Author Peter Härtling dies at 83: How foreignness shaped his career | Books | DW | 10.07.2017
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Author Peter Härtling dies at 83: How foreignness shaped his career

Feeling foreign was one of writer Peter Härtling's favorite subjects - because he experienced it himself as an orphaned war deportee. The acclaimed German author has passed away at the age of 83.

Nine-year-old Ben falls in love with his classmate Anna, who had moved to Germany from Poland. It's a story about a first love, about growing up and feeling foreign.

Thousands of children and young readers in Germany grew up with the book "Ben Loves Anna," which was published in 1979.

Author Peter Härtling had a special gift for empathizing with the emotions of children. He had begun writing at a very young age himself. Having interned at the German daily, the "Nürtinger Zeitung," Härtling was just 20 when his first volume of poems was published in 1953.

Orphaned and raised by relatives

Härtling had fled to the city of Nürtingen in southwestern Germany from Bohemia in the present-day Czech Republic when World War II ended in 1945 and ethnic Germans were forced to leave the region.

During the family's journey to Germany, Härtling's father was taken captive by the Russians and subsequently died. The following year, his mother committed suicide. 

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Orphaned, Härtling was raised by his grandmother and aunts during a time when Germany was eager to press forward, recover from the war, and rebuild its economy. Härtling would spend his whole life working through his own family's circumstances.

He read a lot and went on to publish numerous volumes of poetry, including the unforgettable "Spielgeist - Spiegelgeist" (a play on words roughly meaning "Spirit of Play - Spirit of Mirrors"). It was in 1962, while he was working as a journalist for the "Deutsche Zeitung," that he started to develop the broad topics for his forthcoming novels: German Romanticism and the industrialization of the early 19th century. 

The people who shaped a new era

Härtling wrote in his own way about great German Romantic poets like Lenau, Mörike, Hölderlin and Waiblinger, and composers from the era such as Schubert and Schumann, by developing books as fictional biographies in which he took on the identities of these historical figures.

"What interests me about dealing with figures from the past is simple and difficult at the same time. For one, I have to deal with material that presents resistance and has to be torn open and added to. Creativity is constantly required. On the other hand, I have to find a character that is accessible down to his strangest quirk - both to me and to the time I live in," Härtling once described of his writing process.

In his successful fictional biographies, Härtling made the lives of these German poets and musicians accessible to his readers. It's clear that he felt a strong personal connection to them. He saw in them a great commonality, not only in their shared fate but their response to the modern world of technology which had lost touch with nature.

Härtling also shared the feeling of foreignness with the artists he portrayed: "They were all travelers. And because they often thought and worked ahead of their time in their music and poetry, they were often seen as foreigners in their time. This combination of being on the road and being foreign interested me."

How writing for kids developed his style

Dedicating over 30 books to the exploration of foreignness, Härtling wanted to know, as he said, how one could "live with foreignness as a modern form of existence without sinking into resignation."

He wanted to understand the forces, mechanisms, and even forms of violence, that contributed to people becoming foreign.

Härtling received many awards for his work, including the Deutscher Bücherpreis for his contribution to literature, and the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. Most recently, he was awarded the Jacob Grimm Prize in 2010, with the jury naming him one of the most diverse contemporary German-language writers.

The author's name is not only associated with German literature but children's books - including his famous work, "Ben Loves Anna." As the father of four children, he said he told them story upon story - and over a dozen of them ended up in print.

In his works for young people, Härtling didn't shy away from challenging topics like divorce, handicaps and unemployment. He took children as seriously as he took adults.

"When you write for children, you have to write clearly," he said. "You can't get abstract or theoretical. They would close the book. And having to stay focused in every sentence is really good practice."

It seems his children's books helped Härtling develop the unique and refined style of writing that will now be sorely missed among German as well as international readers. Following a short illness, Peter Härting passed away on Monday, July 10 in Rüsselsheim. He was 83.


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