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Karl Wolfskehl: Leben und Werk im Exil.

Karl Wolfskehl: Leben und Werk im Exil. By FRIEDRICH VOIT. Gottingen: Wallstein. 2005. 816 pp. 42 [euro]. ISBN 978-3-89244-857-0.

This is the definitive account of the life and career of the poet, translator, and collector Karl Wolfskehl after his enforced departure from Germany in 1933 and his subsequent sojourn in Italy until 1937, then his ten years of exile in New Zealand (1938-48).It is also the documentation of Wolfskehl's rediscovery of himself as a poet, through the experience of being 'a patria pulsus et exul immeritus' (he quotes Dante's Epistula II. 25 and identifies with it). From being a minor poet, an editor, a prodigious book collector, and, most importantly, the never-wavering disciple of Stefan George, Wolfskehl found his own voice in the Italian and New Zealand years. The choice of these destinations involved first a George-inspired identification with Italy ('dass das mediterrane Erbe dennoch das Versprechen eines Uberlebens birgt', p. 176), and then the radical symbolic gesture of moving to the point inhuman civilization furthest from Europe and from both Hitler and Mussolini ('auf Erdballs letztem Inselriff').

Wolfskehl sold his huge book collection to Salmen Schocken and was able to live--precariously--off an annuity paid to him by the publisher. His original choice of exile was Sydney, which would in many ways have been more congenial, but Australia did not grant him a visa, and the choice fell on Auckland instead. Voit is as fair as one can be to New Zealand society as it then was, and to the problems, not all of New Zealand's making, which Wolfskehl faced. It is not certain that anyone so encumbered with the furniture of the George circle could have been comfortable anywhere beyond the embrace of that fraternity. Boehringer, Verwey, Lechter, Salin, Landmann, and Pannwitz sustain him at various stages of his exile and form part of the large network of correspondence which is at least as important a document as the poetry itself. Thomas Mann is but one of the many fellow exiles who try to raise Wolfskehl's spirits in adversity. Yet Wolfskehl, despite a rootless and wandering existence in exile, did manage to identify to some degree with the Anglo-Saxon culture of his adopted land and to be a formative influence on the younger generation of writers (Mason, Fairburn, Sargeson). The real heroine of this account is, however, his long-suffering companion and secretary Margot Ruben, who later became the keeper of his Nachlass.

The poetry, to which Voit devotes a large section of this book and which he analyses in detail, is informed by several factors: the reality of exile itself, the rediscovery of the poet's Jewish roots and identification, and above all the sense of being a representative of what was best in German culture ('Wo ich stand, war deutscher Geist').There is the understandable desire to address those who have rejected and betrayed him (as in An die Deutschen or Das Satyrspiel), which produces some good lines. The translations from the Hebrew, and the INRI and Hiob cycles, draw on deeper wells of experience and contain poems which are moving testimonies to the anguish of abandonment, the empty heavens, the reality of suffering, and the poet's role in mediation and pronouncement (Die Stimme spricht). The long shadow of George himself and of the Master's mannerisms lies over most of Wolfskehl's poetry, especially the Mittelmeer-Zyklus. In those terms it often makes claims to greatness that cannot be sustained.


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Author:Paulin, Roger
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2007
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