The Oktoberfest: a source of German clichés and yet a great way to enjoy the country, as Ben Donald discovers
After launching my series on writing about Germany at the worthy end of the literary canon, I thought it might be interesting to look at something newer and more light-hearted. ‘Newer’ and ‘lighthearted’ are of course two words that, until recently, one wouldn’t have necessarily associated with literature in English about Germany, getting bogged down as it understandably does in the horrors of the Nazi years and the grimness of post-war central Europe.
Yes, pleasant, peppy little travel accounts were long the preserve of expats writing from France – see Peter Mayle and the twenty-year publishing trend he set off, culminating in A Year in the Merde and Petite Anglaise. Germany was essentially reserved for counter-factual or spy fiction à la Robert Harris and John le Carré respectively.
This state of affairs reflected tourist preferences, of course, so it’s easy to see why the British and American publishing industries have tended to commission and then push writing about France. Nevertheless, it did pose a series of tantalising, interlocking questions: has the English-speaking relationship to Germany been so soured by the events of the twentieth century that it somehow seems inappropriate to set jokey, enjoyable romps in it? Or is Germany per se a not particularly attractive destination for the more comic of writerly types? Is it perhaps too familiar, too typically Anglo-Saxon in terms of aesthetics and mindset to offer the same imaginative space for exciting travel fiction as its Gallic neighbour? Or is simple post-war prejudice and an ensuing lack of interest to blame for the paucity of Teutonically-themed travel literature?
For the longest time, it seemed hard to rule out the latter. Now, however, attitudes towards Germany are changing, helped considerably by the 2006 World Cup, and it seems to be no coincidence that the years since 2007 have seen an increasing amount of general interest travel literature about Germany on the market – especially in the UK, which has defined its post-war mass-media relationship with Germany in terms of soccer and so was probably more liable to change attitudes post 2006 than the United States.
In the vanguard of these new writers were Roger Boyes and Ben Donald, both of whom seem to have been aiming to replicate popular successes about France on the subject of Germany. Yet whilst Boye’s 2008 book openly parodies the title of Stephen Clarke’s A Year in the Merde, and follows its structure and style, too, Donald takes quite a different path to try and make a commercially successful book out of his experiences in Germany.
Where, how & why did he write about Germany?
Donald published Springtime for Germany: Or how I learned to love Lederhosen in 2007. In the book, the BBC journalist compiled his travel experiences of various parts of the Federal Republic into a semi-fictional series of visits linked together into a narrative by a rather peculiar plot device.
The idea is that the narrator (who we assume is Donald himself) is despairing of the usual round of travel locations for educated, well-to-do professionals and is in search of something new and exciting. At an airport, he meets the supposedly Californian ‘travel therapist’ Manny who all but frogmarches the apparently reluctant Donald onto a plane bound for Germany and then coaches him through a course of visits to the North, to Berlin, Heidelberg and Munich. At the end, Donald’s narrator is both convinced of Germany as a travel destination and cured of his luxury malaise. And, as it turns out, there is more to this Manny fellow than meets the eye.
In the extract below, we join Donald’s as yet under-informed narrator in conversation with Manny about British views of Germany as a travel destination.
“You want me to romanticise Germany?” I said, sitting up and barely restraining a snigger. “Romantic weekend in Frankfurt, anyone?”
“Typical!” Manny cried defensively. “This is just part of the hypocrisy and prejudice with which you are spending the post-war package-tour age viewing Germany. Germany is simply off the map you tourists seek to conquer like it was some kind of world war.”
Steady on, Manny, I thought. Did you have to bring up the war? I was doing so well.
“Germany is a country that has had to bear the weight of over half a century of post-war British prejudice as outdated as a John Mills Christmas movie.”
There was something about Manny that didn’t quite add up. He was no “normal” consultant or shrink. There seemed to be some private agenda, some personal crusade. And then there were those funny mood swings between passion and clinical coldness.
“If you want to learn how to goosestep, come to Britain!” he continued, apparently incensed.
The theme from Mel Brooke’s The Producers popped into my head: “Springtime for Hitler and Germany/Goosestep’s the new step today…”
“You just can’t seem to move on and can’t resist an opportunity to scaremonger. With you clever reviews off German-built Minis with sat-nav that leads straight to Poland…”
I could do better than that. How about Bette Midler’s line, “I’m married to a German. Every night I dress up as Poland and he invades me!”
Even in these castrated, politically correct times I felt bound to defend a proud British tradition of nation-bashing and playful xenophobia.
“They are only harmless jokes,” I pleaded.
“But it amounts to a racist slur! It is not tolerated to joke about Jews, Muslims or disabled people. But the Germans are clearly an Untermensch. And on the rare occasion someone does take offence at a Hitler joke it is on behalf of the Jewish people! No, for you Brits Boche-bashing is a Pavlovian reflex.”
This wasn’t just a clinical diagnosis now. He sounded like a German foreign minister. Was Manny making a bid from his basement bunker to be the next German ambassador? Forget Weltschmerz. Manny seemed to want to cure me of some British psychosis about Germany.
“You Brits have so much baggage with Germany, it amounts to a special relationship! If you must have your stereotypes, then you should see them as indicators of a long, rich and healthy culture. Far better to be a nation with stereotypes than none at all.”
It was true. What did the world know of Paraguay or Taiwan? But Manny now wanted me not just to go on holiday to Germany but to romanticise it, to render Germany impressive and unfamiliar; when it was precisely a very accepted kind of familiarity and ordinariness about Germany, like the newfound unsexiness of its nudist beaches, that had probably bred such indifference among travellers.
“The point is,” insisted Manny, “that however unique you are considering each of your previous travel experiences, they can all be reduced to a system of desires and prejudices. It is not Germany that is the problem. It is you and your system. This is why the magic and romance have disappeared. You need to desystematise yourself.”
How German! How Vorsprung durch Technik.
My two pfennigs
For those of you who aren’t on the trolley yet, Manny is of course no truly Californian shrink, but one born in Germany with a “private agenda” of making his country of birth a more popular holiday destination. The well-observed clue to this that Donald has strewn for the linguistically knowledgeable is the misemployed present participle (“you are spending”); the far clumsier hint for those with less German language skills is the “mood swings between passion and clinical coldness”.
This dichotomy between a rather adroit dissection of the classic mistakes German learners of English make and the would-be ironic trotting out of the old English clichés about Germany kind of sums up Springtime for Germany: it’s a book with so much to offer and yet so much that detracts from this offer.
What this passage offers, for example, is a critique of the way even some educated British people continue to write Germany off as an unattractive lump of concrete and pine trees populated by unreconstructed Nazis. What detracts from this is that Donald’s narrator – i.e. Donald himself – feels consistently compelled to prove that these clichés exist by resorting to them.
Not, of course, that Donald means any malice by doing so. In fact, I can see two obvious reasons to keep referring to the old Mel Brooke and Bette Midler gags: firstly, if you think these clichés are going to be occurring to your reader, it’s best to bring them out into the open and fight them through humour; secondly, Donald is of course trying to prove his own point of the British being so blasé about their hackneyed view of Germany that they just can’t help themselves: “I felt bound to defend a proud British tradition of nation-bashing and playful xenophobia.”
In other words, it’s the old circular irony predicament with which German writers like Thomas Mann had so much trouble in the 1920s. Donald is ironising the supposedly ironic jingoism of his countrymen; but, once you get to two layers of irony, the danger is that they end up melding back together and leave you looking like you’re being serious.
Of course we know that Donald really, really isn’t being serious. Why else would he be writing a book about Germany with many very informed and very heartfelt passages if he didn’t actually like the place and actually want to turn it into a travel destination? It’s just that the anti-jingoistic jingoism is so insistent – especially in these imagined conversations with ‘Manny’ – that it seems to put most readers off.
This passage has two valuable insights for those of us looking at the history of Anglo-German writing and trying to conceive of its future. Firstly, whilst we Brits may be famed for our ironic sense of humour, it’s so easy to overegg the pudding: just a brief hint in the direction of Mel Brooke or Bette Midler might have worked as a way of showing how easily even the educated British mind can be bought to laugh at simplistic, outdated Germany gags; actually reproducing both quotations in full makes the narrative turgid and opens the writer to accusations of tastelessness.
Secondly, and following on from this: ‘Manny’ is right about the special relationship between Britain and Germany, but since so much as already been said about it – and since every British person has the image of John Cleese’s comedy goose-walk branded onto their mental retina anyway – mightn’t it just be better to really, seriously, just for once, actually not mention the war?
Donald’s narrator clearly doesn’t think so, but perhaps Donald himself once did. The clue is in the acknowledgements: “To my agent, Patrick Walsh, for initially picking up the project and also convincing me that no one would ever buy a straight travel narrative on Germany.” Donald himself probably conceived of this book quite differently (and probably in a far more sensitive, nuanced way), but his agent didn’t think it would sell. This brings us back to the set of questions above about the English-speaking travel writing market and Germany – questions which, however, might well have been answered by books such as Peter Watson’s The German Genius and Simon Winder’s Germania – and also makes us reconsider who the narrator in the book really is: my bet is that the clumsily-(un)ironic jingoism of the narrator is more Donald’s agent and that Donald himself is in fact often to be found hiding behind ‘Manny’.
Springtime for Germany is in places like the above confusing, but stimulating reading: it is essentially trying to define where the current taboos are, where British irony about Germany still works and where it doesn’t – and makes the informed reader think about why certain jokes fall flat on their face whilst others don’t. There are also some great passages – the one about the Oktoberfest stands out – that show that when Donald lets the perceived need to tackle clichés take a back seat, he can succeed in making Germany an attractive travel destination – and making a good read out of it.