Category Archives: German Literature

How Shall We Live?: Thoughts from Robert Musil on this Memorial Day

This long weekend in May in the United States is a federal holiday which is meant to remember and honor veterans who have died while serving in the United States Armed Forces.  As I was reading Robert Musil’s essay entitled, “Twilight of War”  I thought it sad and ironic that this holiday is called Memorial Day because we really do not seem to learn or retain the lessons that history has taught us.  What Musil wrote during the early part of the 20th Century is not only relevant, but good advice today for my country in particular:

If one wants peace, one has to do something, not just have a conference about it.  There is no radical defense against war.  Because there is no radical defense against the stupidity, fantasy, and bestiality of human beings.  But there are a dozen small defenses, and none of them should remain untried.  The weaker a person is, the more he will develop and pay attention to his intellectual powers, in order to carry on in difficult times.  The stronger he is, the heavier his fist, the sooner he will surrender his reason in order to finish off a difficult thing with his fists.  But that is not bravery. That is the obtuseness of brutality.  Little David was brave, not the strong Goliath.  He was nothing but strong, and he finished off nothing but himself.

No state has ever maintained of its army that it is kept for offensive purposes. Each one affirms that it is only there for defense.  For four years dozens of armies have defended something against something else. Only one thing remained undefended, that there is nothing which armies could defend that could justify such an expenditure of human lives.  It is a myth that disarmament would have to be agreed upon universally.  Those who make the assertion want, at best, to just talk about it.

This essay is in Musil’s collection of Thought Flights, brilliantly translated by Genese Grill.  Divided into three parts, the book includes short stories, glosses and literary fragments.  The extent of topics in the collection is impressive: art, fashion, politics, morality and love are just a few of his interests.  Genese Grill simply and eloquently describes these writings in her introduction, “As always, Musil is really asking: How shall we live?”

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Filed under Classics, Essay, German Literature, Short Stories

The Confusions of Young Törless by Robert Musil

In the introduction to Shaun Whitehead’s translation of The Confusions of Young Törless, J.M. Coetzee writes about Musil, “The education of the senses through a refining of erotic life seemed to him to hold the most immediate promise of lifting society to a higher ethical plane. He deplored the rigid sexual roles that bourgeois mores laid down for women and men. ‘Whole countries of the soul have been lost and submerged as a consequence,’ he wrote.”

When, as an adolescent, Törless is dropped off at one of Austria’s most prestigious boarding schools, he feels alone, untethered and confused. No longer under the constant guidance and moral direction of his parents, he must find own way—emotionally, morally and physically—among other boys struggling with the same issues. Törless’s loneliness and solitude weigh heavily on him throughout the narrative. At times his isolation seems to crush him. Musil oftentimes weaves natural images into his description of Törless’s emotional isolation:

Then a pleasant memory came to him. The house in the country where they had spent the previous summer. Nights in the silent park. A velvet-dark firmament quivering with starts. His mother’s voice from the depths of the garden, where she was walking with Papa on the faintly shimmering gravel paths. Songs that she sang quietly to herself. But again…a cold shiver ran through him…there was that painful comparison. What might the two of them have been feeling? Love? No, the idea was now occurring to him for the first time. Love was something quite different. Not something for grown-ups and adults; let alone for his parents. Sitting by the open window at night and feeling abandoned, feeling different from the grown-ups, feeling misunderstood by every laugh and every mocking look, being unable to explain to anyone what one meant, and longing for for someone who might understand…that is love! But you have to be young and lonely for that.

Törless’s mother and his conflicted emotions about her are also prominent in the book which is not surprising since, as Coetzee points out, Musil himself wrote about his own maternal confusions in his diaries. Torless begins to explore his own ideas of morality by exploring his sexuality. He visits a local prostitute, which is a common pastime of many of the boys at the school. He tries to explore mathematics and the philosophy of Kant in order to cast off his feelings of loneliness.

But his life takes a sinister and confusing turn at the school when he witnesses two of his classmates mentally, physically and sexually tormenting a boy that they catch stealing money. Basini has several debts which he can’t pay–his mother is a widower on a fixed income—and resorts to stealing from the other boys. Even among the upper classes there is a pecking order based on wealth.

The passages in the book that describe the boys tormenting and torturing Basini are difficult to read. Musil’s casual comment that such things are common among all male boarding schools in the late 19th and early 20th century was sad and horrifying. But in the end Torless rejects the mores of these bourgeois boys and makes the decision to leave the school. But, as his mother comes to the school to take him away, the book ends on an interesting note, reminding us of Törless’s continuing struggle with sex, morality and emotions: “And he breathed in the faintly perfumed fragrance rising from his mother’s waist.”

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Our Love, Tell Me, What Is It?: The Completion of Love by Robert Musil (trans. Genese Grill)

“Our love, tell me, what is it?” Claudine asks this heavy, direct, honest, complex question in a letter to her husband.  She is on a short trip to see her daughter, who was conceived during a brief affair with a dentist, at boarding school but is snowed in at her lodgings.  There are so many layers to the philosophical language of Musil’s stream-of-conscious narrative; but the one that stood out to me the most was his reflection on love, and how we experience another person through the self and internalize emotions that are created through this experience.

Musil explores the fact that Love is such a complex human emotion, one that can oftentimes be confused or mixed with pity, nostalgia or physical desire.  The opening scene in the book depicts Claudine and her husband as quietly content and presumably in love—enjoying a cup of tea, discussing a book, relaxing in their home.  But on her  journey, as she leaves her husband behind and encounters another man on her trip she reflects on this love that, up until now it seems, she has not questioned.  The translation of such a complex text could not have been easy; Genese Grill’s rendering of Musil was wonderful to contemplate and absorb:

So, they drove on, close to each other, in the deepening dusk. And her thoughts began to take on that softly forward-urging restlessness again.  She tried to convince herself that it was just a delusion brought on by the confusing interior stillness of this suddenly lonely amid strangers; and sometimes she believed that it was just the wind, in whose stiff, glowing coldness she was wrapped, which made her frozen and submissive; but other times it seemed to her that her husband, strangely, was very close to her again, and that this weakness and sensuality was nothing more than a wonderfully blissful manifestation of their love.

As she is drawn closer to a man on her journey simply known as the “commissioner” these thoughts of her husband and her love for him as well as her life before her marriage keep flashing through her mind.

She felt that she could never again belong to a strange man. And precisely there, precisely simultaneous with this revulsion towards other men, with this mysterious yearning for only one, she felt—as if on a second, deeper level—a prostration, a dizziness, perhaps a presentiment of human uncertainty, perhaps she was afraid of herself; perhaps it was only an elusive, meaningless, diffuse desire that the other man would come, and her anxiety flowed through her, hot and cold, spurning on a destructive desire.

And when she is alone at night:

And then it came to her suddenly, from out of that time—the way that this terrible defenselessness of her existence, hiding behind the drams, far off, ungraspable, merely imaginary, was not living a second life—a calling, a shimmer of nostalgia, a never-before-felt softness, a sensation of I, that—stripped bare by the terrifying irredeemable fact of her fate, naked, disrobed, divested of herself—longed, drunkenly, for increasingly—debased debilitation.  She got lost in it, strangely confused by its aimless tenderness, but this fragment of love that sought its own completion.

Claudine’s thoughts are blurred to the point that I felt they could equally apply to her relationship with her husband, her love affairs before her marriage, or her current situation with the commissioner.  This fragment of love that sought its own completion.  This last sentence, in particular, has given me much to think about.

I found Claudine’s response  jarring when the commissioner asks her if she loves her husband: “The absurdity in this prodding, his assumption of certainty, did not escape her, and she said, “No; no, I don’t love him at all,” with trembling and resolution.”  She obviously has some love for her husband, so why tell this lie?  The hint to this, I think, comes a few pages later:

And then the cryptic thought struck her: somewhere among all these people there was one, one who was not quite right for her, but who was different; she could have made herself fit with him and would never have know anything about the person she was today.  For feelings only live in a long chain of other feelings, holding on to each other, and it is just a matter of whether one link of life arranges itself—without any gap in between—-next to another, and there of hundreds of ways this can happen.  And then for the first time since falling in love, the thought shot through her: it is chance; it becomes real through some chance or other and then one holds fast to it.

I felt as though Claudine came to the realization that the “completion” (or “perfection” in other translations) of love is never possible.  She never sends that letter I quoted to her husband.  She has to learn for herself that if love is not returned—in word, in action, in gesture—it will die out.  Sometimes it suffers a long, painful death.  But, unless it is tended to and nurtured, it will indeed die out.

 

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Filed under German Literature, Novella

Putting the Shaken House in its New Order: My Year in Reading-2018

There is no doubt that this was a tough year by any measure. The news, in my country and around the world. was depressing, scary and, at times, downright ridiculous. Personally, I had some very high highs and some very low lows. The summer was particularly hot and oppressive. And this semester was unusually demanding at work. More than any other year I can remember, I took solace and comfort by retreating into my books. I have listed here the books, essays and translations that kept me busy in 2018. War and Peace, Daniel Deronda, The Divine Comedy and Stach’s three volume biography of Kafka were particular favorites, but there really wasn’t a dud in this bunch.

Classic Fiction and Non-Fiction (20th Century or earlier):

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (trans. Louise and Alymer Maude)

The Bachelors by Adalbert Stifter (trans. David Bryer)

City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya (trans. Nora Seligman Favorov)

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

A Dead Rose by Aurora Caceres (trans. Laura Kanost)

Nothing but the Night by John Williams

G: A Novel by John Berger

Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

Artemisia by Anna Banti (trans. Shirley D’Ardia Caracciolo)

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

Flesh by Brigid Brophy

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

The Colour of Memory by Geoff Dyer

The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky (trans. by Ignat Avsey)

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

Lyric Novella by Annmarie Schwarzenbach (trans. Lucy Renner Jones)

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (trans. Allen Mandelbaum)

The Achilleid by Statius (trans. Stanley Lombardo)

The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter by Matei Calinescu (trans. Adriana Calinescu and Breon Mitchell)

The Blue Octavo Notebooks by Franz Kafka (trans. Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins)

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir (trans. James Kirkup)

Journey into the Mind’s Eye: Fragments of an Autobiography by Lesley Blanch

String of Beginnings by Michael Hamburger

Theseus by André Gide (trans. John Russell)

Contemporary Fiction and Non-Fiction:

Kafka: The Early Years by Reiner Stach (trans. Shelley Frisch)

Kafka: The Decisive Years by Reiner Stach (trans. Shelley Frisch)

Kafka: The Years of Insight by Reiner Stach (trans. Shelley Frisch)

Villa Amalia by Pascal Quignard (trans. Chris Turner)

All the World’s Mornings by Pascal Quignard (trans. James Kirkup)

Requiem for Ernst Jundl by Friederike Mayröcker (trans. Roslyn Theobald)

Bergeners by Tomas Espedal (trans. James Anderson)

Kudos by Rachel Cusk

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

The Years by Annie Ernaux (trans. Alison L. Strayer)

He Held Radical Light by Christian Wiman

The Unspeakable Girl by Giorgio Agamben and Monica Ferrando (trans. Leland de la Durantaye)

The Adventure by Giorgio Agamben (trans. Lorenzo Chiesa)

Essays and Essay Collections:

Expectations by Jean-Luc Nancy

Errata by George Steiner

My Unwritten Books by George Steiner

The Poetry of Thought by George Steiner

A Handbook of Disappointed Fate by Anne Boyer

“Dante Now: The Gossip of Eternity” by George Steiner

“Conversation with Dante” by Osip Mandelstam

“George Washington”, “The Bookish Life,” and “On Being Well-Read” and “The Ideal of Culture” by Joseph Epstein

“On Not Knowing Greek,” “George Eliot,” “Russian Thinking” by Virginia Woolf

Poetry Collections:

The Selected Poems of Donald Hall

Exiles and Marriage: Poems by Donald Hall

H.D., Collected Poems

Elizabeth Jennings, Selected Poems and Timely Issues

Eavan Boland, New Selected Poems

Omar Carcares, Defense of the Idol

The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova

Analicia Sotelo, Virgin

Elizabeth Bishop, Poems, Prose and Letters (LOA Edition)

Michael Hamburger: A Reader, (Declan O’Driscoll, ed.)

I also dipped into quite a few collections of letters such as Kafka, Kierkegaard, Kleist, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, etc. that I won’t bother to list here. I enjoyed reading personal letters alongside an author’s fiction and/or biography.

My own Translations (Latin and Greek):

Vergil, Aeneid IV: Dido’s Suicide

Statius, Silvae IV: A Plea for Some Sleep

Horace Ode 1.5: Oh Gracilis Puer!

Horace, Ode 1.11: May You Strain Your Wine

Propertius 1.3: Entrusting One’s Sleep to Another

Seneca: A Selection from “The Trojan Women”

Heraclitus: Selected Fragments

Cristoforo Landino, Love is not Blind: A Renaissance Latin Love Elegy

As George Steiner writes in his essay Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: “Great works of art pass through us like storm-winds, flinging open the doors of perception, pressing upon the architecture of our beliefs with their transforming powers. We seek to record their impact, to put our shaken house in its new order.” My reading patterns have most definitely changed and shifted this year. I am no longer satisfied to read a single book by an author and move on. I feel the need to become completely absorbed by an author’s works in addition to whatever other sources are available (letters, essays, biography, autobiography, etc.) Instead of just one book at a time, I immerse myself in what feels more like reading projects. I am also drawn to classics, especially “loose, baggy monsters” and have read very little contemporary authors this year. I image that this pattern will continue into 2019.

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Filed under Autobiography, British Literature, French Literature, German Literature, Italian Literature, Kafka, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Nonfiction, Novella, Poetry, Russian Literature, Tolstoi, Virginia Woolf

String of Beginnings: Michael Hamburger’s Autobiography

String of beginnings, a lifetime long,
So thin, so strong, it’s outlasted the bulk it bound,
Whenever light out of haze lifted
Scarred masonry, marred wood
As a mother her child from the cot,
To strip, to wash, to dress again,
And the cities even were innocent…
—Michael Hamburger

Of all the autobiographies I’ve read this year, Michael Hamburger’s String of Beginnings has been the most intriguing to me.  Born in Berlin to a Jewish family, “It was the month of the year when Kafka left Berlin to die. It was the day, March 22nd, of Goethe’s death and his cry for more light.  The year, 1924, was one of relative stabilization after the failure of a Hitler-Ludendorff ‘putsch’ and the success of Schacht’s measures against an inflation so extreme that it had turned most Germans into undernourished millionaires.”  Hamburger describes the autobiography, however, as “intermittent” since it only covers the years of his life between 1924 and 1954.

Originally published in 1973 under a different title, A Mug’s Game, and reissued in 1991 as String of Beginnings, Hamburger discusses in an interview with Peter Dale his reasons for limiting the scope of this second edition of his autobiography and for not publishing a sequel:

At one time I had planned a continuation, but my publisher didn’t want another volume, not having done well with the first.  Also, it became clear to me that I couldn’t write a second book on the same lines, as a factual and chronological account.  I then planned an altogether different sort of book, organized by theme, rather than documentary sequence, and with more freedom of movement and association than the chronological presentation had given me.  It had also become clear to me that it is virtually impossible to write truthfully about living relatives and friends in a non-fiction book—or about one’s own life, for that matter.

In the first chapter of String of Beginnings, he also elaborates on his very strict approach to writing autobiography.  Hamburger feels that too many autobiographies read more like novels because of an author’s tendency to embellish the truth.  He says of this genre, “Neither the chronicler’s nor the novelist’s way is adequate, because too much of one’s life is beyond recall, and the experience that made us what we are lies neither in moments nor in recurrences, but in a fusion of both far too subtle to be retracted.”  Much of the text of his autobiography contains direct quotes from letters to friends, family and acquaintances or paraphrasing from diaries that he kept.  Hamburger never veers from his strict writing standards.

Despite the “chronological presentation” of  his autobiography there are three “strings” that he highlights throughout the book which, he implies, affect him for the rest of his life: writing his own poetry, interacting with other poets and traveling.  Although Hamburger is best know for his translations, especially those of Holderlin which he started work on at the age of fifteen, it is the composition of his own, original poems that occupies his mind more than anything else.  The original title of the book,  A Mug’s Game, was taken from a comment made to Hamburger by T.S. Eliot who was reflecting on the, oftentimes futile, life and career of a poet, “‘A mug’s game,’ T.S. Eliot called it, aware of the risk he shared with those whose persistence was a blind obstinacy, a waste of themselves and others.  Or wasn’t it—even at the worst?  Where even the best is for ever being reexamined and re-assessed, where any new development could be a falling-off or a final defeat, mightn’t it be enough to go on trying?”

And go on trying Hamburger did.  Before he enrolls in the army, he spends a few terms at Oxford where he kept writing poetry and subjecting himself to the feedback of other famous poets.  He knows that his biggest flow is that his verse is too mechanical and he is not really seeing enough of life will translate into good poetry: “Though I published early, and had made literary connections even at this time, without being award of looking for them, the only success I wanted was to write good poems…”  Furthermore, he admits that the influence of poets he worshipped, like T.S. Eliot, was too great on him and he had trouble finding his own voice: “It is easy enough in retrospect to see why it took me so long to write my own poems, good or bad.  All my responses were exaggerated, inwardly over-dramatized, as it were, and utterly unstable, because I was trying out one stance, one identity, after another.”

The number of  poets—famous, infamous and obscure—that he meets during his time at Oxford is astounding.  Hamburger argues, “To write about oneself is to write about other people…” and the “other people” whom he discusses most in his autobiography are poets.  He meets Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, T.S. Eliot, Stephen Spender, David Gascoyne and Peter Hofler, just to name a few.  The  most intriguing writer of them all for me, however, was a close friend whom he simply refers to as “X.”  X is about ten years older than Hamburger and is an academic; they had a falling out over the publication of Hamburger’s autobiography so Hamburger keeps X’s identity a secret throughout the book.  But X’s impact on Hamburger’s career and life as a poet is inescapable and the entire autobiography would fall apart with the exclusion of this friend and fellow author.   (I’m still curious to know the identity of X and I’m sure that someone has figured it out.  So if you know his identity please leave me a comment!)

The final “string” that one follows through the thirty years of Hamburger’s life is that of traveling.  Even though he and his family emigrate from Berlin to London in 1933, he gets his first real experience of Europe when he is a soldier in the British army during World War II.  He is stationed in both Italy and Austria and his favorite activities in those places are those which take him away from tourist areas and off the beaten path.  After his first visit to Paris he decides that big cities are places he would rather avoid: “If I have no business in a large city, and no close friends, all I find there is ghosts—‘the soul of all those who have lived there.’ absorbed by walls.”  One of my favorite, amusing stories in the book is when he is traveling in Austria, after being released from the army, and he moves from one small town to the next.  In one of these backwater places he stays at a rather strange little hotel which he eventually realizes, after many days, is a brothel.   Italy becomes one of his favorite places to visit, especially the countryside around Florence and Fiesole: “What really captivated me about Italy was the least palpable of phenomena—the mere smells on the banks of the Arno, the precise colour of olive trees, silver-white-green-blue-grey, something about the landscape at Fiesole that I couldn’t describe. ‘Self-sufficiency of the landscape, architecture, people,’ I noted. ‘No need for transcendence.  How the sun melts the written word.'”

Michael Hamburger lived until the age of 83 and I am so sad that there is no autobiographical account of the years between 1955 and 2007.  How did his life evolve in his last forty years?  What other poets did he meet?  How did he view the development of his poetry?  To what other places in the world did he enjoy traveling?  And in his interview with Peter Dale he alludes to his marriage with poet Ann Beresford and some of the troubles they had over the years which I would also have been interested to learn more about.  Maybe some day there will be a thorough biography of Michael Hamburger which will continue with his string of beginnings.

For the extra curious, these are the editions of the books I’ve discussed in my post:

A Mug’s Game by Michael Hamburger. Carcanet Press, 1973.

String of Beginnings by Michael Hamburger. Skoob Books, 1991.

Michael Hamburger, A Reader.  Declan O’Driscoll, ed. Carcanet Press, 2017.

Michael Hamburger in conversation with Peter Dale. Between the Lines, 1998.

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Filed under Autobiography, British Literature, German Literature, Nonfiction