We’ve been in Denmark for ten days so far, all but the first night spent staying at Brecht’s house in Svendborg, about 50 KM south of Odense. I have a residency here for a month. All I have to do is write in Brecht’s study, with its view of Svendborg Sound, and the islands on the other side.
Every day we remind each other how lucky we are to be in this place – this long, low house with its thatched roof, and endless doors and windows – especially now that I remember to duck when passing through any internal doorway. Yachts and ferries go by, birds chatter in the trees, flags twist and flap in the breeze. We keep the radio in the living room on all day, to a classical music station that startles us, once an hour, with the news in Danish. Max and Kirsten, who are on the Board that offered me the residency, live just along the shore and they drop by to help us with important things, like setting the channels on the new TV, so we can watch the World Cup.
Tom has study space of his own, on the shady side of the house overlooking the little yard where we dry our washing. There’s a studio there, for artists who need a larger space to work, where the house’s five bikes are stored, along with the badminton set Tom is determined to use. (Max jokingly refers to this as our "sporting program.")
Every day I’m drawn to my desk, which isn’t something I’ve been able to say, honestly, for much of the past year. Already I’ve finished the Rome book, completed an editing project, and started work on something else. Brecht tried to write a Rome book here as well, in 1938: it was about Julius Caesar, and how Ancient Rome, by preserving slavery, had made a slave of itself. Mine’s about teenagers trapped in contemporary Rome by an ash cloud, while high jinks ensue. Brecht would disapprove, I’m sure. There’s a bust of him on the study’s windowsill, and a photograph of him on the wall, cigar in hand. Elias Canetti said: “Under his gaze you felt like a worthless heirloom, and he, the pawnbroker with his piercing eyes, was appraising you.”
Brecht lived in this house from 1933 until 1939. He left Berlin in February of 1933, the day after the burning of the Reichstag. His (second) wife, the actress Helene Weigel, was Jewish, and he was a known anti-fascist. His books and plays were banned in Germany, and, in 1935, Brecht was stripped of his German citizenship – in absentia.
Brecht and Weigel fled first to Prague, and then to Vienna to borrow money from Weigel’s parents, trying to work out a way of living cheaply in France or Switzerland. Then he received an invitation from the novelist and journalist Karin Michaelis to stay in Denmark. They went first to Michaelis’ house on the island Thurø, very near Svendborg, and she helped them get the money together to buy this house. The price was something like 7000 DK. Brecht and Weigel had borrowed money from both their families, and Brecht had just received an advance to write a novel based on The Threepenny Opera.
This was an old farmhouse, and work had to be done so Brecht could live here with Weigel, their two children, and their maid, Mari Hold. Brecht’s study, where I’m typing this, was the old stable, remodelled so he could write here, and have a private – if primitive – toilet that needed to be emptied daily. This is the little room that now houses the washing machine.
He also got a supplementary stove, to keep the room warm, but the board of the Brecht House, wary of the thatched roof going up in flames, have removed any venue for open fires. The room also has a private door, so Brecht could receive visitors here directly without them walking through the house. One of these visitors, on almost a daily basis, was his long-time collaborator and mistress Margarete Steffin. I’ll write more about her, and Brecht’s other female collaborators, in another post.
We’re very close to Germany here, only 50 KM from the border. Kiel is the nearest German city, much closer to us here than Copenhagen. In a poem Brecht wrote here, he refers to a man who “quietly crosses the street.” He could hear the guns of warships, on exercise in German waters. In the poem ‘Concerning the Label Emigrant,’ he wrote: “Ach, die Stille der Sunde täuscht uns nicht! Wir hören die/Schreie/Aus ihren Lagern bis hierher.”
(“Oh, the stillness of the Sound doesn’t fool us! We hear the/Screams/From your camps over there.”)
Brecht wrote some of his most famous plays, like Mother Courage and Her Children, as well as many of his best, and best-known, poems here in Svendborg. In ‘To Those Born Later’ he talked about the life of exiles, “changing countries more often than our shoes.” Sometimes he called this place “Danish Siberia,” but during his six years here Brecht managed to travel to Copenhagen, Paris, Moscow, New York and London for various projects. Many people visited him here, including his father, and his ex-wife Marianne (with their daughter, Hanne). Walter Benjamin, the Jewish critic and philosopher, made numerous long visits, and stayed nearby for the whole summer of 1938. After lunch every day, he and Brecht played chess under the fruit trees. (A pear tree in Brecht’s poem ‘To Walter Benjamin, Who Killed Himself Fleeing From Hitler.’)
Today we were eating a late breakfast when some German visitors tapped on our kitchen window. We’d been told that Germans, in particular, like to come by to see where Brecht lived. We invited them in, and showed them around. They were from Berlin, and had grown up in the old East Germany, they told us, learning Russian instead of English, but we managed to chat about Brecht and some of his many women – Weigel, Steffin, Ruth Berlau, Elisabeth Hauptmann.
They took some photos in the study and, after they left, I realized that I’d forgotten to tell them something important. When Brecht lived here, painted on the rafter in this room was the phrase “Die Wahrheit ist konkret” (Truth is concrete). This is a Hegelian idea, picked up by Lenin, and adopted by Brecht.
Reading Hegel and Lenin on this subject reminds me of why I got a C+ – my worst ever mark – for the course “Marxism in Perspective” taken, in terrible error, my first year at the University of Auckland. Aside from a vague notion of what Proudhon was talking about (“property is theft”), I really had no grasp of the subject at all.
My stupidity persists to this day. Something about the word “dialectics” makes my brain glaze; also the words “idea” and “truth” and “system.” Perhaps the reason is my (numerous and glaring) blind spots about mathematics: I’m not fluent in the language; I can’t follow the logic. I exhort students of writing to focus on the concrete rather than the abstract, but that’s something else, I think, to lure them into the specifics of detail, the particularities of a time and a place and a character. (I would have been no use to Lenin, except perhaps to make his dinner.) Maybe it’s the same thing: against generalizations.
Earlier, after reading things and struggling to understand, I wandered into the living room to turn up the radio: one of the Songs from the Auvergne was playing, and I wanted to listen. Tom came in as well, and performed an impromptu interpretative dance, to distract and entertain. “Hegel is b------t,” he told me. “You can quote me on that.”
(And here I should thank Doris Eikhof for the German translation of “Truth is concrete,” and for pointing out that “truth” is a feminine noun in German.)
Something I did remember to tell the German visitors: I’ve read that Helene Weigel, Brecht’s wife, didn’t share his bedroom here. She didn’t sleep in any of the bedrooms. Brecht slept downstairs; so did the two children, and the maid. But every night, Weigel tugged on a rope and pulled a ladder down from the ceiling. She slept in the attic.
When Max comes over to discuss our badminton net needs (part of one pole is missing), he says he’s not sure of the truth of this: the attic is unfinished, not suitable for habitation. I show him one of Brecht’s poems, Zufluchtsstätte, and we discuss the meaning of “Ein Ruder” in the first line. Literally it’s a rudder, but Max thinks it’s also something that horses pulled across fields to rake the soil flat; farmers used them to hold down thatched roofs, to protect them from the wind.
So here’s my attempt at a very, very loose – and free – translation, with apologies to Brecht, the German language, and metrical verse.
Place of Refuge
A farmer’s rudder holds down the roof, so wind
Can’t blow the straw away.
In the garden we’ve laid stakes
For a swing-set, for the children.
Post arrives twice a day at this place,
where letters are welcome.
Ferries come down the Sound.
The house has four doors, four ways to flee.
I’ve read interpretations of this poem that talk about the “four doors” as Brecht’s countries of exile – Denmark, Sweden, Finland, the US. But this poem was written here in Denmark, before Brecht had to flee anywhere else. And this is a house of many doors – four when Brecht was here, five now. (There's one at the end of the house, on the left, and French doors on the garden side.) Truth is concrete in this case, I suspect.
As well as the painted motto, Brecht’s studio also featured – back in the day – a nodding wooden donkey on the window ledge. It wore a little handwritten sign: “I, too, must understand it.” This was so Brecht could remember meaning, sense and clarity, I guess. (That would make Frank Conroy happy.)
Today I put down the German book, and we eat leftover sausages for lunch. Max drops by with a stake for the badminton set. In the Sound an old sailing ship heads for the harbour, and one of Max and Kirsten’s grandsons, wearing an orange life jacket, messes about in the shallows in a dinghy. I tell TM that I’m reading German books now, and translating poetry. “I’ve become an intellectual,” I warn him. “Let’s not get crazy,” he says.