Siren Song

Temple of the Scapegoat: Opera Stories BY Alexander Kluge. New Directions. Paperback, 288 pages. $18.

The cover of Temple of the Scapegoat: Opera Stories

Since the turn of the century, the New Yorker has mentioned the German writer W. G. Sebald on seventy-seven occasions and devoted six longform articles to his ouevre. During the same period, Sebald’s contemporary Alexander Kluge has been named in that magazine only twice: once in reference to his films, not his novels, and another time to mention one of his works of theory—and only in the online edition. Why have two writers of such similar gifts, similar tastes, and—in Germany—equal stature, found such different receptions in the English-speaking world?

It may simply be that Sebald, unlike Kluge, took a literary job in England (he taught creative writing at the University of East Anglia), which immersed him in a non-German sensibility. But perhaps it is also a matter of their styles: Sebald wrote fiction the way Chopin wrote nocturnes (long, slow breaths shape the phrasing; a rounded binary form), while Kluge favors a brusque, bureaucratic voice and the piling on of “cold” documents. His work is interspersed with scientific studies and witness testimony, such that a visitor from Mars, if she was not hip to the wry smiles behind Kluge’s juxtapositions, might mistake his novels for legal briefs or scrapbooks. To put it another way, Sebald is the producer of a universal music, while Kluge offers what can often seem the most untranslatable of goods—the ironic.

Yet readers of Austerlitz will find many similarities when they turn to Kluge’s work. Both writers are preoccupied by questions of authenticity, and seem to hold fiction in slight contempt. Both evince anxiety around make-believe, dramatization, and sentimentality, and in turn prefer—in place of fiction—collages of truth, interweaving historical evidence, journalistic reporting, and photographs that are demonstratively “real.” Kluge, who has a law degree, has said that while in his legal work he accepts the necessity of hierarchical thinking, in art, in literature, in film, he wishes to promote “constellational” thought processes. He shares Sebald’s hyper-objectivity, the cool, distanced, technical description of even the most highly charged human situations. Above all, their writing has in common the pervasive crushing weight—even if sometimes just out of sight range—of world tragedy: the specter of the Holocaust and the disastrous War.

Kluge’s childhood, which peeks into his work shyly but constantly, was a fateful one for a novelist. Over the course of the war, he experienced not only his parents’ divorce, but also, at the age of thirteen, the near-complete destruction of his home city of Halberstadt. During this air raid his family home was razed to the ground. Then war’s end, regime change, and the parceling out of Germany. Kluge and his mother moved to Berlin-Charlottenburg, while his beloved younger sister remained in the Soviet Sector with his father.

To all appearances, the traumas of the 1940s were traumas Kluge never overcame. He has publicly surmised that the montage style he prefers, the bringing together of disparate pieces, is an effort to bring his parents back together, to undo the meaningless destruction of their marriage, to fight against entropy. In Kluge’s life, as in his art, themes of narrowly missed chances, of cruelty by randomness, prevail. The destruction of Halberstadt took place because American bomber squadrons discovered their original targets were temporarily under cloud cover; they were diverted to this midsize cathedral town despite its lack of strategic or industrial importance. It nearly didn’t happen; all that loss because of some flick of a commander’s pen. Regarding his parents’ divorce, Kluge writes: “To this day I fail to understand. . . . I suspect my parents were confused in their minds that year, and the year before as well. Wartime. The DRUG OF MILITARY CONQUEST, a pharmakon that infiltrated people’s innermost beings, about two years after its poison of the zeitgeist-suffused reality. THE GROWNUPS OF 1942! Furnished with phantasmagorias.” Kluge uses pharmakon here in the sense of a poison, but a linked meaning in philosophy is that of “scapegoat”—i.e. the war as the great repository of all German evil, becoming a sort of dark sun around which all public and private evil, all prewar and postwar evil, revolve together eternally.

As a student in Frankfurt in the 1960s, Kluge was counseled by Adorno to drop literature, a dead art form as the latter saw it (“no poetry after Auschwitz”), in favor of film. To some extent, Kluge followed this advice. He is sometimes called the “German Godard,” one of the principal filmmakers, along with Fassbinder and Herzog, credited with kicking off the New German Cinema. Since 1988 he has produced weekly “Culture Magazines” for television, which has meant nearly thirty years of fifteen-, twenty-five, and forty-five-minute broadcasts that, in his words, seek to “hold television open to that which stands outside television.” Still, Kluge insists, “I am and remain first and foremost an author of books, even if I’ve made films and television programs.” And indeed, he is the author of over twenty books, and continues to publish at a remarkable pace even now.

Temple of the Scapegoat, released in translation this winter, is a collection of microstories and anecdotes about and around the opera. This work was written recently enough to include meditations on events such as the killings at the Bataclan in Paris. While Kluge is a longtime fan of the opera, as he makes clear in his preface, it is not a subject he has previously treated with any regularity. Still, the book raises many of the same questions as his earlier work, including the central one: To what degree does life outside of art beat out art? Previously this question had been transmitted primarily through Kluge’s formal distrust of fiction as a genre. Temple of the Scapegoat’s anecdotes are overtly concerned with the dilemma. The stories seek to render moments when the opera has tried to outdo itself, when it has risen to emotional decibel levels capable of breaking a glass outside the opera house.

What strikes one about a great East German artwork is the agony of its silence; about a great West German artwork, the agony of its clatter.Kluge’s best work carries an undeniably West German flavor. His film Yesterday Girl (1966), which like so many films of the era is concerned with the impossibility of generational rapprochement, conveys a particular West Germanness. Rhetorical and bureaucratic noise are center stage both as spoof and indictment. The older generation is shown sitting in fussy parlors, or behind enormous desks and lecterns, droning on in pedantic meditations on points of grammatical and legal trivia: asking whether der or das is the correct definite article for Mensch and Ekel, wasting important time during a crisis by asking irrelevantly whether the feeling at hand is Furcht or Angst (“fear” or “dread”). This is to say nothing of the jangle of radios, highways, telephones, the glint of billboards and Christmas lights and taillights, the flash of sunlight on convertible sedans—such is the film’s indirect line of attack on the clanging, commercial West German society it portrays. Noise is the operative word here, particularly in its secondary meaning of empty sound.

The spectacle presented by the Bayreuther opera provides Kluge with another approach to the dyad of noise and emptiness. Opera is loud, maximalist, overwhelming, but, more than anything, it is serious: The sounds it makes are precisely not empty. “BOMBER SQUADRONS OF SERIOSity (what are operas, if not that?),” he writes. While much of Kluge’s work is satire—striking in its emotional remove and troubled relationship with moral certainty—the opera, by its nature, is impossible to fit neatly into the ironic mode. As he points out, “Passion overwhelms comprehension. Comprehension kills passion. This appears to be the essence of all operas.” This makes Temple of the Scapegoat, which is almost entirely concerned with the transcendent emotionalism of the opera and Kluge’s own surrender to it, something of an anomaly in his work. It represents the loss of a certain formal disguise that had, up till now, suited him rather well.

The title of the original German manuscript was The Temple of Seriousness. The opera is something that Kluge himself, despite his satirical sensibility, cannot take lightly. We find here finely drawn and often ingenious analyses of opera as a genre (“the seriousness of an opera is proven by the lack of a solution in the fourth act,” “out of 86,000 operas, 64,000 end with the death of the soprano”); a painstakingly close reading of the plot of Bellini’s Norma; a great number of curious, at times surprisingly sentimental anecdotes revolving around the staging and set design of various real-world operas and the lives of their singers; and, finally, meditations on what opera might have done to save his parents’ marriage. “I argued, hothead that I am, new forms of seriousness (namely operas) should be invented to recover our mother, to break the obstinacy of our father. Such operas, my sister was quick to retort, would do no good retroactively.” There is a childlike responsiveness that makes these stories unlike anything Kluge has ever written before.

Opera seems to do this to people. To the outsider listening to a West German intellectual describe his love of opera, a tone of embarrassed possessiveness is often unmistakable, an ecstatic backward-sinking into the very sentimentality that is usually so hateful, coupled with an uneasiness about relinquishing oneself to this emotion. In Kluge’s case, this ambivalence includes a willingness to draw overt parallels between his own love of opera and the legacy of fascism, going so far as to allow Hitler, as a character in his short fictions, to become the stand-in for his own perspective: “He [Hitler] admired the great artists because they could use their voices to dash a person to pieces or convulse or dissolve a brain—but . . . had never yet done so. In that respect, said the Führer, music was a fundamentally gentle thing.” It is unclear (as usual in the work of Kluge) whether this anecdote is invented or historical, but little matter: In it, the Führer is as concerned with opera’s power to act on the external world as Kluge is himself. Here, as elsewhere in these stories, giving oneself over too completely to the emotions unleashed by opera—by any form of art—is tantamount to the dissolution of the self into mass feeling: an experience indelibly linked with historical fascism.

The German fascination with opera is an inheritance that passed squarely through the hands of the Nazis, and it is one of the only such inheritances (right-wing, unironic) later generations of Germans did not repudiate in disgust. (Germans get squeamish if they are even asked to sing around a campfire—so entirely did Nazism take all traditional communal activities hostage.) Still, soiled by association, it is a cumbersome heirloom. A slightly embarrassing appendage of contemporary German culture, tolerated not despite but perhaps only because of its slight ridiculousness, the opera implicates even now, infects even so. No intelligent German forgets the triad Nietzsche-Wagner-Hitler—and not just as a downward spill, but more deeply, as a closed ideological loop, giving a return path for a current that was strong. Opera holds out the seductive promise of giving in, letting go, sinking back. In his preface to the book, Kluge writes of how greatly moved he is by the opera, and of how “different parts of my soul allow operas, in all their dreamy, unrealistic absurdity, to whip up the surface of my inner seas until a boat might easily capsize.”

And yet: “The senses and the intellect must not be allowed to ‘wallow’ in dreaminess,” Kluge writes, “like cattle in a quagmire.” Despite the elegiac tone, a very high percentage of the stories here suggest that life, while not having the upper hand precisely, has at least what we might call the right of first refusal. In an episode told in the first part of the book, the audience and cast of Puccini’s Tosca take shelter in the cellar of the Frankfurt Opera during an air raid, such that “the story’s passionate goings-on, Tosca’s murder of the Roman police chief, couldn’t top what had already come. . . . Mass death relativizes emotions; indeed, every feeling must first burrow its way out from the reality of the air raids as from a heap of rubble, and only then can it scale the pinnacles of art.”

Ida Hattemer-Higgins is a novelist and translator of German, French, and Swedish. She lives in Paris.