- Faustian Athletes? Sports as a Theme in Modern German Literature
German critics have repeatedly wondered that sports, an important part of modern culture, have not appeared as a major theme in literature.1 If one considers American literature and European literature other than that written in German, one realizes that the wonder is somewhat misplaced. Sports have been a major theme in twentieth-century literature. Within Germanic bounds, however, the critics are closer to the mark. There have been sports-related works by writers of repute, but they are fewer than in American, British, or French literature. The number of such works is less interesting, however, than the fact that they tend to focus on a single theme: failure.
The athletes who appear in modern German literature are driven men, striving with an intensity and passion conventionally referred to as Faustian. They inhabit "the kingdom of endless struggle," and they pursue impossible goals (Torberg 141). They are rarely team players whose success depends on skillful cooperation. They are more likely to be loners—willful [End Page 21] runners and swimmers who seek obsessively to overcome "the weakness and reason of the body" (Johnson 199). They need "repeatedly to determine, as the limits [of the possible] shift, how the body is capable of releasing further reserves" (Blatter 180). That these fictional athletes usually fail in their quests is another reason to associate them with the Faustian prototype, an association strengthened by the fact that most of the athletes of German sports fiction are morally flawed. When they are not doomed by their authors to symbolic defeat on the track or in the pool, their faulty characters sully their athletic triumphs. They wear their laurels with a grimace.
The theme of sports is not wholly subsumed within the tragic mode. It occasionally appears as satire, gentle as in Friedrich Dürrenmatt's flimsy novel, Grieche Sucht Griechin (1966), acerbic as in Bodo Kirchoff's play, Body-Building (1980). What one seldom finds are works like Yves Gibeau's La Ligne Droite (1956) or Alan Sillitoe's Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959), where sports are a vehicle for the protagonist's moral triumph. Kurt Grasshoff's assertion that American sports fiction has "predominantly pessimistic tendencies" might better have been directed at German versions of the genre (126).
These generalizations, exceptions to which will be acknowledged, also apply surprisingly well to popular fiction, such as Hans Blickensdörfer's Pallmann (1984), and to essays on sports written by German men of letters, such as those collected in Der Querschnitt's famous June, 1932, issue, which was wholly devoted to sports as "the world religion of the twentieth century" (Seiffer 385). Although the theme of sports in German literature is, as Effie Briest's father might have said, ein weites Feld, I shall focus on seven novels that have some claim to literary significance.
John Henry Mackay has been forgotten by most Germanisten, but this son of a Scots father and a German mother wrote what is probably the paradigmatic novel of the genre. Der Schwimmer (1901) is the story of Franz Felder, the athletically gifted child of poor Berliners. Mackay's depiction of the fourteen-year-old Felder is typographically as well as substantively poetic:
He swam, and he never tired.He dove, and his narrow breast widened effortlessly.He swam and swam, where and when he could.—It was a hot summer, a long summer, a summer full of work.But it was nonetheless a summer full of joy.(7: 43)
The talented young swimmer is recruited into the socially exclusive Schwimmklub Berlin von 1879, trains in the club's pool, and becomes, [End Page 22] at the age of eighteen, national champion over 1000 meters. His character changes. "Something determined and hard entered his being" (7: 160). Spectacular national and international triumphs cease to suffice. "Like a drinker whose thirst increases with every glassful, he thirsted for new and greater successes" (7: 170). Having defeated all rival swimmers, he arrogantly demands that the club make him the sole entry in the divers' competition. Although he has practiced in secret and become a surprisingly good diver...