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The past rings out clearly

Germany's many pleasures tinged with dark history

The Bells in Their Silence: Travels Through Germany

By Michael Gorra

Princeton University, 211 pp., $24.95

Sturdy and unbending are the library shelves that hold books about German warfare, politics, and history. It takes a good deal of shelf space just to accommodate the biographies of Hitler and his dark accomplices -- to say nothing of Luther, Bach, Drer, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Nietzsche, Bismarck, Einstein, and the brothers Grimm.

These luminaries share a common language and national origin, a place that must surely have left its stamp on them. Hitler was emphatically German, but so were Kant and Heine. So were Karl Marx, W. G. Sebald, even Hermann Hesse and Claudia Schiffer.

If this is so, where are the books by contemporary traveler writers? Since the Second World War, an unending gush of books about Germany has poured forth, but not about traveling there. Destinations such as Nepal, the Marquesas, or Provence more readily attract the contemporary travel writer. This was not always so. Mark Twain, to take just one conspicuous example, had a good deal to report concerning his German sojourns.

Lately at least one enterprising American has undertaken to see the place for himself and write up his experiences and impressions. In 1993, Michael Gorra spent a month in Hamburg. Contrary to his expectation, he was quite taken with the city and its way of life. When the chance to return for a sabbatical year in 1997 and 1998 presented itself, Gorra seized the opportunity to commit his experiences and thoughts to paper.

The result is his entertainingly vivid, reflective ''The Bells in Their Silence." Gorra, a professor of English at Smith College and a specialist in the English novel, finds entry into German travel through the British writers who preceded him. William Makepeace Thackeray and George Eliot -- both of them admirers of Goethe -- wrote lively accounts of their experiences in Goethe's Weimar. The town has long been the symbolic center of German tradition and culture, and the European Union has named Weimar one of Europe's official ''Capitals of Culture."

Precisely here, in this celebration of cultural capital, comes the rub. The Weimar that filled Eliot and others like her with untroubled admiration is just a stone's throw from Buchenwald. Each in its own way remains a capital of German and European history, memory, and identity. No doubt the lack of travel writing about Germany has something to do with this peculiarly tense entwinement between culture and monstrous crime.

In Gorra's congenial, bustling Hamburg, his wife becomes a patient of the dentist in the house next door. Such everyday happenstances, he finds, often plunge him into a world of ''ghosts and echoes": Before the dentist established his business there, the house had been the local Gestapo headquarters; before that, it had housed the offices of a Jewish community organization. ''I don't know what to do with these facts," says the traveler, ''what I should feel about them, what I do feel about them."

What he thinks about, more or less against his will, is Laurence Olivier as the evil SS dentist in ''Marathon Man." What he writes, more cannily, is this: ''In Germany the practice of everyday life is not today a matter of accepting the presence of horror but rather one of accepting its pastness, of coming to terms with what its present once irrevocably was."

In travel writing, plot and suspense usually arise from the obstacles and dangers that impede the journey, threaten the traveler. So at first glance, a college professor's sabbatical year in a comfortable European metropolis would not appear to offer much in the way of narrative momentum. But because Gorra travels in Germany with such animated interest and pleasure, there arises a moral tension that drives his narrative. The pleasure of travel collides with the knowledge that one is in a place where so much misery has been inflicted and suffered.

Wherever Gorra goes -- Berlin, Lbeck, Hildesheim, Magdeburg, the Harz Mountains, while lingering at sundry churches and rivers -- he finds an uneasy equilibrium between past and present. Often this equilibrium is visible and palpable, for it takes the mode of ruins, often cultivated as a form of remembrance.

For example, Gorra proposes the altar of Pergamum as the most telling emblem of Berlin's broken ''profusion of histories." The piece, which depicts a battle between gods and giants, is a 2,000-year-old Hellenistic altar to Zeus. Now it is almost illegible with wear: ''You can see the cracks, every one, the cracks and splits and fissures and fragments that time has wrought, and so it is with Berlin too, a city whose own splinters are permanently on show."

Curiously, ''The Bells in Their Silence" has almost no photographs. The single exception appears on the dust jacket. In Lbeck, Gorra finds that painstaking reconstructions have obscured the scars left by bombing raids of 1942, with one conspicuous exception. The distinctively medieval Church of St. Mary, though beautifully restored, preserves a memento of the catastrophe: ''Below the south tower lie two bells that fell sixty meters to the floor that night, bells warped and twisted by the heat, cracked and smashed by the fall, and the stone floor beneath them smashed as well. They have been left where they landed."

Gorra is not suggesting that these bells embody the ultimate ruin of Germany. Rather, he sees in them the pastness of the horror, but also the legitimate claim of the past on the present. An unfinished ruin, as he writes elsewhere in the book, simultaneously dreams of past and future, of what once existed and may yet again.

Steve Dowden teaches German and European cultural studies at Brandeis University.

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