German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger: Still restless at 90 | Books | DW | 11.11.2019
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German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger: Still restless at 90

Author, cultural critic, translator and publisher: Hans Magnus Enzensberger is regarded as an intellectual jack-of-all-trades. From poetry to essays on anarchy, he is still active in the literary world as he turns 90.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger is a passionate smoker. He has that in common with former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Above all, however, he is one of the most important intellectuals in Germany. For more than 65 years, he has provided the international literary world with thoughtful and poetic insights from Germany.

He grew up in the Franconian city of Nuremberg. Born in Allgäu on November 11, 1929, he was the first of four sons from an inventive telecommunications technician and a teacher. Even as a boy he tried his hand at literary exercises. This was more fun for him than the military exercises of the Hitler Youth, from which he was kicked out.

29.07.2015 KW 32 33 Doku Enzensberger 2

Hans Magnus Enzensberger

At the age of 15, he was drafted into the Volkssturm in 1944, but was able to desert shortly before the end of the war. "I was lucky with my parents. They weren't resistance fighters, but they weren't Nazis either. This gave me a different view of the so-called NS Volksgemeinschaft (people's community) right from the start," he reflected.

In 1949, Hans Magnus Enzensberger eagerly began studying literature and science and earned his doctorate in philosophy in 1955. He also published his first texts and shortly afterwards was accepted as a member of "Gruppe 47." The participants of the legendary writers' circle met for 20 years from 1947 to revive German literature. Correspondence between Enzensberger and the poet Ingeborg Bachmann, published only in 2018, bears witness to the debates of that time. 

Hans Magnus Enzensberger Gruppe 47 (picture-alliance/dpa)

Veterans of the famous Group 47: (left to right) Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Günter Grass and Peter Rühmkorf

Literary globetrotter

Post-war Germany soon became too suffocating for Enzensberger. Extensive journeys to the USA, Mexico, Norway and Italy gave him the internationality that was important to him throughout his life. In 1960, he became an editor at the renowned Suhrkamp publishing house and published his first noteworthy volumes of poetry.

In 1965, he founded the cultural magazine Kursbuch — a compulsory reading and opinion forum for intellectual circles and revolutionary students in the wild 1968 era.

Enzensberger interfered in the political debates of this time in a strong and opinion-forming manner. He has retained the joy of virtuoso word battles to this day.

Read more: How literature can fight right-wing extremism

Hans Magnus Enzensberger Kongress Notstand der Demokratie (picture-alliance/dpa)

Enzensberger gives a political speech at a student congress in Frankfurt in 1966

Poems from this period read like milestones in German cultural history. His first volume of poetry, Verteidigung der Wölfe gegen die Lämmer (Defense of the Wolves Against the Lambs) caused a sensation in 1957. Like many of the politically committed writers of the early German Federal Republic, the young Enzensberger set out to smash the weight of existential post-war poetry. His answer: light ironic poetry and pointed titles such as Rabattmarken (Discount Stamps), Musterland/Mördergrube (Model Country/Den of Thieves) or Es geht aufwärts, aber nicht vorwärts (It Goes Up, But Not Forward).

The 'Other Library'

As a writer, he generally approaches his subject areas with a critical approach to culture — with "skeptical sovereignty," as he once put it. In 1963, he was awarded the Georg Büchner Prize. Other renowned awards followed: the Heinrich Böll Prize, Deutscher Kritikerpreis (German Critics' Prize) and Ludwig Börne Prize.

In 2015, Enzensberger received his last award for the time being, the Frank Schirrmacher Prize, which was newly established at the time. This award for "outstanding achievements in understanding our current events" is a tribute to Frank Schirrmacher, co-editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), who passed away.

After publishing his only novel, Der kurze Sommer der Anarchie (The Short Summer of Anarchy), Enzensberger settled in Munich as a freelance writer in 1979. In 1980, together with a friend, the Chilean writer Gaston Salvatore, he embarked on a publishing adventure. But the ambitious literary magazine TransAtlantik survived just two years.

Buchcover: Enzensberger - Die Geschichte der Wolken

One of Enzensberger's favorite poetry collections

Together with the book artist Franz Greno, Enzensberger founded the book series "Die Andere Bibliothek" (The Other Library) in 1985, featuring his favorite titles of world literature and published by the left-wing Eichborn Verlag. Today, these volumes are considered bibliophilic treasures. He brought literary reportages to the German book market for the first time. The Polish author and journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski is one of his discoveries. But the careers of renowned writers and poets such as Raoul Schrott, Irene Dische, Christoph RansmayrandW.G. Sebald are also to his credit.

Watermark of poetry

After a longer production break, Enzensberger returned as a poet in 1991, with the poetry collection Zukunftsmusik (Music of the Future). As an essayist he continued to interfere in current debates, taking a stand on the Iraq war, genetic research and controversial intelligence tests. His text Im Irrgarten der Intelligenz. Ein Idioten-Führer (In the maze of intelligence. An idiot's guide) in 2007 resulted in a public discourse across all media platforms.

In 2008, he returned to his roots, with feather-light love poems: Das Wasserzeichen der Poesie (The Watermark of Poetry) itself became a classic of world literature. He preferred writing Geschichten mit Wolken (Stories with Clouds), the poet revealed.

With Tumult in 2014, he published his first text with slightly autobiographical features, as he said in an interview with news magazine Der Spiegel. "Confessions are not my strong point. It is far from me to spread out my soul landscape before the public." The 85-year-old's self-talk with his young alter ego, started in Tumult, is continued in an autobiographical volume of photographs published in 2018. While the first volume focuses on the years 1967 to 1970, Eine Handvoll Anekdoten (A Handful of Anecdotes, 2018) goes back further. In the dialogue with "M.", the young version of himself, the focus is on his childhood and (pre-)war experiences.

Deutschland | Hans Magnus Enzensberger (imago images/Rüdiger Wölk)

Enzensberger is still active in the literary world

Huge volume of works

It fits the principle of camouflage that Enzensberger not only published in his own name, but also under fictitious names. His best known pseudonym is that of Andreas Thalmayr, under which he published an entertaining guide for budding authors, Schreiben für ewige Anfänger (Writing for Eternal Beginners) in 2018 and the prose volume Louisiana Story in 2019.

Two of the pseudonyms assigned to him are  female: Elisabeth Ambras and Linda Quilt. The former was active in literature: in 2019 she published Fremde Geheimnisse (Foreign Secrets). Hans Magnus Enzensberger's already extensive oeuvre thus includes a few more titles that have not been published by Suhrkamp, but by Hanser Verlag or Cupido Books. His bibliography may have to be expanded at some point. Who knows how many other pseudonyms Enzensberger still uses or has used, which could not be assigned to him so far. 

The still frequent writer, who the weekly newspaper Die Zeit calls a "cheerful skeptic and realistic utopian," is now celebrating his 90th birthday. 

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