April 8, 2008
“What is it about Germany and the travel book that puts them seemingly at odds?” queries the front flap of Michael Gorra’s The Bells in Their Silence: Travels through Germany (Princeton, 2004). Not far into his book Gorra, a professor of English literature at Smith College, answers by quoting a headline from the International Herald Tribune: “Germany Wants To Be Normal, but History Keeps Getting in the Way.” And, indeed, the years of National Socialism and the Holocaust cast indelible shadows across the Germany of today and even across Germany’s past. Visiting Weimar and vicinity, Gorra muses on the profound irony that the site of Goethe’s famous oak (which no longer survives) lies “halfway between the disinfection chambers and the crematorium” of Buchenwald.
Germany “is a land in which no behavior can be, not so much innocent, as innocently seen.” Gorra, ever conscientious, struggles with the Germany he finds and with himself. He feels guilty when he enjoys himself. When he starts to feel “at home” in Germany he wonders if he is in some way “normalizing” the horror. Dining out in Berlin, he eyes the crowd of “expensive, skinny people” and worries: “Germans enjoying themselves over tagliatelle al salmone and a glass of Pinot Grigio – a frightening idea, perhaps, but I was used to it by now.” On the other hand, perhaps there is a way to cope: “in Germany the practice of everyday life is not today a matter of accepting the presence of horror but rather of accepting its pastness…” Throughout The Bells in Their Silence, Gorra keeps turning this conundrum around and around, peering at it from different vantage points. Much to his credit, he does not turn his magnifying glass solely on Germany and the German psyche; he pays equal attention to his own contradictory responses to the German “problem.”
Here, it seems to me, is the real subject of Gorra’s book: how is a conscientious outsider supposed to feel about Germany? The fraught nature of Gorra’s inner struggle is embodied in the bells of his book’s title. The church bells of the Marienkirche in Thomas Mann’s city of Lubeck remain embedded in the floor exactly where they fell during an Allied raid in 1942. The bells have been left as a memorial – but to what? To German guilt? To Allied bombing of civilian populations? To all the war dead? To suffering in general? “The bells remember, but what they remember remains unsaid. Or rather, these found objects say many things, in different measure to different people, and their enigmatic power depends on saying no one of them exclusively.”
Even as the Holocaust manifests itself everywhere Gorra looks, The Bells in Their Silence is otherwise a very discrete view of contemporary Germany. Gorra obliquely refers to “some curious cable channels” and he walks past – but does not enter – a street of prostitution in Hamburg’s red light district. Otherwise he views Germany through the twin lenses of literature and history. He writes wonderfully about Goethe, George Eliot, Stendhal, Walter Benjamin, W.G. Sebald, Bruce Chatwin, Heinrich Heine, Thomas Mann, and Theodor Fontane, among others. He writes considerably less about a handful of places in Germany: Berlin, Hamburg, Lubeck, Weimar, Buchenwald. But, like the best of travel literature (a term that seems to belittle the book’s seriousness and scope no matter how deliberately Gorra himself uses it), The Bells in Their Silence finds a balance between the inner travels prompted by our travels to confront the unfamiliar.
References to Sebald’s books – especially The Rings of Saturn and On the Natural History of Destruction, are scattered throughout Gorra’s book.
Sebald’s departures bring him back always to the same place, the same set of facts: to the industrial killing of the Holocaust….no matter how far he digresses, he is always drawn back, never closer to that history than when he seems farthest away. And it is dazzling, this failure to escape, failure and success at once…
[How German Is It is borrowed from the title of Walter Abish's 1979 novel; an essential read, I think. The lead image is: Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, ca 1818 (Kunsthalle, Hamburg).]