The Sad Geraniums by Wolfgang Borchert
Translated by Keith Hamnett
Ah, the joys of charity stores and random finds! 🙂 I was browsing recently in the Oxfam and came across this pretty little volume, a Calder and Boyars book from 1974. I’d never heard of the author before, but he was German (and so fitted in with German Literature Month), and the blurb implied he had a short and tragic life and had a cult following. So I took a gamble, and I’m really glad I did.
First, a little bit about Borchert from Wikipedia: Wolfgang Borchert (20 May 1921 – 20 November 1947) was a German author and playwright whose work was affected by his experience of dictatorship and his service in the Wehrmacht during the Second World War. His work is among the best examples of the Trümmerliteratur movement in post-World War II Germany. His most famous work is the drama “The Man Outside”, which he wrote in the first days after World War II. In his works he never makes compromises in questions of humanity and humanism. He is one of the most popular authors of the German postwar period, also today often read in German schools. Fascinating, no?
“The Sad Geraniums” is a slim collection of short works, some no more than a couple of pages long. I’ve seen Borchert described as a master of the art of compression, and that’s certainly evident here – these pieces, though brief, manage to convey an incredible amount. You could almost call them sketches rather than stories, but each captures a particular moment or event and crystallises it. So a pair of lovers shelter in a doorway and are glad it’s rained as they have an excuse to be late; a prospective suicide is distracted by the prospect of chopping wood; a potential seducer is repelled by a woman’s asymmetrical nostrils; and so on. Each small vignette is intense and involving and although we have just a short time to get to know the characters, somehow we feel as if we really do.
In the end only the wind will remain. When everything else is gone, tears, hunger, machines and music, then there will only be the wind left. He will outlive everything, stone and street, even immortal love. And he will sing comfortingly in the sparse shrubs which crown our snow-clad graves. And on summer evening he will court the sweet flowers and playfully dance with them – today, tomorrow, always.
The writing is quite beautiful, with some of the works being almost prose poems, lovely pieces of description. But still Borchert manages to convey something – an emotion, the sense of a story, a fragment that makes you look at life very differently. The language is so lovely that I make no apology for quoting more:
Is there any music sweeter than the sound of rain at night? Is there anywhere anything to subtle and so matter of fact, so secretive and so talkative as rain in the night? Are our ears so indifferent that we only react to streetcar bells, cannon blasts or symphony concerts? Do we no longer hear the symphonies of the thousand droplets that prattle and rattle on the pavement by night, that whisper lustfully against windows and roof-tiles, that softly strum and drum fairy tales on the leaves under which the millions of flies have crawled, that drop and plot onto our shoulders through our thin summer clothes or gurgle with tiny gong beats into the stream? Do we no longer hear anything but our own loud ballyhoo?
Information on Borchert and his work is sketchy, but fortunately this book contains a little sketch of his life and tells of how these 18 pieces were discovered amongst his papers after his death. He seems to me to be exactly the kind of author who could and should be picked up by a publisher like Pushkin Press; and on the strength of this short collection I would be very, very keen to read more of his work. Highly recommended!