- Strange Meetings: Anglo-German Literary Encounters from 1910 to 1960
This book by the late Peter Firchow takes its title from the poem "Strange Meeting" by Wilfred Owen, English soldier-poet of the First World War. One of Owen's last poems, it consists of a dreamlike encounter between an [End Page 254] English soldier and a dead German soldier, depicted as both a friend and an alter ego. Firchow proceeds to cast light on several more strange encounters between English writers and the German-speaking world from about 1910 to about 1960.
Within the trajectory of Firchow's work, Strange Meetings brings to conclusion Firchow's inquiry into British-German relations, begun in his book The Death of the German Cousin: Variations on a National Stereotype, 1890-1920 (1986). Running through both studies, or "stories" (xi), as Firchow calls them, is his argument that "literature matters." Fundamental to Firchow's conception of literature is his belief in the active role of literary consciousness in shaping attitude and perception. As he contends, while social, political, and military matters influence how one country views another country literarily and culturally, literature is active in that it helps to create or hinder the mutual understanding of nations. "Changes in perception," he further argues, "often preceded and eventually led to changes in action" (ix).
Firchow tells the story, which is based on his previously published essays, primarily from the point of view of British writers and institutions (x). Not aiming to be inclusive, Firchow sheds light on representative places, in the hope to "sensitize readers when they encounter similar phenomena in other contexts" (xi-xii). He combines close readings and textual analysis with details glanced from biography, autobiography, and criticism, and suggests links between text and historical events and places.
In "Sunlight in the Hofgarten," his first chapter, Firchow illuminates T. S. Eliot's, D. H. Lawrence's, and Rupert Brooke's encounters with Germany in the prewar years, which changed their outlook on themselves as well as on Germany. According to Firchow, many Eliot critics have tended to dismiss the importance of Eliot's 1911 summer in Munich as it pertains to the evocation of prewar (and postwar) Munich in "The Waste Land." Reading the poem closely, Firchow reexamines the connection between the poem's Marie and the Countess Marie von Larisch, which he uses to shed light on the tension between the private and public meanings. He isolates the poem's links to geopolitical events and points to Eliot's finding several of his main themes combined in King Ludwig II of Bavaria. With regard to Lawrence, Firchow sees the significance of his encounter with Munich in 1912 best demonstrated in Mr. Noon. Seeing England for the first time from the outside, Noon revels in his "newfound sense of multiplicity in the word" (44-45), thus becoming "unEnglished" (45). Considering Rupert Brooke's encounters with Germany in 1911 and 1912, Firchow puts into perspective those views that have emphasized Brooke's insularity and condescension towards the continental avant-garde. Firchow counters these views, arguing [End Page 255] Brooke's immersion in Munich culture significantly changed him, as he sees in Brooke's sonnet "Lust."
The second chapter, "Shakespeare, Goethe, and the War of the Professors, 1914-1918," elucidates how academics responded to the conflict between the two collective identities they belonged to—that of nation and of profession. Focusing on the writing of German Anglicists, Firchow shows how German academics appropriated Shakespeare for Germany by expounding the "German" qualities of Shakespeare. Firchow documents this Aneignungsprozess (67) by amply quoting from contemporary academic writing. British Shakespeareans responded in kind and professed that Shakespeare's humanity and "serene and happy genius" were forever incompatible with the Teutonic traits of the barbaric, the pedantic, and the cruel (95). Firchow completes his story of the academic tug-of-war with a glance at British Goethe scholars, who reacted quite differently, namely by ignoring (or maligning) Goethe—and German literature—as much as possible...