Munich in English - selected by independent Locals for Cosmopolitans, Newcomers and Residents - since 1989

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February 2003

Letter Heads

What writers from the English-speaking world have to say about Bavaria

Here’s a bit of movie trivia: the popular 1960s family film Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang about a magical, flying car is based on a children’s story by the British author Ian Fleming—creator of the James Bond novels. Needless to say the colorful, larger-than-life Hollywood film bears little resemblance to Fleming’s scary, almost sinister tale. Moreover, it does not, in contrast to the film, feature the Bavarian Castle of Neuschwanstein. Yes, it is an obscure detail, but one worth mentioning here because it may shed a little light on the way English-language authors have viewed Bavaria over the centuries. Elaborate architecture, alpine landscapes and rustic figures attired in quaint local garb: these images can sometimes provide an interesting backdrop for films, but seldom seem to have been reference points in our literary imagination.

One reason perhaps why authors from the English-speaking world have paid little attention to Bavaria is because for centuries the state had almost no literary life of its own. A Catholic stronghold for hundreds of years, with a mostly rural population, Bavaria was a place where books—other than religious texts—were often banned by the Church for fear of the potentially subversive effects they might have on unsophisticated minds. German author Heinz Schlaffer in his book Die kurze Geschichte der deutschen Literatur (A Short History of German Literature) writes that from the 16th to the 18th century Bavaria did not feature on Germany’s literary map. Ownership of illicit texts was punishable by law. So, for example, in the 1790s an inhabitant of Passau caught reading Goethe or Schiller would have had their reading matter confiscated. Small wonder then that writers, irrespective of their nationality, were slow to discover Bavaria’s charms. It was not until the mid-19th century that the situation started to change. The Catholic Church’s hold on Bavaria began to relax and travel became affordable for the middle classes. From now on a quiet but steady stream of Bavaria-related diaries, novels, biographies, travel journals, poems and plays began to appear in English.

On May 12, 1847, Mary Wilson, daughter of a linen draper from London, crossed the border from Saxony to Bavaria in the company of her sister Anne and brother Tom as part of a nine-month European tour. Wilson kept a travel journal, which was published in 1987 under the title A European Journal by a descendant of the family. The diary gives us a close-up view of Bavaria in the year that Lola Montez, Irish gentlewoman turned Spanish dancer, was busy conducting a rather public affaire with King Ludwig I, an indiscretion that would lead to his abdication in 1848. Wilson’s journal is rather acerbic in tone, for example when describing the inhabitants of Munich. “Most of them very common dirty disagreeable looking people,” or King Ludwig I himself, who Wilson encounters by chance in the English Garden, “The king is a horrid withered looking old skeleton, apparently eaten up with conceit at his own taste and cleverness.” Nonetheless she is a conscientious tourist who not only enjoys visiting great sights—every church, museum and gallery in Munich is described in detail—but also takes pleasure in local traditions. “We set off in a carriage to see the Whit Monday fête at a beautiful wood an hour & 1/2 from Munich. The peasants were waltzing and polkaing as if for life & death, some of them with their singular dresses beautifully embroidered with gold.” And there are plenty of interesting tidbits for the modern reader. “They say a great many English pass the winter in Munich on account of the cheap living, as you may have a set of apartments, nicely furnished, consisting of 2 bedrooms and a sitting room for £ 3.0.0 a month and provisions etc. generally speaking equally cheap.”

Thirteen years later, in 1864, the low cost of living in Munich is remarked upon by another British writer. In his book Social Life in Munich, 1864 Edward Wilberforce (1834–1914), grandson of the famous slave trade abolitionist William Wilberforce, describes almost every aspect of life in the city, though the book does not make for pleasant reading. Wilberforce details the shortcomings of the train service (“Anyone familiar with the Bavarian Express must admit that even the worst of all trains is better than this”), the local beer-drinking habits (“Should you complain to a doctor about the climate in Munich, he will ask if you are drinking enough beer”), the police force (“Police patrols in the city are ineffective in the highest degree”) and so on for around 300 pages—though Wilberforce does enjoy a good party (“I believe there are about a thousand artists in Munich and the most pleasant characteristic of these people is their ability to celebrate”). Sadly American author Mark Twain (1835–1910), who traveled extensively in Europe and recorded his impressions of Germany in A Tramp Abroad (1880), makes no mention of Munich or even Bavaria. His humorous and elegant style of writing would have made an interesting counterpoint to Wilberforce’s carping.

One celebrated American man of letters who did travel to Bavaria was T. S. Eliot. His biographer Peter Ackroyd reports that Eliot visited Munich and its environs in the summer of 1911, which made a sufficient impression on the poet for him to allude to the latter in his poem The Waste Land (1922).
“Summer surprised us, coming
over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped
in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the
And drank coffee, and talked for
an hour.
Bin keine Russin, stamm’ aus
Litauen, echt Deutsch.”

Much of The Waste Land is hard to interpret, but these lines at least appear to convey the atmosphere of a halcyon, cosmopolitan Central Europe, which must have been perceptible in prewar Munich.

Hard on the heels of Eliot came another poet and writer, D. H. Lawrence (1885–1930), best known for his controversial novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). In fact it was during his holiday, staying in and around Wolfratshausen in the summer of 1912, that Lawrence conceived the idea for a steamy love story between a gamekeeper and a lady of the manor. Though the novel is set in England, it reflects Lawrence’s mood of that summer, for his companion on the trip was Frieda Weekley (née von Richthofen), a married woman—she later divorced her husband and married Lawrence—with whom he had eloped from Nottingham, England. Lawrence, the son of a coal miner, must have felt a certain frisson at finding himself in an illicit liaison with a German aristocrat. In fact, the whole summer is recorded in another novel, Mister Noon, not published until 1984. In a thinly disguised autobiographical story Lawrence describes the landscapes of the Isar and Loisach valleys, swimming naked in the Isar River and the village life of Ommerbach—a fictional name for the real-life village of Icking.

For more than a century, probably up to the 1940s, travelers in Bavaria had the right to one night’s free room and board in whatever town or village they happened to find themselves. One young man who frequently took advantage of this custom was the English writer Patrick Leigh Fermor (1914–). In 1933 the 19-year-old Leigh Fermor set off on foot to walk across the Continent, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, and later published an account of his adventures in the books A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Leigh Fermor is a peerless travel writer, combining great humor and insight with a boundless enthusiasm for discovery. His descriptions of Europe in the 1930s are unmatched in English and American literature. The young Englishman spent a number of weeks walking through Bavaria in the winter of 1933–34. “I traveled on footpaths and over stiles and across fields and along country roads that ran through dark woods and out again into the white ploughland and pasture. The valleys were dotted with villages that huddled round the shingle roofs of churches, and all the belfries tapered and then swelled again into black ribbed cupolas.”

Entertaining as these passages are, however, they pale into insignificance beside the account of his stay in Munich, especially a visit to the Hofbräuhaus. “The vaults of the great chamber faded into infinity through blue strata of smoke. Hobnails grated, mugs clashed and the combined smell of beer and bodies and old clothes and farmyards sprang at the newcomer. I squeezed in at a table full of peasants, and was soon lifting one of those masskrugs to my lips. It was heavier than a brace of iron dumb-bells, but the blonde beer inside was cool and marvelous, a brooding cylindrical litre of Teutonic myth.”

While the rise of fascism in Germany was registered with suspicion by writers such as Fermor, there were visitors from the English-speaking world who came to Bavaria expressly to demonstrate their support of the Nazis. One of these was Unity Mitford, sister of the novelist Nancy. Mitford’s life was bizarre, to say the least. Conceived in a town called Swastika (near Ontario on the Great Lakes), she was given the second name Valkyrie, in honor of Wagner’s Norse maiden warriors, and grew up with her five sisters and one brother under the eccentric but genial care of her parents, Lord and Lady Resedale in Oxfordshire, England. Perhaps it was the need to distinguish herself from her brilliant and beautiful siblings that made Mitford turn to fascism, though she was not the only one of the sisters involved with the National Socialist movement—her sister Diana married the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley. But whatever the reasons and despite the fact that her parents were horrified by her political opinions, Mitford moved to Munich in 1938, on a more or less permanent basis, in order to be close to Hitler, whom she worshiped as a hero. Mitford was not a writer but the numerous biographies written about the family and sister Nancy’s novel Wigs on the Green lend interesting, if often extremely unpalatable, insight into the life of one of Hitler’s acolytes. Author Mary S. Lovell describes Mitford’s life in Munich in the late 1930s in her biography The Mitford Girls (2001): “Unity was now a frequent guest at the gatherings of Hitler’s inner circle and she sometimes saw him alone in his quarters. Some of Hitler’s senior officers regarded her naïve prattling with the Führer as potentially dangerous, and were concerned about the niche she had established for herself in his life.” Yet, Mitford felt great loyalty to England and her family, so as the prospect of war came ever closer she found herself in a serious dilemma. Though Mitford wrote a letter to her family saying “I might disappear into the mountains of Tyrol perhaps if war is declared,” on September 3, 1939, the day that Britain declared war on Germany, she went to the English Garden and shot herself in the head with a small revolver in an attempted suicide. She recovered sufficiently to be sent home to England, but remained an invalid and died in 1948 at the age of 34.

There seems to have been little English fiction or poetry written on Bavaria since the end of World War II and what there is appears mired in a stereotype portrayal of the formal, over-officious German. Paul Temple and the Conrad Case (1959), an episode from a popular British radio series created by Francis Durbridge (1912–1998), is set in a German finishing school somewhere in the countryside near Munich. The story of an abducted English girl is exciting enough, but the stilted German accent of the local protagonists (“He’s vaiting in zee lounge;” etc.) are likely to make the listener cringe with embarrassment. The only exception to this clichéd approach is the novel The Fox in the Attic—part of an unfinished trilogy called The Human Predicament—by Richard Hughes (1900–1976). It describes the life of a young Welsh aristocrat, Augustine Penry-Herbert, who visits his German relatives in Bavaria, where he falls in love with his cousin and witnesses the rise of fascism first hand. Hughes’ style is complex and his vocabulary vast, while the description of the traumatic interwar years in Europe is riveting and educational. For the time being we have reached the end of our literary travels in Bavaria. Who knows? Perhaps on this cold February afternoon there is a writer working away somewhere in a book-lined study, looking out at a winter landscape, attempting to capture the atmosphere of our adopted homeland.

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