On Hans Magnus Enzensberger

He designed a fridge-magnet poem-kit (which, I believe, has now had a software program based on it). He wrote a skeptical book about Europe in 1987, before Europe was really a subject (Ach Europa! was the wonderful title of the original; Europe Europe in English). He wrote a children’s book, an opera libretto about a runaway Cuban slave, a world-best-selling math book (The Number Devil), a partial memoir (Tumult).

Why should one not have readers? Was there any merit in being difficult or obscure?

Photo of Hans Magnus Enzensberger
Photograph by Jürgen Bauer / Suhrkamp Verlag

The word “genial” in English conveys pleasantness as much as genius: it takes the chill off what otherwise can be a cold and lonely quality. That fits it for the German polymath Hans Magnus Enzensberger (1929–2022), who was both a genius and a charming, inquisitive, and endlessly productive man, who, further, like only the very greatest, was entirely lacking in self-regard. You wouldn’t want to keep pace with his entry in Who’s Who, but then you didn’t have to. Friends called him Magnus, and I wrote to him in the Latin vocative as Care Magne and visited him several times in Munich. Once, I missed the last train, and stayed over in his guest room. Of course. No problem. He would ask me about Florida, which he pronounced as Flo-ri-da—with the Cuban pronunciation, as I realized after years. He had a wonderful capacity for taking an interest—but only in interesting things, not to be mistaken for the perverse and arid professional quality that specializes in making something but only out of nothing. In fact, we didn’t meet as professionals. What brought us together wasn’t “shop,” or the biz, I didn’t “ask what he was writing,” we exchanged perspectives, we met as temperaments or as tastes (where I corresponded to maybe 5 or 10 percent of his sweep).

Yes, there was his vast, intimidating performance (the German word Leistung!), the array of publications and employments and awards, but it came without the least appearance of industry or ink smell of study. It was as though all these things were the work of a cat, or a cricket. Some joyful, impish creature that pleased itself and was light on its feet. It’s hard to think of anything not coming to him easily, or with amusement, perhaps even a little surprise. Never with a struggle, not through application or gritted teeth or sweated determination. Even in England, professed land of the all-rounder and cult of the amateur, there was no one like H.M.E. There was no one even close—maybe, strange to say, David Bowie the nearest. Someone else who came back every decade as someone else. I never knew a more superior spirit.

Enzensberger did so many important things that it sometimes seemed everything he turned his hand to was important and successful. This both was and wasn’t by design; I don’t think “success” was of any interest to him at all as a category, any more than “failure” will have carried wholly negative associations. And yet, why should one not have readers? Was there any merit in being difficult or obscure? What mattered was the attempt. Was having fun trying. And perhaps a book should earn out its advance, or an essay provoke and get itself talked about. There was something both sporting and mocking about him. Nothing of the mountaineer; maybe a croquet player.

For a start, he seemed never to repeat himself. He was by turns and at various times a poet, a radio broadcaster, an essayist, a polemicist, a provocateur, a publisher of the exquisitely produced unorthodox classics series die andere Bibliothek, a magazine editor of Kursbuch (the title translates as “railway timetable”) and TransAtlantik. He was both of his time and ahead of his time. In 1960, he edited a hugely influential anthology of world poetry called Museum der modernen Poesie; this was at a time when each nation still thought what it had was what there was—a wholly inimical belief to him. He designed a fridge-magnet poem-kit (which, I believe, has now had a software program based on it). He wrote a skeptical book about Europe in 1987, before Europe was really a subject (Ach Europa! was the wonderful title of the original; Europe Europe in English). He wrote a children’s book, an opera libretto about a runaway Cuban slave, a world-best-selling math book (The Number Devil), a partial memoir (Tumult). He was a translator (of Simic and Ashbery, but more to the point, of Edward Lear, of Cesar Vallejo, of Denis Diderot); not so much a popularizer as a discoverer of Sebald, say, or Ransmayr, or Kapuscinski, or of the best-selling anonymous account, A Woman in Berlin. Not wanting to flood the market with product, he also kept a couple of pseudonyms going. He spoke five (?), seven (?), ten (?) languages, and lived for long periods abroad, in Italy in the ’50s, in Norway in the ’60s, in Cuba in the ’70s, even in (then) West Berlin (which always goes against the grain for a Bavarian), before settling in Munich, the self-styled “metropolis with a heart” (Weltstadt mit Herz).

It’s strange to even think of such a dazzling—lightsome, to use a Heaney word—and also practical figure as German. Not a mystifier, not murky, not plodding, not hysterical, not pretentious, not un- or otherworldly. The opposite of Rilke and George. The poems have an un-German clarity and humility and gaiety, as in these lines from “In Memory of William Carlos Williams” (the wooden translation, of course, is not his, but not mine either):

For the Stockholm Academy
not quite right,
for the reporters unprofitable,
not blind enough for Look,
too alive for Life
with his eighty years
he perceived more in his backyard
than all of New York over twelve channels.

If Enzensberger hadn’t existed, no one would have thought to invent him. “Ich bin keiner von euch” he wrote, “und keiner von uns”: not one of you, and not one of us. (His loss, accordingly, is a catastrophe everywhere. Perhaps no one is as irreplaceable.) His century, the one he was most oriented to, would have best fitted into, was the one I think of as perhaps the last personal and polymathic century, the 18th, and his movement the Enlightenment (think of Dr. Johnson and the French Encyclopedistes).

I think with gratitude and a little incredulity of our mutually exotic forty years’ friendship, going back to the 1970s when I heard him read from his long poem called The Sinking of the Titanic (with his own English translation) in Cambridge, England: running together the fated liner of Capitalism, the shipshaped communist island of Cuba, and enisled West Berlin, where he wrote the poem. He made me feel proud of being German, which then took some doing. Perhaps I didn’t want to realize there were no others like him. I realize I have small, practical shards of his thinking everywhere. The title of an essay of his that I like to quote as a gag: “Second Thoughts on Consistency.” A way of writing a poem, not that I’ve ever done it: setting down a few words that might come into things at the bottom of a draft. Sort of poem-adjacent words, but it sounds like a super idea.  When I read the introduction to his 1963 German translation of Vallejo, I was stunned to see that he had taken the immense trouble to go up to the small Andean town where the Peruvian poet was born. And this without resources, and not because there was a TV spinoff, or because literary journalism called for that. In around 1960, it really didn’t. Just so.

He died on Thursday, today is Monday. One follows the circle of the internet like a kind of secondary world clock. Obituaries have come out—I’ve seen them listed online—in Spanish, Italian, Slovenian, French, Finnish, Turkish, and whatnot, German, of course; from Europe, South America, Africa, Asia. Not one of the big English sites, barely anything in English. To which one might think: well, why should there be. Perhaps he didn’t make any special mark there. But that’s not even the case. His poems have been published in English from the 1960s (Poems for People Who Don’t Read Poems, Mausoleum), often in his own sparkling translations. Michael Roloff wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that Enzensberger’s rabidly vengeful early lowercase long poem “foam” (“schaum”)—he mellowed later!—“makes A. Ginsberg’s Howl sound like the mopings of a puppy.” He was right, too (the translation here is Jerome Rothenberg’s):

pack in your gasmasks pack in your bellies
buy geiger counters and old masters
buy little boys and bequeath them
your juice while it lasts
buy up monday buy up the ocean
buy up branflakes and bombs buy
the geniuses out at the airport
buy poison and wait till i
smear it over your affluent tongues

Enzensberger’s elegant, politely contemptuous resignation letter to the President of Wesleyan University (protesting American foreign policy, and before going to Cuba), called “On Leaving America,” was printed on Leap Day, 1968 in the New York Review of Books:

The ruling class of the United States has taken sides in the armed struggles of Guatemala and Indonesia, of Laos and Bolivia, of Korea and Colombia, of the Philippines and of Venezuela, of the Congo and of the Dominican Republic. This is not an exhaustive list. Many other countries are governed, with American support, by oppression, corruption, and starvation. Nobody can feel safe and secure any more, not in Europe, and not even in the United States itself.

A long and achingly ironic piece called “Mann, Kafka and the Katzenjammer Kids,” about literary relations between English and German appeared in the TLS in 1985—it’s strange to think of such cosmopolitanism, such sweep, and such effortlessly superior workmanship, all in living memory. Inconceivable that such a piece could appear now. You read such things, and “dumbing down” is no longer just a phrase. Forty years, and we are—what? half of what we were, if that.

Yes, no one lays claim to a cosmopolite, except perhaps his own jealous, half-disdained, half-inadequate country, and then often late and under protest. But to me it says something too, as the earth turns, and the world steps forward in the form of the cities, the languages, and the names of the great newspapers, about the lostness and the remoteness and smallness of New York and London and the English language, that so little interest has been taken in the passing of a world-figure. Magnus would probably tell me at this point not to be pompous. And laugh.

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