“Waiting for Goethe” has been a habit of tired German intellectuals over the generations. Will this ascendant sage or that once-young hell-raiser grown venerable turn out to be the giant of Weimar come again? As a waste of time, the habit is nearly but not quite harmless. It’s an excuse for not taking the trouble to read contemporary writers and thinkers closely. Is one of them the new Goethe or not? At this question, any book review editor should reach for the rejection slips. But even now, not all do.
Both left and right can harbor this cargo cult in the back of their minds. I remember the late Günter Grass being heckled in Berlin as he tried to dampen the revolutionary ecstasy of students in 1968. They shouted him down:
Grass, du Kröte,
Halt dich nicht für Goethe!
[Grass, you toad, Don’t imagine you’re Goethe!]
He was furious, partly because being booed was a nasty new experience to him, but mostly because he, at least, never did think of himself in that way. Some readers—for a time—came to consider him “Germany’s conscience,” but nobody tried to canonize him as a supreme arbiter of European literature and ethics. Now, however, German literary journalists are trying to attach the G-word to the work, influence, and personality of somebody else: Hans Magnus Enzensberger.
Skeptical, with a quite English knack for self-deprecation, Enzensberger would politely hand that laurel wreath back while trying not to laugh. All the same, although the two writers don’t fit together into anything like a resemblance, there are a few similarities. Now in his mid-eighties, Enzensberger has survived to become the most revered living figure in German literature. His productivity in published work is stupendous: something like sixty books, mostly poetry but including essays, plays, and prose works. The Silences of Hammerstein (2009), a marvelous collage of history, recollection, and fiction, was his most recent success in English translation.*
In 1965 Enzensberger cofounded and edited Kursbuch, for some years the most influential journal of ideas in the former West Germany, and he helped launch the always-absorbing book series Die Andere Bibliothek. Like Goethe, he has acquired languages with greed, translating from English, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, and Norwegian, to name a few, and his sovereign translations of his own work into English are sometimes better than their originals. His scholarly learning in literature, history, and politics is profound. And he is one of the vanishingly few imaginative writers—even in the twenty-first century—who has bothered to make himself scientifically and mathematically literate. There, too, he shares a virtue with that polymath of Weimar. (I remember going to an exhibition in Weimar, in the time of the Communist “Democratic Republic,” that presented Goethe as a pioneering theoretician of…
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