The poet and translator Martyn Crucefix recently translated the non-fiction pieces of Lutz Seiler. Here are his thoughts on the book In Case of Loss, which And Other Stories will publish in November 2023:

In the midst of any of my translation projects – and working on Lutz Seiler’s brilliant collection of essays, In Case of Loss, has proved no exception – I often think of David Bellos’ book on translation, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? (2011). His subtitle is ‘The Amazing Adventure of Translation’ and he concludes that the whole business rests upon two presuppositions. The first is that we humans are all different: we speak differently and hence see the world in different ways. The second is that we are all the same: that we share the same kinds of feelings, information, understandings, etc. Without the first, translation would not be necessary; without the second, it could not exist. In Lutz Seiler’s essays, he writes of his life, growing up in Communist-era East Germany, of his family, his ancestors, the fall of the Berlin Wall, his own struggles as a writer. I am not personally familiar with any of this material. And yet In Case of Loss conveys to me as translator (as I know it will to its readers) extraordinarily powerful moments of recognition, of shared experience.

Although a series of discrete essays, there is a plot to be gleaned from this collection. Seiler traces his own development as a son, grandson, and German citizen of the mid to late 20th century, from vivid passages which evoke the times of his grandparents as farmers working the land, then on to the desecration of the countryside (particularly through the uranium mining carried out in the Soviet era) and to his own childhood of boy’s games, school days, birthdays and cream cakes, the family’s preserving of garden produce, their butchery of raised pigs. Other essays take the reader on through his teens to leaving home, military service, working as a labourer on construction sites, his first adventures in literature and writing his own first works (under the spell of the earlier East German poet Peter Huchel), and thence to university, the academic world, life as a writer. Running through this narrative is Seiler’s fascinating portrait of Germany from the late 19th century through to the present day. In particular, we are given a vivid account of life in the German Democratic Republic, its absurdities, incompetencies, repression, and its eventual collapse.

One of the things I love about Seiler’s writing – and one of the ways in which he manages to draw his readers into unfamiliar territory – is his ‘common touch’. Though he does delve into literary theory and philosophy, his essays always set out from something tangible and relatable: his daughter’s ballet lessons, the plants and trees in his garden, being rudely woken by noise from a nearby building site. His descriptions of particular things – domestic processes, objects observed, a variety of landscapes, states of mind – are incredibly vivid and evocative. The dark cellar in Seiler’s childhood house, filled with hundreds of jars of preserved vegetables and meat, is unforgettable to the reader. The same can be said of the utterly horrifying incident, set in Berlin just after the Wall had fallen, in which a hapless workman is accidentally electrocuted, or when Seiler himself, the father now, takes his son to play football in Rome (when Seiler, the writer, was supposed to have been at work on a novel, the novel that finally became Star 111).

One of the most moving ‘shared experiences’ for me as translator occurs in the intriguingly titled essay ‘Sundays I Thought of God’. This piece begins from one of Seiler’s own poems and ranges through his memories of the Sundays of childhood through to the Berlin of the early 1990s. One section recalls the largely wordless (almost religious) closeness he shared with his father in their mutual interest in car and motorbike engines. Seiler confesses that, even now, all the old tools are still in his possession. One of these is the so-called ‘feeler gauge’. At least that’s what my own father called it in the 1970s when we used it to check the spark plug gap in the engine of my own first motorbike, an unstylish, unpowerful Honda 90. I still have Dad’s feeler gauge in the bottom of a toolbox somewhere, so I read and translated the following in a veritable trance of recognition:

. . . the feeler gauge. Its various feelers are like ‘tongues’, twenty tongues that fold out and range in thickness from 0.1 to 2 millimetres. The 0.4 millimetre tongue, for example, was used to set the gap between the anode and cathode of the motorbike spark plugs. The gap was right if the tongue could be inserted between the electrodes; it was optimal if it stuck a little. Today, when I have this feeler gauge in my hand, when its still slightly oily tongues slide out of the retaining case in the shape of a fan as if by themselves, when I touch the metal, when I open and close the fan, it occasionally happens that I find my way back to the old state of devotion. When I fold it up again, when the little tongues slip into the steel case and are pressed one to the other, there is a soft scrunching sound, a wonderful sound, almost like a language, a thrill: so, I unfold the fan again, then fold it back once more, but more slowly this time, moving each tongue separately, very slowly, and each one scrunches differently, softly, out, then in. Sure, it is a weird picture: as if transfixed, somebody is standing in a shed, in front of his toolbox, and he is folding a feeler gauge open, then shut. The feeler gauge belongs to the inventory of sacred things, to a time when the garage was a kind of church.

Alongside such spellbinding moments in the ‘narrative’ of his essays, Seiler is also exploring literary experience, especially the art of poetry. In Case of Loss contains major contributions to our understanding of the life and work of the poets Peter Huchel and Jürgen Becker, plus brief glimpses of Ernst Meister, Paul Celan, Lion Feuchtwanger and the Californian ‘New Weimar’ in the 1950s. We are also given startlingly frank and detailed accounts of Seiler’s own struggles and processes as an aspiring writer through to his finding success as a poet, his life in Huchel’s Wilhelmshorst house, and (especially honest and revealing) the difficult struggle to write the novel that was eventually published over a decade later to resounding success, Star 111.

Seiler’s writing is especially focused on family and childhood, time and memory, the writer’s struggle to articulate the ineffable. But his work is also greatly concerned with the importance of place and landscape to those who live in it, including the writer, of patience and humility and of trusting to intuition, the ways in which history is ever-present, the relationship between the individual and society, the latter’s responsibility towards the former, the former’s sometime repression by the latter. These are all universal themes, in Bellos’ terms ‘shared’ concerns, treated here with a vivid, distinctive particularity, with an often self-deprecating humour and with great humility. In Case of Loss is a book for German literature specialists, for poets and novelists, but it also has much to offer the general reader interested in literature, history and life writing.

 

March 2023

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