Saturday, February 03, 2007

Literaturubersicht (or, Some Thoughts on German Literature from a Totally Unqualified, but Interested, Consumer)

Literaturubersicht means "literature survey" in German. And yes, I did have to look it up.

What the heck is this post all about? It's simple really. It just so happens (if you look at the right hand column, you'll see) that, as sheer chance would have it, Mutt and I both happen to be reading novels from German writers at the same time. (For the record, some may think that we consult each other first about what we're reading, or try to synchronize it somehow... and though we are definitely book-dorks enough to do that, we usually don't. Each of us are on our own separate reading trajectories, and rarely if ever consciously try to have them intersect. Occasionally it does happen on its own though, obviously.) Anyway, we got to talking about German writers -- which ones are important to read for anyone interesting in world literature, what they might be getting at, what the common themes are, etc. -- and I thought it might make an interesting topic for a post, even though I (as my title indicates) have actually not read much of it.

The most famous and celebrated German writer of our time is unquestionably the Nobel laureate Gunter Grass. Mutt is reading one of his lesser-known novels right now, Local Anaesthetic. I'll let him comment on that particular book if he'd like to, maybe in response to this post or in his own posting. But it sounds on a general level like another surreal-type novel in which Grass uses symbolism and fantasy to explore the political and cultural confusion in post-Nazi Germany. Mutt and I have talked about Grass' work before, after I picked up a used copof his short novel The Meeting at Telgte for him and he promptly burned through it. I think way back when this blog first started he posted about it, if memory serves. And since we're both very interesting in world literature in general and the work of Nobel laureates in particular, we've also talked about a few more books of his, most notably the novel he is most famous for, The Tin Drum. I have both of these books on my shelves and plan to read them at some point before I exit the stage...

But for my own right, I thought it might be interesting, before reading Grass, to go back and read some of the significant works of German literature from earlier periods, in part so that I would know something of the books that must have had at least some influence on the great Nobel laureate's body of work. I've explored literature from other countries and cultures before, but curiously, not the German one. I say "curiously" because I myself am half-German, and while I've read plenty of literature and other writing from Ireland (the other half), I know almost nothing about German creative writing. This seems like sort of a gaping and conspicuous hole in my own reading, and it's one I aim to patch up. As part of that effort, I decided to try my hand at another German Nobel laureate, Thomas Mann, and am currently working my way through one of his recognized masterpieces (he has a few of them, depending on who you ask!), The Magic Mountain.

A few years ago I read a book that was about educating oneself through the reading of classics (for the record, the book was Susan Wise Bauer's The Well-Educated Mind). One of the points Wise Bauer made in that book, that has stayed with me ever since, was the importance of reading chronologically. In other words, she thinks that, if you want to read the classics in order to educate yourself, it's best to start with the ancient writers, such as the Greek and Roman playwrights and poets, and work your way up the timeline. The reason for this is pretty simple and makes a lot of sense: picking up on a theme she learned from the noted literary critic Mortimer Adler, Wise Bauer points out that all truly great writers are aware of the literary tradition that precedes them, and in most cases they are reacting in some way to it, or are conscious of it enough to allude to it directly and indirectly in their own work. And you can't fully understand a work of a writer unless you know something of the work that inspired him, or her. Anyone can read and get a lot out of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, but imagine how much more informed one's reading of it would be if they were at least somewhat familiar with the writings of his own literary hero (both within and outside of the epic poem!), Virgil? For one obvious thing, it might clear up that nagging question that most modern readers are confronted with from pretty much the second canto on: why is Virgil his guide? Anyway, this is a digression... but the point is, reading the classics is in some sense, or should be (according to this view), a cumulative enterprise -- each period's work informs the next, even as it comments on the previous one.

Now I don't think most people have the time or inclination to adhere to such a rigorous programme strictly (unless they're in some kind of formal classics program or something), and I know I certainly don't... in one sense it takes the fun out of "reading all over the map," a favorite pastime of Mutt's and mine... but the concept has stayed with me, and I have found myself trying to go back and read some of the earlier works first, or, if I know I'm interested in reading a MAJOR classic and want to understand it better, I might go and read some of the books that might have influenced its author first. Case in point: one of the reasons I wanted to read Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is that I know it was an important work for, and was very much in the mind of, Cervantes during the composition of Don Quixote de la Mancha (which of course in itself is a hugely influencial work... see the accumulation?).

It may seem like I'm veering way off-topic here, but stay with me... this is the thinking that, in part, went into my picking up Mann's weighty philosophical novel. (Another reason, again speaking of writers influencing writers influencing readers, is that I knew it was a favorite book of Walker Percy's, who is in turn a favorite of mine... whew! this gets you dizzy after a while...) I knew I was interested in reading Grass, and also the work of another modern German writer and Nobel Prize-winner (Heinrich Boll), but I just felt I had no real understanding at all of, for the lack of a better way to put it, the German literary soul.

So it gets me to thinking, what are some of the other indispensable works of German literature that any halfway-serious student of world literature could not avoid reading? A few obvious choices jumped into my mind at this question, but only a scant few: the works of Goethe (most notably Faust, but also The Sorrows of Young Werther and maybe some of his poetry as well), Thomas Mann of course, the famous playwright Berthold Brecht, and of course everyone's favorite God-denying, half-insane intellectual, Frederich Nietzche. Around the time I started thinking about this, Mutt had lent me an issue of The New Yorker, and in it there was an article by the noted Czech writer Milan Kundera in which he, in speaking of world literature, points out that Franz Kafka identified himself also as a German writer, even though he was from another country altogether (obviously he wrote in the German tongue). I thought that was an interesting bit of information, but it also struck me how knowing that would have to color and shape one's understanding of Kafka's mysterious and magnificent work.

After thinking about it a little more, I realized that there were other German works and writers that would seem to be indispensable in any survey of the literary works emerging from that culture. Hermann Hesse would have to be added to the list, although I think (I haven't confirmed it) that he was of Swiss origin... but certainly books like Siddhartha and Steppenwolf have to be considered modern classics of the German language. And then there are the philosophers (yes, Nietzche ought to be in this category too, but some of his works border on philosophic literature -- Thus Spake Zarathustra, for example, or even Ecce Homo, his memoir-of-sorts) -- Germany is so well-known for its philosophical, analytical mind that it would be virtually impossible to exclude the writings of the Schopenhauer, Kant and Heidegger, among others. (I know for a fact that Mann's writings were profoundly influenced by the philosophy of Schopenhauer.)

And of course, there is one other towering giant of German literature, someone whose shadow looms hugely and profoundly over the landscape of modern poetry: Rainer Maria Rilke. Other than maybe Goethe, I think one would be hard-pressed to name a better candidate for the title of "greatest German poet." Forget "German" -- I think Rilke is among the greatest poets the world has ever produced!

I would love to one day be able to say that I have read at least something from every one of these authors mentioned... to do so would be to gain some kind of knowledge of German literary culture, which, when you look at the big picture, is among the most profound and creative humankind has produced. It would also, possibly, help me to understand something about my own soul/heritage!

Mutt and I were reflecting on the interesting fact that each culture seems to have something unique and fascinating to contribute to world literature, and that while of course themes repeat and overlap, there is a certain spirit and mood in, say, Icelandic or Russian or African literature that you simply will not find elsewhere. And each culture is wrestling with its own particular demons (Mutt knows, mostly through reading Grass, something about Germany's ghosts and goblins!), which is fascinating also. I think about how my life and my knowledge/awareness of the range and scope of human experience (so much greater than the limited scope of my own will ever be) would be enhanced and enriched through the literature of foreign cultures, and it makes me want to plunder the Alexandrian library of the world, and partake of its riches before they too blow away as ashes in the wind.

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