Wednesday, October 13, 2010

To kill off forever that old canard that 'the Germans don't have a sense of humour', I bring you Der Untertan and the satirical novelist Heinrich Mann

My mother was German and my father was English. When I was very young, my mother spoke to my brother and myself in German, so although I didn’t learn to speak German until I was a little older, I learnt to unserstand it as, growing from being a toddler to being a young child, I learnt to understand English. French, Spanish, Italian, Russian etc were and are foreign languages as far as I am concerned, but English and German are my languages. It feels as natural to hear German spoken as it does English.

In 1959, my father was appointed the BBC representative in Berlin, or West Berlin as it was then, and we moved to the city in June. (My father’s appointment to a post in Berlin at the height of the Cold War might not have just been for journalistic reasons, but that would be for another entry in this blog.) For a month or two, we lived in a very spacious flat in the Olympische Straβe in Neu Westend in Berlin’s Charlottenburg district, just down the road from Berlin's Olympic stadium (hence the name- neat or what?). When we arrived at the beginning of June, the weather was hotter than I had ever experienced before – 40c in the shade – and although Berlin regularly had consistently warmer summers and colder winters than I had known in the ‘Home Counties’ in Henley-on-Thames where I grew up, the summer of 1959 was particularly hot even by Berlin standards.

We spent almost every afternoon at an open-air swimming pool, and I remember eating, I think for the first time ever, peaches and apricots, and eating a great deal of them. It was an irony that Germany, the ‘loser’ in World War II, abandoned ‘rationing’ far earlier than Britain, which had ‘won’ World War II. And although rationing had been abandoned in Britain six years earlier, there still seemed to linger a 'ration' mentality.

I can remember visiting in those early days and weeks of the four years I spent in Berlin, an open-air market on, or near, the Preuβenallee, and being astounded by the plenty. Henley in those days, although already a town for monied people, was still a dusty and, in my recollectons, rather scruffy Oxfordshire town when I grew up there in the Fifties. Where you will now find any number of bistros and estate agents and wine bars and boutiques on Hart Street, the main drag leading up from the bridge to the Town Hall (all Town Halls deserve capital letters), when I was growing up there, we had Frank Gilbride the butcher, a Boots which still had a lending library upstairs and any number of pubs. In the 400 yard stretch from the bridge up there were, I think, at least seven pubs.

In Germany, the autumn school term started at the end of August, and my older brother, Ian, was enrolled in Das Canisius Kolleg, a Jesuit secondary school (which, I gather, was then as now a school of some repute) in Berlin-Tiergarten. I was not yet ten years old, so I was enrolled in a local primary school, Die Steubenschule, which was about a 20-minute walk away down near the Heerstraβe. That was when Ian and I learnt to speak German. Several years later, it was said that Ian spoke more correct German than I did, but that I spoke more natural German. Ian was always the better linguist.

I must be honest that although I was bilingual at the time, I now longer get much of an opportunity to speak German, and it now takes me several days to get back into the swing of speaking it as a native, But then, once that transition has been accomplished, I often find that my English goes, temporarily, which is very odd and I even start thinking in German.

In my time at the Steubenschule, I partly learnt German by reading Kasperle books. Kasperle was a folk figure quite closely related to our Mr Punch. And although these days I don’t often get the chance to speak German (although my knowledge of the language was useful when I translated items for Tully Potter when he was writing his biography of Adolf Busch), I have kept up a habit of reading a German novel every so often. Over the years these have included Der Steppenwolf (which made more sense to me as a fortysomething than it does, I'm sure to any number of teen rebels and solipsists), and two novels by Heinrich Mann: Professor Unrat and Der Untertan.

For some reason, I have never read any of Thomas Mann’s novels, neither in German or English. Heinrich and his brother Thomas were both novelists of repute, and although both are equally well-known and respected in Germany, Thomas is far better known in the English-speaking world.

Heinrich Mann (pictured), the older of the two, had a decidedly satirical bent and wisely left Germany, never to return when the Nazis came to power in 1933. One distinguishing feature of totalitarian states of every stripe (well, strictly speaking there can only be one stripe) is that having a good laugh at their own expense doesn't come easily. Another particular distinguishing feature of the Nazis was their outstanding intellectual mediocrity and it close friend sentimentality. (Oscar Wilde once observed that 'sentimentality is a Bank Holiday from cynicism' and when you look at the Nazis, you know exactly what he meant.)

Professor Unrat was the basis of Josef von Sternberg’s famous film Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel), although oddly – and I don’t know why, though my memory might be at fault as I haven’t seen the film for years – von Sternberg only utilised part of the novel for his film and in the process transformed the personality of the central character. If I remember, the film ends with the total humiliation of Unrat, played be Emil Jannings (pictured below with Marlene Dietrich), whereas in the novel, he


gets his own back to a certain extent by opening a brothel cum casino on the outskirts of town which counts as it best customers all the local great and good who otherwise condemn him and what he has made of his life. is In that sense, what von Sternberg produced was not a film of the novel, but a film based on the novel.

I read Der Untertan when I was living in London in the early Nineties (lodging with the Orams in the Fulham Road). I can’t for the life of me remember why I chose to read it, but I do remember tootling off to Warwick Street to The German Bookshop, which was called something else at the time, I think, to get it. Remember, we didn't have Amazon in pre-Steve Jobs/Bill Gates dark ages.
Der Untertan is viciously satirical, but - and this is the point - it is also hilariously funny. It satirises Germany and German life under Wilhelm II when obedience to authority was for many the be all and end all of life. (Another great satire is Der Hauptmann von Köpenick, Carl Zuckmayer's play which was based on real events and is substantially true. Again, more another time.)

The protagonist of Der Untertan, Diederich Hessling – it would be completely wrong to call him a hero and who I always imagine as pasty-faced and a little overweight - is utterly in thrall to authority, power and society's convention, and worships the Kaiser. He is also a thorough and nauseating hypocrite. A good example of his hypocrisy is the following: while he is a student in Berlin, he gets to know the daughter of a friend of his father’s, becomes infatuated with her and seduces her. After clearly intimating that he will marry her, he drops her and she is brokenhearted.

Eventually, just before he is due to leave Berlin and return home to take over the family firm, the girl’s father calls on him to confront him and asks why he no longer calls and particularly why he no longer calls on his daughter. The girl's father intimates that he more or less knows that Hessling was, as they say in my neck of the woods, giving her one. A measure of Hessling's character is his reply: “Mein moralisches Empfinden verbietet mir, ein Mädchen zu heiraten, das mir seine Reinheit nicht mit in die Ehe bringt.” (“My moral sense forbids me marrying a girl who cannot bring purity to marriage.”)

The German is, in fact, even more damning because it conveys far more than the English translation. (It is ironic that English is always lauded as a versatile language and German relegated to some kind of minor league in such matters, when, in fact, English can be horribly vague and ambiguous – useful, of course, if like a diplomat you want to be vague and ambiguous – whereas because you can express yourself so precisely in German, that you have the means to convey subtlety extemely well.)

Thus my translation, just one of many possible translations. of course, doesn’t at all convey the sheer self-serving hypocrisy of the man, and I think it is legitimate to claim that any other translation - because there would be severtal different way of traslating that short passage - would do no better.

For example, in English we wouldn’t really say ‘my moral sense forbids me’, but, more probably, ‘my moral sense doesn’t allow me’ or 'my moral code doesn't allow me'. And moralisches Empfinden - particularly that word Empfinden - additionally conveys the man’s pomposity. Empfindlich in German means 'sensitive', so Empfinden can mean 'sensitivity'. But any Englishman who, in all seriousness, referred to his own 'moral sensitivity' would be thrown out of the room as a pompous prat and might never again be taken seriously.

Yet, although Hessling's use of the phrase does mark him as being pompous, it does not mark him as being excessively pompous, and many another German man or woman could use the phrase quite easily without inviting ridicule.

The German version - das mir seine Reinheit nicht mit in die Ehe bringt - also stresses that the girl can’t bring him her purity (i.e. virginity), indicating that he would be at the centre of any marriage he made and that his bride is something subsidiary. None of this is adequately conveyed in English, at least not in my translation, though I suggest again that any English translation which did stress that element would sound quite stilted.

Incidentally, the very title of the novel - Der Untertan - sums up just how much is lost in translation. There is no English word of phrase which can adequately convey what Heinrich Mann intended to convey by calling his novel Der Untertan. Several titles of English translations I have come across - Man Of Straw, The Patrioteer and The Loyal Subject - don't even come close to the putdown undoubtedly intended by Mann, although having to come up with a title for a novel in translation must be a perennial problem for publishers.

In German, Der Untertan is laugh-out-loud funny, and when I was reading it, I was forever wondering just how a particularly funny passage I had just read had been translated into English and whether the humour had survived. So quite often, I left the flat and walked a quarter of a mile up the Fulham Road to a Pan bookshop, where I would again haul out the English translation of the novel I had tracked down and look up the particular passage. (The translation I found was called Man Of Straw, and there are several other translations with different titles.)

Each time I found that, in English, what was bitingly funny in German was as distressingly flat as a pancake. In fact, the whole novel is not at all very funny in the English translation and is probably regarded by many as just another worthy German tome.

Additionally, there are other passages in the novel which demand an understanding of German culture and her people’s lifestyle before they can be comprehended. For example, at point Mann writes ‘und am Abend spielte er Schubert’, which is, in context, very funny indeed (trust me), but in English – ‘and that night he played Schubert’ – is close to being meaningless.

After all that, I am at a loss as to how to conclude this entry. I suppose the only honest thing to do is to sound a thoroughly bathetic note and observe (archly) that the propensity for comprehensive misunderstanding between these two great, related but separate European languages - languages related by blood and love, but separated by the contingencies of two diverse cultures - is curiously threatening, and thus the gulf between our great nations is larger than we think. Or something like that. Say it in a German accent. It’s the kind of vacuous observation Hessling might well have made and then patted himself on the back for having such cute and intelligent insight. But, believe me, the Germans are simply not the humourless Teutons of popular English mythology.

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