Michael Gorra, "The Bells in Their Silence: Travels through Germany" (Princeton UP, 2006)


Despite being Germany's most famous literary lion, in 1786 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had to jump on a mail coach incognito to begin his travels to Italy (of course, he asked permission first from his patron the duke Karl August). InThe Bells in Their Silence: Travels through Germany (Princeton University Press, 2006), Michael Gorra takes the reader on a reverse journey, for it is by slipping in "incognito" that we will begin to find Germany in all its imponderables. The result of a year's sabbatical residence in Hamburg, this book is a deep and discursive exploration of a country with millennia of history, and it explores how Germany's dark role during the twentieth century weaves in and out of the everyday in the twenty-first. The travel companions Gorra invites along are an exceptional group: Thomas Mann, Walter Benjamin, W. G. Sebald, Bruce Chatwin. They all have looked at traveling through a kaleidoscopic lens and do not follow the linear as much as channel the essence of physical, historical, and cultural motion. Gorra states the unlikelihood of there ever being a book called A Year in Schleswig-Holstein or Under the Nordrhein-Westfälische Sun. This is the land of school trips to war memorials commemorating the dead of all sides. Of burnt-out buildings that remain so and become part of the landscape. The fiercest debates now about outsiders may be about the East Germans whose integration into the reunited Germany began following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Even Berlin itself is hard to define because it is still in the throws of becoming. Since 1852, it has undergone almost constant change. City maps show nine different iterations between 1902 and 1949. And more momentous change is taking place now, for Berlin has become the newest "destination" global city. Perhaps no German painting is more mysterious than "The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog," the 1817 work by David Caspar Friedrich. In using it to open "The Bells in Their Silence: Travels Through Germany," Gorra suggests that for Germany, the quest is a more appropriate approach than a road map in the search for clarity. A Pulitzer-Prize finalist in biography, Michael Gorra is the Mary Augusta Jordan Professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College.

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