Günter Kunert

Günter Kunert (1929-2019), poet, novelist, essayist, screenplay writer, and graphic artist is considered to be one of the most profound and prolific German writers of the post-war era. He was born in Berlin, where he spent five semesters studying at the Academy for Applied Arts following World War II. He turned to free-lance writing in 1947 and in 1949 he joined the SED Party. His first volume of poetry, published in 1950, was seen as heralding the arrival of a fresh generation of writers whose works would celebrate the deeds and aspirations of the newly created GDR. Kunert’s early writings supported the ideology and growth of the new socialist republic, but as political convictions and concerns began to influence his artistic expression in the 1960s, he became increasingly critical of socialism and pessimistic in his writings. Confrontations with East German government and cultural authorities led to his expulsion from the SED Party in 1977 and prompted his decision in 1979 to live in self-imposed “exile” in West Germany.

Kunert’s sphere of influence as a writer extended beyond his homeland. His poetry volume, Erinnerung an einen Planeten (Memory of a Planet), was published in West Germany in 1963. From that time on an increasing proportion of his books appeared in West German editions. His published work includes numerous volumes of poetry, a novel, many books of short prose, a volume of essays on writing, and a number of screenplays, librettos, and radio plays. Several of his books, including Der andere Planet: Ansichten von Amerika (The Other Planet: Views about America, 1975) were printed simultaneously in both Germanys. This book in particular, which he began writing in 1972 while he was a visiting associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, showcases his satirical sense of humor and his extraordinary ability as a prose writer to present a critical reflection of reality.

Empire State Building

Tower of superlatives. The highest in the world. One hundred and two floors. From the tip of its antenna Mannix and Cannon (or whatever names the current heroes and detectives may have) are able to reach eight million televisions in four states. You can still see ships at sea that are more than sixty kilometers off in the distance. Seventy-two elevators. The express lifts race upwards at ninety kilometers an hour; their floor counters start working at number 72, and despite the speed they ascend in such a gentle way that, apart from the pressure on your eardrum due to the difference in altitude, you do not sense the upwards thrust.

65,000 windows: cleaned twice each month, a housewife’s nightmare. 1860 stairs from street level up to the top floor: recommended for the training of mountain climbers who stayed home. 1600 employees work in this layered honeycomb, in this vertical small town, for which a term like “house” would sound like good-natured irony: that phenomenal structure weighs 365,000 tons; 14 tons of subflooring per person, not including cleaning personnel and the 35,000 daily visitors, among whom we also appear and help generate the numerical statistics, get on, get off, complete the tour, as the rules in force for world travelers have dictated.

But it turns out that the megalomania of the building produces the opposite effect. Not being overwhelmed by the sight of incomprehensible physical size. Instead of that (and related to the same feeling that is brought about by a suddenly unveiled secret) an encompassing of Manhattan, compellingly and affectionately: comprehending its small size for which its undeniably cosmic diversity compensates. The secret of this place is its resemblance to the universe, albeit limited by the inverse formula: limited, but infinite. How the sight of the nocturnal  sky stimulates one’s imagination (and has stimulated generations before us) to speculate about the possible and hidden, inconceivably divergent forms of life, just like that looking down from the Empire State Building triggers unclear visions, indefinite associations: as if one were standing on a pyramid of bodies, of human lives, of existences, each individual a resource never to be detected, each individual differing from each individually, under dissimilar circumstances present down there; the inestimable number of their dwellings, cellars, attics, backrooms, penthouses, basements, caverns, grottos, chambers, garages, hallways, stairs, sitting rooms, studios, stores, storage rooms, crammed with the vestiges of all epochs: a museum is situated at our feet, not at any time entirely fathomable, exactly like the realm at our heads to which we have just come twelve hundred and fifty feet closer. Up here one feels the allure of this exaggerated settlement, akin to that of other spaces in which the passion for discovery remains eternally unappeased, the farther it penetrates and presses forward, not deterred by any danger. Behind the thermoglass of the southern side darkish silhouettes: the setting sun casts a shadow across the facades facing the city; in return, the water from the Hudson and East Rivers at the confluence of the Upper Bay pure tin foil, slightly crinkled, a surface of dazzling reflection, and on this surface tiny among other tinies: Liberty Island with the freedom statue, clear cut in front of the marvelous background, a chess piece of the cosmic dwarfs, presumably: the Queen. (Der andere Planet. Munich and Vienna: Carl Hanser, 1975. 170-71)

Believe me, this is a terrific book! If you decide to read some of Kunert’s works, start here!

As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, Günter Kunert was a graphic artist as well as one of the most important German writers of the post-war period. Let me now add that Kunert was an extremely talented and accomplished artist whose artworks complemented his literary works. When I visited the Kunerts at their villa in Berlin-Buch in the 1970s, one of the first things I noticed was that their home resembled an art gallery. Works of art, presumably all or mostly by Kunert, were on prominent display, as were two of their many collections: original tin toys and blue cobalt glassware items of various sorts. Also and always present were the cats he and Marianne “collected” (six at that time) and loved so much. Later on, I would be introduced to some of their other collections—e.g., antique dolls and peaked (service) caps. Kunert enjoyed collecting and liked being in the company of objects, more so than people, for a reason. Human beings lie, he explained, objects never lie. I spent many pleasurable hours with the Kunerts in their beautiful home, which was decorated with uncommon good taste. Being with them in those surroundings gave me a sense of what a literary salon might have been like in pre-World War I Berlin. Looking back and remembering, I imagine that it must have been extremely difficult for the Kunerts to say goodbye to this elegant dwelling when in 1979 they moved in self-imposed “exile” to a remote village (Kaisborstel) in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, West Germany.

Let me conclude this snapshot in a different way and share with my readers two book dedications I received from Günter Kunert back in the late 1970s. One is his amusing pen sketch of a “German democratic flower” on the first page of his 1967 novel, Im Namen der Hüte (In the Name of Hats). The second is on the inside title page of his volume of essays on writing, Warum schreiben (Why write, 1976). As an afterthought Kunert asks, “and why read?” Food for thought!

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GÜNTER KUNERT

Photo: Wolfgang Fischer