Monday, November 7, 2011

Victor Klemperer on world literature

In off moments I liked to dip into a wonderful volume of essays by Clive James. An Australian by birth, he has lived in England since the 1960s. The volume is Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts. James' cultural reach is extensive, and the volume includes essays on quite a few German writers. This morning I read the one on Ernst J├╝nger, who, as James writes, "was incomparably the most gifted writer to remain on the scene," meaning in Germany, during the course of World War II. The Nazi impact on German society was in every way disastrous, no more or less so than on the learned professions. Those who could got out, including Erich Auerbach who secured a post at a university in Ankara.

James writes that had Victor Klemperer, professor of Romance languages in Dresden, secured such a post, rather than being forced to remain in Dresden, where, as a Jew, he was denied access to pen, paper, newspapers, and radio broadcasts, it was unlikely that he would have produced Mimesis. "Fated to stay where he was," writes James, "he was granted the dubious reward of experiencing from close up what the Nazis did to the German language." James is referring here to Klemperer's book LTI, or Lingua tertii imperii, which documents the "officialese of slaughter." For those who can, I recommend reading it in German, but here is a link to selections from it in English. (Of late, Klemperer belatedly became known for the diaries he managed to keep during World War II.)

Actually Klemperer might have written an important study of world literature had he not been denied access to libraries during the Nazi era. In my research on the "prehistory" of Fritz Strich's groundbreaking Goethe und die Weltliteratur, I have come across an article written by Klemperer on this subject from 1929, during the very decade when Strich was first grappling with Goethe's concept. Unlike Strich, who is notorious for not footnoting, Klemperer does indicate the sources of his thinking on the concept of world literature.

As a note to James's essay and the posting of Auerbach to Ankara, several years ago -- at a conference at the Graduate Center on Erich Auerbach -- Jane O. Newman gave me a small article she had written concerning Fritz Strich's March 26, 1928, letter to the chancellor of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem on behalf of Walter Benjamin, who was hoping for a posting there. Strich was the author of an essay in 1917 on German Baroque poetry, which Benjamin had cited repeatedly (according to Professor Newman) in his own study of German Baroque theater.

So many connections.

Picture credits: Sigmar Polke; Maira Kalman

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