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The Bells in Their Silence: Travels through Germany

The Bells in Their Silence: Travels through Germany

by Michael Gorra

ISBN: 9780691126173

Publisher Princeton University Press

Published in Literature & Fiction/Historical, History/Europe

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Sample Chapter


Chapter One

CULTURAL CAPITAL

Hamburg, Hannover, Gottingen, and Kassel. There were other trains: the tracks to the dull marshy west toward Bremen and Osnabruck (change for Amsterdam), or the maddeningly slow and infrequent service to Berlin, whose cars were always crowded with students. There was the boat-train north to Denmark and the local to Lubeck. But this was the one we took most often from our temporary home, the white and bullet-nosed InterCity Express that dropped south at a speed America could only dream of-Hamburg to Frankfurt in three hours and a half, Munich in just over six. Though today I wasn't going quite so far. "Grussen Sie Thuringen von mir," the happy pink-faced conductor had said when he punched my ticket. Say hello to Thuringia for me. He was young and plump, with a ginger mustache; I had trouble with his accent and wondered when he'd left.

In the cafe car, I spread the Herald-Tribune under coffee and rolls and looked up from "Doonesbury" as, south of Hannover, the north German lowlands began to ripple into hills. I finished my breakfast and the ripples turned into folds, the hills began to offer something like a prospect. A landscape has to be uneven before you can see it-the bands of fields and forests, the villages settled in valleys, confined and bordered, framed, and yet because of that open and legible, in a way that the flat countryside around Hamburg almost never is. Then the train was at Gottingen, the university town of the Brothers Grimm, unvisited. And then Kassel, where six months before Brigitte had led me around the Documenta, building after building of oddly undemanding contemporary art. Kassel: change for Weimar. It was a slow train now, along rivers and through tight-packed hills, a postcard landscape with every town tucked neatly in a bend of the stream, unbombed and old-fashioned and no longer quite so gray as they would have been when this was still the East.

And then Weimar. I wheeled my bag downhill from the station, past the set of brooding administrative buildings that the Nazis had built, along the tree-lined Schillerstrasse, through the crowded Marktplatz with its vendors of fruit and Fleisch and blue Bohemian pottery, and into the lobby of the Hotel Elephant. And so began my jog around this small and architecturally modest city that has nevertheless figured on the traveller's shopping list for two centuries and more. Every reader of German literature knows the story: how the Dowager Duchess Anna Amalia of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, widowed young and ambitious in a way that her son's small realm couldn't satisfy, started inviting poets and thinkers to make their home in his capital. Wieland came, to serve as tutor to Anna Amalia's son Karl August, and Herder took over the city's largest church. The most important invitation, however, was that extended by the young duke himself, who in 1775 picked out the day's hottest talent and asked him to visit, a writer who though only in his twenties was already a bestseller, a notorious maker of taste and of fashion. Goethe came, he saw, he stayed. He picked up a title, supervised Weimar's finances, established the theater, chaired the War Commission, oversaw the duchy's mines, and always, always kept his pen moving. Schiller joined him 1787, and long after Goethe's death the place remained attractive enough to become Liszt's base of operations.

Now you can buy their faces on plates and mugs, and in Goethe's case on much more besides. He has, for example, given his name to a popular mark of brandy, whose labels carry a detail from the portrait that his friend Tischbein did in Rome: the poet in a wide-brimmed gray hat that turns him into something like a German gaucho. In fact Tischbein's Goethe is as much an icon in Germany as Gilbert Stuart's Washington is in America. I've seen it on the sign of an Italian restaurant in Berlin and on a mirror advertising a brand of beer, while Andy Warhol once modeled a poster on it, whose hot pink and yellow make the poet look as though he were his own acid trip. It is in truth a very bad picture-not in the handling of the face, where Tischbein has perfectly caught Goethe's long straight typically Teutonic nose, but in the body, whose legs are comically out of proportion. Much better is the simpler portrait that Angelica Kauffman did on that same Italian journey, in which Goethe looks both less grand and more interesting, full-faced and with his brown hair pulled back, hatless and dark-eyed and shrewdly sensual.

The Weimar of today isn't the city in which Goethe lived, but it is an elaboration of it, a town decked out with memorials to the one he lived in. I've never been in a place so small that had so many statues and monuments. Goethe and Schiller, standing in bronze together in front of the theater; Karl August on horseback, done up as though he were Marcus Aurelius; the plaque put up for Bach, who spent almost a decade here: all these one understands. Yet Shakespeare? Did he visit too? Indeed the whole atmosphere reminds me of Stratford-no, that's unfair. Stratford can offer nothing beyond the bare fact of Shakespeare's birth and death. He lived and worked elsewhere, and not much is known about any of it; so the city, having only what Henry James called "The Birthplace," in all its odd mingling of presence and absence, has rushed to fill the vacuum with that peculiar English genius for the tacky souvenir. Weimar has almost nothing tacky about it, there's hardly even any kitsch beyond those plates and something called a "Goethe barometer." Nor has the town's poet given his name to an undistinguished bit of chocolate-covered marzipan, as Mozart has in Salzburg. There are souvenirs aplenty-but they sit next to full racks of books, and it's the latter that seem to have the quickest turnover. For there is no vacuum here. Imagine a Shakespeare about whom everything was known: his letters to his parents and his notes to Jonson or Donne, his wife's relations with some third person, a secretary's record of what he thought about Marlowe and said to the Queen, or even what he ate on Thursdays.

Imagine that and you will have the six thousand pages of Robert Steiger's Goethe's Life from Day to Day, a documentary record, in eight volumes, of the letters Goethe wrote and received, the hours of statecraft, the conversations with Eckermann and others, the poems he worked on and the guests he saw. Goethe was from a very early age a tourist attraction in his own right: everybody who came to Weimar wanted to meet him, and everybody wrote about it, as though he were the Colosseum or Niagara Falls. Of all the reminiscences, the one I like most is that of Thackeray, who arrived in Weimar in 1830, two years before the poet's death. The Englander was just nineteen; he had left Cambridge without a degree and was busy squandering his fortune. Drifting through Europe he found that he liked the statelet's relaxed approach to morality and stayed for six months; it later became the "Pumpernickel" of Vanity Fair. He thought the court's sense of protocol absurd, but for any visiting Englishman who seemed (still) to have money, it was nevertheless "most pleasant and homely," and so he worked away at flirting in German and bought a sword alleged to have been Schiller's. Eventually, with what he called a "perturbation of spirit," he found himself presented to the genius of the place. He must have been one of the last Englishmen to have seen the poet plain and wrote that he could imagine "nothing more serene, majestic, and healthy looking than the grand old Goethe," noting in particular the "awful splendour" of his eyes. But he added, in a letter to his mother, that the German, though "a noble poet ... is little better than an old rogue" and was both astonished and "somewhat relieved" to find that he "spoke French with not a good accent."

Twenty years later, another English writer who wasn't yet famous came to Weimar. Marian Evans had just run away with G. H. Lewes; it was 1854 and it would be a few years yet before she turned herself into George Eliot. They spent three months in the town, while Lewes worked on his still-readable biography of Goethe, three months in a place that, though there were as yet few statues up, was already busy turning itself into a memorial. They met Clara Schumann, whose husband had just been shut away, and Liszt, whose playing made her feel that "for the first time in my life I beheld real inspiration." But for Evans-Eliot-Weimar had "a charm independent" of the great names associated with it. Even allowing for the fact that she was on her honeymoon, I'm inclined to agree and to locate that charm precisely where she did: in the park that lies along the llm, Weimar's little stream, and which ran from the Duke's Schloss in town to the rococo hilltop villa called the Belvedere a few miles to the south. It's laid out on an English model, and its planning seems reflected in the discussion of landscape architecture in Elective Affinities, where Goethe writes that one should try to "take advantage of and enhance every existing good feature ... of the landscape in its original natural condition." In Eliot's mind that illusion of artlessness had met with complete success, producing a park "which would be remarkably beautiful even among English parks ... the walks are so ingeniously arranged, and the trees so luxuriant and various, that it takes weeks to learn the turnings and windings by heart." It remains a pretty piece of landscape still, dotted with small buildings, each of them with a folklore of its own, like the Roman temple built for Karl August, or the garden house in which Goethe spent his first Weimar years.

As for Goethe himself, Eliot's account of Weimar makes her sound surprised by reports that he was rather fond of sausage; it didn't fit her conception of what such a man might eat. (In fact the local Thuringer Bratwurst are among Germany's best, fat and juicily seasoned, much choicer than a grape for bursting against a palate, however fine. I ate one for lunch on the market square within a few minutes of my arrival, holding it in my fingers and dunking the bitten end in a pool of sharp mustard.) She visited Goethe's large house in town and found herself sharply critical of his heirs, who hoped to turn the place into cash and had curtailed the tourist's access. And like all visitors who write, she was profoundly moved by Goethe's study and library, "with its common deal shelves, and books containing his own paper marks," shelves that now indeed sag under the weight of those books; a library designed for use, not show, marked not by fine bindings but by cramped corners and bookcases squeezed in at odd angles to save space. They made her pensive, these rooms, reminding her "that the being who has bequeathed to us immortal thoughts ... had to endure the daily struggle ... [and] sordid cares of this working-day world." And so she looked "through the mist of rising tears at the dull study with its two small windows," this woman still inclined to hero-worship, who could not yet know that out of her own workroom in Regent's Park would come the greatest of all English novels.

* * *

It seems I have always known the "Erlkonig" in Walter Scott's translation, but like most readers of English I have otherwise come to Goethe late and only in part. Elective Affinities, yes, and the "Novelle" and even the "Conversations of German Refugees," but I haven't sorrowed with young Werther and remain innocent of Faust. The Goethe I know best is instead the man who-traveling alone and under an assumed name-jumped into a mail coach in 1786 on the first leg of the sabbatical from power that would become his Italian Journey. "I slipped out of Carlsbad at three in the morning," he writes, "otherwise I would not have been allowed to leave"; and if he exaggerates the danger of his friends detaining him, he nevertheless did have to write Karl August to ask for his belated permission to go. Goethe's sense of escape seems real, and it grows with each mile he moves south. The degrees of latitude tick by, and his mood improves long before he reaches the Alps: "I am writing this on the forty-ninth parallel ... a glorious day ... the air is extraordinarily mild." In Munich he eats his first figs, and once over the Brenner Pass is thrilled by "the first hillside vineyards ... [and] a woman selling pears and peaches"; later there will be the richly-laden olive. "How happy I am," he cries, "that, from now on, a language I have always loved will be the living common speech." He hopes for a kind of inner renovation, asking himself if "the grooves of old mental habits [can] be effaced," wondering whether he will indeed begin to "look at things with clear, fresh eyes."

It's an oddly reassuring book, one that gives a kind of license to enthusiasm; if even Goethe can admit to being "overwhelmed ... swept off my feet," by the grandeur that was Rome, then how can anyone play it cool? A month before visiting Weimar, I'd joined a long line at Hamburg's Fuhlsbuttel airport, waiting on a cold March morning to check my bag for a flight to Milan. It was a Friday and there were, it's true, a few gray suits around me, carrying their briefcases and not much else, setting out for a day's work building Europe. I myself was moving on to Venice for a conference. But most of the people around me looked headed for a pleasure unmitigated by even the illusion of work, and they wore an air of relaxed expectation. It was a line of loose suede jackets and open collars, of sunglasses and fine silk scarves, and nearly everybody in it had already put in a few hours at the tanning salon. Two couples traveling together and laughing; whole families with the parents in jeans. Nobody looked worried, fathers seemed patient with their teenaged children, and I remembered Dr. Johnson's claim that "the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that takes him to England." So perhaps, I thought, the happiest moment in any German's life today is that in which the Alitalia ticket counter comes into view. Goethe himself had wanted a break from Germany, though he was hardly the first: the medieval emperors, those Ottos and Heinrichs and Friedrichs, had all preferred sunning themselves on the Adriatic to shivering on the Rhine.

Nor was Goethe the last-even leaving Alitalia aside. Twenty years after the poet's exhilarating trip, a young Frenchman who would eventually call himself Stendhal dreamt of Italy while working as a civil servant in Braunschweig, a lesser position than Goethe's, but in the service of a greater master. And when after that master's fall, the now-unemployed Henri Beyle decided to write up the time he'd spent in the land where the lemon trees bloom, he took for his name that of a Saxon town and depicted himself as a cavalry officer setting out from Berlin: "I open the letter which grants me four months leave-I am transported with joy, my heart beats faster!" Yet if their elation at the moment of departure seems similar, Goethe and Stendhal are in almost nothing else alike, and in comparing them it's possible to locate a set of contrasting desires and beliefs that even now determines the range of the traveler's responses-and not only about Italy. To Stendhal the peninsula is above all the site for "pure pleasure." In Milan, La Scala puts him in a "feverish daze" of delight, though he also claims that "there is no pleasanter occupation ... than walking aimlessly about." Consistency is for Stendhal no virtue, it plays one's momentary perceptions false, and Italy is for him "in truth merely an occasion for sensations." Above all, for the sensation of beauty-or rather, that of happiness. For in one of his most famous aphorisms, the two seem to merge, making "beauty ... nothing more than the promise of happiness," and, of course, the beauty that most attracts him is that of Milan's woman, beauty so overwhelming that it "obliges one to turn one's eyes away," as if he could hardly bear such joy. Still, the pursuit of the one is that of the other as well, and if we catch the euphemism that makes "happiness" a synonym for sexual fulfillment, we may also hear an echo of Jefferson in this admirer of written constitutions and "bicameral government."

(Continues...)

Excerpted from "The Bells in Their Silence: Travels through Germany" by Michael Gorra. Copyright © 2006 by Michael Gorra. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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