The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising
Attendance List for a Funeral
Having used up their obvious, rich, horrifying subject matter, post-war German writers, to judge from this present batch of books, are turning to the coolly enigmatic—exactly as so many other writers did quite a while back. I have in mind that kind of writing which resembles grangerism: given an atmosphere of indeterminate “significance,” the reader cooperates by pasting his own meanings into the vacant spaces provided.
During 1952 and 1953 Brecht was working on an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. In Günter Grass’s play the author imagines that Brecht was actually rehearsing Act I Scene I, the uprising of the Roman plebeians, on 17 June 1953, the day of the workers’ rising in East Berlin. Workers’ delegates come into the theater to ask for the influential dramatist’s verbal support, a statement or a manifesto, “nothing too long or radical…polite but firm.” Brecht—the Boss, as Grass calls him in this play—remains aloof. The workers’ complaints strike him as slightly ludicrous—production norms are too high and the alcoholic content of the beer is too low—and he cannot believe that German workers are capable of an uprising, since they are essentially a law-abiding species. We might note that in his “Studium des ersten Auftritts in Shakespeares Coriolan,” Brecht remarked that “To the masses revolt is the unnatural rather than the natural thing and, however bad the situation from which only revolt can free them, they find the idea of it as exhausting as the scientist finds a new view of the universe.”
In any case, the Boss is concerned with art, he is a man of the theater.
Kindly shoot above the trees.
We want our freedom, but no blood- shed, please,
he mocks, comparing the workers with Shakespeare’s plebeians. Outside it is raining. “A revolution wilted by the rain: a German revolution!” he exclaims to the actress playing Volumnia, who retorts, “What a crumby aesthete you turned out to be!” Eventually he composes a statement, criticizing the government for its premature measures and then declaring his solidarity with the Party. “It’s feeble, it’s embarrassing,” say his colleagues. “Like the subject matter,” he answers. For there is no one to be congratulated, nothing to be congratulated on.
THE BOSS’S ATTITUDE is fairly clear: it is wry, rueful, ironic. “It’s irony. It stinks,” remarks the delegate from Halle of the Boss’s proposed letter to Ulbricht. But Grass’s attitude is considerably less easy to make out. Does he share the Boss’s scorn for the workers? Or is his scorn directed at Brecht? Certainly the workers we see in the play—the workers as Grass presents them, along with two “tribunes,” not simply as the Boss views them—are an unimpressive collection, quite unlike the workers described in the “Documentary Report” on the rising printed as an appendix here. A play solely intended as a rebuke to Brecht, from the pen of Grass, would be an equivocal enterprise, unless it was a good deal more subtle and searching than this one seems to be. Yet the writer of the publisher’s blurb has no hesitation in telling us that Brecht, the intellectual, “is shown in a tragic dilemma: reasoning keeps him from active commitment until it is too late. He becomes guilty of betraying the workers and his own self.”
Either way, the play is less than gripping, and I find it difficult to suppose that this is the fault of the translator, Ralph Manheim, who managed so remarkably well with the truly arduous task of rendering The Tin Drum and Dog Years into English. Never mind style: there is so little matter in the play. For the most part it is colorless, two-dimensional, non-cohesive, unmemorable. Together with a thin sprinkling of feasible Brechtisms (“my greatness and my name have a desk at home. When I sit there, I have a lovely view of the cemetery”), the passage which has the most life is the Boss’s longish speech towards the end, where he prefigures the future “meaning” of June 17th. “Whole platoons of orators sucking the word ‘freedom’ empty,” beer orgies in the East, in the West “a well-fed nation picnicking in the green,” propaganda, lies, hypocrisy….
The Boss finds himself “capable of nothing but small, embarrassed words.” The charitable explanation of Grass’s play would have it that if Brecht could find little to say about the rising, we cannot expect Grass to find much to say about what Brecht found to say. And the charitable interpretation of Grass’s intention might have it that you can’t expect noble, whole-hearted, and swinging revolutions these days, since these days are not like the Twenties and early Thirties (when for Brecht, as Grass puts it in his preface, “revolutionary Germans always bore the name of Kragler”). These days either you live rather guiltily in the West or you live rather uncomfortably in the East, and in neither case do you feel much compulsion to rock the boat at all vigorously…. Perhaps, in an aesthetic spirit, Grass is lamenting the lack of a great subject matter, and perhaps Brecht was doing the same when be sought to adapt Coriolanus for the Berliner Ensemble—a play for the times in that it offered no grand theme but only a strong-man hero unacceptable to modern taste, two seedy “tribunes of the people” and a sad rabble of plebs.
Further readings of Grass’s book fail to clarify his attitude. It may be that in the play itself (which is subtitled “A German Tragedy”) his sympathies are largely with Brecht and the playwright’s small embarrassment, for certainly the Boss gets the best lines. Yet in the long prefatory essay, “The Prehistory and Posthistory of the Tragedy of Coriolanus from Livy and Plutarch via Shakespeare down to Brecht and Myself,” Grass does appear to be indicting Brecht, directly if coolly. “Everything becomes for him an aesthetic question,” he says, adding that Brecht “emerged without visible harm from the workers’ revolt,” and “continued to be the cultural property and advertisement of a state to which, according to his passport, he did not belong.” Perhaps Grass is hoping to have it both ways? On the evidence of this play, he is not too well placed to set himself up as Brecht’s judge and superior.
NOR ON THE EVIDENCE of these Selected Poems, which are well calculated to make the reader nostalgic for the human centrality and the rich directness of Brecht’s verse. “Folding Chairs,” perhaps the best poem here, is the most Brechtian:
How sad these changes are.
People unscrew the nameplates from the doors,
Take the saucepan of cabbage
and heat it up again, in a different place…
There are several attractive whimsies, such as “The Sea Battle,” in which an American aircraft carrier and a Gothic cathedral simultaneously sink each other in the middle of the Pacific, “Family Matters,” with its aborted children who sit in jars in the museum and worry about their parents’ future, and “Prevention of Cruelty to Animals,” where the zebra replaces the piano in the parlor:
Be kind to it,
it comes from Bechstein.
Scores are its fodder,
and our sweet ears.
The obvious label for the mood of Grass’s verse would be “black humor,” were it not that what we have here is neither quite black enough nor quite humorous enough. He is being satirical, yet we are not sure what he is being satirical about; “In the Egg” is a construction in sinister atmospherics, plainly an allegory, but an allegory of the sort which leaves the reader to find the key, or to find that there is no key.
UWE JOHNSON’S FIRST NOVEL, Speculations about Jakob, was about politics and people. Its weakness, it seemed to me, derived from the determinedly enigmatic nature of its people: whatever prior sympathy one might have for the victims of ideology, one couldn’t for long feel concerned over the fate of enigmas. The people and the politics seemed to go together all too well. I think Johnson’s new novel, Two Views, is open to the same criticism, while lacking the atmospheric distinction of the earlier book, the dour romance of a big railroad station. Its story is of a West German photographer and an East German nurse and the former’s efforts to help the latter to escape to the West. Dietbert is by no means motivated by love or compassion or political principle. He feels, rather irritatedly, that honor obliges him to procure Beate’s escape: he is being forced to live above his spiritual means. “What he wished for was a bureau, a government office, whose function it would be to help separated citizens come together again.” That is to say: those whom the State has put asunder, let the State join together! Perhaps, morally, we ought to care about this couple, caught up in beastly politics. But they are both so dim, in terms of art, that they barely exist, and thus our concern, too, barely begins to exist. Two Views is neither a tract, to which the reader might give his intellectual assent, nor a novel, in which he would find himself involved. Johnson is too sophisticated to make Dietbert and Beate real lovers, really in love, but he has gained nothing by depriving his story of this conventional stand-by. The chief presence in the book is the Berlin Wall, and not the people whom the Wall divides and separates.
THE CHIEF PRESENCE in Alexander Kluge’s collection of stories is technique, the technique which he employs relentlessly throughout. Each of these case histories is presented in a dead-pan or law-office style, sometimes accompanied by footnotes, sometimes by passages of question-and-answer rather similar to those of Ulysses. This method of avoiding sensationalism, sentimentality, sob- or horror-stories, doesn’t work for very long. The author veils his own involvement so successfully that the reader cannot feel particularly involved himself: two can play at poker. The blurb, though, takes a rather different view of what happens: “the reader is left, at the end, beyond rage and beyond tears….” Certainly there are local triumphs of horror, understatement, irony, and wit; thus:
A connection with the academic world means lifelong security. The academic world is free. The members of the academic world rank immediately behind Party members, at social functions they come after the S.S. but before the German East Africans.
It is more often the whole which baffles, or adds up to less than the sum of its parts. One story tells of a teacher who is arrested for interfering with a sixteen-year-old girl student despite the efforts of other educationists at first to hush the matter up and then to persuade the District Attorney to drop the case. The blurb takes this treatment of the teacher as a common criminal to be an indication of how little society really values education. And, as far as one can tell from the story, which seems to be complaining that teachers have no power and don’t even get a sabbatical year, this may indeed be its moral. The poker-face can too easily turn into the irresponsibly enigmatic, the expressionless into the meaningless.
HEINRICH BOLL’S STORIES, though all are deserving of respect, lack the intellectual distinction and power of his novels; the very opposite of the slick operator, he needs more elbow-room than the genre affords him. The heroes of these 18 Stories are mostly mild eccentrics, sometimes engaged in curious professions, a thrower-away of unwanted mail and wrapping-paper, a man who informs train passengers that they have arrived at Tibten, another who finds his vocation as a professional mourner. Light and dextrous in treatment, yet deficient in the power of engaging the reader closely, these stories hint at greater qualities than are to be found in the other works reviewed here, but they only hint. “Murke’s collected silences” is the great exception, and an illustration of what the short story is capable of. Murke, who works in the Cultural Department at Broadcasting House, collects snippets of recording-tape containing moments of silence and splices them together. Bur-Malottke, the coffee-table philosopher and public celebrity, converted to Catholicism in 1945, now finds that his convictions have changed, and he requires that in his taped talks on The Nature of Art the word “God” should be replaced by the circumlocution “that higher Being Whom we all revere.” One of Murke’s colleagues is editing the tape of a one-act play in which a character called “Atheist” propounds a series of questions such as “Who will remember me when I have become the prey of worms?” The producer finds the silence which follows each of these questions rather oppressive and decides to insert the word “God.” So the God-snippets from Bur-Malottke’s talks are swapped for snippets of silence from the play, and the latter go to swell Murke’s collection. “It was a lot of silence, altogether nearly a minute.” This story couldn’t come from anyone but the author of that fine novel, The Clown, an author who doesn’t find it necessary to slip away into enigma, who finds it possible to write seriously and committedly without being vulgar or naive.