MODERN GERMAN LITERATURE IN TRANSITION
The mutual intensive influence of German on French, and French on German literature in the past and the present, makes it seem permissible and appropriate to use as a keynote a quotation from Albert Camus’ Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1956 in which the writer’s duty was formulated like this:
By definition, he / the writer / cannot serve those whomake history; he must serve those who are subject to it.
However, it might be well to bear in mind that in this present literary period the author is no longer apart from, or above "those who are subject," he himself is – for better or worse – very much involved.
Generally speaking, at present there is little known of the literary life in the German-language area – critics, publishers, bookdealers – know the literary history of Germany. They have heard such names as Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Werfel, Stefan Zweig, and have read their works. Perhaps one or few of Gerhart Hauptmann’s plays will be referred to by title – after all the centenary was commemorated only last year – but contact with subsequent, i.e., contemporary literature, is very scanty and of purely coincidental nature.
The novel "Die Blechtrommel" (The Tin Drum) by Gunter Grass, in a French translation published recently, became a success of shock in Paris, and for the English translation, which is going to be available shortly, a similar effect can be easily predicted. Heimito Doderer’s book "Damonen" (Demons) was able to find some interest and attracted recognition; Bert Brecht is fairly well known here, and at any rate Friedrich Durrenmatt. Perhaps also the names of Max Frisch, Heinrich Boll and Alfred Andersh are not unknown, but their works have so far hardly left any deep impression.
The rest is sheer coincidence and depends on the quantity of memory of the individual, memories of names and works mentioned in the few, rarely published comprehensive essays on contemporary German literature. Of course, for a long time after the war the entire complex of German-language literature had been heavily mortgaged. Thus Western readers simply did not want to be bothered with it, and by reading Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Franz Werfel and Stefan Zweig their interest in German-language literature was easily exhausted.
In the meanwhile, the political constellation between East and West had changed and publishing houses began studying the literature of the free German-language area very carefully for translations of suitable works. A new interest in the German-language literature began to develop with a view of making discoveries.
However, in spite of much initiative and skill on the part of editors and managers of publishing houses in different foreign countries, again and again this expedition has been broken off with disappointment. How can this be understood?
Any manifestation in literature has to be seen primarily against the background of the period of its conception, not of its publication (although this, too, might have to be considered). This background means for German and Austrian (to some extent also for Swiss) writers a period of war and postwar events to which they have been exposed in one way or another and to which they act or react in their individual characteristic manner.
Non-German critics frequently make the almost stereotyped remark that today’s German literature shows a lack of clarity, too much introversion and introspection into a kind of internal life in which actually nothing much important goes on, lack of interest in the problems and events determining life at present and in the future. German-language authors were, so to speak, simply ignoring the world.
From these critical – and in several cases certainly very true observations – one could easily discern an isolationist tendency on the part not only of the authors, but also of their German-speaking readers. Such a tendency would seem to be in clear contrast to that of a time with shrinking geographical distances and joint European and Western ideas, a time in which the cultural distance and difference have been strongly declining. And they have been declining not because German-language authors have been able to reach out into the Western world – this seems to support the above criticism – but rather because of an unusually strong interest that the German-speaking public takes in foreign – mainly contemporary – literature.
German-language theaters have never so often played French, English and American authors as today; German publishing houses have never before published so many translations. Both efforts have been met with increasing success. One needs only to study the repertoire of theaters and the catalogues of publishing houses in the free hemisphere to recognize immediately the great difference in approach.
It would definitely be wrong to hold that the German-literature area was too readily receptive for the works of other language areas. This readiness after all is a very positive element in contemporary life. It is for anyone who has lived through a period of cultural confinement an easily understandable reaction. Any limitation from abroad would be highly dangerous to Germany and all western Europe.
It is true that the German-language literature still shows the "Unbewaltigte Vergangenheit." This implies that the chaos and the aftermath of World War II, with all it political consequences, have not yet been overcome spiritually (cf. Zuckmayer, "Die Uhr schlagt eins"). Thus it is significant that the most successful German-language playwrights come from Switzerland – Friedrich Durrenmatt and Max Frisch.
The period of transition is at once visible in many of the works of modern German-language authors. Yet it is no longer limited to the literary reflection of but one generation, namely the war-generation. In 18 years – more than half the life span of a man of the middle ages – a new generation has grown up in an environment often radically different from the past, with numerous variations of personal experiences with all their consequences for which the only common denominator is unrest and uncertainty.
Of course, any literary period has its main current and its undercurrents. This too, is naturally highly determined by the emergence of a new generation. Goethe, for example, who lived such a long and intellectually rich life and who was most sensitive to changes in the literary world with which he kept so closely in touch until the very end of his life, makes any reader of his works, his letters and especially of his "Conversations with Eckermann" very much aware of such a shift in the field of literary trends.
However, what Goethe experienced at the threshold of the nineteenth century was still in the course of a natural process, whereas the period here in question presents a situation never experienced before. European literature and German-language literature in particular, be it a direct or an indirect product of upheaval and uprooting of all kinds and degrees, can hardly be judged in the traditional manner, nor by critics who themselves have not at least seen the breaking waves of the roaring sea of our times. And the sea is still roaring even under the pacified cover of the European Common Market prosperity.
As much as the upheaval in modern German literature is obvious in the prose writing of the last 18 years, it is certainly in poetry that the upheaval shows its deepest effect. Poetry – the expression of the innermost experience of a writer – acts as a sensitive seismograph which after an earthquake shows a pattern of declinations that have to be carefully deciphered. As this is done, the literary pulse of all the other postwar manifestations will also come through clearer and with more significance.
Certainly it would be wrong to say there are not, and were not, still active many conservative poets; poets like Hermann Hesse (who died only last summer), Agnes Miegel, Ina Seidel, or somewhat younger poets like Werner Bergengruen, Friedrich Georg Junger and Stefan Andres. These poets who, based on tradition, try to find new ways of expression.
But there is definitely also the other group, consisting not only of the younger and the youngest generation. Gottfried Benn (born in the eighties) and Bert Brecht (born 1898) gave this group its directives. Yet poets born at a much later date (e.g., Inge Bachmann) can also be found in it. In an effort to find a poetical expression of their own, this group tries to break with tradition and, in doing so, travesties and parodies tradition to the extreme.
The eccentricity and experimentation of modern poetry, which borders quite frequently on obscurity, can only be understood from a situation in which society demands more and more and of all men an adaption to its reality. The poet, in his attempt to keep his freedom, his individuality, "purifies," as it were, his poem as much as possible from everything personal, almost in the manner of a scientist in the laboratory. This he does even at the risk of being no longer understood. It is a process of "Vergitterung" (lattice work). This can be seen quite clearly in Gottfried Benn’s poem:
DAS GITTER (Meshwork)
The lattice work is carefully meshed,
moreover the wall is closed:
Surely you rescued yourself,
however, whom did you rescue?
Three poplars at the sluice,
a seagull in its flight to the sea
that is the song of the plain,
that is where you came from.
Then year after year
you’d had been shedding hair and skin
gliding like a snake,
existing on drink and prey
somebody had offered you.
Someone – be silent –
that song begins in a bitter way –
you rescued yourself
only to end behind lattice work
which nothing will open any more. (1)
Our course, there is an unintelligibility which is substantial and therefore legitimate. But there can also be a mere emptiness, pretending originality and depth. In that, a parallel can be easily drawn to modern art.
In general, according to Benno v. Wiese (2), one can distinguish five typical structures in contemporary German poetry which actually show the process of self-defense of the lyrical subject against a reality that more and more seeks to extinguish this very subject. In the first type of structure the ugly, destructive and negative side of life is stressed to such an extent that this kind of poetry finds itself often associated with the term "nihilism." Some of Gunter Grass’ poems could be used to illustrate this passive self-defense.
In the second type the poet tries to defend himself actively, whereby ironic-grotesque elements are occasionally combined with utopic elements. Bert Brecht, the controversial German poet and playwright, who would have been 65 on February 10 of this year, can be easily called upon for example.
DAS LIED VOM WASSERRAD
(The Song of the Waterwheel)
Ancient tale and epic story
Tell of heroes lives untarnished:
Like the stars they rose in glory,
Like the stars they set when vanquished.
This is comforting and we should know it.
We, alas, who plant the wheat and grow it
Have but little share in triumphs or disasters.
Rise to fame or fall: who feeds our masters?
Yes, the wheel is always turning madly,
Neither side stays up or down,
But the water underneath fares badly
For it has to make the wheel go round.
Ah, we’ve had so many masters,
swine or eagle, lean and fat one:
Some were tigers, some hyenas,
Still we fed this one and that one.
Whether one is better than the other:
Ah, one boot is always like the other
When it treads upon you. What I say about them
Is we need no other masters: we can do without them!
Yes, the wheel is always turning madly,
Neither side stays up or down,
But the water underneath fares badly
For it has to make the wheel go round.
And they best each other’s heads all bloody
Scuffling over booty,
Call the other fellows greedy wretches,
They themselves, but do their duty.
Ceaselessly we see their wars grow grimmer,
Would I knew a way for them to be united.
If we will no more provide the fodder
Maybe that’s the way all could be righted.
For at last the wheel shall turn no longer,
And shall ride the stream no more,
When the water joins to water as it gaily
Drives itself, freed of the load it bore. (3)
In the third type of structure the poet uses a symbolic language based more on the sound than the meaning of the word, thus creating the "autonomy of the word" which very often only he himself is able to understand. The poet’s activity is that of the laboratory, ("Sprach-laboratorium" as Gottfried Benn calls it), and this metaphor describes exactly the atmosphere of controlled experimentation and discovery. In countries with a more unbroken literary tradition, many of these experiments (e.g., surrealism) have been tried and rejected before.
In the fourth type, transformation of all reality into unreality is used, a transformation of the concrete into the abstract. An analysis of Bert Brecht’s "Die Liebenden" (The Lovers) would prove this poem to be a good example of this kind. A counter-part to this particular trend in poetry can also be found in abstract art. In this regard Franz Kafka’s diary note may be quoted, too: "True reality is always unrealistic."
Finally, in the last type of structure, the lyrical subject still claims to be identical with the subject "world." Thus actual truth can only be found in poetry.
Inge Bachmann, the most widely respected recent German-language poetress, carries on this more central line of German poetry. Her verse, ductile and evocative in the extreme , unfortunately loses much in translation. A brief example might, however, be appropriate.
Alle Tage (Every Day)
War is not declared any more
but simply continued. The unheard of
has become a common thing. The hero
stays away from battles. The weakling
has moved into the firing lines.
The uniform of the day is patience,
its decoration the shabby star
of hope above the heart.
It is conferred
when nothing happens anymore,
when the drum-fire stops
when the enemy has become invisible
and the shadow of eternal armament
darkens the sky.
It is conferred
for the deserting of the flags,
for courage in the face of friends,
for the betrayal of despicable secrets
of all commands. (4) (1953)
Poetry definitely registers the trends of a period more sensitively than any other literary expression, but it certainly does not stand alone in that. The view of two leading critics will help stress this point.
In a symposion on the "Novel Today" Ludwig Marcuse (Beverly Hills, Calif.) Makes the following observation:
In the new novel . . . the unity of the world, society and individual is broken up, the universe has become a ‘multiverse’. Moreover, the new novel is not three-dimensional, but multi- dimensional: myths, fantasies, x-rays of the soul and interpretations represent some of its various levels. One could also express it this way: There is one reality from which the real is hanging in shreds – fragments of landscape which do not blend into any ‘nature,’ fragments of soul which do not belong to any individual. The writer not only narrates what can not be described but also what can not be deciphered. The novelist does not narrate what is familiar to the reader only in this new, not yet known element: That what is familiar is being made unfamiliar by the narrator. The reader experiences adventures which he can not classify or catalogue. (5)
And on the other side of the Atlantic we find Walter Meckauer (Munich, Germany) stating his idea about the modern novel in a very similar way:
Modern man in the age of existentialism (born of fear of the atom) finds himself under the necessity of acknowledging two realities instead of one; the accustomed reality of everyday activity and the unaccustomed odd reality of cosmic science, especially that of nuclear physics. This results in a completely new obligation for the serious novel in what concerns the technique of communication. 1) By transcending and transforming conventional views. 2) By reducing the cosmic view to conventional level (e.g., by breaking down cosmic potencies to everyday types and familiar characters). The first is achieved by surrealistic style; the second by means of grotesque parody. Thus the tragic travesty is born. It is the new form of expression. It results from our absurdly paradoxical situation in the universe, from our split existence. (6)
Walter Meckauer sums it up by saying, "The novelist’s problem of communicating his message to his reader has changed radically. Formerly, the problem was to present true-to-life characters embodied in a familiar social community. Now the problem is to realize the cosmic isolation and alienation of man and thing in the midst of traditionally reasonalistic everyday surroundings." (6)
Even from these few remarks, when confronted with what has been said before, it becomes already obvious that in modern literature very similar trends prevail, be it in prose or poetry. German modern literature shows this in particular. It may be well to use an example from Ernst Georg Junger’s latest book, "Glaserne Bienen" (Glass Bees) of which critics say, "Not since Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ has there been a book dealing so sharply with the problems of the modern technological world."
Ernst Junger returns in this book to his earlier preoccupations with the power of technology and the technology of power. He does this in a prose which has been molded, through the help of his scientific training, into hard polished forms; precise, yet rich in suggestion and meaning, with powerful inner rhythm. Richard, the protagonist, a former cavalry officer stemming from the ordered society before World War I, is faced with the choice of starving or seeking employment with Zapparoni, an industrial magnate who produces all types of mechanic toys and robots which can readily be adapted as weapons. He confesses:
I was suddenly seized by nausea. I realized the provocation, the shameless challenge, that was intended here. It led to a lower level of reality. It seemed to me as if the activities of the automatons, which only a short time before had held me completely spellbound, had now ceased; I was no longer aware of them. For all I knew, everything might have been a mirage. At the same moment a chilling breath touched me – a closeness of danger. My knees suddenly felt weak and I sank back into the chair. Could it be that my predecessor had sat here before he disappeared? Could one of these ears have been his? (7)
Finally, one must certainly mention the modern drama in German-language literature, brief as it may have to be. However, one can in no way overlook any more the names of the two Swiss playwrights who have forced their way with irrestistible vehemence to the foreground of contemporary German-language drama – namely Max Frisch (born 1911) and Friedrich Durrenmatt (born 1921). They certainly differ in background and style. But common to both writers is their concern with exposing and unmasking: Thus drama means in reality to hold court. Frisch’s "Andorra" and Durrenmatt’s "Die Physiker" (The Physicists), a recent stage success and controversial "conversation piece" as well, can both be found on the programs of many of the important German playhouses. But Durrenmatt’s "Der Besuch der alten Dame," now being performed im grossen Haus in Frankfurt a.M., still seems to rank highest among the new stage plays. The seemingly harmless title, "The visit of the old lady," is definitely misleading to anyone who expects something idyllic. The title of the English edition, "The Visit," does not, however, commit itself one way or another. It shows – like the stage adaption for the American audience – a change not fully justified. Nevertheless, this version is the one many theater-goers have seen in New York during the 1957-58 season and which the New York drama critics chose as the best foreign play for 1958-59. In this work – more than ever, Durrenmatt shows himself as a destroyer of pretentious and pious commonplaces who relies less on the beauties of literary style than on immediately striking stage effects.
I should like to illustrate this by an example from Durrenmatt’s "Visit." Like Frisch, Durrenmatt is averse to any kind of convention. But whereas Frisch’s works are the expression of a kind of more or less humanistic existentialism, Durrenmatt’s writing reveals rather a movement toward poetic surrealism, conjuring up even the disgusting and the repellent for his purpose.
The situation in the play is briefly this: An old American lady, former citizen of the now-impoverished little town of Gullen in Switzerland, returns to the place of her youth. Her appearance and that of her company borders more than slightly on the grotesque. She is offering to donate a substantial sum to get the town back on its feet. She imposes one condition however: Anton Schill, the man who had once done her wrong, has to be punished. As the play progresses, the people’s former objection to her proposal breaks down more and more. As their desire to get hold of their share of the money is gradually growing – some have even started making credit purchases – every one of them undergoes a psychological change until finally they all are ready to sacrifice Anton Schill. The following quotation is a brief excerpt from the hypocritical speech of the teacher addressing the people of Gullen. This speech is preparing the final dramatic climax.
Teacher: Citizens of Gullen, this, then, is the simple fact of the case. We have participated in an injustice. I thoroughly recognize the material advantages which this gift opens to us – I do not overlook the fact that it is poverty which is the root of all this bitterness and evil. Nevertheless, there is no question here of money.
Townsmen: No! No!
Teacher: Here there is no question of our prosperity as a community, or our well-being as individuals – the question is – must be – whether or not we wish to live according to the principles of justice, those principles for which our forefathers lived and fought and for which they died, those principles which form the soul of our Western culture.
Townsmen: Hear! Hear!
Teacher: . . . Only if you can no longer tolerate the presence of evil among you, only if you can in no circumstances endure a world in which injustice exists, are you worthy to receive Madame Zachanassian’s billion and fulfill the conditions bound up with this gift. If not – (Wild applause. He gestures desperately for silence) If not, then God have mercy on us! (8)
German-language literature definitely is still literature in translation, however, to support such a statement sufficiently, far more than these scattered excerpts would have to be presented as evidence. Many of the immediate postwar writers came from the ranks of the prosecuted, the oppressed, the deprived, the disillusioned, the guilty and the disturbed. Today many of them have taken on the role of critical spectators like Heinrich Boll, the clever satirist, who in his novels, radio plays and short stories (e.g., "Dr. Murkes gesammeltes Schweigen," Dr. Murke’s collected silences) shows a humor that can be surrealistic and fantastic or humane and gentle in its understanding of the problems of the man in the street. Some other writers have taken on the task of admonishers. Gerd Gaiser, e.g., in his novel, "Schlußball" (Last Ball of the Season) can be found among those who can clearly see how the growing prosperity in Europe leads more and more into an alarming complacency. (The film "Dolce Vita" deals in its own way with this trend.) Paws Foerckh, one of the newly rich, confused and emotionally disturbed characters of Gaiser’s novel, is unable to understand the changes to which he and his environment are subjected.
I did not understand her any more.But it isn’t possible for a woman to take her life because things are going well, when formerly they were going badly. That isn’t how God in His goodness intends things. ‘In those day,’ she said to me, ‘in those days we were still worth something.’ As though now that we had enough to eat and something in the bank we suddenly stopped being worth anything . . . . (9)
This attitude with regard to the new society is expressed mostly in novels and stage plays, but also in radio plays – the "new literary form" so effective in its L’art pour l’art’ presentation of the European non-commercial broadcast.
As Western Europe more and more reaches the American standard of living, it also touches in its literature upon problems similar to those in America. Thus, its authors should find publishers and readers more ready to invite modern German-language literature into their books.
But what about those German-language authors who happen to be on the wrong side of the Wall?
Many of the East Zone writers who present Ulbricht’s "national literature" today were once good writers – free writers whose doctrine was: humanity against inhumanity. Since 1951, i.e., since the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the East Zone has proclaimed Socialist Realism the only dogma of the art, all literary production is an expression of communism, but not necessarily of literary value. One finds that what appears to be significant in the literary production are actually books which have been written in emigration or in the West, like "Mutma Bungen über Jakob" (Speculations about Jakob), the novel written by the then 25-year-old author Uwe Johnson.
His novel is set in the Soviet zone of Germany at about the time of the Hungarian revolution and the Suez invasion and revolves about the East German railroad worker Jakob Abs. Abs, having rejected the political doctrines of the East, is unable to accept those of the West and perishes, presumably from lack of alternatives. Johnson seems to be the first German writer expressing deep concern with the consequences of the partition of Germany and with the deeper conflict between East and West. His book, which is in no way a black and white portrayal of the political situation, is among those literary manifestations of our time that show an important turning-point in German-language literature.
But Jakob always cut across the tracks," –that is how the "Speculations about Jacob" begins. And before one knows, one is deeply involved in one’s own speculations about Jacob. "You can’t see ten steps ahead of you for the fog, especially in the morning, and that’s when it happened, in the morning, and everything was so slippery. Doesn’t take much to slip." (10)
Truely, German-language literature is a literature in transition – as life and its values are in transition.
1) Gottfried Benn, Gesammelte Gedichte. Limes Verlang, Wiesbaden 1956 ("Das Gitter", tr.Erika Blass)
2) Benno V. Wiese, "Die deutsche Lyrik der Gegenwart." (in: Deutsche Dichtung in unsererZeit, pp. 32-51; Vanderhoeck and Rupprecht, Gottingen, 1959)
3) Bert Brecht, Selected Poems, ed. & tr. By H. R. Hays, Grove Press. A Bilingual Ed. New York, 1947, pp. 88-91.
4) Inge Bachmann, Die gestundete Zeit, R. Piper & Co., 1953 ("Alle Tage", tr. Erika Blaas)
5) in: Books Abroad, International Literary Quarterly, Vol. XXXII, Summer 1958, p. 237 et.seq.
6) ibid. P. 238 et. seq.
7) Ernst Georg Junger, The Glass Bees, tr. Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Mayer. the Noondaypress, 1960, p. 110.
8) Friedrich Durrenmatt, The Visit. Adapted by Maurice Valency, Random House, New York,1958, p. 103, et seq. [note: this play was performed at Monmouth College in the fall of 2001]
9) Gert Gaiser, The Final Ball, tr. Marguerite Waldman, Pantheon Books, Inc. 1960, p. 205
10) Uwe Johnson, Speculations about Jakob, tr. Ursule Molinaro, Grove Press, Inc., New York,
1963, p. 7