- The German Joyce by Robert K. Weninger
Joyce’s German debut was less than auspicious, as his terse description of the Munich premiere of Exiles suggests: “Complete fiasco. Row in theatre. Play withdrawn” (15). The reviewers deplored his “spiritual striptease” and excessive “bookishness.” However, as Robert K. Weninger shows in the first comprehensive study of the subject, Joyce’s literary fortunes in German-speaking countries underwent a radical reversal that bears some comparison with the more protracted saga of the German reception of Shakespeare. In both cases, disdain and ignorance evolved into an enthusiastic acceptance of “unser Shakespeare” and—at least among writers—“unser Joyce.”
In the first section of the book, Weninger (King’s College, London) offers a comprehensive survey of Joyce’s impact in German-speaking countries over the course of nine decades; in the second he provides several case studies of “coinfluences”—a term that allows Weninger to escape from the straitjacket of literary influence. Then, for good measure, he throws in a description of the astonishing role allotted to Joyce in the so-called German Expressionism debate. A minor drawback to this otherwise effective organization is that the fast-paced survey of German reactions to Joyce comes first. Although Germanisten with an interest in modernism can easily handle the resulting blitz of names, I fear that his primary audience—Joyceans and other readers without much prior exposure to German literature—may feel a little overwhelmed. However, they would be wise to stay the course since German reactions to Joyce are often illuminating. For instance, even in the case of the ill-fated Exiles, one reviewer presciently praised Joyce’s deployment of “silence,” contrasting it with the verbosity of contemporary German-language playwrights. [End Page 205]
German writers were quick to grasp the challenge that Joyce posed to traditional forms of narrative. Inspired by the “Galilean revolution” of Ulysses, Hans Henny Jahnn immediately began to restructure his novel Perrudja. Much the same appeared to happen in the case of Berlin Alexanderplatz, although there is some dispute about the degree of Döblin’s indebtedness to Joyce. Whereas Joyce was tickled by the aural similarity between Döblin and Dublin, Döblin was annoyed by critics’ tendency to emphasize his supposed Joyceanisms at the expense of the social criticism in his novel. In a letter to Agnes Meyer in 1944 Thomas Mann, who preferred to remain mum about Joyce, let his mask slip: “I sense an affinity, but would prefer not to admit it since, if this were the case, Joyce had done everything better, more boldly, more elegantly” (59).
As the century progresses, the story, as skillfully narrated by Weninger, grows ever more complicated since it becomes impossible to distinguish narrative innovations absorbed through Joyce’s work from the impact of Faulkner, Dos Passos, and others who drew liberally on that innovative compendium of narrative techniques known as Ulysses. Perhaps as a result, poor Arno Schmidt was pilloried for being a mere Joyce-imitator before he had actually read the Irish writer. Schmidt’s exasperation over such unjustified attacks surely underlies his bizarre critical effort to reduce Finnegans Wake to the coded story of how James Joyce was allegedly cuckolded by his long-suffering brother Stanislaus. However, Schmidt could be said to have made amends to Joyce by discrediting Goyert’s flawed translation of Ulysses so thoroughly in the pages of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that his onslaught led to the creation of a new, better, if not uncontroversial translation by his student Hans Wollschläger.
Weninger’s three case studies in Joycean “coinfluence” alone are worth the price of the book: Goethe and Joyce; Joyce Dada & Co.; Joyce and Rilke. For this reviewer, the latter is the most compelling pairing. Once stated, the parallels between the two authors’ independently reached theory and practice of “sudden spiritual manifestations” or epiphanies seems altogether convincing. Bravely, Weninger even contends that it is not Joyce’s Stephen Hero or Portrait but rather Rilke’s Malte Laurids Brigge that “constitute(s) the ultimate epitome of...