Hans Magnus Enzensberger, German poet and intellectual, dies at 93


Hans Magnus Enzensberger, a free-spirited German intellectual who suggested a new literary direction for the country out of the rubble of World War II, writing poems, essays, novels and travelogues that were by turns witty and incisive, united by their vivid imagery and close attention to detail, died Nov. 24 in Munich. He was 93.

His German publisher, Suhrkamp Verlag, announced his death but did not cite a cause.

An author, editor, publisher and literary scholar, Dr. Enzensberger was “one of the most versatile and important German intellectuals,” the country’s culture minister, Claudia Roth, said in a statement. Along with Martin Walser and Nobel laureate Günter Grass, he helped create a new literary culture for the Federal Republic of Germany — then known as West Germany — in the years after World War II, developing a playful, ironic writing style that defied the stereotype of stern and gloomy German prose.

Dr. Enzensberger went on to resist categorization while bouncing between literary genres, receiving his greatest acclaim for his poetry (British poet and critic Sean O’Brien once praised him as “savage, funny, exact, widely informed, immune to sentiment”) and finding his largest audience through a children’s book about mathematics. Restlessness defined his career: “I write poetry, essays, opera libretti, even scientific articles. But I am not a specialist,” he explained to the Irish Times in 2003. “I want to amuse myself, I don’t want the civic responsibility.”

Yet he was also a deeply political writer, committed to left-wing causes and denazification after spending his childhood in 1930s Nuremberg, where his neighbors included Julius Streicher, the founder of the antisemitic newspaper Der Stürmer. Dr. Enzensberger likened his early role as a writer to that of an intellectual “sanitation worker,” saying he aimed “to clean up” Germany’s institutions by calling out former Nazis who were still in power and by urging Germans to confront their recent past. Looking back on that era, he told Britain’s Independent newspaper: “It was like living with an enormous corpse in the cupboard.”

Dr. Enzensberger acquired a reputation as an “angry young man” while writing poems about the nation’s tendency toward authoritarianism (“you’d love / to be torn limb from limb”) and while publishing essays about German society, including a scathing piece of media criticism in which he concluded that the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung was deliberately downplaying the 1961 trial of Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann. He also co-founded the cultural magazine Kursbuch, which became a touchstone for West German students who revolted in 1968, organizing mass protests against the government.

In the title poem of his 1960 collection “Landessprache,” or “Language of the Country,” Dr. Enzensberger called Germany a “murderer’s den / where in haste and impotence the calendar tears its own leaves, / where the past rots and reeks in the rubbish disposal unit / and the future grits its false teeth, / … all because things are looking up.”

For decades, he remained a forceful and often belligerent political commentator, voicing support for the Persian Gulf War (he likened Saddam Hussein to Hitler) and advocating for European integration, to a point. After declaring in the late 1960s that the concept of a nation “has become obsolete,” he accused the European Union of “limitless megalomania” while accepting the 2010 Sonning Prize, an award for contributions to European culture.

Even as he tackled weighty themes, Dr. Enzensberger drew praise for his accessible writing. His book-length poem “The Sinking of the Titanic” (1978) — written after a brief stint in Cuba, where he became disillusioned by Fidel Castro’s leftist government — used the doomed passenger liner as a vehicle to examine the failings of Western civilization.

“One might expect this to be tough sledding indeed, but Enzensberger addresses his readers as an audience to be entertained … and his book is as accessible and ingratiating as a good thriller,” Washington Post reviewer Thomas M. Disch wrote.

Outside of Germany, Dr. Enzensberger was perhaps best known for his travelogue “Ach Europa!” (1987) — translated into English as “Europe, Europe: Forays Into a Continent” (1989) — and his first children’s book, “The Number Devil” (1997), which became an international bestseller.

Written for his young daughter Theresia, the book told the story of a boy who hates “everything that has to do with numbers” but dreams of a “number devil,” a friendly creature who helps him learn about prime numbers, the Fibonacci sequence and other mathematical marvels. The novel was translated into more than 20 languages and led to a follow-up, the history book “Lost in Time” (1998), along with an educational computer game.

Dr. Enzensberger was surprised by the success of his children’s novels, as were many critics who never expected him to write for younger readers. But he said he had tried to maintain the same literary standards he had in his earlier works, telling the Independent: “I think you can’t play down to children. They are just as, and in some ways even more, intelligent than grown-ups, because they are not yet pressed into conformity.

“They know what bores them, that’s for sure.”

The oldest of four sons, Dr. Enzensberger was born in Kaufbeuren, a Bavarian town near the Alps, on Nov. 11, 1929. He grew up in Nuremberg, where his father was a telecommunications engineer and his mother was a schoolteacher. Both parents were skeptical of the Nazi Party, and as a boy he was more interested in writing than in performing drills with the Hitler Youth, which reportedly expelled him from its ranks.

“I have always been incapable of being a good comrade,” he told the Guardian in 2010. “I can’t stay in line. It’s not in my character. It may be a defect, but I can’t help it.”

Near the end of the war, he was drafted into the national militia and defected, according to the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. He worked as an interpreter for some of the country’s English-speaking occupiers, and studied literature and philosophy at the universities of Erlangen, Freiburg and Hamburg, as well as at the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1955, he received a PhD, writing his dissertation on the poetry of Clemens Brentano.

Dr. Enzensberger was a member of Group 47, an informal collective that helped promote German literature after the war. He rose to prominence with his first poetry collection, “Defense of the Wolves” (1957), and with the anthology “Museum of Modern Poetry” (1960), which helped introduce German readers to poets including William Carlos Williams and Fernando Pessoa.

In 1963, he received the Georg Büchner Prize, one of the highest honors for German-language authors. Within a few years, he was living overseas with stints in Norway and the United States, where he was a fellow at Wesleyan University’s Center for Advanced Studies before resigning in what he said was a protest against the Vietnam War.

“I left Germany for a long period of time, because when you spend your time fighting something, you become in a sense part of it, and I didn’t want to become an obsessive German, one way or another,” he told the New York Times.

By 1979, he had returned to Germany, where he settled in Munich and started a publishing house, the Other Library, which developed an eclectic roster of classic and contemporary books, including works by German novelist W.G. Sebald and Polish journalist Ryszard Kapusciński.

He also continued to write, mixing fact and fiction in “The Silences of Hammerstein” (2008), about the last commander of the German army before Hitler’s rise to power. Some of his other books, including collections of erotic stories, were published under pseudonyms.

Dr. Enzensberger was married three times, to Dagrun Kristensen, Maria Alexandrovna Makarov and Katharina Bonitz. Information on survivors was not immediately available, but according to Deutsche Welle, he had two daughters.

In an interview with Bomb magazine, Dr. Enzensberger noted that as a right-handed writer, he had his “left hand free to do all sorts of other things,” including projects in theater and film that allowed him to work collaboratively, rather than in solitude as he usually did. One of his most ambitious projects involved the creation of a “poetry machine,” manufactured by an Italian company and unveiled in 2000, that could crank out six lines of verse at the push of a button.

“It looks like one of the displays used in airports to announce departures and arrivals,” the poetry magazine Jacket reported, saying that with each push of the button, “the lettered flaps turn with a whirling noise” and a new poem appears.

“Some of the poems are quite enjoyable,” Dr. Enzensberger said. “Some of them are mediocre. So I made a remark that was not well taken by some poets. I said, ‘Anybody who can’t do better than the machine should put away their pen.’ ”

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