When you fall out of reality: Dispatches from Moments of Calm by Alexander Kluge & Gerhard Richter

As we witness an unprecedented assault on the integrity and role of journalists and the news media, fueled by recent events in the US—and, let’s be fair, in many other nations in our current climate of political unease—this collaborative effort to re-imagine an alternative approach to capturing reality is ever more timely and precious. The genesis of Dispatches from Moments of Calm (Seagull Books, 2016) lies in an unusual experiment. For one day, October 5, 2012, all of the noisy and distressing political reportage evaporated from the pages of the German national newspaper, Die Welt. In its place? Thirty pages of photographs capturing the simplicity of the everyday—a quiet interlude in restless times, created and directed by renowned artist Gerhard Richter.

calmInspired by this singular attempt to create a “moment of calm,” writer and film maker, Alexander Kluge, started to work on a collection of small stories to accompany the images. Richter responded in turn with the proposal of a collaboration. He added more photos; Kluge wrote more stories. The resulting book—a continuation of their first successful joint publication, December (2010/2012)is an important, and given the mood of the current times and the circumstances of the project’s origin, a more meditative and philosophical work.

The photographs scattered throughout the text isolate the ordinary instant. The atmosphere is placid, low-key. We see a dog sleeping in the sun, the blurred image of a family at a meal, a deserted downtown street, images of nature, children at play, a moody seascape, and more. But each image exists in a space apart from time and the world. And Kluge’s fictions, taking off as they so frequently do, from real life people, events, and ideas, offer the ideal counterpoint. Many of the stories explicitly explore the intersection between art, music and reality:

László Moholy-Nagy was asked whether a photograph reproduces a piece of reality. He denied the claim. He replied that a photograph is constituted by the fact that it concentrates on an actual moment and records it, becoming a textual addition existing outside the world. He knew, the Bauhaus man continued, series and networks of such photographs, which relate to reality or current events like a mirror (including the gaps in that reality, to a silence or to a nothingness), but which, when cut off from the rapidly receding stratification of time, would form themselves into their own republic, one that would superimpose itself (like an El Niño mudslide) onto the original impression that caused the photograph, which itself would have disappeared from the participants’ memory, had they never had the impression to begin with.

Dispatches comprises 89 stories and 64 pictures. Some of the stories—which range from a paragraph or two to a couple of pages—were composed to accompany, after the fact, specific images from the original Die Welt project. Both Kluge and Richter added more contributions on their own. In the resulting book, the confluence between images seems to be accidental, rather than exacting. Where a connection exists, the image is unlikely to occur near the corresponding story. This arrangement adds to the incidental flow of the work. There is, however a thematic structuring at play.

2016-11-30-22-39-33The book is divided into five parts. The stories in first section turn on the element of chance. With narratives featuring real figures from science, music, and history, alongside parables drawn from nature and from everyday life, Kluge explores the vagaries of fate and circumstance. The consequences, happy or unhappy, have the effect of promoting a sense of disequilibrium—an awareness of the fleeting quality of those moments of calm that we experience.

The second part takes us into the city starting with stories set in modern urban spaces, moving back in time to vignettes that speculate on the Mesopotamian origins of the city-state and ruminations on the nature of the concept “city.” This section closes with a story featuring sociologist Richard Sennett:

The city that we carry around inside ourselves, he said, is visible. But when you see a city destroyed by bombs, one which you do not know and means nothing to you, and you nevertheless feel sad, then you can see from this reaction that we carry around inside ourselves just such an invisible city. You see the city only when it has been lost.

These words seamlessly lead into a collection of stories set in the Middle East—Beirut, Lebanon, Syria, Israel—engaging current events, history and even opera to reflect, in words, the very instants Moholy-Nagy imagined captured in the mirror of a photograph.

2016-11-30-22-29-25The final two sections sharpen the focus on questions of reality—how we report it, record it, place ourselves in relation to it. The philosophical musings Kluge entertains in these brief stories offer so much to contemplate. His ability to exploit the fluid intersection between what we, especially in English language literature, want to divide into fact and fiction, lends his stories the sense that these should be considered fragmentary pieces of nonfiction. The influence that his work had on W. G. Sebald is evidenced in this regard. These stories, parables, and reflections are, in themselves, narrative truths—regardless of whether they describe events as they really occurred, or if they even occurred at all. Kluge wants to make you stop, in the moment, and think. Here, as an illustration, is one of my favourite stories, in its entirety to provide a taste of Kluge at work:

For many centuries, thousands of monks in monasteries between Ireland and Byzantium, dotted like islands across the barbaric land, were writing out the holy texts. Their zeal and their great efforts produced mistakes. The result was that the texts imperceptibly expanded. One learned monk in Samanca was delighted to find a text by Ovid on the back of a copy of the apocryphal LOGION OF ST JOHN. The copyist on the island of Reichenau could not resist including this interpolation. In this way, a text was expanded in a distinctly “unholy” manner.

A transcription of texts (just as if evolution had been tinkering with their DNA texts) doesn’t only create lines to new future texts. It can also be reconstructed in the direction of paradise. The way there leads through indeterminacies. ‘Nearer, my God to Thee’ was the music played by the orchestra on board the Titanic as the ship went down. But it is also the working instructions to copyists of all countries, who are driven from the omphalos of experience into the parallel world (heterotopia), the pre-world history and the future world (the world of our children, who are so attached to life). For copyists, all images are NOW-TIME.

I don’t know if it is the nature of the project from which this collaboration arose, that is, as an attempt to visually introduce an element of calm to the daily news cycle, that gives this book its impact, but in contrast to December, which I read at the end of last year (my review is here), Dispatches from Moments of Calm is a more powerful, comprehensive work. But then it may be a question of timing. Originally published in German in 2013, the driving forces against which Richter’s photographic interlude at Die Welt was superimposed, have not slowed. Uncertainty has increased and continues to grow. But as Kluge and Richter, two of the most influential and respected artists of their generation stand to remind us, art is more critical than ever at times like the one we find ourselves in at the end of 2016.

Like the dome of lights over a great city, the STATE OF THE NEWS forms an aura in which a general notion of what matters in the world coalesces.

It is out of such NEWS VALUES and not out of the facts themselves that the daily image of the reality of our world is put together. The products of poetry form an antithesis to this daily fluctuation. In painted images, and in the narratives of short stories and novels, time outside stands still.

Dispatches from Moments of Calm by Alexander Kluge and Gerhard Richter is translated by Nathaniel McBride and published by Seagull Books. A second edition of their earlier collaboration, December (translated by Martin Chalmers) will be published, also by Seagull, in paperback, in Spring 2017.

Souls in disarray: The Country Road by Regina Ullmann

It is no coincidence that the landscape of the earth is identical to that of the heart.

The work of Swiss poet and writer, Regina Ullmann, is permeated with an abiding sadness that seems to speak to the core of human existence. Her language, contemplative without moralizing, pierces the surface of the façades we present to the world. Encountering her work, one has the sense that she is drawing on a deep, dark well. But light filters through, creating a canvas that evokes rural and small town life in the early decades of the twentieth century—a world inhabited by farm labourers, young girls and women harbouring secrets, lonely old folk, circus performers, and hunchbacks.

2016-11-11-23-11-09Ullmann was born in Gallen, Switzerland, in 1884, into the family of a Jewish-Austrian businessman. Her father died when she was only a few years old. In 1902, she and her mother moved to Munich, where she would first read a number of the key poets of the day, including Rainer Maria Rilke who would become an important mentor and patron. However, Ullmann’s personal life was difficult. She had two daughters out of wedlock, the second with psychoanalyst Otto Gross, who left her emotionally wounded. Depression dogged her, worsening after her mother’s suicide in 1938. Her conversion to Catholicism in 1911, a move that greatly informed the tone of her work, was not sufficient to prevent her expulsion from the German Writers Association in 1935 on the basis of her Jewish heritage, so she left Germany, spending several years in Austria before relocating to her Swiss birthplace, where she would remain for over twenty years. She returned to Germany only a few months before her death in early 1961.

Throughout her career, Ullmann, won critical praise from the likes of Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse and Robert Musil—in addition to her champion Rilke—but she remained largely unknown and often struggled to make ends meet. She was, perhaps a step out of time, a modernist trailing ghosts of the past, but with the release of her 1921 story collection, The Country Road in English translation (by Kurt Beals, New Directions, 2015), her fragile, haunting work is offered a new lease on life.

And I, for one, was ready to meet her.

From the opening paragraphs of the title story, I was struck by the spare, unforgiving earnestness and sombre beauty of the prose:

Summer, but a younger summer than this one; the summer back then was no more than my equal in years. True, I still wasn’t happy, not happy to my core, but I had to be in the way that everyone is. The sun set me ablaze. It grazed on the green knoll where I sat, a knoll with almost sacred form, where I had taken refuge from the dust of the country road. Because I was weary. I was weary because I was alone. This long country road before and behind me… The bends that it made around this knoll, the poplars—even heaven itself could not relieve my bleakness. I was ill at ease, because just a short way into my walk, this road had already dragged me into its misery and squalor. It was an uncanny country road. An all-knowing road. A road reserved for those who had been, in some way, left alone.

In a sense, this opening sets the tone for the entire collection, evoking a landscape with its illusory freedom that will reappear again and again, balanced against the confined spaces—rented rooms, taverns, houses—occupied by people who often live alone or are drawn into shared solitude. Her narrators tend to affect a dispassionate distance, a non-judgemental piety, whether telling their own stories or imagining the thoughts and motivations of others; however, there is a persistent awareness of social stigmatization against which the most disadvantaged of her characters are regarded or disregarded. Ullmann’s world is one in which deeply burdened souls cross paths, rarely unveiling the true nature of the crosses that they bear.

It is difficult to convey the mood of these stories without implying that this is a catalogue of darkness and despair. There is rather a grounded and humane sadness, an awareness of loss that recurs. But there is more. Throughout the collection, an animated natural world—flowers, forests, gardens, vegetables, berries, stars and blue skies—regularly reminds the reader that an unquenchable beauty does exist against the odds. The story “Strawberries,” one of several tales narrated by a young girl who, like the author, has an older sister and a single mother, captures perfectly the summer magic of childhood:

Perhaps you will argue that the three of us had never learned to go without. But what does it mean to go without—assuming that we really couldn’t do it—if not to take pleasure in looking at things. We returned from our trips to the market feeling sated, and often we hadn’t bought a single bouquet, a single basket of early cherries. And the treasure chests of our minds was wide open. But the little mirror inside that chest had only to reflect the ground; it showed the stand piled high with fruits and vegetables. But we felt how that world, like jewelry and old music, was transformed and passed over into us.

Ullmann’s other worldliness that sees her writing suspended somewhere between modernism and an earlier form of gothic folk tale is best illustrated in “The Old Tavern Sign,” one of the strongest and most striking pieces in the entire collection. It begins with an old tavern “in a hidden corner of Styria,” that stood, “as if it had been left vacant, like an etching made by one soul to tell another just what a house really is.” The story follows the troubled emotions of a young farmhand who falls for a beautiful young girl—deaf-mute and simple-minded—who had been taken in and cared for by the old horsekeeper. The girl, as she grows, remains indifferent to all and everything around her, but her caregiver and the beasts, wild and domestic, protect her and keep her safe. The farmhand knows his affections are misdirected, and struggles to fight his persistent desire to go to the horse pasture:

But if he didn’t know this love, it surely knew him. It always recognized him. It knew if he lifted the pitchfork, how he lifted it, whether he took large steps or stood still, where he stood and dreamt. And when he slept, it took the power of its dreams for its own, and dreamt for him. He was climbing a fir tree, up to the top and then beyond. He didn’t even notice he was past its tip. And so he fell over it, down to the ground, and lay there with dream-shattered limbs, on the edge of the forest, and yet in his bed, and it was night, or morning. It didn’t matter, anyway.

In the end, as human desire meets the force of nature, with savage intensity, Ullmann maintains a measured poetic account that is as breathtaking as it is brutal.

This is a collection that is at once perfectly pitched my current state of sorrow, grief, and depression—and yet stunningly beautiful to read. Ullmann’s vivid imagery, her lost and lonely characters, and the gentle, thoughtful pace of her prose offers unexpected comfort for the weary soul. This is, in the end, an offering of small and tender joys.

In the era of the great ‘still’: The Room by Andreas Maier

“Venturing in there during the time of the stench would have been hell. I would have died of disgust. But I wasn’t scared of the room: given that setting a foot in there was completely inconceivable, its existence, so to speak, fell completely under the threshold of my perception. It was there, and yet at the same time it wasn’t.”

Set in the Wetterau, the fertile agricultural region north of Frankfurt, The Room by Andreas Maier marks the beginning of a proposed series of eleven memoir/novels exploring small town life in post war Germany. The reference point that launches this ambitious project is modest – the room that was once the private, darkened domain of the narrator’s uncle J. It may sound rather claustrophobic to begin with such a confined and specific space, but the spirit of this small novel as is expansive as the unfettered and innocent imagination of the simple minded anti-hero at its centre:

“This is the beginning that everything else stems from. The room, the house, the street, the towns, my life, my family, the Wetterau and everything else beyond it. My uncle, the only human being without guilt I have ever known. On his way into the real world, but with one foot still in paradise.”

As a consequence of a difficult forceps delivery, J would never shed the wonder and fleeting frustrations of a willful child as he grew into an adult. If it made him vulnerable, he didn’t notice. Incapable of feeling pain and always eager to fit in, he was unaware of the cruelty, physical and emotional, directed at him by his peers and by his own father. He lived in a world of fantasy – peopled with war heroes, mountain climbers, stone masons, crane operators, policemen, hunters. He loved to walk in the woods, could identify different birds, and seemed to have a special affinity for plants and animals.

RoomBut perhaps, more than anything, he was deeply attached to his brown VW Type 3 Variant and, quite remarkably, he had a drivers license. Driving, for J, was a huge production which he took very proudly and seriously. He was a simple man living in a simpler time, but at a moment when the world was poised to enter a new global reality. In his experience, J existed at a time when workers still routinely drank before work, on the job and, of course afterwards; when smoking three packs of cigarettes a day, though as deadly then as now, was not discouraged; and when no one commented if you scooped five teaspoons of sugar into your cup of coffee.

“My uncle didn’t live a healthy life, that’s for sure, but then again it wasn’t really the fashion to live healthily back then – you could pretty much choose the way you would die, and it was usually the way you had lived.”

The narrative around which the The Room is constructed, with many segues and asides, is the imagined description of a typical day in the life of J, at some point during the year of the moon landing, 1969. The narrator himself is only two years old at the time, so he does not pretend to remember anything that he sets out to recreate. Rather, he builds on what he has heard of his uncle’s life, filtered through his own childhood memories of a foul smelling man who frequently annoyed him or made him uncomfortable, and the adult understanding and compassion that, sadly, came too late.

J’s day begins early with a walk to the train station. From there he catches a train to Frankfurt where he works at the postal depot, a job his brother-in-law, a lawyer, had secured for him after his father’s death. What he thinks of his job and how he fits in there is not known. After work he is pictured considering the advances of a prostitute in the Red Light district near the Frankfurt Train Station. Does he enter the brothel or hurry home? His nephew sketches out varied scenarios but, in the end, he does not know what goes on in J’s mind.

“In my uncle, therefore, you could alternately see either the triumph of nature over the law or the triumph the law over nature. In reality, though, he was positioned between the two, and presumably at the complete mercy of both, and that’s why the former Frankfurt Kaiserstrasse district offered the best opportunity to get to the heart of the matter. Germany the land of secrets. My uncle, the man of secrets.”

Upon returning home, Uncle J disappears for a nap, and then emerges to a list of errands that his family has devised for him… refreshing the flowers on the graves in the family plot, picking up his sister, delivering his mother to the hairdresser’s. He tries to resist his mother’s insistence that he shower, or a least clean himself up, a task that he pays less and less attention to as he ages. In the end he complies, driven by his ultimate goal – the hope that he will later be able to spend a few hours at the Forsthaus Winterstein in the company of the hunters he so admires. Every step of this recreated day is measured out within the framework and idiosyncratic order that J appeared to impose on his own life, imagined from the inside, but ultimately unknowable.

The narrative tone of this inventive balance of fiction and memoir is reminiscent of the filling and emptying of a time capsule. The narrator places himself into the scenery, his two year-old, pre-language self as speculative as his uncle’s world and possible mindset. Maier extends and condenses time – bringing a mythical quality to a world in flux, blending the simple man’s worldview with the adult narrator’s knowledge of how his uncle’s life will continue to unfold, and the way that the Wetterau itself will be transformed over the four decades that come to pass between 1969 and the present moment when he sits, in his uncle’s former room, now converted to an office, to commit this tale to paper.

The Room, translated by Jamie Lee Searle, is available from Frisch & Co, a publisher of electronic books based in Berlin. The next two installments in Andreas Maier’s series, The House and The Street are due to be released in the the spring of 2016.

A look at two winter treasures from Seagull Books

It may not be winter by the calendar (yet), but here, where I sit, north of the 49th Parallel and west of the Rocky Mountains, it is a perfect wintery day. The snow has been falling, no too much to be fair, but the wind has been playing with it, sweeping it into drifts and coating the roads with ice. A good day for a good book.

2015-11-24 20.04.02

In recognition of the German Literature Month reading project that is drawing to a close this week (a growing list of over 120 reviews contributed by participating bloggers can be found here) I wanted to call attention to two very special books that not only feature German authors, but celebrate the book as a work of art. Both have winter themes and are published by Calcutta based Seagull Books.

Victor Halfwit: A Winter’s Tale by Thomas Bernhard is a short fable lavishly illustrated by Sunandini Banerjee. Listed in the Seagull catalog as “Children’s Literature”, I would suggest that this is, aside from being an opportunity to introduce a child to Bernhard early (and who would not want to do that?), a book to speak to the child inside. The story is essentially classic Bernhard. On a cold winter’s night, a physician crossing through the forest on his way to see a patient, stumbles, quite literally over a man lying in the snow. This man with the improbable name of Victor Halfwit is legless as the result of an accident and now, most unfortunately, his wooden legs have “snapped in the middle, as wooden legs do”, leaving him helpless and facing a miserable end. He had been on an ill-conceived attempt to win a bet with a miller who had wagered that he, Mr. Halfwit, would be unable to make his way from Traich to Föding, through the snowy forest, in just one hour, on his wooden legs. The faint chance of winning 800 schillings – the price of the finest pair Russian leather boots, something he had long desired – was too tempting, so Victor took the bet and nearly proved the miller right. Almost. But then, even a happy ending would not be without it’s bitter dark irony. This is Bernhard after all.

Taking a sentence or two at a time, this tale is presented in the company of rich, glorious collages. Drawing inspiration from famous artworks, medical illustrations, Indian imagery, playful designs and so much more, each page turned presents a new, original background to compliment the passage in quite unexpected and infinitely wonderful ways. I will confess that I ordered this book without paying much attention to the description. I knew it was Bernhard, I knew it was illustrated, but I was completely – and happily – caught off guard by this large, most gorgeous book when it arrived in the mail. I had expected something special, but honestly I had imagined something more modest. As a gift for a Bernhard fan or a lover of visual arts, or for yourself, let’s be honest, I would heartily recommend this book.

December is a take on the tradition of calendar stories that pairs 39 short texts by German writer, film director and critic, Alexander Kluge, with 39 haunting photographs of wintery forest scenes by Gerhard Richter. Included in this collection is a story for every day in December. Some are set during the war years, others in the 2000’s; some appear to have a straight forward historical tone, others seem more experimental in form. I can’t actually say because I intend to read this book throughout the month of December. Each entry is short, no more than a couple of pages at most. I bought this book with a gift card my daughter gave me for my birthday, thinking that it would be a welcome companion for the dark days – in a practical and an emotional sense – of December. Like many, I find it to be one of the most difficult times of the year and I look forward to exploring this work as the month unfolds.

Victor Halfwit: A Winter’s Tale and December are both translated from the German by Martin Chalmers and published by Seagull Books.

The dying gold of ruined stars – Poems: Book One of Our Trakl by Georg Trakl

“Sun, autumnal, thin and shy,
And the fruit falls from the trees.
Stillness dwells within its blue rooms
During a long afternoon.”

– from “Whispered during the Afternoon”, Georg Trakl, translation by James Reidel

Many years ago when I was in school, poetry, in so far as we were introduced to it, was almost exclusively the works of English language poets. In high school I fell under the spell of the English Romantic writers and that was the beginning. Over the years though, I would be inclined to think that most of the poets I have become obsessed with wrote in English, that is, until I began to read more translated fiction. With that my attention shifted, or to be more precise, my horizons became broader.

TraklThis year, a German book enthusiast I have come to know through the “internet of book discussions”, the corner of the web I inhabit, introduced me to Austrian poet Georg Trakl. Somehow he had escaped my attention before. Of course, when you come to read poetry in translation, the question of the translation itself becomes critical. Typically, when more than one translation of a poet’s work exists I try to access and compare a few. But when Seagull Books released the first installment of a three part series of Trakl’s poetry, I did not hesitate to order a copy, sight unseen.

Poems: Book One of Our Trakl is a new translation, by American poet and translator James Reidel, of the poet’s first collection, simply titled Poems (Gedichte), which was originally published in 1913. In his note at the opening of this volume, Reidel recounts that he has endeavoured to preserve the same concentrated mania that marks the works of the 19th century poets Trakl would have read: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Hölderlin and Poe. He says:

“I want to actually channel Trakl, his craft (with its implicit painterliness) and work ethic, to have him, so to speak, absorbed in the right dosages he – as a poet, pharmacist and addict – intended.”

Reidel does go on to add that to emulate Trakl’s delivery in English, the rhyme scheme of the original poems is often necessarily sacrificed, but the contortions required to retain  rhyme can trivialize a poet’s spirit and tone.

In an essay in the online poetry journal Mudlark, Reidel expands on his Trakl translation project. He provides an overview of Trakl’s short and tragic life, as well a discussion of his approach to the translation, and a selection of his translations presented with the original German. A poet himself, Reidel brings a sensitivity and insight to his reading and approach that I, as reader, value:

“I have found that when you read Trakl in the original German, you get a snapshot of what is there. When you go back, you get another view. It may be sharper or less so, and with the feeling that it is intentionally less so. This can be frustrating for those who speak and think in English, that lawyer of languages. There is no fixed point to reading him or rendering him. This makes any book of translations simply a collection of snapshots of a particular reading at any point in time. Another way of rendering/reading a Trakl poem is through the barrel of a kaleidoscope, where one can only fix on a view when one stops or when the glass bits sometimes jam. I do this.”

Born in 1887, into a prosperous Salzburg family, Trakl was a precocious child, creative and intelligent – by his early teens he was experimenting with lyric verse that showed great promise. He could, however, be withdrawn and prone to depression. He was exceptionally close to his sister Margarete (Grete), a musical prodigy with whom he is thought to have engaged in an incestuous relationship. He began publishing poems in 1908, in Vienna where he had gone to study pharmacology, a tempting profession for one who already had a tendency towards addiction. As a budding poet, he enjoyed early success and mentorship during the following years, ultimately attracting the discreet patronage of Ludwig Wittgenstein. But the outbreak of war forced him into military service. Relying on his training as a pharmacist he hoped to avoid direct combat, but the trauma of trying to attend to desperately wounded troops without adequate supplies would drive him to attempt suicide. He was sent to a military hospital in Kraków for observation, but suffered a relapse and was found dead of a cocaine overdose on November 3, 1914. He was 27 years old.

                Patterns of Decay  (c) JM Schreiber, 2011
Patterns of Decay , Copyright JM Schreiber, 2011

This first volume of Trackl’s poetry, beautifully bound and presented by Seagull books, readily lends itself to an immersive reading from beginning to end. The autumnal themes that feature so strongly make it an even more evocative read for someone like myself at this time – that is, in November in the northern hemisphere – but autumn is rendered almost metaphorical in his verses. Nature figures in his work, rendered through rural and religious imagery; however nature, for Trakl, is one which couches death and decay as an intrinsic element of its stark beauty and haunting appeal:

In the evening, when the bells toll of peace,
I follow the birds in their glorious flights,
Long multitudes, like pious trains of pilgrims,
Disappearing into autumn’s clear breadths.

Wandering through the twilight-filled garden
I dream following their brighter destinies
And feel the sundials barely move any more.
So I follow their journeys above the clouds.

There a blast of decay makes me start to tremble.
The blackbird laments in the leafless branches.
The red vine totters on rusting trellises.

While like a dance of death of pale children
Around the dark weathered rim of the fountain
The blue asters toss shivering in the wind.

– “Decay”

These are quiet, brooding poems that show a clear obsession with decline. They speak to a young poet struggling to capture the gloom in his own soul, consequently the poems have a very immediate and personal feel. Are they depressing? As someone who has had his own lifelong challenges with mood dysregulation, I find his words oddly comforting. I am not equipped to offer a critique of poetry, I am afraid I can, in this case, only speak to what I feel. And I don’t believe I am alone in registering a profound personal response to Trackl’s poetry. In his short life he produced a small, but vital, body of work that would have an important influence on other German language poets including Paul Celan, Thomas Bernhard and Peter Handke; and draw the ongoing interest of poets, translators and readers outside of German speaking countries that continues to this day, just over one hundred years after his death.

For my part, I can only eagerly look forward to the upcoming additions to Our Trakl.

For all the restless souls: The Sleep of the Righteous by Wolfgang Hilbig

The landscape haunting the seven intermeshed stories that make up The Sleep of the Righteous by the late German writer Wolfgang Hilbig, is decidedly bleak. The fulcrum around which these stories pivots is an industrial town south of Leipzig – run down, defined by its drabness, perpetually unfinished, bordered by mine pits, the ruins of munitions factories, a lake, marshes,and, beyond that, the forest. Before and after reunification, this town remains a place in which time exists on another plane of reality, at least as far as the narrators – all varying shades of the same man with more than a passing resemblance to Hilbig himself – experience or remember it:

“Time persisted here in dogged immutability; the autumnal fog banks that merged beneath an earth-colored sky appeared unlikely to pass for decades to come. And more and more smoke seemed to spill from the sodden lowlands into the flat clouds, which, even in the afternoon, were nocturnal.”

sleepThis powerful collection is divided into two parts. The first part focuses on childhood, coming of age or, as it often seems, waiting to come of age, to “rise at last from the state of useless, unfinished, in-between beings”. Set in the years immediately following the Second World War, the town is a place where men are in short supply. The majority of the children are fatherless, their mothers widowed, and few babies are born. Consequently, relationships and social dynamics are skewed. In the opening story, “The Place of Storms”, the young narrator endeavours to negotiate the murky waters between the realm of the “little children” and that of the “older children”. Rumours that his grandfather has a gun boost his status and potential for crossing the divide, while the horrific swim trunks his mother knits him complete with suspenders are a decided barrier. All of the awkward anxiety of youth is played out in the grimy pools of the abandoned mine pits at the end of the street where children wile away the summer hours divorced from the world of the suffering, lamenting adults in their lives.

The stories in the second part are set in the 1990’s, after the Wall has come down. The protagonists are all now grown men, writers, who have long since moved away from this small town, but find that they are unable to stay away. Restless, they regularly return to encounter ghosts, to visit an aging mother, or to escape a disintegrating relationship. No matter how long they may have been away, they never really leave the place behind. But they return to a town that is dying, industries and businesses that have been abandoned, and memories that cannot be escaped. In the final, and longest story, “The Dark Man”, the unnamed narrator is an established author who encounters, on the darkened streets of his old hometown, a stranger who has pursed him and now reveals that he was the Stasi agent responsible for intercepting and reading the writer’s correspondence. He claims to have a collection of letters originally intended for our hero’s former lover, a woman who presently lies near death. The narrator is disturbed, but determined not to let this curious relic of the GDR get the better of him – he denies any suggestion that he and his enemy have anything in common. Yet when he gets back to his mother’s apartment, the man in the bathroom mirror bears a haunting resemblance to what he could manage to make out of the stranger in the dark.

The Sleep of the Righteous is one of those books where you may well be inclined to stop and reread a paragraph several times before moving on, not because it is opaque or dense, but because the language is so captivating; the flow and rhythms, like eddies in a stream of water, swirling, reversing, and moving forward again. The brief title story is a sadly lyrical meditation on the cycle of guilt and recrimination that binds and defines the relationship between a boy and his grandfather who, in a reorganization of sleeping arrangements, end up sharing a bed following the death of the grandmother – a demise that one of them might have inadvertently caused. It opens:

“The dark divests us of our qualities. — Though we breathe more greedily, struggling for life, for some fleeting substance from the darkness… it is the darkness that forms a mute block above us: intangible matter our breaths cannot lighten… it seems to burst apart at each answer from the old man, each lament of breath, yet sinks in again swiftly to weigh down still closer, in the cohesive calm of myriad tiny black, gyrating viruses. And we rest one whole long night in this block of black viruses, we rest from the toils of the day: from the everyday toil of circling each other, still and hostile.”

Night after night, grandfather and grandson twist and turn to a nocturnal chorus of queries and accusations, in this poetic evocation of the tensions that underlie the fictions that families maintain to make sense of the very ordinary tragedies that strike close to home.

In his introduction to this volume, Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai, writes that in focusing on the mundane, the everyday life in East Germany, Hilbig manages to heighten the oppressiveness of that existence, rendering it all the more horrific as a consequence: “He wrote his astounding novels about a world in which only the weak, the sensitive, those incapable of bargaining and in no way heroic, can sense the chaos and the surrealism.” However, the measured, heavily weighted quality that hangs over the stories in The Sleep of the Righteousness, is bouyed by the sheer beauty of the prose and the quiet resilience with which the protagonists respond to the circumstances that history has gifted them. This could be a depressing read but somehow it is not.

Translator Isabel Fargo Cole, in a recent interview in World Literature Today, indicates that this collection is one of Hilbig’s most autobiographical works. His narrators tend to share the same basic features of his background – his grandfather emigrated from Poland, his father disappeared at Stalingrad, and he grew up with his mother in a household dominated by women. The town he mythologizes in his tales is modeled after the same one where he was born and grew up. Yet, it does not feel liked these are connected as part of a continuous narrative so much as each protagonist seems to have a similar launching point from which he proceeds to tell his story. There are overlaps and divergences along the way.

The Sleep of the Righteous is published by Two Lines Press. Along with his earlier novel,  I, which was also translated by Isabel Fargo Cole and released by Seagull Books this summer, English speaking readers finally have a chance to experience the sombre magic of Wolfgang Hilbig. And, hopefully, look forward to more.

Last letter from Petrópolis: Montaigne by Stefan Zweig

Over the course of his life, Stefan Zweig was a most prolific writer, known not only for his novels and plays, but also for a wide range of historical and literary biographies. He has been criticized as a lightweight by those who fail to appreciate his charms, but it is difficult to deny the passion for literature and lifelong learning that informed his work. With his biographical subjects he followed the topics and personalities that caught his attention and, perhaps as a consequence, he was drawn to write about those whose work and ideas he admired, as well as some of the figures who played darker roles in history.

motaigneThe last of the writers to captivate him, the subject of his final book, was Michel de Montaigne. Hitler’s rise to power in 1934 drove Zweig from his native Austria to England, but by 1940, with Europe torn apart by war, he crossed the Atlantic to New York City where he stayed briefly before moving even further to Petrópolis, a German community in Brazil. Here in the mountains north of Rio de Janeiro, far from the library he been forced to abandon in Vienna, he would uncover a dusty copy of Montaigne’s Essais in the cellar of his house. He made this fortuitous discovery in the autumn of 1941 and his delight in it would preoccupy the final months of his life. In February of 1942, Stefan Zweig and his wife were found dead in their home. It is not certain but, as much as Montaigne provided him the comfort of a kindred spirit speaking out across the centuries, he may have also inspired or reinforced his decision to end his own life.

Zweig opens his biography with a confession that when he first encountered Montaigne at the age of 20, he was filled with youthful idealism for the new century that was dawning. He could not imagine what relevance he might find in this “Frenchman already yellowed by time and lost in the riddles of his Latin quotations”. Ahead he could only envision the prospects of peace and progress. Rediscovering Montaigne 40 years later, he found immediate parallels between the violent upheaval of the years of the Reformation and the devastating collapse of 20th century glory into the brutal waves of intolerance and destruction sweeping Europe. Curiously, the age of 20 was also the age at which Montaigne himself decided to end his formal education on the conviction that by 20 the soul is formed and thus, beyond that point, the spirit will not be further enhanced. He would, of course, turn his attentions inward in his lifelong effort to understand that soul.

There is, in the course of this short biographical account, little that will be new to anyone acquainted with the general details of Montaigne’s life and writings. What is of more interest is what this essay reveals about Zweig’s mindset in the last winter of his life. This is very clearly a personal undertaking. Even though Zweig set about researching the social and political context in which Montaigne lived, the resulting work was never subjected to a judicious edit and, as it exists, it tends to be overly repetitive in some aspects, especially where Zweig’s enthusiasm runs high. He finds in Montaigne a friend, a wise counsel so desperately needed when his own despair at the state of the world is reaching an all time low and, as such, he is inclined to defend his friend against his critics even if his arguments tend to be based in emotion rather than reason. The only criticism he himself is willing to levy is with respect to his hero’s noted disregard for his children and the women in his life, and his desire to find refuge from their demands on his energies. Still, Montaigne’s withdrawal to his tower to contemplate the nature of the self – that is, the self that interests him most dearly: his own – is a choice that draws Zweig’s sympathy and support.

As a writer and a lifelong lover of literature and history, Zweig finds a like-minded ally in Montaigne. He admires the way that Montaigne engages with books. He reads without obligation or duty, choosing to discard books that are not working for him. As Zweig remarks:

“He is without doubt a serendipitous reader, an amateur reader, but there has never been, in his time or in any other, a finer or more perceptive reader. Concerning Montaigne’s judgement on books I am 100 per cent in accordance.”

Later he continues:

“The great lesson Montaigne receives from books is that reading, in its rich diversity, sharpens his faculty of judgement. It impels him to respond, to lend his own counsel. And this is why Montaigne tends to annotate his books, underlining passages and writing at the end the date on which he read them, or the impression that they made on him in that moment.”

It is hard to argue with this sentiment. Two lovers of books, passionate about reading are bound to feel instant kinship, even when reaching across time and space. For a man in exile, cut off from his intellectual community in Europe, it is not difficult to imagine that Zweig felt he had found a soul mate in Montaigne.

But then why was this bond, this example of a man so firmly dedicated to the question of how one should live, not sufficient to carry Zweig through his darkest hours? Montaigne is careful in his essays not to dictate how others should live. His focus is always turned inward. He shares what he finds and what he comes to believe he should strive for in living. Zweig draws up a list of the constraints that Montaigne expresses a desire to avoid including: vanity or pride, presumption, fear and hope, belief and superstition, ambition and avarice, fanatacism, and family and familiar surroundings. There is, however, one more:

“And one last freedom: in the face of death. Life hangs on the will of others, but death on our own will: ‘La plus volontaire mort c’est la plus belle.’”

That is, he insists, the most voluntary death is the most beautiful. If Zweig who was known to struggle with depression had already contemplated suicide (and according to the translator’s introduction he had expressed that sentiment before), one cannot help but wonder if he found some measure of validation in Montaigne’s writings.

This biography stands as an example of the deeply personal impact that literature can have on a reader. Zweig argues that there are writers who come to you, or come back to you, at the time when you are ready to hear them. This final work took precedence over any of this other writing projects in the months leading up to February 22, 1942, the day he and his wife each took an overdose of barbiturates and lay down together hand in hand. In a sense Montaigne exists as a final effort for a sensitive writer to make peace with a world that seemed to have spun off its axis. For that reason alone it is worth the read.

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Translated from the German by Will Stone, Montaigne by Stefan Zweig is a new released from Pushkin Books.