Sweet Sin

J.P. Stern

Wolfgang Hildesheimer has certainly been around a lot. Born in Hamburg in 1916, he belongs to that generation of Germans whom fortune first inexorably divided into victims and perpetrators and then united as bewildered survivors. In 1934 he emigrated with his parents to England and thence to Palestine, where he was apprenticed to a master carpenter. He spent a couple of years at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, taught English for the British Council in Tel Aviv, and ended the war as an officer of the British Information Service in Jerusalem. Between 1946 and 1949 he worked with the Allied War Crimes Commission at Nuremberg. He has lived in Southern Germany, Bavaria, Cornwall, and in Urbino (where presumably he first came upon traces of Andrew Marbot’s life); now he seems to have settled in Poschiavo in the Swiss Grisons. Rumour has it that he is a generous host with a fair Knowledge of the local vineyards.

Travel, especially of the involuntary sort, does not always broaden the mind, and it seems to have taken Hildesheimer some time before he shed those traces of solipsism which are endemic to a good deal of post-war German prose. Although he has written about places as different as the North African desert, Norwegian villages, Mozart’s Vienna and (repeatedly) the Cornish coast, some of his early work has the dreamlike quality of introspective monologue – a genre which is hardly ever free from self-absorption and self-indulgence. But he has always been on the move, and in the literary sense too. At the beginning of his career as a writer he was associated with the famous ‘Gruppe 47’ to which German literature owes its rebirth from the physical and ideological ruins of the war. Even at that time, however, he seems to have been very much his own master, ‘ein freier Schriftsteller’ – the epithet connoting, in his case, not only independence from institutionalised literature, but also a singular freedom from the restraints of conventional genre. And so he remains: a man still and for ever in search of a style, uncomfortable in the forms he chooses (a suspicion of critics and a distrust of readers is woven into his stories), yet apt to derive great literary benefits from his discomforts. He paints; he has given much thought to linguistic and musical issues, and to problems of translation from one language into another, from one mode of experience into another. Almost inevitably, he, too, has felt obliged to express his views about the ‘end of the novel’ crisis, yet his vigorous experiments in literary form have left him better-equipped to deal with that ‘crisis’ than are most of his contemporaries. The search for a style is not, in his case, a hidden or half-disclosed self-indulgence. On the contrary, it is a search for the truth about other people and their past – if not for the whole truth, then for the least subvertible truth about them. That this search is compatible with a penchant for complex and ambitious literary jokes is one of the graces of a literature which has come to be burdened in the last decade with a spirit of joy-lessness and gloom (the recent emergence of women novelists who range all the way from the deeply melancholy to the positively suicidal has not done much to lighten the German literary scene).

Hildesheimer has lived a good deal of his life among English-speaking people. He is one of those German authors who are a little in love with the English, more particularly a certain kind of young Englishman of the upper classes, with his good temper and considerateness, his easy good manners and what Thomas Mann called his ‘boyhaft’ good looks. This affection, rarely reciprocated by English authors, goes back at least to the time of Herder and Goethe. Here is the Göttingen physicist and aphorist, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, writing in 1776, a quarter of a century before Andrew Marbot was born:

To amuse myself I sometimes imagine one of our learned fifteen-year-olds in company with a fifteen-year-old boy from Eton. The first in his bag-wig, powdered, demure, and ready to shoot off a load of learning at the slightest provocation, in all his opinions nothing but a bad copy in miniature of his Papa or Tutor, a mere echo, to be marvelled at till his sixteenth year, regarded with silent expectation in his seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth, while in the meantime the building begins to subside on its hollow foundations. In his twenty-second, twenty-third, etc, he is just a mediocre fellow, and continues so till his end. The English boy with his unpowdered curly hair clustering round his ears and forehead, the picture of health, his hands all scratches and with a cut or bruise on every knuckle, Horace, Homer and Virgil ever present to his mind, forthright and independent in his opinions, makes a thousand mistakes but corrects them himself ...

It so happens that this thumbnail portrait fits Andrew’s younger brother, John Matthew, who was educated at Stonyhurst, better than it does Andrew himself, who was brought up by a private tutor at Marbot Hall. But what it describes is one half of the English experience Hildesheimer presents, the foil against which the other half – Andrew’s life – must be seen.

More recent German Anglophiles have found that there is a price to pay for these attractive virtues Lichtenberg mentions. The trouble with the English, from the point of view of someone like Hildesheimer, is that they have no Geist. And what, pray, is Geist? It is, of course, many things. In the present context, it may be defined as speculative intellect in excess of material facts. In its awareness of this chronic excess (for it is self-conscious through and through), Geist turns either aggressive and destructive, or habitually melancholy, in its attitude to the world of facts – that is, the world. And this is where the other, more important half of the English experience depicted in this remarkable biography becomes relevant. It must have been a moment of delighted surprise when Hildesheimer first came upon Andrew Marbot’s literary remains and realised that here was an observer and author who, while undeniably committed to a life of Geist, was yet equally undeniably English, and therefore (this is where the considerateness and good manners come in) melancholy rather than aggressive in his attitude to the world – in brief, an Englishman of the cast of Hamlet. Conversely, it is entirely appropriate, when we think how Marbot has been neglected by English art-historians, that a German author should be writing his first full biography.

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