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Fred Viebahn

Nachruf auf Michael Hamburger

Abbildung Anne Beresford, Rita Dove, Michael Hamburger, Fred Viebahn

Am 7. Juni starb Michael Hamburger im Alter von 83 Jahren in seinem Landhaus in Suffolk. Als englischer Dichter und Übersetzer (vom Deutschen und Französischen ins Englische) war er zwar kein Mitglied in unserem PEN–Zentrum, aber ein “deutschsprechender Autor” war er schon, 1924 in Berlin geboren als Sohn eines Kinderarztes und Medizinprofessors. 1933, kurz nach Hitlers Machtaneignung, floh die Familie nach Großbritannien — zuerst nach Edinburgh, dann nach London. Weitere Einzelheiten seines Lebens sind weiter unten in Nachrufen aus dem Londoner “Guardian” und dem New Yorker “Forward” nachzulesen.

Ich kannte Michael Hamburger persönlich seit Mitte der Siebziger Jahre. Erstmals, glaube ich, traf ich ihn durch seinen englischen Compatrioten Christopher Middleton (mit dem gemeinsam er die Gedichte von Günter Grass übersetzt hatte) und den texanischen Germanistikprofessor Leslie Willson, als ich im Frühjahr 1977 im German Department der University of Texas at Austin unterrichtete. Oder – so will mir ein etwas diffuser Erinnerungsfetzen suggerieren — war es schon ein, zwei Jahre vorher in Berlin, in der Akademie der Künste? Mit den Jahren fängt mir die retrospektive Timeline an zu wanken, wird sie verweht vom Winde der Zeit... Fest steht auf jeden Fall, daß Michael und seine Frau, die Lyrikerin Anne Beresford, und meine Frau Rita Dove und ich gemeinsam den Herbst 1980 am Bielefelder Universitätszentrum für interdisziplinäre Forschung verbrachten (siehe Foto), wo Michael und Anne und Rita die einzigen anglophonen Dichter in der polyglotten Gruppe von mehr als einem Dutzend Autoren waren, die aufgrund eines großzügigen Stipendiats des nordrhein–westfälischen Kultusministeriums Gelegenheit zu dieser einmaligen “Internationale Arbeitszeit” genannten intensiven dreimonatigen Zusammenkunft hatten. Wir wurden Freunde, und über die nächsten anderthalb Jahrzehnte sahen wir einander hin und wieder da oder dort — zuletzt Mitte der Neunziger in Annes und Michaels Londoner Wohnung, kurz bevor sich die beiden ganz aufs Land zurückzogen.

Rita und Anne schrieben sich über die Jahre gelegentlich Briefe; aber die letzte — handschriftliche — Korrespondenz fand Ende 2004 zwischen Rita und Michael statt, wobei die Melancholie in Michaels Zeilen uns recht betroffen machte. Hier sind zum Gedenken an diesen englischen Dichter deutsch–jüdischer Herkunft, diesen Vermittler deutscher Lyrik im angloamerikanischen Sprachraum Auszüge daraus:

[...] Saxmundham, Suffolk [...]


Dear Rita,

[Your publisher has] sent me a copy of your new book of poems, and I was glad to have it, although they sent it as a review copy, and I haven’t written a review for decades, having dropped out or been pushed out of all the periodicals to which I used to contribute. Also, when one grows old one has to concentrate on one’s real work, which in my case is the writing of poems; and even when I felt it necessary to write criticism, most of that was of French or German writing that would have been ignored otherwise.

But [I’m] able to respond to the first world war poems and to others, like "Evening Primrose”, to which I could relate. (I grow, or let grow, evening primroses in my garden, and have celebrated them in my poems.) Your ballroom dancing poems are beyond me, because I can barely walk now and haven’t danced since I was a soldier in another war, then again once or twice before our marriage in 1951! For the last occasion I wore a dinner jacket 20 [years] old, inherited from an uncle, that a trail of white silk came out the trouser legs like ectoplasm. Nor did I even dance again when I worked in the USA — and the whole American experience now seems very remote, very confused, too, in my memory.

So all I can do is thank you for having written the book and send Anne’s and my love to you, Fred and the daughter I have never met.

I enclose a little poem I’ve just written.

Michael (Hamburger)


Towards winter, my hearing blocked,
Air empty of song–thrush, blackbird,
What is it that cries out
From my bow–saw, moans, then screams?
The blade's toothed metal, mindless,
Dead wood of an ash–tree’s limb shed?
Their friction, of course, mechanical
As bullets fired into a body
Quite still but may–be not killed enough
Where it’s weapons that have their will —
Loud now, strident, as if
Earth matter had found a voice
To pound through the sieve of ears never open
Its pith, violation’s pain.

Worse, when the work is done
Silence will mend again,
Our lowland mountain range, cloud,
Dissolving, make way for sunrays
Which halo the higher leaves not yet fallen.
Later, the logs, aglow,
With innocent warmth will soothe us,
Their mite of residue
So light, so nearly white,
It can merge in each day’s dust.

12 December 2004

Dear Michael,

It was lovely to hear news from you; your letter reached me in the middle of a lengthy book tour, 10 weeks in all, crisscrossing this benighted country I tremble to call my own at this point. [...]

I was sorry to hear of your health problems. I hope you’re able to get around enough to tend to the garden you love. And thank you for your poem "Against Brightness" — it is fierce and tender at the same time, as all masterful [elegies] must be in order to stir up our pity yet steel our spines against pity’s melting.

Please give Anne my very best; Fred joins me in sending the both of you

much love,

[...] Saxmundham, Suffolk [...]


Dear Rita,

It was good of you to write a letter just before Christmas, after your strenuous tour. I’m answering at once, before our family Christmas gathering makes an answer impossible — and our mail ceases to function.

I’m very glad that we are in agreement about developments in your country and in ours. In many ways they must be harder for you to bear, because you have become a representative figure, whereas we are only ghosts in the current "scene". Nobody pays the slightest attention to what we think or stand for. This gives us the freedom of privacy. If I protest in verse, that protest can be ignored — and is ignored, most effectively. There must be times when you feel very uncomfortable in public, and I wish you the strength to endure that.

I can cope with my physical disabilities, though I hardly get out of the house and garden — and used to love walking — as I did even in the USA! [...]

But we work when we can, though we ought to have given up this house and garden long ago. In the end it is only the struggling on and the defiance that matter.

With love to you both and all good wishes for the coming year,
Michael H.


Zwei Pressenachrufe

Obwohl die Londoner Tageszeitung “Guardian” ihren Nachruf mit dem Untertitel bedachte, “Poet, translator and academic, more acclaimed in Germany than in Britain”, erschienen in deutschen Medien nur relativ kurze Würdigungen, während sich die englische Presse durchweg ausführlich mit seinem Lebenslauf beschäftigte. Und die jüdische New Yorker Tageszeitung “Forward” veröffentlichte eine ebenfalls sehr interessante Würdigung, die sich vor allem auf Michael Hamburger als Übersetzer von Paul Celans Gedichten bezieht.

The Guardian, London, June 11, 2007:

Michael Hamburger

Poet, translator and academic, more acclaimed in Germany than in Britain
by Jonathan Fryer

The poet, translator, critic and amateur horticulturalist, Michael Hamburger, who has died aged 83, was a serious voice in an increasingly superficial age. He was out of tune with what a younger generation of poets were writing, and railed against the shallowness and commercialisation of the modern world, from his fastness: a farmhouse surrounded by orchards in Middleton, Suffolk. None the less, his work received much critical acclaim. He was revered at the various academic institutions at which he taught, though it rankled that he was better known to the wider British public as a translator, rather than as a poet. Perhaps the greatest irony of his life was that towards the end, his poetic standing was higher in Germany than in England, his English–language originals translated into German by the much younger Austrian poet of British parentage, Peter Waterhouse.

Like Waterhouse, Hamburger was born in Berlin, the son of a distinguished German–Jewish professor of paediatrics, Richard Hamburger. The Hamburger household was both cultured and disciplined, qualities which Michael to a large extent inherited. He was startled to be rounded on in his early adulthood by the proletarian poet Jesse Tor, who denounced him as "irredeemably bourgeois".

As befitted such a milieu, music played a significant role in the family. The boy Michael learned to play the piano well, with vague aspirations of a professional musical career, before accepting that he would never be quite proficient enough.

In 1933, as Adolf Hitler tightened his grip on Germany, the Hamburgers decamped to Britain, first to Edinburgh and then to London. Life was hard, until Dr Hamburger was able to retrain to acquire British qualifications. But Michael and his younger brother Paul, who would achieve fame and fortune as a publisher, philanthropist and Labour peer, under the adopted name Hamlyn, settled relatively easily into British school life and the English language.

Michael did well enough at Westminster to win a scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford, where he read modern languages (French and German). He was nearly sent down in his first term, when an inebriated Dylan Thomas started a fight in his rooms after a poetry reading.

Poetry had already become Michael's preferred artistic medium by this stage, and he was fortunate to be up at Oxford at the same time as other powerful young voices, such as Philip Larkin, John Heath–Stubbs (obituary, 29 December 2006) and Michael Meyer. One of his first forays into translating involved Baudelaire (Twenty Prose Poems, 1946). But he quickly carved out a niche, introducing to an English–speaking audience the works of German–language writers, notably Friedrich Hölderlin, but also Brecht, Rilke, Grass and others.

In 1943, before completing his degree, he was called up into the army, an experience he later claimed cured him of "monomaniacal literariness". He trained as an infantryman in Kent before being sent to Austria and Italy, where he taught himself Italian in order to be able to read Dante in the original. During one of his postwar leaves, he was able to visit Berlin and track down some of his surviving relatives. His understanding of what had occurred during the years since he had left his homeland marked him irrevocably.

Demobbed in 1947, Michael completed his studies, which enabled him to enter academe. He held a series of teaching posts, initially in Germanic studies, on both sides of the Atlantic, including University College London, Reading University, Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, and the University of California at San Diego. He built a fresh reputation as a literary critic, notably with his 1969 work, The Truth of Poetry.

Throughout his career of part–time teaching, his output as a poet was prolific, from Flowering Cactus (1950) onwards. His Collected Poems appeared in 1984, but the flow did not stop, most of it published by top–end–of–the–market specialist presses such as Anvil, Carcanet and Enitharmon. The translations also poured out, though he vowed that he would spend the closing years of his life focusing on his own work, with limited success. A volume of memoirs, A Mug's Game (1972), was revised and reissued as String of Beginnings (1991).

Hamburger's poetic voice was dark, sometimes tragic, which put him out of step with the post–Beat era. He could be immensely gloomy, as in the poem Lines on Brueghel's Icarus ("Too late. The worst has happened: lost to man."). And when he was being more light–hearted, he was less compelling, as in the couplet: "To Einstein as to Plato/Time was a hot potato." Even in his literary friendships, he gravitated towards other, serious minds, such as WG "Max" Sebald, whom he translated, and whose life was cut short in a car accident.

Michael shared with Sebald a passion for East Anglia, settling with his wife Anne File (the poet Anne Beresford, whom he married in 1951) into a bucolic existence surrounded by fruit rees, especially apple trees. He could temporarily push out of his mind the horrors of the depredations of the planet being carried out by big business, or the dumbing–down of people's minds through the mass media, and he could relish the cultivation of what he himself termed "obsolete and obsolescent" varieties of apple, such as Royal Russett and Orleans Reinette. These he propagated not from the normal method of grafting, but from pips, once triumphantly producing a particularly dark specimen from a core harvested in Ted Hughes's garden.

The British establishment recognised Michael Hamburger's contribution to literature with a somewhat lowly OBE, whereas the Germans gave him numerous awards, including the Goethe Medal, and the Austrians, the State Prize for Translation.

He is survived by Anne, one son and two daughters.


FORWARD, New York, June 19, 2007:

Remembering Poet and Translator Michael Hamburger

by Joshua Cohen

He was born Michael Peter Leopold Hamburger, in Berlin in 1924, to Richard Hamburger, a Jewish pediatrician, and Lili Hamburg, a Polish Quaker, daughter of an eminent family of bankers. In 1933, when Hitler assumed the chancellorship, the Hamburgers left first for Edinburgh, then London.

Hamburger’s first book, published in 1943, was a translation of German poet Friedrich Hölderlin; he would later translate from the French, as well. Despite Hamburger’s own poems and prose — encompassing numerous collections; the critical “The Truth of Poetry,” which exalted, while it examined, reticence and gesture, and a wonderfully oblique memoir in two editions — his artist’s ego would be bruised by such talent at translation. Rendering the words of others into another language, though, should be no sad consolation — in this cold and fameless discipline, Hamburger was unmatched: There is no translation, it might be said, for his achievement in translation.

From Hölderlin, through his acclaimed work on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Rainer Maria Rilke, to his final translations, those of the poems of his friend W.G. Sebald, Hamburger was not only excellent but also influential. His versions had and have an influence perhaps second only in the “mug’s game,” as he called it, of Englishing German to the posterity of the work of friends Edwin and Willa Muir, famous and early translators of Franz Kafka. This influence is especially evident in Hamburger’s work on Paul Celan.

Hamburger was at his most necessary in his translations of Celan, and almost all other Celan translations will be found wanting in comparison. John Felstiner often Judaizes this poet, whose religious ambivalence is paramount, and deepening. Pierre Joris often translates more exactingly than exactly, reproducing German compounds that inorganically complicate the English.

Hamburger’s fellow exile — Celan was born in Czernowitz, now Ukraine, and ended his life a suicide in Paris — achieved his posterity through and in translation. From a murderous German, Hamburger created a reticent and quieter English Celan: a poet who would become canonized, in the Anglo–American world that then as now was preoccupied with aesthetic inquiry into the Holocaust, as the foremost, if unwilling, laureate of that catastrophe. In Hamburger’s selfless hands, Celan would, ultimately, be re–created as the foremost “last poet” of Jewish Europe.

Far from serving one poet, though, or the two masters of translation and his own poetic work, Hamburger served a nearer and greater purpose: His work in every discipline helped to establish a Jewish and European poetics that encompassed the Holocaust by exchanging German memory for English future, in language whose ambivalence, not just political or religious but turned inward, private, lasts until today not only in modern poetries but also in our modern souls.

Here, then, is an epigraph of that shared culture, and perhaps an epitaph for Hamburger, from his translation of Celan’s 1970 collection, “Lichtzwang”:

   The eternities struck
   at his face and
   past it,

   slowly a conflagration extinguished
   all candled things,

   a green, not of this place,
   with down covered the chin
   of the rock which the orphans
   buried and
   buried again.

   “Lichtzwang”, courtesy of Persea Books.

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