This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.
Georg Heym (1887- 1912) was a German poet and playwright who also wrote one novel. Heym believed in the idea of the “demon city,” which symbolized his repudiation of romanticism in the midst of the rise of industrialism and repressive systems. Still, he lived a wild and passionate life, accompanied by depression and restlessness. In 1910 he dreamed of a death by drowning and two years later fell through the ice while skating.
Gio Clairval, the translator of the version of “The Dissection” featured in The Weird (and also recently featured on this site), has written an appreciation of both Heym and his story, by itself and in relation to the rest of his creative work. Despite his brief life, there is much to learn about Heym and his writing, with both full of the kinds of ideas that can invigorate artistic movements and individual authors, even now, 100 years since Heym’s death.
- Adam Mills, editor of “101 Weird Writers”
The Poet Who Dreamed in Light Blue
PART ONE — The Author
In cities strange and yet weirdly familiar, women watched by monstrous demons give birth to headless infants, vast gods straddle apartment blocks and gaze balefully out on an urban hell, and the savage giant War dances wildly on the mountains while a mighty city sinks into an abyss. (in Georg Heym’s Poems,bilingual edition, translated from the German by Anthony Hasler, 2006, Northwestern University Press.)
Georg Heym’s works are an enthralling mixture of classical German lyricism and arresting visions of urban dysplastic images à la Metropolis. The city of Berlin, under the domination of the City God (Der Gott der Stadt), is the theater of Gothic horrors — visions of war and death where the romantic macabre walks hand in hand with images taken from Greek myths. Heym is also known for the formal beauty of his sonnets, which place him amongst the greatest poets of the German tradition. Heym was saluted as the first expressionistic poet, a decade before Expressionism became the dominant artistic trend in post-WWI Germany.
I translated the short-short story “Die Dissektion” — in fact a poem of six hundred words packed with images so strong they hurt — for The Weird, and I fell in love with the author.
Two (very different) innovative authors and their similar upbringing
I recently translated one of Gustave Flaubert’s juvenile short stories, “Quidquid volueris”. As I was trying to establish the first publication date, I found an uncanny resemblance between Flaubert and Heym’s formative years. There is no similarity between the two authors’ works in terms of the aesthetic of their writing, but both Flaubert and Heym tackled themes ahead of their times.
Flaubert unleashed a storm of criticism after the publication of his scandalous (for the time) novel Madame Bovary. The public outrage dragged him to court, and the author was condemned for describing the antics of a young housewife in search of evasion. A long, suggestive scene was censored (a case of too much showing instead of telling). As for Heym, his works were less known outside the literary circles, but had the larger public read about his headless infants and monstrous demons, he would have surely been branded unhinged and dangerous.
Heym was born in 1887, a year before Flaubert died; nevertheless, his family context – upper middle class – resembles Flaubert’s, and both authors received a classical education (high school classical teaching remained consistently the same across Europe until the late twentieth century). I wondered whether these ingredients were needed to obtain an individual who would later bring new themes to literature, breaking with the past.
Recipe for a Modern Poet (or “Bake Your Own Georg Heym”)
Take a well-to-do but sine nobilitate family and mix with lackluster results in school. Add an authoritarian and irascible father and a loving, sentimental mother. Sprinkle with blank, monochord verses later labeled as “juvenilia.” Encourage the subject to marinate in passionless high-education studies, preferably Law.
Your Heym-dough will seek solace in epic deeds (drinking, dueling, whoring and getting kicked out of several schools), and he will chant the fearless protagonists of past revolutions, thus cutting his poetic teeth on grand plays imbued with classical German lyricism.
Despite the stiff theatrical production produced in this early period, it is crucial that you do not skip this step: later on your poet will have to express his internal turmoil in perfectly formed verses.
At some point, your poet-dough may be exposed to the influence of the Nietzsche yeast. He may write in his diary that he longs to realize the Übermensch ideal in his own person (1906). Do not panic and do not take the dough out of the oven; a story will spurt from this idea: “The Madman,” in which madness is depicted as a form of ultimate salvation. Because madmen are above ordinary laws, insanity entails the most perfect form of freedom, as illustrated by the final image: the madman soaring like a bird high above reality.
If the previous procedure is correctly applied, the blooming author, disappointed with his contemporaries, will join a club of think-alike youths (it will be Der Neue Club, The New Club, in Berlin, 1910). Inspiring meetings will simmer in a café that should preferably sport an ironic name (the Neopathetische Cabaret or Neo-Pathetic Music-Hall). If you keep the fire going, the group leader, Kurt Hiller, will salute your artist as an expressionistic poet, which will brand him a true precursor; Expressionism — a creative movement in pre-WWI Germany fostering the idea that art’s purpose is to express the subjective feelings of artists — will be at its zenith during the 20s.
The baking is going well. You should now be satisfied to see the subject’s first poems appear (the same year, 1910) in the radical magazine Der Demokrat, and the first collection, Der ewige Tag (The Eternal Day), will be published in 1911, to be favorably reviewed by the famous poet Ernst Stadler. Given the positive critiques, your lyrical dough will decide to abandon his career in Law.
Meanwhile, let a resonant, clichéd tragedy, Atalanta, find its way into print (1911) and do not despair but look at your creation through the oven glass: the dough is now golden.
Take your poet out of the oven, for he is baked.
And from now on things become very, very serious, albeit for a very short time.
The new poet displays both an exquisite sensibility and a tormented spirit. A few poems, like his tragedies, are inspired by the French Revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath, but with more elegant results; others are haunted by classical myths and Gothic tropes; others still, from his later years, are widely considered some of the finest love poems ever written in the German language.
You have in fact created one of the most characteristic voices of German literature.
Too soon did he go
In contrast with his morbid visions, Georg Heym is known for his exuberant good health and stocky appearance. A friend says Georg makes him think of a butcher boy, and everyone thinks our romantic author a force of nature. But Heym dies young, at twenty-four years of age. In 1910, he had noted down a dream in which he advanced hesitantly across a kind of thin “stone slab,” which turned out to be a sheet of ice (Hasler, op. cit.). Uncannily, Heym drowns during a skating expedition on the ice of the Havel River, in 1912. At his funeral, friends dance around his casket, declaiming Hölderlin (a major German poet, 1770 – 1843).
I do not know which verses were chosen to bid the young poet adieu, but here is a poem Georg wrote in 1905, in memory of Hölderlin:
And you, too, you are dead, son of the springtime
You, whose life only resembled
blazes shining in the night’s basements
where men forever look for
conclusion and liberty.
You are dead. For they have foolishly reached
for your pure flame
to put it out. For these beasts have always
hated the sublime.
And, as the Moirai
plunged into infinite pain
your spirit which faintly trembled,
God wrapped into a cloth of darkness
his virtuous son’s tortured head.
One of Hölderin’s poems that influenced Heym:
From “In Lovely Blue” (In lieblicher Blaue)
Translated by by George Kalogeris
Like the stamen inside a flower
The steeple stands in lovely blue
And the day unfolds around its needle;
The flock of swallows that circles the steeple
Flies there each day through the same blue air
That carries their cries from me to you;
We know how high the sun is now
As long as the roof of the steeple glows,
The roof that’s covered with sheets of tin;
Up there in the wind, where the wind is not
Turning the vane of the weathercock,
The weathercock silently crows in the wind.
Hölderlin’s style is more descriptive, more classical, compared with Heym’s verses, but we can recognize the theme that will find an echo in Heym’s formal sonnet “Reverie in Light Blue,” which you will find below, with the original text and my translation.
A collection of poems, Umbra Vitae, is published posthumously (1912), followed by a collection of short stories, Der Dieb (The Thief, 1913, English translation by Susan Bennet: The Thief and Other Stories, 1994, Libris, first published April 1985), and a collection of sonnets, Marathon (1914).
In 1924, Kurt Wolff publishes the collection of poems compiled by Heym’s literary group Der Neue Club: Umbra Vitae, including forty-seven xylographs by Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner.
After the poet’s untimely death, enthusiastic readers will find echoes of cataclysmic prophecies in his work, as in “Mit weissem Haar in den verrufnen Orten” (With White Hair, on Barren Plains), which foreshadows 1917. The poem describes the suffering of the enslaved working class in the mines of cold Russia. When night comes, the slaves dream of a head perched on top of a pole, riding the agitated waters of a “rebellious sea,” and it is the Czar’s head…
The City’s God
Georg Heym expressed the despair and solitude of urban life.
Fascinated by death, he was obsessed with the modern phenomenon of the metropolis: in his view the triumph of technology was destined to explode and unravel into apocalyptic involution. Nothing will change the city’s fate. Living in the city is unnatural.
In “Der Gott der Stadt” (The God of the City), sprawling cities kneel to Baal, who straddles blocks of buildings, his belly glowing red in the setting sun, and millions cower in the streets, booming their music made of praises and terror, while factory fumes and grime of smokestacks rise in the air towards the giant’s feet. And the elements themselves, perverted by the god, stare at the crushed humanity, sending tempests and seas of fire cracking on the asphalt.
We can read here the influence of a Belgian poet, Emile Verhaeren (1855 – 1916), one of the founders of Symbolism. In “L’âme des Ville” (The City’s Soul, in Les villes tentaculaires, Tentacular Cities, 1895), Verhaeren writes:
Un air de soufre et de naphte s’ exhale,
un soleil trouble et monstrueux s’ étale;
l’ esprit soudainement s’ effare
vers l’ impossible et le bizarre;
crime ou vertu, voit-il encor
ce qui se meut en ces décors,
où, devant lui, sur les places, s’ élève
le dressement tout en brouillards
d’ un pilier d’ or ou d’ un fronton blafard
pour il ne sait quel géant rêve?
An air of sulfur and naphtha exhales,
a hazy and monstrous sun expands;
the mind suddenly staggers
towards the impossible and the weird;
crime or virtue, can one still glimpse
something that moves in this decor,
where, right ahead, in each plaza, soars
the blurred height
of a golden pillar or a bleary pediment
for who knows what gigantic dream.
Verhaeren’s verses — rhymed in the original French — strike me as overwrought and melodramatic. Still, these images inflamed the imaginations and influenced many artists of the time.
In Heym’s poems, however (and it is the difference between mere imagination and genius), the chill, perfectly stylized form frames and contains the vivid images, distancing the reader. The distance and “monumentality”, in John Holfson’s words, quoted by Hasler (ib.) make, by contrast, the excesses of Heym’s apocalyptic visions even more horrific.
Heym was a unique figure in the pre-war poetic landscape. His aggressive images set him apart as more than a mere harbinger of Expressionism. Georg Heym was the first poet to use the stylistic epitomes that would later become the movement’s most characteristic tropes.
Blood Red and Powdery Blue
On one side, the bleeding images of apocalyptic cities, on the other, soft landscapes of waters blending with the sky. Nature, when left to her own devices, embroiders the world with harmony.
Träumerei in Hellblau (Reverie in Light Blue)
Alle Landschaften haben
Sich mit Blau gefüllt.
Alle Büsche und Bäume des Stromes,
Der weit in den Norden schwillt.
Blaue Länder der Wolken,
Weiße Segel dicht,
Die Gestade des Himmels in Fernen
Zergehen in Wind und Licht.
Wenn die Abende sinken
Und wir schlafen ein,
Gehen die Träume, die schönen,
Mit leichten Füßen herein.
Zymbeln lassen sie klingen
In den Händen licht.
Manche flüstern, und halten
Kerzen vor ihr Gesicht.
Here is my take (as usual, not so literal):
All the expanses of land
Are filled with blue as are
All the bushes and trees of the river
That swells in the north afar.
Blue countries of clouds,
Sails scattered white,
The shore of the sky in the distance
Sprinkled in wind and light.
When the evening falls
And we close our eyes,
Lovely dreams tiptoe
With winged feet inside.
The cymbals they let clink
In their hands that glimmer.
Many whispers, and then shadows
Before your face they flicker.
PART II: Translating the Untranslatable
The hardest part of doing this translation
German is such a romantic language. Reading German authors like Heym or Rainer Maria Rilke (although the latter was Bohemian-Austrian), I often wonder if Romanticism, and particularly expressionism as a literary style, could only be invented by author who wrote in that particular language of Gothic ascent. In English, at least contemporary English, an ornate style can easily teeter on the banks of the purple sea, but the best romantic style flows so beautifully in German. As I translated “The Dissection,” I faced the difficulty of dealing with a prose that was so formally perfect in the original that the mere idea of “transporting” it into another system of references seemed iconoclastic to me.
Translating is making decisions, and sometimes the text lures the translator into the easy path, which is the most obvious translation of a word with multiple meanings. It is particularly difficult with German, which is a highly polysemous language. Still, the translator should resist the sirens of “first-level” or “most-common” meaning.
The strongest example of the above, and the most difficult translation decision in this text was the passage:
Die Ärzte traten ein. Ein paar freundliche Männer in weißen Kitteln mit Schmissen und goldenen Zwickern.
The most obvious translation is:
The doctors entered. Several amicable men in white gowns with duelling-scars and gold-rimmed pince-nez.
But I wondered, why the duelling-scars ?
The translator explains in the footnote #5: ’ ”Schmiss”: “duelling-scar”. Traditionally, many male university students belonged to fraternities known as “Studentenverbin- dungen”. The members of a fraternity usually drink together and engage in duelling. The scars resulting from the wounds received were considered a sign of bravery and boldness.’
This translation is plausible, given that Heym himself engaged in duels during his university years. Moreover, in one of his diary entries, he used “Schmissen” in a figurative way, referring to his heart with dueling scars.
On the other hand, the structure of the phrase in weißen Kitteln mit Schmissen indicates that “Schmissen” may refer back to “Kitteln” (gown, which I rendered with the more modern “coat”). How did the doctors’ white coats sport dueling scars? Did the frat boys carry out their dueling deeds in their surgeons’ gowns? It seemed more logical, and simpler, to me, to use the other meaning of “Schmiss”: rent, a hole in fabric.
I translated the sentence:
The doctors entered. A few friendly men in white coats with rents and gold-rimmed pince-nez.
Suddenly, the passage made more sense, even though the explanation based on duels was more romantic.
And the final version became:
The doctors entered. A few friendly men in frayed white coats and gold-rimmed pince-nez.
Those who have haunted hospitals wearing white, like I have, will recognize the much-washed coats that fray at the cuffs and hems…
But then again, the author may have wanted to imply both meanings: the down-to-earth frayed coats, and the remainders of ancient duels on the faces of the doctors, now older and wiser (because they wear glasses for near vision).
A short-short, a poem in prose
Translating a very short story is more difficult, given the relative weight of the words. Georg Heym was a poet above everything else, and the first expressionistic poet, at that: the use of images, and particularly colors, as vehicles of emotions is the foundation of the story itself. Colors serve to create similitudes and transitions from the gritty reality of the dissection table to the dream that forms in the dead man’s head, as a resonance of the doctors’ hammering on his skull.
“Splendid reds and blues” sprout on the dead man’s body. Why “splendid”? The colors of decomposing flesh announce new life more than decay, and the wonderful colors foreshadow the explosion of reds in the second part of the story, the memory of a past love in summer: poppy fields; the man’s lover “a flower of flames;” and a billowing dress as a “wave of fire in the setting sun.”
The contrast between the doctors, who were “friendly” a minute before, but now resemble “hideous torturers, blood flowing on their hands as they” dig “ever more deeply into the frigid corpse and” pull “out its innards, like white cooks gutting a goose.”
It is a poem, and every word carries a strong meaning.
Repetition as a style
To get across the author’s intent, I had to keep certain repetitions: in a six-hundred-fifty-seven-word story (a little more than two standard-manuscript pages), there are ten occurrences of the word “white.” It is typical of Heym’s style, as you can see in the poem “Reverie in Pale Blue.” In my translation of the poem I did not keep the repeated words as they did not have the same effect in English, the words being in too close proximity. In “The Dissection,” though, repetition could and was used to render as much as possible of the original style.
In Heym’s work, repetition serves two purposes: first, it creates a contrast, as the same word is used in a gruesome and then a lyrical context; second, repeating a word accentuates the rhythm of a sentence with an obsessive insistence.
In other places, in a variation around the sentence structure, the same word is found in a different position. A paragraph begins with Die Ärzte traten ein. And, in the next paragraph, the beginning is Sie traten an den Toten.
The word “traten” is a counter-example, as I made the decision of using two different translations because the repetition added little in English:
Die Ärzte traten ein. (“Traten” means, generically, “to join,” but the meaning changes in different contexts. The most logical translation was “The doctors entered.”)
Sie traten an den Toten (They stepped up to the dead man.)
How this story influenced me personally
“The Dissection” influenced my writing directly. It was one of those famous multiple repetitions that inspired me:
In front of the large window, opened a wide sky filled with small white clouds that swam in the light, in the silent afternoon, like small white gods.
I liked the sound of this sentence so much I used a similar repetition as I was largely rewriting a story that was published in the magazine of my high school when I was fourteen (my first published story ever). And the restyled story, “The Hand,” appeared in the #358 issue of Weird Tales (August 2011), edited by Ann VanderMeer.