It was March, and it was cold, and I found myself in Berlin, yet again. During the course of my stay, I drank an outrageous amount of coffee and had way too much popcorn in the Potsdamer Platz cinema, which also became a bit like a second home. Tentative plans were made, as usual, to visit the Dalí exhibition, that unfortunately did not come to fruition, primarily because opening times do not agree with the habits of a postgrad night owl.
This was actually the second bookshop I had my eye on during that week. The first one I came across was only opening on the following day (and will feature here soon), so on that very first evening, to the sound of my friend’s protestations, I wandered down the road to this place. As you can see, it has an impressive variety of not only books but all sorts of paraphernalia such as postcards and maps. But then again, a book addict and a lover of clutter will always enjoy the sight of volumes in disarray, ladders leading to heights of plenty. And, very importantly, even though it was almost closing time, I suspect the bookseller stayed longer, an enabler of dawdlers and slow browsers.
Before I go into detail about which book I picked up, I have to confess my affection for the German language. I have been working on German fiction this year, almost exclusively. In the process, I rediscovered the pleasure of reading the original, of inhabiting those strange at first, then slowly more and more familiar words, dots adorning some of the vowels. In tracing the history of fairy tales, I marvelled at stories that travel, from version to version, changing shapes. But here, with originals, I found myself alone with the tale of my own linguistic journeys. Adalbert Stifter wrote in a letter I came across in a biography of his: ‘da brach mich fast buchstäblich das Herz’, and the first thing that popped in my head, instead of the, well, literal translation, ‘my heart literally broke’, was a heart being spelled out (from the verb ‘buchstabieren’), H e r z / h e a r t, each gap a break, and then instantly after that, of a book (‘Buch’) as a pole or stick (‘Stab’) in the heart, or as a stake, or a wand, they could equally splinter or spill out a heart. In Arnim’s Isabella von Ägypten, there are trees on which people ‘wie seltsame Früchte hingen’, ‘hung like strange fruit’, and it is in that r, followed by the ‘ü’, that ripeness and weirdness and juiciness mingle.
And so I bought Erich Kästner’s ‘Die dreizehn Monate’ (‘The thirteen months’), a collection of poems, one for each month, with an extra, the thirteenth. I remember I leafed through the pages in the bookshop and something caught my eye, a turn of a phrase or a line, and I felt the pull of possibility, a twinge of excitement. That feeling of: here is something new and strange and good, something to be saved for later, for solitude and loose lips. Of course, I had no idea how those plans would change. I ended up taking this slim thing with me on a month-long daily commute to London and I would sample each poem, a bite at a time, in between snatches of thesis reading, finally abandoned for staring out the window. As hedges and fences and empty fields growing with green swooshed past, day by day, for more than a month, I found pleasure in being busy to the point of dark circles and caffeine roller coasters. I was eating up time, awake and observant, taking in the birth of spring without really needing a language for the occasion. And yet the poems persisted. First, the lightness, their ease, fizzy and unruly like champagne sprites, bubbled to the surface. And then sometimes they could siphon off the colours, rumbling like hints of thunderclouds in the distance or like hungry stomachs.
To give you an idea of the imagery, I offer some of it here (reproduced and translated by me with the kind permission of Verlag Friedrich Oetinger). In March, ‘Kätzchen blühn silbergrau./ Schimmern wie Perlen’ (‘Kittens glow silvergrey./ Shimmer like pearls’). People often complain about long German words that go on for miles, but I’ve never considered this a problem. Instead, there’s an opportunity to invent things as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, because if flower scepters/‘Blumenzeptern’ (‘Der Mai’) exist, then why not an ‘Elfember’ (‘Der dreizehnte Monat’/’The thirteenth month’). Or better yet, what this sometimes facilitates is looking at a word and unwittingly transforming it into something else. I had no idea what ‘Blaumeise’ (from ‘Der Mai’) meant in German (it’s the bird blue tit, as I now know), but my first thought was that it’s probably a word play, combining ‘blaue’ and ‘Ameisen’ to form ‘blue ants’. Sometimes those words give the world a different meaning – and so, it gets airy and sparkly when ‘es überblüht sich’ (‘it overblooms itself’ – oh, not just to overbloom, but to do it to one’s own self!) (from ‘Der Mai’). ‘Sterneschnuppen’ appear (‘star flakes’) (from ‘Der August’), and you could just imagine flimsy golden shavings off the stars’ edges floating down, soot after a fire. ‘Standarte/ aus Pflaumenblau und Apfelgrün‘ (from ‘Der September‘) could be both ‘flags of peacock blue and apple green’, but also standards (the word ‘Standar(t)d’ can mean – or rather sound like, the false friend that it is – both), as if you could measure and judge the world by how it complies with those hues. And then there’s the tenderness of trees as they become ‘Buketts für sanfte Riesen’ (‘bouquets for gentle giants’) (from ‘Der Oktober’), and the world expands as you’re now someone dwarfed by oak-and-fir-clutching giants.
What Kästner’s verses gave me was the chance to step back from the days of rapid and overwhelming assault of spring. They provided masts against the siren songs of a warm day dressed up in the soft pink garlands of trees. They contained a certainty, offered protection: skin may age and overbloom itself and memory slips and slides, but seasons never happen all at once. Their colours are only felt in words.
And then, there’s the sadness. It is in many of those poems, felt as time passing, even in the loudest of months: ‘Auch Glück kann weh tun. /Auch der Mai tut weh.‘ (‘Happiness, too, can hurt. May, too, hurts.‘) (from ‚Der Mai‘). Time runs on, as you read, first a line, then a stanza, then the whole, then each and every one of the poems, until you have them covered and consumed. And within these poems, time has already passed through once, as they were being written. Or else, the ink of Kästner’s pen whirled chronology around as this word was exchanged for that, as the muse descended with more appropriate rhymes or rhythms. So there it is, time, caught, subdued, just for you, behind the bars of human words for melancholy and for festive coaches and for indolent summer evenings of stars and fireflies.
My words, stymied by spring, cannot do justice to these poems. What’s left to say is: I would learn German all over again, just for them.
Copyright of the quoted verses and phrases: Erich Kästner, Die dreizehn Monate (c) Atrium Verlag, Zürich 1955 und Thomas Kästner