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Let us now read about famous men

Ina Hartwig on the profusion of new German biographies about great, dead, male writers.

One striking thing about this autumn's new books is the flood of biographies dedicated to great dead male writers. Thomas Karlauf's biography of Stefan George (Blessing Verlag), which is already causing a lot of noise, is surrounded by scores of others, most of them written by German authors. They include a biography of Leo Perutz by Hans-Harald Müller (Zsolnay Verlag), two biographies of Heinrich von Kleist by Gerhard Schulz (C.H. Beck) and Jens Bisky (Rowohlt Berlin), one of Josef von Eichendorff by Hartwig Schultz (Insel), a Christoph Martin Wieland biography by Michael Zaremba (Böhlau), a biography of Wilhelm Müller, author of Schubert's song cycle "Winterreise", by Erika von Borries (C.H. Beck), a biography of Wilhelm Busch by Gudrun Schury (Aufbau), two biographically oriented books about Goethe, one of them, by Sigrid Damm (Insel Verlag), dealing with his "last voyage," and the other by Roberto Zapperi about "Goethe und sein Italien" (Goethe and his Italy - C.H. Beck). Rüdiger Safranski, Germany's most successful biographer, this time takes on an entire epoch with "Die Romantik" (Romanticism - Hanser). Then there's an opulent book of images and texts on Gottfried Benn (edited by Holger Hof, Klett-Cotta), while Helmuth Kiesel has written a biography of Ernst Jünger (Siedler).

Gerhard Schulz: Kleist (C.H. Beck), Jens Bisky: Kleist (Rowohlt Berlin), Hartwig Schultz: Joseph von Eichendorff (Insel)

Big-name foreign writers whose biographies come out this autumn include Balzac (by Johannes Willms, Diogenes), Proust (by Jean-Yves Tadie, Suhrkamp), Melville (by Andrew Delbanco), Joseph Conrad, whose 150th birthday will issue in two biographies (by Elmar Schenkel, S. Fischer Verlag and John Stape, Marebuchverlag). And if the series doesn't end with Halldor Gudmundsson's biography of the Icelander Halldor Laxness (btb), my list does, if only to avoid overtaxing my readers.

Johannes Willms: Balzac (Diogenes), Halldor Laxness (btb), Jean-Yves Tadie: Marcel Proust (Suhrkamp)

For decades, Germans have left this terrain to English and American writers. Now, however, they seem finally cured of their disinterest in biography. Provided, that is, that sales correspond to publishers' expectations. But assuming they do, and that interest in the writers' lives and conditions can be rekindled, the question remains as to why?

Gudrun Schury: Das Leben des Wilhelm Busch (Aufbau), Helmuth Kiesel: Ernst Jünger (Siedler), Hans-Harald Müller: Leo Perutz (Zsolnay)

In fact the return of the biography has been noticeable for some time. The collapse of the Eastern Bloc has played a role, as has flagging postmodern euphoria, which although it turned now and then to the "biographemes" of Roland Barthes, never sought – or even wanted – to synthesise people's life and work into an empathetic picture.

Empathy is in fact the key word here. Because without it, without a knowledge of human nature, you can't write a decent biography, no matter how impressive the archive material you've sifted through. Our view of what people are like is forever in flux, and this is exactly what a biography should reflect. It must speak from "today". Older biographies often sound distant, even absurd to our ears, despite having being penned by such distinguished writers as Golo Mann and like his "Wallenstein" having joined the canon.

Michael Zaremba: Christoph Martin Wieland (Böhlau), Erica von Borries: Wilhelm Müller (C.H. Beck), Holger Hof: Benn (Klett-Cotta)

For all the danger of psychological short-circuits - or of psychologism pure and simple - nothing is or could be possible without a subjective grasp. Nevertheless it would be fatal now to appeal to a new immediacy, an empathetic innocence. Empathy sets high standards, especially with artists. Today's biographer has no choice but to delve into the unavoidable, difficult connections between creative processes and neurotic economy, of art and drives. No doubt Viennese emigrant K.R. Eissler's Goethe biography will remain unsurpassed for its radical commitment to Freudian psychoanalysis. The work of 1963 (German translation in 1983) is a milestone of its genre.

Yet the question is still crucial today: how to integrate psychoanalysis in biographical writing without making artistic concessions? Thomas Mann's biographer Hermann Kurzke reflected on his biographical method some years ago in Kursbuch magazine (No. 148), confessing: "In matters of biography I stand for an idealistic Freudianism. Insight into the mechanism of drives doesn't serve to reduce everything high to a basic level. On the contrary, it allows me to elucidate the conditions of possibility of the high."

It's no coincidence that Kurzke says this in reference to the "ascetic homosexual," because that is exactly what he sees in his revered Thomas Mann. Mann's suppression of his desires was "transformed into imaginary fulfilment," Kurzke writes. "That's why I speak not of neurosis, but of asceticism, not of suppression but of chasteness. And that's why I see in his attempt at suppressing his desires not uptightness but a kind of freedom, and in the sublimation of his desires not renunciation, but a feat of cultivation far surpassing what has been sublimated." This approach was extremely productive for Thomas Mann, as Kurzke has demonstrated in his biography ("Das Leben als Kunstwerk", or Life as a Work of Art, C.H. Beck 1999).

If one considers, by contrast, the two heterosexual sex-geniuses of 20th century German literature, Gottfried Benn and Bertolt Brecht, clearly other patterns of explanation are called for. Both of them loved in highly concrete terms an impressive series of remarkable women. Manifestly, fulfilled desire and poetic productivity may also go hand in hand.

How do things stand, then, for Stefan George and his (in)famous circle of young disciples? As the prologue to Thomas Karlauf's extensive biography makes clear, the work examines in detail the homosexual core of private Germany. On a visit to Vienna at 23, Stefan George is curtly rebuffed by the 17-year-old school student Hugo von Hofmannsthal (more), who even at that young age was surrounded by admirers. A deep slight to George's eros, the mortification marked the writer for a lifetime. His dubious charisma then emanated down to his disciple and would-be Hitler-killer Claus von Stauffenberg, a very proper family father.

The interplay of history, politics and sexuality (or respectively homosexuality) is as enthralling as it is delicate, the more so in that speculations abound as to whether Hitler himself was homosexual in some repressed or perverse way. Here, within the inner workings of their desires, subliminal connections are revealed between men who in other respects are entirely different. Throwing light on these is no small matter, and goes to the heart of the specifically German male phantasm which purports to differentiate between good and evil. From this perspective, the excitement around this biography gives cause for thought. Does Karlauf's book really elucidate the secrets of the group around Stefan George for today's readers?

But before the curtain goes up on the autumn of the biographies, one small scandal deserves mention. It happened a few years ago, and concerned not a man but a woman – Gottfried Benn's last lover Ursula Ziebarth. She "dared" – as many reviewers wrote in outrage – to annex a detailed postscript of her own to a collection of Benn's letters to her ("Hernach. Gottfried Benns Briefe an Ursula Ziebarth", Wallstein 2001).

Some specialists on Benn have frowned upon Ziebarth ever since. But Benn had reasons of his own to like her, desire her, use here, and perhaps even love her for a short time. Soon after their first date over an ice-cream, he called Ziebarth, 30 years younger than him, his "Ponny" and "sweet little Ursula," clearly delighted with his reawakened eros.

Yet it's curious: almost no one was interested to discover Benn's fondness for Ziebarth. Defensiveness predominated, and Ziebarth was treated like biographical detritus: "Show me one example in literary history where fifty years after a writer's death, a former lover was allowed to intersperse authentic letters with her image of their relationship. How is it that in the imaginary commentaries of one of Benn's surviving lovers, he can be branded as some kind of neurotic pasha?" writes one incensed critic.

It is a telling flaw in reasoning to say the poet can be besmirched by the views of a headstrong woman who fails to observe the principle of "good behaviour is better than loyalty." But the longing for the unspoiled personality of the artist also plays a role here. It reveals the precarious, narcissistic side of the vivid new interest in the biographies of great prominent men.


The article originally appeared in the Frankfurter Rundschau on September 1, 2007.

Ina Hartwig is the editor of the literature section of the Frankfurter Rundschau.

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