Brecht in Denmark

Updates: On thinking about hell in Los Angeles, disrupting utopian images of California, and Concerning the label emigrant continue some of the themes of  the Svendborger Gedichte…meanwhile, the Danes went Brecht crazy in autumn 2016, with Immigranten, an interpretation of Flüchtlingsgespräche performed på dansk by Xenia Noetzelmann and Katrin Weisser to music by Bent Fabricius-Bjerre, at Louisiana (11 Oct) and Karens Minde (20-28 Oct), plus Svendborger Gedichte, in a new – and complete – translation as Svendborgdigte set to music by Saybia’s Søren Huss, at Baggård Teatret (Svendborg, 17 Nov – 2 Dec) and at Teater Grob (6-10 Dec); coming to Valby in January 2018.

Skønlitteratur på P1 featured the Svendborgdigte on 7 June 2017, with an interview with translator and old Brecht hand Hans Christian Nørregaard. Nørregaard visited Helene Weigel in East Berlin in 1963. Following several radio broadcasts he made a film for DR2 about Brecht’s Danish exile, Under stråtage (review), in 1998. He has also published several works on German exiles in Denmark in the 1930s, including På flugt fra nazismen and Tysksprogede emigranter i Danmark fra 1933. (In this connection see also 2016’s Networks of refugees from Nazi Germany.)

It seems that Brecht as poet was/is? less known in Denmark. In the 1930s he was viewed  as having had his time with Die Dreigroschenoper – it was only later that it became clear that his Danish exile represented a period of transition, with his next great work, Mutter Courage, written under that thatched roof in Svendborg, heralding a new epoch in theatre.

Nørregaard highlighted Til efterkommerne (An die Nachgeborenen; Wikipedia | English) as one of the Danish poems which has stood the test of time (it seems that in Danish literary circles Brecht was for a time known as Bertolt Brugt). A snippet of BB reciting the poem (in an unexpectedly high-pitched voice) can be heard at around 13 mins in (here’s a full reading), followed by a Danish reading.

And finally, it turns out that Svendborg has its own kulturkanon, featuring Brecht and other writers including Karin Michaëlis, owner of the house on the nearby island of Thurø where Brecht first stayed in 1933. Five times Nobel nominee Johannes Jørgensen (1866-1956) was born and died in Svendborg, while Danish modernist poet Tom Kristensen (1893-1974), born in London, lived on Thurø from 1946  until his death in 1974.

On last autumn’s Golden Days festival programme I spotted two bouts of German cabaret songs, at Frederiksberg’s Revymuseet and Riddersalen, where, hold the front page! Brecht sat at the back during the final rehearsals for the Round Heads and Pointy Heads premiere on 4 November 1936. The thing itself even got a performance in Den Sorte Diamant, as part of an Eisler 2015 conference.

It turns out that Brecht lived in Svendborg, a fair sized town (pop: 26K) on the drive-through island of Fyn, from June 1933 to April 1939. He was invited to Denmark by journalist and writer Karin Michaëlis, who during the 1930s had several German emigrants as houseguests in her house on the nearby island of Thurø.

While in Svendborg Brecht wrote Mother Courage, The life of Galileo (with the figure of Galilei initially based on Niels Bohr) and The good person of Szechwan, and was visited by Hanns Eisler and klaxon! Walter Benjamin. The Brecht family also had a summer house in Dragør (update: according to Ekstra Bladet of the 29 September 1934 the Brechts spent that summer at Dragør Badehotel, which feels more likely). In 1939 they upped sticks to an island near Stockholm, then to Finland, ending up in the USA from 1941-47.

Other pining Germanists may enjoy Re-thinking Brecht, an international research project, responsible for some new translations into English. I watched Songs of Exile and War, a film launching the project in 2013 with poems and songs set to Eisler’s music – see the rather moving Visit to the banished poets and Children’s Crusade 1939. While the style can feel a little over-egged today, I still had an urge to reach for my Dagmar Krause cassettes. And I can visualise a volume of Brecht poetry I owned in the 1980s (why does one get rid of books, really?), which was surely John Willett’s translation part 3.

Brecht’s Svendborger Gedichte (1939, published in Copenhagen) also got a couple of run-outs at Golden Days courtesy of Oktoberkoret. Here’s the Motto to the ‘Svendborg Poems’:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing
About the dark times.

Bertolt Brecht: Poems 1913-1956 (trans. John Willett, 1976)

Motto der ‘Svendborger Gedichte’

In den finsteren Zeiten
Wird da auch gesungen werden?
Da wird auch gesungen werden.
Von den finsteren Zeiten.

Svendborg hosts an annual-ish Brecht festival, Dage med Brecht (Facebook), running this year from 24-28 February. I visited Svendborg back in the day, it’s pleasant enough if crashingly dull; Benjamin described the southern tip of Fyn as “one of the most remote areas you can imagine”, with its “unexploited” nature and lack of links to the modern world a mixed blessing. This year’s festival has lots of music and a bit of a refugee focus, as well it might, and there’s a tour round Brecht’s house at Skovsbo Strand 8, which looks a world away from 1930s Berlin.

Update, 9 March: the library has duly delivered two publications on Brecht in Denmark:

  • Bertolt Brecht i Danmark – pamphlet published by the Brecht-Zentrum der DDR in cooperation with Svendborg Kommune in 1984 as a celebration of the setting up of a memorial plaque in Svendborg in 1981, currently languishing in the Stadsbibliotek’s Depotbibiliotek; includes reminiscences from journalist Frederik Martner and actor Dagmar Andreasen
  • Brecht på Fyn – in two parts (Under det fynske stråtag covering mainly his life on Fyn and De alt for små øer on his work and its reception in Denmark at the time), by Harald Engberg, published in 1966 by Andelsbogtrykkeriet i Odense and acquired by Hvidovre libraries on publication, now smelling a bit fusty TBH
  • see also Die Welt geht hier stiller unter: Das Brecht-Haus im dänischen Svendborg

At the front of Under det... there’s a great photo of Brecht in June 1934 in flat cap and what looks like my father’s cardigan, holding a cigar, plus a picture of the house in 1966 (“der er kommet lidt småpynt til siden Brechts dage, som ikke er hans stil”); other photos include Brecht at the typewriter in his study and behind the wheel of his ancient Ford Model T, in which he took drives to stave off restlessness, but not the money shot of Brecht playing chess with Walter Benjamin in the garden.

Brecht left Germany on 28 February 1933, the day after the Reichstag fire, travelling first to Prague and Vienna, before looking for somewhere to live in Switzerland. Finding Zurich too expensive, he next checked out Paris where Kurt Weill was living, but he was no Francophile and did not settle. He arrived in Denmark on 20 June 1933 and bought the ramshackle fisherman’s house in Svendborg on 9 August 1933 for 7000 kr., moving in on 28 December. In a letter to Walter Benjamin on 22 December he wrote “Der er behagligt her”, and that it was possible to survive on 1oo kr. (6o Reichsmarks) a month. In addition, Svendborg library would get you _any_ book you want. The language was unusually easy, and above all “verden går under mere stille her”. (Any links to the original German of these and other quotes below appreciated.)

Brecht brought his own world with him into exile, making no great effort to learn Danish or mix with the locals. He also travelled widely – in 1934 to London and again in 1936, in 1935 to Moscow and New York, to New York again in 1936, plus several visits to Paris.

The Svendborg VI poems Zufluchtsstätte, Gedanken über die Dauer des Exils and Über die Bezeichnung Emigranten underline his feelings of flight, coupled with impatience and restlessness:

Immer fand ich den Namen falsch, den man uns gab: Emigranten.
Daß heißt doch Auswanderer. Aber wir
Wanderten doch nicht aus, nach freiem Entschluß
Wählend ein anderes Land. Wanderten wir doch auch nicht
Ein in ein Land, dort zu bleiben, womöglich für immer.
Sondern wir flohen. Vertriebene sind wir, Verbannte.
Und kein Heim, ein Exil soll das Land sein, das uns aufnahm.
Unruhig sitzen wir so, möglichst nahe den Grenzen
Warten des Tags der Rückkehr…

The Danish idyll was not for him. No Romantic, the delights of Fyn, the garden of Denmark, did not entice him to reverie, although his sojourn in “isolated Svendborg” was paradoxically productive – perhaps a reaction to that very peace and stillness – and he was able to enjoy a stable family life with his two youngest children for the first time. The Danish stråtag (das dänische Strohdach – thatched roof) offered him a form of camouflage, and became a frequently employed metaphor during his years of exile.

Brecht received a residence permit from Sweden on 14 April 1939, leaving Denmark on Easter Monday and selling the house to a sheet music dealer. While in Sweden he wrote his reminiscences of his time in Denmark, collected as De alt for små øer (can’t trace), and continued his satirical writing as Herr Keuner, a version of which was published as Flüchtlingsgespräche after his death in 1961.

One of the 18 conversations tackles Dänemark oder der Humor. Brecht was particularly piqued by the Danes’ sense of humour, maintaining that “han ville gerne være venlig, men hans Widerspruchsgeist lod sig ikke mane i jorden”:

Sie haben immer betont: Wir sind zu schwach, um uns zu verteidigen, wir wir müssen Schweine verkaufen…Sie waren alle überzeugt, dass der Faschismus bei ihnen nicht geht, weil sie zuviel Humor haben.

His Danish friends told him that “deres humor desværre lod sig ikke oversætte, fordi den bestod af ganske små sproglige vendlinger”, to which he retorted that “når man kun kan sige små ting på et sprog, kommer man let til at skrive om små ting”.

The worst thing about Denmark was not its size, but the fact that it had everything, just on a very small scale:

Her eksisterer intet, som man kan måle det med, fordi selv målestokken er for lille. En ‘høj’ bakke i Jylland hedder som bekendt Himmelbjerget, men den er knap 200 m. høj.

While Brecht never returned to Denmark, the day before his death in 1956 the sale went through in his name on a small house in Humlebæk. Was the restless Brecht once more seeking camouflage, or simply a bolthole to work in?

Brecht’s house in Svendborg

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