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The Hour That Breaks

Gottfried Benn: A Biography

Martin Travers

The Hour That Breaks is the first biography of Gottfried Benn to appear in English. The author of this study charts in impressive detail the complex paths of Benn’s life, through the demands of his medical practice and military involvement in two world wars, his brief political advocacy of Hitler and Nazism in 1933, to his final «comeback» in post Second World War Germany. The author also engages with Benn’s extensive body of poetry which, inventive, challenging and formally wrought, was the product of mind that was both radical and conservative. The same propensity to invention and transformation also informed Benn’s personal and professional life, giving rise to a practice of role-playing and dissimulation that the poet termed a «double life». As Travers shows in this well-written and informative biography, this was a strategy of survival of which Benn, ultimately, was as much the victim as the master. This biography also offers fresh translations of many of Benn’s poems, a number of which appear here in English for the first time.
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Chapter 1: A Garden East of the Oder: 1886–1912

Extract

Chapter 1

A Garden East of the Oder: 1886–1912

A wound opens

We take from the past only what we need. It is largely a matter of self-definition. In September 1930, Benn wrote the poem “Primary Days” (“Primäre Tage”), where he looked back to his childhood east of the river Oder, evoking the comforting sights and sounds of innocent days. It is a world of wonder, and Benn universalises its import: “a horn sounds, the reed sounds:/ it is the song of the elderberry bush/ out of which mankind soft and mortal flowed”. Benn’s favourite sister, Ruth, appears, engrossed in her games and pastimes. Even the all-potent blue asters are present, blowing in from the garden. And Benn asks himself: “on which suns,/ from which sea turned blue, by which sea cooled,/ did this immutable light begin,/ which reaches backwards and early things caresses?” He presses his memory for answers, but equivocation is all that is forthcoming: “perhaps a transition, perhaps the end,/ perhaps the gods and perhaps the sea”. 1

In his writing, Benn often returned to his childhood, and on each occasion a different picture emerged. In October 1921, he published the short piece “Epilogue” (“Epilog”) in the journal Zukunft. (It would provide the postscript to his Collected Writings (Gesammelte Schriften) the following year). The poet had at last been recognised as a major voice in German letters, and this was his first...

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