Tag Archives: Stefan Zweig

Two anecdotes about Robert Musil

As mentioned some time ago, I am an unsystematic collector of anecdotes that have writers as subject. Here are two of them about one of the giants of German 20th century literature, Robert Musil.

Musil worked for decades on his unfinished masterpiece Man without Qualities and published comparatively little during his lifetime. As a result of his obsessive efforts, Musil was always living in very precarious financial conditions and during his exile in Switzerland during the last years of his life, he was really destitute.

Musil seemed to have been a proud, extremely self-assured, maybe even arrogant person who had a very high opinion regarding his own abilities as a writer and he detested writers that were (contrary to him) popular and successful. With particular disdain he looked at the output of Stefan Zweig and Thomas Mann. While he couldn’t deny that Thomas Mann had talent – and success! – and he probably hated him just because of that, Stefan Zweig was another case. Zweig was according to Musil shallow, superficial, trivial, always responding to the requirements of the market that liked to read another collection of (in Musil’s opinion) not very accomplished novellas or another biography in Reader’s Digest style, Zweig’s slickness and wish to fit in, to be the centre of the attention of a circle of rich people and of the literary establishment, always very much concerned about increasing his bank account, his collection of antiquities and old manuscripts. In short: Stefan Zweig was for Musil the personification of everything that was wrong with the literature of his time.  

Hans Mayer, the great German-Jewish literary critic, writes in his autobiography Ein Deutscher auf Widerruf  how he visited Musil at his home in Switzerland during their emigration. It was 1940, and there was a widespread fear that the Nazis might invade also Switzerland.

“Musil couldn’t get into the USA, and Mayer was suggesting the relative obtainability of Colombian visas as a pis aller. Musil, he wrote, ‘looked at me askance and said: Stefan Zweig’s in South America. It wasn’t a bon mot. The great ironist wasn’t a witty conversationalist. He meant it … If Zweig was living in South America somewhere, that took care of the continent for Musil.’” (quoted by Michael Hofmann: Vermicular Dither, London Review of Books, 28. January 2010)

In the third volume of his autobiography, Elias Canetti describes how he after completion of the manuscript of Die Blendung (Auto-da-fe) in 1931 sent it as a parcel with an accompanying letter to Thomas Mann, hoping that Mann would read it (and possibly recommend it to a publisher). Alas, the parcel came back unopened with a polite letter by Mann, telling the unpublished author that he was not able to read the book due to his work schedule (Mann was working on his multi-volume Joseph novel at that time). The disappointed Canetti put the manuscript aside for a long time, until Hermann Broch arranged a few readings for him in Vienna. One of them was also attended by Musil who allegedly said to Broch: “He reads better than myself.” (Not surprisingly, Canetti was an extremely gifted stage performer in the mould of Karl Kraus.)

Later on, when the novel was finally published in 1935, Canetti wrote again to Mann, who now – four years later! – congratulated Canetti and wrote also very positively about the novel (which in all probability he hadn’t read except for a few pages). With this letter in his pocket and beaming with self-confidence Canetti was running into Musil one day when Musil brought it about himself to also congratulate Canetti. Not knowing about Musil’s strong antipathy regarding Thomas Mann, Canetti blurted out: “Thank you, also Thomas Mann praises my book!” – to which Musil answered with a short “So…”, turning around and ignoring Canetti for the rest of his life.

In defence of Zweig and Mann it has to be added that both writers supported many of their colleagues in need particularly during their time of emigration. Musil was during his last years ironically mainly living from a grant he received from an organisation that supported writers in need and that was mainly funded by – Thomas Mann. Musil knew about that and felt probably terribly humiliated.

Hans Mayer: Ein Deutscher auf Widerruf, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1982/84 (2 vol.) – there is unfortunately no English translation of this highly interesting autobiography.

Elias Canetti: The Play of the Eyes (Das Augenspiel), translated by Ralph Manheim, Farrar Straus Giroux 2006

Michael Hofmann: Vermicular Dither, London Review of Books, Vol. 32, No. 02, p. 9-12, 28 January 2010 – Hofmann’s article is a real assassination of Zweig; very, very harsh and spiteful indeed, but nevertheless worth reading because he points at various serious flaws in Zweig’s writing. 

© 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.

German Literature Month 2015 – wrap-up

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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.

On Gertrud Kolmar and some other “forgotten” authors

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This blog post is part of the German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzie (Lizzies Literary Life) and Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat). I read Gertrud Kolmar’s poetry in November.

After the end of WWII a heated discussion took place between authors that stayed in Germany during the Nazi era and others who had emigrated.

The controversy was led by two rather mediocre authors, Frank Thiess and Walter von Molo on the side of those who decided to stay in Germany and by Thomas Mann on the side of the literary emigrants. This controversy has left traces until today and the work of W.G. Sebald for example can be only understood when you consider this historical backdrop.

What was it all about?

Thiess and von Molo considered themselves and those authors who were against the Nazis but stayed in Germany as representatives of the Innere Emigration (inner emigration). According to them they suffered consciously the horrors of the Nazi regime to bear witness and to – if possible – send hidden messages to their readers which they smuggled into their books (one reason for the particular popularity of historical novels during this time). While according to them they suffered terror, war and permanent personal threats under the Nazis, the literary emigrants like Thomas Mann or Lion Feuchtwanger lived according to their perception rather well and undisturbed in their comfortable exile and were now, after WWII trying to lecture the “inner emigrants” about moral and declaring the literature of this group of authors per se as worthless.

Thomas Mann who was directly attacked in a rather distasteful way was answering that all books published in Nazi Germany stank of blood and shame and should be destroyed.

Six decades after the end of WWII we can see this controversy in a more rational and distanced, less emotional way. I would say both sides had a point, and both were partly wrong in their judgement.

Indeed, the situation of writers and intellectuals who remained in Germany after 1933 and who were not joining the ranks of the Nazis was very difficult to say the least. Many of them were banned, some were imprisoned and there was a permanent threat on their lives which must have been a terrible strain on them. Some of them complied with the requests of the new regime, some made compromises and only a very few of them really resisted the Nazis completely. Some were discredited in the eyes of the Nazis by their political or racial background – those were the ones that were threatened most, but who anyway rarely had a chance to publish anything during that period. Therefore the term inner emigration is a quite mixed box which contains an assortment of cowards as well as real heroes and all shades in between. But to think that writers who had emigrated had it nice in their exiles is far from the truth that it is insulting and it shows simply the ignorance or mischievousness of the ilk of Thiess and von Molo. Most emigrants were destitute and permanently threatened by expulsion or by the secret agents of the Nazi and Stalinist regime that ruthlessly eliminated critical voices also abroad. The other problem that emigrant authors faced was the lack of publication opportunities and therefore lack of possibilities to make a living. Only Thomas Mann, Feuchtwanger or Stefan Zweig could live from their writing, all the others lived usually miserable from charities.

Also Thomas Mann’s verdict is rather harsh and with all due respect to this great author a bit exaggerated in my opinion. All literature published in Germany between 1933 and 1945 may be morally discredited by the fact that writing and publishing about things that didn’t offend the Nazis included silence about their unbelievable crimes and thus a silent acceptance if not endorsement – still I think that it should be scrutinized on a case to case basis since I am not a supporter of the collective guilt thesis even for books – the question of the literary value is something else. To give an example from the French literature: Celine was an insane anti-Semite who published appalling brochures in which he advocated the mass murder of millions of Jews – but at the same time he is the author of one of the literary most important French novels of the 20th century. Disturbing and disconcerting, but you see the problem here. Sometimes a book is so much better than its author.

There is quite a number of books that were published in Germany during the Nazi era by authors that were no Nazis and that are worth being read today. Some of these books are of high literary value. I want to just drop a few names and titles for those who are interested in finding out more about this interesting topic.

Eugen Gottlob Winkler (1912-1936), the author of excellent essays and an accomplished poet, committed suicide at the age of 24 in order to avoid torture and imprisonment by the Nazis. Unfortunately his slender oeuvre is untranslated in English.

Gertrud Kolmar (1894-1943), one of the most remarkable German poets of the 20th century could publish two collections of poetry in that period although she was Jewish. She was gassed in Auschwitz 1943 or died during the transport from Theresienstadt to the concentration camp.

Jochen Klepper (1903-1942), author of the novel Der Vater (The Father) and of posthumously published diaries committed suicide with his Jewish wife and stepdaughter after their emigration request was denied.

Albrecht Haushofer (1903-1945), fellow student of Rudolf Hess and son of NS geo-politician Karl Haushofer, but nevertheless a member of resistance circles wrote his Moabiter Sonette (Moabit sonetts) while in prison; the manuscript was found in his coat pocket after he was executed by an SS commando a few days before the end of the war in Berlin.

Felix Hartlaub (1913-1945), whose diaries are of highest literary and documentary value disappeared without traces during the final battle of Berlin in the first days of May 1945.

Friedo Lampe (1899-1945) published a novel that was immediately banned after publication, and another one that was censored by the Nazis. Lampe, who was probably the stylistically most advanced writer of his generation, was shot a few days after the end of WWII by a Russian soldier.

Most of these authors were never translated into English, which is a pity. Only Haushofer and Kolmar are so far known to the English-reading public.

Here is an example of Gertrud Kolmar’s (i.e. Gertrud Chodziesner) poetry:

Der Engel im Walde

Gib mir deine Hand, die liebe Hand, und komm mit mir;
Denn wir wollen hinweggehen von den Menschen ….
So lass uns fliehn
Zu den sinnenden Feldem, die freundlich mit Blumen und Gras unsere wandemden Füsse trösten,
An den Strom, der auf seinem Rücken geduldig wuchtende Bürden, schwere,
giiterstrotzende Schiffe trägt,
Zu den Tieren des Waldes, die nicht übelreden …
Wir werden dürsten und hungem, zusammen erdulden,
Zusammen einst an staubigem Wegesrande sinken und weinen…

The Angel in the Forest

Give me your hand, beloved, and follow me.
And we will go away from men. . . .
So let us flee
Unto the musing fields that will console our wandering feet with friendly flowers and grass,
Unto the river, bearing patiently upon its back the weighty burden of the full,
freight-laden ships,
Unto the forest animals that speak no ill ….
And we will thirst and hunger and endure together,
And together someday on a dusty roadside we will fall and weep …

(translation by Henry A. Smith)

Kolmar had the opportunity to emigrate but refused. She didn’t want to leave her old father unattended back in Germany. The exact date of her death is unknown. Since there is a record of her on the transport lists from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz from 2 March 1943 but no record in the lists of inmates in the concentration camp it means that she was most probably gassed immediately after her arrival there or died during the transport.

Reading her poetry (or works of any other victim of that regime) one should remember well her verses from the poem Die Dichterin (The Woman Poet):

Mein Herz wie eines kleinen Vogels schlägt
In deiner Faust. Der du dies liest, gib acht;
Denn sieh, du blätterst einen Menschen um.
Doch ist er dir aus Pappe nur gemacht.

My heart beats like that of a little bird
In your fist. You who read this, take care;
For see, you turn the page of a person.
Though for you it is only made of cardboard.

(translation by Henry A. Smith)

For those interested in Gertrud Kolmar’s poetry and life, I can highly recommend the biography by Dieter Kühn: Gertrud Kolmar. A Literary Life. Kolmar, like all the other authors I mentioned, is worth to be discovered.

Kolmar

Gertrud Kolmar: Das lyrische Werk, Kösel, München 1960

Gertrud Kolmar: Dark Soliloquy, transl. Henry A. Smith, Seabury Press, New York 1975

Gertrud Kolmar: A Jewish Mother from Berlin – Susanna, transl. Brigitte M. Goldstein, Holmes & Meier 2012

Gertrud Kolmar: My Gaze Is Turned Inward: Letters 1938-1943, transl. Johanna Woltmann, Northwestern University Press 2004

Gertrud Kolmar: Worlds – Welten, transl. Philip Kuhn and Ruth von Zimmermann, Shearsman Books 2012

Dieter Kühn: Gertrud Kolmar. A Literary Life, transl. Linda Marianiello, Northwestern University Press 2013

 

Eugen Gottlob Winkler: Dichtungen, Gestalten und Probleme. Nachlass, Neske, Pfullingen 1956

Jochen Klepper: Der Vater, dtv, München 1991

Jochen Klepper: Unter dem Schatten deiner Flügel. Aus den Tagebüchern der Jahre 1932-1942, Brunnen, Gießen 2005

Albrecht Haushofer: Moabit Sonnets, transl. M.D. Herter Norton, W.W. Norton, New York 2013

Felix Hartlaub: In den eigenen Umriss gebannt (2 vol.), Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 2002

Felix Hartlaub: Kriegsaufzeichnungen aus Paris, Suhrkamp, Berlin 2011

Felix Hartlaub: Italienische Reise, Suhrkamp, Berlin 2013

Friedo Lampe: Septembergewitter, Wallstein, Göttingen 2001

Friedo Lampe: Von Tür zu Tür, Wallstein, Göttingen 2002

Friedo Lampe: Am Rande der Nacht, Wallstein, Göttingen 2003

Friedo-Lampe-Gesellschaft e.V.: Ein Autor wird wiederentdeckt: Friedo Lampe 1899-1945, Wallstein, Göttingen 1999

Johannes Graf: Friedo Lampe (1899-1945). Die letzten Lebensjahre in Grünheide, Berlin und Kleinmachnow, Frankfurter Buntbücher, Frankfurt/Oder 1998

Patrick Modiano: Dora Bruder, transl. Joanna Kilmartin, University of California Press, Oakland 2014 – Modiano mentions Friedo Lampe and Felix Hartlaub in his novel.

© Kösel Verlag, 1960
© Henry A. Smith and Seabury Press, 1975
© 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.

The Luzhin Defense

“What struck him most was the fact that from Monday on he would be Luzhin.”

These words mark a beginning and an end – the beginning of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel The Luzhin Defense and the end of the probably happiest period in the life of the protagonist when he was the pampered only child of a wealthy St. Petersburg family in pre-revolutionary Russia, living the protected existence of children of this class, when life seemed to be a long holiday. But time is not standing still, finally the boy has to attend school in the city where everybody will address him by his family name only. A rather traumatic experience as it turns out, although the child seems to accept the fact quietly.

It is an interesting decision of Nabokov to present this rather strange boy and later even more strange grown-up with his family name only (even his parents and his wife address him half-jokingly only with this name and not with his first name and patronym as would be usual). It is not until the very end when the readers learn the full name of the hero of the book.

And indeed, there seems to be an aura that creates a distance between Luzhin and the rest of the people. He is not communicative, likes to stay on his own, resolving mathematical problems or puzzles, and he seems to be unable to make friends or be even close with his parents who make all kind of efforts to shower Luzhin with their affection and love to which he reacts by withdrawing even more. His parents seem sometimes to be at a loss what to make of this strange bird that grows up in their nest and that shows no sign of serious interest in anything – until the day he discovers a chess set and learns how to play.

Luzhin develops into a chess wunderkind, with an all-absorbing passion for the game that is reluctantly supported by the father (who seems to be too happy that his son will not be a complete failure and be successful even when it is an activity that society doesn’t consider as something worthy of an educated person with his background). A chess impresario, Dr. Valentinov, takes the child prodigee under his wings and Luzhin becomes one of the most serious contenders for the title of a World Chess Champion.

The second part of the novel centers around a game of Luzhin with his main rival Turati, followed by a mental breakdown of Luzhin that forces him to give up on his chess career.

But Luzhin is lucky: he finds a young Russian woman from a wealthy emigrant family in Berlin that falls in love with him; despite strong reservations from the mother-in-law, the couple marries and finally Luzhin seems to embark for the first time in his life on a normal life. Everything would be fine, if he would not see everywhere these chess patterns, and to make things worse, one day his childhood nemesis Valentinov turns up again.

It is difficult not to quote excessively from this book – although written and published originally in Russian the English translation reads very smoothly and elegant, no surprise since Nabokov who co-authored the translation grew up bilingual – because there are simply too many parts which show the great mastery of Nabokov even at this comparatively early stage of his career. I will refrain myself and will give only two examples:

Dr. Valentinov, the chess impresario, is described as a cold, cunning, profit-oriented and extremely unsympathetic person (I was wondering: thinking of Silvio Danailov, a famous present day chess impresario, I suppose these character traits are part of the job description. Well, the real-life Danailov seems to be even more unlikable than the novel character Valentinov!).

When young Luzhin loses his wunderkind appeal and becomes just a strong chess grandmaster, Valentinov is walking away without saying much – but with a full bank account (while Luzhin remains quite poor and receives only a few “crumbs” from his income). While Valentinov becomes a film producer – there was much more money to make in the booming film industry of the 1920s – he comes up with a project idea for which he needs Luzhin and some other chessmasters as “staffage”. The few lines that describe their meeting after many years not being in touch are masterful and give in a nutshell a description of the character of both men:

“At this moment the door opened with a rush and a coatless, curly-haired gentleman shouted in German, with an anxious plea in his voice: “Oh, please, Dr. Valentinov, just one minute!” “Excuse me, dear boy,” said Valentinov and went to the door, but before reaching it he turned sharply around, rummaged in his billfold and threw a slip of paper on the table before Luzhin. “Recently composed it,” he said. “You can solve it while you are waiting. I’ll be back in ten minutes.” –

He disappeared. Luzhin cautiously raised his eyelids. Mechanically he took the slip. A cutting from a chess magazine, the diagram of a problem. Mate in three moves. Composed by Dr. Valentinov. The problem was cold and cunning, and knowing Valentinov, Luzhin instantly found the key. In this subtle problem he saw clearly all the perfidity of his author. From the dark words just spoken by Valentinov in such abundance, he understood one thing: there was no movie, the movie was just a pretext…a trap, a trap…he would be inveigled into playing chess and then the next move was clear. But this move would not be made.”

There are also many scenes where I had to laugh, especially the dialogues between the grubby, unworldly Luzhin and his future mother-in-law, a rich and very sophisticated woman – actually these are more monologues of the eccentric lady who doesn’t have exactly the highest opinion of the future husband of her only daughter. Or the attempts to find Luzhin a new occupation after the end of his chess career – rather sad, but also highly comical attempts at times that reach its climax when Luzhin acquires a typewriter:

“It was proposed to him that one of the office employees come and explain how to use it, but he refused, replying that he would learn on his own. And so it was: he fairly quickly made out its construction, learned to put in the ribbon and roll in the sheet of paper, and made friends with all the little levers. It proved to be more difficult to remember the distribution of the letters, the typing went very slowly; there was none of Tot-tot’s rapid chatter and for some reason – from the very first day – the exclamation mark dogged him – it leapt out in the most unexpected places.

At first he copied out half a column from a German newspaper, and then composed a thing or two himself. A brief little note took shape with the following contents: “You are wanted on a charge of murder. Today is November 27th. Murder and arson. Good day, dear Madam. Now when you are needed, dear, exclamation mark, where are you? The body has been found. Dear Madam! Today the police will come!!” Luzhin read this over several times, reinserted the sheet and, groping for the right letters, typed out, somewhat jumpily, the signature: “Abbe Busoni.”

At this point he grew bored, the thing was going too slowly. And somehow he had to find a use for the letter he had written. Burrowing in the telephone directory he found a Frau Louisa Altman, wrote out the address by hand and sent her his composition.”

I would have liked to see Frau Louisa Altman’s face when she read the letter.

Nabokov knew about what he was writing in this novel. He came from exactly the same milieu as the Luzhin in the book (even his father was like Luzhin’s father, an author). He knew the Berlin milieu of the Russian emigrants of the 1920s from his own life there. And he was a strong chess player that even composed and published chess problems – chess was his other life-long interest beside butterlies. It is very probable that he knew Alexander Alekhine (or Aljechin), the later World Chess Champion with whom Luzhin has many similarities personally – the Nabokov’s and the Alekhine’s were neighbors in St. Petersburg and both fathers were deputies in the Duma.

The chess part of the book is so much better and superior in every respect to Stefan Zweig’s Chess! (I don’t want to denigrate Stefan Zweig’s writing, but for me it is obvious that he had only a quite shallow knowledge of the game.) Needless to say that also the other chess masters mentioned in the book are inspired by real chess masters (Turati/Reti, Moser/Lasker); and even the end of the novel is based on the fate of a real chess master, Curt von Bardeleben, who was Nabokov’s neighbor in Berlin if I am not mistaken.

The Luzhin Defense is a fascinating book about an obsessive character and in my opinion the best chess novel ever published. It is also an excellent starting point to discover one of the greatest novelists of all times. Maybe his most mature English works are even better – but I can’t imagine any better starting point to discover the continent Nabokov than The Luzhin Defense.

Do you really need more reasons to read this book?

Luzhin

Vladimir Nabokov: The Luzhin Defense, translated by Michael Scammell in co-operation with the author, Penguin Books (originally published as Защита Лужина, by V. Sirin, Slovo, Berlin 1930)

The copy I was reading contained Nabokov’s very sarcastic foreword to the English edition “with a few words of encouragement to the Viennese delegation” (i.e. the psychoanalysts for whom N. had so much mockery and contempt) and an instructive afterword by John Updike.

© 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.

Ostende. 1936, Summer of friendship

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

The Belgian kings Leopold I and Leopold II liked to spend their summer holidays in the seaside town of Ostende, a place which was famous then and now for its long sandy beaches. What followed in the late 19th and early 20th century was a construction boom: the small harbor town developed into an opulent summer holiday location for the wealthy bourgeoisie and the upper echelons of society. Those who visit Ostende today will realize that a lot of the splendour of those days has gone and many of the gorgeous buildings of that time were destroyed either by the bombings of WWII or by the similarly devastating “modernization” frenzy in the 1950s and 1960s.

But in 1936, the old Ostende was still very much alive. Those who could afford it were packing their things and spending a few weeks here. Among them were also a group of German-language writers. They enjoy the sun, the swimming, the drinks, the company, and their talks about literature. But all of them either lost their homes, or had to prepare for losing it in the near future. They had mostly also lost their by far biggest publication market, Germany, and with it also the biggest part of their income. The small new book by Volker Weidermann, Ostende. 1936 – Sommer der Freundschaft (published this year and not yet translated) describes this summer, the strange atmosphere between holiday mood and depression that most of the writers felt. And it shows also the difficulties to be a writer in exile, and what happened to the friends that met in Ostende during that summer.

I was amazed to read who was in Ostende at exactly the same time – it reads like a part of the Who is who of German literature of that period: Stefan Zweig (with his secretary and lover Lotte Altmann); Joseph Roth; Irmgard Keun; Ernst Toller with his wife, the actress Christiane Grautoff; Egon Erwin Kisch, the famous “Raging Reporter from Prague” with his wife; Hermann Kesten; Arthur Koestler; also Willi Münzenberg, the “Red Press Czar” and founder of one of the biggest media empires of the world was there with his wife and some aides, among them the shady Otto Katz, one of the most notorious GPU agents, also known as Andre Simone.

Weidermann focuses the book mainly on the friendship between Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth. Zweig, one of the few German-language writers that was not dependent from the German market because his books were popular almost all over the world, was in a similarly privileged position like Thomas Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger, or Erich Maria Remarque: they lived in very comfortable conditions even in exile, but all of them used their wealth and contacts to support the big number of poor colleagues financially or with contacts with publishers. In later years their assistance in getting affidavits and visas was crucial to get many writers out of Europa after the outbreak of the war (Anna Seghers’ Transit gives a haunting description of the emigrants in Marseille).

Joseph Roth was on the other side of the social pyramid of writers: the once well-paid journalist and author had not been very lucky. He was not the kind of person to save money for bad times to come and spent what he earned with full hands, living a life in the most expensive European hotels in the late 1920s and early 1930s. A mental illness of his wife who had to be admitted to an asylum (she was later killed by the Nazis in the framework of the infamous T4 program), his growing problems with alcohol – the book describes Zweig’s caring efforts to feed his friend at least one time or another – and his complete loss of the German and Austrian book market; there was hardly a disaster that didn’t strike Roth in those years. Stefan Zweig proved to be a loyal friend who helped Roth not only financially; he tried to make Roth quit or at least reduce his booze addiction; he discussed manuscripts with him and reminded him to work more slowly and diligently; and he introduced him to his other friends and colleagues in Ostende. Among them was a young and attractive “Aryan” female writer from Germany: Irmgard Keun.

Keun, already an accomplished writer in the early 30s, was caught in an unhappy marriage in Germany from which she ran away, and she had also difficulties to publish in Germany. Her books were banned and the works she wrote during her time in Belgium (for example After Midnight, her probably best book) and on travels would be published in German exile publishing houses. When she met Roth, it was obviously a coup de foudre from both sides. They started a relationship almost immediately after their first meeting, much to the surprise of the other emigrants who couldn’t understand what this attractive woman drew to the hopeless drunkard in tattered clothes. Weidermann describes how they got “to work”: they used to go to the same small bar every day, sit on separate tables with their small typewriters (Keun loved the sun, Roth couldn’t stand it) and ordered some liquor. Or more correctly: a lot of liquor. Yes, also Keun was an alcoholic. But for both of them, it seemed to have been an extremely productive time and both wrote excellent works during their time together.

Also for Zweig the times were not easy. But his were more his private problems and sorrows, not so much the political situation. His marriage with Friederike had failed, his home in Austria was soon to be sold to settle the financial issues following the divorce, and he had also sold his extraordinary collection of autographs. But his relationship with a young woman, Lotte Altmann, whom he hired as an assistant and secretary and who later became his mistress and after the divorce his second wife, also set new energies free in Zweig. He wanted to use the fresh energy he felt to do some serious work on some of his book projects in Ostende and also to think about where to settle in the future. It was also a good opportunity to catch up with friends and colleagues, especially with Joseph Roth with whom he entertained a close friendship.

For Zweig it was not the first time he came to Ostende. He had spent the summer 1914, the days before the outbreak of WWI in Ostende to meet his idol Emile Verhaeren. So overwhelmed was the young Zweig by the meeting with his master in 1914 that he didn’t realize at all that the world was preparing for war and that the world he loved would be doomed. (Verhaeren turned soon after the outbreak of the war into one of the most radical chauvinists, a major disappointment for Zweig)

What drew Zweig to Roth, and vice versa? For Zweig, Roth represented the Ostjudentum, the world of the Jews from the periphery of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a world about which Zweig knew very little but to which he felt in a strange way attracted. And that Roth, despite his insane alcoholism and his financial dependency from Zweig, was so loyal and honest was for Zweig also very attractive. Roth knew no friendship, no superficial friendliness when it came to questions of literature. When he smelled one wrong expression, one superficial adjective, a weak plot, or something else that his unfailing instinct discovered, he would not hide it and let his friend know. Also vice versa, Roth accepted the professional advice of Zweig on many occasions. Due to the extreme difference in their living conditions one could have expected Roth to be a sycophant at least at times, but it seems that this was never the case. Theirs is a dialogue eye to eye when it came to matters of importance, i.e. to literature.

Weidermann’s book is excellently written. Not only writes he almost like an experienced novelist who arranges his material in an interesting way. He also succeeds in making the motives of his heroes understandable to the reader. And he adds interesting details that you can hardly read in any other book about the German exile – such as the unintentional act of disloyalty Zweig commits when he writes to his American publisher that Roth is suffering from being over-productive (writing too much in a short time) with the result that his exile books are much weaker than the previous one’s (I would disagree with Zweig here). As a result, the American publisher writes Roth that he is cancelling his author’s contract, a financial catastrophe for Roth who lives his last years mainly from Stefan Zweig’s financial support.

Although the other authors are not so much in the centre of the book, they play an important role too and Weidermann shows a great talent to integrate their fates almost effortlessly in his small masterpiece. Ernst Toller, the expressionist poet and dramatist, and his beautiful actress wife add a lot of flair to the weeks in Ostende – but Toller has always a rope with a noose in his suitcase; he suffers from extreme bouts of depression and the reader knows that he will sooner or later use the rope to hang himself. (When it finally happened a few years later, Roth collapsed when he heard the news and died shortly thereafter) Also the Münzenberg/Katz story made me shiver, knowing what later happened; and of course the end of the two main protagonists, so sad and unnecessary, victims of a time that was so opposed to the human values they represented in everything they did and wrote.

I hope for a swift translation of this wonderful book of Volker Weidermann. (The translation rights for the English-speaking edition are already sold to Pantheon/Knopf.) It will be a must for all Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth aficionados, and for all friends of literature in general. And if you visit Ostende, take this book with you. And don’t miss the house of the painter James Ensor. It plays a small but important role in this book too and is different from any other house you will ever visit.

Ostende

Volker Weidermann: Ostende. 1936, Sommer der Freundschaft, Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Köln 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.

The Best Chess Novels

There are more than two hundred belletristic works in my library in which the game of chess plays a more or less important role. Here I have chosen the – in my humble opinion – thirty best novels with chess as one of or the main topic (randomly sequenced):

 

The DefenseEine gefaehrliche BegegnungTactics of Conquest

  1. Vladimir Nabokov: The Defense
  2. Fernando Arrabal: The Tower Struck by Lightning
  3. Rudolf Jakob Humm: Spiel mit Valdivia
  4. Stefan Zweig: The Royal Game
  5. Ichokas Meras: Stalemate
  6. John Brunner: The Squares of the City
  7. Barry N. Malzberg: Tactics of Conquest
  8. Walter Tevis: The Queen’s Gambit
  9. Robert Löhr: The Chess Automaton
  10. Bertina Henrichs: La joueuse d’echecs
  11. Elias Canetti: Auto-da-fe
  12. Paolo Maurensig: The Luneburg Variation
  13. Thomas Glavinic: Carl Haffner’s Love of the Draw
  14. Fabio Stassi: La rivincita di Capablanca
  15. Ronan Bennett: Zugzwang
  16. Wilhelm Heinse: Anastasia or The Chess Game
  17. Gustav Meyrink: The Golem
  18. Samuel Beckett: Murphy
  19. Guillermo Martinez: Regarding Roderer
  20. Andy Soltis: Los Voraces 2019
  21. Ernst Jünger: A Dangerous Encounter
  22. Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The Chess Player
  23. Yoko Ogawa: Swimming with Elephants
  24. Ilya Ilf/Evgeny Petrov: The Twelve Chairs
  25. David Szalay: The Innocent
  26. Jesse Kraai: Lisa
  27. Jennifer DuBois: A Partial History of Lost Causes
  28. Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
  29. Ignacio Padilla: Shadow without a Name
  30. Arne Danielsen: The Highest Rank

Just for the record, there is at least one excellent novel available in English translation that is featuring the game of Go: Kawabata Yasunari, The Master of Go (trans. by Edward Seidensticker), Vintage. 

 

© 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.