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This article is taken from PN Review 74, Volume 16 Number 6, July - August 1990.

The Utopia of Realism Michael Hamburger

Only a few days before his death, Brecht wrote a directive for the bulletin board of the Berliner Ensemble and its forthcoming London season, warning its members that 'the English have long dreaded German art (literature, painting, music) as sure to be dreadfully ponderous, slow, involved and pedestrian' (where 'plodding' might be more apt than 'pedestrian'). 'So our playing must be quick, light and strong. By quickness I don't mean a frantic rush; playing quickly is not enough, we must think quickly as well ... The speeches should not be offered hesitantly, as though offering one's last pair of boots, but must be batted back and forth like a pingpong ball ...'1

With a few exceptions, including Brecht himself, the twentieth century German language writers most respected in the English-speaking world have been of the ponderous kind. In prose fiction it was the authors of large-scale, if not panoramic or encyclopaedic novels of ideas and sociological synthesis, from Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain to Musil, Broch, Canetti, Heimito von Doderer and even Günter Grass's two early novels. That these were not always the most widely enjoyed of German-language works of fiction - and Kafka, too, does not fit into the category - bears out the truth and canniness of Brecht's directive.

The 'Neue Sachlichkeit' ('New Matter-of-Factness' or 'New Sobriety') trend of the inter-war years - largely a reaction to late Expressionism and its shameless fabrication of a pathos that appealed to self-pity, hence to resentment ...


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