Bertolt Brecht in Dark Times

A new set of translations of the great socialist poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht reminds us that the best of writers often lived through the darkest of times.

You can always tell when the times are really dark — it’s when socialists start quoting Bertolt Brecht’s poems on ‘the dark times’. The phrase comes from the 1938 Svendborg Poems, written in exile in the Danish countryside. Here, in David Constantine and Tom Kuhn’s new translation, Brecht asks: ‘In the dark times/Will there be singing?/There will be singing/Of the dark times’. After twelve years of crisis — war, economic pandemonium, the rise of nationalism, advanced technologies deployed for profit and destruction, socialist advance followed by crushing defeat, and now a devastating pandemic — we’ll find much recognition and consolation here in Brecht’s poems. On cue, here’s a 1000+ page edition of Brecht’s Collected Poems, among the new translations of this most important socialist playwright and poet of the twentieth century.

In their introduction to the Collected Poems, Constantine and Kuhn describe Brecht as one of the two or three finest poets in the German language; the poems often feel more enduring than the plays. They are rooted in their time — in Brecht’s journey from bohemian poet in 1910s Munich to communist playwright in Weimar Germany, to a roving exile in Europe and the USA, ending as an alternately celebrated and censored elder statesman in East Germany — but they speak easily and casually across the generations. Skimming through the new volume I was still stopped in my tracks by the stark power of the ‘German War Primer’, by the timeless socialist patience of ‘Ulm 1592’, and still stirred by the revolutionary optimism of ‘Resolution’.

Occasionally, the new translations are slightly stiff, lacking the bite and venom of the 1970s translations readers might know; but the new volume conveys well the sheer breadth of Brecht’s poetry. Much of it is previously uncollected, but the best work is still the cycles — the savage, paranoid Berlin poems of Reader for City-Dwellers and the Domestic Breviary, the exile laments of Hollywood Elegies, and the late Buckow Elegies,  condensed, pared-down poems of nature, capitalism, nationalism, Stalinism (in the famous ‘The Solution’) and Brecht’s own survival through the dark times. But it never feels quite right reading Brecht in heavy volumes. His aphoristic, sparking thought lends itself to slim books, for reading on the bus or while cooking. We could much more do with cheap editions of, say, Svendborg Poems or Reader for City Dwellers; puzzlingly, Constantine and Kuhn trailed their volume with a slim book of Love Poems. Though the late Brecht can be personally tender, these poems tend to be priapic more than romantic.

Verso’s recent paperback edition of the War Primer, previously only available as a giant hardback, feels more properly Brechtian. Each page has a photograph or a story pulled out of the news during the Second World War, with a short verse below; the combination of the grainy images and the alternately venomous and compassionate verses is still devastating. A particular choice for the times: a sharp-suited Churchill with a machine gun, above Brecht’s commentary: ‘Gang law is something I can understand/With man-eaters I’ve excellent relations./I’ve had the killers feeding from my hand/I am the man to save civilisation’. Two new, slim books offer translations of works never before available in English. The Business Affairs of Mr Julius Caesar is the completed half of an unfinished novel, sparking off from one of the ‘Questions of a worker who reads’ — ‘On every page a victory./Who cooked the victory banquet?/Every ten years a great man./Who paid the bills?’ A Roman historian tries to piece together the Emperor’s life from interviews with property developers, soldiers, political lobbyists, and the diaries of Rarus, one of Caesar’s slaves. The historian finds a far shabbier reality than the glory he expects.

This aborted experiment, intriguing as it is, has little on Me-Ti: Book of Interventions in the Flow of Things, which is one of Brecht’s books of aphorisms, like the better-known Stories of Herr Keuner. This series is in the voice of a classical Chinese poet, and is edited and translated by Anthony Tatlow, an expert in Brecht’s many borrowings from Taoist and Buddhist poets, from whom he took a love of economy and dialectics. Me-Ti consists of a series of tales and ‘lessons’, rooted in the experience of the dark times. In among thinly disguised critical portraits of Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Hitler, and Hegel, it has his most honest capsule judgements on his friends, his lovers, his politics, and the way these were linked by what he called ‘the third thing’, the socialist project. It’s almost as full of wisdom and political lessons to live by as the Poems; most of all, it’s funny, and a joy to read. ‘The classical authors’, Me-Ti tells us, ‘lived in the darkest and bloodiest of times. They were the most cheerful and most confident people’.