Karl Wolfskehl: A poet in exile by Friedrich Voit (Cold Hub Press, 2019), 232pp, $40
To start at the end, the Epilogue tells us about the growth of international interest in Karl Wolfskehl over recent decades, and the handling, by his companion Margot Ruben, of his literary estate up until her death in 1980. Throughout the biography, Friedrich Voit gives us enough facts, without building her up unduly, to get a fair picture of the importance of Ruben in Wolfskehl’s work, and the intricacies of their relationship. The Wolfskehl–Ruben story is only one of many fascinating threads.
Reading the final chapters, one feels that Wolfskehl, dignified even in abandonment, was well prepared for the inevitable. He left his literary estate to Margot Ruben, who was dedicated to its archiving and publication until her death in 1980. She also came into possession of his ‘New Zealand’ library, which was scattered when she died.
Wolfskehl had few followers, though some younger men sensed the depth and breadth of his vision, his fierce intelligence and the warm, symbolist vision, which he never eschewed. Just a year before his death, after his companion Ruben had left him, an old friend in Munich offered to care for him in Germany, but he refused. At that time, he said to his friend, he did not go to look at the ocean very often, for it was ‘far too unending’. He preferred to see out his time in New Zealand, the all too real inverse of his abstract ‘Thule’ (farthest away place of the ancient Greeks) – to die in the country where he had dealt with, and achieved, so much.
Karl Wolfskehl: A poet in exile tells us also of the astonishing power of the letter (dictated to Ruben). In this age when I often hear of relationships ended by an ill-conceived, hastily written email, it is salutary to read of the ‘intense correspondence’ (p. 161) between Wolfskehl and Emil Preetorius, to whom Wolfskehl had dedicated his own 1930 book of essays, Bild und Gesetz (Image and Law): ‘Emil Preetorius dem Freunde’ (To my friend Emil Preetorius). Correspondence in this case repaired the seemingly irreparable. The renewal of this friendship says much for Wolfskehl’s generosity of spirit.
We learn that another such reconciliation occurred, during the New Zealand years, with the philosopher Edith Landmann, who had accused him of betrayal. One also finds continuity of affection and loyalty, going back to well before the years of Nazi laceration. Voit informs us carefully of the facts of Karl’s relationship with Hanna, his wife.
A recent review of this book by Nicholas Reid, who lived next to Ron and Kay Holloway until he was 22 years old, chooses to say that Karl ‘deserted’ his wife, but with due respect to Nicholas, that is certainly not the right word. (http://reidsreader.blogspot.com/2019/09/acommunistinthefamilyelspethsandyssomething-new.html) Wolfskehl’s wife knew the members of his pre-exile entourage, and she continued to remain close friends with some, notably with Edgar Salin. She shared the largesse d’esprit common to many of the circle, though it must be said that the Munich intellectual community did not give pride of place to women. Voit tells us how the married couple ‘maintained a close and trusting friendship’ throughout their lives, and this ‘despite his many relationships with other women and his bond with Margot Ruben’. One senses the complexity of the triangle, and how an out and out declaration of the Wolfskehl–Ruben ‘amalgamation’, through marriage, would have grossly upset the delicately poised situation. Remember that Hanna had also raised their two children.
Voit has left no stone unturned, but he is not one for moralism or scandal. One can sense on every page that fact is preferred to opinion, and the truth here detailed can certainly stand on its own, without deontological or other moral analysis. And truth can take time to bubble to the surface, too: this biography is, I feel, timely, coming as we in New Zealand enter a new age of self-consciousness, not, you will agree, like adolescents blinded by complexes, but able to look at the New Zealand years (and before) of Karl Wolfskehl with a comprehensive eye. Perhaps we might learn something about culture, we who talk so much about it.
And this might be a good moment to mention the other two books published by Cold Hub on Wolfskehl. Voit’s pages about Karl and Hanna reminded me of a letter in Karl Wolfskehl: Poetry and Exile, Letters from New Zealand, translated with great dedication by Nelson Wattie. In 1947 just nine months before his death, Wolfskehl writes: ‘this is something I know very deeply and truly: whatever once existed at the deepest level is permanent and will always be there, even if its form is changed. And so it’s wonderful to know that and to know you’ (my emphasis).
Voit’s book is peppered with quotations from Wolfskehl’s poetry and letters, and sometimes furnishes us with quotations from works that have not yet appeared in New Zealand. Voit also treats us to rare notebook entries and poems dedicated to Margot Ruben, along with translations of unpublished (in English) sections of correspondence that do not appear in the companion Cold Hub volumes. In 1947, Wolfskehl wrote: ‘My fame ended in the harbour of Auckland, but it also begins in the harbour of Auckland.’ In the preceding year, he had been granted a restricted visa to enter Switzerland, but he was now, he wrote to his friend Kurt Frener, ‘a citizen of the world and a son of our planet’ (p. 149). Without trying to wrest him away from German and Jewish intellectual whānau, he is, by his neglected self’s admission, our adopted son.
The years of exile were a time of intense realisations, of many new works, and of completion of works in progress. Early versions of An die Deutschen, and three of the four INRI panels might have stood alone. It is possible to see the additions he made to such poems as the fruit of exilic desperation and hope, of the meeting of abstract and concrete topoi. They and other completed works may reflect his observation of New Zealand flora, and other local organic correlatives of completed structure. The cover image of Karl Wolfskehl: A poet in exile, in which the poet’s wild hair resembles tangled branches of a leafless fig tree, represents well his outer circumstance and his inner world at the time. He titled the photo ‘Two Wintry Ones’, and sent it to several people, including Edgar Salin.
Voit’s biography, first access point to our ‘citizen of the world’, quickly leads towards a better grasp of our own history of attitudes and tolerance. From the moment he stepped ashore, the aging Wolfskehl’s difficulties and challenges were, or have become, our own.
By way of balance, I should add that this biography does not avoid telling us of times when Wolfskehl’s anger flared. In one case there was no conciliation: with Ludwig Klages, who hit out at Wolfskehl and Stefan George in the 1940 introduction to the posthumous works of Alfred Schule, fellow member along with Wolfskehl, Ludwig Derleth and Albert Verwey of the Cosmic Circle (1898–1904). Voit tells the story of Klages’ effrontery, with Wolfskehl’s poem of repudiation, previously published only by Margot Ruben in German (Kalon, 62):
Revile forgetting your own beginnings,
Revile the gift of your innermost being,
Revile your ever searching thought,
Revile, revile your heart glowing once for Him.
The capitalisation of Him is not a reference to God, but to Stefan George, who was regarded as a master (as in our Master or Arts, but with added spirituality). While the Cosmic Circle was interested in such fascinating matters as neo-paganism and matriarchal hierarchies, and while the later George Circle swung towards idealisation of historical heroes like thirteenth-century emperor Frederick II, Wolfskehl was primarily interested in the literature and, specifically, poetry from classical times to the present. Since his eyesight was deteriorating, he was dependent on people to read to him as his own dying epoch merged with the new. And Wolfskehl followed his age closely, remarking to one correspondent how some writers find they ‘stand at the gateway between two historical periods, combining the earlier one with the coming one as if in a [round] dance’. What we do not learn from the life and witness of someone like Wolfskehl will be to our detriment.
For students particularly interested in the development of his poems, there are some pages detailing their formative contemplation. When composing ‘Job’, for example, ‘he assembled several previously unrelated poems into a coherent sequence uniting the ideas already expressed into a single vision, with each poem ‘mirroring’ a core element of Judaism’.
For those less interested in the poetry and more in the man or his life, the timeline adroitly manoeuvres aspects of Wolfskehl’s life into a juxtaposition that provokes more than simple comparison and contrast. An example might be the way it deals with cross-currents from his domestic and legal past, his new situation in exile and his intellectual fealty to members of the Cosmic and George circles. At one stage the three came into irresolvable conflict:
In April Wolfskehl hinted ominously in a handwritten letter in English – always an indication of some significant matter – to Edgar Salin at his depressed mood and mounting difficulties: ‘I feel life as a heavy burden and my shoulders are trembling.’
Wolfskehl was seeking a divorce. A letter posted in February to Edgar Salin, who was close to both the poet and his wife, did not arrive in Switzerland until August. Margot and Karl were waiting six months for a response, and even then the response was only ‘Letter received. Love.’ Wolfskehl suffered ‘the heaviest attack of illness I had in my life’ and two months later Margot Ruben fell ill with bilateral pneumonia. Perhaps marriage with Ruben would have prevented their eventual separation, but the day before Wolfskehl’s seventy-second birthday, news arrived that a divorce from Hanna in Europe was impossible for reasons you will discover.
This is the third Cold Hub work on Wolfskehl to appear in as many years, and must bring to a close this publisher’s literary celebration and revelation of this poet once in our midst. The first biography about Wolfskehl in English, it provides an introduction to the astounding social life he led before arriving here, and offers no-nonsense insight into the mysteries of his antipodean life and death. I recommend purchasing all three Cold Hub volumes, if budget permits. They make a complementary set in blue, grey and gold and, as you can probably tell, I often find myself enjoying the great pleasure of going from one to another.
And finally, remember the small New Zealand library I mentioned, scattered after Ruben’s death? After reading this biography you might agree that we should really reconstitute his ‘Kiwi’ collection of the few treasured books he was able to bring with him from Europe, and the few more he acquired in New Zealand, in his honour.
In Wolfskehl’s own words: ‘We must dare to take the leap into clarity.’
BILL DIREEN is a writer, performer and freelance researcher. He has published in all genres and released music albums with many collaborators. He lived in Europe for some years before returning to his native New Zealand. A 2017 documentary about his life, A Memory of Others, includes interviews, spoken word, theatre and music videos. The double-LP soundtrack was released in 2019. In November 2019 he is on a reading and performance tour of Europe and the USA.