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  • Speak-TrashIrony for Exterminators
  • Geoffrey Lokke (bio)
BOOKS REVIEWED: Bertolt Brecht, Bertolt Brecht’s Refugee Conversations, edited by Tom Kuhn, translated by Romy Fursland. London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2020;
Elfriede Jelinek, Three Plays, translated by Gitta Honegger. Calcutta and London: Seagull Books, 2019.

Written by the leading German-language dramatists of their eras, these works deal with refugee and fascist talk. The implications are clear: How should these groups be talked about? Who can speak for them? Are the lives in the cages being appropriated? Can’t someone slip book deals through the bars? Conversely, does every fascist lie merit recitation? On the one hand is Bertolt Brecht, who watched Europe fall, and on the other is Elfriede Jelinek, who kept watching. Remember the past or repeat it, but read these texts together and what is clear is just how much has changed.

Brecht once wrote that he loved clarity because he couldn’t think with any. Not that he had an issue with confused thoughts—they were his raw material. Rather, it was confusion itself that he minded. Writing, and dialogue in particular, allowed him to arrange oppositions, including his own.1 Jelinek, an Austrian playwright and novelist who received the Nobel Prize in 2004, is someone equally defined by states of misperception and writing at cross-purposes. There the similarities end. Jelinek has long abjured character and its attribution, and the poetry of her plays exists in this stricture—or lack thereof. Contemporary writers, like William Gaddis, have balanced their novel-plays at the same precipice. But in others there is still resolution, wherein an audience, by alchemy, does attribute— and discern—discrete intentions. For Jelinek, who is who remains in flux. Anyone can say anything. Like Brecht, Jelinek writes with a sense of confusion. But she doesn’t write herself out of one. Moments of clarity come from our own yearning and ultimately arbitrary assignation of narrative or point of view. In a state of mass disinformation, Jelinek gives us the thing uncut, with no formal [End Page 125] prophylactic. The audience is then left with the enormity of having to discern our purpose within it.

Brecht is, necessarily, past tense. On the run, yet killing time, he wrote his Refugee Conversations (Flüchtlingsgespäche) in 1940 while he lived in Helsinki, adding to them a couple of years later once he had made it to the States. Although he had personally prepared the dialogues for publication, they did not see print until 1961, five years after his death. Editors have since disagreed on what belongs in the collection. This new version, however, its first in English, aims to include all of Brecht’s dialogues in the same style from this brief period. While they get performed on occasion, these aren’t really, to use a Jelinek term, “for speaking.” It’s comparable to Oscar Wilde composing his Socratic dialogues “The Decay of Lying” and “The Critic as Artist” distinct from Salomé and Lady Windemere’s Fan, all in and around 1891. Likewise, 1940–42 saw Brecht complete major stage works in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Mother Courage and Her Children, and The Good Person of Szechwan, in addition to his poems and myriad other non-stage projects. That is to say, these would make for some bad theatre. (One conversation, for instance, is really a series of annotated drawings.) Sometimes you need to stare down an epigram until it unknots on the page.

The volume is edited by Tom Kuhn, the Oxford scholar desperate to wean us off of John Willett, having recently published new editions of Brecht on Theatre and Brecht on Performance, as well as volumes of poetry and lesser-known plays (some new to English) for both Bloomsbury and Norton. Romy Fursland, the translator, is new to Brecht but is known for her version of Ulrich Plenzdorf’s 1972 collage-novel The New Sorrows of Young W. (marketed as the GDR Catcher in the Rye). The volume is a fluent read, with Kuhn’s historicizing and concordance rendered as incisive endnotes instead of being ponderous interventions. Unfortunately, the translator isn’t a character here, as Jelinek’s gets to...


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