Büchner Day

A few weeks ago, I had a Büchner Day. I read his unfinished short novel, Lenz; and then watched Werner Herzog‘s version of his unfinished drama, Woyzeck.

If there’s one c19th writer so far who could be called modern before modern, then it must be Georg Büchner. His works are like nothing else of their time (so far, of course, as I’m aware). Both stories, Lenz and Woyzeck, have as their central character a man who is tormented by some kind of external force or presence in the world.

This is from Lenz:

“You see, vicar, if only I didn’t have to listen to that any more, I’d be cured.” – “Listen to what, my dear fellow?” – “Can’t you hear it then? Can’t you hear the terrible voice that is crying out the whole length of the horizon and which is usually known as silence? Ever since I came to the quiet valley I’ve heard it incessantly, it won’t let me sleep; yes, vicar, if only I could sleep again some day!”

Lenz doesn’t have much plot: – it is just a few episodes out of Lenz’s increasingly disturbed mind. – Woyzeck has slightly more: Woyzeck (naturally in Herzog’s version Klaus Kinski is as usual completely miscast as a madman) is gradually driven by the voices he hears to …. – well, I shan’t give it away. – To be honest, I found Herzog’s rendition tedious – as we were saying the other day of Béla Tarr, very slow-moving but nonetheless occasionally very beautifully shot (perhaps I was again in the wrong mood).


9 thoughts on “Büchner Day

  1. Have seen a number of stage Woyzecks and found Herzog’s version quite good. He gets the balance of Woyzeck’s dumped upon personality and the dispassionate cruelty with which the author treats him much better than other versions where the lead actor usually invests Woyzeck with too much character at the expense of the relentless inevitability of it all.

    Its problem is that you know where its heading almost immediately so the author needs to distract you from galloping ahead too far.

    Saw a puppet version of Hamsun’s Hunger at the end of last year which was very good. I haven’t actually read the book but that’s another on-the-cusp- of modernist modernist book isn’t it?

  2. I’ve never decided whether Hamsun is modernist before modernism, because I’ve never been able to determine when modernism began. – If modernism is Proust and Joyce and Kafka (all some people would seem to have it), then I guess he is. But then perhaps modernism started in the 1870s with (as Wikipedia might have it) “Richard Dedekind’s division of the real number line”.

    I read Hunger long ago and don’t remember it so well now. My favourite of his book was Mysteries. I have one of his more obscure books to read next, called Chapter the Last (or, on Wikipedia, The Last Chapter) – obscure in the sense that my copy was published in 1930 and I think that may well be the only edition that’s ever been published in English. But then, people don’t seem as enthused about his later work.

  3. It could be that Hamsun’s enthusiasm for the Nazis makes it tricky to be enthusiastic about him. But not having read him I don’t know whether he suddenly bursts into Hitler cheerleading from time to time. Didn’t he donate his Nobel Prize to Goebbels?

    Tricky sods these modernists. Celine is the same. Some terrific black comedy but it could spin off into something extreme at any minute. A friend of mine grew up in Sigmaringen where Celine sat and waited to be arrested at the end of WW2. The local cafe ( known locally as the collaborators cafe ) proudly points out his favourite table. Almost anything can be a selling point it appears.

  4. To be fair, I’ve so far read Hunger, Mysteries, Victoria and The Wanderer – and there’s nothing you’d say was particularly “Nazi” about them, or even anything remotely political. His early stuff is more Schopenhauer / Dostoevsky.

    On the other hand, Chapter the Last does begin:

    Truly we are vagabonds in the earth. We wander by roads and trackless wastes, at times we crawl, at times we walk upright and trample one another down. As with Daniel: he trampled others and was himself trampled.

  5. To be fair to Hamsun (I read Hunger, Mysteries, The Growh of The Soil and A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings in my late teens, directed to Hamsun by Henry Miller, an enthusiast), he was a very old man when he voiced his sympathies for the Nazi project. I doubt very much that he actually understood what the Nazis were about.

    He was, as a romantic/mystic taken in by all that blather about blood and soil and Nordic/Aryan superiority etc etc…that is, the symbols (Eagles! Swastikas! Red! Black! White!) and the emotive cod-mystical language that the Nazis where so good at. Younger, better-informed and more intelligent people than Hamsun were taken it.

  6. I don’t know: – I have a slight suspicion I might come across some social Darwinism in there somewhere.

  7. True, but that was hardly emblematic of Nazism. Fatty Goering, Gimpy Goebels, Speccy Himmler and the rest of those misfits were hardly an advertisement for the ‘survival of the fittest’, socially or physically.

    The Nazis were far more enamoured of that whole ‘Völkisch/Teutonic Knights/Pure and Hardy Germanic Tribes’ (as described by Tacitus) bullshit than by Spengler or Darwin. Loonies like Arthur de Gobineau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain were their real ‘intellectual’ forebears.

  8. It might also be relevant that the Nazis loved Hamsun, particularly “Growth of the Soil,” and that an elderly Hamsun was flattered. Also, his wife seems to have been something closer to a genuine fascist. Also, Hamsun had a lifelong, deep and abiding, utterly mysterious hatred of England. The United States, too, but at least he had lived in the US.

  9. The appeal of Nazism to a small number of artists/intellectuals in the ’30s can be illuminated by a look at the fortunes of Ernst Bertram’s Nietzsche book, Nietzsche: An Attempt at a Mythology. This study, which has passed almost out of even specialists’ reading, was amazingly popular during the ’20s/’30s (it was first published in ’18). It’s not a nationalistic reading of Nietzsche – to the contrary, with fidelity to Nietzsche’s own hatred of ethnocentric stupidity and nationalistic violence – , but Bertram is taken with Volk, and with Deutschtum/Deutsche as categories of both perception (Nietzschean) and aspiration (not Nietzschean). When the Nazis came to power, gradually then suddenly, there were many intellectuals in Germany (and Europe) who’d, in my understanding, had their understanding of the re-vivification of Deutschland shaped by Bertram’s book and interpretation. (Bertram’s influence wasn’t a rightist phenomenon: Thomas Mann was a big fan, for example. After the war, Max Planck (!) argued for Bertram’s de-nazification.) I’d be amazed to discover that Hamsun (for example) wasn’t aware of Bertram, or to learn that Celine (for another example) hadn’t read Bertram (at least in translation, which happened in – I think – ’32). Pound’s (Italianate) fascism – well, that’s another story.

    (You can read the informative introduction to the recent English translation at google books.)

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