Mit herzlichen Grüßen… und mit einem lieben Kuss versiegelt

‘Sehr geehrte Frau Präsidentin’, ‘Sehr geehrter Herr Professor Unrat’, ‘Liebe Marie, lieber Max’, ‘Liebe Kunden’… Writing letters is an important mode of written communication, but they’re not just an exercise in learning how to address the right people in the right way. Sending and receiving letters is a way of fostering friendships, maintaining friendly relationships (including in business), conveying news, and even sending presents.

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Berthold Woltze, Der Brief aus Amerika (ca.1860)

Until relatively recently, friends who lived in different places kept in touch by letter or (later) telephone. Sometimes, their private correspondence has been published so that everyone can read it and learn about their friendship: famous examples of this are the correspondence (‘Briefwechsel’ in German) between the writers Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) or that between poets Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-1973) and Paul Celan (1920-1970).

In the eighteenth century, many authors wrote fictional letters as a way of telling a story. This form of writing is known as an ‘epistolary novel’: Goethe’s bestseller Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1774/8) is told in this way, as a series of letters from the character of Werther to his friend Wilhelm. Women writers such as Sophie von la Roche and Bettina von Arnim also used this style of storytelling.

Letters can also give us an insight into the experiences, expectations and feelings of people who lived in the past, like this online exhibition of the last letters written by Jews around Europe during the Holocaust, in the days before they were transported to concentration camps in 1941, 1942, and 1943.

The digital age has transformed the way we make friends and keep in touch. Instead of laborious letter writing, most people now send emails and instant messages – peppered with their favourite emoji rather than written in beautiful longhand! Some people mourn the lost art of letter-writing, but others celebrate how much easier it is to find new friends, reconnect with lost ones or stay in contact with people from all over the world.

Schreibfaulheit

Nun hock’ ich hier an meinem Tisch
und weiß nicht recht zu starten.
Dort draußen sitzt man sicherlich
auf einen Brief zu warten.
Zu lange Zeit ist schon vergangen,
daß wir einander nicht geschrieben,
kein Brief ist hin und her gegangen –
wo ist die Post geblieben?

© Willy Meurer (Source: © 2005 /All Rights Reserved by Willy Meurer, Toronto)

 

 

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Bücher sind bessere Freunde als Menschen – Literary friendship…

…And we’re back! With apologies for the long silence, but we’ve been busy reading up on friendship again. Literary friendship this time – another aspect for you to explore when you enter the Oxford German Olympiad this year!

Es geht uns mit Büchern wie mit den Menschen. Wir machen zwar viele Bekanntschaften, aber nur wenige erwählen wir zu unseren Freunden.

 

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Copies of this famous monument to Goethe and Schiller in Weimar can be found all over the world.

We might agree, even over a century later, with Ludwig Feuerbach’s assertion that we treat books and people very similarly, reading/meeting many, but selecting only a very few to get to know (and like) very well – and the implication that we can sometimes feel that books are like friends to us. And literature truly is full of stories of friendships of all kinds and many friendships between writers and literary figures have, over the centuries, become almost legendary.

The long and intense friendship of the writers Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller  may be the most well-known example in the history of German literature: although they didn’t become firm friends on first meeting in 1788, their relationship grew stronger towards the end of the eighteenth century and they exerted considerable artistic influence over each other. Other prominent writers and thinkers have often been part of the same tight-knit friendship groups: the Schwäbische Dichterschule (1805-1808); the circle of Romantic poets around Clemens Bretano and the von Arnim family (around 1808); the Expressionist dramatists in Berlin at the end of the nineteenth century; or the GDR-based Sächsische Dichterschule which included Volker Braun and Sarah and Rainer Kirsch.

Books are full of descriptions of great friendships and their impact on people, communities and events. From Wilhelm and Werther in Goethe’s Leiden des jungen Werthers to Effi Briest and her loyal servant Roswitha in Theodore Fontane’s Effi Briest; the narrator’s relationship with her dead friend in Christa Wolf’s Nachdenken über Christa T.; the doomed and toxic relationship between Franz Biberkopf and Reinhold in Alfred Döblin’s Berlin: Alexanderplatz; Pilenz and Mahlke in Günter Grass’ Katz und Maus, or the close-knit band of friends who feature in Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen nichts neues, literature has explored the good and bad features of platonic relationships in all their forms. However, while they thematise friendship and thus inclusion, such books can also highlight aspects of identity in the ties of friendship and of exclusion from certain groups. For example, Remarque’s band of soldierly comrades is divided approximately into two groups by his narrator: the group of classmates who joined up together on the one hand and the group of older men with established jobs and families on the other.

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Lobby card for the 1930 film adaptation of Remarque’s novel

Some of the best descriptions of friendship in literary works are in writing for children and young people. Many popular children’s books have been translated from other languages into German and have proved firm favourites. But children’s books by German-language authors have also traveled in the other direction and are very well known in English, especially for their depiction of friendship. The conspiratorial hijinks of Max and Moritz in Wilhelm Busch’s early cartoons have become embedded in the literary consciousness of many German speakers. The lively cast of characters in Erich Kästner’s children’s classic Emil und die Detektive (1929 – recently adapted for the British stage: take a look at a review here) showcased their independence and resourcefulness of children in making new friends and teamwork, while the capacity for friendship and affection is also explored in the well-known children’s classic Heidi, Johanna Spyri‘s 1881 tale of a Swiss orphaned girl’s friendships with those around her. A German-speaking audience will, however, also be familiar with the long-running Burg Schreckenstein series (1959-1988) by Oliver Hassencamp, about the adventures of a boys’ school (occasionally joined by their rival girls’ school).

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Emil and his newfound friends follow the criminal Grundeis in the 1931 film adaptation of Kästner’s Emil und die Detektive

More recently, themes of difference have begun to dominate much children’s literature. Two examples are Zoran Drvenkar‘s autobiographical Niemand so stark wie wir (1998), which looks at the balancing acts of intercultural friendships and family life of immigrant children in Berlin, and Uticha Marmon’s Mein Freund Salim (2015) in which two German children engage with a young Syrian refugee who can’t speak their language (read a sample from the book here).

Keep your eyes peeled – more posts on theme of friendship coming up…