Touring With an Eccentric Guide
By MICHAEL DIRDA
June 14, 2008; Page W11
Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) once described himself as the last of the romantics and the first of the moderns, which may account for the winning combination of the playful and the serious in his writing. Today he is largely remembered for his ballad-like poetry, much of it set to music by Schubert, Wolf and other lieder composers. In his own day, however, this author of such verse masterpieces as “Die Lorelei” — about the siren who lures Rhine boatmen to their doom — was equally celebrated as a prose writer, spending much of his adult life in Paris as a journalist, explaining the French to the Germans and the Germans to the French.
Among Heine’s most charming prose offerings is “Travel Pictures,” a series of eccentric travel memoirs now published in a beautiful new edition. The first, “The Harz Journey,” appeared in 1826 and begins this way: “Famous for its sausages and university, the City of Gottingen belongs to the King of Hanover and has 999 hearths, various churches, a maternity hospital, an observatory, a students’ lock-up, a library and a Ratskeller in which the beer is very good.”
From this high-spirited opening Heine quickly goes on to out-and-out comedy. Readers needing actual information about Gottingen, he tells us, would do better to consult “the well-indexed topography of the place compiled by K.F.H. Marx.” Not that this K.F.H. Marx is wholly reliable: “I must take exception to his failure to forcefully contradict the belief that Gottingen girls have overly large feet.” Overly. Large. Feet. “I have, in fact, for quite some time now, been engaged in the preparation of a serious refutation of this misguided view . . . and have spent hours on the Weenderstrasses studying the feet of passing damsels.”
At this point Heine is just hitting his stride: “And in my learned treatise I plan to expound upon the results of my studies under the following rubrics: 1) concerning feet in general, 2) concerning the feet of the ancients, 3) concerning the feet of elephants, 4) concerning the feet of Gottingen girls, 5) a summation of all that has already been said concerning these feet at Ulrich’s Beer Garden, 6) a consideration of said feet in their anatomical context, whereby I will take the opportunity to extend the consideration to calves, knees, etc., and finally 7) if I can dig up large enough sheets, I will include, as an addendum, several engraved facsimiles of the feet of the ladies in question.”
Obviously, “Travel Pictures” isn’t your typical Baedeker or Guide Michelin. At times “The Harz Journey” — in which Heine flees Gottingen to go tramping in the mountains — sounds as if it might have been written by Bill Bryson or even the great Irish comic genius Flann O’Brien. Two other memoirs in “Travel Pictures” — both from Tuscany, “The Baths of Lucca” and “The City of Lucca” — feature the magnificent Marquis Christoforo Gumpalino (formerly the German-Jewish banker Lazarus Gumpel) and can be as hilarious as a Marx Brothers film. Imagine this scene, set at a slightly rundown salon, with Groucho, Margaret Dumont and Harpo: “While the Marquis calculated the expenses of this journey on his fingers, he hummed to himself [the aria] ‘Di tanti palpiti.’ The Signora interspersed this rendition with piercing trills, and the Professor feverishly strummed his guitar.”
Amid all this hubbub, a gorgeous young courtesan enters, flings herself onto a couch face downward and proceeds to perform a puppet show with her two upraised feet — one foot clad in a red sock, the other in blue — miming her love for a young man who has become a priest. On yet another evening when Heine was in attendance the infatuated Marquis is finally invited by the seemingly unattainable Lady Maxwell “to drink the goblet that is love down to the very last drop.” Unfortunately, the Marquis has himself accidentally just drunk down — to the very last drop — a very powerful laxative.
But “Travel Pictures” isn’t merely zany. It’s an ever-surprising grab bag of dialogues and mini-essays on subjects as various as our “vast joyless modernity,” German fairy tales, the nature of love and the love of nature, the differing advantages (and disadvantages) of Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism. It contains bits of poetry, attacks on Heine’s enemies, reflections on Goethe and “Don Quixote,” and even a paean to Napoleon.
Throughout, in Peter Wortsman’s translation, one also notices the dexterously elegant rhythm of the prose and the quiet, lovely similes: “lithe with sin,” “as clean as a glass of water.” Heine can even suggest entire novels in a phrase: “A contented page who enjoys the clandestine favors of a princess . . . would surely not brag about it in the market-place.” And some sentences are almost parables: “The lizards told me that there was a legend among the stones that God would one day turn to stone to save them from their stiffness.” When a ghost appears to a terrified Heine, it proceeds to mount a logical argument proving the impossibility of ghosts.
Matthew Arnold, in a notable essay, stressed Heine’s “wonderful clearness, lightness, and freedom.” Throughout his life, though, this witty man of letters was utterly serious about defending civil liberties and religious freedom, counting among his friends not only artists like Balzac and Berlioz but also revolutionaries like Karl Marx. In one of his plays Heine, who was Jewish, presciently observed that “where they begin by burning books, they will end by burning people.”
Sadly, this brilliant writer’s last eight years were spent bedridden, in excruciating pain on his “mattress-grave,” a victim of spinal degeneration. Just before dying, he supposedly remarked: “Of course, God will forgive me. That’s his job.”
Mr. Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the author of the memoir “An Open Book” and of four collections of essays.