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Painting: man stands on rocks peak looking at foggy vista
Detail from Wander Above a Sea of Fog, 1817. By Caspar David Friedrich.

The Bells in Their Silence: Travels Through Germany. By Michael Gorra ’79. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004. 232 pp. $24.95 hardcover.

In 1997, Michael Gorra ’79, a professor of English at Smith, moved to Germany for a year. His wife had agreed to run Smith’s junior-year-abroad program in Hamburg, and Gorra was “a drone on sabbatical,” free to roam the country, guided by his cultural interests and literary sensibility.

Out of this experience, Gorra has written The Bells in Their Silence: Travels Through Germany. The book is not exactly a travelogue; as the author observes, “Nobody in the Anglo-American world writes travel books about contemporary Germany.” As much as Germany might aspire to normalcy, the burdens of its history make it an improbable, if not unsuitable, candidate for a standard travel narrative. Or, as Gorra wryly notes, it is “unlikely the bestseller list will ever feature a volume called A Year in Schleswig-Holstein or Under the Nordrhein-Westfälische Sun.” At the same time, the book abandons the conventions of a straightforward piece of expository reportage about the current state of the German nation. Instead, The Bells in Their Silence is an unusual hybrid document. It is a metatravelogue, “a work of criticism as well as a description of place: a traveler’s tale that also offers an account of the rather ramshackle genre to which it belongs.” As such, it is concerned less with the accumulation of story that comes with visiting a foreign land than with exploring the meaning of travel in a land strafed with Germany’s traumatic history.

The Bells in Their Silence opens onto a breathtaking landscape: A bank of clouds envelops a mountainous field. The vista, however, is not real. It belongs to Caspar David Friedrich’s iconic canvas, Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog. Gorra reads this famous depiction of a man poised before a mysteriously shrouded landscape as a metonymy both of the general mystery of travel and of the specific unfathomables of German history. At the same time, Gorra’s attention to Friedrich’s painting is emblematic of his writing. The Bells in their Silence is a gracefully written book, full of supple prose and nicely turned phrases. Yet even for a metatravelogue, the book records precious few stories, encounters or experiences that involve people—or, at least, living people. Gorra’s Germany is largely absent of actual Germans. In their stead, we find figures painted in oils, forged in sculptures, carved into cathedral doors and depicted in novels. Most of all, we encounter books. Books are Gorra’s constant companions, and his experiences are artfully—one is tempted to say exhaustively—mediated by his reading. In Buchenwald, he thinks about Stendhal, Celan, Primo Levi, Auden and Faulkner; the St. Pauli district calls to mind Henry James and John Ruskin; he wanders Hamburg’s pedestrian shopping mall with thoughts of Walter Benjamin.

This is not necessarily a criticism. Gorra is exceptionally well read, and his mental peregrinations often fascinate and provoke. Particularly trenchant are his observations about Berlin, a city that “can never be spoiled, for change itself has always been its most characteristic and permanent feature.” I briefly and unenthusiastically encountered Theodor Fontane in a college German course; Gorra’s discussion of Fontane has convinced me of the need for a reassessment. And his description of the pleasures of shopping for books written in a language that one cannot adequately read is wonderful:

A foreign language…is enough to turn the shop into a realm of unattainable pleasure, where mocking eyes peep out from around a curtain, and every book-lined room…seems as though it might be a fabulous lost library, like that of Alexandria or the monastery in The Name of the Rose; a cabinet of wonders that maintains its bewitching power to the exact degree that it also remains inaccessible.

As a book that submits to no clear chronology or narrative logic, but instead follows the obscure paths of meditation, The Bells in their Silence calls to mind the work of W.G. Sebald, whose novels likewise take the form of travelogues through a mental landscape cluttered with memory and literary associations. Gorra writes admiringly of Sebald, and clearly Sebald’s ornately associative style served as an inspiration, if not a template, for Gorra’s project. Yet Sebald’s descriptions of his physical environment always remain preternaturally exact, perfectly counterpoised to the meditations they invite; Gorra’s book is weighted perhaps too heavily in the favor of the abstract over the tangible, the thought over the experience that triggered it.

When Gorra does permit his experience to speak freely, it is often to potent effect. In his final chapter, “Family Chronicles,” Gorra moves back and forth from the high-bourgeois world of Mann’s Buddenbrooks to the middle-class world of his own childhood. The parallels are somewhat strained, and it is not entirely clear what Gorra’s childhood memories, as the son of a Greek-American “wholesale greengrocer,” are doing in a book about Germany. But the descriptions themselves are lovely and tell the poignant story of a young man discovering within himself a love not of business but of literature, and of a father’s quiet respect for the son’s discovery.

As for Gorra’s larger attempt to get to the core of modern Germany, the record is less settled. We end The Bells in Their Silence with the feeling that Gorra, like Friedrich, has portrayed a solitary wanderer contemplating a vast mystery that he can neither tear his gaze from nor see through to its core. 

—Lawrence Douglas
Associate Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought

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Image: Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulterbesitz/Art Resource, NY

 
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