Bertolt Brecht Short Stories, 1921-1946
Bertolt Brecht is generally recognized as one of the most revolutionary and influential dramatists in this century; the theory and practice of his non-Aristotelian Epic Theater has sparked controversy and emulation worldwide. Epic Theater is supposed to stimulate one’s thinking through a “narrative” style of presentation, by telling a story calmly in a sequence of episodes, rather than by involving the audience emotionally in a dramatic plot. Stories, therefore, form the basis of much of Brecht’s work, even his poetry, and they are often derived from folktales, ballads, newspaper reports, and other popular sources.
Nevertheless, Brecht’s actual narrative works, his novels, short stories and anecdotes, are still not widely known, except for the occasional inclusion of one of his conveniently concise Tales from the Calendar in an anthology or language textbook. Brecht’s fiction appears less revolutionary in style and content than his dramatic work, and Brecht himself seems to have given his stories low priority: Only one collection of stories, Kalendergeschichten (Tales from the Calendar), appeared during his lifetime, and even there the stories are interspersed with poems and anecdotes. It was not until 1965 that a relatively complete German edition of Brecht’s short stories appeared in the context of his collected prose works. Since then, this small but fascinating segment of Brecht’s creative output has attracted increasing attention.
The present volume, at last, contains all the major short stories of Brecht in highly competent English translations. It is based on volume 11 of Bertolt Brecht’s Gesammelte Werke in 20 Bänden (1967), which is entirely devoted to the short stories but not a complete translation of that volume. As the title indicates, the selection is limited to stories written from 1921 to 1946. This seems to be a wise choice. In the German volume, which has the stories in approximate chronological order, the only works after 1946 are a few anecdotes about Eulenspiegel, the clever fool. Like the anecdotes about a certain Mr. Keuner, an unorthodox thinker, which are eliminated from both volumes, they are bits of worldly-wise Bert Brecht philosophy rather than genuine stories. For similar reasons, the editors of the English translation left out all other anecdotes, very short stories, any play summaries and film scenarios detectable as such, and also all fragments except for the unfinished “Life Story of the Boxer Samson-Körner,” which appears as an appendix to the collection. The elimination of the stories before 1921 was obviously more a value judgment than a matter of genre; most of these early stories are somewhat sophomoric exercises that were first published in Brecht’s school magazine and in local newspapers. In fact, they seem to embody the very vices and illusions Brecht attacked in his later writings.
The “hard core of genuine short stories” resulting from this process of elimination has been arranged chronologically and grouped into three creative periods coinciding with major waystations in Brecht’s life: The Bavarian Stories (1920-1924), The Berlin Stories (1924-1933), and Stories Written in Exile (1934-1948). They were written predominantly in the early years of each period, while the rest of each period was almost completely devoted to poetry, drama, and theater production. Brecht’s stories in this volume display a special and powerful talent: concise, concentrated, no-nonsense narration. This talent is visible in a variety of narrative modes and styles, from the factual report to the lyric setting of an atmosphere, from fairytale simplicity to the complexity of Lucretian hexameters or of a cleverly spun detective story. Brecht’s stories have a variety of unforgettable characters, a clear message, and wit, irony, and punch.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that Brecht achieved his first literary success with a short story rather than a play. The story in question is the first in this collection and is entitled “Bargan Gives Up.” Bargan, the brilliant and ruthless leader of a marauding band of buccaneers, becomes hopelessly addicted to a fat, clubfooted fellow “who had lain on the road like an unwanted dog till Bargan drew him to his bosom.” Eventually, Bargan abandons ship, crew, and everything merely for the sake of this repulsive and devious creature. The wild buccaneer’s unseemly fate is presented as a parable of the uncertainties of “life on this planet.” This captivating pirate story already contains many characteristic elements of Brecht’s fiction: evil but fascinating villain-heroes, stark macho and antimacho actions, the exotic atmosphere of faraway places and unusual social settings, the conscious attempt to convey a message or a moral (be it ever so unconventional), and a restrained, strangely rough-hewn language, equally distant from colloquial speech as it is from poetic diction, yet deriving its effects from both. More specifically, the story belongs to Brecht’s early period of youthfully poetic nihilism best known from his plays Baal (1922; Baal, 1970) and Trommeln in der Nacht (1922; Drums in the Night, 1966). In these early works, Brecht’s language is rich in earthy colloquialisms...
(The entire section is 2159 words.)