Book Review: Journals: 1934-1955

Journals:  1934-1955, by Bertolt Brecht

I really wish I had read this book first among the Brecht books I have read (seven in all so far) instead of last.  Seeing what Brecht had to say about politics and literature and his personal life, all of which are included here, would have put his writings in a sort of framework that would have been easier to appreciate and enjoy, and would have led to a bit less harshness on my part on the way that I viewed Brecht as a writer.  To be sure, the author’s rather stridently leftist views are in full evidence here, and there is plenty of hypocritical feeling on Brecht’s part about the lack of loyalty of some of the women in his life given his own distinct lack of loyalty and faithfulness to them.  Even so, these journals reveal Brecht to be a concerned friend and father, someone who had worthwhile thoughts about theater (including Shakespeare’s likely collaboration with others), and someone who had deep concerns about the violence in the Soviet Union and decidedly ambivalent feelings towards Communist regimes despite his leftist political sympathies.  All of this suggests that Brecht was far more complex than he is often portrayed by those who wish to make him a leftist hero, and thus far more of interest to everyone else.

This volume of more than 450 pages begins with a discussion of Brecht’s position as a leftist with critical views of two world systems, and some notes on the editing.  After that the book is divided into six sections, beginning in Denmark from 1934 to 15 March 1939, then continuing in Sweden from 23 April 1939 to 19 March 1940, moving on to Finland from 17 April 1940 to 13 July 1941, then moving on to America from 21 July 1941 to 5 November 1947.  After that the author moves on to Switzerland from 16 December 1940 to 20 October 1948 and closes in East Berlin from 22 October 1948 to 18 July 1955.  The various journal entries, which range from gossipy personal affairs to discussions of politics and especially theater and literature and the author’s various personal writing projects, many of them abortive, are interspersed with photos and small articles that place the author’s writing in their proper historical context.  There are some revelations here, including just how little the author was concerned with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, before whom he spoke shortly before leaving the United States and heading back to Europe, and just how concerned he was with the state of Western theater as well as his own personal drama and the staging of his plays.

How does understanding the author’s writing better help one to understand Brecht as a man?  For one, they reveal that Brecht had a sense of self-awareness that is not always appreciated by those who lionize him today.  While he was undoubtedly aware of his own leftist perspective, he also was aware of his own middle class background and the fact that as a result he wrote about workers and classes from a point of view that was distinct from those who had lived in those circumstances, an awareness of the distance between outsiders with certain sympathies and insiders with personal knowledge that is certainly not always shared by leftists.  And it is the author’s self-awareness and reflection that raise the author in the eyes of those who would be disinclined to view him with favor as a leftist but certainly can find something to respect him for as a man, despite his many and fairly obvious failings.  And even if it is quite possible that this journal was written with an eye towards future publication, it is also true that Brecht was one of those writers who wrote a great deal, little of which has received a lot of attention either then or now, and as someone who is a similarly personal and prolific writer, there is certainly a great deal about Brecht that I can understand better seeing him without the perspective of those who have agendas to push in what they write about him.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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