Thursday, 15 September 2016

"Teutonic Chronicles" 7: Ludwigsburg, Marbach, Stuttgart

Über allen Gipfeln                                                                                                           Over all of the hills
Ist Ruh                                                                                                                          Peace comes anew,
In allen Wipfeln                                                                                                              The woodland stills
Spürest du                                                                                                                                 All through;
Kaum einen Hauch.                                                                         The birds make no sound on the bough.
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.                                                                                           Wait a while,
Warte nur, balde                                                                                                                          Soon now
Ruhest du auch.                                                                                                           Peace comes to you.

Wanderers Nachtlied II, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1780

Putting the rolling landscape near Halscheid behind me, my next (and practically final) jaunt took me much further south back into the state/Bundesland of Baden-Württemberg. With a 20-30 minute train journey out of Stuttgart one reaches two smaller, for the most part less significant cities by the names of Ludwigsburg and Marbach. Both towns lie on the river Neckar (which, incidentally, I have encountered and mentioned before on this trip; rivers have almost acted as a boundary-marker wherever I have gone, for most major German cities and even smaller towns lie on a river of some description). About Ludwigsburg - where I stayed overnight in a youth hostel - there is not much remarkable to say. It is a perfectly pleasant town with a large-ish train station and good transport links, and the YH was comfortable (I had a twin room but did not have to share), but I did not stay long enough to properly discover it. The following morning I set off for my true goal in this particular region - Marbach.

Marbach-am-Neckar has the good fortune to be the town where Friedrich Schiller was born in 1760, and as such it holds something of a special position in German cultural history - specifically literary history. It is not just a literary town, it is also a picturesque one: the landscape is not the most beautiful in the entire world, but it is pretty nonetheless, and the way Marbach sits on a hillock overlooking the Neckar is particularly charming, as it means the city’s streets wind upwards from the river in a pleasingly erratic zigzag fashion. Cobble-stone roads, old houses, weathered stone gates and city walls, beer gardens and flower-draped balconies will you find aplenty.

But the literary history does hold a certain… pre-eminence. On arriving at the train station, the unwitting traveller is greeted by billboards and maps proudly proclaiming the “Schiller Route” one can take through the streets, discovering various different old 18th century buildings: where Schiller was born, where he lived, where his mother came from, the orchard he once had, and so on and so forth. Everywhere there are memorials to him, statues, plaques and likenesses; apothecaries, streets and restaurants are named after him. A company van is more likely to have the words “Schillerstadt Marbach” emblazoned on its side than it is simply “Marbach”. The town has carved out for itself a definitive identity, and that identity pivots irrefutably around Friedrich Schiller. This came as something of a surprise. Granted, Shakespeare is duly venerated, and throngs of pilgrims bend their joyful footsteps towards Stratford-on-Avon every week; Goethe in Weimar is perhaps the closest German equivalent. Where Goethe stands as the pre-eminent figure in German literature, Schiller is his contemporary, not necessarily overshadowed as such but less iconic - the equivalent of Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I can’t picture a little English town devoting itself to Marlowe or Jonson in quite the way Marbach does Schiller.

The jewel in the crown, of course, is on the outskirts, slightly raised above the centre: Schillerhöhe, home not only to the biggest statue and memorial, but also to the Schiller Museum, the Museum of Modern Literature and - perhaps most impressively - the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach (German Literature Archive at Marbach). This latter was my destination, where I would spend my time for the next ten days: an enormous, world-renowned collection of thousands upon thousands of original literary manuscripts, many of them handwritten originals, primarily from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. It is a Germanist’s dream; so much so that it is a little overwhelming - one arrives at the reading rooms and has to be given a lengthy tour of how the complex library system works. Connected to the archive is a Collegienhaus, a sort of modern accommodation block where those guests who wish to come and use the archive’s staggering collection can be housed during their stay. My work in the Archive revolved around a variety of German authors -Rainer Maria Rilke, Stefan Zweig, and Ingeborg Bachmann - but also the interesting process of teaching myself Old Norse so I can eventually read the old sagas (the Poetic Edda and so on, the sorts of things Tolkien read in his cot).

Anyway, on a purely mundane and factual level there’s not a great deal left to report! My time in Marbach came to an end with me catching a train to Stuttgart and a plane from Stuttgart to Manchester and then a train from Manchester to Penrith and then … but you don’t want to hear all that guff. Suffice to say it was a terrific few months in Germany, a very memorable summer indeed, and it feels quite odd to be typing this on a cramped First Transpennine Express train chugging its way out of Manchester Piccadilly. I can hear English again: how alien it all sounds. I genuinely find it quite odd going into cafés now and ordering things in English instead of German. Oh well, I’m sure I’ll get used to it.

If we return to the poem printed above, Goethe’s second ‘Wanderers Nachtlied’ (Night-Song of the Wanderer), its eight short lines long considered to form the finest lyric in the German language, his beautifully elegant dissection of an anthropocentric cosmology, we may find, perhaps, a way to frame how we talk about nations. From the centre-fold of an atlas’ satellite image to wide, roving helicopter footage to the impressions our visual organs take in daily to - eventually - smallest and most intimate, the thoughts which circulate in our minds, Goethe’s descending scale (mountains/tree-tops/birds in the trees/human beings) is also quite the most remarkable ascending scale (from dumb inanimate rock to growing trees to living, singing birds to us, as creatures capable of thought and speech): perhaps this, too, is how we must consider the countries we visit, the people we come across. As electric pulses which power the most complicated machinery, as blood cells giving life to a gigantic body, as starry flickers which light the huge yet otherwise dark cosmos: the smallest, ‘lowest’ terms in the sequence are by far the most vitally significant.

On the grand scale, it is a time of flux for Germany - just as it is a time of flux for Europe (though in reality, I suppose, it’s always a time of flux everywhere, and it’s just one of those phrases people use to emphasise that things are changing and they’re not sure about it!). But it is certainly an interesting time to be in Germany, what with Horst Seehofer of the CSU openly clashing with CDU boss and Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel - not quite his party leader, but near enough - over the refugee crisis and the number of asylum seekers who have been settled into Bavaria; with terrorist shootings, bombings and knife/axe attacks fairly regular for an unsettling few weeks in July; with the boat that is an increasingly unstable Europe rocked by that most hideous, unruly, ungrateful passenger, Brexit; with far-right violence and extremist protests on the rise, but also an increase in anti-neo-Nazi marches and efforts at reconciliation… And in amidst all that, of course, far down from the tops of the trees: the cafés and bars I frequented, the families I stayed with and the houses I stayed in, the wide range of people I got to meet, the conversations held and impressions made, and those little things like the froth of a wheat beer and the first tang of mustard on pork sausage, the glimmer of the sun on an Alpine lake, the sound of wild busking violinists of a Munich evening, the choral whirr of crickets on the balcony of my apartment in Marbach, the shadows cast by Heidelberg Castle when the day that has passed dies on the horizon, the murmur of the late-night metro and the silence of countryside twilight… vivid as they are, the little things blur, coalesce, form a patchwork quilt, a great and soaring construct, a monument, a nation, a summer, a life lived, a century gone by…

…for the little things in life are really the big things.

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