Peter Edgerly Firchow. Strange Meetings: Anglo-German Literary Encounters from 1910 to 1960. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2008. xiii + 283 pp. $64.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8132-1533-4.
Reviewed by Keith Bullivant (University of Florida)
Published on H-German (May, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
This is a strange book, consisting of four chapters previously published in an earlier form in various journals between 1980 and 1993. The one chapter that did not appear earlier presents hardly anything new in terms of its subject matter: the well-documented story of Christopher Isherwood in Berlin that was the subject of the writer's two Berlin novels, Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939), as well as his later Christopher and His Kind (1972). It was later to spawn John van Druten's stage play (itself later filmed), I Am a Camera (1951), which later morphed into the musical, Cabaret (1965). This narrative is well known, and Peter Edgerly Firchow adds nothing to our reading of Isherwood's interaction with Berlin.
There can be no doubt that the most readable chapter is the first, "Sunlight in the Hofgarten: Eliot, Lawrence, and Brooke in Pre-1914 Munich." The story of D. H. Lawrence's affair with Frieda von Richthofen is well known, but Firchow's study of the impact of Munich on Rupert Brooke and T. S. Eliot, whose "The Waste Land" (1922) begins in Munich, is truly interesting, though as a citizen of St. Louis, Missouri, Eliot hardly qualifies as "Anglo." The second chapter, "Shakespeare, Goethe, and the War of the Professors, 1914-1918" will probably be of interest to American scholars of William Shakespeare, and of German studies, but presents material that my generation of British Germanisten, who studied German under the long shadow of the aftermath of the Second World War, learned with our strong verbs. The final chapter, "W. H. Auden and Josef Weinheber: Poets of Kirchstetten," is an oddity, in that Auden was a U.S. citizen, and so--like Eliot--would seem to be rather out of place here.
Firchow's most promising chapter on the basis of its title is undoubtedly "The Attractions of Fascism for the Literary Avant-Garde in Britain between the Wars," but unfortunately it disappoints. Just turning the pages of Charlotte Mosley's The Mitfords: Letters between Six Sisters (2007), of any of the biographies of the family, or of the relevant pages of the letters of Noël Coward reveals far more on the subject than Firchow does, besides which he gets sidetracked into fruitless rants at times. He labels Lawrence a "fascist before his time," and "potentially fascist," while conceding that he is unable to go into "the full ramifications of Lawrence's protofascism" in this chapter (pp. 210, 207). This argument is all based on a slanted reading of The Rainbow (1915) and the testimony of Bertrand Russell, who considered anyone who was slightly to his right a fascist. Even more questionable is Firchow's attempt to besmirch the memory of Rudyard Kipling, who, he reminds us, "lived well into the period when fascism came to power in Italy and National Socialism in Germany" (p. 160), and therefore should, presumably, be considered a fascist. Having detected "overt racism" in Kipling's work, he then, using ideas derived from Frank Reeves, equates this attitude with the proposal "to act on its beliefs in racial superiority, even to the point of extermination" (p. 161)--a charge leveled at a man who died in 1936. Proof of Kipling's racism is derived from a reading of "The Man Who Would Be King" (1897; filmed in 1975 with Sean Connery and Michael Caine), which testifies to a strong sensitivity to racism on Firchow's part, no doubt based on the legacy of American slavery, but which is deaf to English irony and self-deprecation. So Kipling's racism is not "merely pro-English and antiblack and brown"; Firchow also attributes to it negative sentiment about the Irish, Germans, and Jews.. Firchow finds predictable support from George Orwell, who called Kipling "a jingo imperialist," but he fails to realize that behind the--to him--alien mind-set of Kipling there always lurked that British self-doubt so vividly expressed in John Cleese's passionate monologue to Jamie Lee Curtis in A Fish Called Wanda (1988).
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Keith Bullivant. Review of Firchow, Peter Edgerly, Strange Meetings: Anglo-German Literary Encounters from 1910 to 1960.
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