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Book Launch: Karl Wolfskehl, Under new stars: poems of the New Zealand exile,
Gus Fisher Gallery, The University of Auckland.

Leonard Bell


I’m honoured to have been asked to launch Holloway Press’s Karl Wolfskehl, Under New Stars: Poems of the New Zealand Exile. It has both Wolfskehl’s German and translations of the poems into English by Margot Ruben (his companion in New Zealand from 1938-48), Dean and Renate Koch, and mostly recent ones by Andrew Paul Wood, who also contributed an essay on translation at the end of the book. Friedrich Voit edited the book. He has researched and written about Wolfskehl’s life and work for many years – most notably and recently with his magisterial 800 plus pages biography and account of Wolfskehl’s writing in exile, published in 2005.

Friedrich wrote in the excellent introduction to this book, ‘Jewish, Roman, German – all in one’, that ‘Karl Wolfskehl is probably the most prominent literary figure among the refugees [from Nazism] in the 1930s in New Zealand’. He was definitely the most prominent. There were other writers in various genres among the Central European refugees here, but none of Wolfskehl’s stature, either then or now.

Yesterday evening I gave a talk at Northart on the North Shore about artists, photographers and architects who came to New Zealand in the 1930s and 1940s as refugees from Nazism and post World War II Displaced people. Collectively and in many instances individually they made big impacts here, though for most of them, with just a few notable exceptions, wider recognition in historical and critical texts has been slow in coming or belated. Wolfskehl’s situation was somewhat different. From soon after his arrival he was meeting and mixing with leading local writers, with people now regarded as among the best of the period and later – for instance, Allen Curnow, Denis Glover, Leo Bensemann, R.A.K. Mason, A.R.D. Fairburn and Frank Sargeson.

Of course Wolfskehl continued to write in German here and almost all those writings remained translated. Most refugee German language poets, novelists and playwrights, whether in Britain, the Americas, Australia or New Zealand, did not write in English. People like Arthur Koestler in Britain and Otti Binswanger here were exceptions. Wolfskehl’s famous cycle of poems, Die Stimme Spricht, first published in the mid 1930s, was republished, with an accompanying English translation, in 1947 in New York by the renowned German-Jewish publishers, Schocken, with the title 1933: A Poem Sequence. Whether it was available in New Zealand bookshops in the late 1940s-early 1940s I don’t know. I suspect not, though. Certainly when I sought to read it – in the mid 1990s - I had to get it on Inter Loan from Australia. It was not in the University of Auckland Library, which otherwise has a lot by and on Wolfskehl, including his multi-volume Letters, which includes many of the letters of his correspondents too. It is a treasure trove for researchers.

The lack of published translations, for which this Holloway Press book fills an enormous gap, points to a condition I believe is widespread here. Most people in New Zealand who either know of Wolfskehl or know that he was an eminent writer, that he was prodigiously learned, that he filled a room, literally and figuratively, have not read any or much of his poetry, unless they know German very well – except, that is, for the few poems that have appeared intermittently in English.  For instance, could Sargeson, Fairburn and Curnow read German either at all, or sufficiently well to read Wolfskehl’s poetry properly? I’m not sure. That is, despite writing for ten years in New Zealand, Wolfskehl has been on the edges of 20th century New Zealand literary history - and that is despite too the impressive advocacy of Friedrich Voit, as well as Nelson Wattie and the poet and playwright John Graham. Wolfskehl did not receive the attention he deserved in standard histories of literature in New Zealand. A couple of New Zealand literary historians, who will remain unnamed, said to me about ten years ago that they thought Wolfskehl’s work was over-rated. Friedrich Voit and his colleagues in the translation (and to mind and eye it is an excellent translation) hope that this book gives the poet’s New Zealand work its rightful place in the literature of this country.

The one poem that probably is well-known among the literary-inclined here, because of its periodic publication in English is Wolfskehl’s ‘Die Feigenbaum’/‘The Fig Tree’. Both poet and fig tree are figured as displaced, transplanted, exiled both.  The poem is of course included in this book. It is accompanied by a photograph of the poet under, or almost immersed in, a fig tree – in Mt Eden, if I remember correctly.

The photograph was taken by Maja Blumenfeld, herself and her family refugees from Germany too. At the Wolfskehl in Exile symposium back in 1998 Gerti and Konrad Blumenfeld spoke movingly of their close friendship and experiences with Wolfskehl, in relation to which it should be noted that Wolfskehl was also part of a Central European émigré community in new Zealand; not only in Auckland, but throughout New Zealand, in particular in Christchurch and Dunedin.

There is another tipped-in photograph of the poet in this book – the frontispiece, the photographer given as ‘unknown’. I think it was probably taken by another German refugee photographer, Lily Inge Byttiner, who had a Studio, under the name of Bettina, for many years – from about 1940  to 1967 - in the Lewis Eady building in Queen Street. There are identified photographs of  Wolfskehl by Bettina,  and Maja Blumenfeld worked for her for a period. Bettina was a very accomplished photographer, though today she is barely known or remembered.

These photographs and other illustrative material enhance the book. As is typically so with Holloway Press publications, it is beautifully designed, with an understated elegance. Note the black of the outside cover, with the ‘K W’ of Wolfskehl’s signature in silver, the maroon inside cover, the soft cream tone of the pages. The printing too is excellent: clear, well-spaced, a pleasure to the eye, enabling ease of reading. The book is a pleasure to hold in the hand.

And the poems in translation retain their intensity, their ‘depths’. Passages and lines are now embedded in my mind – for instance, this stanza from Wolfskehl’s ‘The First Mirror, Job Israel’:
       ‘O Job, you have wandered the earth
        Since then, driven
        And gloomy, a yellow mark on black.
        Unsated your demand, resigned yet craving,
        Erring, restless, still seeking when you have found.’
And the last stanza from his ‘Albatross’, which references too Baudelaire’s mid 19th century poem, in which the poet is imaged as an albatross:
      ‘You the most free, him the prophet, my lip
        Has strength to hail you. Storm and delusion
        Are as familiar to me as to you. Of the same tribe
        I, Job, I traverse the timeless path of suffering.’

I commend this book to you, and congratulate Friedrich Voit, Andrew Paul Wood, Peter Simpson, Tara McLeod and the others who made this book possible.
Thank you.