Sunday, September 16, 2018

Some German books I read recently - Rilke, Kafka, Brecht - In the dark times / Will there also be singing?

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), Rainer Maria Rilke, tr. Stephen Mitchell.

Let’s just assume that I did not understand this novel.  There are fragmented pieces about a young man in Paris.  He walks around and goes to museums and so on.  Paris is endlessly interesting.  Then there are other fragments about the narrator’s odd childhood in a castle in Denmark, raised among a group of eccentrics.  These pieces are also interesting.

How the two kinds of pieces fit together, I missed that completely.  Something to look forward to when I read the novel again someday.

The novel has quite a bit of French in it, translated by Mitchell in the notes.  Now that I am reading French, I can just grind through in the text, saving time and energy.  That is a joke; reading the note is easier and faster.  But I don’t read it, no, I must practice my French.

Diaries, 1910-1913, Franz Kafka, tr. Joseph Kresh, ed. Max Brod

I just finished “The Metamorphosis,” (1915), minutes ago, which I have read several times.  It is for me among the perfect fictions, with a central idea that is an outstanding fantasy taken literally but expands endlessly as symbol, metaphor, or allegory, with prose that is precise and elegant, and most surprisingly with at least one character as psychologically complex and “real” as in any other fiction I know.  My memory is that Kafka did not pull off the latter trick so often.

His little 1912 book Meditation (many possible alternative titles) is made up of little observations, or prose poems, or micro-fictions.  I am not sure what they mean, mostly, but reading the diaries I at least see what they are.  Much of Kafka’s writing in his diary, at least in these years, consists of the beginnings of let’s call them stories.  Story starters, except often the story does not start.  One line, a paragraph, then nothing.  And then, inspiration strikes, and Kafka spends all night writing “The Judgment” (1913).  He keeps searching for that magic.  Endlessly frustrating from his point of view.  Meanwhile, Max Brod says “Hey, c’mon, some of these are good – publish them!”

One year, 1911, takes up a third of Kafka’s diary writing, much of which is about Kafka’s love of a Yiddish theater company that set up in Prague.  Kafka not only went to performances but became friends with the actors, hung out with them, had crushes on one in particular.  This whole chunk of the book is of high interest.  Whether it helps me understand anything else Kafka wrote, I will see.  I continue my exploration.

Poems 1913-1956, Bertolt Brecht, tr. many people, ed. John Willett and Ralph Manheim

Reading this book was a lot like reading a diary, or, given the 150 pages of notes, a biography of Brecht.  Each poem, published or unpublished, is placed in its period.  The early song-writer becomes distracted by unexpected success in the theater and becomes fascinated by cities, by Berlin.  But in the 1930s events intrude, as strongly as possible, and Brecht becomes a writer in exile, in multiple exiles.

Some poems are public, some are private, unpublished.  Some are blatant propaganda, negligible as poetry, sometimes dismaying, but sometimes not.  But mostly the poems are poems, from the beginning through the worst.


In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.


  1. Ahaha, let us assume that I didn't understand that Rilke novel either. I do want to read more Kafka pretty soon, those beginnings sound kind of interesting.

  2. The Rilke I value - or, right, understand - is the one who wrote the "Thing poems," the concrete Rilke. And there is some of that in Notebooks, and I enjoyed it, but I did not understand how it functioned as a novel.

    Kafka, as a person, is pretty interesting, and as a self-tormented writer, one of the most interesting.

  3. Terezia Mora and Sibylle Lewitscharoff are the two recent German language writers who've won the largest number of big literary prizes. Lewitscharoff's stuff is particularly enjoyable. To [mis-]translate a little bit from an interview with her:

    "It's true that I'm not very interested in Post-WWII German literature, but I greatly admire Thomas Bernhardt and Paul Nizon; the earlier literary tradition is to me of the highest importance, not only because I spent most of my time reading it. [From those belonging to that tradition] I must name Kafka above everybody else; the literary work he created is so thorough in its achievement that, as human beings, we can appreciate it to such an extent that even things like The Bible seem pretty pale by comparison."

  4. Lewitscharoff's cheeky, a lover of erudite jokes. For example, in her novel about philosopher Hans Blumenberg (and his visitation by a Lion) she wrote: "The lion thing did not work out as Wittgenstein had said. 'If a lion could speak, we would not understand it.' Blumenberg certainly understood it."

  5. From the Univ. of Chicago blurb on the Lewitscharoff Blumenberg book: One night, German philosopher Hans Blumenberg returns to his study to find a shocking sight—a lion lying on the floor as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. The lion stretches comfortably on the Turkmen rug, eyes resting on Blumenberg. The philosopher with some effort retains his composure, even when the next day during his lecture the lion makes another appearance, ambling slowly down the center aisle. Blumenberg glances around; the seats are full, but none of his students seem to see the lion. What is going on here?

    This is the first I've heard of Blumenberg and his lion, but Russell Hoban must have heard of them since this same conceit lies at the center of Hoban's curious little novel, "The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz."

  6. I have seen it must be a hundred paintings of a philosopher of some sort at his desk with a lion. It can't have been that uncommon an incident, in the past at least. Maybe it does not happen so much anymore. I don't know.

  7. Been a while since I read the Rilke, but one thing I remember running through the book is anxiety over the body--dawning horror that other bodies are empty vessels, and that one's own body might be too.
    Is it a novel? Who the heck knows.
    I like your lion jokes.

  8. Hey, that is a description the book I am bashing my way through now, the Sartre novel. I just read an episode where the guy sees some portraits of successful people and begins to fear he does not exist. He is one odd dude, this narrator. Although in an important sense he is right.

  9. The philosopher with the lion was probably Saint Jerome. There are a lot of paintings of him at his desk with his pet lion snoozing beside him.

  10. Well, sure, representations of St. Jerome. But the painters was presumably modeling their paintings after ordinary scenes from daily life.

    I think in Mediterranean climates, it was more common to leave the door open, allowing friendly lions to wander in. Or maybe doors had not yet been invented, back in the day.

    Meine Frau says that is how woozly undergraduates specify the vague and distant past in papers - "back in the day."

  11. I find mine prefer the lofty (and gag-inducing), "Mankind has always..." (or, in your case, never).
    La Nausee? Yeah that is a book that fits well with Malte. Existential dread. Roquentin with the tree--that's Malte all the time.

  12. Wait, I love that. "Mankind has always done its greatest philosophical work in the presence of lions, but with recent trends in trends in poaching and habitat destruction" etc. etc. decline of civilization etc.

    Now we have shifted to cats. There is a cat behind my laptop as I type this. They, I can tell you, are useless.

    I have a ways to go, I think, before I meet the once-famous chestnut tree. Maybe this weekend.

  13. I see a wonderful second career for you in essay writing for dubious sites... Though you're going to need to dumb your material down a little.

    Ah I remember the tree as one of the first things, but it's been twenty plus years since I read that thing, and I have obviously forgotten pretty much everything.

  14. It is not a novel where the exact order of events matters all that much.

  15. One of Blumenberg's last books was called Lions/Löwen (as Shakira pointed out in her blog:

    One last thing about Blumenberg: on his Passion According to Matthew, Blumenberg remarks how Kafka in just a few lines from his Octavo Notebooks deconstructed the myth of the Fall, and he quotes:

    "Why do we complain about the Fall? It is not on its account that we were expelled from Paradise, but on account of the Tree of Life, lest we might eat of it.

    We were expelled from Paradise, but it was not destroyed. The expulsion from Paradise was in one sense a piece of good fortune, for if we had not been expelled, Paradise would have had to be destroyed" (cf. 'The crows claim that a single crow could destroy the heavens.This is certainly true, but it proves nothing against the heavens,because heaven means precisely:the absence of crows'.)

    "We are separated from God on two sides: the Fall separates us from Him, the Tree of Life separates Him from us.

    We are sinful not only because we have eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, but also because we have not yet eaten of the Tree of Life. The state in which we are is sinful, irrespective of guilt."

  16. It has been a surprise, how much substantial Kafka fiction is in his diaries and notebooks.