Letter from Heidelberg
Listening to two hours of readings from German medieval ‘pre-Dada’ texts, twelve hours after arriving almost nonstop from New Zealand, provided the ultimate intellectual challenge to a jet-lagged brain.The fact that very little of it made sense was entirely appropriate to the event which had stouter German hearts quailing and departing early. But, as front-row guests, to have followed suit would have been rude to our hosts. I woke or half woke from time to time as one of the three readers stood up and mimed to the words. He was especially effective at the end when a ‘text’ was projected on a screen comprising varied combinations of dashes (arms out wide), exclamation (a standing jump) and question (body wriggle) marks. As soon as we decently could, we jumped up ourselves, dashed off and wriggled into bed.
First Night Blues
Jet-lagged but honoured
guests in the front row,
the sound of our names
ring out from the speech
of the unfamiliar. I rouse
myself to smile and wave,
as if some ex-beauty queen,
voice and looks lost.
Three presenters, cosy
in exclusive understanding
of Dadaist poems, laugh
at their own jokes; my head
involuntary drops then jerks up.
I clutch the glass of wine, fearing
it might clatter to the floor,
disgrace my home city.
The man in the centre
looks at me conspiratorially.
I’m too dumb to understand
but I recognize the rise and fall
of poetry and when the clown
of the trio steps out, mimes dashes
and exclamation marks to a slide
on screen I get the picture.
The organisers of Heidelberg’s Literatur Herbst festival had thoughtfully allowed us another 24 hours before our presentation in the superb English language library of the Haus der Kultur, part of the Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institut (DAI). The American high command in 1945 had, also thoughtfully, decided not to bomb or shell Heidelberg because they had earmarked it for US Army headquarters in Germany and could enjoy their occupation in surroundings of undamaged medieval and baroque charm. The DAI was established to provide English language media, propaganda, a library, and cultural events to strengthen links between occupiers and the occupied. As time passed, an enlightened director expanded its brief to embrace a more international character. Although the last of the US armed forces administration finally withdrew from Heidelberg between 2013 and 2015, a full-sized map of the US of A continues to dominate the stairwell below the library.
We were competing with other festival events, so were glad to have an appreciative audience of twelve seated around a long table, wine and water within easy reach. Jutta Wagner, director of the literary programme for the DAI, proved an astute moderator who had done her long-distance homework, questioning us in depth about our latest books, MiSTORY and Taking My Mother to the Opera, after we had read extracts. We then spoke about working together as a literary couple in Dunedin and gave an illustrated talk about the cultural assets and heritage that underpinned Dunedin’s status as a city of literature.The planned 75-minute session turned into two hours when our audience actively engaged with both the books and the city.
Dunedin and Heidelberg both achieved UNESCO City of Literature status in 2014, are of a similar size, and are home to their country’s oldest universities. But the fact that the University of Otago is 150 years old and the University of Heidelberg more than 600 underlines the differences. Heidelberg Man, a precursor to Homo sapiens from 300,000 years ago, was found nearby in 1907, and the city’s main shopping street, Hauptstrasse, advertises its Roman origins in running long and straight for three kilometres. All long before New Zealand, or even Aotearoa, existed in human knowledge or imagination. Situated strategically where the Neckar River runs out on to the Rhenish plains, it has the usual central European history of fortification and war and destruction and more fortification and war and destruction. Even the gods got in on the act.The grand castle on the heights above the city was said to have been twice destroyed by lightning bolts.
When some people think of Heidelberg they think of the Prussian period, and duelling students who only graduated after they departed with the diploma of a sabre scar on the cheek. But the university was also home to philosophers and Romantic poets such as Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim. Notebooks in hand, they walked and talked along Philosophenweg, through the vineyards high above the river, wrestling with the meaning of life. When we went up there, teenagers walked and talked, smart phones in hand, hunting for Pokemon Go characters.
In the Apotheke museum
at the castle, sick in the humid
atmosphere, I want to leave
but face to face with a man
anxious to see every bone
and jar and diagram, I realise
travel is all about compromise
or a walk back alone.
Resting on the Philosophers Way
we watch a procession of young teenage
boys, clean cut in jeans and t-shirts,
clutching smart phones, staring not over
the ancient roofs, river and castle
but downwards at the glowing screen.
This then, the new philosophy,
the holy grail, a small figure, virtual
spread like a virus across the world.
If they lift their eyes towards
the sky for a second
it will vanish in a puff.
At the weekend, biographer Marion Tauschwitz took us to Kohlerhof, 400 metres up among the heavily forested hills, where she launched her biography of local painter Pieter Sohl at his home and studio. About 30 people came to listen to her readings and his stories and to wander about a garden dominated by a giant linden tree and decorated with sculptures and painted panels.There were stories to share, even between people who had spent most of their lives at opposite sides of the world. Pieter told the story of how, as an eleven-year-old in 1944, his home in nearby Mannheim had been destroyed in a bombing raid and he had moved to live with his grand-parents. At the end of that year, he went to the forest to cut a Christmas tree and discovered a Canadian bomber pilot strung up in the branches by his parachute after his plane had been shot down in the latest raid. Pieter helped him down and took him home where he was hidden in the cellar until it was safe to hand him over to the authorities. Then I told him how, at exactly the same time, Christmas 1944, my stepfather was shot down in the same Mannheim area and was also sheltered by local people before being made a prisoner of war. Everywhere here, there are hands reaching through time.
Heidelberg seems to host a continuous series of literary festivals and one-off events as part of a rich cultural calendar. The difference between Heidelberg and Dunedin, and indeed New Zealand, lies in language and foundation culture. This may seem obvious. But, years ago, when first talking with writers in Berlin, they expressed envy that I was a writer in English, with the entire English-speaking world as my potential audience and market. I said that, to the contrary, they were the lucky ones. As a New Zealand writer, I was competing with the avalanche of books from the USA and UK. They had a captive German-language audience of 100 million.
Although English language books in translation are a presence, Germans pay attention to their own. This was clearly reflected in Heidelberg’s literary programmes where German writers predominate and are not often competing against authors from other countries travelling on big publisher promo budgets.The recent discussion about why only 3% of fiction bought in New Zealand is by home-grown authors should take into account that, too often, at writers and readers festivals, local writers are the supporting acts to overseas touring names. Germans are self confident in their own literary culture. New Zealand is still a literary cultural colony.
Our party piece
A small group in the library
pays us serious attention. Philip
talks of climate change and surveillance.
Strictly personal I wonder if
I should mention my dad and the war.
I’m not known for holding back
but to soften the hosts I also read
about Dad’s first car, a Vee Dub.
Jutta asks, how do I remember
the past so accurately?
I do not say my images
and scenes are embroidered
with sharper lines than seen
at the time and fixed so tightly
I can’t see clear enough now
to unpick the tiny stitches.
Over dinner Jutta pushes aside
the leeks that do not agree with her
and tells us about witnessing a refugee
beating his wife in the street.
‘He said, she was his property. I told him
it was different here, but he took no notice.’
Her face lifts when she describes her niece,
eight now, who can really write stories.
Apart from a love of books
we haven’t much in common
but a fear for the future
for nieces and grandchildren.