Saturday, September 26, 2015

International literature

I am finally beginning to understand what Dieter Lamping is talking about. (See previous post on this subject.) Once, not so long ago, “German” literature was identified with certain writers — H. Böll, G. Grass, etc. — who not only wrote in German but also on German themes. But increasingly the “book market” is international, and Germans write novels that, even in translation, even with a German theme, e.g., Grass’s Crabgang, enjoy international repute. Another phenomenon is writers who write in German, but not on German themes. Their novels, although set in Germany or Switzerland or Austria, could be set anywhere. Peter Stamm seems to be doing well in this regard. Lamping mentions Peter Handke, whose novel Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht has a mixed cast and is set in various non-German locales, although I don’t how much international success Peter Handke enjoys, if one is talking about book sales. I don’t know a single American who reads Handke who doesn’t also know German.

According to Lamping it is this very internationality of literature is what comparative literature is all about these days. It no longer concerns itself solely with comparison: e.g., Racine vs. Shakespeare. It investigates literary forms, structures, subjects, and so on that may originate in one country but that travel. E.g., some German poets write haikus. Comp lit investigates not the national characteristics of literature, but the internationality of these characteristics. This reminds me a bit of Franco Moretti, who has done interesting work on such subjects as the detective genre, with maps, graphs, and trees.

Félicien Rops, Pornokratès (1878)
The 19th century would seem exemplary of the kind of process he is writing about. In fact, I am pretty sure that Moretti has concentrated on that century. Writers from one country after the other picked up on the subjects and forms of writers of other countries. For instance, drama. At the beginning of the century, dramatists still employed historical figures: Hebbel, Hugo; by the end they were all writing about bourgeois subjects. And then they were all subjecting the bourgeoisie to critical analysis, dissecting its hypocrisies and so on: Zola, Ibsen, Strindberg. So, I guess this would be “international” or at least a European movement. Decadence flourished in France, but had its adherents in Germany, Italy, and England. I would say that the novel is the international form par excellence. And its subject since its origins is about individual breaking free of the traditional bonds of society. So it re-creates in its form the break as well.

 This kind of literary commerce seems a function of trade in the modern period, as writers are more frequently and more quickly in contact with one another. There is an element of fashion about it, as one movement arises and then is succeeded by another. Boredom sets in, and, 100 years later, it is  hard to believe that the audience actually threw shoes at the stage during the premier of Afternoon of a Fawn.

Earlier literary commerce (one cannot avoid that word), however, was additive. The literary inheritance was passed down through the generations. There was a conscious process of absorption of a culturally privileged and traditional literary idiom. Literary works reflected the constructing of the present from the past, and suggested approval and identification.

International literature is competitive, like all products of the market. It does not build on what went before, but, by its nature, is dismissive of what went before. This dismissal is even its subject: “old” attitudes, “old” practices are constantly being scrutinized and found wanting. It is about process. Of course, every modern or contemporary writer hopes to be “lasting,” to leave a mark on literature, but he can’t expect to know in his own lifetime whether he has made such a mark. Modernity, as Lamping writes, puts tradition in question.

Picture credit: Matt Bromley

Friday, September 18, 2015

The internationalization of literature

Dieter Lamping's book on Goethe and world literature, although small (138 pp. plus bibliography), is a very good survey of the "career" of the concept. Nevertheless, there are a couple places where I find some conceptual confusion on Lamping's part. That was especially the case in the fifth chapter, "Deutsche Literature um 1800," which begins with a discussion of the "internationality" of German literature at that point.

But what exactly is "internationality"?

Among other things he mentions the growing interest of German writers in non-German literary products, beginning, e.g., with Lessing or Wieland. Lamping contrasts the interest of Goethe in contemporary foreign writers with the more historical appropriation by the Romantic writers. The increase in translations, or "Verdeutschung," of foreign works is part of internationality, as is a rise in theorizing the practice of translation. Friedrich Schleiermacher, in a lecture in 1813 already at the Berlin Academy of Sciences, emphasized the importance of translation for German literature and sounded very much like Goethe speaking about world literature a decade or so later.:

Eine innere Nothwendigkeit, in der sich ein eigenthümlicher Beruf unseres Volkes deutlich genug ausspricht, hat uns auf das Uebersezen in Masse getrieben; wir können nicht zurükk und müssen durch.

German writers had of course been absorbing foreign influences for centuries, as Fritz Strich pointed out in his many articles and his book on Goethe and world literature. Clearly late eighteenth-century translations of classical and foreign works also enriched the capacities of the German language.  German writers were encouraged to undertake their own versions of ancient genres. Goethe's Hermann und Dorothea would be an example. Writers also accumulated a store of new motifs and themes.

But what is "international" about such literary commerce? When we use the word international in connection with literature, is there an analogy with its use in other contexts, e.g., as in "International Court of Justice" or "International Space Station," even international driver's license? More to come on this subject, as I have just turned to another small volume by Lamping: Internationale Literature.

Picture credit: Adobe Blog; Texas A&M International University

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Summer is almost over

These are the last days in Sointula. I managed in August to accomplish the three projects I worked on, including writing a review of Jane K. Brown's Goethe's Allegories of Identity. Stay tuned for it in the Lessing Yearbook.

Today there was a cow in the backyard. These big guys really walk fast, but I managed a few shots.

Yesterday was the last day of dragon-boating for the season.

I also went out to Beare Point with Robin.

The weather is turning autumnal here.