Some German-language short fiction I’ve enjoyed lately
for Germanic values of “enjoyed”
Caveat: I make no claims the translations I’ve identified are the “best”; I just read what was easiest to acquire from my friendly university library, and in any case my two years of high school German don’t exactly qualify me to judge accuracy. With the possible exception of Kafka, read what you can get.
Heinrich von Kleist: “Michael Kohlhaas” (1810, tr. Martin Greenberg, in The Marquise of O— and Other Stories)
Sixteenth century horse trader Koolhaas gets caught in a minor scam by a minor official, and after exhausting all legal avenues to resolve the issue, does what any good Protestant would do and becomes a rampaging warlord who threatens the security of the state to the extent that Martin Luther has to get involved. An old favorite of mine and Kafka’s, it seems to come less out of nowhere than it first did to me now that I’ve read some Grimm originals. The almost fairy-tale manner in which Kleist recounts the shocking violence is less surprising once you’ve seen how much shocking violence was in actual fairy tales. There’s an element of longing in “Michael Kohlhaas” for a past that had some mystery in it, even though it was brutish and often insanely dumb. I mean I guess you could say the same about Rambo: First Blood Part II (Cosmatos, 1985), but “Kohlhaas” has better action scenes.
Georg Büchner: “Lenz” (1836, tr. Richard Sieburth)
Goethe’s frenemy the mad (or ultra-Romantic, what’s the difference) playwright Lenz wanders into an Alsatian village in a flurry of run-on sentences and has a bunch of revelations, which mostly fail to help him. His brief acceptance of divine mystery does get him a brief moment of clarity that allows him to espouse a nearly fully-baked theory of unpretentious realist simplicity in art to allow the broadest emotional response; if I was glib I’d call him the first poptimist, and longtime readers know that when not assigning letter grades this blog is usually glib. Büchner emphasizes he doesn’t entirely share Lenz’s philosophy by making it clear how much it sucks to be Lenz, as he fixates on a sick girl the way a modern poptimist might fixate on Jungkook (okay I’ll stop.) It doesn’t help him: blaming God is boring, death is boring, dislocating your own arm is only interesting for a little bit. There’s nothing left to do but live on, and hope the silence shuts up long enough for you to get a good night’s sleep every now and then.
The Swiss writer Walser, who despite spending his last decades in a sanatorium before dying alone in the snow might have the least tragic life of the authors on this list, is currently at a peak of English-language interest thanks to translations and an excellent biography by Susan Bernofsky. He’s a vital link in the history of Germanic modernism and all that, but he can be a bit samey—often his narration is inescapably Robert Walser’s even if it’s also Heinrich von Kleist’s. “The Little Berliner” is an outlier, written from the point of view of a twelve-year-old bourgeois girl who despite her parents’ separation “for reasons whose depths I cannot understand and consequently cannot evaluate”, lives an elegant, charmed, clean life in the city of the future (it has an Ice Palace.) The story isn’t a realist character study—the narrator is temporarily granted the observational powers of, yes, Robert Walser—or even a satire really: while Walser allows himself a few tweets’ worth of meanness, he doesn’t have the heart for satire. While making it clear that it’s an injustice that this person exists, he’s a little in awe of the sheer range of possibilities open to her, even if she’ll almost certainly waste most of them.
Franz Kafka: “In the Penal Colony” (1919, tr. Joyce Crick, in The Metamorphosis and Other Stories)
Yeesh. I’m not going to make myself find words about this. Let’s just repurpose Norman Mailer’s:
Ingeborg Bachmann: “The Barking” (1972, tr. Mary Fran Gilbert in Three Paths to the Lake)
Old Frau Jordan lives in the Viennese outskirts, with few visitors save a woman who tidies up a couple of times a week, and her daughter-in-law Franziska, with whom she has nothing to talk about besides their respective son/husband, who at first seems like your typical aloof, mildly sexist intellectual. (Turns out he’s much worse than that, but this isn’t his story.) Frau Jordan starts to hear dogs barking, Franziska disappears from her life, and the older woman retreats deeper and deeper into her apartment as the dogs devour space and then time. The story ends with a taxi bill. In Three Paths to the Lake, Bachmann seems to be testing out which parts of modernism are irreparably tainted by misogyny (not to mention Fascism) and which are still cool; the good news for fans of early 20th century literature is that much of it is salvageable, though it requires a lot of cleaning and only one guess is required as to the gender of those who’ll end up doing most of it. It’s one of the great postwar short story collections but is out of print in English. Don’t blame every man; blame all men.
Richard Cobeen, one of my best Internet friends, passed away on Thursday, in the middle of what he planned to be his final year teaching third grade before retirement. Richard was kind while being very funny, open-minded while having no tolerance for bullshit. He had just about the best taste in music (and movies, and by all accounts he was an excellent cook as well) of anyone I know, as evidenced by the playlist Nick Farruggia put together of Richard’s favorite songs, and he supported my writing since back when it was just me messing around on Facebook. I sent him Afropop; he sent me barrel-aged cocktails via dubiously legal means. From my point of view as someone who can barely remember the time before I was terminally online, one thing I found amazing about him was the continuity between his home, work, and social personas. All were based on firm values (learning, funk, unions all good) and his practice of one informed his practice of all the others. Nowhere did this all come together more clearly than in his pandemic year Pop Con presentation, School Day: Building a Popular Music History Curriculum for Public Schools. You can feel his determination to teach his students an inclusive version of American history, and how hard and smartly he worked to use music to create a program eight-year-olds would be interested in. The video below also features photos of his students dressed as Angela Davis and Frida Kahlo, which is very cute and a little heartbreaking now. Condolences to his wife JoAnna, his family and friends, and his students.