Michael Hofmann’s Gottfried Benn is a bit like a character in a novel about an old man ruminating over his past mistakes. This novel is innovatively presented as a translation of the old man’s poetry and prose, but also including the original German poems, which are sometimes great masterpieces. That last part is the one no novelist can do. Not many.
Benn moves from his early stark shockers (“two hundred pages, thin stuff, one would be ashamed if one were still alive,” as Benn described his own poems in 1921) to a bold lyricism to a loose, conversational style, like I’m meeting him in a bar:
From the saloon bar the rattle of dice on a wooden tabletop,
beside you a couple at the anthropophagous stage,
a chestnut bough on the piano adds a natural touch,
all in all, my kind of place. (p. 123)
Somehow the booze leads Benn to think of its effect on his primitive brain – he is a doctor, remember – and then to the primitive ocean, long before man,
before consciousness and conception,
no one went angling for monsters,
no one suffered deeper than ten feet,
which if you think about it isn’t so very much.
Benn made one big mistake. In 1933, he “drifted into the Nazi orbit” (Hofmann, p. xvii) and supported them in the minor but real ways a poet can support a bunch of culture-obsessed ideologues. What is impressive about Benn is that within a year and a half he had realized his mistake. “It dawned on Benn that the Nazis were not a bunch of pessimistic aesthetes like himself, but rather imbued with a sanguinary optimism…” (xvii). How many artists disentangle themselves from their bad politics so quickly?
Who knows what might have happened to Benn, but, as strange as it sounds, he was saved by the war. For Benn, a doctor specializing in venereal diseases, military service was like a writer’s retreat. Stationed in some boring behind-the-lines backwater military hospital, he could finally get to work on his writing. Both the first and second world wars were highly productive times for him. So odd.
During World War II, his writing would have got him shot if the wrong people had known he was doing it.
The second-longest prose piece in the book is an extraordinary piece of memoir, “Block II, Room 66” (1944), “the address of the quarters where I was billeted for a number of months” (308). Recruits pass through, each batch both younger and older than the last, the training period shorter every time, “[e]ver new waves of men, waves of blood, destined to dribble away into the Eastern steppes after a few shots and gestures toward so-called enemies” (310). The nation’s leaders become more obvious confidence men and thugs, “club wielding clowns, heroes with brass knuckles” (312); the propaganda grows more rancid and desperate. The “individualist felt like a one-man cosmic catastrophe” (315), the irony being that this is how Benn always felt.
As with Karl Kraus, the rise of the Nazis had the effect of ruining the satirists’ ironies. “Block II, Room 66” has a streak of Kraus running through it. Benn is enraged by the use of German poets in Nazi propaganda. “Listen: in the Naval Review of November 1943… that makes its way through our blocks, a professor for church and international law at a Bavarian university treats questions of war at sea (a church lawyer?) under four aspects,” supporting his claims with quotations from Rilke and Hölderlin:
Now, it’s possible to come at the Duino Elegies from many angles, but to interpret them as in some sense warlike is something they really won’t bear. The allusion to Rilke is a trap for what the professor correctly assumes is the enfeebled German brain. (318)
Then it’s Christmas. Then the Russians come. “The part that lives is not the same part that thinks, that’s a fundamental fact of our existence, and we had better get used to it.” But Benn does get a lot of writing done.