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This review is taken from PN Review 42, Volume 11 Number 4, March - April 1985.

THE DESTRUCTIVE ELEMENT Michael Hamburger, A Proliferation of Prophets (Carcanet Press) £14.95

By now it has become conventional, even in Britain, to acknowledge the importance of the translator. Yet in practice the difficulties they face hardly appear to have diminished: the more excellent the translation the more we are inclined to take it for granted. This new collection of Michael Hamburger's essays on German literature makes clear the commitment which sustains his work; at their best they transmit to the reader Hamburger's own conviction of the importance of this distinctive literary tradition.

Hamburger is especially sensitive to where the roots of this distinctiveness lie. As the book ranges over subjects from the life of Nietzsche to the diaspora of German writers under the Nazis, it returns repeatedly to question the nature of the characteristic German response to modernity. Not that Hamburger treats the matter in a reductionist way - 'Any author worth writing about deserves to be written about as a special case', he believes - and he is properly critical of simplistic attempts to reduce culture to politics. Nevertheless, he is aware of the force of tradition and believes that, rightly nuanced, the relationship between literature and politics remains a central problem.

These concerns emerge most acutely in the essay on the black-romantic figure of Gottfried Benn, a writer whose pro-Nazi enthusiasm (at least in the initial period after the takeover of power) was notorious. As Hamburger explores the poetry he reveals Benn's sensibility as one which, if not strictly speaking Nazi (it is hard to ...


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