He speaks too loud

David Blackbourn

  • Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life by Stephen Parker
    Bloomsbury, 704 pp, £30.00, February 2014, ISBN 978 1 4081 5562 2

In his Svendborg Poems, written in exile in Denmark in the 1930s, Brecht wrote: ‘In the dark times/Will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing/About the dark times.’ His life was shaped by these dark times. He came of age during the First World War, became a successful writer in the years before Hitler’s rise to power, spent 16 years as an émigré, and returned to Berlin only to clash with the East German apparatchiks. Stephen Parker’s superb biography of a great iconoclastic writer is impressively sourced, rich in detail, well-paced, highly readable yet serious. His Brecht was chastened by the dark times, but remained what his friend and stage designer Caspar Neher called him in his youth, Hydratopyranthropos, the Water-Fire Man, made up of contrary elements.

Brecht was born in Augsburg in 1898. His father, a Catholic, was a sales assistant at a paper mill; his mother was a devout Protestant who taught him the Bible. Autobiographical fragments describe his Bavarian childhood: snowball fights and roller skates, the butcher’s dog and spinning tops. He ran a puppet theatre and he recorded the moral precepts of his upbringing: ‘Having to eat sauerkraut is healthy. Father must have his rest … One doesn’t say shit.’ Eugen (he started calling himself Bert in 1916, and after 1922 Bertolt) was diagnosed as a ‘nervous child’; serious illnesses left their mark: untreated bacterial pharyngitis led to rheumatic fever and from there to a weakened heart and Sydenham’s Chorea, which caused a facial grimace and uncontrolled movements. As an adolescent he was gaunt, emotionally erratic and intellectually precocious. Bored at school, he read what you would expect a clever young man to read – the French symbolist poets, Stefan George, Rilke, Wedekind, Nietzsche – but he was also interested in street cries and fairground songs, whose rhythms found their way into his earliest ballads.

When war broke out he was attracted by the idea of heroic sacrifice, and the first money he earned from his writing came from patriotic verse. But idealism turned to disillusion and his anti-militarism caused a rift with his father and strait-laced brother Walter. He now immersed himself in British and American literature: Robert Louis Stevenson, Melville, above all Kipling. He became the leading figure in a bohemian gang who wrote and sang songs together, drank, chased girls and shocked respectable burghers. He narrowly avoided being expelled from school: a teacher argued in his defence that he had been seriously disturbed by the war, a claim Parker is more inclined to take at face value than earlier biographers. (The date of his conscription was repeatedly deferred thanks to paternal string-pulling.) In October 1917 he enrolled as a medical student at Munich University; the following year he served briefly as an orderly, first in an amputation ward, then in a ward for sexually transmitted diseases, which provided material for the scurrilous work that was becoming his trademark. He knew which side he was on during the revolutionary upheavals at the end of the war – ‘I’ve completely gone over to Bolshevism’ – but he didn’t take part. His life was chaotic in those years. He was writing theatre criticism, verse, parodies, essays, one-act dramas and his first, not yet produced plays, Baal and Drums in the Night. He was no less energetic sexually, seeing five or six women at the same time. One of them, Paula Banholzer (‘Bi’), gave birth to his son Frank in 1919. Brecht as a young man is easy to dislike. He was volatile and sarcastic, often cruel to his male friends, and treated women appallingly. There is an element of self-portraiture in his 1918 obituary of Wedekind, whom he describes as ‘ugly, brutal, dangerous’. Brecht’s ambition comes through in a diary entry written when he was 22: ‘I am seized with a wish to have the whole world delivered: I wish all things to be handed over to me, along with power over all animals; and my grounds for this demand are that I shall exist only once.’

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