No one reads Johannes Bobrowski (1917, Tilsit – 1965, Berlin). He studied art history before being drafted in 1939. He served as a soldier for the entire war (he started writing at the Eastern Front); he spent another four years as a prisoner of war in Russia. After his release he lived in Berlin and worked as an editor for the publishing houses Lucie Groszer and Union Verlag. He died of a perforated appendix. His work was published in both East and West Germany.
Bobrowski wrote a few books of short stories (Mäusefest, Boehlendorff, and Der Mahner), two novels (Levins Mühle / Levin’s Mill and Litauische Claviere / Lithuanian Pianos), and four volumes of poetry (Sarmatische Zeit / Samartian Time, Schattenland Ströme, Wetterzeichen, and Im Windgesträuch).
He was very much a writer who himself reads writers no one reads, such as Jakob Reinhold Michael Lenz (the actual Lenz from Büchner’s novella) and Boehlendorff. Boehlendorff was a friend of Hölderlin and their letters became the subject of a great essay by Peter Szondi on Hölderlin’s surpassing of classicism (“Überwindung des Klassizismus”). Here is an excerpt of the Bobrowski’s story “Boehlendorff”:
But one has heard, my dear Boehlendorff, and of course read, you went around with a whole swarm of poets in Germany.
Taciturn, Boehlendorff, put out?
With a whole swarm. Try to remember: Neuffer, Schmidt, Wilman, Zwilling, Seckendorff, Magenau, a certain Hölderlin, Sinclair.
But surely not all at the same time? What was it like? Master Hölderlin went to live at glazier Wagner’s, in Homburg the air is good, Herr von Sinclair went to court, Zwilling set his heart on a uniform.Well, Boehlendoriff, says Pastor Beer.
It wasn’t like that, says Boehlendorff slowly, and now the sentence Boehlendoriff brings forth wherever he goes, here in the provinces, whose answer Boehlendorff reads on the wood, the wood of the fences and the wood of the barn doors, and on the earth during the rain, the sentence families object to and Herr von Campenhausen and Pastor Giese’s wife, the sentence with which Boehlendorff steps out of this drawing room as he stepped out of the folding doors of the estate houses and the french windows of the parsonages: How must a world be created worthy of a moral being?
Moral being, oh for God’s sake. Everyone is that, or thinks he is, wherever he goes, this Boehlendorff. Moral being.
And a world?
The valley of shadow imposed upon us as an ordeal?But which one day will happen.
And be created?
We all had ideas one time or another, says Pastor Beer. And, as they say, water subsides.
And the people, what do they say? When he tells of the revolution of the Franks and of the Helvetians? Around a lake and unimaginably high mountains. What do the people say?
Sit and cover their faces with their hands, sigh through their fingers: horrible. With eyes closed.
When Boehlendorff has gone out they say: Good person, the Hofmeister, that fellow.
(from Marc Linder’s translation of a collection of Bobrowski’s stories, I taste Bitterness)
Bobrowski was clearly influenced by the books and writers he read (Nelly Sachs, Jawlensky, Else Lasker-Schüler, Klopstock, Hamann, Hölderlin, Gertrud Kolmar, Joseph Conrad, Dylan Thomas…) and he often responded to what he read with his own poems:
prehistory, of ancestral
star-time, rolling suns
over the dance of the peoples,
as the south,
a reddish bird, roars
in the falling mountains.
a song on the sword-point,
girl. Voices of birds
above the banks now.
we see you
clearly, the form of the manly
goddess under the oak-tree,
proud head as
high as the branches.
Dreamily your hands
His writing is also very much influenced by the landscape he lived in, the Baltic, East Prussia, Germany when it bordered Lithuania:
when the sun declined —
the swallow which we loved
came then no more.
Deep, riddled with hail,
Did you stay,
a friend with gentle speech,
hands? — we heard the drag
of air and the dusk, I have
drunk a water.
with burning sails,
I shall go, Boötes to my right,
above my head the Swan, —
windless, night, I shall go,
(both poems translated by Ruth and Matthew Mead in Shadow Lands)
Some of Bobrowski’s work has been translated into English: New Directions publishes Levin’s Mill, a collection of his poems (Shadow Lands), and a selection of his stories (Darkness and a Little Light).
During his lifetime he was recognized and awarded a couple of prizes, among them the prize of the Group 47.
He influenced a number of his contemporaries. Gerhard Wolf (Christa Wolf’s husband) wrote a few studies on Bobrowski, a 1967 biography and a description of Bobrowski’s room (Beschreibung eines Zimmers).
Michael Hamburger has translated some of his poetry and his correspondence with Bobrowski was published in German. He was translated into Dutch by C. O. Jellema (a Dutch Michael Hamburger) who also wrote an essay on Bobrowski’s poetry (“Over de poëzie van Johannes Bobrowski”). Jellema’s translations can be found in his Verzameld Werk.
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