Better known for his plays and proletarian haircut, Brecht was also a prodigious poet.
You don’t get any of the individualist sensitivity of the romantics and symbolists with a socialist activist like Bertolt, although you do get a range of style and content. War poems, revolutionary paeans, work shanties, songs of fate, music hall ballads, dedications, aphoristic snippets and verse to accompany the dramatic action of plays such as Mother Courage and The Threepenny Opera, and saving some of his most telling censure for the Californian society where he found refuge in exile.
His more than 2,000 poems tended towards the laconic, featuring plain, sinewy vocabulary cut from the rock of his own truth, eschewing the ornate and the complex, enjambement and ambiguity, and preferring unbookish speech and metaphors of clarity.
Out of solidarity and sympathy with the labouring, fighting poor, he wrote of the stuff of these men and women’s everyday lives. Hunger, tiredness, struggle and death. Blood and soup, bread and iron, winter cold, injustice, purpose and supposed progress.
“Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it,” he wrote.
In the context of his beliefs and place and time (20th century East Germany), you can understand his point of view even if you regret the narrowness of such a scope.
With art at the service of the collective and the revolutionary useful, there was precious little room in his output for his lover, Margarete Steffin, or any other non-didactic tenderness. Just once in a rare while an exception would slip out.
Das kleine Haus unter Bäumen am See.
Vom Dach steigt Rauch.
Wie trostlos dann wären
Haus, Bäume und See.
The little house among trees by the lake.
From the chimney rises smoke.
How sad would be
House, trees and lake.]
Little known beside Heller’s Catch-22, this powerful read is a far more impressive achievement.
The monologue of a middle-class American man exerts a mesmeric effect on the reader. Bob Slocum details his self-incriminating thoughts, desires and misdemeanours, and holds back nothing. He offers nothing to exonerate the uncharitability of his nature; there is nothing to be admired in his life, whether home, office, or extra-marital, and he knows it. And it is this unembellished honesty that is the strength of the book. He says what he truly feels, not what he is supposed to feel. One can hear Heller thinking: “hypocrite lecteur!--mon semblable,— mon frère!”
When Heller makes Slocum misogynistic, misanthropic, sexist, racist, he is saying: there is your typical American male. Representative of his culture and times. Any pretence is foregone. He has three children, a girl and two boys. One of the boys, Derek, is brain-damaged to the point of being a lifelong burden on the family. Bob Slocum tells us how he no longer loves the retarded kid and how they would be better off without him. It is awful. And it is something—is it not?— that might go through the head of any parent in that grotesque situation.
The monologue’s confessional style has such unadulterated candour that when one truth is not enough, another is added within parentheses. It is very effective.
It’s not just Bob Slocum who’s unhappy: there’s no one who is. Heller shows us the shallowness of conventional, consumerist, American society in all its sad idiocy. Slocum is tormented by the loss of himself, or the child he remembers being, or hopes existed and is not an illusion, “a deserted little boy I know who will never grow older and never change”. “I can’t help him. Between us now there is a cavernous void. He is always nearby.”
“I know at last what I want to be when I grow up. When I grow up I want to be a little boy.”
This identity becomes at times confused or conflated with his son, who is nine. In the end, and not until the end, we learn that, yes, “something happened.” And it is so ambiguously related that it shocks to the core. This it is that explains Slocum’s compulsion to unadulterated confessional. It wouldn’t have changed the man he is but he might not have felt the need to tell us.
It is not pride in his perspicacity or self-knowledge but suppressed panic that drives him. “I’ve got anxiety; I suppress hysteria.” He applies himself at work for the first time and loses himself in it. Taking heed of what his son’s gym teacher told the boy: that it’s “time to start learning some responsibility and discipline.”
He will also put this account together and you will get everything.
If you like road trip books that move towards self-discovery, this 1970s paperback has a unique style and rhythm. Just don’t expect any profound revelations and go along for the ride.
What got me about it was the unhurried tone of the narrative, and the enquiring mind on the open road, which has always represented freedom or its promise to me. Also, that the essence of Pirsig’s investigation turned out to be something as unpindownable as “quality.”
I mean: how do you define the indefinable quality of a thing?
At university, it wasn’t until I got a holiday job as a scarecrow that I got some serious reading done.
For thirteen hours a day, I had to walk up and down between endless rows of cherry trees wielding a rattle to frighten away flocks of starlings. So I learned how to walk and read, and went through Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and even one or two of the books I was supposed to be studying.
Today, of the plot and story of Ana Karenin, Crime & Punishment and The Magic Mountain, all of which I enjoyed very much at the time, I remember nothing. Either they didn’t make that essential connection with me or my memory is shot to pieces. One way or another, they don’t spark my interest when I recall them so they join the shelf of the many books that don’t get featured here.
One cherry orchard book that did make a lasting impression was Jung’s autobiography. On the one hand, his account was unusually reassuring in the way he transmitted a belief in the sense and meaning of unconscious phenomena and their outward manifestations. On the other, I remember finding it almost annoying how every time he came up against a major impasse, a dream would come along to enlighten him and show the way forward. It certainly hadn’t been my experience — but then we can’t all be Carl Gustav Jung.
He was particularly sensitive to a primal living magic and his great gift was articulating and joining this to his inner life by means of symbolic interpretation. With Jung came a great union of inner with outer, east with west, so-called primitive with modern, and an impetus to find meaning through them in individual integration.
Nice work if you can get it :-D
A fascinating read enriched by reflections from the latter years of one of the world’s great thinkers and pipe smokers.
Which brings us to Fred.
Philosophy like you’ve near heard it before. The philosopher as passionate prophet.
His great idea of the “ewige Wiederkehr” —that we return to relive the self-same life in every detail— only makes sense as total affirmation of every moment lived in this life, but has otherwise no basis and seems quite uncalled for.
Seems to me he was overcompensating in trying to overcome his own nihilism.
The work’s best moments come in his excoriation of the mealy-mouthed, the luke warm and the life haters, and in a joyous paean to existence: what we’d all like to feel.
Surreal anarchic humour is one of the few things that has kept me (almost) sane and Milligan was a master of it. Some of his jokes should be sent on one of those space probes with cultural items that they hope alien life will one day encounter and attempt to grasp human intelligence.
The mice in the caravan ate my Milligan collection. Well they thought it was funny.
Spike’s war memoirs start at Victoria station, where he is given “a picture of Hitler marked ‘This is your enemy.’ I searched every compartment, but he wasn't on the train.”
With Gunner Milligan taking aim, the Führer doesn’t stand a chance.
For Spike, humour was his way of dealing with the war; afterwards, for dealing with the trauma; after that, he had no reason to change.
In a slim volume after his magnificent “The Tin Drum,” Grass continued experimenting with the device of an unreliable narrator.
It means that he plays “Cat and Mouse” with the reader, just as Mahlke, the youthful subject of the novella, will be the metaphorical mouse that is toyed with by the narrator —his so-called friend Pilenz— and by the malignant society of Nazi Danzig that he grows up in.
A turning point in my undergraduate years came when I was allowed to choose which authors to study.
At this point, I became earnestly interested in writers who, by an extraordinary coincidence, had either died young or whose literary output was, shall we say, modest in quantity. Nothing to do, of course, with lack of scholarly assiduity on my part, or aiming to navigate a degree course doing the barest minimum. It just so happened that, suddenly, it was no more no more Thomas Mann massive Magic Mountains for me and adieu to Proust’s interminable temps perdu.
I conceived instead a deep admiration for Kleist (suicide pact at 34), Kafka (died of tuberculosis at 40), Rimbaud (gave up poetry while still a teenager and got into gun-running in Africa instead), Camus (killed in a car crash —never let your publisher drive)— and I had a special liking for Büchner, who died at the tragically early age of 23.
Woyzeck might have been unfinished and left in fragments, but it was more than good enough for me.
The play has electric dramatic tension and it all springs from the eponymous poor soldier’s mental and emotional strain, ratcheted up from the first moment, when Woyzeck is splitting firewood and talks about a head rolling down a bank of nearby grass every evening. He is spooked by curses and freemasonry. We sense that his instability is going to create drama. We just don’t know yet what it will be.
The social order —and this, I think, is Büchner’s main point— offers no chance to a decent but manically disturbed fellow like Woyzeck, born to poverty and designated the role of underling. As we know, the millionaire madman is an eccentric whose whims should be indulged, whereas the poor one is of no import, to be dealt with, employed usefully when possible, or else restrained.
Similarly, virtue is presented as a luxury that poor folk like Woyzeck and Marie, mother of his illegitimate baby, cannot afford. In the conversation with the Captain, it is clear that virtue is socially understood to be about keeping up appearances. “Es muß was Schöns sein um die Tugend, Herr Hauptmann. Aber ich bin ein armer Kerl.” [“Virtue must be very nice, sir, but I’m just a poor devil.”]
To the self-satisfied Captain, the soldier thinks too much, which is not conducive to the status quo. To the Doctor, he is a curious medical experiment. To Marie, who also feels every right to look after number one, even if that means guiltily offering herself to the Drum Major, Woyzeck’s lowly position and affliction don’t offer enough.
Woyzeck’s hypersensitivity has him living on a knife edge as sharp as the razor he shaves the Captain with. He is highly suggestible and takes apocalyptical biblical prophecy and teachings at face value. The one authority figure missing from the play is a cynical Priest to ridicule his innocent belief.
Büchner does not show his unlikely hero as insane so much as uneducated and highly strung. His hysteria, fired up by betrayal, produces striking imagery: “Sehn Sie ein schön, festen, groben Himmel, man könnte Lust bekomm, ein Kloben hineinzuschlagen und sich daran su hänge” [“You see a fine, solid, filthy sky and you might just want to hammer a peg into it and hang yourself”]
For one of the best performances of Woyzeck, see Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s movie.
What makes for interesting fantasy literature?
For me, writing or reading it, there is a clear answer: when it is set in a recognizably real world, grounded in the everyday. Everyday existence being, on the least reflection, absolutely astonishing. This is precisely what the wild-angled lenses of fantasy and science fiction can suggest.
The best writing in these genres is always talking about the real world and reflects an experience of it. Even Tolkien and Ursula Le Guin, whose tales take place in imaginary lands, made sure to create consistently believable worlds in which mature “human” stories play out, and characters must grapple with similar limits and laws of nature to our own. Magic, when available, is used sparingly by the wise because every action has a consequence and exceptional power is an exceptional responsibility.
E.T.A. Hoffman’s gothic stories are extravagantly imaginative treatments of mundane reality. In this, he is a precursor of the likes of Tim Powers and Neil Gaiman. His modern fairy tales take place in settings such as Hoffman’s early 19th century Dresden or Paris, which the author renders with deliberate faithfulness. Strange powers and creatures break through from an immanent, parallel reality, bringing opportunity and mischief. It’s a rich seam to mine, one that has a compelling appeal for me.
Two centuries before Philip K. Dick and The Matrix, Hoffmann was positing the falseness of the familiar world and long before Freud, he was portraying split personalities/doppelgänger and individuals in dire conflict with repressed subconscious desires, battling with dreams. Fantasies presented as quite real might be psychological projections of dark, hidden urges and exasperation with humdrum quotidian existence.
In some stories Hoffman makes long narrative detours and plot construction can be weak, but don’t let that put you off. Go into Hoffman’s rousing urban tales and encounter the macabre and demonic, the sinister and the erotic: all, gentle reader, at a street near you.
One of the best books you could ever give someone as a present.
I was bogged down studying some of the stodgier French and German classics when my buddies doing Spanish told me about this one and I got the English translation. Blimey, they were having far more fun! Almost as much as Márquez writing it, I wouldn’t be surprised.
I loved the boldness of his approach: why suggest or imply that the magical might be real when you could just take it for granted?