Traveling back in time for a cup of tea with Goethe

Bruno Preisendörfer: Als Deutschland noch nicht Deutschland war. Reise in die Goethezeit. ISBN 978-3-86971-110-2 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Would like to know how Johann Wolfgang von Goethe spent his day? Or in what kind of bed he slept? Perhaps you would be fascinated by the myriads of problems a traveler trying to cross Germany at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century had to face? Passport issues, the fear of being robbed, whom to bribe, how to avoid the lost or the damage of your luggage… And would you have thought of the necessity to take a pillow with you on the coach? You probably have not the faintest idea about the link between serf-bondage and the technique of ploughing a field. Nor would you know about the different schooling system, the peasants’ resistance to modern agricultural methods or and how the philosopher Immanuel Kant from Königsberg found a highly original way to quench his thirst at night without leaving his bed.

Bruno Preisendörfer has written a curious and highly interesting book in which he presents all the facets of life in Germany during the “Weimarer Klassik” (1786-2832), an era named after the intellectual aura emanating from Goethe’s residence town. The many curiosities, painstakingly researched, make this book worthwhile reading and highly entertaining. Middle-class families in Dresden for example would rather spend money on fashionable clothes than on nutritious food. Goethe’s friend Friedrich Schiller spent a sixth of his annual budget on tobacco, wine, beer, coffee and tea. And would you have guessed that magnetism had the reputation of healing all kind of ailments if only you had unconditional faith in the healer and a generous hand?

Needless to say that I laughed a lot about such anecdotes, while the plain facts and figures about extreme poverty, high child mortality rates and the working conditions in the early industrial age make our current day labour conflicts look like a walk in the park. Torture during judicial proceedings, public hangings and wide-spread censorship show a less familiar side of Germany during the Enlightenment. Traveling back in time with Goethe and Preisendörfer was a fine reading experience and a useful reminder for me not to complain too much about whatever. I live a privileged life, even compared to Goethe or King Frederic II of Prussia.

This book is about traveling and Franz Schubert, a contemporary of Goethe, wrote a wonderful song cycle about a “Winter Journey”:

Wandering to the Point of No Return

A Wise Man Fighting For a Better Society

Stephen Tree: Moses Mendelssohn. ISBN 978-3-499-50671-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Moses Mendelssohn, one of the most influental thinkers of the Enlightenment, is exercising a growing fascination upon me. Stephen Tree’s book is a short and concise account of Mendelssohn’s life and his difficult position in Germany. As a philosopher he had many admirers and patrons, but as a Jew he had few rights as a citizen. Intellectually he certainly was superior to most of his contemporaries, but as a Jew he was an easy target for base Anti-semitic attacks.

However, two centuries after Mendelssohn’s birth not even the Nazis succeeded in erasing the memory of one of the greatest German Jews. Mendelssohn’s defence of the immortality of the soul, his ideas about the relation between religion and politics, expressed in his work “Jerusalem”, his effort to modernize Judaism and to reconcile it with rationalism and his lifelong fight for a peaceful co-existence of Jews and Christians rank among his most important contributions to the intellectual life in Europe during the 18th century. When I come to think of it, we could do with a few Mendelssohns to clear out the fog in some politicians’ minds and prevent them from compromising our social and economic future. And it will not be the last time you will hear of Moses here on this blog.

When he was a young man, Moses Mendelssohn took harpsichord lessons and frustrated his teacher with his inability to keep time. Here is a piece performed with utmost precision, written by a contemporary of Mendelssohn: Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in E Major:

Time to Compose, Time to Rejoice

Clara Schumann – A Look Behind the Veil

Dieter Kühn: Clara Schumann, Klavier. ISBN 978-3-596-14203-3 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Before I read this book, I didn’t know much about Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann’s wife, born as Clara Wieck. On my music blog I exclusively refer to her under her maiden name; I will proceed in the same manner here. Having been married to a famous composer tends to obscure the fact that this woman had a fascinating life before she married Robert Schumann and even more so after her husband’s tragic death in an asylum.

Dieter Kühn’s biography is an excellent book. The amount and variety of sources he has consulted is impressive. The testimonies from the 19th century he has chosen to illustrate Clara Wieck’s world, how it changed, its highlights and the uncertainties, are remarkable and often hilarious. His narrative style is a little special: He interrupts the long list of biographical facts by interjecting personal speculations and philosophical musings. This makes the rather voluminous book fairly easy to read and entertaining, but I could imagine that this us not to everybody’s taste. I enjoyed it however, so I will not dwell upon this any longer.

The most extraordinary quality of the book lies in Kühn’s talent to let himself be fascinated by Clara Wieck’s person without losing his objectivity. He makes a point of not writing a hagiography and wants tp do away with many myths that surround Clara and her husband. Myths that Clara has partly created herself. Kühn maintains a considerable distance to his subject and is very critical of Clara Wieck. For Clara Wieck was a very complex person. A duplicitous person.

Appearances greatly mattered. Clara Wieck presented herself as a loving and true wife, a loving and tender mother, as a pianist devoted to her art and the composers whose works she performed: Chopin, Beethoven, Schumann. She presented herself as a good friend of Johannes Brahms and as the guardian of Robert Schumann’s heritage. All of this was true. But there’s was a dark side to all these aspects.

Robert Schumann had contracted syphilis as a young man; this illness lead over time to mental disorder. When he gradually become more and more confused, depressed, irate, Clara told him at some point she could not deal with the situation any longer and that she would like to hand his care over to professionals i.e. to transfer him to an asylum. This triggered Schumann’s suicide attempt. During the two years her husband spent at the asylum she visit him only once, shortly before he died. Three of the Schumann’s children suffered from severe ailements: Ludwig was schizophrenic and had been “burie aluve”, as Clara put it, while Julie and Felix had tuberculosis. Clara never visited Ludwig in the asylum, and when the other two died, she was too busy to attend the funerals and to mourn. She had concerts to give.

While Clara did occasionally compose, she felt no inner voice that wanted to express itself in a piece of music. She had to be pushed, by her father, by her husband. She had an excellent pianistic technique, she exercised a lot and sometimes against medical advice, but her style did not please all. Masterful yes, but too dry, too academic – those are the judgments of experts of her time.

Clara Wieck was obsessed by her career as a pianist. She had been trained by an ambitious father, she had been held back by an ambitious husband, but once Robert Schumann was dead, Clara Wieck’s career took of. She earned fame all over Europe and quickly became a very rich woman. At the same time her excuse for devoting very little to her children was that she had to give concerts to feed the family. A blatant lie, one of many.

Here is another one. Clara Wieck and Johannes Brahms – the story of a truly legendary friendship? Brahms had fallen in love with her and courted her for years. She gladly accepted his devotion while her husband was still alive. After his death, her initial friendship to the young composer evolved into real love and a romance. It did not last however, and somehow both settled for long-lasting friendship. The details are unknown, Clara erased most traces and spread a narrative that suited her best. Appearances mattered.

Clara Wieck – since I have read Kühn’s biography, her name triggers in me ambiguous feelings. I like her compositions, I find her career as a female pianist in a reactionary Germany impressive, but I judge her tendency to run away from painful moments and truths appalling. Her many efforts to spread myths glorifying her husband and her relationship to him, her insistence that it was her duty as a mother to give hundreds of concerts over decades when it was pure vanity repulse me.

I am glad I read this book. I might have fallen for the embellished picture that Clara Wieck has spread about herself. When she was a very young girl and did not yet think of manipulating people, she wrote a wonderful work, her Piano Concerto in A minor:

Un air de Chopin signed Clara Wieck

I am literature – Kafka’s life and extreme ambition

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Reiner Stach: Die Kafka-Biographie in drei Bänden (English titles: Kafka: The Early Years, Kafka: The Years of Insight, Kafka: The Decisive Years). ISBN 978-3-10-397256-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Few non-fiction works have given me the satisfaction that this biography of Franz Kafka gave me. The original German edition counts some 1800 pages, spread over three volumes, and each page was an adventure. Rainer Stach combines a thorough scientific study of Kafka’s life and works with masterful story-telling. His sound knowledge of the history of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire allows him to put Kafka’s life in a precise philosophical, political and sociological context. And Stach’s outstanding literary talent made it possible to write a witty, emphatic biography while maintaining the necessary distance to the subject at the same time.

What shall I say? This is certainly the best biography I have read so far and most likely one of the best books I have read. What impressed me, was the consistency of the ideas that guide the reader through the three volumes. Kafka was an enigmatic person, no doubt, but it is possible to decrypt both him and his works, if not to the last detail then at least well enough to understand Kafka’s states of mind, his motives, his ambitions and the obstacles that prevented him from becoming a successful author during his lifetime, obstacles he set up mostly himself.

The second and third volume are brim-full of bookmarks and annotations of mine, so where should I start? Perhaps with Kafka’s ambition which at the same time was what he considered the purpose of his life. Kafka was looking for the utmost depth of his soul, the hidden truths inside himself, pure and therefore honest. He looked so hard that on many occasions he lost himself. Catapulted into a state of extreme introspection, he found bits and pieces of his essence at the level of his subconsciousness. He combined this with a precise observation of his environment, the society of Prague, the psychological workings of his dysfunctional family and metaphors they inspired to him. And just like in a black box, through an unintelligible process, out came a book, a letter, a note in one of his many drafting booklets.

It could take years until a coherent text took shape, but once the black-box was triggered Kafka would write day and night until total exhaustion. As you may know, he almost never finished a text. Most of his novels end abruptly and leave the reader somewhat speechless, like “The Castle”. Sometimes Kafka wrote chapters for a novel without knowing where to insert them. I remember the chapters at the end of  “The Trial”. They illustrate certain parts of the plot, but you can either read them or not. Kafka himself was unsure.

Kafka intended to replicate life in literature and at the same time literature was his life. As Stach writes, one of the forces that propelled Kafka’s writing forward was “the reciprocal concentration of fantasy and reality”, well visible in Kafka’s novel “Metamorphosis”. This however was an extreme challenge, as Kafka recognized himself. To his fiancée Felice he once wrote: “The outer world is too small, too obvious, too authentic to hold all that is encapsulated in one human being.”

One of Kafka’s central issue was the subject of social exclusion. He always felt like the odd man out – in his family, at school, in his job as an insurance expert, in the literary scene of Prague, in the Jewish community, a stranger among humans. And this was by no means just an attitude. Stach describes it as an affliction, a lifelong burden and a lifelong source of inspiration. More than once Kafka feared to turn mad, trapped by the conflicting forces that tore at his soul, but suicide was never an issue as this would not have been compatible with his ambition. He could not withdraw from the life-long experiment labeled “I am literature”.

Kafka’s desire to write something completely truthful, perfectly reflecting his ideas and emotions let him to hone his writing skill over decades, leading to an aesthetic concept marked by an extreme density, a meticulous choice of words and metaphors and a stark, sober style when it came to descriptions. It was Kafka’s language that enthralled me, it was his symbolism that captivated my mind and it was Stach’s biography that helped me understand both the man and his works. With Kafka I discovered a whole world, his world, and at the same time I received a code to decypher modern-day sociological issues that are not very different from the issues at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Kafka had no interest in classical music and told his friend Max Brod he could not distinguish Franz Lehar’s operette “The Merry Widow” from Richard Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde”. Prague was the geographical centre of Kafka’s life and so I’d like to link this outstanding biography to an outstanding Czech composer, Leos Janacek, who benefited of Brod’s support, and his String Quartet No. 1:

Entangled in Janacek’s tragedies and love affairs

Books of the Past I Had Forgotten (About)

I did some digging. In my past. In my memories. As I had promised in my first post dealing with books of the past that were important to me. Funny how I had forgotten about them. Some of them were actually more important than those that sprung to my mind while I was compiling the first list. Now, if you continue reading, brace yourself. You are signing up for a couple of confessions!

1977 – 1982

Jack Hambleton: Flieger überm Busch (Forest Ranger) I inherited this youth novel, published in its 3rd edition in 1956, from my dad. Bill Hanson and Bun Higgins, two friends, a young and a more experienced bush pilot, chase bandits setting Canada’s woods on fire. I loved this book. I still love it. I don’t have my dad’s copy anymore, I gave it to one of my cub scouts when I resigned as an assistant cub scout leader. I immediately regretted it and got hold of a vintage copy. I just wanted to possess it. Decades later I passed this copy to my daughter. She liked it too. She presented it to her school class. Imagine, a book published more than half a century ago! Pretty cool.


1982 – 1989

Heinrich Heine: Sämtliche Gedichte (Complete Poems) Those familiar with my music blog will know that Heine is my favourite poet. Quite a few composers have set his poems to music. I fell in love with Heine at school, despite an incompetent teacher. But incompetent teachers had stopped impressing me. It was the same teacher who made me learn part of a novel by heart as I mentioned in that earlier post. The way Heine plays with language, his irony wielded like a rapier, his political Romanticism – I just love it!

Anne Frank: Tagebuch (The Diaries of Anne Frank) I had always been fascinated by World War II. I was worried about my fascination for the German side. Hic sunt daemones… One of my teachers, a human rights activist, understood my worries. He warned me about being lured to the dark side, but he offered no rescue. I had to find it myself. Anne Frank was a revelation. Very moving, very disturbing. I understood Hitler’s idea: People like Anne have to die for Germany to live. Anne was for more sympathetic than this man with his ridiculous moustache and his bad haircut. Never mind the cool planes flown by the Luftwaffe, I knew where I stood. On Anne’s side.

Richard Bach: The Bridge Across Forever Men and women and the question of love. Meeting a soul mate and taking care of a relationship. Exploring what love can mean – for myself and the girl I was in love with. I was 17 and I had no clue about all of the above. The book helped fill a few voids not covered by the biology book. It’s still a good read. My copy is full of annotations by myself and my former girl friend. She was equally impressed. The right book at the right time. Soon afterwards we decided we were not made for each other. We were devastated, but it was the right thing to do. I wasn’t ready to take up the challenge of a true partnership. I hadn’t grown up yet. It would take many more years unfortunately.


1989 up to now

Ken Follett: The Key to Rebecca I think this was the first of many spy novels by Ken Follett that I read. It certainly was the one that fascinated me most. A World War II spy hunt in the exotic setting of Egypt, under British control, but threatened by the evil designs of a Nazi master spy. Thrilling! I like anything linked to codes and cryptology since my early childhood, when I made invisible ink from lemon juice that reveals itself only when heat is applied. I gave my copy of Follett’s novel to a fellow student in Munich and forgot to claim it back. Shame on me! That’s why I had trouble remembering some of the best books I had read. I gave them away to share the pleasure and…  bye-bye! It’s unbelievable!

Banana Yoshimoto: Kitchen I must confess that it was the cover of the German edition that initially compelled me to grab this book at the bookstore. Once I had read a few lines – still in the bookstore – I had found a better reason. What a strange book, I thought. The lives of women in Japan, their hopes, their disappointments, the subject of sexuality – I never had asked myself these questions. The novel had a strange effect upon me: bewilderment, curiosity, fascination, compassion… I wonder whether it would not be a good thing to read it once more!

J. R. R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings I read this breathtaking novel during my last days as a student. My flat was being painted, I stayed with a friend, I had a job contract in my pocket, but since I was to start working only a month later, I had no money at all. I checked my friend’s bookshelf, found Tolkien’s great achievement and didn’t bother to go outside for three days. I even forgot to eat. That was… unheard of.

Biljana Srbljanovic: Familiengeschichten. Belgrad (Family Stories – The Belgrade Trilogy) After having spent a week in Sarajevo in 1998, I was keen to explore not only Bosnian literature but also Serbian contemporary works. These two dramas truly shocked me. They depict dysfunctional, violent and mysogynic families, serving as an allegory for a dysfunctional, violent and mysogynic society. Srbljanovic condenses the long-term psychological effects of Tito’s dictatorship, the Balkan civil wars and the complicated history of Serbia searching for its identity in two powerful theatre pieces in a language trying to accommodate love and destruction at the same time.

Elias Khoury: La porte du soleil (Gate of the Sun) My dream was to work as a political editor for a newspaper and I was able to make this dream come true. The Middle East was one of my traditional fields of interest, and Khoury’s novel, set in Lebanon during its disastrous civil war, opened my eyes to the plight of refugees and the religious and ethnic plurality of this country. A sad excursion into a fascinating society.

William Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream Imagine a spring morning in central Scotland. The sun just had gone up, it was cold and I stood at a bus stop. I felt miserable. I felt lonesome. I had hardly any money left (I have an issue with money, it would seem!!!). I wanted to stay in Scotland and I longed for home. I had fallen in love with a girl and she had left. I had hung around with another girl who had left too. I had had a wild night with a third girl whom I had left once I was sober again. I desperately looked for a kind illusion. I had it in my backpack. Once I had started to read at the bus stop, the cold air, the empty belly, the lack of funds and the broken heart were forgotten. Thank you, William!

Final remarks

What I take away from this post – a real intellectual effort started today way past midnight and finished on a morning bus – is two-fold: First, exploring foreign cultures like Serbia, Japan or Lebanon somehow seems important to me. My cosmopolitan side, I guess. Second, the perspective of female authors intruded into my life. Well, it’s never to late, is it? And finally, reflecting this second selection, I realized that books reconcile me partly with this world. Just as music does. That fills me with joy.