In Time of Need by Reiner Kunze
In Time of Need is principally a book about the German poet Peter Huchel. Huchel was an "inner emigrant": he did not leave Germany during the war, and he tried to continue to write and publish. This meant uncomfortable proximity to the Nazi regime. Reiner Kunze, a dissident East German writer until his move to the West in 1977, winner of the Georg Büchner and Friedrich Hölderlin prizes, was a friend of Huchel. Here, in this vivid dialogue, he defends his friend's apoliticism and decision to stay in Germany to continue writing. Huchel, he says, was "faithful and true."
Subtitled A Conversation about Poetry, Resistance and Exile, the conversation referred to, which occurred in March 2004 (the volume was first published in Germany, this English translation is by Edmund Jephcott), was between Kunze and his French translator Mireille Gansel, also the translator of Nelly Sachs. Gansel was about to undertake work on the translation of Huchel, whom she had known, but found herself a little unnerved by his war time record: "It was a shock to me when I found out ... that Huchel had published many poems in the Nazi period, even in the first issue of the periodical Das innere Reich, which had also contained the text of a speech by Goebbels". She spoke with Kunze, in Obernzell-Erlau, his home in Bavaria, who throughout defended Huchel's commitment to poetry and poetic truth.
Kunze was not the only one to champion Huchel: Brecht supported the poet and Hans Erich Nossack wrote, "How highly political [Huchel's] anti-political attitidue is, only we (the generation of the two World Wars) can understand." Kunze also invokes the invalidity of the notion of a wholly coherent or stable work: poetry works against the intentions of even its author; it is intrinsically radical and anti-ideological because of this. The Nazis tried to rope in Hölderlin and Kleist as ideological precursors, but their poetry was too powerful, too ambiguous, for them: "resistance was already present in their language."
Peter Huchel (1903-81) is hardly a household name in Britain. Indeed, English-only readers just have Anvil Press's The Garden of Theophrastus readily available to them (translated by the peerless Michael Hamburger in versions different to those in this volume). And Huchel's reputation is, certainly, in need of some rehabilitation: no obvious war heroics and, as Gansel says, "tragically, he never mentioned the extermination of the Jews with a single word". The inner then outer emigration at the hands of the GDR until the early seventies further marginalised him.
In 1971, Huchel and his wife Monica left Wilhelmshort and headed to the West. But in the seventies, West Germany seemed not to want to hear his arcane verses. Indeed, both Robertson and Kunze tell of a hurtful and destructive moment in 1977, during one of Huchel's increasingly rare public readings, when a young man upbraided Huchel for his "incomprehensible" poems. Whilst some of his work during the war, and just after in the GDR, was marred by ill-handled political gesturing (understandable given the regime's viciousness that Huchel should overplay his earlier leftist sympathies), his best work, as Ritchie Robertson's excellent essay (Poetry, Power and Peter Huchel) appended here reminds us, was very fine.
Robertson, Professor of German at Oxford University, weighs Huchel's life and work, (closely following Stephen Parker's Peter Huchel: A Literary Life in 20th-century Germany) "and the difficult, often exemplary, decisions he was compelled to make about questions of politics and literature, which still arouse controversy." Huchel should also be remembered for the bi-monthly literary journal "Sinn und Form" which he founded in 1949 and steered for many years (until his forced resignation in 1962) through the difficult waters of German cultural politics and made into an important international journal.
Libris, publishers of some wonderful Germania, should be congratulated for this beautfully produced and well-annotated volume. Kunze and Gansel's conversation is a compelling read: Kunze comes across as acerbic and no-nonsense ("Gansel: Do you mean Brecht before or during the Nazi period?" "Kunze: I mean Brecht"); Gansel is slow to judgement, keen to learn; both seem to agree that Huchel's poetry is more than reason enough to defend Hunchel. It is to be hoped that this volume will stimulate interest in both Huchel's work and in Kunze's, whose two English translations are out of print and whose later work ("often minimalist, always oblique") is well-respected.
The review first appeared in PN Review no.170 and is reproduced with kind permission of the Editor. RSB readers are reminded that they can subscribe to PN Review at a special rate.