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The lower slopes of the magic mountain

26 March 2005

12:00 AM

26 March 2005

12:00 AM

A New History of German Literature editor in chief David E. Wellbery

The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, pp.1056, 29.95

The English don’t read German literature. This is not, I suggest, because of our vulgar prejudice towards the Germans for being the people they are and having the history they do. That over-repeated Fawlty Towers episode, those ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ commercials and endless how-we-won-World-War-II documentaries keep such unselective loathing robustly alive, but in the case of books and authors the reason for our indifference is altogether simpler. Since most of us don’t speak the language, where are we to get hold of them? When, outside a secondhand bookshop, did you last stumble across a translation of Annette von Droste Hulshoff’s 1842 novella Die Judenbuche, a highly original fusion of thriller-writing, social analysis and meditation on the nature of truth? How easy to pull off the shelf at Waterstone’s is Paul Celan, whose works, if George Steiner is to be believed (though sometimes he isn’t), represent the alpha and omega of postwar European poetry? And who will give us an English version of Andreas Gryphius’s Baroque tragedy Catharina von Georgien, whose heroine finally does the decent thing by preferring a glorious martyrdom to worldly vanity ?

To those clinging to stereotypes of Teut- onic efficiency and regimentation there ought to be something comforting in the sheer untidiness of German literature. Bits aren’t there when they should be. Gryphius notwithstanding, the drama doesn’t really kick off until the première of Lessing’s bourgeois weepie Miss Sarah Sampson in 1755. The novel, if we except the ripsnorting picaresque of Grimmels- hausen’s Simplicissimus, published in the wake of the Thirty Years War, only takes hold with the dawn of Romanticism during the 1770s. We peer in vain, meanwhile, through a 16th-century fog of theological pamphlet wars between Lutherans and Catholics for any equivalent to that rich secular culture of poetry and romance flourishing in England at the same period.

The Harvard editors of A New History of German Literature are rather more generous than most literary historians in their policy of inclusiveness. To paraphrase the first line of Goethe’s best-known poem ‘On all the mountain peaks there is peace’, and the big names, Mann, Kafka, Rilke, Holderlin, not to speak of Johann Wolf- gang himself, are each assigned their appropriate summit. On the lower slopes, between the eighth-century pagan Merseburg Charms and the death, in 2001, of W. G. Sebald in a Norfolk road accident, the omnium gatherum is an exotic collection. What used to be dismissed, in Romantic England, as ‘German metaphysics’ gets its share of attention, but do Hegel, Kant and Marx strictly belong in a survey of this kind? Schopenhauer’s presence is better justified, given his influence on writers outside Germany, including Tolstoy, Zola and Melville, and there is a respectful nod towards Freud in a perceptive account of Schnitzler’s Fr


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