Posts Tagged ‘German literature’

German literature and me

August 29, 2015

I’ve always been fascinated by Germany, its history and its past. I first read Günter Grass in the sixth form at school, the short Cat and Mouse first, a little thrown by the nature and development of the narrative and the authorial interaction with his reader, but drawn in by his yearning for and love of his home city Danzig which I’d visited the year previously in its Polish incarnation as Gdansk. For me, The Tin Drum, his first novel, remains his best (and Volker Schlondorff‘s film is a wonderful version, but only of the first half of the book); some of the later ones are a little self-indulgent. His memoirs, the cause of much controversy, are fascinating.

Grass, and his contemporary Heinrich Böll, were two German writers who made the attempt to come to terms in some way – if that is possible – with their country’s Nazi past; Siegfried Lenz also does this in two novels little-known in this country, The German Lesson and The Heritage. On my travels in Germany I’ve noticed that nation’s recent attempts to be honest with itself, and to ensure that the past is not forgotten (though it was not always thus). However, I have found the occasional slight hint in some quarters ‘don’t forget, we were victims too’ à propos of the damage inflicted by bombing on the country, or the expulsion of Germans from former territories, to stick quite heavily in my craw.

My reading of German literature has been mostly twentieth century novels, though I have read some Goethe (Elective Affinities) and loved Fontane‘s Effi Briest. I have been unable to get anywhere with Thomas Mann, I’m afraid. My favourite read of all remains Ernst Wiechert‘s The Simple Life, a haunting tale of a sea captain’s response to the horrors of the Great War: he flees everything and buries himself in the depths of the East Prussian countryside, to live the life of a hermit. It’s a beautiful book, which I’m sure appeals to the ex-hippy in me; I have to go back and re-read it every few years and it never palls.

Hermann Hesse was the big discovery at university – another writer briefly popular in the sixties and seventies but who has now slipped back into obscurity. Siddhartha was the most widely-read novel (there’s an excellent Librivox recording, too) although it was Narziss and Goldmund, a tale of two young men and their relationship in mediaeval times, that really spoke to me. Again there was a really clear sense of time and place, and of the longing for something sought for and lost.

This seems to me, on my limited acquaintance with German literature, to be one of its markers or strengths: the past as somewhere beautiful and hearkened back to, along with the need to know and find oneself. Perhaps it’s something about the landscape and territory the further east one goes? The plains and the forests stretch on for miles and miles and it’s possible to get really in touch with one’s relative insignificance. Being reasonably familiar with Gdansk, and what was East Prussia (most of it is now part of Poland) I think I can understand the feelings of Wiechert, Lenz and Grass.

What I know of Germany, and what I have seen of it, I love. For me, as a half-Pole, its recent past does render it ultimately incomprehensible, though.

 

Death of a Writer

April 13, 2015

So, farewell Guenter Grass.

I first read him at school, when I came across Cat and Mouse, and then The Tin Drum. They made a deep impression on me, as did later the superb film of (the first half of) The Tin Drum. With an imaginative, fantastical, even magic realist approach, he sought to portray and explore Germany’s war guilt, to see whence the madness arose.

I visited Gdansk (Grass’ former home city of Danzig, now part of Poland) in 1970. I remember being shocked by a large graffito which I had my father translate: ‘We have not forgotten. We shall not forgive.’ I can understand the painful sense of loss of home which Grass feels, his homeland erased forever, places still there and yet not there, because they have new names, new owners, new purposes. This happened to my father too: his homeland vanished, is now another country, different territory.

I’ve been to Gdansk since, and seen various of the places immortalised by Grass, and monuments to his childhood home and school. They seem to reflect the spirit of reconciliation that I feel Grass sought. Though some of his novels became self-indulgent and rambling, one of them links the stories of the city of Danzig, lost to its German inhabitants, and that of the Polish city of Wilno, lost to Poland and now the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.

Some attacked him for concealing his volunteering for the Waffen-SS at the very end of the war, when he was a boy of sixteen. I felt I could understand, and could excuse this concealment; I felt it did nothing to mar the reputation of one of the twentieth century’s greatest novelists, and his death will send me back to revisit some of his novels. When I read writers like him, I feel how insular and boring we are here in England, and also how incredibly fortunate not to have suffered in the ways so many did, in Poland and Germany and elsewhere, during those years.

Siegfried Lenz

October 13, 2014

I learnt from a casual visit to the New York Times yesterday of the death of the writer Siegfried Lenz; nothing seems to have appeared in the British press so far.

Lenz was another German writer – rather less known over here than the likes of Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll – who wrote about the Nazi period in Germany, the issues of resistance, and what was lost with the war. The German Lesson tells of an artist out of favour with the regime who is sent to live in a remote village near the Danish border, and his relationship with the country policeman who is deputed to keep a vigilant eye on him. It’s a long time since I read the novel, but I do recall vivid descriptions of the area and its remoteness, and of the understanding that develops between the two characters.

The Heritage shares rather more with Grass, I think. Both came from the same region: Grass from the former Free City of Danzig (now Gdańsk in Poland) and Lenz from rather further east, the town of Lyck in East Prussia, now Ełk in Poland. It’s from this convoluted geography that springs the tragedies they both recall in different ways, for before the Second World War, the region was inhabited by Germans, Poles and other, smaller, minority groups who had lived side by side for centuries. The Versailles settlement of 1919 began the process of separating peoples via plebiscites in various parts of the region, with the choice of belonging to Germany or Poland; the special status of Danzig/Gdańsk became one of the focal points in the lead-up to the Second World War.

It seems to me that extremism – nationalism – furthers division between people, and after the horrors of the war, nothing could remain the same. Ethnic cleansing came to this corner of Europe: the Germans were removed from Gdańsk, which became a purely Polish city, and so many of Grass’ novels and writings paint a picture of a vanished world, and the sadness that it was lost; similarly, East Prussia could no longer exist: the population fled in before the advancing Soviet armies. Lenz depicts this trauma in The Heritage; centuries of a shared past vanish in a few months. Those who didn’t flee were expelled by the new Soviet and Polish administrations. And you can’t say that they could or should have done anything else, when you read of what the Nazis did and encouraged Germans to do to non-Germans in those areas.

All of this is, of course, fading into history with the passing of those who knew it and could write so well about it; it exists in old maps and place-names, and in the ideal of different peoples being able to live together. Of course, this was an ideal; the history of the borderlands tells a grimmer story, and yet something has surely been lost for ever with the coming of national homogeneity.

German Literature

July 17, 2014

Yet more of my thoughts on why other countries are producing more interesting literature than we are…

As I thought about this topic, it became more and more complex. For starters, I realised I don’t mean just German, but literature written in the German language, which brought in Austrians and Swiss, and then I realised that writers like Kafka also wrote in German, although they were not German; and then, frontiers have moved about so in the last century…

I also realised that my reading in, in some ways, quite limited. Although I’m working on my German, I read in translation; from the past, some Goethe and Fontane; from earlier this century, Herman Hesse whose spiritual romanticism hooked me in my hippy days but does seem to have dated rather as time has passed. Ernst Wiechert‘s The Simple Life is one of my all-time favourite novels. Thomas Mann I have to admit to failure with. Joseph Roth I think is wonderful: his evocation of those lost times of the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is unsurpassed, I think, and I often go back to him.

What marks German literature out for me – and now I do mean literature written by Germans – is, of course, the Second World War, and the Hitler period more generally. It has marked, as it must have done, everything written since then. And the response is a complex one, depending on the age of the writer at the time of the events. Hans Fallada‘s Alone in Berlin is a chilling tale of an ordinary German couple’s quiet acts of resistance – anonymous anti-Hitler postcards dropped around Berlin – which ends in their capture, trial and execution, and I am looking forward to the translation of Iron Gustav which has just been published. Others of his novels capture (for me) very skilfully the crazy atmosphere of the years leading up to Hitler’s seizure of power. Heinrich Boll addresses the Nazi years well, but for me the most interesting and effective explorer of those times is Gunter Grass.

I’ve never forgotten a graffito I saw on my first visit to Gdansk forty-four years ago, which my father translated for me: ‘We have not forgotten; we shall not forgive.’ It shocked me, and since then, I have sought to understand its implications. Grass explores the Hitler time in his native Danzig in the celebrated Danzig Trilogy (The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse, Dog Years) metaphorically through the child Oscar who deliberately stunts his growth to remain child-sized, but who cannot escape growing adult consciousness. It’s magic realism long before the Latin American writers came up with it; it’s also a magical evocation of a totally lost world, the multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-ethnic city, the Free City of Danzig which, having been on the wrong side in the war, was ethnically cleansed by the Soviets, and is now a totally Polish city. In The Call Of  The Toad, Grass twins the tragic story of this city with the equally tragic – and almost unknown,  unless you are familiar with the writings of Czeslaw Milosz – story of the city of Wilno, part of Poland, home of one of its oldest universities, multi-ethnic and the largest Jewish city in the world outside Jerusalem until the war. It is now Vilnius, capital of Lithuania.

Grass has fallen from favour with some recently, following his admission in his autobiography that he had been a junior member of the SS (at age fourteen) at the very end of the war; some have felt that he ‘concealed’ an awkward detail; I think that’s an uncharitable view; for me it does not diminish his stunning literary achievements, but it does underline even more pointedly the difficulty for Germans of dealing with these times…

revisiting Hermann Hesse

March 22, 2013

Like many (male) students of my day, I was into Hermann Hesse, and his novels have been gathering dust on my shelves ever since, as I got on with life. A curious librivox recording of Siddartha brought me back to him – it seemed to have been translated and read by a group of people whose first language definitely wasn’t English – and I started to realise that there was a connection between then and now. As a student I’d been thinking about what was the meaning and purpose of life, which many of Hesse’s fictions explore, and now that I’m retired and have time on my hands, I find myself contemplating the same questions, though from a different perspective.

Siddartha seems to be exploring contentment and satisfaction with life; it’s necessary to spend time striving and seeking a purpose, but ultimately we need to find an acceptance of who we are/ have been as we realise that it all comes to an end somehow.

My favourite years ago was always Narziss and Goldmund, and I came back to it after thirty years. It was still painful – in the emotional sense – to read of the friendship against the background of time and eternity, and the quest for meaning to life: how does a person leave even a trace of themselves behind, and why does this matter so much to us? Is it better to risk all in that quest, or settle for a fixed life of calm and contemplation? I thought about that in terms of my own life, and a relatively safe choice of being a teacher for nearly thirty years: there was always a job, a salary and the prospect of a pension.

In the broader picture, I realised that Narziss and Goldmund is one of those novels that fall into the category of bildungsroman. And immediately I recalled another from my student days – Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge.  So that’s somewhere on the list, now.

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