Volker Braun presents a world of tension and uncertainty and his spare prose effectively conveys all this and more. The conflict is largely generational, but it is magnified by the circumstances of the uneasy times
Volker Braun, Rubble Flora, Translated by David Constantine and Karen Leeder, Seagull Books, 2014.
(East) German author Volker Braun is a noted playwright -- spending several years as dramaturge at the Brecht-widow Helene Weigel-run Berliner Ensemble, and later at the Deutsche Theater Berlin -- and has written a variety of prose works, including the controversial Hinze-Kunze-Roman, but as the translators of this collection suggest in their Introduction: "it is arguably his poetry that will be his most distinctive and long-lasting legacy". One of the 'Saxon School of Poets' that studied under Georg Maurer (and included Karl Mickel, Volker Braun, Heinz Czechowski, Sarah and Rainer Kirsch, and Adolf Endler) at the Literaturinstitut Johannes R. Becher -- East Germany's very own MFA-program, now the Deutsches Literaturinstitut -- Braun's distinctive, often reactive poetry continues to be an important literary contribution to changing times and conditions.
Rubble Flora is, astonishingly, the first collection of his poetry to appear in English -- though many poems have been individually published over the decades. As the translators explain, this selection: "takes its lead from the hugely influential, if idiosyncratic, Selected Poems chosen by Braun and issued by Suhrkamp in 1996: Lustgarten, Preußen". (While Braun may not have quite gotten his due in the English-speaking world over the years, that collection (in its expanded paperback edition) was nevertheless named one of The Economist's Books of the year 2000.)
The chronologically-arranged Rubble Flora is somewhat top-heavy, with a preponderance of Braun's more recent (post German-reunification) poetry over that from his East German period. This makes some of it more accessible, as Braun addresses topics likely to be more familiar to readers -- and not just because they are more recent: some of those GDR debates and issues were very much of their time and place. Certainly welcome: Rubble Flora also includes some very recent and previously uncollected poems. Nevertheless, as an introductory volume to what for most readers is an unknown poet, Rubble Flora suffers some from this tilt towards the new. If less immediately accessible, the early poetry still serves as useful material to familiarize readers with both Braun's style and concerns; a great deal of it is also very good. Without that (firmer) foundation, some readers may feel a bit at sea here.
The useful Introduction gives a good succinct overview of Braun's life and the place of his work in East and then unified German literature. Born in May 1939, with his father dying in the last days of the war, and then growing up, as the translators note: "in the ruins of Dresden, and the 'rubble flora' that gave the title to one of his early poems (and to this volume)", Braun clearly had a hard life, but a basic attitude is consistent: in the relatively early (1971) 'The Life and Times of Volker Braun' he describes himself a: "dogged by good luck" (after all: "Not blasted by bombs, nor ravaged / By the many and various hungers of the world."), while the closing lines of the closing poem here, the 2012 'Demon' are:
See how I endure my fate
And suffer my success.
There's a sense of adaptive fatalism, dealing with the conditions -- which turn out to be most varied indeed.
Much here is also engaged poetry: the more familiar includes mentions of the 11 September 2001 attacks, the 2011 massacre on Utøya in Norway, and even Gezi Park in Istanbul, but the more local engagement, first with the East German regime and then dealing with the consequences of reunification are particularly interesting. "I like my causes lost", Braun writes, and his support for socialist ideals (and opposition to both socialist and capitalist realities) makes for a standpoint that remain consistently critical.
Braun's poetry is not easy to translate, but David Constantine and Karen Leeder manage quite well, for the most part. Some of the difficulties can be seen in the differing interpretations of 'Property': compare Leeder's translation with Michael Hofmann's from 1998 (which helpfully includes the original text) -- and compare also Edward Mackinnon's useful line-by-line commentary and criticism.
Like the work of Heiner Müller and Karl Mickel, Braun's expression is extremely tight and exact, and it's very hard to transpose that into English; enough is captured here to give a good impression, though it is a bit of a shame that the German originals aren't included here, as side-by-side comparison would probably be instructive and revealing even to those with limited German.
A book-length collection of Braun's poetry is long, long overdue -- indeed, Braun is one of those poets that would have been well served by a gradual easing into English over the decades. Spanning more than fifty years, Rubble Flora is more than just a sampler -- but with its focus on more recent poetry it also doesn't quite do justice to Braun-as-poet. Nevertheless, it is a most welcome volume and certainly essential for anyone interested in modern German poetry, as well as (thoughtfully) politically engaged poetry. - M.A.Orthofer
Angry, isolated Thomas Bernhard, ambivalent expatriate, contained his ire in his discursive fictions and theatrical dramas. The first large novel, the cold, frustrating Frost, appeared in 1963, the last, its title misleadingly translated as Extinction (whereas the true Auslöschung more subtly denotes effacement, negation, a complete and final erasure) in 1986. They are dense, dark, fictions, often weighty. The dramas, less adaptable, offer a different variety of his themes. The poems remain an aside.
Poetry came first. There were journalistic pieces, and some short, experimental fiction and theatrical pieces, but Bernhard was a poet, first. The titles are telling: In hora mortis. Ave Vergil. Implying, even forcing distance through language, demanding classical rigor. In hora mortis was published in the late 1950's. The more complex and ambitious Ave Vergil, written in 1959-60, was lost or laid aside until Bernhard allowed publication in 1981.
Ave Vergil is a collection of poems of exile. Written in Oxford and Sicily during Bernhard's first extended stay outside the native, hated Austria he always returned to. The influences he listed in his afterword had a similar, ambivalent detachment regarding their homelands: T.S.Eliot and Jorge Guillén, the politically suspect Pound and Eluard, César Vallejo, Rafael Alberti. These were his guides, coloring his writing. Bernhard had no use for German poets. There is no taint of Rilke, Brecht, Gottfried Benn. Not even, then, of Trakl.
The reason he gave for publishing (and not destroying) the old poems, twenty years after they were written, was that he believed they provided a better insight into his frame of mind at that period of his life than any of his other writings. It is plausible. A complete and relatively cohesive collection, the poems are more revelatory than his fiction of that time. Indeed, Bernhard's words suggest that Ave Vergil is of greater biographical than literary value. Presented as such it is an unlikely offering, a piece of a puzzle that must be awkwardly interpolated long after that period seemed to have been done with.
To fit the pieces together the collection must properly be understood as being from 1960 and 1981, valid in both times. Freed briefly from a dank Austria still suffering from the devastation of the war, Bernhard's stay abroad in 1959 and 1960 was a release. Oxford, London, Sicily: the escape from narrow, gray, limited Austria was exhilarating. But he already realized that the release could only be a respite. Austria could not be escaped. Physically the broken land could be left behind, but he could not purge himself of Austria as metaphor. He recognized there that it was an essential aspect of his being. It is apparent in the writing of the next two decades, but only truly resurgent with the rediscovery of the lost collection. Much of Bernhard's writing is based in autobiography; by the early 1980's the focus on this was also sharper and more penetrating. The last volume of the novels about his childhood, Ein Kind, appeared in 1982, as did Beton (Cement), and the scandalous Holzfällen (Woodcutters) appeared in 1984, causing a final rift with the Austrian establishment. The massive culminating anti-autobiography, Auslöschung, appeared in 1986, the rootless themes of Ave Vergil still echoing in its pages.
Influenced by Eliot Bernhard acknowledged his debt not only in an afterword to Ave Vergil but also in taking verses from The Waste Land for the epigraph that opens the collection:
It was the question to ponder, then and later. Not: Do I dare ? English and American writers could turn to Prufrock, consider eating peaches, debate disturbing the universe; it meant nothing to Bernhard. Intense and personal, with little concern for the other, Bernhard's conflicts revolved entirely around setting his clearly delimited, often claustrophobic lands in order.I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order ?
Eliot's voice, though strong and distinctive, was an unlikely one for Bernhard to hearken. Focused on expression and form Bernhard found in Eliot's work a pattern for his own, regardless of how contrary the content. Some of the sentiment, too, attracted him
Öd und leer das Meer, Eliot quotes Wagner's Tristan and Isolde (I.42). In 1959 the English (and Sicilian) shore was a deliverance from that terrible expanse. Bernhard returned to Austria (and to England, frequently): an unsettled traveler, always. And, like Eliot, he was a literary angler. The epigraph haunted him -- punctuated, in 1960, with his first efforts and, after 1981, with his final ones. Bernhard's work -- meticulous and often threatened by its very weight -- always faced the question.
II.Volker Braun is difficult, precise, barely translated. He is an East German poet, as even his name seems to imply. East German, even ten years after reunification. Perhaps more than any other of the poets of the former German Democratic Republic. Others are better known, but their fame and their label is broader, different. Wolf Biermann. Sarah Kirsch. The younger generation that is almost seen as simply German.
Braun was never a comfortable writer. He challenges. Readers, authority, his fellow poets. His poems, like his dramas, are complexly political, insisting that the reader take a stance or adopt a position. They cannot be read in any other way. His poetry is demanding and persistent. It is not necessarily popular.
It was rarely easy for Braun to publish in the GDR, but he was tolerated, standing uneasily at a forefront of literary and political debate, with the likes of Karl Mickel and Heiner Müller. He was critical of state and regime in his writings. Forthright, but careful. Generously one might concede that he was also constructive. The titles of his works are suggestive; in the absence of adequate translations of the texts proper they will have to suffice: Provokation für mich ("Provocation for myself," one of the earliest collections, from 1965). Guevara. Die Übergangsgesellschaft ("The transitional society"). Wir sind nicht sie ("We are not them"). Es genügt nicht die einfache Wahrheit ("The simple truth does not suffice"). And: Training des aufrechten Gangs ("Training to walk upright").
The latter was first published in 1977 in East Germany. It was published in West Germany, with minor changes, in 1979, the title of the collection simplified into the banal: Gedichte ("Poems"). Written in 1975 the collection begins with an epigraph by the bourgeois, reactionary poet, T.S.Eliot:
The choice, at least in its attribution, was an unusual one. An act of defiance. Outright antagonism. So the critics. If so, then Braun's only thought in choosing Eliot for his epigraph was to show that this too could be done, that a literary culture (one which at that time still dismissed even Kafka) must pragmatically confront artists that are reactionary or antithetical to prevalent ideals.I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order ?
Braun is rarely circumspect. Here, for once, he was. Set apart as an epigraph, and left in the original English, Braun assured a certain remove. The debate, then, was more concerned with the author than the quoted words. Nevertheless, the meaning of the epigraph as Braun intended it was all the more direct and literal: a call to consider this specific question. Not a demand to set right, as dreary, dreamy socialist verse insisted on, but an appeal for a realistic assessment of the needs and possibilities of setting these German lands in order.
Braun, a socialist but rarely in accord with the official party line, set out in this collection, and in his later work, to order lands. There is a marked and increasing frustration in his texts of the late 1970's and 1980's; nevertheless, he does not abandon the issue. The poems from Training des aufrechten Gangs are collected again and again, combined with later texts, augmented. A summing up of these materials -- and this is what Braun calls them: material, like building blocks -- comes in the collection Der Stoff zum Leben 1-3 (the title translating both as "The Stuff of Life" and "The Substance for Life"), first published in 1990.
In an afterword to that last (though presumably not final) re-collection, Hans Mayer, the most important literary critic to come out of the two Germanys, reminds the reader that the literary invocation to tend one's lands goes back as far Voltaire's Candide. Braun's repeated epigraph, placed in a similar political context, is echo, admission, enlightenment.
III.The epigraph is a neglected tool and reflection of literature, a clever note, a poet's preening. Willfully integrated with the text, it nevertheless stands apart, readily (and generally) misconstrued. In the case of Eliot's words, a doubly foreign preliminary to these German verses, the repeated passage loses its force as it is overlooked.
An alternative that offers itself is denial of the epigraph. After Bernhard, after Braun, in the constant renewal of their work, it is one possibility among the many, integrating Eliot into the text itself:
- M.A.OrthoferI sit upon the arid plain
fishing, with the shore behind me.
Shall I, do I, dare I, others ask.
I have never posed or questioned.
I have set my lands in order.
I invited them to see. They came.
They looked and laughed and left and true,
the wind had blown the dust about
They laughed at this: the rocks and sand,
the withered tress, the dust and ash,
I watched them sail upon the sea, away,
and turned to face my arid plain
I cast my nets across these lands,
deaf to the waves crashing on the
shore behind me.
My nets, my lands,
my garden, tended.
Volker Braun, What's Really Wanted. Trans. by Tom Cheesman, Hafan Books, 2009.
Three stories by Volker Braun, first published in German in 2000 ('Das Wirklichgewollte'), set in Italy, eastern Russia, and Brazil: stories about the costs of globalization. Also in this volume: 'Break down power relations', Volker Braun's speech on accepting the Georg Büchner Prize 2000. Trans.: Tom Cheesman. With photographs by Eduardo Paca, from his project 'Social Mobility', about child refugees and asylum seekers in Swansea and other UK cities. All proceeds to Swansea Bay Asylum Seekers Support Group.
Volker Braun's collection of three stories makes for a small but no less powerful book. Each story looks towards an uncertain future (and, possibly, imminent catastrophe). There is a clash of generations in each, but also a clash of times.
The title story tells of the retired Badini couple, living in Italy. Returning home they discover that two young Albanian refugees, Luisa and Gjergj, have broken into their home. The two couples approach one another warily but the Badinis do not immediately call the police.
The relationship between the two couples, one young, one old, shifts constantly in the short period covered in the story. The Badinis see some use in allowing the practically rightless refugees to remain, thinking they can use them to their advantage. Then, however, the tables are brutally turned. The end -- like all the ending in this book -- is ambiguous and open, but the hints are strong as to what the outcome will be.
The second story is situated in deepest Siberia, a part of the world lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The characters are literally lost, cut off from the world. They can follow the train tracks, but these no longer lead anywhere. Again the generations clash in the futile efforts to find any purpose in this world.
The final story is set in Brazil, where an old man takes a young streetboy into his house. It is a gesture, a vain last attempt to correct one of the many wrongs in the world he encounters daily. The old man lived through the 20th century; the youth will grow up in a new millennium. The gap between them is enormous, and it looks as though it can not be bridged.
The boy is not pleased to be taken from his familiar environment. He wants to flee the comforts and strictures of the old man's apartment -- and he does.
The man tried, and he failed -- but no good deed goes unpunished and his attempt comes back to haunt him, with the boy appearing again in an ambiguous role at the chilling end, as the old man tries to ward off the reality of the times.
These are not happy stories. Privacy is invaded, and the efforts to deal with changed circumstances lead only to greater difficulties. It does not matter if one means well or not: worlds meet, collide, and seem set to destroy one another. However, Braun never takes the final step. He never rounds out the stories: there is always at least some hope of a happy resolution, however unlikely, left. The stories simply break off in mid-sentence: perhaps nothing more need be said; more likely nothing more can be said.
Braun presents a world of tension and uncertainty and his spare prose effectively conveys all this and more. The conflict is largely generational, but it is magnified by the circumstances of the uneasy times. This is not a world familiar to most Western readers, but it suggests much of the world at large (and some of it -- so the first story -- strikes closer to home than many might want). An effective though dark collection, surprisingly weighty for such a small volume. - The Complete Review
Other books by Volker Braun under review at The Complete Review:
Auf die schönen Possen
Berichte von Hinze und Kunze
Das unbesetzte Gebiet
Die Unvollendete Geschichte und ihr Ende