1 December 1941. Dr. Fred Sauer of the German Army Weaponry Office is contemplating a “winterproof tank weapon” inspired by the anatomy of mammoths. Alongside the narrative of Germans freezing on the frontline outside Moscow, a picture of snow-clad conifers presents specklings of auburn leaves on two scrawny trees in the foreground. The juxtaposition of photograph and historical narrative conveys a sense of the bleakness and the sterility of politics, evil, winter, war. “The month of December 1941 was characterized by time-shortage,” the entry ends tersely.
This December marks the first in which Gerhard Richter & Alexander Kluge’s December: 39 stories. 39 pictures. is available in English — you can read an excerpt at the New York Review of Books blog. The book emerged as a collaborative effort during New Year’s 2009 at the Hotel Waldhaus in Sils Maria, Switzerland — a picturesque mountain town best known as the place Nietzsche summered for a number of years after falling ill. The idea was for Kluge to compose historical narratives for pictures that Richter had taken of winter foliage during the month in Sils Maria.
The resulting stories span the ice age through the date of the book’s inception, but occur mostly during the era of National Socialism (the time of both Richter and Kluge’s conception and early childhoods, as Kluge mentions in interviews) and the early twenty-first century. There is a sense, throughout, of both historical-political urgency and thinly perceptible personal intimacy. “It has snowed all night in the Engadine,” a narrator remarks on 15 December 2009. The only individual mentioned in this entry is Tom Tykwer, the German film director/screenwriter/composer, but one gets the sense that Kluge is sitting down in his Engadine hotel room and hashing out the details of his observations and conversations from that day.
If there is one moment at which it becomes impossible to ignore Kluge’s personal presence within the narration, it is in a footnote to 3 December 1931, an entry chronicling a near-miss car accident involving Hitler and Magda Goebbels’ (chauffeured) mother on the night of the Goebbels’ wedding. “I, enclosed in the well-tempered stomach, was almost born without Hitler having a bit of future in front of him,” reads the footnote, and the reader is uncomfortably pressed into a new framework — one with a present, first person narrator; one in which Kluge firmly but obscurely places himself within the removed narration of historical events — that persists for the brevity of the sentence.
The project, first published in German in 2010, was released this fall in a translation by Martin Chalmers for Seagull Books. Chalmers, who has translated works by notable German authors such as Nobel laureate Herta Müller and poet-writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger, captures the dry wit of Kluge’s original in lines such as, “It was the general view, however, that the operations of heart and mind at the steering wheel are not inhibited by the intake of spirit, but inspired.” Chalmers has done previous Kluge translations, and has spoken about some of the difficulties of translating Kluge into English:
“The difficulty is already there on the page in the layout, in the apparent lack of a narrative. Perhaps some English-speaking readers even have difficulty taking such an ‘illegitimate’ mixing of forms seriously as literature—as seriously as they would a novel,” he said in an interview with Conversational Reading.
Chalmers locates this difficulty in the prevalence of “short forms and not simply the short story” in German as opposed to English, but the project feels unfamiliar for stylistic as much as formal reasons. Oftentimes, the writing feels like stage direction or filmic dialogue, a fact attributable to Kluge’s cinematic background. At other moments (and these are some of the best moments), the writing is composed in delightful and terrible aphorisms, a fact that speaks to the total irony and sincerity of the book. “A MODERN BANK IS NO TREASURE OF MONEY BUT A CHEST FULL OF PRECEDING ACTIONS AND COLLECTED ERRORS,” the text yells, before sliding into a narrative of long negotiations over stale water and a fully exhausted pretzel supply.
The images are demure enough to allow the stories to take center stage but can be searched for the same underlying duplicity of meaning. Superficially, the photographs depict a banal winter landscape. But there’s a studied quality to them that reveals and refracts notions of temporality.
The ethos of the collaboration is well summed up in an answer that Kluge gave to the Rheinische Post in response to the question, “What does winter mean for you?”
“The lights illuminate the windows. Behind each window is something living. December isn’t just cold. Something seems to peak in it. Something arrives. Advent. Sacred or uncanny.”