Tag Archives: German Literature

Educating Kafka: The Early Years by Reiner Stach

The first volume of Reiner Stach’s biography of Kafka, entitled The Early Years, is mesmorizing.  It is not easy to make a biography about the formative years of any human being—birth, family life, education—interesting, but Stach most definitely achieves this through a variety of techniques.  He incorporates the complex history of the city of Prague, including its Czech, German and Jewish aspects, into this story of what is arguably its most famous inhabitant.  Since it covers Kafka’s childhood there is, naturally, a discussion of his education at German language elementary, middle and high schools, a topic about which I feel compelled to comment.

What struck me about Stach’s discussion of education in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in Prague is that the issues and struggles that students, teachers and families were facing are still being confronted today.  Kafka was an anxious, shy student who was constantly terrified of the litany of tests and exams that were always required of him.  Stach, however, is very careful in not making grand, sweeping generalizations about the educational system in the Austro-Hungarian Empire or even about the city of Prague itself.  Like any reasonable education,  Stach argues, a plethora of factors will affect a student’s success including a pupil’s attitude, the teachers’ attitudes, the learning environment and the support from home.  Stach writes:

But how did the humanistic high schools in “old” Austria actually work?  Was such a destructive, or at least demotivating pressure to preform engendered here systematically; did the fault lie with the educational system itself or with the inability or ill will of individual teachers who appointed themselves judges?  That is a matter of debate even among those who attended these schools.  Experiences at school leave a deep emotional mark on children, especially in the sensitive years of puberty, and even in retrospect they seem strongly tinged by a student’s individual circumstances.  It would be difficult for a former star pupil to empathize with the situation of other pupils whose lesser achievements could not shield them from pedagogical harassment.  The same was true of pupils whose educational experiences enjoyed encouragement from their own families and who could not begin to picture a father like Hermann Kafka, for whom only report cards counted.  And many of the pupils later looked to their school days with rose-colored glasses: Cheery anecdotes remain in their memories and are happily recounted; humiliations, fears of failure, and the torments of pointless cramming for tests, on the other hand, are often suppressed or go unmentioned for the sake of self-respect.

Stach’s observations about education are issues that I think about and that consume me on a daily basis.  Our current educational system is filled with high stakes, standardized tests that inflict a great amount of anxiety on students.  Every time a new test is implemented, or a standard test is altered, this anxiety escalates even more.  But how else, the powers-that-be argue, will we know if a school/student/teacher is successful?  Or what other way is there to judge whether or not a student should be admitted to a certain college or university?

The details in Stach’s biography are stunning, but they are presented in such a way that we are not overwhelmed or bored with them.  Facts and statistics about Kafka’s life—he had 8 hours of instruction in Latin and classics per week—are altered with personal anecdotes from Kafka’s own letters and diaries or those of his friends and contemporaries; Stach quotes Kafka’s latter to Felice in which he includes a story about his Latin teacher, Emil Gschwind, who was “the most influential authority during Kafka’s high school years..”:

Children should not be pushed into things that are utterly incomprehensible to them. Although we should bear in mind that even this can bring out very good results in some instances, such results are completely unpredictable. I am reminded of a teacher who often used to say, as we read the Iliad, ‘Too bad that one is obliged to read this with the likes of you. After all, you couldn’t possibly understand it, even if you think you do, you don’t understand a word of it. A person has to have experienced a great deal before being able to understand even a bit of this.’ At the time, these remarks (delivered in the tone of voice he always used, of course) made a far greater impression on the insensitive youth that I was than the Iliad and Odyssey combined. This impression may have been far too humiliating, but it was a crucial one all the same.

Like Kafka’s teachers, I must give assessments and follow a curriculum—but I’ve learned along the way that I can control the experience that students have in my classroom. When I first started teaching my laser focus was to pound declensions and verb tenses and Latin grammar into my students’ heads. (It’s really embarrassing to think of my first few years of teaching.) But as I had more interaction with students and developed in my career it suddenly dawned on me that in a year or two or ten the students are not going to remember first declension or the subjunctive! This thought forced me to reevaluate what my purpose is in teaching what people call a “dead language.”

My philosophy of teaching shifted greatly when I started thinking about students in a broader context. Yes, my pupils still have to learn verb conjugations and vocabulary, they still have to translate Catullus and Ovid and Vergil, but it is worth the time if we have had a good discussion about Homer or the Roman Empire or Epicurean philosophy. Or, better yet, they like it when I talk about music, football, or the myriad of issues important to a teenagers at any given time. They like it when I greet them with a smile, ask how things are going with them, and reward them with stickers on their stellar papers.  And I do understand that many of my colleagues disagree with this approach and view education more narrowly. But, as Lucretius points out, it is easier to swallow bitter medicine if one rubs a little honey on the edge of the cup.

It has been a good yet difficult experience for me to constantly be asking what kind of a long-term impact I have on my students.  My influence over them as an educator in the formative years of their lives is a great responsibility; my hope is that even years from now they will have an appreciation for classics and an ancient language and that they will remember a positive feeling they had when stepped into my classroom. But this is a tall and overwhelming goal to achieve when so many other factors come into play, as Stach perceptively notes in his descriptions of Kafka’s education. How can I reach that child, like Kafka, who is anxious, shy, nervous?  Today, in particular, was a tough day. But I will go back tomorrow and try again.  I would certainly be horrified to find myself the subject of a such a dreadful story as that which Kafka relates about his Latin teacher!

Reading Kafka, even a biography of Kafka, ought to come with a stern warning about the self-reflection that will be a result.

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in the kitchen it is cold: Requiem for Ernst Jandl by Friederike Mayröcker

Friederike Mayröcker and Ernst Jandl lived together from 1954 until Jandl’s death in 2000. They were lovers, companions, friends and creative partners; as we read Mayröcker’s elegy to Jundl the feeling of being lost and bewildered without him pervades her text. In a partnership that spans more than forty years, it’s fascinating to see what images and thoughts she brings to her poetic reflection on their time together. After spending so much of her life and her passions with him, how could she possibly choose what to write about in order to honor properly their memories?

One of my favorite pieces in the book is a reflection on a poem fragment that Jandl writes that is stuffed, with many other literary fragments, into his desk. In the winter of ’88 the two are painstakingly excavating the contents of his desk and Mayröcker recollects:

Afternoon after afternoon, actually the entire
winter of ’88, we are absorbed in
viewing, approving, conserving what
has been written down. And then, suddenly,
one day I come across four lines
dashed off in pencil:

in the kitchen it is cold
winter has an awful hold
mother’s left her stove of course
and i shiver like a horse.

She goes on to connect the poem to her current state of grief over Jandl’s passing:

The last line, which informs of the most
profound abandonment, aloneness, exclusion
seeking solace in an attempt
to identify with that mute creature—a carriage
horse in winter’s cold depths, standing
in one place for hours, head hanging, in no
one’s care, waiting for a human to get it
going—is so poignant.

And it is the very last line of the poem that haunts Mayröcker:

This line: mother is not at her stove:
conveys the damnable utterly graceless
transience and finiteness of this life, mother
is not at her stove—where did she go.

I’ve read two other books on grief recently: Will Daddario’s To Grieve and Max Porter’s Grief is a Thing with Feathers. Of all these, Mayrocker’s text elicited the most emotional response from me. Her multifaceted response to grief in all its forms—emotional, philosophical, social—struck a nerve.

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Filed under German Literature, Poetry, Seagull Books

The Bachelors by Adalbert Stifter

Victor has been raised in the gentle and loving home of his foster mother and now that he has come of age,  he will travel far from home to take a post as a civil servant.  Stifter spends the first half of the book describing the tender relationship between foster mother and child and the arduous journey that Victor takes through scenic mountains and valleys.  The author’s language is fittingly simple for the sentimental departure scenes he describes between Victor and his family.

Victor’s first stop on his journey is to an island where his uncle, his father’s brother,  has lived in solitude for many years.  The uncle’s life has been the antithesis of Victor’s; he does not trust anyone and keeps his house and his island locked down like a fortress.  At first the two exchange very few words, but as these bachelors get used to one another’s company they slowly begin to talk.  Victor’s uncle has some very important and surprising advice for him: “The greatest and most important thing you have to do now is this: you must marry.”

Victor’s uncle goes on to explain his advice:

When an ancient old man stands on top of a hill made up of a whole welter of his life’s deeds, what good is that to him?  I have done many and various things and have nothing to show for them.  Everything falls apart in a moment if you haven’t created a life that lasts beyond the grave.  That man around whom, in his old age, sons, grandsons and great-grandsons stand will often live to be a thousand.  There is a diversity of life there but of the same stamp and when he is gone, then that same life continues—indeed you don’t even notice that a small part of that life has stepped to one side and is no longer there.  At my death everything that I have been, that I am, will perish….which is why you must marry, Victor, marry very young.

Stifter’s thoughts on marriage and leaving a legacy reminded me of the Greek concept of  kleos that is a central theme of the Iliad.  The heroes go to Troy and fight  bravely so that they will be remembered well after they are gone from this earth.  The uncle’s advice, to surround oneself with a wife, children and a loving family,  seems more practical to be remembered for those of us not living in the Bronze Age.

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When, if not now?: The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf

Between 1960 and 2010, Christa Wolf recorded her thoughts, impressions, and experiences on the same day, September 27th, in each of those years.  In 1968, the same year in which The Quest for Christa T. was published, Wolf spent time in a hospital to treat her recurring depression. In her diary for that year she writes:

Now, while writing, I begin to feel better. Just the process of writing already helps. So it will probably remain the only thing for me after all. But ‘life’—that is: political, national life—runs along the old tracks. Sometimes it seems to me that it races towards a bad end. And we stand next to it and give woebegone commentaries. But once you have jumped the tracks with such force, you do not get back on them again…

The Quest for Christa T. follows the lives and friendship of two women, the unnamed narrator and Christa T., from World War II through the 1960’s when East Germany is under communist rule. The narrator, in a nonlinear narrative, uses her own memories, Christa’s letters and diaries, and discussions with others who knew her to piece together the life of her friend who died at the age of thirty-five from leukemia.   Although the novel is not overtly political, there is a constant sense of disillusionment and restlessness that Christa T. suffers and, the like author with whom she shares her name, her only solace against this is to write.  One of Christa T.’s diary entries reads: “To think that I can only cope with things by writing!”

As the narrator describes Christa T.’s life, childhood, education, friendship, career, first love, marriage, children, an affair, she also explores important questions about identity.  One can collect a list of biographical facts about a life, but what, truly, is the essence of that person?  Can we ever reconstruct the reality of another person?  Wolf’s style of writing is complex and reading this disjoined narrative requires a great deal of concentration and reflection—my favorite kind of book.  The novel is full of deeply philosophical passages such as:

You’ll certainly remember what we used to say when one of us was feeling forlorn: When, if not now?  When should one live, if not in the time that’s given to one?  It always helped.  But now—if only I could tell you how it is…The whole world like a wall facing me.  I fumble over the stones: no gaps.  Why should I go on deluding myself: there’s no gap for me to live in.  It’s my own fault.  It’s me, I’m simply not determined enough.  Yet how simple and natural everything seemed when I first read about it in books.

The most heart wrenching and difficult parts of the story were the descriptions of Christa T.’s tragic illness and death.  When she is diagnosed with an advanced form of leukemia at thirty-five she is at a happy, content point in her life and even though she had an affair, she has settled back into her marriage and has two young children.  As her death approaches Wolf repeats the phrase “When, if not now?” a few times within the text and this is also the line with which she ends the novel.  A simple phrase, yet so profound.  Something we all contemplate in our own lives, especially as we approach middle age.  It is no wonder that the GDR kept a close eye on Wolf and informed bookstores to sell this book only to serious members of the literary community.

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Filed under German Literature, Literature in Translation

Quiet Failure: Stories by Gottfried Keller

In the Foreword to the German Library (Volume 44) edition of Gottfried Keller’s stories Max Frisch writes:

Assuming that the American reader still has this volume in his hands, I would like to point out to him that Gottfried Keller fought for liberalism but was not naïve; he soon grew bitterly apprehensive that middle-class liberalism, the great social achievement of his century, might disintegrate into a profit society pure and simple, without utopias, without transcendent values.  And that is what we have today.  Or so I fear.  If you read further you will find there is something strangely disturbing about these stories: One life after another ends in quiet failure.  You won’t notice it immediately because the man who tells these tales has a sense of humor.  He likes people even though he sees through them.  He is kind.  He knows a lot about the relationship between money and morals, for example, and he doesn’t cover it up; because he still has hope.

He would be horrified at his country—as he would be at other “democracies” as well.

Frisch’s words about Keller ring true even more so today than when he wrote them in 1982.  Keller’s novellas in the first part of this volume are set in an imaginary place that he calls Seldwyla, a small town where everyone knows each other and gossip is rampant.  The men he depicts are hard working but because of their stubbornness and narrow views of the world they bring about their own downfall.

In “The Three Righteous Combmakers,” Jobst, Fridolin and Dietrich are all craftsmen who work for a Seldwylan combmaker.  The craftsmen in Seldwyla are usually itinerant, never working for one employer for very long.  But these three men refuse to leave their present employer and they all start saving money and pinching pennies to the extreme in order to eventually buy the combmaking business.  Gottfried deals with the ridiculous frugality of these men with his typical humor.  The men are too cheap, for instance, to even think about taking a wife because of what it would cost them: “He was not accustomed to think of marriage, because he could conceive of a wife only as a person who wanted something from him that he did not owe her…”  One day, however,  Zus, the daughter of a local laundress, captures the attention of all three men when they learn she is in possession of a small inheritance.  They argue, fight, and make fools of themselves to win her hand in marriage; their uncompromising adherence to their plans to get Zus’s money causes the “quiet failure” of all three men.

In the story entitled “A Village Romeo and Juliet,” the farmers that Keller depicts from Seldwyla are equally as stubborn and uncompromising as the combmakers.  Marti and Manz are diligent men whose farms are prosperous because of their work ethic.  But when a land dispute arises between the men, their focus on this petty issue causes them to neglect their farms and their families.  Both men end up penniless and are forced to give up their once productive and beautiful farms.  In addition their children, Sali and Verena, fall in love but understand the impossibility of any marriage because of the disapproval of their fathers.  What makes Keller’s story different from the typical star crossed lovers tale is that Sali and Verena willingly and even enthusiastically take their own lives in order to control their own fate.

What I appreciated most about Keller’s writing in “A Village Romeo and Juliet” was his detailed descriptions of nature and the Seldwylan countryside.  Like the landscape, the feelings that the lovers have for each other are beautiful, raw and natural.  When the couple meets for the first time, Keller sets the scene:

Sali went directly out to the quiet, beautiful hillside over which the two fields extended. The magnificent, quiet July sun, the passing white clouds floating above the ripe, waving grain, the blue shimmering fiver flowing below—all this filled him once more, for the first time in years, with happiness and contentment instead of pain, and he stretched out full length in the transparent half-shade of the grain, on the border of Marti’s desolate field, and gazed blissfully towards heaven.

And when the lovers unite in that same field, their words are passionate and genuine, making their ending that much more tragic: “‘Oh Verena,’ he exclaimed, gazing into her eyes with candor and devotion, ‘I’ve never looked at a girl; I’ve always felt that I must love you some day, and without my wishing it or realizing it, you’ve always  been in my mind.'”

Keller himself had an interesting life and his writings all have some kind of an autobiographical element.  He said, “I have never produced anything which did not have its impetus in my outer and inner life.”  Even though was a rather short man, he was quick-tempered and got into a lot of fist fights over the course of his life.  He was also quick to fall in love and preferred young, tall and beautiful women.  But he was never able to find that one special woman with whom to settle down and marry; every time he got close something got in the way (one of his brides-to-be committed suicide, for instance).  His tendency towards fist fights, his unfilled love life , and his struggles with money are all carefully and meticulously reflected in these humorous yet tragic stories.

This collection from The German Library includes ten of Keller’s novellas.  A very worthwhile literary purchase.  What else is everyone reading this year for German Literature Month?

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Filed under Classics, German Literature, Literature in Translation, Short Stories