restricted access Wagner and Venice Fictionalized: Variations on a Theme by John W. Barker, and: Tristan’s Shadow: Sexuality and the Total Work of Art after Wagner by Adrian Daub (review)
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Wagner and Venice Fictionalized: Variations on a Theme. By John W. Barker. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2012. xix + 349 pages + 19 b/w illustrations. $75.00.
Tristan’s Shadow: Sexuality and the Total Work of Art after Wagner. By Adrian Daub. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. viii + 228 pages. $45.00.

The commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth (1813-83) and the scandal of the Nazi-allegory staging of Tannhäuser by the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, in Düsseldorf (May 4, 2013) highlight the fascination the composer holds in the public imagination as well as for cultural-studies analysis. Wagner’s self-mystifying biography, his revolutionary ambitions, philosophical affiliations (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche), sexual obsessions, paranoid anti-Semitism, and, of course, his Gesamtkunstwerk concept and radically new musical idiom, exploring the outer limits of tonality and late-Romantic chromaticism, together with his equally crucial innovations of opera-house architecture and sound technology—all these and other factors contribute to a multifaceted and deeply contradictory legacy that continues to challenge us to rethink the very meaning of the interplay among aesthetics, ideology, and cultural values.

As John Barker’s study of fictional, dramatic, and operatic representations of Wagner’s life, especially the time of his death in Venice, shows, the facts of the composer’s picturesque biography already contain the seeds for their variegated transformation by the literary imagination of later writers. The strength of his study is to have assembled a series of works by fourteen—mostly German-language—authors, ranging from Vernon Lee (1890) and Gabriele D’Annunzio (1900) to inter-war figures such as Franz Werfel (1924), Gustav Renker (1933), and Zdenko von Kraft (1943), as well as contemporaries such as Bernd Schünemann (1996), Herbert Rosendorfer (1999/2001), and Ray Furness (2008). Many of their works have remained outside the reach of mainstream audiences but deserve renewed critical analysis. Barker seeks to introduce these literary explorations to a wider public through a combination of extremely detailed plot summaries and translations (mostly his own) of extensive excerpts from the texts. He traces the transformations of biographical facts and historical documents into imaginative fictionalizations, comparing different renderings of the same events with one another, and exploring the mechanisms of omission and [End Page 317] selection that guided these literary efforts. A detailed chronology of Wagner’s stay in Venice, illustrations, and a useful bibliography round off the volume.

An academic historian by training, Barker freely admits that he is no expert in literary history, theory, and musicology (xiii), but it is this limitation that explains some of the shortcomings of his volume. While he is very thorough in providing biographical background information for his writers and explaining the historical circumstances of their literary productions, the intermedial transpositions of Wagner’s life into novel, drama, or opera require more thorough engagement with current literary theories than Barker is willing to offer. It is also a restrictive feature of Barker’s plot summaries plus explanatory commentary that they tend to homogenize the stylistic and genre diversity of the originals—which range from the hagiographic (Renker; 77) to farce and parody (Rosendorfer; 237)—into the self-identical voice of paraphrase. For instance, in his treatment of Egon Günther’s expansive novel Palazzo Vendramin. Richard Wagners letzte Liebe. Roman (1993), the longest chapter in the volume, Barker probes in nuanced ways the writer’s “postmodern sensibility,” which prefers “illuminating imagination” over “[s]trict adherence to historical or biographical facts” (151); he interestingly draws attention to the novel’s episodic structure, “cross-cutting techniques” taken from cinema, the “absence of consistent narrative flow or chronological continuity,” “shifts of voice,” and other aspects of the work’s “artfully calculated disorder” (151–52). But instead of allowing these intriguing elements to inform his own plot paraphrase, he explicitly chooses not to retrace the novel’s idiosyncratic structure and the author’s “deliberate intention” because he does not want to “emphasize his disjunctiveness and risk a confusing treatment.” Hence, Barker prefers to do Günther’s writing “the ‘injustice’ of putting his themes and threads in a logically topical or chronological order” (152). Here, interpretive...