Gerhard Fritsch: 5 Poems, Translated by Vincent Kling

Even specialized histories and handbooks of Austrian literature overlook Gerhard Fritsch more often then they mention him – and if at all, perfunctorily. Yet he was no footnote figure in his day. Highly regarded as a novelist and lyric poet from 1952 almost to his death in 1969, he was a kingmaker on the cultural scene, working as radio commentator, editor or co-editor of influential journals (Wort in der Zeit, Literatur und Kritik, protokolle), translator, and committed promoter of new writers. A peacemaker as well as a kingmaker, he embraced conciliation and compromise in an era of ideologically shrill culture wars, seeking the center by endorsing traditionalism and continuity and balancing what extremes he could not reconcile.

Robert Menasse notes in an appreciation that Fritsch applied in the literary realm the mindset of the political coalition prevailing in Austria until 1966, mediating between writers eager to adhere to all the time-honored topoi about Old Austria and the young experimenters and rebels, harmonizing polarities, negotiating among groups of authors who couldn’t even talk to one another. It’s as if he had persuaded the Black Mountaineers or the Beats to share a meal with mandarins like Anthony Hecht or James Merrill, and nobody ever did that. So there was nothing bland or gutless about Fritsch’s quest for harmony, but some writers whom he’d helped launch – mainly the ferociously uncompromising Thomas Bernhard, to no one’s surprise – pilloried him for allegedly weaseling and betraying his integrity.

Hardly. Fritsch had published a novel in 1956, Moos auf den Steinen (Moss on the Stones), praised as a skillful synthesis of tradition and novelty in its ability to represent Austria after 1945 through the conventional but beautifully deployed image of a castle fallen into decay. The novel was esthetically polished and socially critical without posing any threat or confrontation. Yet Fritsch eventually had to choose sides as the 1960s created greater polarization. Writing in the Canadian journal Seminar (38:1, 2002, 47), Augustinus Dierick points out that Fritsch went from being “. . . a critic who had preached a kind of pragmatic pluralism in the 1950s . . .” to one who “. . . became a vehement protector of . . . controversial authors . . .” and fearlessly espoused positions that led to scandals and his expulsion from the editorial board of at least one journal.

This change in Fritsch’s attitudes was great enough that readers don’t know yet today quite where to place him or what to make of him, especially since his writing underwent similar shifts. That is why the usual reference works overlook him. Nine years after Moos auf den Steinen, and after several complete redrafts and rewrites, Fritsch published a new novel, Fasching (Carnival), to immediate fury and rejection. Its transgressive atmosphere of blasphemous, feverish carnival, its disconnection between outside nature and human nature, its revelation of how deep-seated the romance with Nazism still was twenty years after the war, its concentration on exploitative sexual encounters, its fascination with degradation and violence, scapegoating and victimization made Fasching temporarily famous only through the outrage it provoked. Then it suffered the characteristic Austrian fate of being ignored out of existence. Menasse makes the excellent point that although the words “Fasching” and “Fascism” have nothing in common etymologically, Fritsch’s novel makes them seem to.

All the hubbub about the fiction and editorial work has helped obscure the poetry in both German and English. Fritsch began as a poet, publishing a volume in 1952 based on his wartime service and experience, and two more collections in 1954 and 1955. His Gesammelte Gedichte (Collected Poems) appeared in 1978, nine years after his early death by suicide (Fritsch was born in 1924), and the volume garnered little notice. Pretty much consigned to fossildom by then, Fritsch’s poems had scant reviews, though these were admiring estimates by such competent fellow lyricists as György Sebestyén and Rudolf Felmayer. Beth Bjorklund includes, in her own translations, a generous handful of Fritsch’s poems, all taken from the Gesammelte Gedichte, in her anthology of Contemporary Austrian Poetry (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1986), but with a very few scattered exceptions, the rest is silence.

Fritsch’s poems deserve better, though, at the least an attentive reading on the terms in which he composed them. He would never be mistaken for an experimenter, but it would be wrong to misjudge him for failing to do something he clearly never intended. After all, experimentation is not a value in itself, and his temperamental drift toward polished, quiet conventionalism is apparent in the selections offered here and in Bjorklund’s anthology. Fritsch’s tone is almost always muted, his castigation gentle. What stands out – if so assertive an expression could be used for the concentrated serenity evident here – is a development not so much by situation as by metaphor, a refusal to indulge the pathetic fallacy in any facile way while still generating images of nature from the interior state of the observer.

Like his fiction, Fritsch’s poetry underwent a change over the years, too, though not as radical. To compass the combined boredom and horror of war with any degree of coherence, he needed to rely at first on rhyme. He uses it with polished mastery, even as a young poet, but it becomes a constriction without the reward of a corresponding liberation, prefab craft sometimes dictating to the vision instead of the other way around.

Fritsch allowed himself greater trust of metaphor as a shaping force, paying greater attention to the shape of line as it contours the terms of the comparison. His lyric soon starts to crystallize in a way exactly opposite to the English “metaphysical” poets, famously characterized by Samuel Johnson as indulging in the far-fetched, the disconcertingly unexpected, the wildly improbable comparison that startles as it goes its tortured, ingenious way. Fritsch’s poems do not seek overt effect, and they hardly ever raise their voice – indeed they couldn’t, because they stand in the classic meditative tradition. They are almost insistently non-assertive in any rhetorical sense. The comparisons are so unforced as to seem inevitable, handled so calmly that they appear to have been there before the poem was written, spontaneous and premeditated at the same time. A Gerhard Fritsch poem, like the fruit of any careful meditation, is likely to make its full effect a good while after it’s been read, quietly echoing in the mind and bringing the reader back for a second and a third look at how the unassertive, elegant lines manage to contain all that they do while achieving balance and grace. The same lyricist who as an editor could champion the linguistic experiments of the Vienna Group shows a sovereign mastery of older approaches, ones he proves are far from exhausted.

—Vincent Kling


Mexican Belief


Sweet Judas your gall
your toes your entrails
we so love eating them that
every year we create you
by the thousands from the
almond paste of revenge
soft host sweet Judas
of our fury.


Mexikanischer Glaube


Süßer Judas deine Galle
deine Zehen dein Gedärme essen
wir so gerne daß wir jedes Jahr
tausenfältig dich erschaffen
aus dem Marzipan der Rache
weiche Hostie süßer Judas
unsrer Wut.


In an Oppressed Country

They turn stiff as scarecrows,
angry, bent, in the middle of the field,
if someone drives past along the road.
One of them, the
people in motion.

Scarecrows standing silent,
crooked in a field
that isn’t theirs.
Their hats sit firm
on heads with no faces.
Someone drives past.
One of them.

Sometimes the wind
changes abruptly.
Sometimes scarecrows
can march. Sometimes
they fertilize with overseers.

When the scarecrows
don’t have faces any more,
the wind will soon
change.


In einem unterdrückten Land


Wie Vogelscheuchen erstarren sie,
bös, krumm und mitten im Acker,
fährt auf der Straße einer vorbei.
Einer von denen, die
beweglich sind.

Stumm stehn Vogelscheuchen
windschief im Acker,
der nicht ihnen gehört.
Fest sitzen die Hüte
auf den Köpfen ohne Gesicht.
Es fährt einer vorbei.
Einer von denen.

Manchmal ändert sich
jählings der Wind.
Manchmal können Vogelscheuchen
marschieren. Manchmal
wird mit Vögten gedüngt.

Wenn die Vogelscheuchen
kein Gesicht mehr haben,
ändert sich der Wind
bald.


Nicaea

From the Council the Creed.
From the Emperors the wall.
From the Seljuks tiled mosques.
Space in between, plenty of
space for clay and grass.

I believe in walls,
in shrill, high voices coming down from towers
over herds of sheep, who never grow
distracted from grazing and from being
shorn and slaughtered.


Nicäa

Vom Konzil das Credo.
Von den Kaisern die Mauer.
Von den Seldschuken Kachelmoscheen.
Dazwischen Platz, sehr viel
Platz für Lehm und Gras.

Ich glaube an Mauern,
an Fistelstimmen von Türmen herab
über Schafherden hin, die sich nicht
stören lassen zu weiden, geschoren
und geschlachtet zu werden.


The Power of Legend

In every house
we are happily building
its ruins.

And what else should we be doing,
we who need a roof
and have hands to build
and mouths to sing?

With every house
we are atoning for building
the Tower of Babel.


Die Macht der Legende


In jedem Haus
erbauen wir fröhlich
seine Ruine.

Aber was sollten wir sonst tun,
wir, die ein Dach brauchen,
und Hände haben zu bauen,
Münder zu singen?

Mit jedem Haus
sühnen wir den Turmbau
von Babel.


Columbus

A sea of nettles heaving in the sun
is hampering Columbus, on his way
westward with a sickle.
Toward evening he discovers
the continent of mice
and converts them to grain.

In the east
meantime the morning star
got lost.


Kolumbus

Ein Meer von Disteln, das wogt in der Sonne,
bedrängt Kolumbus, der mit der Sichel
unterwegs ist nach Westen.
Gegen Abend entdeckt er
den Kontinent der Mäuse
und bekehrt sie zum Korn.

Im Osten
ging indes der Morgenstern
verloren.


Vincent Kling teaches German and comparative literature in Philadelphia, between which city and Vienna he shares his time. He has translated Gert Jonke and Heimito von Doderer as well as Gerhard Fritsch and has written scholarly articles on Jonke, Doderer, Ödön von Horváth, W. G. Sebald, the Viennese master criminal Johann Breitwieser, and on literary translation. He is at work on a structural study of Doderer’s Divertimenti and an essay that interprets Max Ophüls’s film adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s La ronde as a tribute to the Viennese tradition of folk theater.

3 comments:

Henry Lawson Poems said...

Would be wonderful if these could be translated.

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