BERTOLT BRECHT was not only one of the greatest playwrights and one of the finest poets of our time, but also a key historical figure whose personality and life experiences epitomize most of this century's basic conflicts and dilemmas. There has been no shortage of literature on the man and his work, but as much of the material only became accessible in dribs and drabs, or was still behind closed doors in the Brecht Archive in East Berlin, the appearance of the first major study of the poet to come from Germanly and based on long and close research among Brecht's papers was eagerly awaited. This book, Klaus Voelker's biography, which appeared in West Germany in 1976, has now been issued in translation.
The German original had a mixed reception. There was clearly a good deal wrong with it. The English-language version greatly magnifies these faults and adds a multitude of its own.
To understand the shortcomings of Voelker's work one must be aware of the recent intellectual situation in West Germany, where among the circles of writers, theater people, publishers, radio and television directors and many academics, a pronounced left/wing attitude was not only the prevailing fashion, but a necessity: if one didn't conform he had much less of a chance of being heard, published, or if he did succeed in being published, to be spared savaging by the reviewers. The reasons for this development, which is now on the wane under the impact of the population's horror at its culmination in terrorism, are connected with the aftermath of the collapse of German intellectual life under the Nazis.
After the demise of Hitler's regime, German intellectuals were overeager to catch up on all the movements they had missed. And ny the 1960s they had reached a position comparable to that in England, France or the United States around 1936-the wave of romantic Marxism at the period of the Spanish Civil War. What complicates the situation even more is that part of Germany is under a regime which calls itself Marxist, although the prevailing ideology has little left of genuine Marxist thought and has hardened into a Byzantine, pseudo-religious orthodoxy that confines itself to the repetition of magic jargon formulae.
Klaus Voelker's biography of Brecht, who himself represents the idealistic leftism of the Spanish Civil War period and who had become somewhat of an ideological anachronism when he died in 1956, is a prime example of the regrettable effects of this neo-Marxist orthodoxy. Instead of examining his hero's fascinatingly ambiguous position, Voelker seems to be concealing as much as he can of Brecht's doubts and difficulties with the party during the 1930s, and with the East German regime after Brecht had finally overcome his misgivings and decided to settle in East Berlin, almost four years after the end of the war.
Voelker's underlying political bias colors his account of Brecht's conflict with the East German authorities over the banning of his and Paul Dessau's opera The Trial of Lucullus . He manages to avoid mentioning the actual ban; yet his phrasing allows anyone in the know to realize that the opera was withdrawn after its first night. "In its revised form (it) was performed . . ." is as far as he goes. It is surely significant that Voelker devotes no fewer than 332 pages to Brecht's life between his birth in 1898 and his return to East Berlin in 1898 and his return to East Berlin in 1949, and only 43 pages to his seven years in East Berlin which were the culmination of his life's work and are also the best documented. That allows a lot of material which would throw light on Brecht's conflicts within a Communist-ruled society to be glossed over.
The book lacks a coherent design and even, surprisingly, an integrating point of view. Where it does bring new material is in the area of Brecht's sex lift, which, though widely known to specialists, but not much talked about in print as long as his widow was alive, is now for the first time more or less openly discussed. Voelker tells the story of Brecht's polygamous household: during much of his life Brecht lived with three women simultaneously. During his years of exile in Denmark these were Margarete Steffin, Ruth Berlau and his wife Helene Weigel; in East Berlin Weigel had to share him with the actress Kathe Reichel and a number of other members of his theatre. Ruth Berlau, the brilliant Danish actress, who followed Brecht to America and East Germany was destroyed by this relationship: She ended as an alcoholic and a mental wreck. It is typical of the new conformism in Germany that while talking about a man's sexual extravagances is permissible, mentioning deviations from Marxist orthodoxy ahs become obscene.
So much for the original book. What of the translation? It is, alas, lamentable. Not only is no effort made to elucidate the text which is full of allusions to matters well-known to German left-wing intellectuals but very difficult to make sense of for anyone else, it is also riddled with mistakes. Take the very first page: Here we are informed that Brecht's grandfather was called Stefan Bertholt Brecht. In the original German text the name is correctly printed as Berthold. Further down on the same page, the Christian name of its hero is mentioned for the first time.He is called Bertholt Brecht too, thus becoming indistinguishable from his own grandfather. This seemingly slight but highly confusing misprint conceals a whole chapter of Brecht's life and psychology. For he was christened Berthold like his grandfather, but later, because he disliked the implication of the syllable "hold" which means "lovely" in German, changed his name to Bertolt, without the "h" and with a hard "t" instead of the soft "d." The sloppy spelling of the translation completely confuses this by no means insignificant detail, which, in any case would be fairly obvious to Germans, but would have needed elucidation in an English edition.Altogether the spelling of proper names is disgraceful: Ullbrict for Ulbricht, D'Annuncio for d'Annunzio, etc. and numerous passages are simply misunderstood. Moreover many of Brecht's plays, which have become very familiar in English translations, are given completely different titles, another source of confusion which greatly diminishes the value of the book. There is an index of sorts-notes but no bibliography which might have elucidated these matters. All we are given is the German text, badly translated. No effort has been made to facilitate its comprehension by non-German readers or students.
Brecht's last play was called Turandot or the Congress of Whitewashers and it dealt with time-serving intellectuals both in the Weimar Republic and in contemporary Germany. Klaus Voelker perhaps should have been a prominent participant in that kind of Congress. CAPTION: Illustration, Drawing by David Levine. Reprinted with permission from the New York Review. Copyright (c) 1978, NYREV, Inc.