Tuesday, 5 July 2011
Looking into which English-speaking writers have written about Germany is turning up a whole range of surprises: “Him?” – “What, she was there too?” – “Really, how come I never knew that?”. I suppose I’d assumed that I’d find mainly underrated, half-forgotten Deutschland-enthusiasts who sacrificed fame and fortune in their native land for their love of Teutonia: instead, I find a long list of well-known writers who made visits to Germany, often at historically crucial moments. This in turn sparks off my curiosity in the biographies behind their books and – before you know it – I’m tumbling down the literary-historical rabbit-hole.
Take D. H. Lawrence, for example. As an educated British subject, I suppose I just kind of assumed that I had Lawrence down pat (much in the same way as French graduates all assume that they have a good knowledge of Voltaire). Looking at it, though, I realise that I actually knew very little about Lawrence beyond Sons and Lovers, Lady Chatterley and the whole working-class-boy-turned-posh-novelist-thing.
There’s a whole range of far cooler stuff I didn’t know, though. Like the fact that Lawrence taught in a school in Croydon between 1908 and 1911 (okay, maybe only cool for me because I grew up just a couple of miles away…). Or like the fact that he eloped from this lovely London suburb with the wife of his former university professor, who just happened to be a distant relation of the legendary “Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen (you have to admit, that is pretty cool).
Where, how & why did he write about Germany?
Lawrence and his new love ended up in her native Germany – first at Metz (part of the territories occupied by Prussia after the defeat of France in 1871) and then south of Munich, from where they continued on to Italy. This is where Lawrence finished Sons and Lovers and then dedicated himself to a range of short stories, including The Prussian Officer and Vin ordinaire, both set in the claustrophobic confines of the Bavarian plains inside the even more claustrophobic Prussian army.
Lawrence and Frieda Weekley/von Richthofen stayed abroad until 1914, making it back to the UK just before the First World War broke out. Here, Lawrence had The Prussian Officer and Other Stories published; the extract below is taken from the eponymous short story around which the collection was published.
What to look out for
For readers with little time/short attention spans – or looking for dinner-party tid-bits/neat essay segues
1. The fact that the young orderly towards whom the officer feels so violently, homoerotically jealous is called Schöner, meaning “a beautiful one” or, in slang, “you, gorgeous” when applied to men. A little heavy-handed, if you ask me, Mr. Lawrence – but I suppose one doesn’t want a Lady Chatterley-style circus every time one oversteps the bounds of old-fashioned British decency, eh?
2. The phrase “a horrible breaking down” has a wonderfully visceral, poetic effect in English because it is way past the limits of standard usage. I wonder to what it extent it was influenced by German speech patterns? In German, all verbs can easily be turned into nouns in a way which English verbs cannot: “ein schreckliches Zusammenbrechen” would be less unusual in German than its English equivalent here.
“Why have you a piece of pencil in your ear?” he asked.
The orderly took his hands full of dishes. His master was standing near the great green stove, a little smile on his face, his chin thrust forward. When the young soldier saw him his heart suddenly ran hot. He felt blind. Instead of answering, he turned dazedly to the door. As he was crouching to set down the dishes, he was pitched forward by a kick from behind. The pots went in a stream down the stairs, he clung to the pillar of the banisters. And as he was rising he was kicked heavily again, and again, so that he clung sickly to the post of some moments. His master had gone swiftly into the room and closed the door. The maid-servant downstairs looked up the staircase and made a mocking face at the crockery disaster.
The officer’s hear t was plunging. He poured himself a glass of wine, part of which he spilled on the floor, and gulped the remainder, leaning against the cool, green stove. He heard his man collecting the dishes from the stairs. Pale, as if intoxicated, he waited. The servant entered again. The Captain’s heart gave a pang, as of pleasure, seeing the young fellow bewildered and uncertain on his feet, with pain.
“Schöner!” he said.
The soldier was a little lower in coming to attention.
The youth stood before him, with pathetic young moustache, and fine eyebrows very distinct on his forehead of dark marble.
“I asked you a question.”
The officer’s tone bit like acid.
“Why had you a pencil in your ear?”
Again the servant’s heart ran hot, and he could not breathe. With dark, strained eyes, he looked at the officer, as if fascinated. And he stood there sturdily planted, unconscious. The withering smile came into the Captain’s eyes, and he lifted his foot.
“I-I forgot it-sir,” panted the solder, his dark eyes fixed on the other man’s dancing blue ones.
“What was it doing there?”
He saw the young man’s breast heaving as he made an effort for words.
“I had been writing.”
Again soldier looked him up and down. The officer could hear him panting. The smile came into the blue eyes. The soldier worked his dry throat, but could not speak. Suddenly the smile lit like a flame on the officer’s face, and a kick came heavily against the orderly’s thigh. The youth moved a pace sideways. His face went dead, with two black, staring eyes.
“Well?” said the officer.
The orderly’s mouth had gone dry, and his tongue rubbed in it as on dry brown-paper. He worked his throat. The officer raised his foot. The servant went stiff.
“Some poetry, sir,” came the cracking, unrecognizable sound of his voice.
“Poetry, what poetry?” asked the Captain, with a sickly smile.
Again there was the working in the throat. The Captain’s heart has suddenly gone down heavily, and he stood sick and tired.
“For my girl, sir” he heard the dry, inhuman sound.
“Oh!” he said, turning away. “Clear the table.”
“Click!” went the soldier’s throat; then again, “click!” and then the half-articulate:
The young soldier was gone, looking old, and walking heavily.
The officer, left alone, held himself rigid, to prevent himself from thinking. His instinct warned him that he must not think. Deep inside him was the intense gratification of his passion, still working powerfully. Then there was a counter-action, a horrible breaking down of something inside him, a whole agony of reaction.
My two pfennigs
For readers with a few more moments to spare.
According to Antony Atkins (editor of the edition I read), the publishing industry was thrown into panic by the outbreak of war and leapt at Lawrence’s German stories because of their depiction of Prussian militarism, rearranging the author’s preferred running order to headline the two pieces set in Germany out of the fourteen overall: The Prussian Officer and Vin ordinaire. There is some debate as to the extent to which Lawrence was against this re-weighting of his collection from a group of short stories with widely-varied settings, heavily focussed on literary technique, to a by-the-numbers indictment of German militarism; yet it seems to be a price he was willing to pay – and which he had the emotional currency to pay, too.
In 1913, for example, Lawrence had confided in a letter to Edward Garnett that he had “suffered from the tightness, the domesticity of Germany. It is our domesticity which leads to our conformity, which chokes us.” The stifling atmosphere of pre-war Germany, its insidious mixture of provincialism, dictatorship and militarism certainly seems to have been something that Lawrence felt weighing on him during his stay. Furthermore, Lawrence certainly isn’t afraid to lay it on thick, here: the officer replies to poetry in the private sphere with corporal punishment in the public; the fact that his public cruelty is an outlet for his repressed, private homosexuality is made so obvious as to be almost no fun anymore – there is no detective work left for the reader to do.
Yet in The Prussian Officer, the soldier humiliated in the extract below later rises up against his despotic commander and literally chokes him. As such, Lawrence can be seen to be showing not just the crushing effect of rampant German militarism on private life in the antebellum era, but also the currents that rise up against it and threaten to wash it away at any moment.
Nevertheless, the fact that the soldier who has risen up against his master then dies, disorientated and distraught, would indicate by this reading that Lawrence may have thought Germans too regulated, too brow-beaten by their strict societal constraints to dispose of their autocrats and handle an ensuing revolution properly. The chaos of the interwar period and the longing for order that saw Hitler elected would seem to have proved him right.
Despite this neat one-to-one correlation between Lawrence's story and the history of Prussian militarism, however, I would be careful of reducing it to that - no matter to what extent Lawrence may have been happy for that to happen, and no matter to what extent his letters show corresponding views after his stay in Germany. After all, Lawrence's work is filled with repressed, uptight types, especially from the British aristocracy. In that sense, he probably saw Britain and Germany being rather similar in some respects.