Travels through Germany: adrift in a land with too much memory


Caspar David Friedrich’s The wanderer above the sea of fog (1818; source: Wikimedia)

Last updated: 24 March 2018, and due another reread PDQ

I came across The bells in their silence: travels through Germany (Princeton University Press, 2004) by Michael Gorra via reviews of his Portrait of a novel: Henry James and the making of an American masterpiece (2012).

Nobody writes travelogues about Germany. The country spurs many anxious volumes of investigative reporting…but not travel books, not the free-ranging and impressionistic works of literary nonfiction we associate with VS Naipaul and Bruce Chatwin.

Gorra’s hypothesis is that “our American memory of WWII still informs our relationship with contemporary Germany” (Publishers Weekly), and there is much musing on this German Problem in the book, but otherwise, written “with one foot in the library and one on the street”, it was perfect, for me and other footloose international Germanists living elsewhere. And it only cost a penny! (Here’s how that works.)

It’s a kind of a meta travel book:

Gorra uses Goethe’s account of his Italian journey as a model for testing the traveler’s response to Germany today, and he subjects the shopping arcades of contemporary German cities to the terms of Benjamin’s Arcade project. He reads post-Wende Berlin through the novels of Theodor Fontane…and enlists WG Sebald as a guide to the place of fragments and digressions in travel writing.

At home abroad

The book grew out of a sabbatical year in the late 1990s – Gorra’s wife was seconded to Hamburg, and as a non-Germanist he found himself adrift and able to explore at his leisure, “walking the same streets, visiting and revisiting the same places…my hours only as regular as I cared to keep them, shaped now and then by a newspaper’s deadline, but much more often by groceries…even a routine measured out by errands and lunch can be made to seem full”.

For some reviewers the absence of ‘living Germans’ or of conventional travel writing (a description Gorra uses consciously) about Germany, “from which the author maintains a subtle but unmistakable distance” (Chicago Tribune) is the book’s weakness. It’s written rather through the twin lenses of literature and history, perhaps just as essential to understanding a country’s DNA (“we would not see so much of the present if we were not first interested in the past”), finding its own “balance between the inner travels prompted by our travels to confront the unfamiliar” (Vertigo).

Like many footloose internationals, “it sometimes took the absence of my own language to remind me that I wasn’t entirely at home”. After his first few months Gorra had “both gotten used to Germany and then begun to find it strange again”, with “Mercedes taxis the color of Jersey cream”. Isherwood’s “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording not thinking” epitomises this period of expat life, with “bits and pieces of experience that I didn’t know what to do with”, conscious of his own baggage behind the lens:

the only way in which we can make sense of a new place is to locate it in relation to those that we’ve known before…the mistake comes only when we try to assimilate them to a single criterion of value

For Gorra the custom in shops of exchanging money via a little tray rather than hand to hand feels dehumanising, putting a distinction between the server and served. (The Germans – and the Danes – would doubtless say that it’s more hygenic that way.) Then there’s the bed linen. Moving on from the 90cm square pillows, a meaningful cultural difference is that “each person in Germany is meant to sleep under his own covers. No snuggling under a common blanket…it’s as if the bedding itself were conspiring to keep us each in our appointed place, to prevent any meeting in the chilly middle ground.” He assembles a selection of quotes from travel literature on the theme, including Mark Twain.

Metonomy and metaphor

This leads to a discussion of figurative language in travel writing. As a form it is essentially metonymic, digressing from one thing to another, with contiguous subjects as new sights or people or thoughts stray across one’s path. It moves from one object or scene to the next because they are either spatially or temporally contiguous, and in that movement attempts to evoke a world, an itinerary.

Much travel literature identifies “those aspects of a country or culture that differ – or are believed to differ – from other countries, other cultures, and then identifies that part with the whole”. This can quickly lead to cliché . But travel writing relies on metaphor as well – the very idea of metaphor stands in itself as a kind of travel, with its original meaning equivalent to the Latin translatio, a bearing across, a movement of meaning from one spot to another.

Metaphor works through similarity, in which one term is substituted for another, relying on the comparison and resemblance of apparently dissimilar things. This allows the mind to juxtapose disparate fragments and reveal their hidden connections. Metonymy tends to underline the difference between home and abroad, while metaphor works to erase it.

Travel writing depends on one inverted metaphor, in which the description of abroad becomes a tacit description of home, the one standing as the other’s obverse image. One place evokes another, and the sum of their metonymic differences provides in itself a metaphor for all that divides them. Hence, on Germany: “at once homogenous and unified and also polymorphic and disparate…particular and universal at once…each fragment of what would become Germany seems to suggest its entirety…one part may substitute itself – metaphorically, metonymically – for the whole”.

Fragments and digressions

Moving on, the key chapter is that on fragments and disgressions, which starts in a bookshop in Hamburg, a”realm of unattained pleasures” as Gorra does not read German. Books can “remain the object of a Proustian longing, forever out of reach and therefore incapable of disappointing me”. Into this category falls Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, a book that would “contain the world…[assembled] out of quotations, cross-references and fragments” but which Benjamin never actually began to write.

Like the flâneur who knows when and how to indulge in “a bit of creative loafing”, travel writing frequently goes off piste, departing or returning to a central narrative. According to Schlegel many literary works remain “fragments at the time of their origin”, forming a whole only when put together, perhaps using a “peg on which to hang a narrative of one’s own”, such as returning to the journey of an earlier traveller, or as a panorama of a place in time.

On Hamburg’s arcades:

Most German cities have reconfigured their central shopping districts into pedestrian zones, in a way that makes the arcade seem merely an extension of the street itself, a space far less odd and magical than it had been for Benjamin, liminal only in the way it opens onto an underground parking garage…Hamburg’s arcades have no mystery but they do have confusion. I often get lost in them, barely know one from another, and constantly discover new ones.

The final chapter of the book turns to the personal, with an account of Buddenbrooks counterpointed with Gorra’s own family history, and then the birth of his child, an event which brings out something distinctively local, which he describes by borrowing from TS Eliot:

The end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.

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