‘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.
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.
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?
…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.
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.
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).
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…
Helena continues her analysis of the puzzling presentation of Kriemhild in the early modern print reception of stories based on the Nibelungenlied. Here she explains some of the economical uses of woodcut images in early modern printing and what this meant for the relationship between text and image in printed books.
Weigand Han (1526/29-1562) and Sigmund Feyerabend (1528-1590) were among the most eminent publishers in Frankfurt during the sixteenth century and collaborated in overseeing the fifth print of the Heldenbuch in Frankfurt am Main in 1560. The title page proclaims that the print is “auffs new corrigiert und gebessert” [newly edited and improved] and is “mit schönen Figuren geziert,” [decorated with beautiful figures].
So the 1560 Heldenbuch really highlights its textual and iconographic features as a selling point and it is these features which distinguish it from the Heldenbuch’s prior versions. In comparison to the 1545 version’s 42 woodcuts for the Rosengarten, Han and Feyerabend reduce their print by over twenty folios by including 28 woodcuts in the Rosengarten. Furthermore, they don’t follow the image progression of previous Heldenbücher.
The majority of the 1560 version’s woodcuts are attributed to the artist Hans Brosamer (1495-1554), who was employed by both Weigand Han and his father-in-law and predecessor, Hans Gülfferich. However, although Brosamer’s woodcuts did not illustrate earlier Heldenbücher, they were not new to Frankfurt’s sixteenth-century printing scene: to minimise production costs, the fifth print of the 1560 Heldenbuch reuses 157 woodcuts from six Volksbücher(in English these are sometimes called chapbooks or incunables, although there is no really adequate direct translation of the term), which were previously illustrated by Brosamer and were manufactured in Gülfferich’s and Han’s printing press. The reduced number of illustrations and their reuse from other prints was a commonplace printing tactic in the early modern period, which favoured mass production and enabled printing presses to adapt illustrations to a variety of prints and maximise their production output with minimal effort and complexity.
The (Re)Use of Illustrations in Early Modern Printing
When I was looking at these texts in Oxford’s libraries, I was interested in how the economical printing approach to the Heldenbuch’s woodcuts affects its text-image conceptions – I particularly wanted to find out how this practice of reuse affected the relationship between Kriemhild’s portrayal in the text of the Rosengarten on the one hand and her pictorial portrayal on the other.
On the title page of the 1560 version of the Rosengarten, Kriemhild’s substantial impact on the demise of her male relatives is blamed on her authoritative position as the keeper of Worms’ rose garden. The direct connection between Kriemhild’s influential role and the plot’s trajectory, stressed from the onset of the story, is additionally enforced by the following text and its accompanying woodcuts, which spotlight the extent of Kriemhild’s power over her male counterparts. For example, after welcoming Dietrich von Bern and his men to Worms, Kriemhild declares that the winner of each chivalric contest will be rewarded with a kiss and a wreath of roses from her garden. Her absolute control over the contest and its prizes is reinforced by the following woodcut:
Taken from a print of an early proto-novel and Volksbuch called Fortunatus(1549), this woodcut by Brosamer depicts a queen (whom we are meant to interpret as Kriemhild) reaching out and touching a nobleman’s arm, who, in this case, may be interpreted as Dietrich. In this illustration, Kriemhild sports a crown on her head to symbolise her hierarchical superiority, which sets her apart from her plainly robed maid on the left of the woodcut. Kriemhild is also represented as powerful in her exchanges with her male counterparts, since she establishes direct contact with Dietrich by touching his arm and is unescorted. Therefore, although this woodcut fails to expose Kriemhild’s domineering nature as a dishonourable attribute, as previously suggested by the phrase “ungetriuwe meit” [devious maiden], its portrayal of Kriemhild nevertheless draws attention to her initiating role in the chivalric battle of the Rosengarten.
So Kriemhild’s instigating function in the Rosengarten is apparent in text and image, but her portrayal in the text as a thoroughly negative character does not translate to the pictorial dimension of the print. This is most evident in one of the Rosengarten’s final scenes, in which Kriemhild is punished for her arrogance when one of Dietrich’s knights, who overpowered 52 Burgundians, disfigures Kriemhild’s face with his bristly beard. While the text clearly states that Kriemhild’s “ubermut” [haughtiness] should be blamed for inflicting unnecessary pain on so many men and for causing her relatives’ demise, to which the title page already alludes, there is no woodcut to confirm and/or reinforce this final and decidedly unforgiving interpretation of her character. Instead, Kriemhild’s punishment is solely conveyed through the text; this stands in stark contrast to the previous prints of the Heldenbücher, as they provide illustrations to underscore Kriemhild’s chastisement (such as the one below):
The Perception of Medieval Literature in the Early Modern Period
Han and Feyerabend’s deviation from earlier representations of Kriemhild’s fate may be attributed to their reuse of woodcuts from other, unrelated projects, which presumably did not contain illustrations that related to the Rosengarten’s concluding subject matter. Nevertheless, considering that Kriemhild’s punishment is the most significant scene of the Rosengarten, as it explicitly summarises the moral of the story, it is striking that Han and Feyerabend did not follow in their predecessor’s footsteps by providing an illustration to accompany the text. Choosing to omit a visual supplement for Kriemhild’s humiliation, which would have foregrounded her uncomplimentary character portrayal, may not only result from Han and Feyerabend’s economical approach to their print of the Heldenbuch, but could also shed light on their lack of awareness of the Rosengarten’s original purpose, namely to serve as a response to the Nibelungenlied’s conception of Kriemhild. This notion is supported by the fact that the Nibelungenlied was no longer a known epic in the sixteenth century, which suggests that Han and Feyerabend may not have understood the Rosengarten’s fundamental implications and, thus, were not concerned with underpinning Kriemhild’s loss of reputation in both text and image.
The Rosengarten’s disconnect between text and illustrations is most likely a binary consequence of certain transformations in early modern printing and literary awareness: firstly, the lower number of woodcuts and their loose relation to the text exposes the declining interpretative and increasing commercial significance of illustrations in sixteenth-century prints, which is indicated by the title’s emphasis on the work’s ‘new’ and ‘beautiful’ artwork; secondly, while the illustrations point towards Kriemhild’s authority, their failure to convey her unfavourable textual portrayal accentuates the lack of awareness in the text’s sixteenth-century audience of the Rosengarten’s original purpose, namely to clarify and enforce her negative rendering in the Nibelungenlied. As a result, the text-image conceptions of Frankfurt’s Heldenbuch from 1560 not only elucidate the developing characteristics of early modern printing, but also shed light on the transformed function and understanding of the Rosengarten in the latter half of the sixteenth century, which continued to exist without its literary source material.
Another possible interpretation of this development in the presentation of the Rosengarten in the 1560 Heldenbuch concerns changes in the contemporary interpretation of the work: the diminished visual attention that is devoted to Kriemhild and her punishment may be understood as an intentional shift in focus from her character to the masculine valour demonstrated by Dietrich, a well-known Germanic hero, and his men – much like the nationalistic interpretations of the Nibelungenlied in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which chose to place an absolute emphasis on German heroism. This reading of the Rosengarten, which would also explain Kriemhild’s decreased visual prominence, is connoted by the prints’ collective title: Heldenbuch, or Book of Heroes.
One prizewinner in 2017’s ‘Deutsch(e) jenseits von Deutschland’, Beth Molyneux, first got involved with the Oxford German Olympiad right at its inception – and this year she was so enthused, she participated in every element of it that she possibly could! Beth was a joint winner in the ‘Migrating Communities’ essay category and a runner up in the Blog Post category. You can read her entries – and those of all the other winners – here. In this blog post, she explains what got her involved in the first place and what she loves about the competition.
The prize ceremony for the 2017 Oxford German Olympiad was the perfect culmination of what has been, for me and many other pupils around the country, an exciting, challenging and definitely worthwhile affair.
My involvement in the Olympiad started when I was in Year 8, with the theme Grimm Tales and featured me and my sister as Hansel and Gretel in a short film. At that time, I wasn’t aware of what the Olympiad was but certainly had fun making the video. It then wasn’t until sixth form when I was looking to extend my German outside of my A-level that this memory from year 8 came back to me along with the remembrance that there had been a sixth-former at our school who had helped us with our entry as well as submitting her own. Excited by this prospect, I gave ‘Oxford German Olympiad’ a quick Google and was pleased to find that it not only still existed but had been going strong for several years and, most importantly, entries were open for this year’s competition!
What I loved about the structure of the competition was how all the tasks tied into an overall theme but were so diverse, both within and across the age categories, which gave me a chance to explore aspects of German and Germany that I never would have before. The Olympiad provided me with a great opportunity to do some wider study of German culture and literature as well as the linguistic challenge of composing an essay in German, which was especially useful because I’m hoping to study German at university. I liked the sound of all the tasks in my age category and wanted to get as fully involved as possible so, instead of choosing between them, I decided to have a go at all three.
I started with the essay on Germany’s colonial history, which was probably the hardest task from a language point of view, as well as requiring the most research yet despite this I’d say it turned out to be my favourite task. After collecting the necessary initial research to find out what the story of Germany’s empire actually was, I thought it would be very easy for this kind of essay to turn out quite stale and technical but I wanted to make it come alive with a literary touch so I developed an extended metaphor, comparing Germany’s association with colonialism to an actor on a stage. This meant that I not only learned something new about Germany’s fascinating and unique history but was able to get creative and really have fun with what is a truly beautiful language. I think my enjoyment of this task showed in my entry and it definitely paid off, as this piece was joint winner in my age category.
For the second task, I researched the Austrian German dialect, struggling to fit all its quirks into just 400 words and for the third I chose to write about the author Thomas Mann, one of the many authors who left Germany as the Nazis came to power. He nevertheless fought hard for his beloved country jenseits von Deutschland, as you might say. This entry epitomised the competition for me because Mann is such a remarkable example of this year’s Olympiad title. My research into his life and work has gone beyond the competition as I’ve explored German Exilliteratur, even choosing it as the focus for my Extended Project Qualification in sixth form. Again, I had a chance to get creative with this task, choosing to narrate his history as a story, with dialogue and literary features, rather than as an essay, which was yet another discipline I would never have explored without the Olympiad.
As the deadline for round one entries drew near and I was giving those final touches to my three pieces, I happened to check the Olympiad website again and was delighted to find that this wasn’t the end – there was a round 2! The tasks in round 2 were even more diverse, giving incredible scope for creativity. Having read some Kafka before, I enjoyed being mind-boggled as I read his Die Sorge des Hausvaters and barely knew where to start with a response. Having this chance to respond creatively to Kafka’s work helped me to delve deeper into his intentions and the thought processes behind his work as well as considering the weighty existential questions his work evokes.
The poetry of HC Artmann was, if possible, yet more bizarre than Kafka and undoubtedly a piece of literature which, without the Olympiad, I would never have been introduced to. The biggest challenge I faced in the HC Artmann task wasn’t understanding the German he used (helpfully provided alongside the original dialect version) but interpreting the poetry itself. Baffled, I simply chose to reflect this uncertainty in my response, writing two poems in response to his Kindesentführer, based on different readings of the poem which I had taken. Only Artmann himself knows whether either of my interpretations are correct (if there is ever a correct interpretation of poetry) but the responses were enough to win the prize for this competition, generously made possible by HC Artmann’s widow Rosa Pock.
Having submitted my grand total of five entries across Rounds 1 and 2 I felt not just immense satisfaction and pride at having accomplished this but also, most importantly, a passion for German literature, not initially kindled by this competition but certainly refreshed and burning brighter than ever because of it. I had dedicated a considerable amount of time to my entries and felt like I’d given a small piece of my heart and soul to the competition which was in a way its own reward. I probably didn’t realise how much the competition meant to me until I received the email with my results; I screamed so loudly that my parents came rushing upstairs thinking I had hurt myself! Besides the success itself was the exciting prospect of attending the award ceremony in Oxford at none other than the Bodleian library, an event which lived up to and surpassed expectations. I travelled down from Manchester with my Dad, the weather reflecting our mood in a sunny and more-than-usually beautiful Oxford and as we waited on the steps of the Weston Library, I realised the full scope of the competition as we saw students of all ages begin to gather. The event itself was incredibly well organised, managing to balance a comfortable and informal intimacy with the grandeur appropriate for a prize ceremony. Judges, organisers and participants alike were friendly, excited and welcoming. And the best part? With heavily book-based prizes, I left with yet more German literature to explore!
Fancy having a go at the Olympiad yourself? The next competition is just around the corner! We’ll be announcing the theme for the Oxford German Olympiad 2018 later in September!
The Oxford German Network is delighted to announce the launch of a new essay competition for 16-18 year olds in the UK: ‘A German Classic’. The piece of classic German literature celebrated this year is Goethe’s Faust, Part I. To find out all about entering the competition, visit the OGN website here, where you’ll also be able to download a wealth of podcasts and other study resources to help you. The competition prize has been generously donated by Jonathan Gaisman, QC, whose first encounters with German as a schoolboy left him with a lifelong enthusiasm for German literature. In this week’s blog, he tells us how this passion came about.
My first German teacher, a perceptive man called Roy Giles, wrote in my initial term’s report: “He will do well at this language, because he likes the noise it makes.” And so I did: aged just 14, I was immediately delighted by the disembodied voice on the audio-visual tape, which was how my acquaintance with the German language began: “Hören Sie zu, ohne zu wiederholen”. The cadences of this unremarkable sentence, bidding one to listen without repeating, still enchant me today. The story on the tape told of the prosaic doings of a German businessman attending an industrial fair. He was called Herr Köhler. Presumably this was a joke, though one unlikely to appeal much to schoolboys. But what caught my attention was the dramatic plosive – unlike anything in English – available to those willing to launch into the sentence “Plötzlich klingelt das Telefon”. That this sentence, like its companions, was of an almost Ionescan banality deprives it of none of its nostalgic appeal: I was already reaching for the handle of the door.
Four years later, by the time I left school, I had passed well and truly through. In those days, studying a modern language involved intensive study of literature. We studied Prinz Friedrich von Homburg and other writings of Kleist, carefully read Maria Stuart, and more than dabbled in the shallows of Faust part I. A personal enthusiasm bordering on obsession led me to commit large slabs of Faust to memory, and they are still there. Giles had introduced us to recordings of Gründgens‘ performance of Mephistopheles in Faust; another teacher, Mark Phillips, earned my particular gratitude by playing me Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin. And so the way was opened though literature to poetry, to Lieder, to Wagner and to the extraordinary contribution of the German language to the life of the arts from the 18th century on.
German literature and culture had thus passed into my bloodstream, and become part of my imagination and mental being. So it was inevitable that I would take modern languages to university, where I was lucky enough to be tutored by a third fine teacher, Francis Lamport, at Worcester College, Oxford. Sadly, before long, but not before adding authors such as Büchner, Grillparzer, Kafka and Mann to my acquaintance, I abandoned the outer form of German studies, and dwindled into a lawyer. But the fire within was alight, and it burns still. The few years between the ages of 14 and 18 when I studied German represent the dominant intellectual influence in my education, and the one for which I am most grateful.
The simple aim of this prize is to enable other students to set out on the same journey which has enriched my way of seeing the world, to discover the inspiration of the German literary canon, and to avow the great truth uttered by Karl der Groβe himself: “The man who has another language has another soul”.
North Africa, 1972. A man with no memory wakes up in the desert with a massive hole in the head. So far, so yawn: please, not another one of those lost memory characters stumbling around the plot trying to solve a mystery slash crime, been there, done that, keep your T-Shirt. Not so fast! Carl (named so after the label in his suit) is not your average unreliable narrator. In fact, although we’re trapped inside his head most of the time, he’s not the narrator at all. Somewhere, someone’s sitting at a desk writing all this down in the first person, someone who was there as a seven-year-old, dressed in “a T-shirt with Olympic rings and short lederhosen with red heart-shaped pockets”. Who’s he? Not sure – everyone in Sand is reliably unreliable, apart from the author himself, who’s reliably, erm, dead.
After being diagnosed with an incurable brain tumour in 2010, Herrndorf churned out some literary gems – including international bestseller Tschick(English title: Why We Took the Car) and Sand – and then, in 2013, shot himself. Perhaps fittingly, Sand is stuffed full of pain, gallows humour, false hopes, dead ends, absurd coincidences, misunderstandings, senseless chance events, torture, and death. It’s set under a desert sun so merciless, that a mere glance at the cover triggers an inverse Pavlov’s dog reaction of dry mouth for the reader. Sounds offputtingly soul-crushing? Not so! What’s holding it all together, over 68 chapters and five books from the Sea to the Desert, the Mountains to the Oasis and on to the Night, is the search for meaning, never mind the answers, it’s the questions that matter. Of those, there are many – and it makes for a hilarious, intriguing, heart-breaking, and ultimately gratifying read.
‘And now Lundgren had a problem. Lundgren was dead.’
A young simpleton murders four Hippies in a commune (it is the 70s…), a mediocre spy doesn’t survive a handover, a pair of bumbling policemen investigate – to not much avail, what else – a dangerously smart American beauty muscles in on the act, a fake psychiatrist tries to get to the bottom of Carl’s subconscious, a small-town crook and his henchmen get involved in the odd bit of kidnap, torture and blackmail. The hunt is on for a man called Cetrois, who may or may not exist, and a mysterious centrifuge makes an appearance, or it might be an espresso machine, who knows. More important seems to be a mine – this could mean a number of things, a bomb, a pit, a cartridge for a pen, … a cartridge for a pen?!
Yes – now let’s talk language, and translation. The characters in Sand are supposed to be speaking French, and thanks to Pushkin Press and translator Tim Mohr, we can now read it in English. Think ‘Allo ‘Allo. Tim Mohr, writer, translator, former Berlin Club DJ, and lucky owner of the coolest mini-bio ever, constructs an achingly immediate desert world by locating the English prose somewhere between 70s nostalgia and the contemporary. In German and French, ‘mine’ can mean the inside of a pen, and Carl’s knowledge of this means that he’s a step closer to solving the puzzle, but is it close enough to see it through? You decide for yourself, but really, that’s not the point. He tried, he really did. And in the end, that’s what matters.
written by Wolfgang Herrndorf (Rowohlt Verlag, 2011)
translated from German by Tim Mohr
published by Pushkin Press (2017)
Heike Krüsemann is currently completing her PhD thesis on representations of Germanness in UK discourses. Her Quirky Guide to Oxford will be published by Marco Polo in German and English in 2018.
Around much of Europe – and certainly in the English-speaking world – today is a day on which people, especially lovers, demonstrate their affection for each other by giving each other gifts: often flowers, chocolates or sweets and cards. Yet in the German-speaking countries of Germany, Austria and Switzerland, Valentine’s Day isn’t celebrated nearly as much as in the USA or the UK – it’s a much more muted affair, at least in the commercial sense, with less ‘in your face’ advertising.
In the Anglophone world, Valentine’s Day has been associated with matters of the heart since the 14th century and the practice of sending handwritten Valentine’s notes turned to the exchange of mass-produced cards sometime in the 19th century. But in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, the profane and commercial aspects of the day didn’t really take off until after the Second World War, when many British and especially American soldiers were stationed there and introduced the practice of giving a card and roses or chocolates. In 1950, the first Valentinsball (‘Valentine’s Day Ball’) was held in Nuremberg – and similar balls have been held all over Germany ever since. Stefan Zweig‘s comment that ‘Schach ist wie die Liebe – Allein macht es weniger Spaß’ (Chess is like love – it’s less fun alone) certainly seems to hold a grain of truth, at least for the love part.
French may be the classic choice, but German is the language of love as well, or at least of talking about love! And if any day calls for some poetry, then it’s Valentine’s Day. So we asked around: what’s your favourite love poem in German and why is it good (or bad)? Here are three poems that were offered by our contributors – have a go at reading them and see what they say. But the important question is really: Was ist Dein Lieblingsliebesgedicht auf Deutsch?
Ist Lieb ein Feuer / und kann das Eisen schmiegen /
bin ich voll Feuer / und voller Liebespein /
wovon mag doch der Liebsten Herze sein?
wann’s eisern wär’ / so würd’ es mir erliegen /
wann’s gülden wär’ / so würd’ ich’s können biegen
durch meine Glut; soll’s aber fleischern sein /
so schließ ich fort: Es ist ein fleischern Stein:
doch kann mich nicht ein Stein / wie sie / betrügen.
Ist’s dann wie Frost / wie kalter Schnee und Eis /
wie presst sie dann aus mir den Liebesschweiß?
Mich deucht: Ihr Herz ist wie die Lorbeerblätter /
die nicht berührt ein starker Donnerkeil /
sie / sie verlacht / Cupido / deine Pfeil;
und ist befreit vor deinem Donnerwetter.
This sonnet is by Sibylle Schwarz, a teenage poet of the 17th century (she died when she was 17!) – she was a poetry prodigy. I particularly like this poem because Schwarz plays with the then current fashion for petrarchic motifs and characteristics in love poetry; she examines these very motifs in a petrarchic way and finds them all wanting. All fail to really express what love is – and in the end, the female object of the lyric voice’s desire is triumphantly untouched by love anyway and certainly by the poetry. So the girl, quite contrary to the way things ought to go in the 17th century, is not ensnared and trapped by Cupid.
Die zwei blauen Augen
von meinem Schatz,
Die haben mich in die
weite Welt geschickt.
Da mußt ich Abschied nehmen vom allerliebsten Platz!
O Augen blau,
warum habt ihr mich angeblickt?
Nun hab’ ich ewig Leid und Grämen!
Ich bin ausgegangen
in stiller Nacht
wohl über die dunkle Heide.
Hat mir niemand Ade gesagt
Mein Gesell’ war Lieb und Leide!
Auf der Straße stand ein Lindenbaum,
Da hab’ ich zum ersten Mal
im Schlaf geruht!
Unter dem Lindenbaum,
Der hat seine Blüten
über mich geschneit,
Da wußt’ ich nicht, wie das Leben tut,
War alles, alles wieder gut!
Alles! Alles, Lieb und Leid
Und Welt und Traum!
Gustav Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen(known in English as Songs of a Wayfarer) is a cycle of four songs composed around 1884. It’s a rather macabre and slightly sardonic reflection on the theme of lost or rejected love, after Mahler‘s own unhappy love affair. In fact, it’s a bit of an anti-love song and perhaps shows that Mahler was a better composer than he was a poet (but maybe that’s also why I like it!).
Wie furchtbar auch die Flamme war,
In der man einst zusammenbrannte,
Am Ende bleibt ein wenig Glut.
Auch uns geschieht das Altbekannte.
Daß es nicht Asche ist, die letzte Spur von Feuer,
Zeigt unser Tagwerk. Und wie teuer
Die kleine Wärme ist, hab ich erfahren
In diesem schlimmsten Jahr
Von allen meinen Jahren.
Wenn wieder so ein Winter wird
Und auf mich so ein Schnee fällt,
Rettet nur diese Wärme mich
Vom Tod. Was hält
Mich sonst? Von unserer Liebe bleibt: daß
Wir uns hatten. Kein Gras
Wird auf uns sein, kein Stein,
Solange diese Glut glimmt.
Solange Glut ist,
Kann auch Feuer sein …
My favourite German love poem is Liebe (Love) by Eva Strittmatter, a very modern writer who died recently, in 2011. I adore her ability to put all the various kinds of love that can be experienced within a lifetime into a deceptively simple narrative. This doesn’t diminish it at all but allows her to play with all love’s ambivalences.
In her final post on literary images of Berlin, Jana Maria Weiss introduces us to the German capital seen through the eyes of the writer, Erich Kästner, who is particularly well known for his children’s stories (e.g. Emil and the Detectives; Emil and the Flying Classroom).
„Es scheint doch, dass ich wirklich nach Berlin gehöre, wie?“
So schrieb Erich Kästner (1899-1974) wenige Monate nach seinem Umzug in die Hauptstadt an die Mutter nach Dresden. Nachdem der gebürtige Sachse mehrere Jahre in Leipzig gelebt, studiert und gearbeitet hatte, verlor er 1927 seine Anstellung bei der Neuen Leipziger Zeitung. Fortan musste er sich als freier Journalist durchschlagen. Doch was zunächst wie ein Unglück aussah, entpuppt sich bald als große Chance: Kästner siedelt nach Berlin über und beginnt seine Texte – zunächst Theaterkritiken später auch Gedichte – an diverse namhafte Zeitungen zu verkaufen. Er versteht es, sich zu vermarkten – stets mit dem selbsterklärten Ziel vor Augen: Wenn ich 30 Jahre bin, will ich, daß man meinen Namen kennt. Bis 35 will ich anerkannt sein. Bis 40 sogar ein bißchen berühmt.
Es sollte ihm gelingen. Seine Zeitungs-Gedichte, für die er selbst den Begriff der „Gebrauchslyrik“ prägt, treffen den Nerv der Zeit. In sachlich klarer Sprache beschreibt er mit einfühlsamem Blick den Alltag der kleinen Leute in der Großstadt. Dienstmädchen, Werksarbeitern und Sekretärinnen widmet er seine dichterische Aufmerksamkeit:
Der Mann, von dem im weiteren Verlauf
die Rede ist, hieß Schmidt (Kurt Schm., komplett).
Er stand, nur sonntags nicht, früh 6 Uhr auf
und ging allabendlich Punkt 8 zu Bett.
10 Stunden lag er stumm und ohne Blick.
4 Stunden brauchte er für Fahrt und Essen.
9 Stunden stand er in der Glasfabrik.
1 Stündchen blieb für höhere Interessen.
Sein erster Gedichtband Herz auf Taille (1928) wird zum Bestseller. Und auch im für ihn damals noch neuen Genre der Kinderliteratur erobert er mit seinem Roman Emil und die Detektive (1929) im Fluge die Herzen kleiner und großer Leser. Mit Emil, Pony Hütchen und Gustav mit der Hupe, die in Berlin auf Verbrecherjagd gehen, hat Kästner sich tief ins literarische Gedächtnis der Stadt eingeschrieben: Ausgehend vom Bahnhof Zoo, wo Emil den Zug verlässt, um den Dieb Grundeis zu verfolgen, schlängeln sich die Wege der kleinen Detektive durch ganz Berlin. Die Kinder ermitteln im aufregenden Gewusel der Großstadt, deren hektisches Treiben für sie zum Abenteuer wird: Das ist ja wie im Kino!, ruft Gustav mit der Hupe begeistert.
Was die Kinder an der Metropole fasziniert, wirkt auf Kästners erwachsene Figuren hingegen oft bedrohlich. Sie sind von den vielen Eindrücken überfordert und fühlen sich in der Großstadt verloren:
Sie wissen vor Staunen nicht aus und nicht ein.
Sie stehen und wundern sich bloß.
Die Bahnen rasseln. Die Autos schrein.
Sie möchten am liebsten zu Hause sein.
Und finden Berlin zu groß.
Es klingt, als ob die Großstadt stöhnt,
weil irgendwer sie schilt.
Die Häuser funkeln. Die U-Bahn dröhnt.
Sie sind das alles so gar nicht gewöhnt.
Und finden Berlin zu wild.
Kein Wunder! Denn das Berlin der 20er und 30er Jahre gleicht in vieler Hinsicht einem hektischen Rummel: Theater, Kabaretts, Bierpaläste und Musiklokale sind an allen Ecken zu finden. Genusssucht und Freizügigkeit bestimmen das Berliner Leben. Fabian, der Protagonist in Kästners gleichnamigem Roman, veranlasst dies zur Diagnose: Sittenverfall. Sein Blick auf die Großstadt ist in jeder Hinsicht negativ, dystopisch:
Soweit diese riesige Stadt aus Stein besteht, ist sie fast noch wie einst. Hinsichtlich der Bewohner gleicht sie längst einem Irrenhaus. Im Osten residiert das Verbrechen, im Zentrum die Gaunerei, im Norden das Elend, im Westen die Unzucht und in allen Himmelsrichtungen wohnt der Untergang.
In diesem Berlin fühlt sich Fabian, der Moralist – wie Kästner ihn nennt – völlig verloren. Oft fährt er ziellos durch die Stadt, verirrt sich, wandelt einsam durch Straßen und Gassen:
Er hatte keine Ahnung, wo er sich befand. Wenn man am Wittenbergplatz auf den Autobus 1 kletterte, an der Potsdamer Brücke in eine Straßenbahn umsteigt, ohne deren Nummer zu lesen, und zwanzig Minuten später den Wagen verläßt, weil plötzlich eine Frau drinsitzt, die Friedrich dem Großen ähnelt, kann man wirklich nicht wissen, wo man ist.
Doch das Verhältnis des Protagonisten zur Großstadt ist gespalten. Fabian erscheint als Stadtneurotiker à la Woody Allen: Die Metropole ist ihm verhasst und doch kann er nicht ohne sie. Die Flucht vor dem großstädtischen Leben zurück in die heimatliche Provinz ist sein Ende. Beim Versuch, dort einen Mann vor dem Ertrinken zu retten, kommt der Nichtschwimmer Fabian ums Leben.
Auch Erich Kästners selbst ist zwischen seiner Liebe zu Berlin und der Sehnsucht nach seiner Heimatstadt Dresden hin- und hergerissen. In der Hauptstadt feiert er große berufliche Erfolge, hat immer wieder neue Liebesbeziehungen und führt ein aufregendes Literatenleben. Dennoch verspürt er großes Heimweh, besonders nach seiner Mutter, zu der er zeitlebens eine äußerst enge Bindung hatte. Kästner schreibt ihr täglich und schickt noch während der Wirren des zweiten Weltkrieges seine Wäsche zum Waschen nach Hause.
Sein enges Verhältnis zur Mutter mag auch ein Grund dafür gewesen sein, dass Kästner – anders als die meisten seiner regimekritischen Dichterkollegen – nach der Machtergreifung der Nationalsozialisten 1933 nicht emigriert. Den Entschluss, in Berlin zu bleiben, begründet er mit seiner schriftstellerischen Verantwortung, als Chronist vor Ort die Ereignisse zu dokumentieren zu wollen. Als Einziger aller betroffenen Autoren wohnt er am 10. Mai 1933 auf dem Berliner Opernplatz der Bücherverbrennung bei. Die schriftlichen Aufzeichnungen über dieses schreckliche Ereignis, enthalten die wohl nihilistischste Berlinbeschreibung im Werk Erich Kästners: Begräbniswetter hing über der Stadt.
Im Jahre 1945 verließ Erich Kästner das umkämpfte Berlin und lebte schließlich in München, wo er im Sommer 1974 nach schwerer Krankheit starb.
Welcome to a new series of blog posts on literary themes! Over the next couple of months, OGN Ambassador and Oxford student, Jana Maria Weiss will explore literary images of Berlin through the works of different authors. Here, she kicks off the series with Mascha Kaléko, a Jewish German poet of the early twentieth century.
„Paris ist schön … sehr schön. Aber leben, leben in Berlin“
schrieb Mascha Kaléko (1907-1975), geschätzte und geschmähte Lyrikerin im Berlin der 20er und 30er Jahre, von einer Frankreichreise 1932 nach Hause. Nach Berlin – der Stadt, die Mittelpunkt ihres Lebens und Fixpunkt ihres dichterischen Schaffens geworden war. Dabei fühlte sich die galizische Jüdin, die im Alter von 16 Jahren mit ihrer Familie nach Berlin umsiedelte, zunächst durchaus als Fremdling in der großen deutschen Metropole.
Man lebte in der Spandauer Vorstadt – ein Viertel, das vor allem von armen osteuropäischen Juden bewohnt wurde, die zu dieser Zeit als minderwertige Gesellschaftsgruppe galten. Ihre Herkunft verschwieg Mascha Kaléko daher oft. Sie versuchte sich anzupassen, möglichst nicht als „anders“ aufzufallen. Sprachfeinfühlig wie sie war, begann sie sich in den Berliner Dialekt einzuhören und fand so den schnoddrigen Ton, der später zum Charakteristikum ihrer Lyrik wird.
Nach Abschluss der Schule beginnt sie eine Ausbildung zur Stenotypistin. Der Beruf füllt sie nicht aus – lieber hätte sie studiert, aber es sind schlechte Zeiten. Inflation und
Massenarbeitslosigkeit bestimmen das Berliner Leben. Raum für ihre eigentlichen Interessen bleibt Mascha Kaléko nur am Ende der monotonen Achtstundentage. Sie besucht universitäre Abendkurse in Philosophie und Psychologie – und entdeckt das Schreiben für sich.
Aus dem Alltag flüchtet Mascha in die Poesie. Und poetisiert dort den Alltag. In Kontrast zur traditionell gefühlvollen Lyrik dichtet sie in einem neuen Stil, der in seiner Sachlichkeit tatsächlich ein bisschen an Schreibmaschinentexte aus dem Büro erinnert. In ihren Gedichten skizziert sie das Berliner Großstadtleben, spürt den Sorgen der kleinen Leute nach und thematisiert zwischenmenschliche Beziehungen in der Anonymität der Metropole. Maschas Berlin ist das der jungen Bürodamen und Angestellten, die im Gewühl der Großstadt auf der Suche nach dem kleinen Glück sind.
Mit fast vier Millionen Einwohnern ist Berlin zu dieser Zeit nach London und New York die
drittgrößte Stadt der Welt. Auf den Straßen herrscht lautes und hektisches Treiben.
Ein Idyll war das Berlin der 20er Jahre sicher nicht – wie Mascha Kalékos Gedicht Frühling über Berlin verdeutlicht. Spöttisch ironisiert sie darin das berühmte romantische Gedicht Frühling lässt sein blaues Band… (1892) von Eduard Mörike. Und die bei Mascha Kaléko beschriebene Großstadtliebe scheint die Bezeichnung „Liebe“ gar nicht recht verdient zu haben – so unromantisch und kurzlebig wie sie ist.
Die Mischung aus Melancholie und Heiterkeit, die den Ton dieser Gedichte bestimmt, gilt bald als Mascha Kalékos Markenzeichen. Ironisch, einfühlsam und mit scheinbar plaudernder Leichtigkeit nähert sie sich ihren Themen und schafft es so, das Lebensgefühl der 20er Jahre in die Literatur zu übersetzen.
Bald drucken mehrere Berliner Tageszeitungen ihre Gedichte. Ihr erster Band Das lyrische Stenogrammheft, der 1933 beim renommierten Rowohlt Verlag erscheint, ist innerhalb kurzer Zeit vergriffen. Mascha Kaléko ist zum neuen Star der Berliner Literaturszene geworden. Im „Romanischen Café“ an der Tauentzienstraße, dem damaligen Künstlertreff der Avantgarde, begegnet sie anderen berühmten Schriftstellern wie Else Lasker-Schüler, Kurt Tucholsky, Joachim Ringelnatz und Erich Kästner – sie diskutiert, phantasiert und schreibt. Viele sehen in ihr eine Vertreterin des neuen Frauentypus der 20er Jahre – selbstsicher und unabhängig.
Doch auf die „leuchtenden Jahre“ in Berlin folgt „die große Verdunkelung“ – wie Mascha
Kaléko es später rückblickend beschreibt. 1935 erhält sie als jüdische Schriftstellerin
Schreibverbot, im September 1938 – zwei Monate vor der Reichspogromnacht – verlässt sie Berlin und emigriert mit Mann und Sohn in die USA. Die Familie lebt nun in New York. Bald beherrscht Mascha genügend Englisch, um mit Übersetzungen und Werbetexten Geld zu verdienen, dichten kann sie jedoch nur in ihrer Muttersprache. Sie sehnt sich nach der
verlorenen Heimat, nach Deutschland und Berlin.
Zugleich ist die Erinnerung an das Land, das sie einst vertrieben hat, äußerst schmerzlich und bedrückend. Erst zehn Jahre nach Kriegsende wagt Mascha Kaléko die erste Reise nach Deutschland. Es kommt zum Wiedersehen mit Berlin. Der Besuch ist sehr aufwühlend. Die Stadt liegt in Trümmern und Mascha wird bewusst, dass „ihr Berlin“ für immer verschwunden ist. Das Wiedersehen wird zum Loslassen. Die geliebte, dann verlorene Stadt Berlin – nun nimmt Mascha Kaléko von ihr Abschied. Ein paar mal wird sie noch zurückkehren. Dort leben, „leben in Berlin“ – wie sie 1932 noch sehnsüchtig schrieb – wird sie nicht mehr.
1975 stirbt Mascha Kaléko in Zürich. In der Berliner Bleibtreustraße, Haus 10/11, wo sie vor
ihrer Emigration wohnte, erinnert eine Gedenktafel an sie.
The Oxford German Network recently launched its annual national competition: the Oxford German Olympiad 2017! Now in its fifth year, this year’s theme is ‘Deutsch(e) jenseits von Deutschland – German(s) beyond Germany’. The OGN Team put their heads together to suggest some of the questions and topics you might like to think about when you enter the competition…
Peoples have always migrated and taken their languages and stories with them. Moreover, languages and cultures are almost never confined to one geographical area or one nation. Of course, the English language provides a good example of this – but so does German! German and German dialects are spoken not just by those living in Germany, but also in Austria, Switzerland… and parts of the USA, and German culture has found its way into all sorts of unexpected places. So this year, the Oxford German Olympiad explores German peoples, language and culture beyond the borders of Germany. There’s a lot out there to provide food for thought!
Historically, Germany didn’t even come into existence until 1871 and Austria didn’t exist as a defined republican state until 1919. They’re both very young in terms of ‘nation states’. So what does that mean for what we might consider ‘German’? Would travelling back in time open up a world in which all of ‘German’ existed only ‘beyond Germany’?
Like English, German is the official language in more than one country. Do people in Austria speak ‘German’ or ‘Austrian’? And what about Switzerland? Officially divided into German, French and Italian speaking areas – the German you’ll encounter here is again very different and even varies with each Kanton! Did you know that German is also one of the three official languages of Luxembourg?
Like Britain, France, Spain or Portugal, Germany became a colonial power, but only in the late nineteenth century under Kaiser Wilhelm II. It was a latecomer seeking a “place in the sun” – “einen Platz an der Sonne”. There are still traces of that heritage, e.g. in Africa, where the German Empire settled colonies in areas that are now parts of Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Ghana, and other modern African countries.
Can you think of any famous German migrants in the UK? You could start with looking into the ancestors of the Royal Family or the ancient Rothschild financial dynasty… A wave of migration to other parts of the world was caused by National Socialism in the 1930s and early 1940s, but Germans also moved across Europe and across oceans for religious and economic reasons from the sixteenth century onwards. Religious reforming communities, like the Mennonites and the Amish, which have Dutch and Swiss origins in the sixteenth century and still maintain some of their linguistic heritage (e.g. ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’) to this day, can be found in parts of the USA, South America and elsewhere.
People migrate for many reasons: they may follow a friend or partner, work for an international company, seek an education abroad or just want to try living somewhere else. How many people in the UK do you know who originate from a German-speaking country?
Of course, texts also migrate – above all through translation – and can be adopted and adapted by other cultures. Think of the international cultural influence of Goethe’s Faust or the many well-known fairytales collected, adapted and published by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the nineteenth century. Pick a piece of German you find interesting – a song, a poem, a news article or part of a story – and try translating it. It’s fun! You’ll find words that are almost the same, and words that are challenging. Are any untranslatable?