Sunday, August 28, 2011

World Literature

David Cornwall, aka John le Carré, has just been awarded the Goethe-Medaille 2011, along with the Polish writer Adam Michnik (both pictured above) and the French avant garde theater director Ariane Mnochkine. The ceremony took place in the "Residenzschloss" in Weimar. They were distinguished for their contributions to German letters as well as in connection with the focus of this year's awards, namely, "the cultural future of Europe."

According to the account in the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung, Michnik is optimistic about such a future, while Le Carré is more skeptical, sounding a note that I often invoke. He is quoted as saying that a united Europe remains a project of elites, its institutions far removed from the concerns of citizens and dominated by economics: "What is needed is a peaceful revolution of the middle classes."

I think it was the advent of a "united Europe" in Goethe's time, which was not so much cultural as economic, that determined Goethe's own thinking about the prospects of what he called world literature. Goethe didn't imagine that the nations of Europe would give up their individual destinies or particular character; he hoped, as he wrote, that they would simply learn to get along, which he thought would be helped by acquaintance with the various literary products of the nations. Franco Venturi, in the book on which I posted yesterday, writes that a characteristic of the surviving republics in pre-revolutionary Europe -- e.g., Holland, Venice, Genoa -- was the desire for for peace and harmony. Though he mentions the commercial nature of these republics, he does not stress the connection between a "spiritual ideal" -- harmony, tolerance, etc. -- and the material conditions -- economic prosperity -- that make this ideal possible. Thus, though I would agree with Le Carré concerning the elite nature of the project of united Europe and its appalling "democracy deficit," I think he underrates how much affluence and prosperity make Western ideals possible. Well, as far as I can discern he remains an unreconstructed Leftist.

A year ago, while doing research on my world literature project, I discovered that Le Carré had become acquainted while a student in Berne with Fritz Strich, the "father" of modern studies on this subject. Until Strich's 1946 work Goethe und die Weltliteratur, this aspect of Goethe's oeuvre was practically neglected; starting in the early 1950s, however, that work begat an industry in world literature. As I posted earlier, our understanding of world literature would be assisted by studying the background of how Strich came to his subject. Thus, I was interested in whether Le Carré had any particular memories of Strich and wrote to him. His response, which I am paraphrasing, was as follows:

While he was pleased to learn that the work of Strich was of interest to Germanists, he could not help me in any meaningful way. He was barely seventeen when he attended Strich's seminars, and his German was "indifferent," and much of what was said "went over" his head. However, Strich had "the humanity to notice this" and allowed him to stay behind at the end of his seminar for a few minutes, instructing him in the groundwork of German literature that might enable him to rise to Strich's own level. Le Carré followed his instruction, and by the time he left Bern was equipped with the tools with which he could one day appreciate Strich's eminence. In his note to me, Le Carré confessed that he was a "broken reed" when it came to "the finer points of his [Strich's] theses, or indeed the substance of them" -- meaning world literature. His lasting impression was of "an elderly, distinguished gentleman who had spotted a student who was completely out of his depth" and to whom Le Carré found himself greatly indebted when he returned to German literature.

The substance of this response has been reported in other newspapers and reports in Europe in recent years, including here, on the occasion of the speech Le Carré gave in 2009 at the celebration of the 175th anniversary of the University of Berne. In it he again gives due credit to Fritz Strich.

What particularly touched me about Le Carré's response was its similarity to mine at the age of seventeen, when I too went off the university. I come from a really white-bread American background. For instance, before college the only plays I had ever seen performed live were high school productions (though back in my day they were quite professional), and I had never been to a museum. My decision to study German in college was solely determined by my fondness for a history teacher in my last year of high school, who had the intriguing last name of "Braeutigam." I started making up for my intellectual deficits in college, but probably the most formative experience was the year I spent studying in Marburg as a junior in college. Though I didn't study with anyone as eminent as Strich, I had the same experience, not only with professors but also with German students, who went out of their way to assist me in the fine points of the German language and its history. And, of course, they took me into their homes and their activities. For instance, I learned to drink beer and wine!

Photo credit: Breitbart; Modern Alliance; Trübe-Linse

1 comment:

Winslow said...

It's wonderful to read that Mr. Cornwell wrote you back as he did. A real gentleman and a scholar, and such a writer, too.