Friday, October 21, 2011

Coming up: weird German playwrights for German Literature Month

German Literature Month, so designated by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat, approaches.  At either link, you will find an orderly, well-defined schedule for the month.  My understanding is that it is should be followed only in spirit, although the schedules for the readalongs of Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest and Heinrich Böll’s The Silent Angel might have more meaning.

I have written before, if I am not imagining it as the result of a wine and tobacco induced E. T. A. Hoffmann-style dream, about my bewilderment and irritation at the poor status in the English-reading world of pre-20th century German-language literature.  Goethe, a titan, the equivalent, in English terms, of Shakespeare, Johnson, and Wordsworth combined in a single person, shrivels down to the author of Faust (part I only) and the “autobiographical” Sorrows of Young Werther.  German poetry is hopeless, despite numerous fine translations; German fiction, the rich line of novellas, is too weird.  Theodor Fontane can be credited with bringing Flaubert into German, Frenchifying German fiction, so I hope many readers in the “too weird” crowd will enjoy Effi Briest a lot. The business with the crocodile and Chinese servant is still a little weird.

Weirdest of all, though, is the startling German dramatic tradition.  The strange and wonderful things one found on the German stage.  That stage might well be imaginary – I am thinking of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, “finished” (by his death) in 1837, published in 1879, performed in 1913.  Large parts of Faust seem unstageable, too, although they have all been staged.

My point here is actually to pin up my German Literature Month reading list, except that I have not really decided yet.  I will mess around with some of the late 19th century playwrights, that’s all I know, the three almost exact contemporaries – Gerhart Hauptmann, Arthur Schnitzler, and Frank Wedekind.  (Sorry – Wedekind’s first name must be Franz, not Frank.  Let me look that up.  Ah, his full name is Benjamin Franklin Wedekind.  Of course.)

Wedekind is most famous, I think, for Spring Awakening, which was recently bent into a Broadway musical, and the two Lulu plays.  Schnitzler’s best known play is Der Reigen / La Ronde.  Hauptmann won the Nobel Prize in 1912, but seems to now be the least known in English, meaning: the titles of his plays do not ring bells for me.

I am tempted, too, by some younger playwrights, like Hugo von Hofmannsthal, lively poet, librettist for the dreary Richard Strauss – someday I hope to be able to spell Hofmannsthal’s name correctly without looking it up.  Or I might try the Expressionist Georg Kaiser, author of Gas and also Gas II.  The titles alone attract my interest.  I’m not going to read all or even much of this in November, though.

This piece must be among the most ignorant I have ever written for Wuthering Expectations.  Speculative might be a kinder word.  Corrections, admonitions, and recommendations are most welcome.

Oh, there will also be some of this in November:

That’ll be fun, right?


  1. No Schiller? When I think of the greats of German Gothic/Romantic playwrights, I always turn to Schiller first. But I also reveal the gaps in my own education when I reveal he's my default.

  2. By all means, Schiller. Everyone should - no, strike that - good readers should read Schiller. I would enjoy reading someone else's week-long series on Wallenstein. Make it two weeks.

    I guess I plan to use the GermanLitMonth impetus to read some of the later playwrights who I've never read.

  3. Maybe I'll finally get round to reading Wallenstein. I did read a book about The Thirty Years War in preparation for it. - Not that I'm likely to do a week-long series of course - you'll be lucky to get a post.

  4. I'll be happy with your one-line "Books Read" summation.

    Eh, I'm always happy.

  5. Much of the finest Getman literature is poetry. I do not mean to say that poetry can never be translated, but some is more resistant than others to translation. Lyric poetry suffers especially. I am told that one of the loveliest lines of poetry comes from Heine - " In wunderschönen Monat Mai". Lovers of classical music should have no difficulty in identifying that: it's the first line of the first lied in Schumann's song cycle, "Dichterliebe". But translate it into English, and what do you get? "In the beautiful month of May". Hmmm....

  6. PS The only Schiller I have read is a translation of "Don Carlos". It's unfair to judge blank verse in translation, but in purely dramatic terms, it seemed to me that far too much time was spent on merely the mechanics of the plot. I much prefer Verdi's opera based on that play. The opera is very flawed as well, but it's magnificent no Ethelred.

  7. I'm sorry - I have no idea where that "no Ethelread" bit came from. Some day, I'll get used to this auto-correction on iPad...

  8. Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening happens to be my favourite play, or one of them. I'm generally fond of German/Swiss/Austrian playwrights.
    I'm planning on doing a personal giveaway next week and one of the titles I had in mind was Spring Awakening. Maybe I will exchange it with Joseph Roth though. I have a feeling nobody would want a play...
    You might also enjoy Wedekind's unfinished story Mine Haha. It's in the spirit of Spring Awakening.
    A fruitful combination would be reading Goethe's Götz von Berlichingen in parallel with Schiller's Die Räuber as they are both so typical Sturm und Drang.
    How about Lessing's Minna von Barnhelm?
    Himadri, is that how it is translated? In the "beautiful" month...? "wunderschön" is gorgeous or glorious... Not that that sounds much better... Although I prefer the ring of glorious...

  9. Oh, and thanks for the post and the links.

  10. Have fun with the Germans! As a German who spent the second half of secondary and all of higher education in the UK, I'm still trying to catch up on some of the classics I was never made to read in high school. So last year I finally read Effi Briest and I would encourage anyone to give it a try. I really didn't think I would, but I loved it! I have no idea if the translation is any good, but the original has a subtle humour guaranteed to make you chuckle, despite the tragedy of everything else.
    So anyone going for Effi, enjoy!

  11. I definitely second the motion to read _Effie Briest_. It is one of those unknown, at least in English, masterpieces.

  12. Strip all of the loveliness from Heine and he is still very much worth reading. I have read a heap of brilliant German poetry in brilliant translation. So I don't get everything - leave it in German and I get nothing.

    "no Ethelred" was my favorite part of that comment - what could it mean, I wondered? Who is Ethelred? Why did Verdi's librettist omit this crucial character?

    Spring Awakening is a must now - thanks for the encouragement, Caroline.

    Yes, other people, read Goethe and Schiller and Lessing.

    The Penguin Effi Briest is well translated, by whom I do not remember.

  13. I have the Penguin edition also, and the translator is listed as Douglas Parmee, who also wrote the Introduction.

  14. I appreciate the tips on the weird Germans, and I semi-appreciate that weird German drawing or whatever it is. Ok, I really appreciate it, but it's kind of disturbing all the same. As far as pre-20th century German literature oversights, what, man, have you no love at all for Wolfram von Eschenbach? One of the greatest author names ever, and his book's not bad either!

  15. The weird drawing, Richard, is from Max und Moritz by Wilhelm Busch. I think Tom chose one of the "nicer" ones.
    This is one of a kind book, an early graphic novel (maybe he invented comics) , haunted my childhood dreams (have to hunt for it, as an old copy is in my grandmother's stuff together with Grimmelshausen's Simplicissimus - why is nobody reading that, I wonder? ) and so is the author. I think reading a biography of him would be amazing.
    Busch's classic tale of the terrible duo (now in the public domain) has since become a proud part of the culture in German-speaking countries.
    Here is a wiki (I'm not generally fond of wikipedia but...) quote:
    "Even today, parents usually read these tales to their not-yet-literate children. To this day in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, a certain familiarity with the story and its rhymes is still presumed, as it is often referenced in mass communication. The two leering, cretinous faces are synonymous with mischief, and appear almost logo-like in advertising and even graffiti."

  16. Musil's 'Man without Qualities' and Doblin's 'Berlin Alexanderplatz' ought to be better-known. I agree with you, more German literature needs sympathetic translation, but even Goethe, yet alone Faust II, seems to be little-known these days in the English-speaking world.

  17. I am reading Grimmelshausen's Simplicissimus; I'm about 100 pages from the end.

    I read Wallenstein's Camp (part 1 of the trilogy) last night and it was a dreadful, dreadful experience. So dreadful it might be worth a post.

  18. I'm sorry, obooki, I meant our participants... I also saw that you are reading Kubin. Very interesting. I wanted to read him but got sidetracked by Meyrink.
    I wonder what was so dreaful about Wallenstein (haven't read it).

  19. Why not Wolfram's Parzival, weirdest book ever written, or the staggering Niebelungenlied? Because I am following Lizzy's rules! I quote: "literature from the 18th century onwards."

    Caroline - be honest, do you really wonder why no one has signed on for Grimmelshausen? Really?

    Yes, obooki, a Wallenstein post, please. That's another play that seems unstageable to me, because I am ignorant of theater and staging.

    litlove is reading The Man without Qualities next month, and once she writes it up, everyone will want to read it, so that problem will be solved.

  20. Grimmelshausen would probably not have been a Booker candidate. At least not in the post-workday/severe headache readable sub-category.

  21. I still haven't even made my way over to the rules, or organization, or whatever, but it looks like I will be somewhat participating in this German Literature Month in my own bibliographing reading challenge, up next for which is Elective Affinities. So Anthony and I will be getting away from what you've got as the usual Goethe, which is good.

    Nothing turned me off German literature like actually studying German and German literature. Then again, nothing also turned me on to it so much, so it all depends. When your assigned reading (yes, in a literature class) is the letters of Rosa Luxembourg, good luck. But such a poetic language. The consumption partner brought home the Luther Bible last week from work, for fun of course, and it's so lovely I might even read (substantial parts of) it. "Und Gott sprach: Es werde Licht! Und es ward Licht." Not as wunderschön as the Monat Mai, perhaps, but I do think the language sounds very beautiful.

    Oh, and one other thing. I once worked with a woman whose surname was Moritz, and she had a dog named Max, and no one got it but me. So you're right, we don't know nearly enough German lit.

  22. Grimmelshausen - to make the case the other way - wrote a couple of unique books. Simplicissimus is a surprise-filled book.

    The surprise of Elective Affinities was how often I catch echoes of it in later fiction. You may enjoy, for example, the weird hints of EA in Wuthering Heights.

    As for that "literature" class - Rosa Luxembourg? Somewhere in German literature we can do better.

    I would love to be able to read the Luther Bible.

  23. "German poetry is hopeless, despite numerous fine translations", totally agree with you & I hope to write a post on the Faber book of 20th Century German Poetry Ed Michael Hofmann some point during this month & am posting German poetry & translations on Twitter via my twitter site & on my Poetry specific site @pomesallsizes, hopefully it's a small step in a right direction.
    Great Post, thanks

  24. I should clarify that line:

    Advocating poetry in translation is a hopeless endeavor. Many readers, most of whom frankly do not read poetry at all, have firmly decided that poetry in translation is no good.

    Actual German poetry in actual translation if often wonderful.