At a forgotten house
I see my mother opening some back pantry door,
Her who died forty years later,
Remind her who I am. She seems preoccupied,
Almost fades out, the scene – a home? – suspended.
Perhaps, though, turning, less absorbed, she whispered:
‘Come back when you have died.’ (‘Wild and Wounded’)
A Michael Hamburger Reader is a tribute to the great Anglo-German writer. It was edited by Dennis O’Driscoll, Hamburger’s friend, a poet and essayist himself. In this 600-page collection, O’Driscoll manages to get the reader as close to Hamburger as possible in one book. It feels very much like spending a week at your grandfather’s house – getting to listen to all his stories, roaming through cupboards, reading the works hidden inside.
The first chapter is an autobiographical collection of personal accounts not only from Hamburger’s adult life and career, but also his childhood. Whether describing the relationship with his father, remembering early romantic relationships of peaceful childhood in Kladow or the emigration from Germany in 1933, these chapters are genuine and reflective:
We spent less than a year in Edinburgh; and even though I roamed many different parts of the city with that gang […], the city of which we had the freedom was still not that of adults, but a playground and battlefield. When I saw Edinburgh again as an adult I recognized nothing but the obvious sights and a tea-shop or two in Princes Street.
This short paragraph, though prosaic, is evocative and philosophical. These qualities shine through Hamburger’s work and most of all his poetry, contained in the second chapter of the book – “The Poet”. This section is central to the book, although it’s the shortest. “In a Cold Season” is a poem that has already been mentioned in one of the autobiographies, where Hamburger recalls all the controversy surrounding the words about Eichmann:
But show him pity now for pity’s sake
And for their sake who died for lack of pity; […] (‘In a Cold Season’)
This long poem is a haunting account of the Holocaust from multiple perspectives. One such account deals with the death of Hamburger’s grandmother, a victim of the Holocaust. The details brought up in the poem – her soft spot for sweets, her lapdog and stuffed French Bulldog, have already mentioned in the autobiographical section of the book; therefore, they feel more painful and real, as if we knew the person we’re reading about. Preceding that personal account, there’s a general one, giving voice to all the voiceless:
[…] No place no time for memory to unfreeze
The single face that would belie his words
The single cry that proved his numbers wrong.
Probing his words with their words my words fail.[…] (‘In a Cold Season’)
The remaining two chapters are Hamburger’s critical essays and translations, for which he is best known. He translated both French and German writers, such as Goethe, Hölderlin, Rilke, Celan, Brecht and Grass. Examples of those and many other translations are generously included in the book. When asked by Peter Dale whether he thinks his poetry is underappreciated on account of the body of critical work and translations which established his literary reputation, Hamburger responded: “The parrot cry raised to brush aside my poems again and again, ad nauseam, is ‘better known as a translator’ – as though it made the slightest difference what a writer is best known for.”
It’s difficult to give justice to this book in so few words, but it certainly immerses the reader in Hamburger’s life, poems, language and thoughts. It is a letter from the other side, yet so insightful of this world we live in that it’s hard not to smile or shed a tear – something best captured by the poet himself:
[…] She laughs when I tell her
What it’s like to be dead.[…] (‘Mad Lover, Dead Lady’)