A memoir of Martin Walser’s coming-of-age.
May 11, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 33 • By SUSANNE KLINGENSTEIN
Since 1945, the top echelon of German literature has been dominated by a cadre of writers and critics who were children when Hitler came to power and on the brink of adulthood when the war was over. After two years in limbo, it fell to them, as members of the fabled literary Group 47, to restore the moral credibility of Germany’s high culture. And they executed this task in a tense pas de deux with the man who had been appointed Germany’s literary pope: Marcel Reich-Ranicki, a Polish Jew born in 1920 who had survived the Warsaw ghetto.
The Siegfried Lenz/Günter Grass/Martin Walser/Walter Kempowski set succeeded beyond expectation and cornered the literary market. So strong was their dominance that, as late as 2006, two writers in their 40s, in a despairing but ill-timed manifesto, called for an uprising against the “intellectual gerontocracy.” Since then, many of the old actors, among them Kempowski, Lenz, and Reich-Ranicki, have quit the stage. Grass died on April 13.
The legacy of the LGWK set is not only the creation of the quicksilver-sleek modern German they used in their political essays to lance their foes, but also its opposite—the creation of memoirs employing the baroque riches of the German spoken in the various landscapes of their childhoods, before these linguistic ecosystems were ruined by the Nazis and modernity: the East Prussia of Lenz, the Eastern Pomerania of Grass, the Rostock of Kempowski, the Upper Swabia of Walser. The regional varieties of German also reflect specific cultural mindsets—and drive translators to despair in their searches for English equivalents.
We are fortunate that the gifted translator David Dollenmayer has tackled one of the most important and historically challenging of these memoirs, Martin Walser’s 1998 narrative Ein springender Brunnen (A Gushing Fountain). This is Walser’s first book to be translated into English since his 1989 novel No Man’s Land, and its publication is an extraordinary opportunity to reencounter Walser at a high point in his career. The book, rendered in Dollenmayer’s variously robust and supple English, is a dazzling feat of literary craftsmanship, unmatched in German memoir writing—even if Walser makes the point, pace Proust, that the past is irretrievably lost, and that what can be regained is a figment of the imagination shaped by the writer’s needs in the present. While any psychoanalyst would probably agree with this, in Germany, where the moral restoration project is predicated on a precise retrievability of the past, this is not a politically correct position to take.
A Gushing Fountain covers three slices of history: the fall of 1932 to January 1933, when Walser’s mother, a deeply Catholic and anxiety-prone young woman, joined the Nazi party; the spring following the death of Walser’s father in January 1938; and the fall of 1944 to the summer 1945, when news arrived that his brother’s tank had been blown to bits and Martin, aged 17, was drafted into the mountain troops to defend Germany’s Alpine Fortress.
The title is derived from a poem in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in which the soul is called “a gushing fountain.” Of course, this book’s true subject is a young man’s path to authorship, his decision to opt out of the coercive, uncouth language used by his peers (especially for sexual matters), and to develop a language authentically his own to express his evolving soul. It’s an utterly conventional romantic desire, as well as a glaring contradiction in terms, since language is purely a matter of social agreement. Similarly, the narrator’s desire to be totally free to write at the very moment that he ties himself emotionally and sexually to the girl who would become his lifelong, all-supportive wife is an instance of having one’s cake and eating it.
Contradictions and extremes that balance each other constitute the structural principle here. Walser tells us in the opening chapter that “nothing is true without its opposite.” This is clever as a creative device, but it is unnerving in what it obscures. The memoir, which Walser insists on calling a novel, is such a precise re-creation of the spatial and social topography of Wasserburg (the village on Lake Constance where Walser grew up) that, to this day, you can use it as a map to find your way around the place: “Nothing may appear as vividly [deutlich] as a village that no longer exists,” he quips, stressing the re-creative capacity of the emotionally engaged brain.
The scientist as public intellectual.May 11, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 33 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
This year is the centenary of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and the occasion for revisiting that momentous discovery by paying tribute to one of the most famous scientists of modern times. Steven Gimbel’s brief book is a welcome contribution to that event, placing Einstein in his “space and times,” as his subtitle has it. “It was relativity,” he declares, “that made Einstein Einstein”—that gave the scientist the authority (the standing, a jurist might say) to pronounce on public affairs.
Arthur Vandenberg and the end of GOP isolationism.May 11, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 33 • By ALONZO L. HAMBY
It may be counterintuitive to imagine cheers for a conservative midwestern Republican senator from Democratic partisans, but during the early years of the Cold War, Arthur H. Vandenberg routinely received such accolades. Breaking with the isolationist right of his own party, the Michigan senator functioned for six years as the Republican enabler of Harry Truman’s efforts to contain Soviet expansionism. Lawrence S.
Efficiency shrinks while government grows.
May 4, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 32 • By KEVIN R. KOSAR
I had my first reckoning with big government in a small town in New Jersey. The incident remains startlingly fresh in my mind, although it was years ago. A traffic island on a main road, perhaps 20 feet in length, was being demolished. Perched above the brightly vested construction workers was a white metal sign with black letters. The cost of the project was close to $500,000, much of it provided by the U.S. Department of Transportation. I was gobsmacked. The community’s average household income was north of $100,000.
The score for destruction by Hitler and Stalin. May 4, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 32 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
Saint Petersburg from its ground-breaking in 1704; Petrograd from 1914; Leningrad from the arch-demonic founding father’s death in 1924; and St. Petersburg redux, with the hope of civilization restored, in 1991. But the most beautiful and illustrious Russian city is still best known as Leningrad, its name immortalized with the black luster of incalculable wartime suffering. And perhaps the most famous 20th-century symphony is Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh (1942), the “Leningrad,” so-called by acclamation.
The biographical drama of Eugene O’Neill.May 4, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 32 • By JOHN SIMON
Tolstoy’s famous dictum—the second half of it, anyway—that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” certainly applies to the O’Neills, in spades. Though our concern here is with the playwright Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953), the miseries of his father, James, his mother, Mary (known as Ella), and his sibling, Jamie, were spectacular enough in their respective ways, as Eugene’s supreme autobiographical masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, makes abundantly clear.
The CIA and the postwar clash of ideasApr 6, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 29 • By GABRIEL SCHOENFELD
Some 60 million people perished in World War II. Before the embers of that terrible conflagration could cool, a new conflict loomed. Joseph Stalin’s Russia was imposing a cruel dictatorship on the conquered peoples of Eastern Europe and threatening Western Europe by subversion and force of arms. By 1949, the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons in its arsenal. In the event of a clash between the superpowers, many millions more would die.
A more rational division of power on campusApr 6, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 29 • By JONATHAN MARKS
Last century, American professors accomplished a miracle. In a nation not known for its love of intellectuals, the American Association of University Professors declared, in 1915, that they were more than employees. Their relationship to trustees, who are legally responsible for governing universities, was akin to the relationship of Supreme Court justices to presidents.
On the intellectual origins of evolutionApr 6, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 29 • By CHRISTOPH IRMSCHER
In 1856, while hiking through the woods in Borneo, the English naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace saw some movement in the trees. On a quest to hunt great apes, he didn’t waste time. The female orangutan that tumbled out of the tree turned out to be surprisingly hard to kill: Three shots were needed before she fell dead. It was then that Wallace found that she had been holding a small baby, not more than a foot long, in her arms. Wallace picked her up and adopted her.
The Internet is the mob’s best friendApr 6, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 29 • By SONNY BUNCH
After two years of reading and writing about those who live the politicized life—those who suffuse every aspect of their personas with politics and allow ideological considerations to trump all others—I’d finally found what I was looking for: I’d discovered the worst person in the world.
The culture of banking, in history and politicsMar 30, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 28 • By JAY WEISER
Fragile by Design is James Madison for depressives—and he’s even a protagonist. Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber argue that states are essential for banking systems (and vice versa) and that rent-seeking bargains drive their joint structure. No mere reverse Panglossians, Calomiris and Haber demonstrate that bargains change with the underlying social forces—sometimes even for the better.
A scientific approach to the science of climate changeMar 30, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 28 • By ROBERT BRYCE
Among the preachers of climate apocalypse, Roger Pielke Jr. is a heretic. Pielke’s sin: refusing to fall in line and accept the claims that climate chaos is upon us and that the only solution to the pending catastrophe is to implement immediate and drastic cuts to carbon dioxide emissions in every country in the world, including the impoverished ones.
F. R. Leavis and the life of literature. Mar 23, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 27 • By THOMAS L. JEFFERS
"I can be pretty handy in a roughhouse.” So said F. R. Leavis, all five-foot-six, 125 pounds of him, when offering to support some of his arty students at Downing College, Cambridge, whose protest meeting during the Suez Crisis of 1956 was threatened by members of the Boat Club. We may have trouble imagining this bantam don putting any oarsman against the wall, but in a literary critical fight there was, at midcentury, no one better.
Tracing the path from 1776 to 1861Mar 23, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 27 • By WILLIAM MCKENZIE
Abraham Lincoln was a remarkable leader in so many ways it is only natural that shelves upon shelves of books have been written about our 16th president. The first Republican president was an astute politician who knew how to include his opponents on his team. He of log cabin fame knew how to use his humble background to his advantage, as his Honest Abe image conveyed. The savior of the Union even got away with muzzling major newspapers and restricting civil liberties.
The persistent mythology of the Hollywood TenMar 23, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 27 • By HARVEY KLEHR
The Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters and directors who briefly went to prison in 1950 for contempt of Congress when they refused to answer questions about Communist party affiliations from the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), have, in the past few decades, become cultural heroes. The movie industry, consumed by guilt for its blacklisting of uncooperative Communists and ex-Communists, has produced a slew of apologias.