Choppy, with rhinestones

The Cambridge History of German Literature

April 11, 1997

The dominant impression left by The Cambridge History of German Literature is one of unevenness. But, for all kinds of reasons, this may be no bad thing. As Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly indicates in her vivacious preface, the title masks a whole number of well-nigh intractable uncertainties. What texts constitute "literature"? How is one to define the term "German"? And what kind of narrative passes muster as "history"? Is the reader to expect a causal sequence that connects "great" works? Or is literature a strand within the unfolding chronology of social production - with the result that aesthetic quality counts for less than typicality or representativeness (however defined)? The contributors were left to make their own decisions in respect of the periods with which they had been entrusted.

Given this cheerful eclecticism, unevenness is bound to be the result. But, given the methodological pluralism that is, no doubt, at the heart of our (post-) modern condition, and given the familiar contention that German literature is discontinuous (rather than seamless and self-evidently "great", as is usually held to be the case with English or French literature), unevenness may have much to commend it.

Brian Murdoch surveys the period 750 to 1100, paying particular attention to "the emergence, from the eighth century onwards, of a self-conscious written tradition in German within a Christian-Latin literary and intellectual context". Nigel Palmer writes on the high and late Middle Ages, and he draws attention to the growing self-confidence (and self-consciousness) of vernacular literature. He is scrupulously attentive both to the prevailing socio-cultural context and to issues of literary quality and innovation: Erec "through its remarkable structural clarity" generates complex patterns that impose on the audience "a need to interpret the action symbolically and to assess judgments already made"; the interplay of foreground and background characters in Parzival "marks a new chapter in the illusionistic representation of reality in European fiction".

Watanabe-O'Kelly considers the early modern period (1450-1720) and sustains a delicate balancing act. On the one hand she delights in the fact that many of the texts that concern her can and do speak urgently to modern readers - Erasmus's Praise of Folly is a "brilliant verbal pyrotechnic display"; Luther's writings "are remarkable for their stylistic energy and vividness"; the satire of the Lalebuch "is directed at government by committee and can be enjoyed today"; Lohenstein is "the best dramatist in German before Schiller" on account of "the power of his language and the sweep of his characterisation". But at other times she resists the over-zealous appropriation of her period by modernisers: the Volksbuch has, apparently, been distorted by "the modern search for precursors of the novel"; and Fleming has been similarly colonised: "Because of the extent to which Fleming used autobiographical elements in his poetry, he has often been praised in the past quite unhistorically for writing personal rather than conventional poetry. We can now see his poetry more justly in its indebtedness to the European and classical traditions and in its technical perfection but without denying Fleming his own unique and direct voice." Shades of T. S. Eliot's "Tradition and the individual talent", no doubt.

Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres's chapter is, I suspect, the most controversial in the volume, if for no other reason than that it subsumes literature from 1720 to 1790 under the concept of Enlightenment and vigorously asserts the manifold limitations of the so-called Enlightenment, above all with regard to issues of gender and class. In one sense the polemical thrust is to be welcomed. But there are a number of problems. One is that Joeres writes as though both the writers of 18th-century Germany and their subsequent commentators had exuded monolithic self-assurance: "The use of gender and class will help determine the inner unevennesses and difficulties that marked an age that has most often been seen as a shining progression." At times Joeres's concentration on "unevennesses" is welcome; but some judgments are strident rather than revealing. Goethe's Werther is seen in terms of a "confusion of gendered traits"; Anton Reiser is a "feminised male who is also poor". Curiously Joeres makes very little of Lessing's Minna von Barnhelm or of Goethe's Iphigenie auf Tauris, and yet one would assume that those texts would be grist to her mill.

Moreover, the section on Goethe's early poetry is feeble (and the gap is not made good elsewhere in the volume). Nicholas Saul treats Weimar classicism and romanticism under the heading of "aesthetic humanism". He sees German culture 1790-1830 as being animated by a complex and urgent need to answer the French revolution by the humanly creative and self-reflexive energies of a rich aesthetic and philosophical tradition. There are magnificent things in his chapter, on the Meister novels, and on the Romantics, and on Kleist.

But there are strange anomalies. Reference is made to "the epoch's misogynist anthropology", but that misogyny is taken for granted rather than demonstrated; Heine hardly gets a look in; and in a moment of electrifying dottiness, Faust I is dismissed: "In Part I, (Faust) demands the microcosmic totality of human experience. What he gets, ironically, are a student drinking bout, an unconvincing rejuvenation of his appearance, and a domestic tragedy - the seduction, impregnation and execution of naive Gretchen. Only in Part 2, composed largely after 1825, does the work unfold its greatness."

Things return to a more even keel with Gail Finney's patient survey of the 19th century. Ritchie Robertson contributes an excellent chapter on the years from 1890 to 1945, which is to be welcomed not only for its survey of Nazi literature but also for the perceptiveness of its critical responses. Above all, Robertson is aware of the omnipresence of ideology in the period under discussion, of the fact that literature can both redeem and succumb to the omnipresent deep structures of sacrosanct sociocultural tenets.

By contrast with Robertson's liveliness, Helen Fehervary is infinitely dutiful in her treatment of GDR literature. The tone is that of an earnest guide book. She has a good word for almost all her writers (apart from Hermann Kant). And there is a kind of willed blandness which is nowhere more apparent than at the beginning of her chapter, when she is very respectful of Johannes R. Becher who, in his earlier incarnation as visionary poet, has been dismissed by Robertson as the "McGonagall of Expressionism".

The volume closes with Moray McGowan's very full survey of West German writing from 1945 to 1990 which seeks to balance the claims of sociopolitical engagement on the one hand and formal and stylistic sophistication on the other.

It is difficult to know quite what to make of this volume. The reader will glean much valuable information from it; the bibliographical section is very good; many chapters bring familiar and less familiar works into sharp focus. Yet it would have gained immeasurably had the unevenness been, not edited out, but reflected upon and interrogated.

Moreover, the contributors could have considered the needs of their English-speaking audience. (This might have prevented the almost total omission of Goethe as a lyric poet.) In the context of an English-speaking public, certain issues of reader expectation could have been highlighted, explored, and also challenged. Might it not have been appropriate to reflect on particular issues to do with German historiography, identity, nationhood? on issues to do with the inwardness and learnedness of German literature?

To write in English a history of German literature is by definition to write within a comparativist enterprise. That dimension of comparison could have given the volume the kind of coherence that would have respected and made resonant the differences of approach and argument that inform the individual chapters.

Martin Swales is professor of German, University College London.

The Cambridge History of German Literature

Editor - Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly
ISBN - 0 521 43417 3
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £65.00
Pages - 613

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