Oscar Wilde and Company: German, Jewish, Irish, and Romance Studies

Oscar Wilde and Company: German, Jewish, Irish, and Romance Studies

Oscar Wilde and Company: German, Jewish, Irish, and Romance Studies


Dear readers of my blog,

having returned from the class trip to Berlin – where it was as hot as it had been in the same calendar week in 2012 and where I was strictly offline concentrating on people and places around me – it took me five working-days to live up to the demands a commuters professional and family life imposes in both analogical and digital terms.


I now hope to resume a more or less regular blog on “Oscar Wilde and Company” which catch-title, following several trains of thought both on Baltrum beach in the summer and in Berlin streets last week, as well as on the phone to some friends of long standing, should be read in context with a sub-title: “German, Jewish, Irish, and Romance Studies”. While there are several posts in waiting, today I want to turn your attention to a query that reached me from a friend based at Heidelberg, a Kleist and Kafka scholar and editor as well as an Anglophile, who needs help with a quotation taking from George Bernard Shaw and cited in one of Kafkas notebooks (“Quarthefte”).


The situation is a bit complicated. Having discovered that the quote – you find the German translation and the original below – stems from the “Preface” to the first American publication of “The irrational knot” (1905), my friend is puzzled by the fact that this text is missing from the first German edition “Die törichte Heirat”, translated by Wilhelm Cremer (Berlin 1909), someone who also translated Oscar Wilde into German at the time.


Since Franz Kafka did not have any English, his question simply is where did he find the text of the “Preface”? He and I would be extremely grateful if someone came up with a solution.


German translation:

FK zitiert im November 1911 GB Shaw:
„Aber trotzdem ich ein starker junger Mensch war und meine Familie sich in üblen Umständen befand, warf ich mich nicht in den Kampf des Lebens; ich warf meine Mutter hinein und liess mich von ihr erhalten. Ich war meinem alten Vater keine Stütze, im Gegenteil, ich hieng mich an seine Rockschösse.“

English original text:
„I was an ablebodied and ableminded young man in the strength of my youth; and my family, then heavily embarrassed, needed my help urgently. That I should have chosen to be a burden to them instead was, according to all the conventions of peasant lad fiction, monstrous. Well, without a blush I embraced the monstrosity. I did not throw myself into the struggle for life: I threw my mother into it. I was not a staff to my father's old age: I hung on to his coat tails.”

Another question my friend asks is whether barring such rudimentary lists as published on the Internet there is a bibliography of translations into German of works by George Bernard Shaw.

Another matter: when in Berlin, rather than trying to keep in touch with the world wide web I sought to cover the ground we walked in writing whenever there was a low in group activities, taking notes, that is, when the whole Youth Hostel was still asleep or when the adolescents went out shopping in groups of three or more. This is why I re-read, partly corrected and revised a journal kept on things German and on Berlin in the summer of 2012. Since it was written almost exactly seven years ago when after a sustained summer break I took up work at Norden, and since it explicitly refers to music as well as to Irish literature at the end, I now insert my entry for 2nd September 2012:

Diary entry:

Free from the obligation to write a review of a concert of classical music for which texts my wife had acted as an expert reader being a professional musician herself for the past two years, we attended two events in the German capital before the twelve cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra paid a visit to Leer, East Frisia, yesterday night. The whole orchestra being on the return trip from London, this otherwise indispensable group was permitted to stop over right in the middle.

The first cellist regretted their having so little time for this pretty town on the Dutch border while complimenting us for having turned up in such great numbers.

In Berlin, he continued, it was difficult to fill the chamber music hall of the Philharmonie – seating 1,180 rather than just under 700 as in the Leer auditorium. At a later stage in the programme he asked us not to clap between pieces adapted for twelve celli by Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and Robert Schumann. This was most probably due to what musicians in Berlin experience every day, what we also lived through at Konzerthaus when the Iranian pianist Ramin Brahmani was never able to finish a piece before someone started the ovation – just as in the opera at Glasgow where I first attended a performance of Puccinis La Bohème in March 1984.

At Leer, however, everyone held his or her breath until the twelve cellists had put down their bows. In his notes for this concert the programme director discussed the multiple meanings of the number twelve, mentioning the apostles, of course, who included Judas. I recollect that the huge cloth hung up above the modern altar of St. Hedwigs-Kathedrale in Berlin, a Catholic church, named all but Judas, thus destroying the harmony.

As for the twelve cellists, I knew that but one name, and if Martin Menking is not a namesake, he is the cellist I played with in the same youth orchestra in 1983 and 1985. All the time during the concert, I tried to identify him among the ten candidates, two cellists being women, while I saw images emerging form the distant past. In vain did I look for a spike à la Paul Tortelier (1914-1990) as that had distinguished Martin from his fellow cellists when we Beethovens 6th and Bruckners 2nd Symphonies. Then it occurred to me that as a student of Heinrich Schiff he had had to change his style and the type of spike he used. All this is so long ago that the memory images cropping up before my minds eye when looking at the two candidates I had finally singled out all utterly failed to correspond with the reality on stage at Leer.

For once, I had mostly witnessed him playing from behind, as the double-bassists were sitting behind the cello group. Then the man he was most likely supposed to be according to the list of names printed beside the photo in the season programme did in no way correspond to any recollection of mine of his prior appearance, nor of what I recall of his elder sister or his parents.

The other candidate, fair-haired, as Martin was at the time when I knew him, seemed more extravert, throwing his flower into the audience, than I imagined the person I recall to be. If I had heard his voice, things would have been clear, but then I decided against knocking at the dressing-room door, opting for a bout of research first.

Today, seven years later, when I did this research, I found all the facts corresponding to what I knew and had heard about Martin Menking – but for the photo published on the Internet. Be that as it may, in the audience on that 1st September 2012 I was most probably the only person ever to have played together with anyone sitting on the stage that night. This alone made up for much of the initial frustration felt when I had read the letter in which the president of the society running this series of concerts since 1876 announced me they had had the good fortune to engage a professional reviewer for the coming season.

Another up-beat moment was the chat about literature and writing with a couple who had just been to Dublin and Belfast. It was like music, a dialogue mounted on the hobbyhorses of Wilde, Joyce, and Beckett – Oscar Wilde and Company, that is – the latters regular presence in Berlin from the 1930s through 1986 also being evoked. I only hope the professional reviewer, who still acts the part, receives at least double pay for her work. Professionals in that field I know only too well from personal experience are hardly ever adequately remunerated.

Looking forward to up-loading another post soon and to an answer to my query about the source Franz Kafka quoted from,

all best wishes,

Jörg W. Rademacher

30th August 2019


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