Tag Archives: german literature

Quiddity of the False Azure

All colors made me happy: even gray. — Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (line 29)

The weaker the organ the longer the impression of the image lasts. — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theory of Colours (pg 51, section 121. )

Scan 13My recent inquiries into perception made me curious to know the oft-cited primary text of Goethe’s Theory of Colours. It is an interesting read, particularly as the content has been thoroughly disapproved making the reading of it a philosophical or poetical exercise more than a scientific one.

Time means succession, and succession, change:
Hence timelessness is bound to disarrange
Schedules of sentiment…
 —Pale Fire (lines 567-569)

Thus inspiration already presupposes expiration; thus every systole its diastole. —Theory of Colour (15, section 38.)

The beautiful fiction in the non-fiction that is twisted inadvertently by Goethe is  conversely, in Pale Fire, “written” by John Shade in four cantos, and yet, similarly, bent. Nabokov elegantly distorts fiction and non-fiction and intentionally plays a stark psychology off the poetical and philosophical posit. The ruse of John Shade is elaborate…what is the purpose? It seems to me that by creating, for example through the officialness of the “About the Author” page followed by “Other Books by the Author,” a Nabokovian mocking of the surety of our perception of truth gains a profoundly moving and tender, if tremulous, capital T Truth.

Life Everlasting-based on a misprint!
I mused as I drove homeward: take the hint,
And stop investigating my abyss?
But all at once it dawned on me that
Was the real point, the counterpuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.
 —Pale Fire (lines 803-815)

If Goethe is correct that the longer an impression lasts, the weaker the organ, than I must have a very weak heart. In Pale Fire (particularly the Ginko Press edition I experienced— because it was more than something to be merely read) a persistent ache of a melancholy color bleeds and stains, and yet, and yet… there is a rising blush of “Faint hope.”

*Theory of Colours  translated from the German with notes by Charles Lock Eastlake

**Title from opening stanza of Pale Fire –
I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane

*** “Faint Hope.” final sentence of Pale Fire

You Are Here

It was eerie to have stepped into this silence of the desert, and I wished to get clear away. Yet, since there did not seem to be an adequate reason for absconding, I took a place at the table and resigned myself to the inevitable.
Stefan Zweig, Moonbeam Alley (139)

IMG_0506A green paperback. Four words. The title: Kaleidiscope One, and the author: Stefan Zweig.

The main motive is dread of solitude, of the terrible feeling of aloofness which severs us one from another -Transfiguration (202)

I was trying to navigate a new library, all of the books had call numbers that I could not make sense of. YF? Was I in the Youth Fiction section? I am stereotypically male-like in my reticence to ask for directions, but I was flummoxed and the awkwardness of looking so obviously lost clinched it- I would ask the pony-tailed librarian brimming with helpful alacrity for assistance. I was of course deeply impressed with his enthusiastic explanation of their filing system- Cutter Seventh Classification.

I rejoiced to know that my feelings had merely been paralysed, and were not utterly dead; that somewhere beneath the smooth surface of my indifference volcanic passion must still be raging. -Transfiguration (189)

Earnestly and nearly embarrassedly fascinated, I listened, raptly, while he extolled the difference. This guy Cutter (an actual librarian at the library in question 1894-1903, Forbes Library) developed a system for organizing books, but somehow , over time Mr Dewey Decimal gained popularity, meanwhile the Library of Congress knew a good thing when they saw it and based their system after Cutter’s, except they, cruelly, added in decimals which is the bane of the Liberian’s assistant (or maybe just mine) shelving existence, although it seemed also to be the reason why this young man was singing the praises of Cutter Seventh Classification to me- why, I think we almost had a connection….

…behind me I heard the laughter of a woman, the bright and somewhat agitated laughter I so dearly love in women-laughter that issues from the burning bush of voluptuousness. – Transfiguration (171)

But no, I had to face the stacks alone, and while I now had an appreciation for the system, I still didn’t quite grasp it, and I so when I saw this plain green book, with the familiar name-I just grabbed it. When I got home I realized it was a series of short stories, most of which I have already read. But, that’s okay there were a few new ones in there.

Touching, too, was the eagerness with which she would scan the shabby books in the hotel library… – The Fowler Snared (270)

I skipped to Moonbeam Alley in which I was able to assemble the most comprehensive list of words to describe a wanton women I’ve ever made (strumpet- love it, harlot- a favorite, vixen, weak-minded wench, slatternly, blowzy…blowzy?) Let me quickly add that Zweig has an innate sympathy for women, despite his creative use of synonyms, the subtle and not so subtle subjugating conditions of the female were repeating themes in his work.

But as I went along, I began to understand something about Zweig and my interest in his writing. Transfiguration is a long one, but it perfectly exemplifies what it is I felt. In all of his stories there is an urgency, a burning desire for something, even if it is simply to tell the tale. The fever of his characters is palatable. His passions awaken the reader, and are well suited to the short story format he favored. Whether resolved tragically or happily (yes there are a few) his heated breathless pace warms the soul by its cautionary or sympathetic call to those that open their hearts to sense and human passion: it’s our very humanity and Zweig’s writing is a spark.

Indeed, I now realize what was still hidden from me when I took up my pen ten minutes ago, that my sole object in writing this account of the incidents is that I may hold them fast, may have them so to speak concretized before me, may enjoy their rehearsal at once emotionally and intellectually. – Transfiguration (159)

It occurred to me, as I’m currently reading Sartre’s Existentialism and Human Emotions (found in my college’s L of C system- they use the DD as well depending on the book), that literature speaks directly to essence, while libraries speak to existence. The conditions are the same for book or person- we are here, and so…what’s the essence of the pages or our hours? That burning ember within us, that the books lack, is the freedom to choose (or not choose) how to live our lives. But the books, the books can give oxygen- their whispers remind, plead, scold or extol. It is their essence that fuels our fire.

But one who understands will not judge, and will have no pride. -Transfiguration (218)

* Kaleidoscope One translated from German by Eden and Cedar Paul, Hallam Edition

Waking Inclination

DSCI0016The Silent Angel by Heinrich Böll is a black and white dream. A clinging monochromatic oneiric post-war chill that is-  there is one word, and I hesitate to use it to describe this book because of its criminal overuse to describe thousands of books, but this should be among the first- one of the base line books worthy of the word- haunting.

The large, bold-faced R inside the red rectangle produced a fear in her that was gradually turning to nausea (24)

The nightmare begins with a certified postcard calling Hans up to duty. The mother’s reaction to that small white card with a blood red stamp on it, a bureaucratic horror marking the very end point of innocence, is skillfully rendered by Böll. It’s that sense of knowing: she can’t look at it, can’t even hold it in her hand, she knows that she doesn’t want to know, and yet, she knows that it’s too late because she already knows.

Böll skips the details of the war itself. After all what difference does it make? The same familiar blackened bits of humanity in varying degrees of guilt and innocence are all that’s left and are always the same.

He was sick of the whole thing, she’d know why – and she did know why. (22)

There is an unsubtle use of symbolism throughout the story:  the buying and selling of identities, blood, stone muted angels, the cold, decay, money: the smell of which he describes thusly, “– but it occurred to him that it was the smell of blood, the extremely diluted and refined smell of blood…” (115) And yet, more often, the overall effect is one of subtlety. The psychological divide between before and after is handled delicately by Böll. The conformity and hypocrisy of our lives is a malaise of immeasurable weight but, once held against the scale of truth rendered by abject destruction, the heft is revealed as pathetically flimsy.

He was tired; boredom and despair seemed to blend more intimately, a sluggish stream without end, whose bitterness was not sufficient to give it savor…” (112)

But it is the radical simplicity of love that is, I think, Böll’s meaning. All the societal niceties (and cruelties), all of the “accepted norms” that cause us to cower and hide ourselves away from what we feel and what we desire, once those instituted shackles fall away by the ravages of war, what are we left with? Love or hate? Happiness or fear? What’s left to savor?

Eating is an inexorable necessity that will pursue me throughout my life, he thought; he would have to eat daily for the next thirty or forty years, at least once a day. He was burdened with the thousands of meals he must somehow provide, a hopeless chain of necessity that filled him with fear. (123)

Hans understands in hindsight that his first marriage was born of expectation, fear, and polite reticence. There is a connection within a loveless marriage to the dread with which one is reduced to “eating to live,” rather than living in a world or society where life’s pleasures are ours to seize, ours to want.  When he meets Regina he has already been given his life back from a man’s sacrifice, Willy Gompertz, who provides the subplot (or counter-plot) of lives lived in fear and hate and who saw in Hans a man whom “want[s] to live.” Hans only needs to catch up to that insight. Böll beautifully shows Hans’ mental process of making the decision to feel:

He had accepted life, it was concentrated for him here; a brief span of infinity, filled with pain and happiness…” (131)

He makes an intellectual decision to connect to his heart and let himself experience the pain and happiness of desire, yes for a woman, but more, for it seems to me that the very birth of our empathic humanity is – to want to want.

He entered suddenly without knocking, went straight up to her, and kissed her on the mouth. He felt her soft, slightly moistened lips and saw that her eyes were open. (133)

*This was Böll’s first book written in 1950, but not published until 1992 in Germany, titled Der Engel schweig. Post-war Germany was not quite ready for the story, but Böll went on to write many books and win the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. This edition was translated by Breon Mitchell.

Other books by Heinrich Boll:

18 Stories: Process of Elimination
What’s to Become of the Boy? : The Howling Void
Billiards at Half-Past Nine: Abscissa and Ordinate

Passion’s Lacunae

It is said that between two human beings there can be a moment of bending down, of drawing strength from deep within, of holding breath- a moment of utmost inner tension under a surface of silence. It is, as it were, the shadow that coming passion casts ahead of it.
-Robert Musil, The Confusions of Young Törless  (59-60)


Oh, it is easy to be clever if one does not know all the questions… (130)

The Confusions of Young Törless, or Young Törless is another title I swiped off of Wuthering Expectations reading list. I will admit that I was a little frightened when I got a hold of it. A story, published in 1908 Germany, of boarding school boys brutalizing and shaming each other fills me with a quick dread. But I was very soon enraptured by this mesmerizing book.

“Törless was glad when the master stopped talking. Since he had heard that door slam it had seemed to him that the words were moving farther and farther away from him…towards that other, indifferent realm where all correct and yet utterly irrelevant explanations lie. (112)

I love that one of the catalysts of Törless’ confusions is the mathematical idea of imaginary numbers.  Musil does such an exquisite job of detailing what must be a common experience when one encounters complex, abstract problems (mathematical or other). At least I can say that I have felt it- the coming and going of perfect clarity, the knowledge that the only way to understand it (whatever it may be at the moment) is to come at it obliquely, and then I have it! Bliss!- and then it’s gone. Damn! Like the sun, you can’t look right at it, the glare of understanding is in the periphery. That ever present light of comprehension shines but only intermittently sheds its warmth. For Törless, in the midst of a disturbing moral dilemma, the obsession with solving this mystery robs him of the ability or even desire to act or think clearly about the events that are occurring around him.

A sudden thought made his whole body grow tense. Are even older people like that? Is the world like that? Is it a universal law that there’s something in us stronger, bigger, more beautiful, more passionate and darker than ourselves? Something we have so little power over that all we can do is aimlessly strew thousands 0f seeds, until suddenly out of one seed it shoots up like a dark flame and grows out over our heads?…And every nerve in his body quivered with the impatient answer: Yes. (137)

There is a similarity between Musil’s description of the frustrations and yearnings that interpolate the lives of the introspective with D.H. Lawrence’s ideas and investigations. That passion of feeling that possesses, scares and  exhilarates us all at one point or another, and that Lawrence advises us to cleave to without compromise, is shown in Musli’s book to become sentient, but often goes by the wayside, in youthful development. Musli also shows the danger and perversity that this feeling can become when realized in a disjointed and cold environment. The dark cloud of stupidity and cruelty fills the gaps.

There was no longer any trace of thought in him, only mute, inert repugnance. (186)

Perhaps the problem arises  in that period of life called adolescents, when the burgeoning individual confronts the solitude of individuality. What had been  a natural attribute of childhood, a passionate synergy, becomes a feeling that an emerging intellect strives to “make sense” of. For many people, it would seem, the effort to intellectually or scientifically understand their own natural passion for…the all-connecting everything – kills it.

All he felt was an impassioned longing to escape from this confused, whirling state of things, a longing for quietness, for books. (195)

Törless however, in this extraordinary novel, is determined to at least  acknowledge it. That seems a good start.

Yes, there are dead and living thoughts. The process of thinking that takes place on the illuminated surface, and which can always be checked and tested by means of the thread of causality, is not necessarily the living one. (210)

Pessimism’s Cynosure

He no longer slept. His days were filled with aimless haste. In the evenings he would consider his pointless activity.
-Joseph Roth, The Spider’s Web (60)

DSCI0022In The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa there is a line that stuck itself in my memory: I’m not a pessimist, I’m sad. The German author, Joseph Roth on the other hand, at least based on the books I have read of his, is very much a pessimist. And never was pessimism so thoroughly justified as in the novella The Spider’s Web.

Theodore let them into the courtyard. Once in, they started shouting. They pushed against the walls, window panes tinkled pathetically. (49)

I found that sentence arresting. Here is one of the pinnacle moments of the story, when Theodore enjoys his act of “heroism” that his career publicly rests upon, and the window panes tinkle pathetically. The fragility of his persona, the silliness of ambition, and the depressing disgust of confronting such an odious man as Theodore is so completely expressed in those four words- it quite awes me.

He must not think too long. Reflection weakens decision. There is no time. (62)

I couldn’t help comparing Theodore to other contemptible men of literature while reading this book. Like Dosoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, Theodore is smart, but not so smart as to risk the reflection and contemplative philosophizing that is central to Crime and Punishment as well as to Raskolnikov’s final redemption. Yet, he is smarter and more power-hungry than Gorky’s protagonist in Life of a Useless Man, which makes him a lot scarier. The chilling combination of the historical time period of Germany, in the upward climb of Nazism, with a half-clever, ambitious sociopath is disturbing. The political atmosphere simply makes a riper ground for sprouting the ubiquitous depravity of human beings- speaking pessimistically, of course.

There are evenings, thought Theodore, when people must perforce be good, as if under a spell. (68)

Published in 1923, between wars, this book is a frightening bit of divination of the answer to- not so much:why, but, what?- what is the thought process of the truly hateful?

Roth creates the story with the rhythm and punctuation of the segments of a spider’s web. The sentences are short, concise, and well organized. The spider unthinkingly weaves his web, forgetting how vulnerable he really is, forgetting that there are one thousand and one more spiders ready to build on top of his stupid web at a moment’s opportunity. But Theodore won’t, can’t really, think about it. There’s no time.

Horribly awake, he saw all the events of the night before. He fought against them in vain. He tried to erase them. They simply had not taken place. He began to think of all sorts of unrelated matters. He conjugated a Greek verb. (13)

In this novel of betrayal, even one’s own mind is suspect.

The Courage of Your Own Nudity

“The beauty of women has, all through my life, been my most potent inspiration, and I pitied every man who was wasting his time on less urgent concerns.”
Alexander King presents Peter Altenberg’s Evocations of Love (61)


Don Juan painting by Alexander King

I don’t remember having new books on my bookshelves as a child. I do lovingly recall a few heavily used  wonders: Pocahontas and  the Greek Myths by Edgar and Ingrid Parin D’Auliare, a book of Russian Fables by Pushkin with fantastically wonderful drawings of Russia, my sister’s collection of Ant and Bee books that I coveted. When I recently went to the library to pick up a book I had apparently requested using my fancy new library search skills I was immediately reminded of those childhood books.

Children are disgusted with almost nothing, and this is their wonderful, unconscious romanticism. They’re as drunk with life as a lover, who would unhesitatingly drink the water in which his sweetheart has just washed her face. (33)

Over-sized, interspersed with whimsical drawings in fine red pen by the author, the battered,  cover-less book whose faded name on the spine was unintelligible, immediately fascinated me. Not least of all because I had no memory of ordering it nor any idea of why or what it could be.

Just remember that neither you nor anyone else is part of the mass. Maybe sheep and geese are, but I’m not too convinced of that, either.  After all, you have to suffer all your deep sorrows individually, and even your rare joys are profoundly personal; and nothing in your life, as far as I can see, manifests itself mass-wise, except dreary verbal cliches with which you exculpate your lack of thought and initiative. (28)

Over at Wuthering Expectations there is a Buch Party on German and Austrian literature; after examining the book in question for a full ten minutes I felt confident guessing that I had got the name from that blog. I could go back and look again, do my “homework,” but I am terrified that I will find ten more books to impulsively request and add to the pile of books-to-read-before-due towering on my desk.

Altenberg was an Austrian poet who died in 1919, Evocations of Love is a compilation of some of his vignettes and musings with lovely commentary by Alexander King who knew and clearly adored him. Very understandable, considering Altenberg’s enormously sincere, funny, and youthful outlook on life and people. His attitude is so infectious I didn’t mind laughing boisterously in public reading what looks like a child’s book. In fact, that’s the only way to do it.

Woe to those who are lucky in love! They are denied the joyous, painful, slow accumulation of yearning which finally fulfills itself in the heart’s ultimate ecstasy. They have been cheated out of the most valuable gift that life has to offer.
Whom does Don Juan, flitting from flower to flower, actually cheat? He cheats himself. (90)

The stories are very short, and wonderfully funny. My favorites were La Zeerlina in which Altenberg sets up an old age fund piggy bank for a beautiful starlet. In the Service of Beauty is too funny to spoil, you will have to seek this gem out for yourselves. And then there is My Night of Indulgence, somehow Mr. Altenberg has been privy to my own fantasy night of indulgence. Too bad we can’t do it together. On second thought he is probably best loved from a distance, I have the feeling that Mr. Altenberg loved falling in love rather more than being in love.

“Do you think,” he said, “that to act in this way is correct, in principle?”
“Certainly,” I said. “In matters of the heart, the only principle is to have no principles.” (74)

The man is divine, simply after my own heart, the entire book is an absolute delight. I look forward seeking out and  reading his poetry, to hell with my towering pile.

*Title of post from page 60: What is my great artistic credo? Listen to your heart, and don’t be afraid of giving off unexpected sounds. Have the courage of your own nudity.

Drawing by Peter Altenberg pg. 23

Drawing by Peter Altenberg pg. 23

The Howling Void

“Aside from school, Nazis, economic crises, there were other problems; for example, the ageless one of…amore.”
What’s to Become of the Boy? A Memoir – Heinrich Böll

A fellow blogger was kind enough to comment on my appreciation of Heinrich Böll, which reminded me that I did appreciate Heinrich Böll and was anxious to find the book I had initially sought ( I read and posted about 18 Stories in lieu).
But find it I did. It was not at all difficult, and yet I clearly remember it being difficult the first time around, so that remains a mystery of my predictable deficiency. At any rate:  thank you,  Tom.

The book is What’s to Become of the Boy? and it is wonderful. The opening paragraphs describe the misinformation on Böll’s high school “certificate of maturity.”

” It would never have occurred to me to have an error of that kind in such a solemn official document corrected: that error permits me to entertain a certain doubt as to whether I am really the person who is certified thereon as mature.” 

Böll’s attitude towards this institutional mistake (the very idea!) illustrates his emerging personality. Like many teenagers those formative years are the age of self-discovery, but the discovery is usually of the well, I’m NOT that sort more than the I AM this sort and Böll’s relief that he is not a mindless conformist is particularly sweet given the country and time in which he lived. Not one to let his ego run away from him he counters any clinging self-regard by confessing his own perceived lack of daring heroism. His was more the ordinary kind that in a better world might even simply be called – decency.

The entire brief book concerns itself with a four year period in which Böll attended high school during the incipient years of Nazi Germany – 1933 to 1937. It is told with such unelaborated charm as to weaken the knees of the likes of me.

“However, that gaiety was often of the desperate kind seen in some medieval paintings, where the laughter of the redeemed is sometimes akin to the expression on the faces of the damned.” 

Böll tries so earnestly to stick to the school part- nearly every chapter begins with some variation of “School? Oh yes, that too.” But his amusing inability then or later to stay on point, focused on his school work, is diverting and of course poignant, after all, there were other far more pressing matters uncomfortably close at hand.

“Yes, school too- I assure you, I’ll soon get back to that. After all, I was still a pupil, a pupil of life so to speak, subject to despondency and recklessness, yet bound and determine not to become a pupil of death- if that could possibly be avoided.” 

“The howling void” was Böll’s mother’s euphemism for Hitler and his Nazi followers. That term succinctly sums up all you need to know about the Böll family- their humor, kindness and intelligence. Heinrich Böll is the sort of writer that can express all we hate about the world while really making us love it all the more. A rare but essential gift.