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28 November 2006

Living with Tragedies

Interview with the current author in residence Louis Begley on Germany, Heidelberg and New York as the embodiment of self-renewal

Mr. Begley, as a child you went through traumatic experiences with the Germans. What is your view of Germany today?

The decisive thing about present-day Germany for me is the people living here. These Germans – let's call them the "new Germans" – have nothing to do with the period before and during the Second World War and nothing to do with the appalling crimes committed by Germans at that time. In my view they bear no responsibility for the sins of their parents and grandparents. I take them just as they are, as individuals, rather as if they were of a different nationality. And I judge them on their own merits. I have been happy to meet very many wonderful "new Germans", particularly among my readers. They have impressed me with their seriousness and their lively interest in literature and art.

To what extent have your experiences in those far-off days influenced the tenor of the books you wrote so much later?

My experiences during the Second World War are clearly reflected in my first novel Wartime Lies and to a somewhat lesser degree both in The Man Who Was Late and in my recent novel Matters of Honor, due to appear in Germany in February or March (as Ehrensachen) and from which I will be reading next Wednesday at the DAI. But these experiences are also present in my other novels, as these novels all come from inside me. My inner man is indelibly marked by my experience of the German occupation of Poland and the extermination of the Polish Jews.

After long years as a lawyer you ultimately switched to a literary career. How did that come about?

I think that in all those years when I was working as an attorney for a firm of lawyers in New York there was an alter ego inside me, a story-teller. But those were mute stories. I told them to myself. At a certain juncture – a late stage, one would probably say, after all I was 56 – I decided to give one of the stories a voice and I wrote it down. It was the story I called Wartime Lies.

You studied English Literature and you have also lived in France. Are there any special figures in these two literature that have served as models for your writing?

Among the authors of English literature I admire most are Henry James, Joseph Conrad, George Eliot and Anthony Trollope. Among the great French writers I am especially fond of Marcel Proust and Pierre Jean Jouve, an author who was also a poet.

Is German literature, past or present, important to you?

Certainly. My affinities extend from north to south: Thomas Mann, Thomas Bernhard, Franz Kafka.

I believe you've been to Heidelberg before, during your military service in Göppingen in 1955/56?

Yes, my friends and I gladly took the opportunity of coming to Heidelberg at the weekend.

What is your impression of the city today?

My wife and I are deeply impressed by its beauty. We enjoy getting lost in the narrow lanes and we love the beautiful region around Heidelberg. We've been on two marvellous walks to the Castle and Philosophers' Way.

Do you have any connections with Heidelberg's literary tradition?

I can't say I'm all that familiar with it, aside from the fact that the University has been a magnet for writers and humanities scholars.

What role did the University of Heidelberg play in your decision to accept the invitation to act as author in residence?

The University's reputation played an extremely important role in my decision to come to Heidelberg. I was convinced that I would find like-minded colleagues among the scholars accompanying the lectures and I was right. I have been amply rewarded for my optimism by my contacts with Prof. Helmuth Kiesel and Privatdozentin Dr. Michaela Kopp-Marx.

You have intimate knowledge of New York. Do you live there yourself? And what is your view of this fast-moving city five years after September 11?

Yes, my wife and I live in New York. Both New York and the New Yorkers are very resilient. But you cannot say that there has been a recovery from the murderous attack on the Twin Towers, nor a recovery from the loss of innocent lives there and in the three kidnapped planes. It is perhaps more correct to say that we live with tragedies like these and keep on moving ahead at the same time. I cannot remember a time when it has been more exciting to live in New York or to visit the city. New York is the embodiment of constant self-renewal, a city that reinvents itself all the time.

Heribert Vogt

Information: www.gs.uni-heidelberg.de/poetik

Please address any inquiries to:
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

Irene Thewalt
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 542317

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