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Footloose in Freiburg

November, 2012
By Anthony Marshall

Everything in Germany works, right?  I thought so too. But it doesn’t. My brand-new CD player; for instance. When I put a CD in the slot, the player tells me, in pretty liquid crystal letters, that there is “No Disc.” Which is a patent and palpable untruth. The machine has been back to the shop for repairs, under guarantee, but, having come back home, it is still perversely illiterate. Of all the wonderful CDs on offer there is only one which it is prepared to read. This one – strange to say -  is a collection of Overtures and Orchestral Scenes by Richard Wagner, a new release of a Decca recording made many years ago, with Sir Georg Solti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Richard Wagner! Sooner or later, if you have any interest in the cultural life of western civilisation, you have to make up your mind about Wagner. Hero or hoodlum? In case you haven't yet decided, I recommend a  recently-released film called Wagner and Me. And if your mind is already made up, so much the better. Stephen Fry, the English actor and writer, is a Wagner enthusiast and in this documentary he presents his case for Wagner both passionately, and dispassionately. He does not skate over the facts of Wagner's anti-Semitism, nor of Hitler's “love affair” with Wagner (for which, after all, Wagner can hardly be held responsible, he having died in 1883, six years before Hitler was born). What adds piquancy to Fry's thesis  is the fact that Fry himself is partly Jewish. He sees past Wagner's flaws as a human being , and glories in the man's genius. And I defy you not to be seduced, or at least impressed, by Fry's enthusiasm.

I am on Stephen's Fry's side, pretty much. I think that as a man Wagner was a rascal, a cad and a bounder but as a composer, sublime. Nobody orchestrates like Wagner. Those closely-woven textures, the excitement, the suspense, the loudness, the tenderness, the richness of it all! And who (I ask this as a quondam trumpeter and horn player) composed better for brass? I wandered one day into the Odeonplatz in Munich, where the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra were rehearsing the overture to The Mastersingers of Nuremburg for an open-air concert. Good God! I can still feel the tingle in my spine I felt as I stood  in that  square – practically alone – listening to this incredible music, trumpets, horns, trombones going full pelt. All this in Munich, too: Wagner's last home and home of his great patron, “Mad” King Ludwig II. Later, I visited the spot on the edge of the lake, the Starnbergersee, to the south of Munich, where Ludwig and his doctor were drowned, perhaps murdered. Or perhaps not. So much to do with Wagner is mysterious, and controversial.

I am not in Munich now. I am in another German city, Freiburg, which is where I now live. I am indeed an accredited Freiburger, with a certificate from the Oberburgermeister to prove it. (I learn later that the Oberburgermeister, Greens party politician Dieter Salomon, was born in Melbourne. What a small world it is!)  All I had to do was present myself, with various documents, at the Office for Public Order and the deed was done. Only in Germany, I feel, could there be an Office for Public Order. The official who stamped my papers actually said, as he gave me a thin smile, and my papers back: “Danke. Alles in Ordnung.” (“Thank you. Everything is in order.”).  A beautiful phrase, no doubt, to the ears of one who works in such a bureaucracy.

Freiburg  is an ancient  and beautiful university town, situated in the south-west corner of Germany, close to the Swiss and French borders. The Rhine flows past, some thirty kilometres to the west and all around the city spreads the forbidding-sounding Black Forest. Parts of the Black Forest may well be forbidding, infested perhaps with gnomes, witches and wolves, like the ones in Grimms’ fairy tales. If so, I have not seen them. The Black Forest, at least around here, is remarkably lush and green, a happy blend of rolling pastures, cultivated farmland, vineyards and mixed woodland. This smiling landscape is dotted with picturesque villages, all furnished with cafes where you may sample Black Forest gateau and other delicious things. Germans may not be able to repair defective CD players, but they bake damned fine cakes and pastries.

A modest poster in a local bookshop announces a forthcoming literary evening featuring  poet Les Murray. How extraordinary! I am a fan of Les Murray.. Back in Melbourne a fat edition of his collected poems sits on my bookshelves: in front of me (a present from Simone) I  have a bilingual edition of his selected poems, published by Edition Rugerup, in Riga, Latvia 2011. Latvia! But there's no text in Latvian: bilingual here means parallel texts in German and English.. Or, more exactly, German and Australian: Les Murray being  Australian, and almost certainly the most celebrated living Australian poet. Do not feel guilty if, as is almost certainly the case, you have never heard of him. It is not the lot of poets to be world famous, and certainly not that of Australian poets. Indeed the combination of Australian and poetry may strike you as paradoxical. Or simply bizarre. “What is your opinion of Australian poetry?” “I think it would be a very good idea.”

How amazing that Les Murray should pop up here in Freiburg, in a  little bookshop scarcely 500 yards from my front door. How exciting too. Or is it?  Do I really want to go to yet another literary love-in, where a writer is quizzed with banal questions such as: “Where do you get your ideas from? ” and “Do you write in longhand or do you type?”   All this cult of the writer as personality, as performer, all this promotion and PR stuff. Shouldn't writers just stick to writing, and readers to reading? On the other hand, you can get some wonderful insights when you ask writers seemingly banal questions.  German writer Thomas Walser was asked recently about his own technique. He said that before he writes a sentence he takes a deep breath, then holds it until he has written the whole thing. No breathing out until the after full stop. Teutonic self-discipline or a literary leg-pull? Either way, it's a challenge. Try it!

I didn't go to the literary evening with Les Murray. But I can offer you this small bibliographic point: every book by Murray has a page with the epigraph: 'To the Glory of God'.  Rather wonderful, this acknowledgment that his poetry is somehow divinely inspired, a gift from God. Unfashionable, perhaps, but wonderful. And typical of Murray, who is his own man, and a convert to Roman Catholicism. Is this why he chose to come to Freiburg, where the Catholic church still maintains a firm grip? Pope Benedict XVI – formerly Cardinal Ratzinger of Munich – is a good friend of the Archbishop of Freiburg, and last year when I was here he pottered round the town in his Popemobile on an official visit. Freiburg is also home to Herder, the distinguished Catholic publishing house. They have a large and excellent bookshop in the city center, but their base is an astonishingly opulent building in the inner suburbs, which looks more like a an imperial palace than a publisher's office.

Freiburg's Catholic cathedral  – the Muenster – is a glorious Gothic building, one of the most famous and most visited in all Germany. Miraculously, it survived the extensive bombing in the second world war which flattened large swaths of the city. It is, I think, my favourite cathedral in the whole world (and I have seen a few, including Chartres and Salisbury and Siena). Not least of its delights are its medieval stained glass windows, which glance and glow with breath-taking intensity. In one of them, high up on the right, St. George, patron saint of Freiburg, is pictured spearing his dragon. It pleases me to know that St. George is patron saint of both Freiburg and England. It is a mystery just why this saint from Cappadocia (Turkey) should be patron of these two far-flung places (also of Portugal and of Aragon): more perplexing to me is why the English have no national holiday on April 23 , which is not only St George's Day but also William Shakespeare's day, the anniversary of both his birth and his death. What a golden opportunity for the English to celebrate with pageantry and extravagance their national heritage and identity. Every year could be a sort of Olympic Year in London, with a spectacular Opening Ceremony for St George and St Shakespeare, kicking off the summer tourist season.  I offer this suggestion to the English Tourist Board (confident that someone there reads BSM) completely free of charge.

I have just spent four weeks at a language school, doing an intensive German language course. Five hours per day, plus homework, five days a week, Exhausting but fun. I now have the confidence to make my imperfect grasp of the language public, but I still struggle to utter complete  and intelligible sentences, in which genders, word order, declensions and conjugations are not hopelessly bungled. This is an improvement at least on my tongue-tied embarrassment of a few months ago. One feels pretty powerless when one has the linguistic wherewithal of a mere infant. How I envy all those little German kids, two and three years old, whom I hear in the streets and in the trams chattering away in fluent, flawless German, having paid not one pfennig piece to a language school for the privilege. I dream that one morning I will wake up and discover that overnight, my jumbled German has all fallen into place and that I too can speak it and understand it like a native. But I fear I am too old for this to happen.  Who said “Life is too short to learn German”? Mark Twain probably. He wrote an entertaining essay “The Awful German Language” which highlights, with wit and humor, its many difficulties and illogicalities. “In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has.”  And so on. I have heard Germans quip that English is simply a dialect of German. Yes, I say: and German is simply a primitive form of English. How the word “primitive” annoys them!

With Simone, I speak more or less only English. Partly because we always have and partly because her English is very good, and a lot better than my German. Very good, but peppered with Americanisms. She talks about going “downtown” for heaven's sake, instead of going “into the city”. This I accept, because she grew up in Frankfurt, when it was still in the American Zone, occupied by American troops. And she spent a lot of time listening to the AFN radio station (American Forces Network) as it broadcast the latest hits by Elvis Presley, Connie Francis and the Everly Brothers. Elvis, you will recall, did national service as a G.I. in Germany for a while.  Simone was so smitten with him that she travelled to Friedberg, where he was stationed, to see him and  get his autograph. Goodness me, I find myself humming that old German love song “Muss i’ denn” made famous by Elvis as “Wooden Heart”. Great tune! I know enough German now to say that Elvis's version in English bears little relation to the original German text.. But who cares? 

Strange for me to go back to school after so many years! The average age of my classmates was about 20, and most were university students from France, Spain, Italy and Switzerland. I was certainly the oldest student in the school, and probably the only one with English as his mother tongue. I made a few mature-age friends: Miguel from Barcelona, Marina from Kiev and Tanya from Belgrade. In the breaks between classes, while the youngsters chatted in their mother tongues, we four resolutely spoke German together. I am impressed by these people who understand that a good working knowledge of German will open doors for them, and help them find jobs either in Germany or with German companies in their own countries. German language schools are booming at present, as the Euro Crisis deepens and foreigners look to Germany for deliverance. Germany seems to be the key to it all,  Europe's undisputed economic and financial powerhouse,

The Euro Crisis! It hangs over all of us here in Europe, like the sword of Damocles. Every newspaper, every news bulletin is full of it, and has been, for months. Will Greece abandon the Euro? Will Spain and Portugal? Will the eurozone come tumbling down like a house of cards? And who is to blame? Reckless bankers, whose banks are “too big to fail” and who rack up enormous profits and bonuses while the going is good, and who, when it isn't, go cap in hand to governments for bail-outs at taxpayers' expense?  Corrupt governments, who borrow money they have no intention of repaying?  Layabout Southern Mediterraneans who won't do an honest day's work and who wriggle out of paying taxes? Ineffectual governments who neglect to regulate the banks, sufficiently, to prevent the flagrant excesses and abuses of the free market?  Everyone has the answer, nobody has the answer.

One of the best pieces I have read on the subject  is entitled: “US History holds key to resolution of eurozone debt crisis, Nobel laureates say.” I read it first in “The Guardian” newspaper but you can find it still on the internet. It is a report of a news conference given in 2011 by the winners of the 2011 Nobel Prize for Economics, American professors Thomas Sargent and Christopher Sims. They go to the heart of the matter, saying that the eurozone's problems are entirely structural, nothing to do with economics but all to do with politics. It matters not one whit whether Greece or Spain or Italy withdraw from the eurozone, which (they imply), short of some drastic political decision-making, is certainly doomed.

Sargent and Sims draw a convincing parallel between Europe today and the North American states in the 1780s. Then the United States was a “basket case” with 13 sovereign governments – the 13 original states – each of which could raise taxes and print money. Meanwhile, the new country had a very weak center, not yet having established a central bank or having the power to raise taxes. The states all had debt and the center had debt. Like today's eurobonds, they were going at a deep discount. In 1787 the 13 states came together: they combined their debt under the new federal government and allowed the federal government to levy taxes to be able to service the debt. Somehow all 13 states were persuaded to surrender some of their sovereignty – their ability to raise taxes and implement fiscal policies – to the central federal government.  A very remarkable political achievement.

In Europe there are 17 sovereign states which form the eurozone. The euro was founded with a central bank, the ECB, but it has no unified fiscal authority. It is Sargent and Sims' view, that the 17 eurozone nations must therefore work out a way to share fiscal burdens and connect fiscal authorities to the ECB. In other words, the 17 nations, like the 13 original American states, need to surrender some of their sovereignty – their ability to levy taxes and implement fiscal policies – to a central federal government.

And there's the rub! If it was difficult for the United States in 1787, imagine the brouhaha in Europe in 2012, when proud sovereign states, most with centuries of independence, and strong national identities, are required to surrender fiscal autonomy. And the eurozone is not even the European Union. Only 17 members of the 27-member Union constitute the eurozone. The United Kingdom, for example, wants none of it. Like Achilles sulking in his tent, the U.K. sits on the sidelines: it is (apparently) not in its best  interests to be part of the eurozone. Perhaps it is time for some largeness of vision, some generosity of heart, in the U.K., and a genuine commitment to the European ideal. I see this in the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who is a remarkable woman. A physicist, an East German, brought up and having lived most of her life under Communist rule, she is now leader of Europe's most powerful free market economy. Though I am not of her political bias, she is, I think, a true believer in a politically and fiscally united Europe, and not simply because she believes that what is good for Europe is good for Germany. 

What are the chances that Switzerland will join the Union?  Almost nil. Oh, the slippery Swiss, who also sit on the sidelines, counting their gold. The latest scandal involving Swiss banks (yes, another one) has someone selling the German government  CD-roms with the names and particulars of Germans who have opened secret Swiss bank accounts, in order to avoid paying tax in Germany. The Swiss government is outraged. How dare people ask to know where their bankers' loot comes from?

I see that Switzerland is where the next ILAB/LILA Congress is to take place, September 22-26. In Lucerne, just down the road, or (if you prefer) just up the river, from here.  As a (retired) member of  ANZAAB, the Australian  and New Zealand Antiquarian Booksellers Association, I am invited to take part... I am certainly tempted. Center of operations is the Hotel Montana, Lucerne. (Already a nice association. I have a brother who lives in Montana, U.S.A). The program promises entertaining  excursions to important libraries and galleries and exhibitions  (one features a collection of 125 works by Paul Klee, and 180 by Pablo Picasso) as well as such serious stuff  as a  boat trip on the lake, a journey on a historical cog railway and a rustic dinner with Swiss dance music – not just any old Swiss dance music but Laendlermusik, to which you can waltz. (Dirndls optional, no doubt. No mention of yodelling or Lederhosen or alp horns, but you never know). A real highlight of the Congress program is the visit to the library of the monastery at Einsiedeln. I have been there. Three  years ago friends who live in Zurich arranged  for my benefit a private tour of this magnificent library, which is housed in a stunning baroque building, very similar to that of the library of Sankt Gallen or Saint Gall (pictured a few issues ago on the front cover of BSM). What a feast of medieval manuscripts, incunabula, rare and valuable old books!

But I won't go to the Congress. The truth is, I am a retired bookseller, and I am enjoying my retirement. For one thing, I get time to potter around bookshops, of which there are plenty here in Freiburg, most with a good selection of books in English. Interesting that in Germany there seems to be nothing like the network of public lending libraries that we take for granted in English-speaking countries. Here every city and town has in the center a big state or city library, with both reference and lending sections: but there seem to be very few branches out in the suburbs or in the country. Perhaps this partly explains the large number of independent new and secondhand bookshops which flourish here. More people buy books because it's not that easy to borrow them from a local library. Another striking difference in the retail landscape here: the almost total absence of charity or thrift shops. The Red Cross, the Salvation Army, cat protection societies – all these, and many more – certainly exist, but they don't sell things in shops. This has something to do, I think, with a certain German distaste for “secondhand” and what the neighbors will think if they see you rummaging around the thrift shops.  Nevertheless, flea markets and garage sales are popular and – in my experience – the books at these affairs, especially the books in English, are remarkably cheap.

Having brought very few books with me to Germany – the bulk of my library remains in Melbourne – I am always on the look-out for good books in English. I have so much time for reading!... and I have set myself to read some authors not previously attempted. William Faulkner, for example. Yes, it’s shocking that, as a bookseller, I had never read a word of his. But Absalom, Absalom was not a  success. I gave up in dismay around page 200. A poor choice for starters, I suppose. But it was a case of take what you can get. Next time, I shall hold out for The Sound and the Fury and report back.  

We have had our first visitors from Melbourne! Earl and Jenn were good customers at Alice's Bookshop, and are on their way, in a hire car, from Basel to Prague. Freiburg lies between, at approximately time for brunch, and so we get news at first-hand from Melbourne. “As water to parched earth is news from a distant land.” Of course we get news by email but it is wonderful to have conversation face to face with people who know my patch of Australia. And they confirm that Alice's Bookshop is flourishing, under its new owners. Everyone back home is delighted that the shop remains in safe hands.  As I am, too.  A clear and present case of “Alice in Ordnung”!

At a market bookstall, I pounce on a copy of Shakespeare and Company by Sylvia Beach. What a joy! I read a biography about her once, but this is the real thing. Or is it? Curses! It's all in German. I buy it anyway.  And it turns out that, if I take it slowly, my German is up to it. What a story it has, this American bookshop in Paris. Not so much the bookselling as the publishing. The inside story of the publishing of “Ulysses” has all the drama – and (if you are booklovers) all the bibliographical details you could ever dream of. How, for example, James Joyce wanted the covers, the case, of “Ulysses” to be blue, a sky blue which would exactly match the blue of the Greek national flag. No such paper could be found in the whole of France. Finally, the printer ran some to earth in (of course) Germany. I am half-way through the book. Ernest Hemingway has just come in and offered to help get “Ulysses” smuggled into the U.S. where (along with booze) it is on the prohibited list. How exciting is this? This wonderful book, for the 2 euros I paid for it, was a real snip.

Talking of which, a hot topic in Germany at present is “Beschneidung “ which is the everyday word for “circumcision”. Someone, a Muslim mother (I think) brought a case against a German doctor for botching her son's circumcision. The court ruled that the doctor was guilty of causing the child bodily harm. Imagine the uproar! Everyone rushed to the barricades. Was this the first step in making circumcision illegal? Could anyone who performed a circumcision in Germany be liable for causing a small boy bodily harm? Was this just another example of discrimination against Muslims and Jews?  An attack on religious freedoms?  In one article someone states that one-third of men in the world are circumcised.  I find this astonishing.  Not just the statistic, but the fact that it is actually possible to locate such a statistic. How ever would you know?  No one ever asked me, not officially, I mean . Not even when I signed the papers to become a Freiburger. I'm sure you have your own strong views on the matter. So join in the fun, let the editor of BSM know. And see if you can write a complete sentence in one breath. 

 Anthony Marshall, having been a bookseller for 35 years, recently sold his bookshop in Melbourne, Australia and now lives in Germany. He is a member of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers and is a past member of the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association in England, where for ten years he ran the County Bookshop in Oakham, Rutland. He has contributed many articles to book magazines, all of which with the exception of "Book Source Magazine" are now defunct. Some of these articles reappear in his two books: "Trafficking in Old Books" (Lost Domain, Melbourne 1998) and "Fossicking for Old Books" (Bread Street Press, Melbourne 2004).