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More about England than Germany--and that's a good thing, 23. August 2011
Let me lay my cards on the table: I'm neither German nor British but American, with an undergrad degree in German Lit. From my point of view, this book is less about Germany than about English attitudes to Germany, and if the reader approaches it with that in mind she may find it quite interesting and entertaining. The main thing is the author really likes Germany, and wants to explain his affection to other English speakers. If you find a sentence like (I paraphrase) "Small German towns are like potato chips in that there seems to be no discernible upper limit to how many may be enjoyably consumed" unbearably condescending and all around "schnoddrig" then this book isn't for you. There is a ceaseless patter of English cleverness that can be hard to take. (Do the English have to learn this manner to get into their universities, as in the The History Boys?) But beneath the compulsively chatty wit punctuated by swoops of overstated self-deprecation Mr. Winder has two serious aims. One is to undermine the standard tidy and linear approach to history, which he sees as fundamentally at odds with the fog of delusion, mixed motives, and general chaos in which reality actually unfolds. The other is to retrieve for English speakers an appreciation of pre-1933 German culture and civilization. Again, if this offends you, save your euros. You have to be willing to explore the extent to which the NS period colors and distorts non-German perceptions of Germany and Deutschtum, and this may be obnoxious to German readers, especially in the British-flippant voice. But there it is. Mr. Winder wants to convey how enjoyable Germany can be to people who do not see how "enjoyable" and "Germany" belong in the same sentence, and to call attention to how sad it is that the events of 1914-45 have caused English speakers to systematically undervalue everything German from German philosophers to German wine. Also, Mr. Winder endeared himself to me by his grief over the loss of Austria-Hungary. (By the way, from it an American point of view it is noteworthy how freely Mr. Winder is able to express his heartache and loss and grief. American male writers are as a rule unable to voice this range of emotion. Yet, oddly, we stereotype the British as emotionally repressed.) I found Prague almost unbearably sad, with its ethnic cleansing and re-cleansing; its restaurants with menus in four languages, none of them Czech; its "concerts" of Beethoven symphonies on four flutes and a kazoo. Yet I have never been able to explain this feeling to an American, most of whom find Prague "delightful." It is like requited love to find an English writer who can articulate this feeling. That said, Mr. Winder has some blind spots, most notably German food, which he doesn't like. This is bizarre. I am always astonished at the sheer competence of German chefs, who must be wonderfully well trained. Also German desserts are the best in the world, as is (to my taste) the German breakfast. The English breakfast is a thing of horror. Also, Mr. Winder is perhaps unfair to Munich, which he sees through the lens of the Hofbraeuhaus rather than, say, the Lenbachhaus or the Prinzregententheater. Still, I heartily recommend this book to German readers. It should be read as though standing out of sight and overhearing a conversation, not intended for your ears, but of which you are the subject. It may sting at times, but it is vastly informative, and --this is what redeems it--the speaker genuinely loves his Germany.