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Pierre Mertens: Les éblouissements (Shadowlight)

Gottfried Benn was a distinguished German poet who has had a varying reputation but is now considered as one of the foremost German poets of the twentieth century. Many of his writings, including his poetry and prose pieces, as well as his autobiography Doppelleben (Double Life), have been translated into English. Benn worked most of his life as a doctor. He served as a military doctor in World War I, specialising in venereal diseases (a major problem in any army) and spending most of his time in Brussels. While initially a supporter of Hitler, he soon turned against the Nazis but, unlike many other writers, did not leave Germany during the Nazi period. He was criticised by the Nazis and forbidden from publishing. However, after the end of the war, he was banned from publishing because of his initial support of the Nazis. When he was again allowed to publish, a new generation of poets discovered him and his reputation was re-established. Mertens’ book follows Benn’s life, not so much as a poet but as a human being, though showing the things that happened in his life that influenced his poetry. The opening section takes place at a literary festival in Knokke, in Belgium, in 1952, when Benn’s reputation was being re-established and where he is compared favourably to other twentieth century poets. The rest of the book follows his life every ten years, starting in 1906, and ending in 1956, the year of his death.

Mertens brilliantly portrays the inner man, starting with the literary festival in Knokke. Benn is not entirely happy at the festival, even though he is recognised for his work but he is happiest chatting to his German friends and lying in the bath. However, the event does remind him of his time in Brussels in World War I. However, the book really starts in 1906, when Benn is undergoing medical training. In this section he learns about bodies and death and prostitutes. A large section of this chapter involves a post-mortem the class is doing under the watchful eyes of an anatomist and, as in the other sections, we see both Benn’s reaction to and, indeed, participation in the post-mortem, while, at the same time, we follow his wandering thoughts, including his home life in Sellin and his mother, who was always promising to tell him about her childhood but then died of cancer before she did.

1916 sees him as a military doctor, specialising in venereal disease and located in Brussels. His duties go beyond the medical, as he acts as adjutant and has to keep track of subversive elements. He points out to his Alsatian assistant that, while the Belgians damn the cruelties and barbarism of the Germans, the Germans have been warned about how ferocious the Belgians can be, such as prostitutes deliberately contracting venereal diseases to pass on to German soldiers or Belgian women putting out the eyes of wounded German soldiers. He sees Brussels with the eyes of a conqueror, as Mertens states, but also, no doubt, with the eyes of Mertens, as he explores the city. There is a war but it seems relatively remote, even if he does have to treat soldiers, both wounded and those with venereal disease. It comes home to him when he meets Edith Cavell, a British nurse shot for helping British and French escape German-occupied Belgium. (Mertens later says that she was executed for more or less the same reasons that the British would later execute Mata Mari. This is not quite accurate, but it is true, as Mertens points out, that her body was used for medical study.) Benn seems to be qute bored in Brussels, pursuing his medical ad adjutant activities, though he does find time to discuss poetry – French and German – with colleagues and, of course, ruminate on death. He also gets married (also to an Edith), though she will be dead by the next section.

The 1926 section consists entirely of a discussion with a prostitute. The pair talk about prostitution – since the death of his wife, Benn is a regular user. But he also discusses venereal disease with the woman, as well as the inflationary economic situation and the rise of the Nazis. The woman recommends Mein Kampf to him which, he admits, he has not read. She tells him that he should do so and we know that he will initially support the Nazis. The 1936 section is a discussion with his daughter, Nele. Benn’s first wife had died and he had had a Danish mistress. This mistress had agreed to look after Nele. Benn will later admit that he was not a good father (and not good husband to his three wives.) Nele had grown up in Berlin, where she had got to meet some of her father’s friends, including the composer Hindemith and Klaus Mann, both of whom help her later. But we also learn what happened to Benn under the Nazis – being thrown out of both the professional medical association and the writers’ association, the latter because he allegedly had Jewish ancestry (he did not). Nele asked him when he changed his mind about the Nazis and he tells her that it was after The Night of the Long Knives.

In 1946, he is still in ruined Berlin and much of his account is a wonderful portrayal of Berlin in ruins. There is, for example, a description of a couple sitting together facing each other. The whole of the front façade has been blown away but they are still sitting there as though they are in the privacy of their own home. He reads an old guidebook about Leipzig, knowing full well that most of what the guidebook describes has gone and imagines it is the same with Kiev, Coventry and Warsaw. He sees the various street black markers, with Germans exchanging what they have for food and Russian soldiers eager to buy Mickey Mouse watches. And he remembers his second wife, who killed herself in July 1945, fearing the final assault on Berlin, as well as remembering his various family members, many of whom died. He meets Ilse Kaul, who will become his third wife (about the same age as his daughter).

The final section leads up to his death in 1956. Much of it consists of a party held for his seventieth birthday. There are three parties but this is the final one, with a group of friends. He can reminisce and think about how his fame has grown, to the extent that people are writing books and articles interpreting his poetry. Do you miss medicine? he is asked. His response is that medicine does not miss him. He muses on God, feeling that he does not believe in him. And, as always, he muses on death, thinking of that other writer-doctor, Chekhov, and his last words Ich sterbe (German for I am dying), as he was in Badenweiler for the water, as well as thinking of Goethe’s Mehr Licht (More light). He dies just as a committee awards him a literary prize, given only to living writers. What are they to do?

What makes this book such a very fine book is Mertens’ dissection of Benn. There are three Benns. We see the doctor, from his anatomical training via his experiences in World War I, to his continued practice and ruminations on his practice. There is Benn, the man, the man who has three wives and lots of other relationships, including with prostitutes. Benn the man is also Benn the father, Benn the German and Benn the ordinary person, who lives his life with all the problems that any German who survived both world wars had to suffer. These two, of course, feed into Benn the poet. He is a man who observes the world around him and it is that aspect of being a poet that Mertens shows us. Yes, we do see a few lines of his poetry and his discussions and thoughts on poetry and other art forms (painting, music) but they are relatively minor in this book. Mertens is interested on how Benn sees the world. Death and ruins are, of course, key as are friends and women but everything he observes is observed with a poet’s sensibility, even when it is Benn the doctor or Benn the man doing the observing. This book has been very much praised and very deservedly so, as it is a superb novel and, fortunately, available in English. I do wonder about the title. The French word éblouissement means something like glare or dazzle so I am not sure where shadowlight comes from, even though, in itself, it is not a bad title.

Publishing history

First published in 1987 by Éditions du Seuil
First English translation 1997 by Halban