On Charles Bukowski

A favorite in Germany. Dan Piepenbring:

I have for many years now actively enjoyed not reading Charles Bukowski. I want to say with conviction that Bukowski is not so much a voice from hell as a voice from Hell-Lite™, a kind of flimsy, adolescent imitation of true misanthropy—but I have no evidence to furnish in my case against him. How could I? I’ve never read him. All I know is that I’ve listened to a tepid Modest Mouse song about him; I have spoken to a stranger at a bar who told me she’d “snort his words off the page,” if she could; and I’ve sneered at the cover of Ham on Rye in a Park Slope Barnes and Noble. If you asked me to mount a cogent defense of my antipathy, I’d have to say something pretentious like “I find his role in the culture banal.”


German Word of the Week: Schmähgier

I've been reading (well, listening to) Martin Gregor-Dellin's magnificent biography of Richard Wagner and came across a word which may well have been invented by Wagner himself. During his early years of pretty much unrelieved poverty, Wagner wrote feuilletons and music criticism to earn money while he desperately tried to get his early operas and overtures played. And they're still worth reading. This was before Wagner developed the pompous, semi-messianic tone that marks his later writing, including his autobiography. Gregor-Dellin cites some elegant turns of phrase to prove his point.

In 1840, Wagner met Heinrich Heine, the German poet who had been forced into Parisian exile for his political views. (Heine was Jewish, this was before Wagner's anti-Semitism became more pronounced.) Impressed by Heine's wit and strength of character, Wagner publicly defended him (g, pdf) against the withering attacks in the German press, which Wagner denounced as a product of Schmähgier.

This is brilliant German portmanteau word. Schmähen is a German verb meaning to viciously criticize or vilify. If you yell it it's a Schmähruf (vilify-call). If you criticize someone so harshly that it amounts to vilification, you may be legally liable in Germany for Schmähkritik (g).The German federal constitutional court has stated that although harsh criticism is protected by freedom of speech, criticism that is intended primarily to humiliate and insult and heap scorn on someone, without engaging in serious argumentation or debate, can be prosecuted under Germany's laws protecting personal honor. A lawyer who called his opponent (who apparently had a title of nobility) a 'chiseler' and 'Prince of Bullshit' (Flunkerfürst (g)) got dinged by a court in Hamburg for Schmähkritik.

Gier is greed or desire. Habgier is the greed to have (haben), i.e. avarice. Neugier is the greed for the new, or curiosity. You can have Gier for anything, there's even Mordgier, for those with an uncontrollable compulsion to kill. So Schmähgier is yet another short German word with tons of meaning packed in: the compulsive desire to vilify someone else.

I can't readily find this word anywhere before Wagner's use of it, so I would like to believe the master invented it himself. 


Kureishi in English for German Teens FTW

Düsseldorf has public bookshelves (g) dotted around the city. These are hardly, well-designed glass-walled boxes the size of a telephone booth (designed by architect Hans-Jürgen Greve) in which you can leave and pick up books for free. Most of the offerings are long-forgotten historical romances with names like 'Prince of the Thuringians' or 'Stolen Homeland', but I've also found a history of garden gnomes, a Polish cake cookbook, a manual of German parliamentary procedure, and other amusing things.

But the hippest find so far has been:

Kureishi front real

Dry, angry wit! But it gets better. I opened it to find a German schoolgirl's name written in the front cover and some annotations on the blurb:

Kurieshi front cover

So an English-language novel about Pakistani counterculture types coming to terms with sex, drugs and rock and roll was assigned (or at least) accepted as official class reading by a German Gymnasium for a 17-year-old girl.

Germany, you have regained my respect. 


Thomas Bernhard Taking No Prisoners

The blog 'The Philosophical Worldview Artist (Weltanschauungskunst für alle Weltanschauer) run by one Douglas Robertson (no idea who he is) publishes fine translations of German-language texts, including this typically scorching 1984 interview with Thomas Bernhard:

FLEISCHMANN: But surely with distance one ought to be able to write about the past more composedly.
BERNHARD: That’s the big cliché about contemplating the past, and it’s obviously totally false.  Old people can write books like that when they’re sitting paralyzed in their armchairs, but it’s not my mode, not yet; maybe the day after tomorrow I’ll still be excited; whenever I write anything, even something peaceful, I’m still basically excited.  In any case, excitation is a pleasant condition; when your blood is sluggish, excitation gets it moving, pulsing; it keeps you alive, and consequently keeps the stream of books flowing.  Without excitation there’s absolutely nothing; you might as well stay in bed.  Now for you, Miss Fleischmann  (laughs), being in bed  is of course only a way of passing the time when you’re excited—right?—and being in a book is every bit as much a pastime.  Writing a book is after all a kind of sexual act, but one that happens at a more leisurely pace than the literal act, which one engaged in when one was younger; it is, to be sure, much more pleasant to write a book than to go to bed with somebody.
 
FLEISCHMANN: Do you regard writing as a substitute for sexual fulfillment?
 
BERNHARD: “Sexual fulfillment” is just a catch-phrase, like, for example, “self-development.”  It’s unadulterated bullshit.  But of course I’ve already said what writing is.  I’d just be repeating myself if I said any more about it.
 
FLEISCHMANN: In this book Vienna is an institute for the annihilation of spirit; what does Vienna mean in your opinion?
 
BERNHARD: Well, as I’ve stated in the book, Vienna is essentially an art-mill, or the biggest art-mill in the world, into which everybody leaps of their own free will, and the current miller is the chancellor, who is in charge there, the cabinet ministers are the miller’s helpers, and all the singers, actors, stage-directors, fling themselves into the mill, and down below the flour comes out.  But this process can only be kept going for so long before the flour for some reason comes out all moldy and smelly.
 
FLEISCHMANN: And why do you think that it’s specifically in Vienna that artists are so [thoroughly] destroyed?
 
BERNHARD: Well, because here in Vienna is where the most spiteful people in the world are to be found; on the other hand you have this mill, the greatest [possible source of] amusement.  Is it not after all amusing to watch people, geniuses and people of good character, flinging themselves into it up at the top, and coming out all deformed down below?  Don’t you find it amusing?

Light Reading

From the window of a bookstore on the Frankfurter Allee, Berlin. A book on elevator repair, and a book of 'Humoristic Sketches from German Commercial Life'. Not cheap!

Frankfurter Allee Elevator Maintenance Humorous Sketches German Commercial Life.52

I wonder if this is the same George Weerth:

Georg Weerth (17 February 1822 – 30 July 1856) was a German writer. Weerth's poems celebrated the solidarity of the working class in its fight for liberation from exploitation and oppression. He was a friend and companion of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who described Georg Weerth as the first and most significant poet of the German proletariat.


'Er ist Wieder Da' by Timur Vermes appears in English

Jamie Bulloch's translation of Er ist Wieder Da into English under the title Look Who's Back gets an uneasy review in the New York Times:

The novel’s conceit is easily summarized, less easily parsed. In 2011, Hitler awakes (apparently not from uneasy dreams, as Gregor Samsa does) in a field in Berlin. “I remember waking up,” he says. “I was lying on an area of undeveloped land, surrounded by terraces of houses.” He has no memory of his suicide. He has no idea how he’s gotten here. Soon enough he is taken with watching “modern-day television,” but when he finds only cooking shows, he is angered that “Providence had presented the German Volk with this wonderful, magnificent ­opportunity for propaganda, and it was being squandered on the production of leek rings.”

For the next 250 pages, Vermes walks us through months during which Hitler, resurrected by unexplained means, ­overcomes every presented obstacle. A newspaper vendor discovers him in ­uniform and assumes he must be an impersonator playing for dark comedy — the word Galgenhumor belongs, after all, to the Germans — and gives him a bed. Producers from an “Ali G”-style comedy show (hosted by the unimaginatively named “Ali Gagmez”) offer him a spot on the program. His first appearance quickly accrues hundreds of thousands of YouTube views. Soon Hitler gets his own show, website, production studio, even a back-alley beating by right-wingers who assume he’s making fun of himself. Eventually he also has a deal to write about his life. “I’m calling to ask whether you’d like to write a book?” the editor says. “I already have,” Hitler replies. “Two, in fact.”

Let me just admit it: the main reason I posted this is so I could include the illustration by Doug Chayka:

10-Torday-blog427


Coming to Terms with Günter Grass

Marian Wirth allowed me to post his pithy assessment of Grass, hoisted from a comment feed on another website:

Grass was pretty much the last surviving founding father of German post-war literature. He became instantly famous with his debut novel and used the financial independence and the fame to promote authors younger and/or less successful than him, to improve Germany's position in the world and to boost interest in German as a language all over the world.

It still confuses me to hear foreign authors praise Grass - celebrities like Salman Rushdie, who spent the day Grass died defending him on Twitter, as well as national celebrities in, say, Brazil or Nigeria, who tell you how much they adore Grass ever since they read the TIN DRUM as a teenager and I'm always like "WHAT?!" when I hear that because everything about Grass and his most notorious book is so German that I have still trouble believing it even got translated into English.

Bottom line: He was THE most important figure for German literature and one of the leading brand ambassadors for German culture. Even people who disagreed on everything with Grass can't deny that and it drives them crazy, I can tell you.

Grass was a man of many talents. Unfortunately, he got famous for writing novels, his least developed talent.

He was a world class boozer, smoker and dancer.
He was an outstanding sculptor.
He was a phenomenal graphic artist.
He was an efficient SPD canvasser.
He was one of the three leading anti-Semites in Germany, and a decent poet, resulting in the ugliest piece of anti-Semitism published in Germany after the second world war.

His novels are more or less unreadable, since he subscribed to the leading principles of German post-war literature such as the following: avoid direct speech at all cost. Direct speech and dialogue are evil, leave them to the Americans and their movie-script like writing. It's your job to make the readers suffer. Insurmountable blocks of text are your thing. Long winding, meandering sentences filled with German guilt and with guilt to be a human being enjoying life are your profession.

I have read several of his novels, though failed twice to read the TIN DRUM (I'll give it a third try soon). "Too Far Afield" took me over a year to get through. My favorite Grass novel is The Meeting at Telgte.

Politically, he was wrong on everything after 1990. Not only was he wrong on everything, his criticism was always over the top, mean, vile and presented in an apodictic fashion that made it impossible to argue against it. This rant is presented in a similar way to make it more obvious what drove me away from Grass.

So much for an executive summary of what needs to be said about Grass. Vale, rest in peace etc. should still apply, of course.