Meeting the Master of Metamorphosis

Thomas Mann: Lotte in Weimar ISBN 978-3-596-90402-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ A curious thing happened to me lately. I was half-way through this book and I felt reluctant to share it with you. Bizarre. That’s not me. The book had cast a very special spell upon me, its language, the absence of any action, the long descriptions, the multi-layered message – I felt like keeping it all to myself. I had the feeling that me diving into this book was something too intimate to be shared. Very bizarre.

My reluctance however vaporized later, so here we are for another review of one more novel by the German writer and Nobel prize laureate Thomas Mann. I love Franz Kafka for some reasons and I love Thomas Mann for very different reasons. And of course I love Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, that goes without saying. The nmain idea of the novel is to portray Goethe i his many facets and his many apparent contradictions.

Different witnesses testify about the aged writer in intimate conversations with Lotte, Goethe’s first love, the woman who inspired his novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther”. Lotte, almost as old as Goethe, has come to Weimar to see the man who immortalized her, and her visit causes a sensation in the little town. The inhabitants venerate the master of German literature, and everybody wants to see the woman who inspired Goethe’s fictional Lotte. Each of those who gain access to Lotte sees the writer through a different lens, and their testimony gives the real Lotte a way to gauge her visitors and prepare for the meeting with Goethe, a meeting that she has been looking for, a meeting she is apprehensive of at the same time.

In these conversations, Thomas Mann picks up a couple of subjects he has written about in other works. One is the German-French antagonism in politics and aesthetics, that soured the relations between the two countries during the 19th century. It reflected among others a presumed difference in national characters and in types of morality, the subject that permeates Mann’s essay “Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man“. Mann, through the words and thoughts of Goethe himself, also attacks the Romantic Zeitgeist of the first half of the 19th century in Germany, a time when writers, painters and musicians were rebelling against the ideals of the Weimar Classic era and against Goethe’s generation.

Mann portrays Goethe through several levels of conflicts: personal, social, artistic and political. What I find remarkable is Mann’s talent in creating the illusion of reporting from the 19th century in the language of Goethe’s time. It may appear a little cumbersome, but it gives the novel a singular authenticity. It is no longer Mann telling the story, the characters themselves seem to be reporting live from the Weimar of 1816 and push the story forward. As I said, there is hardly any real action, but Mann was a clever story-teller creating tension, stretching the patience of the reader to the limit and beginning a new chapter with a new angle on Goethe just at the right time. Wonderful!

Goethe appears as a tyrant in personal affairs and as a political man: He doesn’t think too much about the freedom of the press, he appears as a law-and-order proponent, and his admiration for Napoleon even after the latter’s fall knows no bounds. He is open to flattery by the rulers, seems to look down on women, he is easily seduced by the comfort a public office provides and strictly opposed to any revolutionary ideas of the youth. In Mann’s portray, Goethe is shown as a politically conservative and anti-democratic person while asking at the same time for a high degree of tolerance for his own liberal lifestyle and the freedom of his own literary and scientific ambitions.

In his own introspection, Goethe justifies his desire to live, to enjoy, to create as the only way to transcend death – physical, moral and spiritual death. This end seems to justify any means, the exhibition of other people’s intimacies in literary works included. The great master also touches a highly sensitive subject: Germany’s identity. Goethe’s distance to Germany mirrors Mann’s distance to his home country. They both do not really trust their contemporaries. Goethe was wary of the young Romantic revolutionaries, while Mann abhorred the Nazis who had taken over the country and forced him to flee. The big question in 1816 and in 1939, when “Lotte on Weimar” was published, was: Who can legitimately claim to represent Germany? And who may legitimately claim to represent Germany today? The embattled chancellor Angela Merkel? The populistic nationalists from the AfD-party? Mann’s novel proves to be unexpected food for thought!

There are a few more surprises in this novel, which I will not reveal as I do not want to spoil your reading pleasure. Goethe and Lotte first meet in a stiff and semi-public context, seen through the eyes of Lotte, and a second time in a more intimate context. Mann demonstrates his excellence as narrator here. The emotional showdown between the two characters is sublime, a witty conclusion, thrilling to read, revealing Mann’s deep affection for the fate of two imagined human beings with their contradictions, their faults, fears and sacrifices. “Emotions are everything that is”, Goethe at some point confesses, and their metamorphosis is his own personal obsession.

Both Thomas Mann and the Romantic composer Robert Schumann were big fans of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Schumann composed an overture inspired by Goethe’s epic poem “Hermann and Dorothea”:

Schumann, Heroism and the Fate of Refugees

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

Music and the freedom of expression in Nazi Germany

Hans Hinterkeuser: Elly Ney und Karlrobert Kreiten. Zwei Musiker unterm Hakenkreuz. ISBN 978-3-929386-53-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ This interesting book presents two outstanding German musician whose lives took radically different directions under the Nazi reign over Germany: The pianist Elly Ney, an unconditional admirer of Adolf Hitler, embarked on a glorious career, supported by Hitler’s regime. The pianist Karlrobert Kreiten, as such an unpolitical man, was condemned and hanged by the Nazis after he had in private voiced the opinion that Germany was losing World War II after the defeat in Stalingrad.

By juxtaposing not only the professional evolution of both musicians but also their ideas about art and aesthetics, Hans Hinterkeuser shows that arts were intimately linked to politics in Nazi Germany, and that no musician could pretend to be exclusively concerned by music. If politics threaten the existence of large parts of the population, humanitarian obligations take precedence over artistic considerations. Music had to serve the glorification of the Führer, of Nazi Germany, of the Aryan race and the will to be the strongest. Elly Ney was an enthusiastic supporter of these ideas. Kreiten wasn’t.

Ney was obsessed by Ludwig van Beethoven’s music and sincerely believed that only someone with a pure German soul could correctly perform Beethoven’s compositions. She saw herself as such a person and developed a real, or rather a surreal, cult around Beethoven where playing Beethoven’s music became a holy act with rituals codified for eternity. This fit very well into the Nazi propaganda emphasizing the superiority of the German race.

Karlrobert Kreiten was different. He played works from a large variety of composers: Mozart, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Debussy and Prokofiev. He had no hesitation to recognize the genius of foreign composers and he would not have questioned that any piece of art is interpreted at two levels: at the level of the performing artist and at the level of the audience. The idea that there could only be one way two perform a piece would have sounded absurd to him.

Kreiten was a bright mind and refused to stop thinking during the Nazi era. Ney was a narrow-minded believer who did never question the official truth. While she must have known about the forced exile of many of her Jewish colleagues and while she could not possibly have ignored the rumours about the genocide in the East, she chose to support the Nazis. Kreiten however identified the news of the glorious battles on the Eastern front as propaganda and did not hide his opinion. He was betrayed, arrested and executed, despite a courageous protest from the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, while Ney was unrepentant and embarked on a second career after 1945. Her allegiance to Hitler was passed under silence.

In my opinion, the use of classical music as a propaganda tool by Communists or Nazis is an important subject. Identifying the underlying rationale my help us today recognize current instances where arts are misused to propagate racist or undemocratic ideas. In this respect, Hinterkeuser wrote an important book. It would however benefited his message if he had been able to deliver it in a neutral, less emotional way. His indignation about Ney’s career is understandable, however his personal judgment is irrelevant in a scientific publication. The case against Ney is sufficiently strong already.

Music is about creativity and creativity requires freedom of expression, freedom that cannot be total, but must be limited by other people’s freedom to live without being discriminated in their fundamental rights. Beethoven was an enthusiastic supporter of modern civic rights and the freedom of expression as you may hear in his incidental music “Egmont”, Op. 81:

Liberty, sacrifice and charming madness

A dead body and questions better not asked

fatherland

Robert Harris: Fatherland ISBN 978-0-09-957657-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ What if Hitler had won? Well, if Hitler had won I most likely wouldn’t be writing this. Considering the background of my family, my grand-parents would not have led the life they led after 1945, my parents would most likely not have married and I would most likely not have been born. Hitler hasn’t won however, and so here I am writing a post about a book that I have looked forward to read for almost 20 years and never actually did. It only happened because I had forgotten another book at home and craved for something to read. The bookseller at the railway station made my day.

If Hitler had won, Germany would be ruling Europe from the Atlantic to Siberia, Moscow would be occupied by the Germans, Washington would be appeased by the same Germans and the United Kingdom would not play any role at all. The 1960s are Harris’ setting for the plot of a fantastic thriller. The dead body of a man missing one foot is found in Berlin. He leads to more dead bodies and a gruesome conspiracy to hide an even more gruesome crime. If most of the action takes place in Berlin, the reader is dragged for 24 hours to Switzerland to discover the Swiss understanding of a discrete banking place.

Detective Xavier March from the German Kriminalpolizei is leading the investigation, by pure chance as a matter of fact. He happened to be awake when the phone rang while is colleague on duty slept like a baby. March’s mistake was to pick up that phone. He is not exactly an enthusiastic Nazi, and once the Gestapo comes into play, it quickly becomes apparent that the secret police is not too keen that March solves the case, much to the contrary, the Gestapo does everything to dissuade March from asking the right questions and collecting evidence. The hunter becomes the hunted. As to how and why, if you haven’t read “Fatherland” yet, now is the right time. For two reasons.

First, it’s an excellent thriller. I had a hard time to put it down. Second, it has a message that is relevant today, never mind the harrowing setting: Once we suspect something is amiss with our friends, our neighbours, our colleagues – are we ready to ask questions? Or do we turn a blind eye to it because we are afraid to lose a personal privilege, our social position or the esteem of someone important? Once we have identified evil, what do we do to stop it? To change something? Do we wait for somebody else to take the initiative or do we stand up ourselves for justice, freedom, a life without fear?

These are the questions March is compelled to ask himself over and over. A family photo, showing the previous occupants of March’s flat, sets into motion a dangerous intellectual chain reaction in March’s brain, dangerous for him, dangerous for his hidden enemies. The Nazi rulers relied upon the fact that man often is too lazy to leave his comfort zone. Better not ask any questions. Better no dispute the official truth. Better not think. The question however is whether one strives to be a human being or just wants to be a shadow.

The composer Arnold Schönberg wrote music that was meant to reflect man’s progress, his active movement, his way forward to transform society. Here is his String Quartet No. 3:

A democratic revolution – all notes are equal