‘Ein Stern erster Größe’ [book review]

A review of Der weiße Abgrund (The White Abyss) by Henning Boëtius

Heinrich Heine was one of the great luminaries of German literature, ‘ein Stern erster Größe am Himmel der Poesie’ (‘a star of the first magnitude in the heavens of poetry’). Known primarily as a poet, but also for his essays, satires and travel journals, he remains one of the most widely translated, quoted and celebrated German writers the world has ever seen. Born in Düsseldorf in 1797, he lived in exile in Paris from 1831 until his death in 1856, banned from publication in his home country and persecuted on the grounds of his political leanings and Jewish lineage. Though he died thirty-three years before Adolf Hitler was born, it is Heine who is most often quoted when reference is made to the Nazi book burnings: ‘Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.’ Almost since the moment of his first literary success, it has been hard – if not impossible – to think Heine away from German history or culture.

Der weiße Abgrund Henning Boetius

In his slender new novel, Der weiße Abgrund (The White Abyss), Henning Boëtius presents us with a slightly different view of this literary star. Gone is the imposing, exalted poet; in his place a sickened, almost childlike man whose body is wasting away as he nears the end of his life. Persecuted by feverish dreams, tormented by memories of the sea to which he is too weak to travel, trapped in an unfulfilling marriage and suffering what might be lifelong lead poisoning, Heine is a veritable wreck of a human being whose mind nonetheless burns bright. In occasional bursts of frenetic energy he scratches down his memoirs, a promised work bitterly fought over by his admirers and the executors of his will. Although undoubtedly a very ill man, the mysteriousness surrounding his sudden death and his memoirs’ subsequent disappearance poses a question about the true circumstances of the poet’s demise and the role one Elise Krinitz, a young woman with whom he conducted a platonic yet passionate affair in his final months, may have played. Boëtius, a sensitive author, knows better than to add too much unnecessary melodrama or intrigue to history, simply nudging this question out into the open and leaving it there for us to do with as we please.

Comprehensive biographies of Heine abound, which is perhaps why Boëtius has chosen fiction as his vehicle for this particular work and why too he has broken down what is deemed a novel into something more akin to a series of vignettes. Each of the short chapters offers a different view of Heine’s final years and the Parisian society in which he lived, a technique that builds up a surprisingly complex picture using a sparing number of words. Boëtius has clearly done a vast amount of research, yet he seems not to want to push his in-depth knowledge of the period on the reader – instead, small details suffice, such as the passing mention of public building works going on in Paris, brief descriptions of people’s garments or reference to medical practices common at the time.

This stripped-back scene-setting is refreshing – and a sign that as a writer Boëtius knows exactly what he is doing – given the formidable number of historical personalities who put in an appearance within the 190 pages of the novel. Heine moved in the social circles that frequented Paris’s famous salons, at which the greatest writers, artists and thinkers of the day came together to exchange ideas. In a number of salon scenes we encounter Chopin, Balzac, Baudelaire, Meißner and Flaubert, not to mention the eccentric and deeply unhappy Gérard de Nerval, who strolled the streets of Paris with a lobster on a lead. To build a full picture of Heine’s later life – and perhaps to illustrate why he felt himself so at home in Paris, despite it being a place of exile for him – these figures are all necessary, showing as they do the milieu in which he lived and allowing for the insertion of some rather highbrow dialogue, yet at times it can all seem rather overwhelming, a who’s-who of nineteenth-century Western European culture. The pared-back nature of Boëtius’s prose, then, in which it is possible to detect a slight tone of irony directed at his rather lofty characters, is just the right counterweight, enabling the novel to maintain its balance.

Another counterpoint to Heine’s flights of fancy as he looks towards his own death – the white abyss of the title – is the novel’s continuing concern with the human body and, particularly, its disintegration. Boëtius isn’t squeamish when it comes to mentioning various elements of Heine’s illness, from the pain he feels to the fluids that erupt from his body, and many of his characters are described first in terms of their physical attributes: corpulent or skeletal, flabby or gaunt. While most of them spend their time wrestling with high ideals or trying to compose the most beautiful sentence or musical phrase, one of the novel’s underlying messages is crystal-clear: in the end, no matter how brilliant, we all must die.

Der weiße Abgrund is a quiet novel – not particularly dramatic, not particularly moving. It is, however, affecting in its own way, burrowing into the reader’s consciousness and offering a simple yet surprisingly touching portrait of a great historical figure as a man. A good introduction for anyone who hasn’t much experience of Heine’s work – various verses are scattered strategically throughout the novel – Boëtius has shown himself to be an adept author by giving us an accessible work of literary fiction quite different to the crime novels for which he has become best known. Much like a series of detailed paintings, Der weiße Abgrund captures a glimpse of a world that used to exist in a very real way, a still image that, when examined more closely, proves very much alive.

Der weiße Abgrund by Henning Boëtius is published by btb Verlag and available in German. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.

In recent weeks I’ve also reviewed two contemporary German works now available in English translation: Daughters by Lucy Fricke, translated by Sinéad Crowe, and Journey Through a Tragicomic Century by Francis Nenik, translated by Katy Derbyshire, are two of the titles published by outstanding new imprint V&Q Books.

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