We do not expect books from the distant past to be genuinely funny. Even those that are advertised as rascally and unorthodox tend to amuse only indirectly, as a kind of in-joke for the historically informed reader. Old books that actually make us laugh out loud — Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy" being the best example — therefore convince us doubly. Not only do their authors possess rare humor, but they also demonstrate great sincerity. Surely only an author who was truly enjoying himself could still sound funny, hundreds of years later.
Who knew that Heinrich Heine was such a writer? One of Germany's greatest poets, Heine (1791-1856) was the Byron to Goethe's Wordsworth — and he was fully as famous as Byron, at least in Germany and in France, his adopted home after 1831. His poems seize on unrequited love, and occasionally treat Teutonic customs to scathing satire, but they are not comic. A Jew who was baptized for professional reasons, Heine was the author of poems so important to German culture that even the Nazis printed them, stripped of their author's name, in field editions for German soldiers. Composers have set his poems to music roughly 8,000 times, forming the bedrock of the lieder tradition, and it is a recording of Heine's poem "Die Lorelei" that sounds from the loudspeakers of Rhein tour boats, many times every day.
But Heine's first book of poems (1827) was taken on by his publisher, Hoffmann und Campe, only because Julius Campe wanted rights to Heine's uproarious, super-subtle travel memoir, "The Harz Journey," which had made Heine famous. His collection of travelogues, "Reisebilder," has not been translated in full into English since the time of the American Civil War. Now Peter Wortsman's translation, "Travel Pictures" (Archipelago, 223 pages, $17), puts under our noses a prose-writing Heine who can not only elicit 21st-century laughs, but can teach us a thing or two about irony, as well.
That is to say, the reader can seldom tell whether this Romantic is actually a cynic. "Night came charging in on its black steed," he writes, "its long mane flapping in the wind." The extension of the metaphor, by which Heine gives the clichéd steed a tangible mane, seems to poke fun at throw-away Romantic rhetoric. But Heine is Romantic to the core. In some of the text's most earnest paragraphs, praising a child's pre-verbal experience of nature, he writes that adults have "cashed in the clear gold of contemplation for the paper money of dictionary definitions, gaining in life experience what we lose in the deep luster of looking." If Heine is cynical, he is cynical toward classic Romantic targets: culture and the city.
His tour of the Harz mountains, in central Germany, was motivated by a deep disgust with the university town of Göttingen. With a few amendments, Heine's opening lines could be applied to dozens of German towns today, and with equal dismissive force:
Famous for its sausages and university, the City of Göttingen belongs to the King of Hanover and has 999 hearths, various churches, a maternity hospital, an observatory, a students' lock-up, a library and a Ratskeller in which the beer is very good.
But Heine is not content to smile at sausages and beer. He immediately introduces his deadpan sarcasm, saying of the local stream that "the water is very cold and in places so wide that even a strong lad like Lüder had to take a running jump to leap across," as if any body of water that can be leaped is impressive. His irony is fitted so seamlessly into the structure of the sentence that a careless reader might miss it. Here it is again: "The city itself is lovely and most pleasing to look upon with your back turned to it."
These are only pinpricks; the great verbal swath that Heine cuts across the Harz is the bounty of the book, and its humor. His interest in nature itself remains theoretical, and the mountain hike feels like a motif for his faux-bashful meanderings, as he discusses himself, Goethe, currency, mines, and village grandmothers. He tries to look at the Harz — "But the Harz saw me too as few have seen me; in my eyelashes glimmered the same precious pearls as those that lay in meadow down below."
Heine pretends to use his narcissism as the butt of a self-deprecating joke, but the real target is Romanticism, the pearls in his eyes. Yet this is still funny, perhaps because Romanticism, at its worst, is the same as pretentiousness. At the top of the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz, Heine finds a boisterous guest lodge where two beautiful young men steal away to take the night air but, instead of the front door, they only open a large cupboard: "Oh ye wafting winds of dusky night!" they cry, looking into the cupboard. "How refreshing is your breath upon my cheeks!"
That the author of the "Lorelei" ballad could so readily castigate false feeling, and in such a sophisticated, ironic prose, is a terrific surprise. And it makes "Die Lorelei" a better poem. We can be sure that Heine knew what he was doing — though he himself may claim to have been confused. "I'm getting so dizzy in the head," he wrote at the journey's end, "that I no longer know where irony ends and the sky begins."