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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry


Lustgarten, Preußen

Volker Braun

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To purchase Lustgarten, Preußen

Title: Lustgarten, Preußen
Author: Volker Braun
Genre: Poetry
Written: 1959-97
Length: 180 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Lustgarten, Preußen - Deutschland
  • Ausgewählte Gedichte (Selected Poems)
  • Lustgarten, Preußen, like most of Volker Braun's work, has not been translated into English
  • The paperback edition (2000) under review here includes four poems not available in the original hardcover edition (1996)
  • Three poems included here were published in English, translated by Michael Hofmann, in an issue of Poetry magazine devoted to German poetry (Oct./Nov., 1998). See also our note regarding these.

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Our Assessment:

A- : good overview of a great poet's career

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung . 27/12/1996 Wulf Segebrecht

  From the Reviews:
  • "Es ist keine dokumentarische Sammlung (...), sondern eine neue, eigenwillige, von Braun selbst getroffene Auswahl. Hier geht es nicht um eine möglichst authentische Rekonstruktion der historischen Entwicklung eines jederzeit widerborstigen Lyrikers, sondern um die höchst subjektive Deutung dieser Entwicklung aus heutiger Sicht." - Wulf Segebrecht, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Volker Braun was among the foremost poets of the German Democratic Republic, where he stayed until the bitter end. He was often at odds with the GDR-regime, but did not leave the country. His art -- often of a strongly political bent -- nevertheless transcended national and political borders: he successfully published in West Germany long before the fall of the Wall, including some titles that were suppressed in the East (the notorious Unvollendete Geschichte (see our review) among them). His work also finds a place in reunified Germany, and he continues to be recognized as one of the foremost living German poets (as shown again by the recent award of the illustrious Georg Büchner Prize (2000) to Braun).
       Nevertheless, for reasons that are not entirely clear (though his politics and his precise use of language presumably play a role) he has remained relatively untranslated. Except for stray poems that occasionally appear in Poetry his work is almost impossible to find in English. Given the breadth of his work (a great deal of poetry, a number of significant plays, as well as works of prose and non-fiction) and its quality this is a sad state of affairs. The collection Lustgarten, Preußen ("Pleasure-garden, Prussia"), which provides an overview of his entire poetic output from 1959 to 1997, again shows how much English-language audiences are missing.
       Ordered chronologically the book is divided into four sections. The first, though covering the longest span (1959-74) is also the shortest and most selective. The evolution of Braun's poetry can readily be followed through the early examples. And there are already a number of highpoints, including the confident Der Lebenswandel von Volker Braun
       Braun's poetry comes in a gamut of forms -- there are sonnets, free verse, and even blocks of prose (Definition, for example). Whether rigorously adhering to a form -- as in the rhymed sonnet Shakespeare Interlinear -- or without such constraints, Braun's poems are precise and direct. Few here are very long -- Der Weststrand and Burghammer are among the few exceptions -- but many are very dense. There is often a tone of anger in the poems, and rarely one of resignation.
       There is considerable self-reflection in the poems, as for example in Larvenzustand which presents Braun's dialogue with an inner self . Verbandszeug finds Braun and a colleague going to the same (writer's) union hall, where there is to be a discussion about "Erfassen der Realität;" (grasping reality) as a literary problem. "Das fehlte uns noch", ("That's what we've been missing") Braun says tongue in cheek and, asked whether he is coming, he explains, alluding to one of his previous works:

       Man weiß halt so wenig
Man faßt es nicht, und dann kommt man nicht richtig zum Ende
Sag ich dir, dabei haß ich die unvollen-
Deten Geschichten !

(       One just knows so little
One doesn't grasp it, and then one doesn't properly get to the end
I tell you, and I hate the unfin-
Ished stories !)
       Braun's colleague ominously and ambiguously promises that they will "fertigmachen" ("finish off") these, but Braun is no longer interested in these literary and political battles:
       Wir gingen ins Haus
Er auf das Podium, in die Sauna ich

(       We went into the building
He onto the podium, into the sauna me.)
       Familiar material and themes appears throughout the volume. Braun's focus on "Die Suche nach dem Stoff (zum Leben, zum Schreiben)" ("the search for material (for writing, for living)", from Definition) is found several times, an ongoing concern (which also led to the title of perhaps his most accomplished volume of verse, Der Stoff zum Leben 1-3 (now expanded to four sections)). Years later, he begins a 1989 poem on the opening of the 40th season of the Berliner Ensemble still maintaining: "Wie unklar is der Stoff / Der Welt." ("How unclear is the material / Of the world.")
       Those unfamiliar with Braun's work will find a great deal that is of interest in the early pieces, but for those who have followed his career more closely it is the more recent poems marking and then reflecting on the transition to a reunified Germany that are of greatest interest. Always a political poet, and often very direct, some of Braun's strongest pieces can be found here.
       From the simple poem condemning the regime's failed efforts to restructure the decaying East German state, Der Tapetenwechsel, to his Prolog on the opening of the 40th season of the Berliner Ensemble, in which he looks back at what was and forwards to what must now come, Braun warily looks towards the unified future. He never abandoned the GDR, and, despite all his criticism, he also refuses to do so after the Wall has come down. It is not nostalgia, but a wariness of the Western world whose values he never embraced. "Brecht, ist Ihnen die Zigarre ausgegangen ?" ("Brecht, did your cigar go out ?") he begins the poem O Chicago O ! Widerspruch ! (O Chicago ! O Contradiction !), and comes to his conclusion: "Es ist gekommen, das nicht Nennenswerte" ("It's come, that which isn't worth mentioning.").
       The sad Schreiben im Schredder (Writing in the Shredder) takes as its inspiration a barn full of (East German) books saved and stored by a priest after the fall of the Wall, works such as the Karl Mickel's Gelehrtenrepublik (a book that has, ironically, recently been revived and "rediscovered", enjoying surprising but deserved success). Wondering whether the work, the artistic legacy, will follow the now obsolete state into the shredder Braun screams: "WARUM SCHWEIGEN DIE DICHTER" ("WHY ARE THE POETS SILENT")
       Braun paints a dark picture -- though this critical approach has always been part of his poetry, regardless of the nature of the regime, an attempt to effect change. Much of his criticism is correct. The changes he might hope for -- a more humane socialism that has learnt from the mistakes of Soviet-style regimes -- are, however, distant (as he seems all too aware).
       Aspects of the GDR -- and not merely the darker shadows of the corrupt and corrupting state -- will continue to have a lasting effect, in Germany and beyond. Certainly much of the best of GDR literature is of such a quality that it will endure -- though it will likely never again be of such significance or popularity. Volker Braun's poetry is certainly among the strongest written in German after WWII. His voice continues to be an important one in the new Germany, just as it was in the old ones. He deserves to be read -- though, sadly, one can hardly say (because one can no longer say it about any writer) that he must be read (as was the case in the GDR). He also deserves to be translated .....

       Note: Three of the later poems were published in English translation in an issue of Poetry magazine devoted to German poetry (October, 1998). The three -- O Chicago ! O Widerspruch !, Das Theater der Toten, and Das Eigentum -- were translated by Michael Hofmann, and unfortunately can be taken to serve as an explanation of why Braun is not better known in the English-speaking world. Despite Mr. Hofmann's reputation (it is apparently a high one) these translations are, in our estimation, nowhere near adequate (and that's expressing it as politely as we know how to).
       Mr. Hofmann takes some liberties which one can accept and many which one can't. Among the questionable decisions is his choice of rendering the title of O Chicago ! O Widerspruch ! as O Chicago ! O Dialectic !. "Widerspruch" literally means "contradiction" -- a word that even manages to capture some of the wordplay of the German word, with "diction" a vague substitute for "Spruch". The English word "dialectic" has a German equivalent -- "Dialektik" -- which Braun pointedly did not use in the title. Arguably Hofmann's choice makes the poem clearer to Western audiences (emphasizing Braun's Marxist inclinations), but Braun is careful in his use of terminology (and a far better student of dialectic than Hofmann) and we can't imagine he would approve.
       Similarly, both in this poem and the others, Hofmann leads the readers to a specific reading of the texts that both diverges from some of what Braun means to say and removes some of the possible ambiguities of the text -- in both cases unnecessarily. Line by line Hofmann's renderings are not disastrously bad -- and on occasion he chooses well -- but the poems as a whole do not impress in their English versions. There is none of the tightness and precision and, even worse, too little of the meaning and import of the originals.
       If this is how Braun is presented in English then no wonder no one is particularly impressed by his work.

       (Note that the English versions of Braun's verses provided in our review are all of the too-literal sort, meant as a gloss on the German, not a substitute. We make no claim to providing what might be considered a translation. The sections, sentences, and titles which we provide English counterparts to might indeed by rendered differently in complete translations of the texts in question. But our versions are probably still more useful than what Mr. Hofmann perpetrated.)

       For more about Mr. Hofmann, see our review of his collection, Approximately Nowhere

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Lustgarten, Preußen: Reviews: Volker Braun: Other books by Volker Braun under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       (East) German poet and dramatist Volker Braun was born in 1939. He has won numerous literary prizes, including the Heinrich Mann Prize, and the Georg Büchner Prize.

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