Commentary Magazine


The Man Outside: The Prose Works of Wolfgang Borchert

The No-Men
The Man Outside. The Prose Works Of Wolfgang Borchert.
Introduction by Stephen Spender.
New Directions. 259 pp. $3.50.

 

Wolfgang Borchert had little happiness. Born in Hamburg in 1921, he was eight when the depression hit Germany, twelve when the Nazis came to power. Twice he fought as a private with the German army that invaded Russia, twice he was imprisoned for his anti-Nazi utterances. Prison and the army so weakened him that he spent the greater part of his last two years in bed, and died in a hospital in Basle on November 21, 1947, one day before the premiere of his play The Man Outside at a Hamburg theater. Yet in his short and troubled life he accomplished much; he was one of those poets who come to fruition early. In the introduction to this volume, which includes all of Borchert’s prose but unfortunately omits his rich lyrical work, Stephen Spender refuses to speculate upon what Borchert’s future development might have been if he had lived; instead of indulging in such idle conjecture, we should enjoy the fruits that ripened on this untended tree.

The present volume includes The Man Outside and some thirty-odd short stories and sketches. Reading it, I was reminded of something Jakob Wassermann said in a speech in 1932: “In Germany alone there are at present about six million young people without any firm basis of life. I do not speak of the unemployed; I speak of the hopeless ones. That goes down to the root. . . . Life has no stimulus to offer them any longer.” Poor Borchert, one of these six million without hope, had to find his “stimulus” in a world in ruins. The sketch “Dandelion,” undoubtedly autobiographical, tells of the political prisoner in cell 432 who one day finds a tiny dandelion, holds it up to the light, presses it to his nose. Other stories tell of the young man who grew old on the Eastern front and came home to a gigantic heap of rubble. Unforgettable are his descriptions of postwar Hamburg, the huge city smelling of garbage, where men live without God, where love can be bought for a pair of silk stockings, where both the lamps and the stars are pale and lusterless. “Why do I live? Out of pure spite!” And he adds: “Our depth is the abyss.” He never mentions the Nazis by name, but he makes it clear that it was they who stole his youth, who chased him into the Russian forests, into the foxholes where shooting a man in another hole was the only “fun” permitted to him.

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This book is not an effusion of self-pity. It is a realistic study of an apocalypse, written in the terse, blunt language of one who once admired Hoelderlin and Rilke. Borchert’s poetry, contained in the one-volume Gesamtwerk (“Complete Works”), echoes now and then the romantic strains of traditional German poetry, but in his prose there is the staccato expressionism one finds in the dramas of Ernst Toller, ex-soldier of the First World War, or even in the plays produced by Frank Wedekind before 1900. Unlike these earlier writers, however, Borchert had no time to develop a systematic Weltanschauung. He abhorred the war, but he was not fully aware of the forces that created it. He had only his despair. Unless perhaps we see in his “Manifesto” an attempt to visualize some small strip of land in the ocean of despair: “We are no-men But we do not say No in despair. Our No is a protest. And for us Nihilists there is no peace in kisses. For in our void of No we must again build a Yes. Houses we must build in the free air of our No, over the abysses, the craters and the slit-trenches and over the open mouths of the dead.”

Borchert may not have read Sartre. But there are links between the “Nihilism” of the German and the “Existentialism” of the Frenchman. Both teach us that, deprived of the support of religion, we must build our own rafts to carry us across the river of time. In this sense, Borchert’s message is not a plea for mass suicide, but an attempt to replace preoccupation with Germany’s doom by an aesthetic creation that will outlive the pitiable “outsider” of Hamburg.

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