Monday, 16 June 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 5 Into Germany (1)

At last! The German frontier appeared some way ahead (but why the image above is overprinted BLICUSE I don't know)...

At school, whose gates had finally clanged shut behind George and me only a couple of weeks before, German language and literature were disowned and despised as fit only to be locked away in a dark cupboard to contemplate their shameful existence until some far-distant day when they might be taken out, dusted off and tentatively laid before generations less deeply dyed with First and Second World War cultures. Ha! All the more reason for a dilettante maverick like myself to lay hold of them and espouse their cause wholeheartedly.

I made a point of ensuring that the most visible of the vast armfuls of books we used to carry about in the crooks of our arms had nothing whatever to do with what I was supposed to be studying: Latin, Greek and Ancient History. My armful was usually ostentatiously topped with The Penguin Book of German Romantic Verse, a miraculous dispensary - with translations - of mini-outpourings from Goethe, Matthisson (the poet of Adelaïde), Schiller, Mayrhofer, Eichendorff, Heine and all the rest of those Teutonic lyricists so effortlessly able to encapsulate my innermost feelings in three or four utterly compelling verses.

Eduard Mörike, too: a climax, a sort of simultaneous cerebral orgasm in my relationship with Adèle had come some weeks before when, invited but unprompted, she had written on my bedroom wall, not far from George's Chaucer quotation:

Wie heimlicherweise, ein Engelein leise
Mit rosigen Füssen die Erde betritt;
So nahte der Morgen.

I could translate this 'so let there be, always some cash for me' for all that its literal meaning was important: what mattered was that this proved that Adèle was a real, living, breathing, beautiful, smiling, affectionate witness and exemplar of that German heritage that was so important to me. No longer was it a chimaera, a private and hermetic world of which I was the only citizen. Nor, after being shriven by Adèle, would it serve as a goad to prod, tweak and irritate lumpen teachers; it was too hallowed for that. All this puts a new gloss on the meaning of 'meaning', of course, but literally the lines, taken from a poem about the New Year by Mörike, a pastor from Stuttgart, translate as:

How stealthily a delicate little angel
Steps over the earth with rosy feet;
So the morning approaches.

Apparently this is very well-known in German mittelstand homes. There's no mystique about it at all. It's as though, if the roles had been reversed, I'd written Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel in Adèle's autograph book, and she'd gone into only-just-post-adolescent raptures about the incredible mystic beauty of it.

So nearly all the German I had came from The Penguin Book of German Romantic Verse, sometimes bundled up - a surprising amount - and shoved into the memory through the songs of Schubert and Schumann. There was another, minimal source of language: in those days, fifteen years after the death of Hitler and the fall of the Third Reich, newsagents still abounded with cheap comic booklets featuring a certain Sergeant Rock or one Squadron Leader 'Battler' Britton, in which hapless Nazi dolts shouted Achtung, Spitfeuer! or Jawohl, Herr Leutnant! not to mention Hände hoch, Schweinhund! and I can't pretend, when I was twelve or thirteen, not to have harboured a certain greed for this coarse fare.

So with a syntax and vocabulary drawn from the easier poems of Goethe and Heine, salted with war-comic imprecations, we approached the German frontier and the town of Aachen. (George, incidentally, had no German at all.) I could say Ihr lieben holden Musen, wann ruh' ich ihr am Busen, auch endlich wieder aus? [You beloved, beautiful Muses, when will I finally rest on your bosom?] and zum Befehl, Herr Kapitän! [Aye aye, Captain!] with the utmost assurance, indeed swagger, but there was very little in between.

Two German students of about our age took us across the frontier. We were very jealous of their car.

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