One of us, David Groves

Karl Wolfskehl: A Poet In Exile
Friedrich Voit
Cold Hub Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9780473476694

We have many short accounts in English of aspects of the life, character and writings of Karl Wolfskehl. Friedrich Voit now gives us a biography, in the set of three books published by Cold Hub Press, the first being Andrew Paul Wood’s translation of a selection of Wolfskehl’s poems in the bilingual edition Drei Welten/Three Worlds (reviewed in NZRB Summer 2016) and the second Poetry And Exile, a selection of letters splendidly translated and edited by Nelson Wattie.

It comes as a shock, after Voit’s monumental biography in German, Karl Wolfskehl: Leben Und Werk Im Exil (2005), to find that Karl Wolfskehl: A Poet In Exile is the slimmest of the three Cold Hub books. This makes sense when we discover that Poet In Exile is not an abridged translation of the German, but a distillation of Voit’s knowledge of Wolfskehl, designed specifically for a New Zealand and English-speaking readership. Also, quotations are pared down, since reference can be made to Three Worlds and Poetry And Exile. The choices Voit had to make as he sifted through his material for this new biography must have been painful, but the result is perfectly judged.

Wolfskehl, a disciple of Stefan George, was an extraordinary poet, emerging from the heart of European symbolism. He arrived here from Italy in 1939, and New Zealand gave him exactly what he sought – an “ultimate thule” as far from Europe as possible, an “Antarctic remoteness”, “the globe’s last island reef”, and with it the terrible sense of loss, loneliness and “horror vacui” that were the necessary conditions for the late explosion of his poetry, and for the correspondence to an extraordinary network of friends that was the literary work of his and Margot Ruben’s mornings. (As Paul Hoffmann put it in Landfall in 1969: “the irrational urge which prompted him to come to New Zealand corresponded to an existential need”.) This biography contains a full appreciation of Ruben’s starring role, with the inclusion of three new photographs among the illustrations.

Yet, if New Zealand was a Tomis to his Ovid, he chose “the mild, very caressing climate and the multifarious wealth of greenery and flowering” of Auckland, not cold Dunedin, despite his admiration for the latter’s intellectual, academic atmosphere. And this was a very different Ovid, attentive to the landscape, gardens and parks, people, budding literature, and new National Orchestra. Nor was he ever totally alone, even when living separately from Ruben in a dizzying succession of addresses. Waves of younger friends came to talk about literature and the arts, a few of them able to take dictation from the blind seer, or bring vegetables.

In his correspondence, Wolfskehl presented different aspects of his experience, depending on whom he was writing to. A week after the heart-rending lines written to his niece Charlotte on Christmas day 1947 (“Ich habe es nicht gut hier … Es geht mir schlecht hier am Herz”: “I am not having a good time here … in my heart I am ill at ease here”), he celebrated the new year in a house near Takapuna beach, enjoying a bottle of Tauranga riesling with friends, and entering another last burst of creativity. Voit beautifully weighs the pros and cons for Wolfskehl of his residence here, the desperate desire to leave measured against the gratitude and acceptance that this was to be the place where he was destined to die.

In a sense, Wolfskehl has become more at home in New Zealand posthumously, through a more gradual process of naturalisation, than he ever was while alive. He has been written about here in introduction, review, interview, reference book, poem, play, novel, essay, biography, conference paper, sleeve-note for record, programme note for concert. We have recordings of a reading of his poetry (by Maria Dronke of her son Peter’s translation of the Job cycle) and of musical settings by Richard Fuchs and Edwin Carr. We now have a substantial book of translated poetry, a translation of letters, and this superb biography. These books will enter bookshops, libraries, houses and minds. Wolfskehl is no longer the preserve of Germanists. He remains the treasured possession of the Jewish community, but is now also part of a wider conversation and of the shared cultural knowledge particular to this place. (Brian Opie’s recent e-book, Signs For The Times: The Humanities, Government And Democracy To-Come, offers a detailed discussion of how cultural knowledge, essential to social life in a particular geographical space, is created by writers and readers.)

“So, he became a Kiwi. He was one of us”, as the conductor on a Wellington-to-Paekakariki train put it, when I briefly summarised this biography to him. I agree. Wolfskehl was unique but, as our population becomes increasingly diverse, we can expect that other writers will bring other cultural and linguistic traditions, entering into our “common strangeness” (in Jacob Edmond’s resonant phrase), and widening our understanding of what it means to be human.

David Groves lectured in Italian at Victoria University of Wellington and now works as a professional translator.

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