Christas Wolf’s No Place on Earth

This No Place on Earth is whimsy, a dark artifice stage-managed by Christa Wolf, placing Romantic poet Karoline von Günderrode in a succession of frames with Romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist.

There is no evidence that the pair ever met, or engaged in the intoxicating, conversational interplay that Wolf conjures to comment on the patriarchal nature of early nineteenth-century Germany and on the anxiety of post-Goethe German writers of the time. It is, I suppose, an essay as much as a novel in so far as it resists conventional categories; an essay in the true sense of trying something out, testing a hypothesis. I read and then reread No Place on Earth, translated by Jan van Heurck, and found not a single note out of place. It is just shy of one hundred and twenty pages, but contains an immense intimacy, a scrutiny of our chances of vanquishing self-alienation.

Günderrode and Kleist wander away from the tea party, which is the stage set for their encounter, frustrated by the empty chatter of the other guests, and discover during their intense conversation the tantalising possibility that they are intellectual equals capable of recognising each other’s autonomy. “Sometimes,” writes Wolf, “I find it unendurable that nature has split the human being into man and woman.”

Early in No Place on Earth, Wolf writes, “She knows the place where she must drive home the dagger, a surgeon whom she jestingly asked about it showed her the spot, pressing it with his finger.” Suicide, that frequent Romantic release overshadows this novel, and though Wolf closes with a note of hope: “Simply go on, they think. We know what is coming,” it is towards nothing: in Günderrode’s case, by a dagger she carried all the time in her handbag; in Kleist’s case by a bullet.

Reading Lately …

I’m much more familiar with Iliad than The Odyssey. As a teenager, with the help of a magnifying glass and Liddell and Scott’s ancient Greek lexicon, I learnt to write the first line of Iliad in Greek from memory, a silly party trick.

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Robert Fagles’ verse translation of Odyssey succeeds at turning the poem into fathomable vernacular, though there are times when one feels he must have strayed reasonably far from the nuances of the original Greek. On balance I probably prefer the prose translation of E. V. Rieu, revised by D. C. H. Rieu, philistine though that might appear. I intend to read George Chapman’s Homer sometime soon. Fagles‘ Odyssey has been a fine companion though and despite knowing the story am still not immune to the heightening tension as it progresses toward the slaughter of the suitors.

This summer I plan a second attempt at Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, joining Richard and Francis for the 1130 pages—or 1770 with From the Posthumous Papers edition—translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike. I am hoping this more modern translation keeps my interest longer than that of Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser.

As a side project I’m slowly collecting and reading a series of little books on modern European literary figures, published in the fifties by Bowes and Bowes of Cambridge. The first four I have are on Sartre, Kleist, Jacques Riviere and Valery. They caught my eye when watching the video of Duncan Fallowell’s library. They look wonderful and may number fifty or so in number.

Other reading plans, always subjects to whimsy, include dipping into Anita Brookner’s oeuvre, exploring whether William Gerhardie’s work still stands up, undoubtedly more Schmidt and Redonnet, and more ancient Greeks.

Kleist’s Enigmatic Quality

Kleist said of himself, ‘everything in me is confusion’. His characters say the same. Their confusion is legendary. Their patterns fail them; playing familiar roles they discover that the lines no longer make mush sense. The usual categories collapse. Things it would be comfortable to keep apart – tenderness and sadism, filial and sexual love, chivalry and rape, angels and devils – run into one another. Kleist’s characters surprise themselves and everyone else.

One of the comments to my last post compelled me to reread David Constantine’s stellar introduction in my edition of Heinrich Von Kleist’s Selected Writings. These two excerpts I quote above and below encapsulate just why I love Kleist’s enigmatic writing so very much. Firstly there is the sheer unexpectedness of his stories; you never know quite where they are going. Secondly is the vulnerability that flows, even in translation, through Kleist’s prose.

Even whilst asserting, if never wholly believing in, the effective power of the mind and the will, Kleist kept open another and contradictory (because irrational) option, as a last resort when the world confronts us unintelligibly and the mind admits defeat. That option is trust (Vertrauen), blind faith, a thing which passeth all understanding. Trust and the lack or failure of it is a central issue in the stories and the plays …

Betrothal in San Domingo by Heinrich Von Kleist

Haitians tell the story of how Haiti saved the United States from Napoleon’s imperial ambitions. Bob Corbett, a retired professor from Webster University with a deep interest and involvement in Haiti writes:

But, over dinner a discussion came up in which the Haitians present were teasing me about how Haiti “saved” the United States. I was fascinated. I didn’t know this story. It certainly was not taught in my history courses in school.

When I did finally get back to the states, I started reading about this “saving” story. The glory of the tale is rooted in a late 20th century view of the world. From that perspective little bitsy Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world, by resisting Napoleon’s invaders, had saved the U.S. since Napoleon was really on his way to attack the huge and glorious U.S.

But, the real story, as set in the very beginning of the 19th century was much more glorious than the Haitians knew. Haiti was the economic giant, the plum of Napoleon’s empire, and the jewel around which he would build his empire. The then small and less interesting U.S. would simply be a feeding ground for the slaves he intended to reinstate in Saint-Domingue.

This Haitian revolution is Kleist’s setting for his excruciatingly  tense Betrothal in San Domingo. The revolution raged during the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century. A quintessentially Romantic tragedy, complete with tragic hero, a heroine felled by misinterpreted intentions and the hero’s subsequent suicide, Kleist’s prose and fiercely realised characters give the story a compelling force. Like its sister tale The Chilean Earthquake, another colonial story full of tension and despair, Kleist opts to end with the hint of cathartic redemption.

Monday was the 200th anniversary of Kleist’s suicide, so it felt right to be reading one of his magnificent stories. It is also German literature month. The comments to Nicole’s post about another Kleist story lead me to Betrothal in San Domingo.

My Plans for German Literature Month II

Somehow during German literature month, in addition to my plans to read Effi Briest, The Silent Angel, Visitation, The Judge and his Hangman and Old Masters, I have challenged Nicole to a shared reading of Elective Affinities, which seems proper to post about as part of German lit-month. I am also going to read at least one of Kleist’s brilliant short stories again to respond to the call for a worldwide reading on 21 November.

The international literature festival berlin (ilb) and the German Heinrich von Kleist Society are calling for cultural institutions, schools, radio stations and anyone who is interested to organise a worldwide reading of the works of the German author Heinrich von Kleist on 21 November 2011, the 200th anniversary of his death.

The 200th anniversary of Kleist’s death on 21 November 2011 is an occasion to discuss the relationship between crisis, critique and reform ideas then and today. However, the 21st of November is also the day on which tribute should be paid to Kleist’s life, how he died and his works. In his honour, excerpts from the letters and works of Heinrich von Kleist should be read on the anniversary of his death.

Fortunately I have a few days off and a business trip down under, so should have reading time to spare.

Wordsworth’s ‘A Night Piece’

I’m making slow progress, intentionally, through Gabriel Josipovoci’s Whatever Happened to Modernism?. It is so thrilling to read a book packed chock full of so much insight. Between scribbling notes and pausing to reread passages, it will be an enjoyable week’s reading.

In parallel I am reading Heinrich Von Kleist’s The Marquise of O- and Other Stories. In the Penguin Classics edition the first story, which I read in the garden drinking breakfast tea, is The Earthquake in Chile: the denouement is inevitable and yet so chilling. I’ve wanted to read The Marquise of O- for a long time. This edition includes Michael Kohlhaas, which Josipovici names, with Madame Bovary and The Devils as the greatest nineteenth century novels.

Back to Josipovici’s latest: in the current chapter he is juxtaposing one of my favourite poets with a similarly favoured painter Caspar David Friedrich. In doing so he cites one of my most cherished of Wordsworth’s shorter poems, A Night Piece:

The sky is overcast
With a continuous cloud of texture close,
Heavy and wan, all whitened by the Moon,
Which through that veil is indistinctly seen,
A dull, contracted circle, yielding light
So feebly spread, that not a shadow falls,
Chequering the ground – from rock, plant, tree, or tower.
At length a pleasant instantaneous gleam
Startles the pensive traveller while he treads
His lonesome path, with unobserving eye
Bent earthwards; he looks up – the clouds are split
Asunder, – and above his head he sees
The clear Moon, and the glory of the heavens.
There, in a black-blue vault she sails along,
Followed by multitudes of stars, that, small
And sharp, and bright, along the dark abyss
Drive as she drives: how fast they wheel away,
Yet vanish not! – the wind is in the tree,
But they are silent; – still they roll along
Immeasurably distant; and the vault,
Built round by those white clouds, enormous clouds,
Still deepens its unfathomable depth.
At length the Vision closes; and the mind,
Not undisturbed by the delight it feels,
Which slowly settles into peaceful calm,
Is left to muse upon the solemn scene.