Tag: writing

Damn Dust

Ah bah, why must be there so much dust on, under and before my bookshelves ? Diving behind the sofa, the chairs and the old kitchen table leaves me covered in dust-bunnies. They smell awful.
I search for a “technologisches Lexicon” that is less a lexicon but more of a bibliography ; it’s originally published in the 18th century and re-printed once, and only once, and I have by sheer accident got a copy. I have used it before and it’s a very worthwhile source, a bit ignored or less known. I will dig it out tomorrow, armed with a hoover.
Why do I visit the ugly places of my appartement ? This afternoon I met an old friend, who is working on a doctoral thesis since Noah was given the first idea of an ark. She’s in her sixties now, and when I started to work seriously for my MA, I think she already was given the task by our venerated Doktorvater. He is well over eighty now, alive and kicking, but it would be a good idea to present the book at his eighty-fifth or so. It would be difficult to find another prof who would be able to promote her, yes it’s a bit of a specialty. I may have mentioned her here already. She is paper-thin and suffers from constant payne ; now and then she finds a working combination of medication and therapy and then writes like the devil. She already gave me a whole chapter two years ago, but it was right out of the middle of her work and I could not do much with it. After some discussion, thinking, re-thinking, further research, she now gave me the first chapter – Hallelujah ! – and I can read from the start : Looking for “jumps” or “breaks” – when one is so long working on a subject it’s easily possible to make logical mistakes and f.e. put something forward as assumption, totally clear for oneself, but absolutely illogical for the reader. The forty pages come with two very large files of materials,  some books, handwritten annotations, and yes there is a doc-file with text in different colours – full program. She already has a readable, ongoing and continuous text, but I will look for her annotations and take care that all this is mentioned in the text, and what I can not verify or other things I have to say, will be written under a line. She will take this together with her revised version and will use my suggestions or not ; my job is, as saied before, to see that it has a logical structure. In the end I have to draw some lines and limits – and astoundingly enough she thinks I can do this.
She’s a damn good researcher, has worked for very good collections and museums, dealt in antiques, and had to dig through a ton of family nonsense. While I silently buried my idea of a doctoral thesis, she stuck to it, God what a stubborn lady. But as most good researchers, there must be an end to the hunting, results need to be put together, a picture must be drawn, the pieces all have fallen in their places. Time runs through our fingers like sand, at one point all collections are visited, all objects are seen and inspected, all the effort flows into a footnote on page 37. I only hope she can relax when the book is printed and done, when it’s accepted as thesis, and she finally receives her instrument in the university’s church. Today this is a kind of festive event, I was given a sheet of paper in a seminar room in ’91, but at least the Dekan had bought a round of the university’s good wine.
It was very good to see her this afternoon in the library. I have to do something for the weekend, diverts me a bit from feeling flat and useless. “Vita brevis, ars longa” (Ger., Eng.) – to close the circle of this post – the Greek original of the Latin phrase says “βιος βραχύς, τέχνη μακρή / Bios brachys, techne makre”, life is short, the art [techne] stays ; it’s all Handwerk, craft, handcraft, craftmanship : Not theory, but what we do.

On Writing Emails

If there is one thing I learned over the course of my life, what I spent mostly reading and occasionally writing, it is that any small change that can better a text, is worth to be made. An email written in a professional context is not a personal letter. Especially in German one should never “write as one speaks”. A simple “na ja”, or another filler that goes unnoticed in conversation, can become a nuisance and expresses a kind of attitude towards the receiving part that is (hopefully) not intended.

Why do I come up with such a Binsenwahrheit (Ger., Eng.)? Because I was pretty angry over an email this morning.
Two weeks ago a friend, who works for a very large organisation, in a private conversation came up with an idea: A project is running for twenty-five years, would we like to produce a small booklet? Yes, why not, after all that is something we do. So he looked around in his organisation whether somebody else would already work on this, and yes, the people engaged in this ongoing project have developed a similar idea. He contacted them (in a seemingly not very nice way, deducing from the answer we received).
It became instantly clear that we could not do this, because it simply would be to no avail: As outsiders we would have to start from scratch, they already know the whole thing inside out. Exactly that is what we wrote in an email to those involved. A date for a meeting was brought up earlier by someone else, and we said that we could attend a meeting – if wished; and yes, we could offer our services for correcting, Lektorat (Ger., Eng.) – if wished. Anything else would be out of question.
No answer. The date would be on next Monday, we already have another appointment originally for this date shuffled towards another day; so yesterday we asked politely via email if this meeting would still be wanted.
This morning I received an answer that basically said “who are you clowns – you are not even members of our organisation, and what do you want anyway?” It was formulated a bit nicer, but only a small bit. The author had not read our previous email, despite the fact that is was enclosed; wrote the name of my colleague wrong; indicated that outsiders, who work for money, are some species of squishable insects not worth to lick the feed of those who work for Gottes Lohn.
And he did that with only some small words. He’s either a genius in writing offensive letters or simply has no idea about the meaning, importance and effect of small words. I think it’s the latter.
My first impulse was to write back a colourful notice involving very short words, but of course I did not. My colleague took over and wrote a very friendly text that nevertheless gives a hint of our feelings, for those willing to read, explaining  in the last sentence that we happily erase this appointment from our calendar.

I do not know whether I am arrogant or especially touchy; whether it was a pure accident that the right buttons were pushed and massive anger was triggered.
When writing a text in a professional setting – and not only there – the basic question is: How would I react when I’d receive this text? Stay away from insinuations and explain your own intentions clearly: Clarity and unambiguity are essential. If you have to write in German do not use phrases like “Sie können dann ja mal”; “wenn Sie nicht anders können”; “Sie müssen”; generally avoid words like “überhaupt”, “gefälligst” (originally a very fine word, totally misused, and near to offence nowadays), “mal” (short for “einmal”, but means nothing but “never”) and the like.
And for heaven’s sake: Read the previous mails and if a meeting is discussed and you do not want it to happen – man up and say it! And one last thing: If you are in a pampered position in a damn large organisation, it is pure arrogance to expect poor sods like us to work for free on your crappy elaborates. This goes especially for universities that do not pay the people who transform unreadable yearbook articles in something at least vaguely print worthy.
Sie können dann ja mal gefäligst darüber nachdenken, wenn Sie nichts Bessers zu tun haben, oder überhaupt (complete: zum Denken fähig sind). Mit freundlichen Grüßen, another pissed off no more customer.
Enough of this dribble, and thank you for listening.

Interesting Women: Mechthilde Peto

She is born (1879) Mechthilde Christiane Marie Gräfin von und zu ARCO-ZINNEBERG (Ger., Eng., DNB),  was correctly addressed as Mechthilde Christiane Marie Fürstin LICHNOWSKY between 1904 and 1937, and finally lived and died (1958) as Mechthilde Christiane Marie PETO.
Mechthilde, a Urururenkelin of Empress Maria Theresia, has a nice childhood, spent on a castle in Niederbayern and in the family palais in Munich. Her catholic education is strict, what is not the worst, and “open” at the same time, among other things she learns French and English fluently (she will later write a novel in French).
In Munich she meets the young British military attaché Ralph HARDING PETO in 1901, they become engaged, but the family does not accept this mésalliance. In 1904 she marries Fürst Karl Max LICHNOWSKY (Ger., Eng.) (1860-1928), a man in his early forties then, 19 years her senior, who has just retired from his career in the ministry of foreign affairs. They have three children, the marriage is seemingly not an unhappy one. In those years until 1912, they live in houses belonging to Fürst LICHNOWSKY, mostly in Schloss Grätz (Ger.) and Kuchelna (Ger., Eng.) in Mährisch Schlesien (Ger., Eng.). Under her influence these places become gathering points for literates, musicians: People like KEYSERLING (Ger., Eng.), HOFMANNSTHAL (Ger., Eng.), C. STERNHEIM  (Ger., Eng.) and others show up; she works together with a certain Karl KRAUS (Ger., Eng.) on texts of NESTROY (Ger., Eng.), and the Viennese thunderer and the Tyrolian countess are linked in a lifelong friendship since these days, until his death 1936. Must have been carefree and happy times.

Her husband is always counted among those who would get an important job in the ministry of foreign affairs, and this becomes true – seemingly after the Kaiser has misunderstood an article the Fürst had written about British-German relations. LICHNOWSKY himself writes in his memoires that the first proposed candidate was found to be too old, two others turned the job down, so he became the  ambassador of the Deutsche Reich at St.James’s (Ger., Eng.). The last before the Great War.
Mechthilde was not a Mauerblümchen, but an ideal model for this role. As Alfred KERR (Ger., Eng.) put it: “The house of the German ambassador is the only place where not the buffet is the main attraction, but the hostess”. She collects art and has some paintings of this strange Spaniard PICASSO on the walls (blue phase), she writes books and establishes a salon: When she comes to London in 1912 she already has a lot of contacts in the cultural European scene of the day, and she uses them.
In August 1914 her husband – as one of the very very few of the elite in the Reich – stands the test of time: Fürst LICHNOWSKY – a man deeply rooted in the 19th century! – is the only one in the ministry of foreign affairs who seriously opposes war as means of politics, who actively works for peace: One of his last telegrams simply says: “There is nothing to win!”
They do not listen to him in Berlin. When he has to leave London the British give him an Ehrenkompagnie, a very fine gesture to a brave man, who had tried all his best to avoid the abyss. LICHNOWSKY is later (1917) expelled from the Prussian house of Lords, but this itself ceases to exist after just one more year – then there is no more Reich. The usual dickheads screamed “traitor”, but it is a sad fact: He stood the test, those in charge to make decisions, not. He dies 1928.

Mechthilde’s first book is published before WWI, a travelbook about Egypt. Later she writes novels and plays, and  in the 1920 establishes herself as a well-known writer with essays, newspaper work and so on. After the death of her husband she spends most of her time outside of Germany, notably in France, especially after 1933. 1936 Mechthilde should join the Reichsschrifttumskammer, what she plainly refuses to do. So her books are not published in Germany anymore and she is de facto verboten. She leaves and we find her among the expatriates who come together in Southern France in 1937 – an illustrious crowd, definitely good compagnie. In the late 1930s her first love, the young attaché from Munich, steps back into her life, and she marries Ralph HARDING PETO (scroll down) in 1937, they settle in London. Mechthilde goes back to Germany on family business in 1939, I have no idea what was so important to her. Despite the fact that she has a British passport she is not allowed to leave Germany – she will not meet her husband again: Major Ralph H. PETO dies in September 1946.
During the war she lives in Munich and in the house in Graetz, and as a foreigner has to show up at the local police station every week. She writes, but of course does not publish. When I piece it together correctly the end of the war finds her in Silesia, in the small part that comes to the new   Tschechoslowakei (Ger., Eng.). So she may have found herself in the midst of the expellation of  Germans (Ger., Eng.). She comes back to London at the end of 1946, some months after her husband’s death, the house in Graetz and other possessions of the family were confiscated by the new state.

She publishes her first book after the war in 1949, Worte über Wörter, a Sprachkritik about style. Some say that it could be compared to KLEMPERERs Lingua Tertii Imperii – I have ordered her book via Fernleihe and am eager for reading it.
Since the beginning of the fifties new editions of her titles start to be published, she receives some honours: In 1950 she becomes a member of the Bayerische Akademie der Schönen Künste, the Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung and the Mainzer Akademie der Wissenschaften und Literatur. The brand new oh so democratic state and the old society want to adorne itself with those, who did not what they did in the twelve years. Mechthilde lives quietly and humbly in London: She did not visit again the house the German ambassador once had. A journey to Germany or to Munich is impossible, not for monetary reasons, but not after those times of Ungeist. There is a break, a fracture between the individual education and the general cultural decay she had to witness first hand, and the language mirrors it. Her prose is characterised as strict and rigid, dismissive even; she understands language as the tool for the Geist to express itself – the “expert” sees language as tool for domination, what is nothing else but oppression.
I think her writings earn to be rediscovered, an interesting woman.

Sources besides those in the text: Literaturportal Bayern (German only), Lesekost (German only), fembio (German only, with a bibliography and further sources), der SPIEGEL 1949 (German only).

A. V. Thelen

As  I read somewhere, THELEN was told that he was no “real” emigrant when he came to Western Germany and met the writers of the “Gruppe 47” (Ger., Eng.) – that must have been 1953, when he took part in the group’s meeting in Bebenhausen; also the critic F.[ritze] J.[arnich’ drauf hören!] RADDATZ (Ger.) wrote that THELEN  went to the South for the warm weather and the cheap living costs only, and in no way was a political writer an did not fight against nazism. RADDATZ is wrong, as usual.
Albert THELEN (1903-1989) (Ger., Eng., long interesting German article) choose as alter ego the name Vigoleis, as he says himself a reference to the “Wigalois” (Text, pictures sadly gone from castle Runkelstein – you gotta love this name!) by Wirnt von Grafenberg (Ger.). He quits the Gymnasium in 1919 and learns the profession of a fitter (Schlosser) in a weaving mill, works briefly as technical draftsman, and in 1925 starts to study in Cologne (German studies, philosophy, history of art). Later he visits the university of Münster and in 1928 he works as assistant to Prof. Karl D’ESTER (1881-1960) (Munzinger; a not uncontroversial man) at the Internationale Presse-Ausstellung Pressa (Ger., article), where he meets his later wife Beatrice. From 1928 until 1931 THELEN works on the poultry farm of his brother Julius to make ends meet, 1929 his first small article is published.
1931 he leaves Germany and lives together with Beatrice on Mallorca (Ger., Eng.). This time of their lives is documented in THELEN’s main oeuvre Die Insel des zweiten Gesichts. They marry 1934 in Barcelona, nearly starve and only narrowly escape the falangists (Ger., Eng.) in 1936, reaching an English ship last second. Vigoleis and Beatrice were on the to-be-shot-list of the German consul. From 1934 until 1940 THELEN writes for the Netherlandish newspaper Het Vaderland in Den Haag under the pseudonym Leopold Fabrizius. This connection seemingly was made possible through his friend Hendrik MARSMANN (Ger., Eng.). Together with MARSMANN Vigoleis translates works of the Portuguese poet and mystic Teixeira de PASCOAES  (1877-1952) (Ger.) – a text of this author fell in Vigoleis’ hands in the beginning of the thirties, in an adventurous translation; the two men start an intense exchange of letters in November 1935, after the death of Vigoleis’ father.
The escape from Mallorca leads them via Marseille to Auressio (Ger., Eng.) in the canton Ticino (Ger., Eng.), where the couples MARSMANN and THELEN now and then live and work together. This ends with the beginning of the war. THELEN receives an invitation by Teixeira de PASCOAES to come to the vineyards of his family in Sao Joao de Gatao near Amarante (Ger., Eng.) in Northern Portugal (pics). Here Vigoleis and Beatrice arrive on the 2nd of September 1939 and stay until 1947, in between living in a mountain village Travanca do Monte (pics). Vigoleis was not able to convince his friend Hendrik to follow him to Portugal, he wanted to immigrate to England. Sadly their ship sunk, MARSMANN drowned.
The years until 1947 were productive and seemingly good years for Vigoleis and Beatrice, he works as editor and translator. After the war they move to Amsterdam from 1947 to 1954, then first to Ascona (Casa Rocca Vispa, built 1930), later to Blonay (La Colline), where they manage the estates of a Netherlandish friend living in Mexico, Elita LÜTTMANN (I could find nothing about her). These properties are sold in 1973, so they move to Lausanne, and finally in 1983 to Germany, where he dies 1986. Beatrice lives three years longer.
THELEN played with the language and enjoyed to spin a yarn, to fabulate. His main work is seen as standing in the tradition of the Schelmenromane (Ger., Eng.), the picaresque novels – something the all so heroic men of few words, who dominated the German literature after WWII, regarded as unacceptable and hopelessly outdated. As long as he lived THELEN was not “accepted”, a bit like SCHMIDT (about) maybe, but for other reasons. SCHMIDT took himself far too serious and generally knew all and everything better, while THELEN in a way never took it too serious: I think he disliked a certain “Deutschheit”. The academic interest in THELEN was remarkable small as long as he lived, in contrast to other authors of his age – I do not want to use the word “generation”. The first and only conference about THELEN took place in Münster in 2003.
His “Island” may be worth a try.