24 December 2013

Willy Brandt: Does disappointment in social democracy ever really have a beginning?

For the millions in the English speaking world who feel chronically let down by social democracy  particularly post Blair and post the exposure of the Obama illusion  it may be a comfort to discover that many German social democrats became disappointed with social democracy much earlier. Willy Brandt, who, from 1969 to 1974 became the first social democratic Chancellor since the Weimar Republic, would have been 100 this year. The German papers have been full of eulogies for the man; so it was refreshing to find the poem I've translated below giving a different perspective on Brandt, first published in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, in December 1966. That was the month in which Brandt entered as a junior partner into a coalition government lead by Kurt Kiesinger, by this stage a CDU leader, but a man who'd previously had a moderately successful career inside the NSDAP, the Nazi party. 

Alongside Brandt's willingness to work with an ex-Nazi, there were two other main points of his coalition politics which Delius, the poet, and many others who had previously supported Brandt now found unacceptable. The first was the introduction of state of emergency legislation, referred to in the second stanza of the poem. The second was the cooperation over employment bans for political radicals, which, in practise, primarily meant Communists, or members of organisations dominated by Communists, including the Society for the Victims of the Nazi regime and for Anti-Fascists. Brandt's cooperation on this issue culminated in his Redundancy for Radicals legislation of 1972, which focused on public sector workers. 1100 people either lost their jobs or were refused jobs as a result of this act, with 2200 disciplinary procedures and 136 redundancies among teachers alone (for more details use your browser's translator software to read the Wikipedia 'Radikalenerlass' page on the subject.)

These were policies which Brandt was supporting back in 1966 already, when Delius wrote this poem. These were the policies which caused an irreparable break between many Germans, who had seen themselves as social democrats, and their former party, the SPD.

Abschied von Willy                                                             Farewell to Willy
Von Friedrich Christian Delius                                     By Friedrich Delius, trans. Henry Holland

Brandt: es ist aus. Wir machen nicht mehr mit.        Brandt: we are through. We're not playing any more. 
Viel Wut im Bauch. Die Besserwisser grinsen.            Ready to punch out. While the know it alls are grinning.
Der letzte Zipfel Hoffnung ging verschütt.                  The final coin of hope falls on the scrap heap.

Für uns ist längst krepiert, was Sieben Schwaben    What still seems good for Seven Swans like you
wie euch noch gut scheint, euch zu kopulieren.        is decrepit stuff for us, a corrupt corpus.
Den Spieß herum, es gilt zu formulieren:                    So put the foot on the other boot, shout it clear and raucous: 
Wer Notstand macht, der will den Notstand haben.   Who legislates an emergency state should know he's going to get that.                                                                                                       

Wer jetzt nicht zweifelt, zweifelt niemals mehr.        If you've no doubts now, you'll not be doubting never.
Was jetzt versaut ist, wird es lange bleiben.                      What's screwed up now, will stay that way for long.
Von Feigheit. Dummheit lässt sich nichts mehr schreiben,         On cowardice and stupidity I can not write forever
Kein Witz kommt auf. Verzweiflung nur und Spott, die treiben      With punch-lines lost; just despair, and scorn, endeavour

Uns zurück, wohin ich gar nicht will,                                           To push me back where I don't want to idle,
Verflixt noch mal, ich stecke im Idyll.                                           For chrissake, God, I'm stuck here in my idyll.

'Stuck here in my idyll': these words might also fit to Brits today who still see themselves as social democrats, but who wouldn't even consider touching the post Blair Labour Party with a barge pole. It may be a good position from which to launch satire. It's a poorer position from which to launch politics. 

19 September 2013

Clemens Meyer at Harbour Front: Go hear this man, quickly!

(Clemens Meyer at the Leipzig Book Festival, 2010)

I had got it wrong, quite, quite wrong. I'd read Katy (Derbyshire) hyping, pushing, gushing about & explaining this man on her Love German Books, but I wasn't able to trust her backing Meyer. I thought self-interest was at play, that she's only praising this guy to the heavens cause she's already had her translation of one of Meyer's books published, & maybe more are in the pipeline. (Why, actually, are you guys hanging round reading this, when you could be reading literature? -  Katy's translation of 'All the Lights' by Clemens Meyer is purchasable here.) But thank God I did read Katy communicating Meyer, even if I mis-read her. That misreading was enough to make me get a ticket to hear and see Meyer reading on the old trans-atlantic ferry boat, The Cap San Diego, two nights ago as part of the Harbour Front Festival.

18 September 2013

Authors shine while Harbour Front 'Festival' and Spiegel flop: German Book Prize reading with Mirko Bonné and Monika Zeiner

I want to admire Mirko Bonné for the way he does what he does. It's evident that he's not really enjoying the event, but he gets on with it professionally, dealing with Claudia Voigt (Der Spiegel) and her questions patiently, courteously even. Doing events like these are a necessary evil for Bonné if he wants to hold on to the working conditions that he's earned for himself, through which he can live as a full-time writer in the year 2013. Yet apart from giving a small number of writers an income out of which they can write, it's hard to see who the event last Saturday and other similar readings are meant to serve; and why we as an audience should contribute to serving these people.

09 September 2013

Review: Donal McLaughlin's 'Naw much of a talker', a Scottish-Swiss novel.

by Pedro Lenz, translated by Donal McLaughlin
Freight Books, 153 pp., £8.99, August 2013, 978 1 908754 22 6

As the title suggests, Donal McLaughlin's book is written in West-of-Scotland vernacular, a translation of Pedro Lenz's first Swiss-German novel, Der Goalie bin ig. Pedro Lenz himself, on his own website, describes the language he wrote the original novel in as Mundart, i.e. vernacular. In doing so he avoids using the word Dialekt to describe the language he writes in, just as McLaughlin has avoided the word 'dialect' to describe the language of the translation.
The question of whether we call McLaughlin's language dialect or vernacular will hopefully not interest most of his readers in the slightest; they might well just be hooked on and running through an understated, charming, stoical story. The question will continue to bother the minority of McLaughlin's readers who can speak -- and who occasionally write -- a language which one person will term dialect, another The Scots Language and a third 'demotic urban speech'. McLaughlin seems to have a savvy strategy, in the interviews he's given about the book: he's not limiting himself to a single, dominant concept when discussing the book's language. In one online interview however, he did distance himself from the word Scots, saying that he never learnt Scots at school, and implying that it's a concept that has little to do with him.

28 August 2013

Jakeys Scotland: Salmond's queerest re-branding yet


(Full copyright to this photo belongs to comedian Jamie Andrew, who I'd like to thank for putting this image in the public domain. I'd also like to thank the two men portrayed in the photo, and the photographer, all of whose names I've unfortunately not been able to find out.)

     After Police Scotland, Survivor's Scotland, Scotland's Railways, One Scotland & Creative Scotland, we're all real bam-pots not to have seen this one coming: Salmond has decided to re-brand that loveable section of the Scottish population who sniff glue, drink their weans disability living allowance & then give their wives a real doin, all while relentlessly maintaining that irresistible, gallows-type Caledonian patter -- yes, we're talking about the jakeys -- as a part of Old Alba's socio-independent social fabric that we can all feel good about. Jakeys Scotland. Giving his press statement this morning not, as usual, from the oh-too 'Let me show you ma Peploes' -ambience of the steps of Bute House, but, instead from in front of one of the few surviving old men's pubs down the bottom of Leith Walk, Salmond was clearly revelling in his coup de grâce:
                                             "For decades we've felt uneasy about our Europe-topping levels of heart disease, alcoholism & poverty-caused, very early deaths. With less than 13 months to go to the Referendum, it would be ungracious of me to start harping on about the W.H.O's 2002 report on people in certain areas of East Glasgow dying, on average, aged 52, at least 22 years earlier than citizens born in the same year in the west of the city. But we need harp no longer: 

23 August 2013

If you want to get read, get censored ...

... that's the suprising by-product coming out of Christian Füller's officially ''censored'' -- i.e. by the newspaper in which it should appear -- but now everywhere available article on paedophilia, as an integral part of the German Green's ideological roots . The article was scheduled to appear in last Saturday's left-wing liberal daily TAZ newspaper, but was pulled at the last minute by the TAZ's chief-editor, stating that it was ''full of false factual claims". All the other main papers got hold of this story and rightly shouted 'censorship!' Guaranteeing that Füller's article will now be looked at by far more people than the TAZ's usual 60 000 paying readers.

20 August 2013

A Bearer of Suffering, a victim, or somebody else?

      ''An old wine salesman, who lived beneath us, made the most of the fact that I had no dad. He made sure I had pocket money for the cinema, gave me sweets and footballs, and protected me from the fists of the sons of the workers. I went down to see him almost every evening, and we played chess. Come up on my lap, said Uncle Hofmann, taking off his sweaty shirt with its starched collar. Then he grabbed my willy fast through my trousers, kissed me with his stubble, smelling of hair cream, whispering filthy stuff in my ear, which I didn't understand at first, bullied me into fishing his floppy, old-man-member out of his flies, to work at it tediously, up and down, up and down, til it swelled up to an impressive size, and finally forced this badly perfumed cock between my teeth. I can still hear him groaning in the corner by the stove, while his frothy sperm flew into a hankie. Until his wife suddenly threw open the door and gave him an angry look, to which he replied in a jittery voice, and made the next chess-move.
      Fear and a guilty feeling. Disgust, right up to the point of throwing up, but also an experience of sexual desire. After a time I started to enjoy it. A friendship between men. A father at last. For a long time my mother didn't notice anything. And even after the man had to move out, we went on meeting secretly. I sat behind him on the motor-bike, my arms round him, on our way to motor-way lay-byes and clearings in the woods. We did it on the grass beside country roads, on waxed leather sofas, and in an Opel Olympia. I began to masturbate.''

(This is my own English translation of a passage from Michael Buselmeier's novel Der Untergang von Heidelberg – The Fall of Heidelberg, pub. 1981, by Suhrkamp. This excerpt from p.147-148. I refer to the German law of Zitatrecht for my right to quote in translation from this work, and acknowledge Suhrkamp's complete rights to the work.)

19 August 2013

Blue Hydrangea / Blaue Hortensie. By Rilke, and me.

"So like the last bit green in artists' paint pots ..."
File:Paul Cézanne 126.jpg 
This is a painting of Marie-Hortense, Cézanne's wife, painted by the artist in 1877. According to a lecturer I heard at the Rilke Society in Wolfenbüttel in 2009, Rilke is referencing Marie-Hortense, and this & other paintings of her, in his poem Blaue Hortensie - Blue Hydrangea, first published in Neue Gedichte - New Poems, in 1907. Our single blue hydrangea is still out in our garden, has been out since we got back from Scotland on 18th July, but has the look now of blossom fading fast. This plant was given to us as a present by Petra Bridstrup, a long-time English student of mine, when we had a big garden party in 2008. Let's have a look at & listen to Rilke's Blue Hydrangea, in my own English translation:

     So like that last bit green in artists' paint-pots 
   are these here leaves, dry and coarse and raw
   behind the flowers' umbels, whose blueness
   isn't from the petals but's reflected from afar.

   Reflected inexact and washed with tears
   as if it wants to lose it in its turn,
   and like in writing paper, old and blue
   violet is in them, and grey and yellow too.

   Washed out as if from out a child's apron 
   with which nothing more will happen, no longer worn:
   how we feel the shortness of one small life.

   But suddenly, the blue seems to renew
   itself among the umbels, and then you see
   a touching blueness cheer before the green.

I know that with my choice of those 'umbels' I'll be making no friends for myself, particularly amongst the anti-elitism brigade. Screwed-up my chances of getting on an A-Level Comparative Literature course, haven't I? Like, W.T.F's an umbel? Rilke chooses the word 'Dolden' in line 3 & 13 of the original. While this is definitely more frequently used German lexis today than umbel is in English, it is also a word that sounds simultaneously clumsy & beautiful in the mouth, at least to non-native German speakers, & I wanted to capture that clumsy prettiness in the translation. 'Blossom' wouldn't do this, & hydrangeas when in blossom are past the stage of having 'buds', so ... umbels it had to be, a word I didn't know until today. The OED defines an umbel as, "a flower cluster like that of cow-parsley with stalks springing from a common centre to form a flat or curved surface.'' Cow-parsley is one of those wild flowers I've often seen on walks, but never known the name of. 
And here's the blue hydrangea from our back garden: 

Why does the OED use cow-parsley as an example to help the reader understand what an umbel is, and not hydrangeas? Reflecting on that OED umbel definition, I'm thinking it's not too good: I'm not really seeing what cow-parsley shares in terms of form with a hydrangea. Have other recent translators of the New Poems avoided the umbelliferous trap all together when translating Blue Hydrangea? Rilke translations are a world unto themself, almost as complex as umbels -- which good ones have you read? - please post me! -- but for a full book trans. of the New Poems, you could go for:

* Joe Cardora's forthcoming translation, pub. by Copper Canyon Press, out November of this year.

There are however outstanding translations out now that you can get from the Scottish Poetry Library -- anyone else out there like me enjoying the wonderful European loan service -- or which you can buy. More on this most hottest of topics soon.

16 August 2013

Stephan Heym readings & the Weakness of Worthiness

(In the 1920s the banqueting hall of Hamburg's Literaturhaus -- location for the Heym reading last Saturday -- was used for Ausdruckstanz - expressionistic dance. No Ausdruckstanz in evidence at the Heym reading, sadly.  This is Hans-Ludwig Boehme's awesome photo of Arila Siegert dancing in Dore Hoyer's audruckstanz cycle 'Afectos humanos', and I recognise Mr Boehme and/or his descendants as the copyright holder of this image.)

What do you get when you put three Left party members of the Bundestag in front of microphones for 80 mins. to read excerpts out the life work of one of the GDR's most famous literary dissidents, Stephan Heym, who'd be 100 this year, if he were still alive? You get a lot of earnestness, you're a bit better educated at the end of it, but you certainly don't get many funnies: ''There was no wrecks and nobody drownded, / Fact, nothing to laugh at at all.'' (Marriot Edgar)

14 August 2013

To all citizens of Scotland, & Scots in the diaspora, (post you can comment on)

Pilkington Jackson's Bruce statue at Bannockburn: did Pilkington know that Bruce was a thug?

 have any of you not yet read Andy Wightman's The Poor Had No Lawyers: Who owns Scotland and how they got it (2013)? If not, you really should, attentively, in its entirety. By the term 'Citizens of Scotland' I mean all those currently resident in Scotland, irrespective of whether or not these people have got permanent resident status, or whether these people are asylum-seekers or people born in Scotland, whether they're living off benefits or going out to a paid-job everyday. If you argue in detail for intelligent, low-cost policy like Wightman does, then you don't waste your time supporting or enforcing stupid, high-cost policy, like over-policing borders – apparently in Salmond's future models we'll still be paying for an over-policed UK border – or persecuting minorities who can't be squeezed into the template of Mrs & Mr Normal. Wightman's is the first book I've ever read on public policy that's electrified me. He campaigns for diversifying Scottish land-ownership – our current pattern is the most feudal, most concentrated in western Europe – and taxing speculation on urban & rural land, so that people who want to get up & do something with their hands & minds get rewarded. Rather than rewarding those who happen to have the hundreds of thousands spare to invest in chunks of land, do nothing with it and enjoy returns of up to 200% – value added by the economic activity of normal workers, i.e. us – for that doing of nothing.

05 August 2013

To all citizens of Scotland, & Scots in the diaspora, (no comments version)

Pilkington Jackson's Bruce statue at Bannockburn: did Pilkington know that Bruce was a thug?
have any of you not yet read Andy Wightman's The Poor Had No Lawyers: Who owns Scotland and how they got it (2013)? If not, you really should, attentively, in its entirety. By the term 'Citizens of Scotland' I mean all those currently resident in Scotland, irrespective of whether or not these people have got permanent resident status, or whether these people are asylum-seekers or people born in Scotland, whether they're living off benefits or going out to a paid-job everyday. If you argue in detail for intelligent, low-cost policy like Wightman does, then you don't waste your time supporting or enforcing stupid, high-cost policy, like over-policing borders – apparently in Salmond's future models we'll still be paying for an over-policed UK border – or persecuting minorities who can't be squeezed into the template of Mrs & Mr Normal. Wightman's is the first book I've ever read on public policy that's electrified me. He campaigns for diversifying Scottish land-ownership – our current pattern is the most feudal, most concentrated in western Europe – and taxing speculation on urban & rural land, so that people who want to get up & do something with their hands & minds get rewarded. Rather than rewarding those who happen to have the hundreds of thousands spare to invest in chunks of land, do nothing with it and enjoy returns of up to 200% – value added by the economic activity of normal workers, i.e. us – for that doing of nothing.

02 August 2013

Cold Country - my next book?

Kaltland -- or Cold Country, a translation that even those of you out there not much into your German might have got -- is the book I'd like to translate next. It's the hidden story of what happened to ordinary Germans during reunification. Or, as the books editors write in their foreword, it's a story of dislocations, of seeing through & beyond a polarised debate:
"One group prefers to remember, with tears in their eyes, their GDR of shiny-happy kid’s TV-programmes, while another group remains unremittingly furious about the Socialist Unity Party state, and the Stasi terror. The West Germans have, for their part, largely accepted that they don’t need to remember the social and cultural conditions in their Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), because they were ‘the winners’, and the bigger Germany today is still the same state in which they grew up. This error has been made possible by the marginalisation, from the start, of the dislocations of the post-reunification period, which have been marketed as collateral damage. Damage which, in any case, seems largely to occur on the ‘territory joining the parent organisation'. (This is the standard German legal terminology to describe the new states, which made up the former GDR. The German word is Beitrittsgebiet.) Massive violence against asylum-seekers, leftists, homosexuals, people with disabilities and the homeless was one part of these dislocations, as were the mass redundancies of women in paid work, who had to go ‘back to the kitchen.’ Add to this the Boer-like mentality of West-Administrators, drawn by the the bait of the ‘Bush Bonus’ (A sizeable salary bonus for civil servants from West Germany, paid for relocating to the new, former East German states). Add the often downright criminal decisions of the receivers administering former state institutions and enterprises, the versatile, widespread petty fraud enacted against gullible New-Citizens, the use of young unemployed people to clear contaminated military land, the exploding human-traffic in girls and women from Eastern Europe, and a violent black-market in Russian weapons. Just to mention a few examples."
(My own translation from the foreword written by The Editors, Karsten Krampitz, Markus Liske & Manja Präkels. Pub. by Rotbuch, 2011. I refer to the German law of quotation for my right to quote from this, my own translation.)

Das Hamburger Literatur Haus im Wahlkampf, mit Stephan Heym am 10.8.

Liebe Neugierigen,
heute bekam ich die unten aufgehängte Einladung zur o.g. Lesung. Nun, weiß ich ehrlich gesagt, nicht wirklich wer Stephan Heym war, mir wurde aber neugierig, nach ich gesehen habe, dass die 'Szenische Lesung' u.a. von vier MdB der Linke Partei besetzt wird. So nah zur Bundestagswahl, und die Linke kriegen eine Art kostenlosen Heimspiel vom Literaturhaus angeboten? Oder ist es für die Linke gar nicht kostenlos, haben die schlichtweg den Raum gebucht? Dürfte jeder das, nach dem die vorgeschlagene Literatur, das 'Lit.-Test' des Lit. Haus Managements bestanden hat? Wann wurde zuletzt Ulrike Meinhof Schriften beim Lit. Haus vorgelesen? Bestünde sie den Test? Die (linke?) Gerechtigkeit wegen, müsste zwischen nun und September vier weiteren politisch-literarischen Abende dazu kommen. ''Die große literarische Nacht der CDU'': Kommt man so rein, oder nur nach dem man Bezahlung entgegen genommen hat? Und welche Literaten und LiteratInnen läse die CDU vor? Ernst Jünger und seinem Brüder? Wenn die nur den Mut dazu hätte ..... Welche bücherische Freuden bereitet uns heute schon die FDP vor? Ich denke, dass Martin Walser die Art von Ehemaliger-Sozi ist, der man jetzt ohne Scheue für den Neo-Liberalismus  beschlagnahmen sollte. Das Gerücht, dass Ildikó von Kürthy die Buchungs-Anfrage der SPD – die angeblich vom Scholz persönlich am Telefon gestellt wurde – mir den Wörtern ''für so 'ne Summe bin ich nicht käuflich!'' die Anfrage ablehnte, finde ich wiederum fies. Von Kürthy gegenüber. 

21 July 2013

Page-Turners & Anti-Politics

by Simon Urban
Random House, 551 pp., €11.99 (German Price), March 2013, 978 3 442 74442 8

Much has happened in the three months it's taken me to get sucked in & through Simon Urban's breakthrough novel. Katy Derbyshire's English translation of the book was published last month by Harvill Secker, priced £15. Around the same time, over the first weekend in June, Hessen's police force, working under orders from Hessen's CDU Minister of the Interior, brushed off a well-organised, 10,000 strong Blockupy demo in Frankfurt, against the European Central Bank. The kettling tactics used to crush a protest overwhelmingly non-violent in its motivation were upsettingly similar to tactics used by the Metropolitan Police to suppress student and anti-cuts demos in London over the last two years. The Frankfurt law-enforcement officers didn't even have to use their water cannons. Managed-democracy's most expensive hardware has its greatest effect simply by standing there, martially: its bad PR for a state to allow sufficient uncontrolled dissent to get itself into a position where it actually has to make use of it. Two weeks after no one outside of the left was saying anything about violations in Frankfurt – where does the democratic masses' disinterest in freedom of assembly & of collective action spring from? – the German government's Human Rights Spokesman, the Free Democrat's Markus Löning started feigning panic about Turkey:

“It makes me really worried when I see the water-cannons and other big machinery being deployed.” i

26 June 2013

Why Gysi didn’t sue Simon Urban

Back in August 2011, the Hamburg based Simon Urban released Plan D, his first novel. The reaction of the German Feuilleton – something like a Grand Central Committee of Literary Taste, housing inside the press – was so unanimously, screamingly positive, that you might suspect its unanimity had been argued through in advance; that tactics were at play. The novel is itself set in 2011, in an East Germany to which reunification has never happened. In Urban’s alternative future the collapse of the iron curtain was followed, in 1992 already, by Die Wiederbelebung – The Resucitation – of the old East Germany, which has slugged on, stubbornly & monotonously socialist, with as much restriction on emigration – i.e. almost total – as there was in the GDR up til 1989. This author combines this gimmick with a whodunnit, airport thriller genre – the victim found hanging right at the start; both shoes tied together being the boasty stamp of a Stasi ritual revenge murder – to milk every West German sterotype about the old East for all it is worth. And these stereotype’s are worth more than a bit. Hard on the heels of the Holocaust industry, an ‘Ost’-algia industry – complete with torchlit tours through the old Stasi interrogation cells – has followed. I had to wait til February of this year for the paperback to gorge myself on those sterotypes; and now I’m glad I waited. 

15 May 2013

Cut.ting Edge Event: a jewel of a meritocracy, or of a mediocracy? Part 1.

     Cut.ting Edge – Austrian, German and Swiss writing in translation – was published online last Saturday night, and before you read any half-baked reviews of it, you should read the magazine itself. Five Dials, another magazine for new translations from the German speaking world was released in January. Alongside the work of thirteen other translators, an essay and two poems of mine are published in Cut.ting Edge; the work in Five Dials is, on the face of it, excellence – and much more important, an enjoyable read. So the only political correct and marketing correct answer to my rhetorical opener would be: of course these magazines should be seen as jewels of a meritocracy. A real no-brainer. Oder?

28 March 2013

A violent-peace: the IBA opens in Wilhelmsburg

How many officers would you deploy, if you were in charge of policing an event where between 300 and 1000 demonstrators were expected, who, according to the police's own statement, can be categorised as ''middle-class'' i, i.e. harmless ? One hundred, perhaps? - remember, you're putting in the officers in full riot gear, helmets, body armour, metre long truncheons. That must be enough, that would give you a ratio of one well-armed, potential combatant to, at the most, every lot of ten do-gooders. The head of the Hamburg police service, under the direction of Michael Neumann, Minister for Interior Affairs and Sport, decided to deploy six hundred and fifty police officers at the official opening of the IBA  – the city's proudest piece of gentrification – in Wilhelmsburg on Saturday evening. The presence of these six-and-a-half centurias on that one day has cost the city an estimated €100 000 ii. A spokeswoman for Hamburg police was unwilling to confirm this estimate, but also refused to present their version of the costs, even though the arithmetic involved is simple.

22 March 2013

Hamburg-Klopstock calling Goethe! Come in Goethe!

If the Duke continues to drink himself to the point of illness then he will succumb to that illness, and will not live long, instead of, as he claims, strengthening his body with the drink ... The Duchess may continue to suppress her current discomfort, due to her very manly way of thinking. But this discomfort will turn into sorrow. And will she be able to suppress that? Luise's [the Duchess's] sorrow! Goethe! -- ... ”

So wrote Hamburg poet Friedrich Klopstock to Goethe in Weimar in 1777. At that time, Klopstock was still seen as the fatherly head of all German language writers. Like Günter Grass today, he had many detractors who enjoyed the sport of mocking him, and yet nevertheless enjoyed a huge status. Goethe, 28 and already a famous writer, was making news with his rugby-player-after-five-pints sort of behaviour together with his patron & close friend the Duke of Weimar, Karl August. They slashed around themselves show-offishly on the market place with big whips, jumped on their horses, and rode through the villages playing sadistic practical jokes on the locals, knowing these people had no means of redress against such actions. Klopstock gets to hear of this in Hamburg and is incensed, it undermines his ideal of the poet as someone who rises on the sublime above all such iniquities. He also feels responsible, seeing Goethe as a promising but errant relative of the family of poets which he presides over. And so the letter continues:

Goethe! -- no, do not drape yourself in that glory, you do not love her as I do .... Up to know the Germans have been right to complain about their rulers, because these rulers haven't wanted anything to do with you scholars (=writers). Your friendship with the Duke takes him straight away out of that category. But if you continue to dance with the Duke to this old tune, there's no limit to the excuses the other rulers would have to make in their defence, [for not being interested in writers], if it actually one day will have happened, that thing which I fear most?”

Klopstock asks Goethe to show the letter to the Duke too. Whether Goethe did this or not we don't know, but we do know that he only answered two months later, in a tone of clear refusal: “Do spare us such letters in the future”, adding casually that he'd have no time at all for himself if he responded to all such letters and warnings.

Klopstock didn't like this not very veiled insult at all: “And as you even threw my letter into that category of 'such letters' or 'such warnings' – you express yourself as strongly as that ­-- my letter, containing the proof of my gift of friendship, then I declare you not worthy of that gift I gave you.” i The break between the two of them was final.

Goethe treated many people badly; and his response to Klopstock shows him as a careerist, understanding art as a career-ladder and the necessity of shoving people off the top of that ladder, to make way for himself. Or, as Yeats puts it in his poem, The Fisherman: “The beating down of the wise / And great art beaten down.” If you translated Klopstock's name literally into English you would get Knock-stick. Knocking his stick at Goethe didn't help Klopstock.

For those of you out there who want to get more into the Klopstock feeling, come along to the annual Hamburg "Poetry Slam in a Church" event, to be staged  in what's known as the Klopstock-Kirche - the Christianskirche in Altona - where you can even see Klopstock's tomb. My Writer's Room colleague Hartmut Pospiech is hosting the evening (around the 3rd weekend in June.) My biggest question is whether Hartmut will allow sexually explicit or explicitly political poetry in the church - and how the vicar will respond. The fact that this is my biggest question seems proof of an infantile part of my mind, concerned with scandal & smut, a quality of mind that Goethe hung onto for a long long time, well into his late thirties.

i For the original German version of the quotes from the letters from Klopstock & Goethe, and for the historical background to the above post, please see: Friedenthal, Richard. Goethe. Sein Leben und seine Zeit. Piper, 1996, Munich. p.190 – 191.

13 March 2013

Luscious faith, left-wing activism and one poet: Michael Buselmeier.

Dante’s German: The Catharsis (2)

by Michael Buselmeier.  
Pained-lust, chained burden, you say, you are the field

of God’s graveyard world; you are of life

in chewy circles of death. I’m the bread, the breath

the wine in chalice bright, the word of stone, 

tanned hide, the flag red and white,

the limes’ blossom in the park, the birches’ call,

the incense-smell, the talk of birds, the bells

so near in the wind, as I, half-blind with sleep,

threw open the shutters, and there the children knew

kneeling on the petals, O and A, A and O.    

Will we be the last, to feel God lead us

under the canopy of cloth, winding through the lanes?

to swing ourselves heavenwards, wreathed in jasmine,

singing songs that strawberry ice-cream’s spilt on? 

And at the rear the shimmering monstrance.

(In publishing this workshop-translation, I'm making use of the German "right of citation" or "Zitatrecht". All rights for the original German text, "Dante deutsch: Die Läutering (2)", remain, of course,  with Mr Buselmeier's publisher, Das Wunderhorn Verlag, Heidelberg, Germany. I, Henry Holland, reserve rights for that part of any future published translation of Mr Buselmeier's poem, which uses my text above.)
       Blogs aren't meant to be finished things. Why should they match the academic & aesthetic standards that you'd expect from a printed book on the same subject? As most bloggers aren't being paid, it would be foolhardy of them to invest too much time in their online writing. 

      That said, here's a snapshot of a poetry & a poet who needs to be talked about now, before there's time to finish & perfect, time to smooth him for a chapter in a book. The poet's Michael Buselmeier, the poetry book could be called Dante's German in a not-yet written English edition; the German title is Dante deutsch, and came out last year. The section of that poetry quoted & translated by me above is a depiction of the processions for the Feast of Corpus Christi, a religious event still celebrated with vigour in small towns & villages in Catholic southern Germany & in Austria. Carpets made from petals, painstakingly laid out to picture, for example, a smiling Mary embracing an angel, adorn the ground in front of houses & the sides of streets. The consecrated bread, the circular host, is carried in the "monstrance", something like a mini sedan-chair – covered in gold & jewels with sides open so the public can see in – & paraded through the towns.

     For those of you filled with ambivalence or even antipathy for all things Catholic, the fact that Buselmeier originally made a name for himself in the early 80s with a novel in which a left-wing protagonist passionately protects his threatened urban habitat, may add a twist of lemon to the story -- (The Fall of Heidelberg / Der Untergang von Heidelberg, 1981).** On first sight German Catholicism and the grassroots-left are two worlds which could not be further apart. But look again, and you will find attitudes & behaviours shared by the two groups. A commitment to the cause that goes miles beyond the bounds of reason. A belief that the end (the triumph of Catholic values or the triumph of left-wing goals) can justify the means. And a need to do the same thing again and again, the need for ritual. Parading the streets following a piece of chewy dry bread, transformed into the body of Christ. To be seen again this year on the 30th of May. Or the left marching on the 1st of May, same old slogans, same old beer & sausages; the more energetic among them staying up to nightfall of that day, when the ritual throwing of bottles at the riot police, the ritual retaliatory riot police charge, the ritual sofa burning on the streets of Hamburg & other larger German cities commences.

** I made extensive use of Michael Braun's article about Michael Buslelmeier, p. 18, issue 3, 2012, of the print edition of Volltext to write this blog post. 

14 February 2013

More moustache-wax, sir! The Hamburg Players stage Arms and the Man.

     Go see this production if you like, enjoy the fin-de-siècle not-quite-decadent if you can, the officer with the handle-bar moustache greedily groping his fiancée’s servant — a mood of rich silliness only counteracted by Jonathan Greenman's portrayal of Bluntschli as an obnoxiously reasonable progressive thinker — but don't expect any new ideas from this staging of Shaw's clapped out, socialist-snobbish script. War's not glorious, sermons Shaw — hammering out his message as if afraid the thickies at the back won't get it — it's a bloody business where underlings take part in cavalry charges against walls of guns & other such PTSS inducing activities, for the simple reason that they're scared of disobeying their officers, because these officers possess a higher social status. And this — post the 1st and 2nd Gulf Wars, post eleven years of western troops in Afghanistan — is meant to be news? Hands up all those who've already seen or who intend to see this production, who have a romantic or glorified picture of war? Even the warmongers in Germany and abroad no longer sell their violence in places like Libya & Mali as romantic glory, but rather as sombre & technocratic endeavour, actually something only really the experts can understand, but still essential for reducing the terrorist threat (sic) on the streets of our European metropolises.
     There is occasional interesting detail about the world of the 1880s/90s. Greenman's Bluntschli tells Raina, played upper-middle flauntingly by Poppy Tirard, that the most common injury sustained in a cavalry charge are not bullet wounds but broken knees, as the riders, scared shitless, press their horses too close together in a reflex attempt to avoid what's going to hit them. Yet these curious little finds should not excuse the Hamburg Players' decision to work hard on a complacent play for a complacent audience.
      A disconnect, BBC Radio 3's word of the month, a monstrous series of disconnects, that's what's going on here, a disconnect between what the individual actors & directors in the team choose to present on stage & their real life experience, a disconnect between the Hamburg Players & their audience, a disconnect between what that audience thinks it wants to see in the theatre, & the daily life they go out into the morning after. It's obseqious to give your middle-class audience — the people in society with just enough education to be able to begin taking responsibility — another chance to see a play wearing the 'socially critical' badge. They can see it, then give themselves a good pat on the back. Didn't just sit on their arses watching Jungle Camp, no, dragged themselves out to watch something ... anti-war ... anti-authoritarian, even, well, or so it was, back in the 1890s. Before getting up the next day to lives in which they'll continue either not to vote at all, or vote for parties who've done nothing to stop the continued involvement of German troops & weaponry in Afghanistan. More to the point, some in the audience will get up the next day to go out to work for Airbus, or any one of Airbus's numerous satellite companies in the greater Hamburg region.
      As the epitome of Hamburg-disconnect regarding the question of arms and the man, and as one of the principal reasons why so many English native speakers from all over the globe come to Hamburg, the Airbus world is a subject I'd far rather see on a Hamburg Players' stage than this, Shaw's ignorant & racist fantasy about how Bulgarians, a people whose language he couldn't even speak, might relate to one another. Airbus Military is a business unit of Airbus, which produces five different types of military transport aircraft. None of these planes' final assembly takes place in Hamburg, and nevertheless Hamburg's 10 000 strong Airbus workforce play “a decisive role in the development & engineering of all Airbus aircraft.” i Is that ethically acceptable: to assist in the production of bizarrely expensive aeronautic long goods vehicles, ferrying soldiers, guns & even small fighter aircraft around the globe, so long as you don't make the bullets & bazookas yourselves? And what about the fact that Airbus is in the middle of an infinite fusion with EADS, the European Aeronautic Defence & Space Company, one of the world's biggest arms manufacturers, & a major backer of the fearless Eurofighter planes? Something for the Airbus dads — who wear their Airbus T-shirts to the artistic celebrations of the local Steiner-Waldorf school where my eldest daughter goes — to be proud or to be ashamed about?
      Hamburg is a city in which the disconnect about militarism is inside all of us. Why weren't the main actors & directors involved in the production interested in exploring rather than concealing that disconnect? I'm party to the disconnect myself: my main income comes from teaching English in the south of Hamburg, where a sizeable minority of the Airbus workforce live; the regularity & size of my income depends in part on a kickback from Airbus's mountainous profits, engineers & purchasing managers with an overly-comfortable salary in their pockets, wanting to buy the language-skills edge to the next promotion from yours truly. Were the Hamburg Players using a strategy similar to the one I use, when the conversation in my English classes is headed towards the north German arms industry? — (as a recent Hamburger Abendblatt article demonstrated, Airbus is just one of many players) — steer clear of the topic, because it's risky? i.e. stage an anti-war play, but not so that it can be seriously experienced as an anti-war play, as you don't really want to trouble your audience?
      Isn't it a far greater risk for Hamburg Players to cling so tightly to their middle-brow agenda, because by doing so they permanently alienate younger generations of theatre goers in Hamburg, for whom competent delivery in period costumes just isn't where it's at? Why don't they commission new work from English native speakers living in Hamburg who, for a minimal fee of something like € 100 - 150 would feel privileged to bring a new piece of art onto the stage? I'm luckily not in a position to be able to write such work myself, but know of half-a-dozen such writers with a track record of print publication who'd jump at the chance of having a proper stage for their ideas. Finally, what's the story with the younger members of the cast, Eddie Gray, Tamaryn Sutherland & Poppy Tirard, none of whom look a day over 26: why do they want to put all that effort & the acting skills they unequivocably have into such an unambitious project? Is it just for that warm feeling you get from sitting on one of the higher seats in an ex-pats' club, or have they at least worked on their own personal cultural-conservative philsophies to guide such actions? And there I am, the audience member, “getting angry, getting angry, with so many questions unanswered.” (Norman MacCaig) 

i Quote from Airbus's own website.

04 February 2013

Graphic Novels! evening, this Sat. 9th Feb, Projektor, Hamburg.

Filmmaker, graphic novelist & storyteller Bernard Caleo

This Saturday, 9th Feb, at 8 pm, is your chance to experience an evening devoted to graphic novels, at a film & discussion evening I'm hosting. The venue? - The Projektor, Sternstr. 4, on the first floor, directly above Cohen + Dobernigg book shop. We'll be showing the documentary film "Graphic Novels! Melbourne!" on a big screen, but before that there's a panel discussion with the filmmakers Bernard Caleo & Dan Hayward, & with satirist, children's book writer / illustrator & poet, Andreas Greve. Entrance for whole evening - discussion + film - costs € 10. Hope to see you there!

Karl Kraus bio-pic set to smash Arendt flick

        In one of the most unlikely cinema stories of the new year, we can exclusively reveal that leading Holywood studios are lining up to scoop the rights for a bio-pic about the life of the early 20th century German intellectual, Karl Kraus. With movie-theatre screens still warm with the release of the Hannah Arendt movie, Holywood bosses, dealing over their decafs, have been saying things like, ''If not now, when?” and ''What is to be done?”, the thought that in so doing they may be quoting Lenin nibbling only at the corners of their minds.
        Karl f *** ing who? I got onto reading Kraus through a sixteen year old series of connected accidents, which I now feel grateful for and flattered by, leading as they did to the Santa Barbara agent phoning me up, asking me if I thought the slim, regional, small-press and German language Kraus biography could work converted for world-wide cinema release. The first accident: Alison, who my sister shares a house with in Oxford, subscribes to the LRB & leaves it in the Oxford loo, where I find it during my visits from ’97 onwards, & get hooked on it. The second accident, also from 97: I fall in love with & pledge allegiance to the woman I’m now married to; she’s German. Over a geologically slow time period  I learn to read enough German to be bothered to confront the middle-class middle-brow German literature that her generation carry with them from their parents: Stefan Zweig, Hesse, Günter Grass (always there on the shelf: do find me someone who’s reading him in bed), a few woman poets like Ingeborg Bachmann, Nelly Sachs & Rose Ausländer thrown in. Before we grew older, happier, wiser, we tried to get each other to read stuff that was important to us, so she tried to get me to read Stefan Zweig. A pressure which I resisted, apart from one lapse on a fearful winter night in 2004, before the morning on which I was due to teach the whole history of the colonisation of South America to a class of badly-educated, undisciplined twelve year olds. (Part of my training in flagellation / Steiner-Waldorf teaching). Genuinely not knowing how to whip the appropriate worksheets out of the net in those days, I thought I’d whip through Zweig’s historical novel about Magellan, the south American explorer, instead: perfect teaching prep. I could still only read German at snail speed in 2004, the heart banging away like the clappers all the while with the thoughts of the kids the next day.

14 January 2013

Review: Danton's Death by Georg Büchner. Thalia Theater, Hamburg.

Jette Steckel’s new production of this German classic is a buzz, a rush, a gig; Büchner’s script, one of the most astonishing products of 19th century European theatre, is given a more minor role. Until the performance last night (Dec. 29th 2012), all previous performances of Steckel’s production had been accompanied by English surtitles, in an explicit attempt by the Thalia Theater to reach out to an international audience in Hamburg, who would otherwise not go to a German language play of this complexity. Which was one reason I went to see the play in the first place – to experience how well the surtitles worked, and to see what kind of international audience they are attracting. For unknown reasons, Thalia dropped the surtitles from last night’s performance. So if anyone from Thalia is reading this: would you be so kind as to post a few words, as to why the surtitles were withdrawn?
  Set in 1794, five years after the outbreak of the French Revolution, the drama develops out of the tension between two of the revolution’s leaders, Maximilien de Robespierre and Georges Danton, the former portrayed as a cold-hearted, dogmatic, puritan, the latter as an empathetic, philosophical, sensualist. Hounded by Robespierre and his close colleague St Just, Danton and three supporters are guillotined in the production’s final scene, corresponding to real events in April 1794. What Büchner chose not to show was that Robespierre was guillotined just three months later in July 1794, together with St Just, and twenty other supporters, as the flame of revolutionary terror, which Robespierre had done so much to feed, turned against him. 

  Steckel sprints through Büchner’s narrative, with an almost ceaseless live soundtrack provided by a keyboardist and electric guitarist. In one key debate scene, Daniel Lommatzch (Robespierre) goes head to head musically with Jörg Pohl (Danton) on the drums, the two of them sat behind full-scale drum kits facing the audience, and smashing out their drum solos, sounding for all the world like professional drummers. The spoken text is mixed in on top of all that, delivered through actors all wearing millimetre thin wireless microphones taped to their cheeks. You can hear some dialogues better than others, depending on how much sonic space the director has allocated to the musicians bigging it up with electronic wa-wowho-wa noises at that particular point in the action. This is reminiscent of how crowds during the French Revolution experienced speeches they heard; many words of speeches must have been lost to open-air acoustics and the jeers and cheers of the mob. Steckel’s decision to soundscape the production in this way certainly captures the hysteria and indecision of the time: which path to believe in, when five different skilled polemicists are all shouting a different message? And, as it sounds to us, the rabble, they’re all shouting at the same time.

   The texts in the print programme for the production mix polemic and philosophy, and invite us to compare attacks on capitalism today, and the attack shaped by the Occupy movement in particular, with the French terror depicted on the stage. If the Thalia seriously wants to attract the English speaking audience in Hamburg who don’t have high-level German skills to this play, then the decision not to include English translations/versions of all three texts is a mistake. It was also a mistake to omit the name of the German language translator of the (originally English language) speech given by Slavoj Žižek to the Occupy movement in New York in October 2011.

  These small objections aside, the programme’s engrossing texts make it top-heavy with an intellectual force which the production itself is disinterested in utilising. How convincing are Jörg Pohl-as-Danton’s arguments, which he uses to defend his “vice-filled” (Robespierre’s term) approach to revolutionary life? Should his silent withdrawal — his refusal to lead — be interpreted as strategy, as the same strategy advocated by Žižek for Occupy? : maintain your silence in the power vacuum you’ve created. It’s your strongest weapon, your equivalent of the French terror. Don’t relinquish this weapon by filling the vacuum with hasty, specific, inadequate demands. Is this the game Pohl’s Danton is playing? Very hard to tell, hearing his statements between one guitar riff and the next, overlapping, exhilarating drum solo. Though neither Pohl’s words, nor Lommatzch’s as Danton, nor those of Karin Neuhäuser playing a marvellously nasty St Just, do drown in this swamp of beautiful din. They gasp for breath instead, shouting of their own worth, shouting of the necessity of reading them, alone, muse-fully, in silence. (Danton’s Death first premièred in 1902, 67 years after it was first published in a heavily censored form. Reading the play as opposed to watching it has pedigree.) Then, if like me you have not already done so, go and read several perspectives on the French Revolution, by contemporary historians. Žižek’s words are just one of many signs that a new terror, of a quite different sort than the French variety, is building in the world again.