Catastrophe

Claude Rawson

  • The Sinking of the Titanic by Hans Magnus Enzensberger
    Carcanet, 98 pp, £3.95, April 1981, ISBN 0 85635 372 8
  • Paul Clean: Poems translated by Michael Hamburger
    Carcanet, 307 pp, £7.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 85635 313 2
  • Talk about the Last Poet by Charles Johnston
    Bodley Head, 78 pp, £4.50, July 1981, ISBN 0 370 30434 9

Hans Magnus Enzensberger wrote The Sinking of the Titanic in German. From information supplied in the poem, which in its present form is much preoccupied with the process of its composition, he began writing it in Havana in 1969, and completed it in Berlin in 1977: the poem is thus a close contemporary of Doctorow’s Ragtime, with which it shares several features of its subject-matter, including the historical period. In between those dates, he mailed a first version of the poem from Cuba (where there was no carbon-paper), but it never arrived. So he wrote the present version, which includes glimpses of himself writing both versions, as well as other autobiographical details of his life in Havana and Berlin. This version was then translated into English by the author, and the translation is remarkable for its ease and fluency, its narrative energy, its versatile and allusive play with a variety of verse-forms and literary styles, and its command of a language foreign to the author.

Berlin and Cuba are part of the poem’s plot. Both are imagined, like the Titanic, as threatened by an iceberg, invisible, lethal and beautiful. In Cuba, it comes ‘slowly, irrevocably ... nearer to me’, a phrase picked up in a later orchestration of ironies involving ‘Nearer, my God, to Thee’, the hymn which, in some versions of the myth, the Titanic’s orchestra played as they sank. (Joseph Conrad said ‘it would have been finer if the band ... had been quietly saved, instead of being drowned while playing.’) Berlin is ‘where Europa is at its darkest’, Cuba the locus of defeated aspirations. Cuba’s socialism gone sour has deep links with the Titanic’s capitalist catastrophe. The poetic emblem of the connection is the Havana cigar:

                                      the cigar boxes

in the smoking lounge are still handmade in Cuba,

radiant with gold medals.

The mythology of the Titanic seems to have been pretty cigar-ridden, even before the poem. Lord’s A Night to Remember reveals that the ship’s Captain allowed you in the room only if you were so still that the blue cloud didn’t move (‘firmness and urbanity’). From Ragtime we learn that the ship’s principal owner, J.P. Morgan, was portrayed by cartoonists with cigar and top-hat (‘incarnation of power’). The poem introduces an ironic variation. A garrulous Russian exile of 1912 uttering revolutionary cant aboard the Titanic in an exquisite haze of Partagas, and quarrelsome cigar-smoking Trotskyites in modern Havana, are its old and new forms.

So the new Cuba is as decadent as the old: no carbons, no fresh milk, ‘ “The People” ... queuing up patiently for a pizza’. Beneath the heady ardours of liberation, the ‘old servitude’ returns:

        We did not know
that the party had finished long ago ...
that the tropical party was all over.

‘The party’s over’: the words fit the Titanic story, which seemed even at the time to symbolise some kind of ending. Wealth, size and speed were not ‘unsinkable’ after all. Two years before the First World War, some cherished modern certainties appeared to be crumbling. We have been hearing the phrase again lately, and the blurb informs us that Enzensberger’s Titanic is ‘an emblem for the modern predicament’.

Enzensberger is mesmerised by such idioms. ‘We are all in the same boat’ is another. There is a whole canto anthologising such things:

The sinking of the Titanic proceeds according to plan ...
It is 100% tax-deductible.
It is a lucky bag for poets ...
It is better than nothing ...
It has a solid working-class basis.
It arrives in the nick of time ...
It is a breathtaking spectacle ...

The point, no doubt, is a satirical listing of received ideas and foolish language. It also signals that the poet knows that his story, so freely mythologised in his own poem, has in fact become all things to all men. But the ironies are gleefully paraded, with that over-insistent pleasure in the idiomatic phrase which sometimes comes over expert but non-native speakers (sometimes, not often, idiom falters: ‘It isn’t anymore what it used to be’).

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[*] Weidenfeld, 1979.

[†] Vol. 1, No 5.