A poetic Pentecost: At the Burning Abyss by Franz Fühmann

I am not certain what has become of the person who first alerted me to the poetry of Georg Trakl, but it wasn’t very long ago and came backward through an interest in Celan. Then, over the last few years, Seagull Books released three volumes containing all of Trakl’s poems including significant variants and early versions, in new translations by James Reidel. I read and wrote about them all even though I had no particular confidence in myself as a reviewer of poetry. I’ve also explored other translations and biographical accounts of the troubled Austrian poet’s short life. So when I became aware of At the Burning Abyss: Experiencing the Georg Trakl Poem by Franz Fühmann, my interest was piqued. Finally, to be fully prepared, I recently read Fühmann’s autobiographical story cycle, The Jew Car.

I thought I was ready.

But no, nothing could have fully prepared me for the experience of experiencing At the Burning Abyss.

Fühmann was an important literary figure in postwar East Germany; a gifted, versatile writer who was no stranger to either reading poetry or fledgling efforts to write it when he first encountered Trakl. It was early May, 1945, just prior to the surrender of the Wehrmacht. As a young soldier in the German army, Fühmann had been granted a few days sick-leave following a stay in the hospital, and was taking advantage of the opportunity to visit his family. As bleak as things looked for Germany at the time, a reckless hope was still smoldering. Sitting with his father after dinner on the evening before he was due to leave for Dresden, he opened the volume he’d chanced to pick up in a used bookstore on his way home. One poem in particular, ominously titled “Downfall,” resonated:

Over the white pond
The wild birds have taken flight.
In the evening an icy wind blows from our stars.

Over our graves
The night bends its broken brow.
Under oak trees we sway on a silver barge.

The city’s white walls ring for ever.
Under vaults of thorns
O my brother we blind clock-hands climb towards midnight.

He knew nothing of Trakl but a conversation with his father that night revealed that the latter had served alongside “daft old Georgie” in the early days of the First World War. But beyond recollections of an eccentric character, Fühmann learned no more about the poet for many years. He would never see his father again, and his poetry book would soon be abandoned along with his coat and backpack a few days later. But the verse had worked its way into his consciousness and would keep him company and inspire his own desperate scribblings during his years in a Soviet POW camp in the Caucasus.

The Franz Fühmann who emerged from captivity in 1949 was a born again Socialist. He had seen the error of his ways, faced the reality of the horrors of Aushwitz, and rejected the false tenants of Nazi ideology on which he had been raised and indoctrinated. The final story in The Jew Car depicts the arrival of his fictional alter-ego in East Germany, his train journey into a new homeland marked with the composition of a suitably ambitious piece of Socialist-inspired realist poetry. However, his reunion with the decidedly anti-realist imagery of Trakl would occur before long.

Slowly, and steadily, the poems will challenge everything that he thinks he knows about reading and writing poetry, ultimately challenging his Socialist idealism and his own self-awareness.

At several points in At the Burning Abyss, Fühmann reminds his reader that the he is not writing an autobiography, insisting that he is engaged in a meditation on the experience of reading Trakl. However, this experience acts as a fundamental force within his own biography and cannot be read apart from it. His account of his personal response to Trakl is presented in first person singular against a broader examination of how a poem, and a couple of select pieces in particular, can and should be understood. This second thread is conducted as an extended first person plural conversation with the reader. His questions and concerns become our questions and concerns, we are invited to seek answers together.

He wants to know how the poem works on the unconscious, what gives it meaning, and what allows it to work across time and place. At the core of his examination is a conviction that the experience of a poem is necessarily subjective; that:

… a poem does not become a poem because it fulfils certain formal rules, but because a reader constitutes it. Until then it merely appears to belong to the genre of poetry, a dead form, interesting only once the interest in the poem as an artwork awakens.

The reader may take decades or even a century to appear, but if he does not, the poem does not come into being as poetry: there is no objective poetic form that legitimizes something a priori as a poem in the sense of an artwork.

This is then, a highly idiosyncratic engagement with the Trakl poem, but one that assures the reader that his own personal engagement with a poem, any poem, has its own validity. One should not be afraid of understanding wrong, or relating to something others eschew as unworthy. For, as he quotes Rilke in the opening sentence of the book: “poems are not feelings…they are experiences.”

For Fühmann, “Downfall” is the first Trakl poem that strikes him, across two decades from the time of composition, to capture the very moment in which he came to it. The blind clock-hands toward midnight climbing recur and echo throughout the text, joined in time, by other lines from other poems that become refrains, driving and troubling the attempt to resolve the dissonance that grows the further he explores Trakl’s poetry and life.

In his reading, an indication that the Trakl poem might reflect Decadence triggers his initial crisis of faith, if you will. Anxiously, Fühmann opens his text and lands, randomly on a poem filled with shocking imagery—“Night Romance.” He finds a “dreaming boy” with a “face decaying in the moon,” a murderer, a dead man, and a “nun with lacerated flesh” praying “naked before Christ’s travails.” All the features of decadence assembled and yet, somehow, the verses hold an undeniable appeal. Thinking of other poems, Fühmann’s anxiety increases:

What was this morass on which I’d lost my way?

And so it goes. The discussion turns to meaning. How literally can images be understood? Much of the focus turns on the poem “Decay,” but Fühmann insists that Trakl’s entire oeuvre can be seen as one great poem, so the discussion has broad application. Images of decay in all its aspects frequent his poetry, as do “autumn, “evening,” and “garden.” What weight can be applied to the startling images that appear, and to what extent is an exact explanation—a resolution of poetic riddles—possible or even desirable? If a mystery can be answered, is it answerable universally or for the reader alone? And, what role does the poet have in relation to the misery he or she records?

Of course, the questions, Fühmann raises are directly related to the threat Trakl poses to his schooling in the Socialist poetic form encouraged within the GDR. There is no place for mystery—a poem should be understood “at first go.” To rid himself of this contrary influence, Fühmann tries to destroy his Trakl books, but find himself unable to do so. He looks for comfort elsewhere, translating Vitězslav Nezval into German, for example, and finds himself sliding headlong in Surrealism! He seeks refuge in alcohol. For a long while, he struggles to mediate the conflict between the literature (and the grounding ideology) to which he is committed and this Austrian poet about whom, apart from his father’s cryptic recollections, he knows little. Having long professed to having little interest in the writer’s life, he suddenly desires to know all he can.

Shocked by his first encounter with Trakl’s awkward visage inside the covers of the slender biography he finds, Fühmann makes his way through the book in a single, fevered night. He is drawn into the account of “an unliveable life: an existence that fell to poetry.—An existence that fell to drugs and incest; a fall into decay, a plunge into suicide; a life at the zenith of European poetry.” What follows then, is a biography within this memoir, which includes the complete text of the sole eyewitness account of Trakl’s final days in a Krakow hospital.

Continuing to alternate between the analysis of what poetry can tell us about its author and, more critically, what it reveals about ourselves, Fühmann’s personal journey of self-discovery moves forward with an intensity that is powerful, irresistible and fundamentally human. The experience of the Trakl poem changes him and allows him to heal in a way doctrine never could. The reader can feel his pain and his passion, appreciate his conflicts and share his exhilaration when everything finally falls into place. “I believe in poetry,” he says, “because it works like fate—provided you stand within its magic circle.”

Well said, indeed.

At the Burning Abyss by Franz Fühmann, is translated with great dedication and affection by Isabel Fargo Cole, and published by Seagull Books.

The seduction of ideological extremes: The Jew Car by Franz Fühmann

For months The Jew Car, Franz Fühmann’s autobiographical story cycle, sat on my shelf unread. I had bought it in anticipation of the recent release, in translation, of his last major work, At the Burning Abyss: Experiencing the Georg Trakl Poem. However, for some reason, I could not bring myself to read it. I have never been especially attracted to World War II literature, and with the current resurgence of neo-Nazi sentiments and far-right movements in North America and Europe, I was uncertain if I wanted to venture into a series of stories in which an East German writer traces a path from his enthusiastic adoption of fascist rhetoric as a youth, on through his experiences as a German soldier during the war, to his eventual rejection of Nazi ideology and acceptance of socialism in a Soviet POW camp. I wondered if I had the heart for it, and yet the translator of both volumes, Isabel Fargo Cole, advised me that Fühmann’s personal reflections in At the Burning Abyss would have greater impact and resonance with the background afforded by The Jew Car.

Born in 1922, Fühmann grew up in the predominantly German Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, the son of an apothecary who encouraged the development of a strong German nationalism. From the age of ten to fourteen, he attended a Jesuit boarding school in Kalksburg but found the atmosphere stifling. In 1936, he transferred to a school in Reichenberg, where he lived on his own for the first time and became involved in the Sudeten Fascist movement. After the annexation of Sudetenland in 1938, he joined the SA. 1941, he was assigned to the signal corps serving in various locations in the Ukraine before being moved to Greece as Germany’s fortunes declined. He was captured by Soviet forces in 1945. During his years spent as a POW, he would embrace socialism and upon his release in 1949, he finally found himself on German soil for the first time, settling in the GDR where he would spend the rest of his life.

Originally published in 1962, the stories in The Jew Car, which is subtitled Fourteen Days from Two Decades, follow the trajectory of Fühmann’s life between the ages of seven and twenty-seven. Presented with dramatic colour, they offer an attempt to explore the progression of his ideological development during this period. Through an engaging, often ironic voice and well-framed narratives, we watch Fühmann’s fictional alter-ego confront the psychological seduction of the persistent propaganda machine and engage in the mental gymnastics required to continually readjust to accommodate or explain away any evidence that failed to fit with what he has been led to believe.

The title story opens the collection. Set in 1929, the seven year-old narrator is caught up in a wave of rumours sweeping through his grade school. The children listen with a mixture of rapture and fear, to breathless tales of a four Jews in a yellow car who are said to have been travelling through the surrounding countryside, snatching and murdering innocent young girls. When our hero happens to spy a brown car carrying three people one afternoon, it becomes, in his imagination, vividly transformed into the feared mysterious vehicle exactly as described. At school the next day, he is the centre of attention, holding his classmates in thrall until the one person he dearly wishes to impress the most, the girl “with the short, fair hair” neatly puts him in his place. Yet rather than causing him to question his hasty assumptions about the car he actually saw, his humiliation is turned into an increased, abstracted hatred of Jews.

And so the process begins.

Fühmann manages to capture the mixture of naïve enthusiasm, patriotic fervour, and boredom that he and his friends regularly encounter as the tides of history are building around them. He is young, the air is charged with excitement mingled with fear of the dreaded Commune and the anticipation of liberation. At times his young narrator is surprised to catch the worried looks on the faces of his parents and other adults. His faith in the Führer is unshakable and he believes that the German Reich will not abandon the Sudeten German population to murderous cutthroats. This conviction is well captured in the story “The Defense of the Reichenberg Gymnasium.” (September, 1938) Although no violence has yet occurred in his corner of the region at this point, when an alarm summons him and his comrades from the Gymnastic Society to defend the Reichenberg gymnasium from imminent attack, he is ready and eager:

I was excited: I’d never been in a battle like this; the occasional school scuffles didn’t count, the scouting games and the stupid provocations of the police in which I and all the others indulged; now it would turn serious, a real battle with real weapons, and I felt my heart beating, and wondered suddenly how it feels when a knife slips between the ribs. My steps faltered; I didn’t think about the knife, I saw it, and as I passed Ferdl, a sausage vendor who stood not far from the gymnasium, I even thought of stealing off down an alley, but then I scolded myself and walked quickly into the building.

But, as uneventful hours begin to stretch well past lunch time, boredom and hunger start to set in. Ultimately it is decided to send forth a series of provisioning parties to remedy the situation. Young Fühmann is assigned to the third group:

It was a puerile game we were playing, childish antics, and yet murderous, and the awful thing was that we felt neither the puerility no the murderousness. We were in action, under orders, advancing through enemy territory, and so, the five-man shopping commando in the middle and the three-man protective flanks to the left and right, we casually strolled up the street, turned off without incident, made our way back down the parallel street through the tide of workers, Germans and Czechs coming from the morning shift, cut through the arcade, side by side, and at discreet intervals each bought twenty pairs of sausages with rolls and beer.

Fühmann is a gifted storyteller whose poetic prose and ironic tone are pitch perfect, especially in the earlier stories. He creates a portrait of his younger self that is not sentimental or idealized. His moments of empathy for individuals otherwise thought to be inferior are quickly reframed with racist convictions. He does not speak too much about his involvement in direct anti-Semitic actions (though he will in later works). What comes through most strikingly in The Jew Car is the sense of rational isolation that surrounds the individual. Information is strictly mediated, so that otherwise intelligent individuals lose any frame of reference or develop extreme responses to the continual routine of work and deprivation. His steadfast devotion to the military structure will start to weaken as he discovers poetry, although his first published efforts during the war are very much on message. Fühmann will not become a dissident poet until much later, long after the war is over.

The tone of the later stories is soberer, more contained. The narrator describes his conversion to Socialism in terms that border on the religious. He talks about having “scales fall from his eyes” during his training, describes reading Marx, encountered before but now understood in a new light. But he never provides detailed justification—he believes with conviction and is not ready to be swayed. The final tale which describes his arrival in East Germany after his release from imprisonment to join his mother and sister who have been relocated there, is forced and marked by Soviet style melodrama.

In his afterword to the 1979 reissue of The Jew Car, which aimed to address some of the editorial changes made to the original publication, Fühmann noted a shift in tone that impacted the overall flow of the collection:

Probably even while writing I began to sense the inconsistency in this work, expression of a fractured mindset, a switch from self-irony to affirmative pathos that had to lead to a decline in literary quality such as that between the first and last story…

However, although they are autobiographical in nature, these stories are essentially fictionalized—this is not an essay or memoir. That lends the collection a particular power and energy. Yet, there is a clear sense that the ending is idealized and incomplete, as indeed it is. As Isabel Cole’s Afterword goes on to explain, Fühmann’s infatuation with the socialist vision of the GDR will fade as he chafes against the rigid restrictions imposed on individual and creative expression. He will, nonetheless, remain in East Germany for the rest of his life. In 1982, two years before his death, he will publish an in-depth exploration of his personal evolution through his discovery of and affection for the poetry of Georg Trakl. To that work, At the Burning Abyss, my attention can now turn…

The Jew Car by Franz Fühmann is translated by Isabel Fargo Cole and published by Seagull Books.

This review, together with my review of Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann represents my contribution to this year’s German Literature Month. Also related: See my recent interview with translator Isabel Cole, primarily regarding Wolfgang Hilbig, but also touching on Fühmann, which was published at 3:AM Magazine this past month.