PN Review Print and Online Poetry Magazine
Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
Mark FordLetters And So It Goes
Letters from Young Mr Grace
(aka John Ashbery)

(PN Review 239)
Henry Kingon Toby Martinez de las Rivas
(PN Review 244)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Colm Toibin on Thom Gunn's Letters Allice Hiller and Sasha Dugdale in conversation David Herman on the life of Edward W. Said Jena Schmitt on Hope Mirrlees Brian Morton: Now the Trees
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PNR 250 Poetry Archive Banner
PN Review New Issue
Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this review to

This review is taken from PN Review 40, Volume 11 Number 2, November - December 1984.

WHAT WAS HE REALLY LIKE? Ronald Hayman, Brecht: a Biography (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) £8.95
John Willett, Brecht in Context: Comparative Approaches (Methuen) £12.50

As early as 1917 Brecht is reported to have said to a girlfriend: 'I must become famous, so as to show people what they're really like.' Ronald Hayman quotes that extraordinarily apt remark - made long before Brecht became a Marxist - but must have had so much material to pack into his narrative that he could not pause to consider its implications for his own undertaking, a biography of Brecht. At best such a biography might have shown people what Brecht was really like; and even that, by Brecht's own criteria, would have been a waste of time, because Brecht applied himself like no other writer of his time to a reduction of his own person to what he considered its basic ingredients, and those ingredients were the ones he thought not individual at all, but generally human.

At the very beginning of that process, when Brecht was still very self-consciously working on the image of himself most conducive to showing other people what they're really like, he admitted in his early diaries that it was only 'the bad things' about himself he had noted there. This over-emphasis on the cruder and nastier sides of human nature in general, and of himself as a specimen of it, became a lasting characteristic of Brecht's writings. To show readers what Brecht was really like, therefore, would have called for much more than a stringing together of the miscellaneous reports and quotations from which this biography has been assembled. Above all, it would have called for correctives to the simplified images of himself that Brecht chose to project in all but the more delicate and differentiated of his later poems. As it is, Hayman's book switches like some jumpy television documentary between Brecht's fornications on the one hand, and his theatre business - much of which was abortive - on the other. I have avoided the word 'love' affairs deliberately, though I do not believe that Brecht was as unloving as he made himself out to be, or as Hayman's necessarily incomplete account of Brecht's relations with women suggests. As for the theatre business, the alternative to Hayman's gossip and summaries of plots, casts, sets etc. would have been not biography, but criticism. That applies to Brecht's poetry also. Though Hayman quotes the odd poem - in translations by himself that leave a great deal to be desired - a reader of this book alone would never guess how much of Brecht's energy and skill went into his poetry, very little of which he bothered to collect in his lifetime, outwardly preoccupied as he was with the difficult business of survival - and with the function of showing people 'what they are really like'. The poetry, too, served that function, of course; but not in a way that lends itself to biographical documentation.

Because, to me, Brecht's poetry is his most durable and exemplary achievement, and Brecht's later poetry much more than the earlier, for all its brilliance and forcefulness, not only did I have great difficulty in reading this biography at all, but was left with serious doubts and misgivings about the usefulness of writing such literary biographies. 'Of making many books there is no end,' said the Preacher; and it is to literary biographies that the reflection has come to apply more than to any other kind of book, now that full-length, or more than full-length, biographies of writers are assured of an attention increasingly denied to their works. A good many poems of Brecht remain to be translated, or published in translation, and two more volumes were added to the German corpus as recently as 1982. Brecht's later diaries or Arbeitsjournal were a chronicle of his working life and of events relevant to it. An English version of those later diaries would have the advantage of making that chronicle, Brecht's own, available, without the accretions of a 'story' that Brecht would have regarded as utterly irrelevant and impertinent; and a story which, in my judgement, does justice neither to Brecht's person nor to his work.

'It was soon after returning to Santa Monica in March that Brecht met Charles Laughton, who fell in love with him', Hayman tells us. Since that statement is neither substantiated nor elaborated, I look up the source reference provided at the back of the book and find that the assertion is based on an interview with Joseph Losey, not on a confession by Charles Laughton. Hayman goes on to inform us that 'Laughton had deep feelings of inadequacy, which Brecht was able both to salve and to exploit'. In other words, Laughton's need for Brecht was not at all the one imputed to him by the phrase 'fell in love', based on Hollywood gossip at best. (Elsewhere Hayman implies that Brecht, like Laughton, had homosexual leanings, only because in his youth there were times when he prefered the company of his male friends; but one takes that as a bit of the spicing now obligatory for successful literary biographies.) Perhaps Hayman does not even expect his readers to believe that Laughton really 'fell in love' with Brecht, whom most of the people he met in America found positively repulsive; but in that case the phrase, without quotation marks, is irresponsible, slapdash and sub-literary. It is Hayman's readers who have to weigh up the possibility that both Laughton and Brecht were capable of a relationship more complex and delicate than a falling in love on one side, exploitation for professional advantage on the other. Yet that possibility is far more plausible and far less grotesque than Hayman's simplification.

On the one-act play Er treibt einen Teufel aus (Driving out a Devil) Hayman comments: 'This is the play that tells us most about the way Brecht imposed his will on both women and men. . .When Brecht was making passes, he may have felt insecure and desperate for love, but the mask had already begun to grow into the skin.' Whatever Brecht may or may not have felt when making passes, he did not write this - or any other - play to tell us what it was. Even his early self-probings and deliberate self-indulgences served him as a means of stripping down personality to its bare bones, because it was only by self-knowledge that he could arrive at the impersonality he was after. Critically, therefore, or only descriptively, the comment is an irrelevance.

Much of what is wrong with Hayman's biography has to do with the pace of the book. The compulsion to tell us whatever is known or has been surmised about the events of Brecht's life, and squeeze in the 'major' works as well, is enough to falsify the account, because too much of what matters about any writer resides in the gaps between events; and however long the written life, the lived life was much longer. The pace produces curious sentences like this one about Erich Engel: 'A short man with thick spectacles, strongly sculpted features and a driving energy which compensated for his lack of charm, he recognized the power latent in Brecht's dialogue' - thanks to his thick spectacles, one wonders, or one of his strongly sculpted features? This is only one of many non-sequiturs and nonsenses due to the biographer's need to tell us too much, too fast. Not only theatrical acquaintances or collaborators like Engel, but even personal friends of both sexes, pass in and out of the story without becoming much more than a name.

About Brecht the poet, Hayman writes: 'He was certainly the greatest twentieth-century German poet, but, unlike his predecessors and unlike Gottfried Benn, he had achieved his mastery over the language by resisting disciplines, including those of scholarship.' The more closely one looks at that sentence, the more meaningless it grows, beginning with the epithet 'greatest', which Brecht, of all people, could only have laughed at, since the debunking of 'great men', including 'great poets', was one of his constant occupations. Nor did Brecht achieve his 'mastery over language' by 'resisting disciplines'. His true mastery was achieved by the most rigorous discipline imaginable, that of subordinating the expressive functions of poetry to considerations of its usefulness and relevance to others. To achieve that, Brecht resorted to models, like his unnamed 'predecessors' and like Gottfried Benn, who was less of a literary scholar than Brecht. At successive periods Brecht's models included classical poets like Horace, late mediaeval ones like Villon and modern ones like Rimbaud or Kipling, as well as all sorts of popular lyrics and balladry. Brecht's later poetry also profited by the example, and discipline, of Chinese and Japanese models, as made accessible to him mainly by Arthur Waley; and, as he pointed out, one model for all his writing was Luther's Bible.

Haste and carelessness may also be partly to blame for Hayman's absurd travesty of Brecht's poem Lob des Kommunismus, in which communism, the subject of every sentence in the poem, is gratuitously personified as 'he' in Hayman's version - only because in German 'der Kommunismus' is a masculine noun! Later (p.326) we read of a speech made by Stefan Zweig at a peace rally in East Berlin, several years after that writer's suicide in South America. Clearly, Hayman has muddled up Stefan Zweig with an altogether different novelist who settled and died in the GDR, Arnold Zweig. Readers with no German will also be misled by the reference (p.345) to a 'holiday resort on the Ostsee', i.e. the Baltic, when earlier place names incorporating 'see' had denoted lakes, not seas, because 'der See' is a lake, 'die See' a sea.

Where Hayman does comment on specific poems of Brecht's - and Brecht's least successful or never completed plays qualify for more attention than most of his best poems - the comments can be so misleading as to be worse than useless. Of Brecht's poem 'Die Lösung' - his unofficial response to the Workers' Uprising of 1953 - Hayman writes that the title 'means either "The Solution" or "The Dissolution" '. It does not, since the German world for 'dissolution' is 'Auflösung', and the verb 'auflösen' occurs in the text of that poem. Of one of Brecht's last poems, 'Als ich in weissem Krankenzimmer der Charité . . .', he writes that 'it uses the blackbird's song, as he had used it before, semi-symbolically, to represent the work of the artist'. If that were so, the poem would be most un-Brechtian, both because such semi- (or pseudo-) symbolism is what Brecht got rid of in verse, and because an identification of a blackbird's song with the 'work of the artist' would have been both mawkish and trite. On the contrary, that blackbird represents nothing but itself, and its song has to do not with art but with nature. In face of his approaching death, Brecht celebrates the consummation of a long process of unselfing, his capacity to take pleasure in a song not intended for him, not related to him any more than to those who will hear it when he is dead. That is why he wrote: 'Jetzt/Gelang es mir, mich zu freuen . . .' ('Now/I succeeded in being glad/Of any blackbird's song coming after me too'). Sensitively interpreted, this poem alone could have served to correct those coarse, brash and unscrupulous images of Brecht - partly projected by himself- that dominate Hayman's book. There was much more to Brecht than any reader of this biography only could possibly guess; and the evidence for that is nowhere but in Brecht's works. Those who knew him best, like his wife Helene Weigel, were the persons least likely to reveal what they knew of him, most likely to share or respect his own contempt for the personality market.

John Willett's book is a collection of short pieces bearing on various aspects of Brecht's art and activities. As such, it complements the same author's books on the theatre of Brecht and Piscator, but opens with an account of his long-standing involvement and fascination with Brecht, to which a large English-speaking public is indebted, as to no one else, for Brecht's breakthrough into general awareness and availability. Once again John Willett shows a rare combination of minute, specialized scholarship with concerns that extend to all the arts, as well as to social and cultural history - concerns no longer expected of scholars either within or outside the universities. It may be that this book will appeal most to readers already familiar with Brecht's plays and other writings, but any reader open to those concerns will find something in it to engage his or her interest, if only because Willett is far from sharing 'the lack of any capacity for enthusiasm' which Brecht, at one time, attributed to himself. It is the first four chapters especially - 'An Englishman looks at Brecht', 'Anglo-American forays', 'The case of Kipling' and 'The case of Auden' - that should appeal even to the majority of British readers who do share that incapacity with regard to artistic trends in Germany, or to the vexed question of Brecht's political commitment.

Relations between Brecht and Auden, which have elicited more comment and speculation than anything else in Willett's book, were as ambiguous and vexed as Brecht's politics, perhaps for reasons connected with the changing political stances of both men. Auden listed 'Berthold Brecht' (sic) among the 'elder modern poets' from whom he had learnt most. That was in his commonplace book, A Certain World, of 1971. Willett also quotes a letter from Charles Monteith that cites Auden as saying repeatedly that 'of the literary men he had known only three struck him as positively evil: Robert Frost, Yeats and Brecht!' According to Hayman (and presumably Elisabeth Bergner, by way of James K. Lyon's Brecht in America), Auden not only thought Brecht 'a most unpleasant man' but 'one of the few people who deserved the death sentence. In fact I can imagine doing it to him myself'. Stephen Spender is probably right in believing that Auden's dislike of Brecht's person was due to Brecht's not being a gentleman, though the difference between them lay less in what, socially, they were than in what either man wished to be. Significantly, though Willett has missed this point, the 'un-favourites' whom Auden refrained from listing in the commonplace book are characterized as 'underbreds'. It seems quite conceivable to me that if Auden had listed both 'pets' and 'unfavourites' there, Brecht could have appeared under both headings. And since Auden's own gentlemanliness was questionable and insecure, John Willett may be right, too, in endorsing Edward Mendelson's 'private speculation' that 'Brecht and Auden were at bottom very much alike'.

Auden's misspelling of Brecht's name, as late as 1971, and of the German titles of Brecht's works elsewhere, contradicts his claim (in his letter to Willett of 1959 from Austria) that 'my German is much better now'. Very much as Brecht refused to become fluent in English when living in America, Auden would not take the trouble to acquire correct German when living in Austria; and my conversations and correspondence with Auden about German texts suggested that his approach to them was both quirky and cavalier. When I lunched with Auden at a restaurant in Kirchstetten and his guests had ordered different dishes, the waitress hesitated over a plate of pork. 'Hier das Schwein!', Auden called out, pointing at himself. The waitress almost dropped the plate, she laughed so much. That could have been a joke at his own expense, at the expense of the gentlemanliness; but it also bore on his attitude to the German language, which required the pedantic specification 'Schweinebraten'.

Another thing that Auden and Brecht had in common was their professionalism; and it may well be this professionalism, above all, that explains why Auden did not translate those poems of Brecht's which he said he admired and which Willett so wishes he had translated. To translate poems because one likes them is not compatible with Auden's professionalism. Adaptations of plays or texts for music are another matter; and both Auden and Brecht did take on such adaptations. Of the two, though, it was the ungentle-manly Brecht who was readier to break the professional code where poetry was concerned. His hundreds of posthumously published poems are the proof.

Brecht's changing political stance, like some of his unscrupulous professional dealings and his conviction that being good was a temptation to be resisted, will remain as controversial as it was complex, despite Willett's valuable clarifications in the second half of his book. 'Brecht observed political events very closely', Willett writes, 'and had to do so in order to preserve his family and himself through what was indeed a dark time, but it is a mistake to regard him as a political philosopher; for interesting as his insights often are they are the product not so much of a fully worked out theory as of what is now called lateral thinking.' Just as perceptively, he distinguishes Brecht from doctrinaire Marxists when he writes: 'Brecht's idea, which he shared with Tretiakov [a victim of Stalin's purges] as well as with Yeats, Pound and Claudel, that the "cultural heritage" could also embrace the works of non-European civilizations was as alien to Lukàcs as it would have been to Alfred Rosenberg and his "Militant League for German culture". Even in Stalin's multinational Union the non-Russian cultures were effectively relegated to the zone of folk art.'

Though in his opening chapter Willett had confessed to 'having grown up fairly resistant to poetry in any language', his brief appreciation of Brecht's poem 'Das Fischgerät ('The Fishing Tackle') of 1943 sums up much of what needs to be said about Brecht's later verse; 'Sixteen lines: economical, vivid, down-to-earth, moving from a precisely described object to a human tragedy of those times, then onward and outward. It is political. It is poetic. Neither aspect interferes with the others; it is perfectly fused, right down to the elements. This what Brecht could do. Could anybody else?'

The book ends with another summing-up, 'Stoppers for some commemorative gaps', which should be read by all students, biographers and academic critics of Brecht who cannot see the wood for the theoretical or anecdotal trees - of which, he points out, 'there are now more than ever'. If some of Willett's own trees - minutiae of Brecht's relations to Expressionism, to Piscator's 'epic theatre', to cinema, the visual arts and music-prove hard going for non-specialists, non-aficionados, the panoramic view of Willett's last two pages is an ample reward.

This review is taken from PN Review 40, Volume 11 Number 2, November - December 1984.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this review to
Further Reading: Michael Hamburger More Reviews by... (14) Reports by... (2) Poems by... (28) Articles by... (10) Interview with... (1) Reviews of... (14) Translations by... (6)
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image