I realise that it has been almost a year since I last updated this blog, so in the spirit of getting things going again, I thought I’d share with you some musings on an event I attended at the Goethe Institut last night.
As part of a series of events to mark ten years of the Centre for Anglo-German Cultural Relations, based at Queen Mary, University of London, I found myself sat in a room in the London outpost of the Goethe Institut, listening to five award-winning authors read from their work. Each of them had previously spent time in London as Queen Mary’s writer-in-residence, and the works they read were either produced in, or resulted from, the time that they had spent in the British capital.
The results of the General Election and what this will mean for Britain and Germany hung heavy in the air as journalist Rosie Goldsmith, hosting the evening, spoke in her introduction of “fragile European times.” Despite sharing knowing glances, my colleagues and I seemed to breathe a sigh of relief when we moved on; we’ve all had enough despair. We were there to listen to literature, and to think about literature. We welcomed the opportunity to listen to Terézia Mora, Michael Wildenhain, Angela Krauß, Matthias Politycki, David Wagner and Gregor Sander read from their works. If we, as Brits, have previously looked to Germany as a “shining example to follow” in the production, consumption and promotion of literature, Goldsmith asked, was this still the case? The answer, from last night’s experience, is neither black nor white. But what is certain, is that Germany continues to produce world-class literature.
The readings and their content were varied and lively. Hungarian-born Mora took us into the world of an old man wandering the boiling-hot streets of Budapest, looking for a place to inter his wife’s ashes, yet simultaneously not wanting to let her go. Michael Wildenhain painted the picture of love blossoming amongst the stench of Brixton market; as he spoke of congealed blood, fish guts and rooster crests, the sights and smells that I have experienced in person came flooding back to me, and questioned how powerful love must be to overcome such an experience. The third prose reading, by Berlin-based David Wagner, spoke of a man traveling to Berlin’s Charité hospital: violently vomiting blood and on the brink of death, we journeyed into space with the city beneath our feet, spread out before us as though we were in a spaceship.
For me, though, it was the poets Krauß and Politycki who brought the room to life. The latter read from his poem London für Helden, based on a tour taken around 24 pubs in London’s East End. Spattered with tasting notes from British breweries, responses and retorts, as he read the room filled with laughter (thought it was unclear who was laughing at whom), even as Politycki quoted the advertisements of Kent’s ‘Spitfire’ ale (‘downed all over Kent, just like the Luftwaffe’). And whilst Krauß offered a counterpoint to the boisterous southerner with her delicate and fragile musings on love, life and loss, it was her description of her creative process that intrigued me the most.
On arrival in London in Spring 2009, Krauß spent five days holed up in her hotel room: as she explained to the audience, “das was wir wissen über eine Stadt … icht wollte das alles vergessen.” Denying her senses the world, she sought to experience London not only with fresh eyes, but also fresh ears, a fresh nose, fresh touch. And this city that she experienced was like a man, “ein äusserst stark struktuierter Mann.” Through which, and through whom, the people flooded, dominated and subdued.
As we ‘flooded’ back out into the city, I thought about Krauß trying to deprive her senses and experience the city as though for the first time, completely unaffected by senses and memories, experiences and past movements. I’m doubtful whether this is possible, whether one can actually rid oneself of the world through which one has already passed, be that in body or in mind. However, one thing is certain: I’ll remember her poem Ich muß mein Herz üben, in which humanity is in tacit agreement that the world does exist, for a long time.