Today we have two books by the great German writer, Durs Grunbein, whose fame and influence has unfortunately lived outside of the United States for quite some time. Fortunately that is a problem coming to an end.
Grunbein has racked up the awards in Germany, including the nation's most prestigious award, the Georg Buchner Prize. The front list book today is the first collection of essays by Grunbein translated into English and was published this year. The second book, or back list title, is the only previous book of Grunbein's writings to be rendered into English. It is the 2005 collection of poetry titled Ashes For Breakfast.
So who is Durs Grunbein? Let's just put it this way: If you want to finally read the works of the next Nobel Prize winner before they win the prize instead of being left to scratch your head and ask, "Who?" well, then Durs Grunbein is as good a writer as any to bet on.
Okay, let's shelve the cheesy proclamations and get on with it.
From The Front List
The Bars Of Atlantis by Durs Grunbein. Edited and Introduced by Michael Eskin. Translated by John Crutchfield, Michael Hofmann and Andrew Shields. Essays. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover. ISBN: 9780374260620. 323 pps. $35.
Perfectly natural that he should feel a little giddiness, coupled with a sudden sense of his own tininess. This is not to extenuate or justify, but it may be one of the reasons for the metaphor that now abruptly surfaces, put by the author in the place where it will get most attention: at the end. "There in the transit lounge," you may read:
Where downtime remains conscious to no end,
The proverb from the bars of Atlantis swims
Travel is a foretaste of Hell.
-from the title essay in The Bars Of Atlantis
The snippet of verse that closes the above quote is taken from one of Grunbein's most famous poems, "Cosmopolite." The word, and the concept of such a station, is one of the recurring themes in Grubein's extremely diverse writings and he bestows upon the station of cosmopolite a sort of metaphysical/scientific hybrid status. A form of Tolkien's "Not all who wander are lost" sentiment.
Grunbein is no fantasist however, far from it really, and to peg him as one thing or the other is somewhat difficult. Above all others, the most singular trait that one can find in all of Grunbein's poems and essays is that he is both curious and earnest. This of course also implies that he is quite charming as a writer.
Born in the German Democratic Republic, Grunbein's formative years, and early adulthood, were subject (are poets ever truly subjects?) to the freeze and thaw of soviet communism. The backdrop of the destruction of Germany at the end of WWII and the coming totalitarianism of the Soviet Union are but two of Grunbein's influences. The thawing and dismantling of East vs. West when the Berlin Wall came down opened up a whole new world of investigations.
The saturation bombing and destruction of Dresden in WWII awakens a fascination with Pompeii and Herculaneum beneath the ashes of Vesuvius. The scientific thrust of Georg Buchner's mind creates a demand in his own for a catalog of sea creatures, a parable of hatchetfish and bristlemouths. The fall of the Berlin wall and the ensuing travel liberties become a station, replete with responsibilities. Above all there is the myth of Atlantis. A sort of all-encompassing vision of timeless destruction and loss and the impetus to discover and journey all at once.
To me there is no collection of essays quite like one written by a poet. There is nothing of the all-too seriousness of Giacomo Leopardi in Grubein's essays and yet there is a similar approach and elevation of the language that made me look to my copy of the Pensieri.
There is a certain audacity in the language of a poet writing essays. Perhaps none more than Grunbein, who in one of the more entertaining pieces crafts a poetic fax sent from the future to one Lord Chandos. The essay is in free verse and only the stodgiest of commentators would be bothered by this.
The collection's title essay "The Bars Of Atlantis" moves easily from question to subject and covers a startling amount of ground. Grunbein evokes one of the essential ideas of his life, that of the worldly man, his cosmopolite, and demonstrates the manner in which he has behaved once having reached that status. Earnestly, mind you, as despite the moments when Grunbein seems to nearly be bragging you never have the sense that he is doing so. His recounting of his first experiences scuba diving are suddenly softened when he succumbs to anthropomorphizing a circle of small prawns on the sea floor. Gathered around them by the dive instructor, human and crustacean mirror each other in a pair of councils that the German poet cannot but connect to some primordial implications.
Yes, by "bars" he is in fact referring to drinking establishments. In particular a transit lounge somewhere in Atlantis before returning to the world above. I wonder what kind of exotic booze they have down there.
Grunbein's essays are for everyone and that is perhaps what is so frustrating about their somewhat sluggish arrival into English. He is here now and like I implied at the beginning of this post: you would do well to read him.
From The Back List
Ashes For Breakfast: Selected Poems by Durs Grunebein. Translated from the German and prefaced by Michael Hofmann. Poetry. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN: 9780374530136. 320 pps. $16.
It was second nature to me to turn the music up, and softly hum
The Two or three lines that were sufficient to put the country
Under water. As I embarked on my sentimental journey
Through nettle fields and villages, the other way to the general exodus,
The sergeant's Russian bawl: "Dawai, dawai!" was still ringing in my ear.
Nostalgia's falsetto recommended something exotic before you hand in
Your dinner pail. What say the Hawaiian beaches?
-from "Vita Brevis" by Durs Grunbein
As a poet, Grunbein is extremely hard to pin down. There is a classicism to his poetry, a certain willingness to quote or invite classical personages in and what translator Michael Hofmann has dubbed the "marble" in it. Yet there is nothing pedantic, Poundian or romantic about the inclusion.
There is a political awareness especially seen in his earliest poems. Yet the tank smashed sardines in "A Single Tin" are not outright arguments or tear-filled protests. That which is engage in Grubein exists as more of a tragic exposition than polemical outrage.
The poet he is most often compared to is the Russian, Joseph Brodsky. There is also a similar scientific bent, which calls to mind the contemporaneous poetry of August Kleinzahler. There is also something of the absurd juxtaposition of life on both sides of a coin that exists between these two poets. In Grubein's case, these observations are often delivered with a particularly sincere brand of irony.
That which is scientific or biological in Grubein's writing probably has more to do with the neuroscience of Georg Buchner than Kleinzahler's inclusion of flea anatomy.
Ashes For Breakfast was the first collection of Grubein to arrive in the English language, thanks to the careful work of translator and poet Michael Hofmann. Hofmann selected and edited the collection as well, taking from Grunbein's representative works and organizing it in chronological fashion.
Hofmann mentions the prolific nature of Grubein as a writer. From essays to poetry, he creates at a rate that far outstrips his adept translator(s). There is now somewhat of a push to translate more of the great German's writing, with two titles arriving this year (I'll review the other soon enough).
To me, a purely English speaking/reading person, this literary terra incognita demonstrates the profundity of translation. Like Grunbein's Atlantis, there is an immensity of potential knowledge that is alluded to by those who know (Plato/Hofmann) and yet wholly removed from our access.
So thank the translators whenever you can.