Dimension2: Contemporary German-Language Literature

Volume 3, Number 2

It's Fun to do Research in Marbach

Erich Frey

My first contacts with Marbach were not exactly auspicious.It was in the early 1950s, during my Gymnasium days in Stuttgart. I came to the near-by medieval town on the Neckar river to visit the house where Schiller was born and, also, to have a cursory look at the Schiller-Nationalmuseum , which, at the time, stood on a lonely promontory at the edge of town. There was something stuffy-museal about this depository of memorabilia which bore witness to the great Swabian luminaries, particularly Schiller, Hölderlin, Mörike and Schubart. The documents were displayed in showcases or even less accessible cabinets. An atmosphere of awe and authority prevailed which was reinforced by ubiquitous uniformed attendants. I must confess: I have never walked through those display rooms again nor did I use the main entrance of the castle-like building which reminds me in style of those built under the tyrant Karl Eugen.

Twenty years later I came to Marbach again; this time as an American Germanist and fortified with a DAAD grant. I had done research on Thomas Mann's exile period in California and had wondered why Mann and Alfred Döblin, erstwhile colleagues at the Akademie , had such a distant relationship in Hollywood. I had read that Marbach had acquired Döblin's literary estate, and thus I was curious to find out Döblin's take on the relationship. There was still some lingering trepidation as I entered the Nationalmuseum 's brand-new annex, called Deutsches Literaturarchiv, which mainly houses the documents of twentieth-century German literature. I had just come from another European archive (which shall remain nameless) where my credentials had been carefully scrutinized before I was allowed to see any manuscripts. A secretary at that nameless place looked over my shoulder as I made a few handwritten excerpts, and several manuscripts could not be shown because they were gesperrt--barred.What a surprise, then, when I was cordially welcomed at the reception desk of the Literaturarchiv 's manuscript department. No special credentials were required. As everyone else, I signed in daily upon arrival, stating home institution and research project. This actually helped me find out which German and international colleagues happened to be in the archives on a given day. I enjoyed meeting colleagues in the Hauscafé from, say, Poland or Japan who would often work in similar areas of exile literature. On several occasions, I even ran into former teachers or fellow students from grad school days. Indispensable for me, though, was Herr Feifel, then head of manuscript circulation, who became a trusted colleague over the years. He assigned me one of the generously equipped, modern desks near the catalog section. he told me how to use the card catalogs and how to fill out the various document request forms--but also where to find the good restaurants and Weinstuben in Marbach. I was issued a special I.D. card that entitled me to order discounted meals at various restaurants. (My favorite was the nearby Stadthalle-Restaurant .) In general, I was impressed by the friendliness, hospitality and genuine interest of the archives' staff--some 150 of them! I also marvelled at the efficiency and speed with which the circulation staff comes up with the requested manuscripts; it was not uncommon to receive the first batch of them within five or ten minutes. And what a feeling of excitement to hold the original autograph of a Mann or Döblin letter in your hand! Or a postcard by Hermann Hesse decorated by the author with a small watercolor scene of his garden in Montagnola! Of course, all documents go back into a safe every evening. But the next day you will find your documents back on your desk within minutes. I was also quite pleased that the archivists would occasionally let me have a xerox copy of a crucial letter or other original document so that I could take it with me for further examination. I gladly agreed not to publish it or pass it on to a third party without permission of the Literaturarchiv --or, in the case of Döblin, with special permission of Döblin's sons.I had no idea how many separate literary archives were incorporated into the Deutsches Literaturarchiv --in addition to the more than thousand literary estates that have been deposited in recent decades. The Literaturarchiv superseded the regionally conceived Schiller-Archiv und -Museum in the 1950s when the huge Cotta-Archiv was moved from Stuttgart to Marbach. In recent decades important collections such as the Heidegger, Klages and Tucholsky archives have been added as well as entire literary estates, such as those of Hesse and Döblin. You will also find the autograph manuscripts of such famous novellas as Franz Kafka's Die Verwandlung or Thomas Mann's Schwere Stunde .Concentrating at the time on twentieth-century German exile writers in the USA, I was particularly intrigued by the hundreds of letters and historical documents by and on exile writers which I found in the Manfred Georg(e) collection. George, with his Aufbau (in New York), turns out to have been a major intermediary and initiator of many appeals, campaigns and controversies involving German exile writers in America, Mexico and China. During one of my Marbach stays, I allowed myself getting "side-tracked" from my Thomas Mann project and spending several days on George's fascinating correspondence in support of the "Shanghai Germans"--an exile group who appealed to George to get them out of China before Mao's takeover. This enormous project was concluded successfully thanks to George's initiative. Among those arriving penniless on the American shores was young Michael Blumenthal, the later U.S. Secretary of Treasury during the Carter administration. As far as I know, a comprehensive history about the German-Jewish exiles in Shanghai still waits to be written.When looking at other recent collections, the word Vorlaß caught my eye for the first time; it turns out that even living authors, such as Günter Grass or Sarah Kirsch, have already started sending part of their literary estate to Marbach--in the form of an advance bequest or Vorlaß. Today, the Literaturarchiv is by far the biggest and most varied depository of manuscripts and documents on literary life in Germany.I doesn't surprise me that many former exiles have paid visits to Marbach and, occasionally as in the case of Kurt Wolff and Kurt Pinthus, decided to stay in or near Marbach. One Sunday, the Feifels invited my wife and me for Kaffee und Kuchen to meet Else Pinthus who had survived her brother. Kurt Pinthus had died in Marbach shortly before at the age of ninety--after spending his last seventeen years in a productive working relationship with the Literaturarchiv and its staff. It was a pleasure to talk with a Zeitzeuge like Else Pinthus and to find out many details about the exiles' difficult life and work in New York.During one of my subsequent trips to Marbach, I sat down at the lunch table of a distinguished-looking elderly gentleman whom I had seen working in the archives over several years. With his old-fashioned gold-rim glasses and thoughtful demeanor, he looked like a scholar from a previous century. He introduced himself as Hans Eggert Schröder and told me that he worked all by himself to organize the recently acquired Ludwig Klages Archiv and to prepare an edition of Klages' collected works. One afternoon, he took me to his work place under the roof of the old Nationalmuseum. After climbing up numerous staircases and walking along endless corridors, I suddenly stood in a cozy room that was recreated as Klages' old study and library. Everything looked original, from the carpets to the writing desk, lamps and furniture. I felt as though I was in a time warp--having just come from the recently constructed reading room of the new annex where researchers were typing away on their plugged-in laptops! The idea that there is space and tolerance for old-fashioned and high-tech methodology, for the leisurely and the highly efficient, appeals to me greatly. It is this symbiosis of the old and the new, the coming together of people -- not just books and manuscripts--that have made my stays in Marback most pleasant and memorable.The opporutnities for social get-togethers are numerous: There are the jours fixes , i.e., the regular in-house gatherings in the late afternoon or evenings when visiting scholars and archivists talk informally about their research projects, drink in hand, or when an author might read from his or her latest manuscript. I remember Bernhard Zeller, the Archiv 's former director circulating among the guests and making sure to meet each of them personally. One time he told me how he would visit Hermann Hesse in Montagnola and how excited he was, years later, when the Nachlß came to Marbach. I also remember an evening with the Austrian poet Ernst Jandl, mainly because of the stunning phonetic effects with which Jandl read his poems.Since the elegant Collegienhaus was added in 1993, the jours fixes take place in its new community hall. The hospitality room (Begegnungsraum ), terraces, garden with garden house and the table tennis room all lend themselves for additional activities. Each of the thirty guest apartments has a Schlafnische , breakfast noon, writing desk, den, bathroom and terrace facing the beautiful Neckar valley. I saw quite a few children frolicking in the garden and was told by the Archivdirektor that a number of researchers bring along their family. By now, the Marbach institutes have taken on a campus-like appearance comprising the Nationalmuseum , the Literaturarchiv , and the Collegienhaus surrounded by a park and garden. No longer is this area isolated from the town, due to Marbach's expansion. Markets and restaurants are in walking distance of the campus--so are the Weinstuben , which start as soon a you pass through the medieval gate of the preserved city wall. I shared many a Marbach Riesling or a red Besigheim Trollinger with colleagues after archive closing time.For theater and music enthusiasts, there is plenty to see and to hear in nearby Ludwigsburg and Stuttgart--just minutes away by S-Bahn or commuter train. My own favorites were the tradtitional baroque concerts in Ludwigsburg castle ("Blühendes Barock") and the Stuttgart Ballet. Finally, I should not forget the tiny Kabarett in Stuttgart, called "Renitenztheater," where I had more laughs than I ever had in all the Berlin political cabarets combined.

As for the Mann-Döblin controversy, there was indeed great bitterness, on Döblin's side, during their exile years in California and thereafter--but that's another story.

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