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Pigeons on the Grass, Alas

Eighty million Germans had been shielded against reality and factuality by exactly the same self-deception, lies, and stupidity that had now become ingrained in Eichmann’s nature. These lies changed from year to year, and they frequently contradicted each other; moreover, they were not necessarily the same for the various branches of the Party hierarchy or the people at large. But the practice of self-deception had become so widespread—almost a moral prerequisite for survival—that even now, eighteen years after the collapse of the Nazi regime, when most of the specific content of its lies has been forgotten, it is sometimes difficult not to believe that mendacity has become an integral part of the German national character.” Hanna Arendt, “Eichmann in Jerusalem, The New Yorker, Feb. 16, 1963.

That was Hanna Arendt, the great political philosopher, as she observed the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the Nazi organizers of the Holocaust, play out in Israel in 1963. She came to think that the “self-deception, lies, and stupidity” of the German population had played an important role in the ability of the Nazi party to dominate that nation for more than a decade and lead it into a war that caused tens of millions of deaths.

A dozen years earlier, the German writer Wolfgang Koeppen was also thinking about his fellow Germans as he began writing a triptych of novels that would also explore the mindset of the nation during this same period. Pigeons on the Grass, just translated by Michael Hofmann (New Directions, 2020) but originally published in Germany in 1951, is the first of the trio. In this wonderful, often antic but deadly serious novel, we follow the actions of approximately two dozen characters through a single day in post-war Berlin. The Germans, along with a handful of their American “conquerors” who now occupy the city, shop, have coffee, run errands, pawn their valuables, and generally go about their daily lives. Everything is leading up to one main evening event: a lecture by an important American visiting poet, Edwin.

Because Koeppen offers the reader omniscient admittance to the private thinking of every character, it becomes apparent that every one of them manages to misunderstand what others are saying. The number of reasons for this varies — sometimes it can be differences of class, nationality (the Germans and Americans always misconstrue each others intentions), gender, or generation. Sometimes it’s simply stubbornness. But Koeppen seems to be telling us that we don’t actually listen to the other person very well.

Characters also misapprehend who others actually are. Phillip, a German poet, is mistaken for Edwin’s private secretary, and then his best friend, simply because they are seen in the hallway together. Richard Kirsch, the well-to-do American soldier who calls on his German relatives, is sent packing because he arrived on foot and not in a car and thus it was perceived that “he belonged to the low-caste people, and needed to be treated as such.”

Perhaps most telling example is the way in which the enthusiastic young American airman Richard Kirsch completely misreads his own father, who had served in the German military but who emigrated to America as Hitler rose to power and ultimately opened up a gun store in Ohio. Richard assumes that the gun store is a signal that there has been no break in his father’s militarism. But, in truth, his father had become a pacifist and had decided not to go to war on behalf of Hitler’s Germany because he felt “that all force was repugnant and that any conflicts were better served by talk, negotiation, and reconciliation than by gunpowder.” So why did he open a gun store in the U.S.A.? When America joined the war with Germany, his faith in his new country was so shaken that “he was left wondering about the honesty of those old American ideals.” But his father never told this to Richard and Richard had never asked and so he is in the dark about his father’s changing beliefs.

Racism is one of several minor themes that Koeppen takes up in Pigeons, which depicts the bigotry that two Black American soldiers have to contend with in Berlin. One of the characters has a German girlfriend who is desperately seeking an abortion, convinced that she cannot bear to have a Black child. And a night at a bar nearly turns deadly for the other Black soldier, when a crowd angrily assumes that it must have been he who attacked a German and stole his money.

The culmination of the day is the lecture by the poet Edwin, sponsored by America Haus, an event that turns comic, then deadly. The rather pompous theme he plans to bring to his listeners in Berlin is “immortality, the imperishableness of the spirit, the deathless soul of the West.” Edwin is partly a fraud, just seeking to “cash in on his late fame.” He shows up at the lecture hall with stage fright.

He wanted to begin with Greek and Latin antiquity, he wanted to bring in Christianity, the connection between the Biblical tradition and the Classics, he wanted to speak about the Renaissance and offer judicious praise and blame to the Rationalism of the French eighteenth century, but unfortunately, instead of words, only sounds had reached his listener’s ears, a gurgling and crackling and hissing as of some fairground entertainment. Edwin, at the lectern, did not immediately realize that the public address system in the auditorium was malfunctioning.

Before long, most of the audience is soundly asleep. Edwin ends his lecture with a reference to Gertrude Stein, who he thinks of as a “second-rate” writer. “Like pigeons on the grass,” he said, “every pigeon knew its roost, and every bird was in God’s hand.”

Edwin had spoken his last word. The speakers crackled and squawked. They went on crackling and squawkling after Edwin had finished, and the wordless crackling and squawking in their toothless mouths tore the listeners from their sleep, their dreams, and their private thoughts.

The pigeons reference comes from the libretto that Stein wrote for Virgil Thomson’s opera (for an all-Black cast) Four Saints in Three Acts, that had its premiere in 1934.

Pigeons on the grass alas.
Pigeons on the grass alas.
Short longer grass short longer longer shorter yellow grass. Pigeons
large pigeons on the shorter longer yellow grass alas pigeons on the
grass.
If they were not pigeons what were they.
If they were not pigeons on the grass alas what were they. He had
heard of a third and he asked about if it was a magpie in the sky.
If a magpie in the sky on the sky can not cry if the pigeon on the
grass alas can alas and to pass the pigeon on the grass alas and the
magpie in the sky on the sky and to try and to try alas on the
grass alas the pigeon on the grass the pigeon on the grass and alas.
They might be very well they might be very well very well they might
be.

Edwin escapes America Haus into the Berlin night, flush with enthusiasm, only to become a victim of the final misapprehension of the day. A gang of youths mistake him for “an old perv, a well-heeled old queen,” someone they knew from experience would be “quite profitable,” and they proceed to beat him up with their “big, cruel fists.”

So, what exactly is Koeppen trying to tell us when he shows us time and again that no character in his novel can overcome their initial misunderstanding or misapprehension to even inquire what the other person really thinks or to wonder if their perspective of another person is accurate? That each character lives and stays in a bubble? It seems like he is after something deeper than that. I think there is a clue a little earlier in the book at the point when a group of “schoolmistresses from Massachusetts,” led by a Miss Wescott, cross a great square “designed by Hitler to be the memorial grove of National Socialism.” They are en route to attend Edwin’s lecture. As they come across a bunch of birds sitting on the grass (pigeons, presumably, but the know-it-all Miss Wescott declares them to be sparrows), Miss Wescott ponders a bit of wishful, home-spun philosophy.

The birds are here by chance, we are here by chance, and maybe the Nazis were here by chance, Hitler was a chance, his politics were dreadful and a stupid chance, maybe the world is a dreadful and stupid chance of God’s, no one knows why we are here, the birds will fly off and we will walk on.

None of this, she suggests, is the result of human action. We are not responsible. The Germans were not responsible. The Nazis were not responsible. No one is responsible.

The Great Flood – The Link

A few days ago I wrote about the radio program being aired by Resonance FM called “The Great Tide: Flooding, Landscape and Memory. The Great Flood of 1953.” There is now a permanent link so you can listen to the program anytime on Mixcloud here.

And just to remind you of the topic: “The Great Flood of 1953, the combination of a high spring tide and a storm over the North Sea, causing a surge to sweep across the East Coast, was the worst natural disaster in Britain of the 20th century, in which 307 people lost their lives in England and over 1,800 people in the Netherlands. It also produced one of the great works of English social history, ‘The Great Tide’ by Hilda Grieve, which tells the story of the flood disaster in Essex. In this programme Patrick Bernard discusses ‘The Great Tide’ with writer and social historian Ken Worpole; Edward Platt, author of ‘The Great Flood’; and Anne Johnson, a storyteller who runs Everyday Magic, a London-based charity which sends storytellers into state primary schools, and who lived on Canvey Island at the time of the flood.”

The Great Flood of 1953

Resonance FM has another intriguing radio program coming up tomorrow night, October 27 from 8:00 to 9:00 pm, London time: “The Great Tide: Flooding, Landscape and Memory. The Great Flood of 1953.” That year, the combination of a high spring tide and a storm over the North Sea caused a surge to sweep across the East Coast, creating the worst natural disaster in Britain of the 20th century, in which 307 people lost their lives in England and over 1,800 people in the Netherlands. It also produced one of the great works of English social history, The Great Tide by Hilda Grieve, a 900-page tome that tells the story of the flood disaster in Essex. In this program, Patrick Bernard discusses The Great Tide with writer and social historian Ken Worpole, Edward Platt, author of The Great Flood, and Anne Johnson, a storyteller who runs Everyday Magic, a London-based charity which sends storytellers into state primary schools, and who lived on Canvey Island at the time of the flood. The program will be re-aired Wednesday 10:00 am.]

Sebald referred to the “catastrophic incursions of the sea” that happened century after century on the English coastline facing the Netherlands when he wrote about Dunwich in The Rings of Saturn.

Resonance FM is a 24/7 HD radio station which broadcasts on 104.4 FM to central London, nationally on Radioplayer and live streamed to the rest of the world. Their schedule is here. At a later date, the program will be made available for listening on Mixcloud.

Last year, Resonance aired a two-part program “Walking with Sebald.” Links to listen to it can be found here.

“Remember what it was like to be me”: Esther Kinsky’s “Grove”

When a scene has little or no apparent structure, we are likely to be confused and frustrated: the eye will roam fruitlessly seeking interest and points of connection, from one fixation to the next, without much success.” Simon Bell. Landscape: Pattern, Perception and Process.

The sublime prose of Esther Kinsky’s 2017 novel River has made it one of my favorite books of this still young century. The writing in River transformed ordinary moments—walking in a London park, taking instant photographs with a Polaroid-like camera, rummaging at a flea market—glimmer with the magic and potency of a Vermeer painting, suggesting that an introspective, watchful life could lead to small, miraculous epiphanies on a daily basis.

The events in her new novel Grove (Transit Books, 2020) take place in the first year or so after the death of “M.,” the partner or spouse of the German narrator, who has temporarily moved to rural Italy to try to reset her life. “Each morning I awoke in an alien place. . . Each morning it was as if I had to learn everything anew. . . Dressing. Washing. Applying bandages. The imposition of my hands.” It’s hard not to see Grove as an autobiographical novel, since Kinsky’s husband, the literary translator Martin Chalmers, died in 2014.

Read more

Links, Sebald & Other – For October 2020

Barbara Kruger, Matchbooks, 1984

The world’s most comprehensive collection of concrete and visual poetry has been acquired by The University of Iowa, which has announced that its University Libraries have been chosen as the new home of the Ruth and Marvin Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry. This website includes a number of entertaining short videos about the collection and a full-length documentary about the Sackners called Concrete. The collection contains over 75,000 items including books, periodicals, typewritings, drawings, letters, print portfolios, ephemera, rare and out-of-print artists’ books, and manuscripts that represents 20th-century art movements such as Italian Futurism, Russian and Eastern European Avant-gardes, Dada, Surrealism, the Bauhaus, De Stijl, Ultra, Dada, Lettrisme, and Ultra-Lettrisme.

Read more

Encountering John Keene

To speak of culture is to foreshadow a battle.”

John Keene’s first two books of fiction take completely different paths toward the same goal: making sure that the Black experience is no longer buried in white shadows. Annotations (New Directions, 1995) is a brief autobiographical novel that can feel like a prose poem at times.  Counternarratives (New Directions, 2015) is a series of lush, thematically-related stories that span several centuries, with each story written in a style appropriate to the time period. Counternarratives is a punch straight to the gut of the traditional narration of history, reinserting black perspectives, voices, and lives that have been so consistently missing from white history and white literature.

Annotations opens with a grainy family snapshot of a seated young Black boy that might be Keene. He is holding his hands slightly apart in worried care, while something tall and slender—a toy rocket, perhaps—stands delicately poised between his open palms as if his own future lies in the balance. Then the book begins with the narrator’s birth: “It was a summer of Malcolms and Seans, as Blacks were transforming the small nation of Watts into a graveyard of smoldering metal. A crueler darkening, as against the assured arrival of dusk. Selma-to-Montgomery. Old folks liked to say he favored the uncle who died young, an artist. In that way, a sense of tradition was upheld, one’s place in the reference-chain secured.” In other words, it’s 1965, the year Keene was born. Read more

Three Rings

A stranger arrives in an unknown city after a long voyage. He has been separated from his family for some time; somewhere there is a wife, perhaps a child. The journey has been a troubled one, and the stranger is tired. . . He moves with difficulty, his shoulders hunched by the weight of the bags he is carrying. Their contents are everything he owns, now. He has had to pack quickly. What do they contain? Why has he come?

So begins Daniel Mendelsohn’s new book Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate (University of Virginia Press, 2020). Mendelsohn, a classics scholar and humanities professor, is a natural story-teller and he has managed to turn a multi-century saga of literary criticism and history into an immensely entertaining, readable, and short(!) book. Three Rings originated as the Page-Barbour Lectures, which Mendelsohn delivered at the University of Virginia in 2019, and if only more literary criticism (and scholarship, in general) were delivered this way, it would have a much greater audience and impact.

There are actually three “strangers” or “rings” in Mendelsohn’s book, as we shall see, but his story begins with Odysseus. Read more

New Sebald Book

Uwe Schütte, who teaches at Aston University in Birmingham, U.K., has published a new book W.G. Sebald: Leben und literarisches Werk. The publisher, De Gruyter, describes it as a book that “provides a comprehensive and critical overview of his literary work and surveys the extensive secondary literature.” It looks like the first biographical chapter might well present the most detailed information on Sebald’s life available to date. The 471-page book contains thirty-two photographs and is priced at a modest $28.99 in the U.S., even less on Kindle.

The basic Table of Contents is listed below. An extended Table of Contents and a generous preview of the biographical chapter can be seen using Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature for this book.

Als Vorwort 
Zur Biografie
Nach der Natur: Ein Elementargedicht (1988)
Schwindel. Gefühle. (1990)
Die Ausgewanderten. Vier lange Erzählungen (1992)
Die Ringe des Saturn. Eine englische Wallfahrt (1995)
Aufzeichnungen aus Korsika und andere Interimswerke
Austerlitz (2001)
Ein Nachwort
Siglenverzeichnis
Abbildungsnachweis
Danksagung

Bruges-La-Morte

BrugeslaMortesScreenShot2

Film still from Ronald Chase’s Bruges-la-Mortes

It’s time to go sight-seeing in canal-laced Bruges, Belgium. The city still retains many vestiges of its medieval architecture and its city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You might have already seen modern Bruges in the entertaining 2008 crime/comedy movie In Bruges with Colin Farrell, but you can also see Bruges depicted in two film versions of the nineteenth-century novel Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach (1855-1898), a Belgian Symbolist writer. Bruges-la-Morte (1892), probably the earliest novel to ever include photographs, tells the story of a widower whose grief over the death of his beautiful wife has turned him into a recluse in his own home, which is filled with reminders of his life with her. But then he attends an opera where he sees on stage a woman who looks very much like his deceased wife. He courts her, but this only leads to further tragedy. In the novel and in the films, the city of Bruges serves as one of the main characters. Read more

Documentary Film of “The Natural History of Destruction” Receives Funding

AUSTERLITZ_3

Film still from Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz, 2016.

The Lithuanian Film Centre has announced its second round of funding pre-approvals for 2020, which includes funding for a documentary film by Sergei Loznitsa about W.G. Sebald’s On The Natural History of Destruction. There is no word on how Loznitsa might make a film about such an argumentative short book (based on a series of lectures he delivered in Zurich). In On The Natural History of Destruction, Sebald writes about the astonishing devastation wrought by Allied air raids on German cities in World War II and the seeming absence of this history in Germany’s cultural memory, especially in its literature.

In 2016, Loznitsa made a film called Austerlitz, inspired by Sebald’s book of the same name. In that film, he simply followed tourists as they spent a summer day at the Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz in Poland.

Writing about this film in Unsung Films, Angeliki Coconi asked of the people wandering around Auschwitz,

Why are they here? What have they come to find? A memorial site that receives thousands of tourists every year; “this is the place where people were exterminated; this is the place of suffering and grief,” Loznitsa says. Yet there is a Disneyland feeling about this place, that we can’t come to grasp. . . This feels like an amusement park of death and torture, where genocide is seen as the ultimate holiday experience.

You can watch Austerlitz (and several other of Loznitsa’s films) here online (for a small fee).