his escape from the Duke’s service and that left literary traces especially in Schiller’s play „Kabale und Liebe“.

Schiller6

Wolfgang Ranke: Schiller, Schubart und der Hohenasperg, Spuren 86, Deutsche Schillergesellschaft Marbach 2009

From September 1793 to May 1794, Schiller could visit for the first time after his desertion his home region again. On May, 4, briefly before Schiller’s return to Jena, the then almost unknown publisher Johann Friedrich Cotta invites Schiller on a coach ride from Stuttgart to Untertürkheim and to the Kahlenstein hill near Cannstatt. During this day trip, the two men discussed Schiller’s plan for his new journal project „Die Horen“. It turned out that this ride was the beginning of a long friendship and a for both sides very fruitful author-publisher relationship. A small booklet documents this crucial moment in Schiller’s life.

Schiller7

Martin Schalhorn: Ein Sonntagsausflug von Schiller und Cotta nach Untertürkheim am 4. Mai 1794, Spuren 69, Deutsche Schillergesellschaft Marbach 2006

In May 1804, Schiller visited Berlin for about two weeks. This time is extremely well documented – whom he met, what theatre and opera performances he visited, where he had dinner and what was going on regarding his planned academic posting to Berlin. All this from Schiller’s own notebooks and other sources, but also a comparison of the intellectual climate of Berlin and Weimar and beautiful illustrations you can find in another nice exhibition catalogue.

Schiller9

Michael Bienert: Schiller in Berlin oder Das rege Leben einer großen Stadt, 2nd edition, Marbacher Magazin 106, Deutsche Schillergesellschaft Marbach 2005

Until the first half of the 19th century, monuments were only erected in honor of Kings or other aristocratic persons. The Schiller Monument in Stuttgart, created by Bertel Thorvaldsen and inaugurated in May 1839 was the first public monument in Germany in honor of a poet and had therefore a great impact for the democratization of Erinnerungskultur (memorial culture). A small booklet describes the public contemporary debate that preceded and followed the inauguration of the Schiller monument in Stuttgart.

Schiller8

Michael Davidis: 150 Jahre Schiller-Denkmal in Stuttgart, Spuren 4, Deutsche Schillergesellschaft Marbach 1989

All publications are available directly from the DLA online shop or at the DLA premises in Marbach.

A lot of Schiller, I know. If you are now feeling inspired to write like him, buy yourself an antique standing secretary desk as was used by Schiller (and Goethe), and get in Marbach one of those neat nibs he used for writing (9 Euro; it comes with a small gift case and description).

But don’t forget the famous rotten apples for a really authentic Schiller feeling!

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. 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.

 


From Bulgaria with Love

German Literary Spaces (Nемски литературни простори) is a new collection of essays by the Bulgarian poet, essayist, aphorist, and translator Venzeslav Konstantinov.

Konstantinov is one of those very important mediators between different countries, languages, cultures that make literature or other works from the cultural sphere accessible to us and whose work is so important and frequently underestimated. As for Bulgaria, a considerable part of the classical and modern literature in German language was translated and edited by Konstantinov and his translations are accompanied by essays that help the reader to understand the context of the work and the writer. Konstantinov is a particularly gifted translator of poetry. The “Bulgarian” poetry of Erich Kästner for example is so close to the original that it sounds as if Kästner has written the poems himself in Bulgarian.

A collection of twenty of Konstantinov’s essays on German literature is now published in the new book announced here. Each chapter is devoted to the work of one author, and the range of writers covers the period from the 18th century (the first essay in the book is devoted to Goethe) until today (an essay on Martin Walser concludes the book). All essays are comparatively short (five to ten pages), only the one on Elias Canetti (“From Rustschuk with Love”) is longer. And all of them make the reader curious to discover the work of the writer that Konstantinov is describing in the respective essay.

Konstantinov proves not only to be a congenial translator, but also a successful ‘literature seducer’, someone who knows how to wake up the wish in the reader to discover new literary horizons.

With two small critical remarks I want to conclude this review. First, it would have been great to make it clear that the essays are not dealing with the 20 most important German authors (there is for example no essay on Kafka, and an essay on Katja Mann instead of Thomas or Heinrich Mann). The essays reflect Konstantinov’s interests, and that’s absolutely fine. But they are not (and not meant to be) a systematic introduction to German literature. That’s in no way meant as a criticism of the author, but a short remark in this sense would be useful to readers that are not so familiar with German literature.

Additionally it would have been nice to mention if the essays were written for this book or if it is a collection of previously published articles. Nothing wrong with collecting previously published essays, it is even a commendable deed from the publishing house Iztok-Zapad (East-West) in Sofia. But as a reader I just want to know what exactly I am reading.

These remarks diminish in no way the excellent work by Venzeslav Konstantinov and his publisher. This collection of essays is worth reading and deserves a translation, and of course many Bulgarian readers.

Nemski_literaturni_prostori

Venzeslav Konstantinov: Nemski literaturni prostori (German literary spaces), Iztok-Zapad, Sofia 2014

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. 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.

“And so they are ever returning to us, the dead”

Is it fiction? Is it documentary literature? It’s a little bit of both and the impression of something hybrid is even strengthened by the many black-and-white photos that are inserted into the text without explanation or description. W.G. Sebald’s book “The Emigrants” (“Die Ausgewanderten”) is maybe the masterpiece of this author who came to England in 1966 and who spent the rest of his life as a lecturer and professor teaching at universities in England. His career as a prose writer (in his native German language) started when he was already in his mid-forties.

Sebald1993

The Emigrants” is a collection of four long stories. Dr. Henry Selwyn, born as Hersch Seweryn in a shtetl near Grodno in Lithuania has come to England as a child and has against all odds made a career as a surgeon. The narrator, whose living conditions, opinions and favorite books coincide with W.G. Sebald’s gets to know Dr. Selwyn as a retired doctor leading a secluded life mainly in his garden when he is renting a flat in Dr. Selwyn’s house. A distanced friendship between the author and Dr. S. is developing and finally the doctor is telling the author the story of his life. The marriage of S. with a girl from Switzerland where he studied is not happy, maybe because S. kept his Jewish origin too long hidden from her, maybe because they just lost the love that was between them in the beginning. The happiest period of his life was according to S. his study times in Switzerland, when he used to go hiking with an old Swiss alpinist (who disappeared in the mountains one day). S. seems to be strangely detached from life, melancholic and living for his memories.

After a return from a visit in France, the narrator receives the message of the suicide of S. Years later, during a sojourn in Switzerland, a local newspaper reports that the body of an alpinist was found that was missing since more than 70 years. It turns out to be the missing hiking partner of Dr. S.  

“And so they are ever returning to us, the dead. At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots.”

The story “Unexpected Reunion” (Unverhofftes Wiedersehen) by Johann Peter Hebel comes to mind, an author with whom Sebald was familiar since early childhood because his maternal grandfather introduced him to this Alemannic writer.

Hebel plays also a role in the second story that was inspired by one of Sebald’s school teachers. In the story his name is Paul Bereyter, a “born” teacher who was able to turn every school lesson into something interesting and who was known for his unconventional but very inspiring way to teach. The narrator mentions for example that he introduced Hebel’s “Calendar Stories” to the pupils instead of the textbook lessons that he seemed not to consider as worthwhile for the children.

Bereyter knew already in his youth that he wanted to become a teacher and nothing else and he succeeded to achieve his aim in the 1930s. But as a “quarter-Jew” (one grandfather was Jewish) he lost his position during the Nazi era. After the war (which he survived as a soldier) he was re–installed as a schoolteacher, but something had changed within Paul, as everyone called him.

“The seasons and the years came and went…and always…one was, as the crow flies, about 2,000 km away – but from where? – and day by day, hour by hour, with every beat of the pulse, one lost more and more of one’s qualities, became less comprehensible to oneself, increasingly abstract.”

In his later years, Paul is haunted by memories. After his early retirement he is spending more and more time in France (where he lived for a few years as private teacher in the 1930s). There he makes friends with a Mme Landau who shares his interest in literature (Paul is approaching her after he sees her reading a Nabokov biography). From Mme Landau the narrator receives more information about the later years of Paul – also he was an emigrant, haunted by the ghosts of his past and by the fact that nobody in his small home town pretended that something had happened to the “disappeared” Jews even decades after the war was over.

Also the last two stories seem to be based on the lives of real persons. One is the story of a granduncle of Sebald who emigrated to America and who became a butler in a rich Jewish family. With the son of the family he traveled around the world shortly before WWI and they have obviously had a homosexual relationship. After the outbreak of a mental illness and the early death of his friend, the author’s granduncle devotes his life to the family of his friend until in his last years he is retiring to a mental hospital (without actually being ill in the classical sense – Robert Walser comes to mind), even wishing to be completely annihilated by an extreme form of electroshock therapy that was en vogue in the 1950s.

The last story, about the German-British painter Max Ferber (inspired by Frank Auerbach, whom Sebald met when he was a young student in Manchester – in the first German edition the name of the character was Max Aurach), doesn’t end with the death of the protagonist but since Ferber who came to England without his parents (who were killed in the Concentration Camps in the east) gives the narrator a diary of Ferber’s mother which she kept until her marriage, the narrator decides to undertake a study tour to Bad Kissingen, the home town of Ferber’s mother, which is not really a homecoming but a very disturbing experience.

In the meantime, Max Ferber has made a name of himself in the art world, but he almost never leaves his studio in a dilapidated area of Manchester. Only once he goes on a visit to Colmar to see the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald. The work of this strange man proves to be the intuition of the extreme power of pain in Ferber’s oeuvre.

Beside the already mentioned literary influences, the reader has also to think of Thomas Bernhard (especially when Sebald is describing his visit in Bad Kissingen in the last story), but also of Georges Perec and of Vladimir Nabokov.

The passionate butterfly collector Nabokov is making an appearance in all four stories (in the last one even twice), and here Sebald is in my opinion doing a little bit too much. This “running gag” is not necessary for the dramaturgy of the stories and a bit of a cheap effect. But this is a minor flaw in this extraordinary collection of stories that has great qualities. Sebald is an excellent prose writer that is clearly inspired by Stifter or Gottfried Keller. The hybrid mixture of documentation, diary, photo novel and story seems to be the appropriate form to speak about the fate of these “emigrants” (Goethe’s “Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten” echoes also in the title of the book). And indirectly the book is also a book about the friendship of Sebald with his maternal grandfather because in all four stories a friendship between a young and a much older man plays an important role (Sebald’s relation to his father seems to have been strained in the contrary).

The book received very high praise by literary critics and was also a big success on the German and international (especially English-speaking) bookmarket. Susan Sontag, Antonia Byatt, Michael Ondaatje or Salman Rushdie considered Sebald as one of the most important authors of our times.

Very few critics, like the German novelist Georg Klein have voiced their reservations about Sebald’s books. Klein was speaking about Sebald’s “sweet melancholic masochism towards the past”, which claims a “false intimacy with the dead”. Sebald also seems not to have noticed the changes in Germany following 1968 (he visited the country very rarely after 1966) which made some of his statements regarding his home country a bit out of time and place and for my taste sometimes a bit too self-righteous.

But be this as it may, Sebald was a very important and excellent writer and “The Emigrants” is definitely one of the great books about the historical and personal disasters of the 20th century and therefore I recommend it very strongly.

sebald-emigrants-harvill

W.G. Sebald: The Emigrants, Harvill 1996 (transl. by Michael Hulse); Die Ausgewanderten, Eichborn 1993

A very interesting essay about Sebald’s biographical sources of his work by the American germanist Mark M. Anderson sheds additional light on “The Emigrants” and other works of Sebald: http://www.wgsebald.de/vaeter.html

 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expresseded 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.

 


There Goes Kafka

There Goes Kafka” is a small but interesting collection of essays related to Franz Kafka and the circle of friends in the early 20th century Prague to which also the book’s author, Johannes Urzidil, belonged. Although a strictly biographical reading is not appropriate for an understanding of Kafka’s works, it helps to know about the background of his life and work and here Urzidil can add quite a lot of material that seems to be interesting to me.

Kafka is asking a friend in 1916, shortly after the publication of Metamorphosis (“Die Verwandlung”):

“What have you to say about the dreadful things going on in our house?” –

There Goes Kafka” is full of such details and it sheds also a light on some lesser known literary figures of the “Prague Circle”, an extremely interesting and productive group of (mostly Jewish) German-speaking authors. Ok, now we have the ultimate biography on Kafka by Reiner Stach, but I still like the small work by Urzidil – his “Goethe in Bohemia” is also excellent.

ThereGoesKafka

Urzidil’s style was very elegant and elaborated. Unfortunately the English translation is so awkward that it sounds sometimes almost like a parody. That’s a real pity. So, if you can, read the German original and let’s hope a publisher will give Urzidil’s work a new chance in the English-speaking world by commissioning a new – and better! – translation.

Johannes Urzidil: There Goes Kafka, Wayne State University Press 1968; Da geht Kafka, Langen & Mueller 2004

Da geht Kafka

 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. 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.