Stasi Posts

Censorship, state and formation of literature

A Stasi official observing the interrogation of the lover of an East German playwright whose loyalty to the state is questioned, in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film The Lives of Others, 2006

An extract from the New York Review of Books review by Timothy Garton Ash of Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature by Robert Darnton” ( 23 October 2014)

I have only once met a censor on active duty. In the spring of 1989, my friends at the newly founded Polish opposition newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza let me take a cartoon up to the in-house censor at the printing house of the main Communist Party daily, on whose weary old presses Solidarity’s organ for the dismantlement of communism was now being produced. I knocked on the door, only to find a bored-looking woman in a floral dress, with a cigarette on her lip and a glass of tea at hand. She slowly scanned the cartoon and the article to which it related, as if to demonstrate that she could read, and then stamped her approval on the back of the cartoon.

My taskmistress showed few obvious signs of being an intellectual, but one of the leitmotifs of Robert Darnton’s new book is how intellectually sophisticated censors have often been. Drawing on original archival research, he offers three fine-grained, ethnographic (his word) studies of censors at work: in Bourbon France, British India, and Communist East Germany. In eighteenth-century France, the censors were not just writers manqués; many were writers themselves. They included men like F.-A. Paradis de Moncrif, a playwright, poet, and member of the Académie française. To be listed as a Censeur du Roi in the Almanach royal was a badge of honor. These royal censors initialed every page of a manuscript as they perused it, making helpful suggestions along the way, like a publisher’s editor. Their reports often read like literary reviews. One of them, M. Secousse, solicitously approved an anthology of legal texts that he himself had edited—thus giving a whole new meaning to the term “self-censorship.”

In British India, the censors—not formally so called—were scholars and gentlemen, either British members of the elite Indian Civil Service (the “heaven born”) or their learned Indian colleagues. Harinath De, a candidate for the post of imperial librarian in Calcutta in 1906,

had mastered Latin, Greek, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Sanskrit, Pali, Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Oriya, Marathi and Guzerati, along with some Provençal, Portuguese, Romanian, Dutch, Danish, Anglo-Saxon, Old and Middle High German, and a smattering of Hebrew, Turkish and Chinese. He got the job.

Besides being a librarian, that job involved contributing summary reviews to an extraordinary printed catalog of every book published in the Raj from 1868 onward. It included more than 200,000 titles by 1905. Although given to describing anything with erotic content, including the hanky-panky of Hindu gods, as “filthy,” these literary monitors were often highly appreciative of the works under review, especially when the authors showed some virtuosity of style and depth of scholarship.

In the summer of 1990, Darnton, the lifelong historian of books and censorship, had the thrill of finally meeting two real-life censors. In East Berlin, the capital of the soon-to-be-history German Democratic Republic, he found Frau Horn and Herr Wesener, both holders of advanced degrees in German literature, eager to explain how they had struggled to defend their writers against oppressive, narrow-minded higher-ups in the Party, including an apparent dragon woman called Ursula Ragwitz. The censors even justified the already defunct Berlin Wall on the grounds that it had preserved the GDR as a Leseland, a land of readers and reading. Darnton then plunges with gusto into the Communist Party archives, to discover “how literature was managed at the highest levels of the GDR.”

He gives instances of harsh repression from all three places and times. Thus, an eighteenth-century chapter of English PEN could have taken up the case of Marie-Madeleine Bonafon, a princess’s chambermaid, who was walled up, first in the Bastille and then in a convent, for a total of thirteen and a half years. Her crime? To have written Tanastès, a book about the king’s love life, thinly disguised as a fairy tale. In 1759, major works of the Enlightenment, including Voltaire’s poem on natural religion and Diderot’s Pensées philosophiques, were “lacerated and burned by the public hangman at the foot of the great staircase of the Parlement” in Paris.

In British India, civilized tolerance of native literature turned to oppression in the early years of the twentieth century, as Indian nationalist protests grew following the partition of Bengal. A wandering minstrel called Mukanda Lal Das was sentenced to three years’ “rigorous imprisonment” for singing his subversive “White Rat Song,” with lyrics that come out in the official British translation like this:

Do you know, Deputy Babu, now your head is under the boots of the Feringhees, that they have ruined your caste and honor and carried away your riches cleverly?

In East Germany, Walter Janka suffered five years of solitary confinement for being too much involved with György Lukacs in 1956.

Yet such outright persecution is not Darnton’s main theme. As his subtitle suggests, what really interests him is “how states shaped literature.” They have generally done so, he argues, through processes of complex negotiation. In eighteenth-century France, censors made suggestions on grounds of taste and literary form; they also ensured that no well-placed aristocrats received unwelcome attention and that compliments to the king were sufficiently euphuistic. Different levels of authorization were available, from the full royal privilege to a “tacit permission.”

In East Germany, elaborate quadrilles were danced by censors, high-level apparatchiks, editors, and, not least, writers. The celebrated novelist Christa Wolf had sufficient clout to insist that a very exceptional ellipsis in square brackets be printed at seven points in her 1983 novel Kassandra, indicating censored passages. This of course sent readers scurrying to the West German edition, which visitors smuggled into the country. Having found the offending words, they typed them up on paper slips and gave these to friends for insertion at the correct place. Among its scattering of striking illustrations, Censors at Work reproduces one such ellipsis on the East German printed page and corresponding typewritten slip.

Klaus Höpcke, the deputy minister for publishing and the book trade (a state position, and therefore subordinated to higher Party authorities), seems to have spent almost as much time in the 1980s fending off the Party leaders above him as he did curbing the writers below. He received an official Party reprimand for allowing Volker Braun’s Hinze-Kunze-Roman, the scabrous story of an apparatchik and his chauffeur, to be published, albeit in a carefully “negotiated” form. Finally, in a flash of late defiance, Deputy Minister Höpcke even supported an East German PEN resolution protesting against the arrest of one Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1989.

Some celebrated writers do not emerge trailing clouds of glory from the cold-eyed files of censorship. Voltaire, that legendary champion of free speech, apparently tried to get the royal censors to suppress the works of his enemies. It was the censor-in-chief who, while he might not have agreed with what Voltaire’s enemies said, defended their right to say it.

The office of the East German Politburo member responsible for culture, Kurt Hager, “kept long lists of writers who sent in requests for visas, cars, better living conditions, and intervention to get their children into universities.” A plea by the writer Volker Braun to be allowed a subscription to the leading West German liberal weekly Die Zeit went all the way up to Hager, with a supportive letter from the deputy minister, who argued that this would provide Braun with materials for a novel satirizing capitalism. In the course of tough negotiations with senior cultural apparatchiks in the mid-1970s, Braun is even recorded as saying that Hager was “a kind of idol for him.” Can we credit him with irony? Perhaps. Writers who have never faced such pressures should not be too quick to judge. And yet one feels a distinct spasm of disgust.

17 March 2017 

Julian Barnes, “The Noise of Time” and Wolfgang Hilbig, “I”

julianbarnestnosiseoftimeBut endless terror continued for another five years. Until Stalin died, and Nikita Khruschev emerged. There was the promise of a thaw, cautious hope, incautious elation. And yes, things did get easier, and some filthy secrets emerged; but there was no sudden idealistic attachment to the truth, merely an awareness that it could now be used to political advantage. And Power itself did not diminish; it just mutated. The terrified wait by the lift and the bullet to the back of the head became things of the past. But Power did not lose interest in him; hands still reached out – and since childhood he had always held a fear of grabbing hands. 

Julian Barnes’s latest novel, The Noise of Time, is about the Russian composer Shostakovich. It is about how he Shostakovichpractised his art, trying to lead a normal life during Stalin’s regime and it was not easy. Shostakovich never joined the Communist Party while Stalin was alive. He  did so much later in 1960 when he was to be appointed by the government as General Secretary of the Composer’s Union and had to be a party member in order to hold the post. ( It was the second time in his life that Shostakovich’s son, Maxim, saw his father weep.)  Julian Barnes has for more than fifty years been a fan of Shostokovich. As he says in an FT interview, “My brother used to sell me the classical music records he most despised or had grown out of.” ( 22 Jan 2016, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/b6432f9e-bf64-11e5-846f-79b0e3d20eaf.html )

The Noise of Time opening scene is about the performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk on 26 January 1936 at the Bolshoi Theatre. Shostakovich attended the operatic performance in the presence of Stalin and his Politburo comrades, Molotov, Mikoyan and Zhdanov. It had been a success at home and abroad for more than two years, making Stalin curious. Two days after Shostakovich witnessed Stalin at the theatre, the Pravda carried a scathing article — “Muddle instead of music”. Subsequently, many commissions for Shostakovich dried up. It is said his income fell to at least one-third of what he had been earning. Even his patron,  Marshal Tukhachevsky, was unable to help. During the Great Terror which was to follow Shostakovich was fearful of his life. He lived in great dread of being taken away in the middle of the night as many of his friends and neighbours had been and shot including Marshal Tukhachevsky. But he never was. ( The sketch of the man on the book cover looking over his shoulder anxiously while holding a suitcase is meant to be the composer who for a while waited with a packed suitcase every night waiting to be picked up.) Within these stifling circumstances he tried to lead as normal a life he could, much like his father who ‘was an entirely normal human being’. ( p.22) His music began to be more conservative and in 1946 he composed a cantata, Song of the Forests, praising Stalin as a great gardener. Yet Shostakovich never left Russia. He did go abroad for performances and represented his country officially but he never left unlike Stravinsky.

Keeping an Eye OpenJulian Barnes novel is bio-fic ( to use David Lodge’s term for such literature). It is a sophisticated tribute by one artist to another, the writer imaging the trauma the composer experienced during Stalinism. In his book Keeping an Eye Open ( published 2015) a collection of essays on art and artists, Barnes says, “Artists are greedy to learn and art is self-devouring… .” ( p.103). He then puts forth an old idea of the artist being a voyeur. “This is exactly what the artist should be: one who sees ( and voyeur can also carry the sense of hallucinatory visionary).” (p.123)  In The Noise of Time Barnes probably is so focused on the relationship that Shostakovich had with the Stalinist state that it occupies the bulk of the story. Then the writer gallops through the remaining years reducing even Boris Pasternak to a passing reference and not even mentioning  the legendary black and white production of Hamlet ( 1964). It was based on Pasternak’s translation and Hamlet ( 1964)Shostakovich composed the music.

While one can appreciate Julian Barnes tribute to a musician he has long admired, it is the timing of the publication of the novel that has to be lauded. The Noise of Time is published in 2016, the 400 year birthday celebrations of Shakespeare’s wherein the story of Shostakovich revolves around his musical interpretation of Macbeth. It is also exploring the life of an artist under Stalin’s version of communism in Russia. A form of government that came with the Russian Revolution of 1917, nearly a hundred years ago.

Another book that is worth mentioning here given the many similarities it shares with The Noise of Time is I Hilbigby Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole. It is not an easy book to read for its shifts in literary texture and excessive reliance on interior monologues that can be disconcerting. It is a fear that he lived with in East Germany given how the Ministry for State Security, or Stasi, employed a vast network of official collaborators including literary figures. So Hilbig was never able to trust anyone even though he was never implicated.  , is a book  that leaves the reader very disturbed for the paranoia conveyed by Hilbig in his book written from the perspective of a writer-informant. This feeling of fear is what one is left with upon closing the book.

This unforgiving and constant fear can only be experienced and it is not a figment of anyone’s imagination or relegated to history books. It is still to be found in nations where freedom of expression is stifled and it is even more alarming when it is done using official machinery. At such moments it is immaterial whatever the political system — whether a communist or a democratic state. The full import of living with this kind of round-the-clock anxiety can never really understood by writers and readers distanced from such authoritarian regimes but these stories could be read as appreciating art for art’s sake. Having said that The Noise of Time and are going to be spoken about for a long time to come for the tremendous impact they are going to have on literature and the art of writing.

Julian Barnes The Noise of Time Jonathan Cape, London, 2016. Hb. pp. 180. 

Julian Barnes Keeping An Eye Open Jonathan Cape, London, 2015. Pb. 280

Wolfgang Hilbig I (translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole), Seagull Books, 2015. Hb. 

28 January 2016