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By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 24 December 2006—The best writers on Germany are a small and reflective club.  Peter Gay, Gordon Craig, Marc Fisher, Fritz Stern and their fellow travelers of recent decades took the time to understand Germany before writing about it—in contrast with those many writers for whom every year in Germany is 1943 and who describe it as a latent menace with some damned good beer.

It was therefore a pleasure for those of us who value good books on Germany to see Michael Gorra’s 2004 work, The Bells and Their Silence, reissued in paperback (Princeton University Press, 211 pages), giving a second wind to one of the more under-appreciated books in a particularly under-appreciated segment of the literary market. 

Part of the fault belongs in part to Gorra, who, correctly observing that there are no travel books on Germany, claims that his book fills the gap.  By branding his extended essay on Germany and the literature about it a "travel book," he offers the American public the literary equivalent of a good soccer match: something that, however well it is done, and however much it is revered in other parts of the world, is not that interesting to them right now—and with reason:

English-language travel writing was largely dominated by the British until 1975, when Paul Theroux published The Great Railway Bazaar.  Fresh literary credibility came to the art form in 1980, with the publication by Paul Fussell of Abroad—a finely written buyers’ guide to the great British travel books.  The result was something of an American travel-writing boomlet.  I got caught up with it in 2001, when I published a travel book on western Europe, Once Around the Fountain, but by then the travel genre’s fortunes had started to turn—away from the healthy British tradition of the observant and detached narrator and toward a kind of narcissistic memoir in which the writer sees the world through the gauze of his own, tiresome emotions.  Maybe it’s another sign of the cross-gender triumph of chick lit (in its most self-absorbed form) or maybe it’s that travel writing, like opera composition, had reached that point that many art forms do, when they need to hibernate before the thaw.  Until then, travel writers such as Colin Thubron and Thomas Swick, like the Irish monks who saved and copied classical manuscripts during the Dark Ages, preserve the art for future appreciation.  It will happen; all we need is more good travel books.

Three cheers to Michael Gorra for sparing us a tour of his neuroses, but he has also spared us the expected tour of Germany.  A professor of English at Smith College, he admits in his preface that each chapter is mostly "a cluster of anecdotes, a visit to some historically important place" made while living in Hamburg as "a drone on sabbatical" while his wife ran a study-abroad program.  He no sooner starts a report on a visit to Buchenwald than he is sliding into a discussion of Goethe; walking and cycling around Hamburg leads to Thomas Mann, and so on: Gorra, the English professor, simply can’t resist writing a book about the writing of books.  He therefore spends a good deal of time educating the reader—time that, in a travel book per se would have been better spent evoking a sense of Germany and the German people.  At points, he seems to give up entirely, as when he devotes much of one chapter to a bookstore near where he lives—allowing him to reflect on the travel writing of W.G. Sebald and Bruce Chatwin.  You get the sense that Gorra could have written a pure travel narrative but, out of caution or an embrace of the familiar, fell back upon his trade as an English professor.

The moment that The Bells in Their Silence is understood not as much as a travel book but as a book about travel literature and as an appreciation of writing about Germany, it reveals why it is most worth reading: it is one very good book about books.  One telling illustration will suffice:

With a clean prose style honed in writing book reviews for The New York Times, and in a tone almost apologetic, Gorra spends several pages questioning and criticizing Hitler’s Willing Executioners, the lumbering 1996 bestseller by the Harvard professor Daniel Jonah Goldhagen.  Goldhagen’s thesis is that the average German who participated in Holocaust atrocities, frequently having volunteered to kill, or at least having not availed himself of a last clear chance not to kill, exhibited an "eliminationist antisemitism" that permeated German culture—because Germans secretly had it in for Jews all along and were just waiting for the opportunity to kill them that the Nazi government had granted.

Gorra, in his gentle manner, isn’t afraid to target Goldhagen’s flawed reasoning: "Having found his necessary cause," Gorra writes, "Goldhagen proceeds, after some opening disclaimers, to treat it as sufficient….  On the one hand, individual Germans chose evil; on the other, their social construction ineluctably led them to make that choice."  As a lawyer, I recognize Goldhagen’s work for what is known in our trade as unacceptable "conclusory pleading": stating the illegal result while avoiding the sweaty job of working up to it from supporting facts.  It would be like saying that the American guards at the Abu Ghraib prison were guilty because all their lives they longed for the opportunity to torture Iraqis—case closed.  Gorra, from a literary and humanistic background, easily comes to the same result and, in a few pages of polite text, shows why Goldhagen’s book became the most overrated to appear on Germany in a very long time.

Literary success is about nothing if not making a sensation, and despite the fact that Goldhagen told a nation of eighty-odd million that their ancestors were sick puppies and that they possibly are as well, they bought his book about as fast as it could be printed, while the pensive and reflective Michael Gorra had to wait two years to see his slender volume brought into paperback by a university press.  In writing and in law, truth should be its own reward, but tell that one to the acquisitions editors and other dealmakers at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

As for that travel book on Germany: Gorra offers snatches of travel writing, but let’s call what he has given us a well-executed essay on literature, society and history, framed around time spent in Germany.  A travel book on Germany, with all the bangs and whimpers of getting from here to there, and the people met along the way, is for our future.

The Bells in Their Silence: Travels Through Germany
by Michael Gorra
Paperback: 232 pages
Princeton University Press; New Edition (March 2006)
ISBN-10: 0691126178
ISBN-13: 978-0691126173

Alan Behr is a citizen of the United States and Germany and practices intellectual property law at the New York office of Alston & Bird LLP.  He writes frequently on European travel and cultural affairs. This is his first editorial comment for  

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