Tuesday, October 27, 2015

John Le Carré speaks German

And quite good German at that.

I was going back through some videocasts of Druckfrisch, a German TV show devoted to contemporary literature, hosted by the genial Dennis Scheck. I came across his interview with John Le Carré on the occasion of the publication of the German translation of Our Kind of Traitor (Verräter wie wir). The interview took place in Bern, Switzerland, in October 2010, and for those who would like to watch. it can be found at ARD until November 1; but if you miss it there, a site called "Verpasst.de" (great name!) has the interview available at an time.

Dennis Scheck
Scheck goes on location often, even to the U.S. : the most recent program is his interview with Salman Rushdie in New York. On these occasions he speaks English with his guests (Kinky Friedman!), with voice over in German, but no translation was necessary for Le Carré's. His German was very good, and he had no trouble discussing his career and his books.

Just the other day on one of my German podcasts, I heard an interview with the former director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, who is now in Berlin, where is playing a major role in the "Humboldt Forum." He was interviewed on the podcast about an exhibition he had organized at the British Museum: Germany: Memories of a Nation -- A 600-Year History in Objects. He too spoke German, and well he might, as he will be living in Berlin. But, although he understood the interviewer's questions perfectly, his German was not as fluent as Le Carré's. Still, I am sure he will get the hang of it.

Two posts on this blog (see here and here) have mentioned Le Carré in connection with Fritz Strich, with whom the very young Le Carré (actually David Cornwell) studied in Bern when he was still a teenager. Deutschlandfunk has the written text of the interview with Dennis Scheck, which includes a portion of text that does not appear in the videocast. Here is that text, which tells how important German was to him, even for his novels. Imagine: he is familiar with Wolfram von Eschenbach!

Ich war damals 16 Jahre alt und war seit meinem fünften Lebensjahr in Internaten und Institutionen. Meine Mutter war verschwunden und mein Vater war ein komplizierter Mann, manchmal im Gefängnis, manchmal nicht. Dann kam ich praktisch als Flüchtling hierher und wollte Deutsch lernen. Ich hatte einen sehr guten Deutschlehrer in meiner Schule in England und ich dachte, als guter rebellischer Halbstarker, wenn die ganze Welt die Deutschen hassten, müssen sie auch anständig sein, irgendwo. Und dann habe ich mich, wahrscheinlich sehr naive und einfache Art, in deutsche Kultur eingetieft. Man könnte fast mit dem Nibelungenlied von Wolfram von Eschenbach auch beginnen. Die haben auf mich einen großen Eindruck gemacht in meinem Roman. Wenn es eine Formel gibt: "Take somebody, who knows nothing", und dann: "teach him something." Sogar im "Spion, der aus der Kälte kam: Er lernt am Ende, auch wenn es ihn das Leben kostet, die Menschlichkeit. Ich erinnere mich, ich glaube, das war in Parzival von Wolfram von Eschenbach. Es gibt einen Augenblick, wo er diesen alten Mann Anfortas wiedertrifft und er sieht ihn, das ist das zweite oder dritte Mal, dass er ihn sieht, und er hat inzwischen furchtbare Erfahrungen gemacht, Parzival, und er sagt, wie ist es mit dir, wie geht es dir, und dazu Anfortas, jetzt lernst du die Menschlichkeit, das ist das erste Mal sozusagen, dass du nach meiner Gesundheit gefragt hast.

Picture credits: ARD; Boersenblatt.net

Monday, October 19, 2015

Goethe and Christiane wed on this day

"Why did Goethe marry Christiane Vulpius," asks Peter Schwartz in an article in volume 15 (2008) of Goethe Yearbook, "his companion of 18 years, on 19 October 1806, five days after Napoleon's victory over Prussia at the battle of Jena-Auerstedt?" Marriage is also the subject of Peter's book After Jena: Goethe's Elective Affinities and the End of the Old Regime, in which appeared the chapter "When Did Goethe Marry When He Did?"

An early legend grew up around the event, namely, that Goethe was grateful to Christiana for her fierceness in the face of plundering by French soldiers, who entered their house in Weimar, raided their larder, and barged into Goethe's bedroom. There is, however, as Peter points out, already a precedent in Goethe's own ouevre, namely, Hermann und Dorothea. The events in the epic concern refugees fleeing the western side of the Rhine, occupied by French Revolutionary armies, and seeking refuge on the eastern side. In this small work the "outsider" Dorothea, defending "home and hearth" (as Peter writes) from French incursion, becomes worthy of an "insider's" marriage and acceptance by Hermann's parents.

More likely, it was precisely Napoleon's incursion into the heart of German lands that prompted the wedding ceremony, performed by Wilhelm Christoph Günther, who was court chaplain of the Jakobskirche in Weimar. As several contemporaries noted, it was a time when the foundations of the old order had been sent trembling. Besides worrying about the fate of all of his papers, documents, art collections, and so on, Goethe now had to be concerned, in the event of his death, with the legal consequences that would arrive should the French Civil Code be enacted in German territories. According to Napoleon, it was not in society's interest to recognize bastards, which was the status of Goethe's "natural son," August. Under the French code, inheritance rights of illegitimate children were not recognized. Thus, although Goethe had named August as his heir in his will of 1797, his ability to do so and to guarantee August's inheritance depended on Carl August's dispensation. Although in the end the duchy retained its own legal system, it was not certain in October 1806 "what sort of laws would obtain in Weimar from that time forward."

Battle of Jena-Auerstädt, October 14, 1806, at 10 a.m.
In part, Goethe's earlier hesitation in marrying Christiana was related to the court's censure of a marriage between a nobleman (Goethe) and a nobody (Christiane). Living together out of wedlock was provocative enough. Friedrich Riemer, Goethe's friend, alluded afterward to Goethe's gift of knowing when to seize the right moment, and their marriage certainly took place at such a moment. As Johann Heinrich Voss wrote in a letter shortly afterward, the moment was one when people were distracted -- many in Weimar had lost everything they owned through the French plundering -- that they would hardly be aware of such a "Kleinigkeit"; and when they did notice, it would already be old news.

Still, Goethe seems to have been hesitant. As Peter writes, it may have been the advice of a French general billeted in Goethe's home who convinced Goethe to marry, enumerating the liabilities that would be in store under Napoleonic law. After finally taking the big step, Goethe rapidly moved on to solidify his affairs. "In the days and weeks after Jena, Goethe was working to set his entire civil estate onto solid legal ground." Thus, he wrote to Carl August in January of 1807 requesting legal title to the house in which he .had been living He also revised his will in early 1807.

All the privileges Goethe enjoyed as a favorite of Carl August would have evaporated under the French Civil Code. As Peter writes: "A legal and political climate more hostile to the feudal state of exception within which Goethe had lived until then could hardly be imagined. His marriage normalized this state of exception to such a degree that Goethe was able to revoke his will and rely on the normal order of inheritance -- on the laws of the land, whatever they were to be -- without fear of untoward consequences."

Picture credits: Emerson Kent

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

"Zum Schäckespears Tag"

Domenico Remps, A Cabinet of Curiosity (1675)
"Schäkespears Theater ist ein schöner Raritäten Kasten, in dem die Geschichte der Welt vor unsern Augen an die unsichtbaren Faden der Zeit vorbeiwallt ..."

October 14, 1771

Monday, October 5, 2015

Goethe meets Napoleon

I should have posted on this subject on October 2, but I was in Virginia attending the German Studies Association conference. So, here a few days late, is a small post on the encounter in Erfurt in 1808, described by Talleyrand in his memoirs as "a policy of imperial seduction to rally great German intellectuals" and "to give Napoleon a literary and cultural guarantee on a European scale." This last was important since Napoleon had lost the support of such eminences as Madame de Stael and Chateaubriand. (This site has more information on the meeting.)

Talleyrand did not record the famous "Voila un homme!" comment. Wieland, who also met the emperor and who wrote down his own recollections on the very evening, mentions that Napoleon had called him "Germany's Voltaire."

 (Am I being cynical to suggest that many intellectuals and writers today would feel profoundly flattered, as did Wieland and Goethe, to be so distinguished? And to receive the Légion d'honneur? Yes, I am being cynical.)

Napoleon receives the Austrian ambassador, October 1808
Talleyrand was present at the meeting between Goethe and the emperor. In the picture above, in which Napoleon is shown receiving the Austrian ambassador later in the same month, Talleyrand stands behind the table, between Baron Vincent and the emperor, while the Russian czar is seen in profile on the right. Although Talleyrand's memoirs must be read with some caution, he recounts that the emperor recommended that Goethe attend some historical plays that were being performed in Erfurt, asserting that the "dramatic art' was higher than history: "A good tragedy should be seen as the worthiest school for superior men."

Picture credit: Fondation Napoleon