The Raging Reporter and His Snoring Biographer
Harold B. Segel, ed.
Egon Erwin Kisch, The Raging Reporter. A Bio-Anthology ,
Purdue University Press, 1997.
Harold Segel has fallen into the trap set out by the title of his Bio-anthology, The Raging Reporter: a fair-to-good biography-cum-anthology aimed at a general audience, introduced and compiled by a generalist. The problem: Kisch never was a raging reporter. Indeed, he was an extremely patient observer, a great researcher and an even more painstaking writer. But his public persona as Raging Reporter is often conflated with the man and with his style. Ultimately and ironically, this sensational persona may blind us to the underlying, less obvious but more relevant sensations hidden in his life and oeuvre.
Segel's lack of specialization either as a translator or a journalist makes for both the book's virtue and its vice. Segel's approach is that of identification and re-telling, which makes for an easy read. At the same time, Segel lacks all critical distance and theoretical perspective, which makes it a slight disappointment.
The Raging Reporter consists of two parts: first, an introductory essay of some ninety pages, followed by a selection of 26 works of reportage by Kisch, translated by Segel himself. I will first look at the biography, then the anthology, then the translation, and finally make a few passing remarks about nonfiction writing in general.
1) The biography flaunts the avuncular tone of a Kisch-101-textbook, full of phrases like: "Their financial situation imposed a certain frugality, but they were not destitute and drew a regular monthly stipend..." Hmmm. Segel's tone gives you a nice fifties-feel, the professorial smugness of those dusty tomes I had to read as an undergraduate. Segel's saving grace is that it is simply impossible to write a boring biography about the spectacular life of the legendary reporter. Born in Prague in 1885, Kisch was drafted into the Austrian army in the first world war, only to become an active communist while witnessing the senseless horrors of war. After the war he tried to overthrow the Austrian government in an abortive coup, chasing his own brother from the editorial office of a bourgeois paper. His brother complained to their mother: "Egon is well. Physically, at least."
After a well-received novel and a modestly successful play the young writer decided to devote his creativity solely to reportage and biography - a career path that can be considered a small sensation in itself. The normal way to go about a career in writing is to move from journalism to the novel. Not so for Kisch, who never accepted the notion that playwrights and novelist should be held in higher esteem than journalists. Thus he prepared his second coup, this time an aesthetic rather than a political one, that shook the foundations of the literary world of his day. He moved to what was then the center of German literary life, Berlin, and there made reporting hitherto mere hackwork one of the most hotly discussed avantgarde art-forms of its day. This coup d'état in the republic of letters was better grounded than his Viennese adventures: Kisch prepared it by publishing a collection of classical reportage, including St. Augustine, Luther, and Balzac.
His adventurous life continued, first because Kisch liked to travel: he visited the Soviet Union, then made a secret muckraking tour in China, then in the USA. Eventually, however, the fascists imposed a complicated itinerary on him: he was incarcerated in Berlin and extradited as a Czech. He joined the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, from which he fled into a productive exile in Mexico City. After the second world war he died in his home town of Prague in 1948.
His art form died with him in the German-speaking world. Reportage never became as important and contested again as it had been, or as it still is in other parts of the world. Germany never again saw a nonfiction-writer of Kisch's stature, no Didion or Naipaul, no Theroux or Capote, no Mailer or Wolfe. Kisch marks the apex and fall, the virtues and vices of both modernist nonfiction and high-brow propaganda. Especially the latter may partly be responsible for the fact that while his fame was artificially upheld in the German "Democratic" Republic (GDR), the genre of literary reportage all but died in the German-speaking world (until there came a timid revival in the lifestyle-hungry eighties that continues until today).
But to depict Kisch as a revolutionary both in literature and politics is my interpretation, not Segel's. In this anthology, the Raging Reporter is stricken with a Snoring Biographer: Segel enumerates acqaintances, gives exact dates, recalls for example that Kisch lived on the corner of Avenida Amsterdam and Avenida Michoacán when exiled in Mexico City. Oh, really!! But he does not tell us why he tells us this, why the Avenida Amsterdam might be of any importance except for the fact that it is a biographical fact. There is no narrative to hold the facts together. So Segel ends with the Salomonic but secretly baffled verdict: "in this as in other respects, he was of his time and ahead of it." So? Not exactly a compelling reason to reread Kisch.
Segel's obvious inability to tell a good tale lies, surprisingly, in the lack of literary theory. Kisch's importance can only be grasped by discussiong his style. In one of his few discussions of style, Segel rightly mentions that Kisch liked to depict himself in the third person within his reportage as "the stranger." Modernist self-reflexivity meets the detective story (for which Kisch had a huge appetite). Segel prefers to drop names, dates, incidents. Drops them somewhere and forgets to pick 'em up again. He sticks too close to Kisch's self-dramatizations as Raging Reporter. With the effect that Kisch remains what he professes to be: a Stranger. The Raging Reporter. This will not do.
To approach this question from a biographical angle: Kisch never was a Raging Reporter. He was curious, he was brave, he traveled a lot. But he was slow. He constantly revised his pieces, sometimes up to fourteen times. There is a nice little anecdote that even ol' Segel would like: When Kisch was to write a piece about the clock towers of Prague in 1933 he could not meet the deadline. Four weeks too late he finally handed in the manuscript, a mere two and a half pages. Then he spent three more days, trying to squeeze in little pieces of information into the subtitles of the accompanying photos, each as brief as two lines! He kept sending little pieces of paper to the editor, with minute stylistic changes. This is not Raging at all, this is outrageous! And it shows that a close look at Kisch's style may tell a lot about the man and the myth as well.
Reportage is as deeply interwoven with the culture industry as is radio and cinema. It is a genre narrowly defined by the necessities of the marketplace. So how did Kisch find a way to smuggle his communist convictions into the commercial marketplace of ideas, how did he package his contraband, what was his style, as a public persona and as a literary stylist? Kisch was a revolutionary in the marketplace of ideas, a self-promoter for a higher cause; his masterful use of journalistic and literary conventions allowed him to subvert them. He was a politician in literature and an aesthete in politics. Segel is completely unaware that this might be the real sensation behind the Ragingly Reportorial facade.
Of course he was a master of scene, dialogue, and montage, in control of flashback, foreshadowing, and repetition. But so was Papa Hemingway, so was Orwell - both of whom Segel mentions with regard to the Spanish Civil War, but without throwing into relief their respective styles, except for comparisons like these: "(Hemingway's) writing is terser yet more aware of nature..." or "there is a greater sense of proximity of war and its dangers in Hemingway than in Kisch." Well, this is 101-speak. What else could be said about Kisch's style?
For one thing, he was born in Prague, a place with a strong oral tradition. In a nice little piece called "The Blind Methodius" (not included in the anthology) he recounts his childhood fascination with street ballads - a tradition he was later to revive, well hidden under a modernist guise of racy modernist montage. But from today's perspective we are able to see not the raging modernization but the lingering tradition in Kisch's style. This is quite the opposite of a fascist aesthetic that on the surface flaunted traditional values in order to cover up the radical modernization of society through technology, through Volksempfänger-radios for all, through Volkswagen-cars for all, through Kraft-durch-Freude-holidays for all, and finally, through airborn Blitzkrieg-battles for all. Kisch's modernist aesthetic was intended as an antidote to the fascist aesthetization of politics. To create that quality, he needed a folkloristic tradition.
It shows for example in Kisch's love of allegory: When he writes about poverty in a remote mountain village (in "The Three Cows," included in the anthology), Kisch describes the poverty of that place with a naive little woodcut-scene: "The peasant watches angrily, his wife weeping, as his belongings are carried away." Mind you, he never saw this, and he doesn't pretend to. He just inserts this little stock scene as an easily recognizable motif, a pars pro toto, an allegory for "poverty." This is kitsch - and Kisch probably knew it. So why not call it that? After all, it was he himself who argued that literary criticism can be applied to nonfiction writing. By glossing over the weaknesses in Kisch's texts, Segel ultimately does Kisch's literary revolution a disservice.
Another Kischism occurs in a story about a bullfight from the collection of Civil War articles, in which Kisch adopts the bull's perspective on what is going on! This multi-perspectival strategy was outrageous back then, and even today it would be regarded as highly experimental and only permissible in a magazine story.
But then, Kischism II falls prey to Kischism I: He portrays the bull as a metaphor for "the people" and the red flag waved in front of him is the party color of the social democrats, while the bloodthirsty bourgeoisie watches from the ranks. Argh.
For Kisch, everything is metaphor and allegory. Kisch for example never wrote about the Stalinist takeover during the Spanish Civil war, as Orwell did. It simply did not fit in with his dualist vision of the world. Kisch's allegorical writing about bullfighting has a totally different feel than for example Hemingway's "Death in the Afternoon", a search of the ultimate tragedy, conveyed by minimal means. But then, Hemingway's modernism and lack of allegory would have been useless for Kisch, because Hemingway's tragic existentialism in some instances could be absorbed into Fascist rhetoric. So Kisch needed to be more outspoken, more clearcut, more simplistic than colleagues from other countries. By inscribing his politics into his texts, Kisch sacrificed a lot of his literary quality, which might be one of the reasons why he could not start a tradition of literary journalism: the politics was too deeply embedded in his writing to lend it a lasting value (outside of communist countries).
2) "The organization of this book needs no special elucidation," Segel writes in his introduction. He is wrong and leaves the reader wondering what the criteria for selection of texts might have been. Probably he wanted to present something like a "Best of." All in all, Segel did a good job in selecting important texts. There are some shortcomings, though, especially in his decision not to include some of the finest pieces which Segel writes about in the introduction, while leaving uncommented most of the ones included. Therefore there is little "interaction" between biography and anthology - which is a pity. Because most of the articles would have needed at least a short introduction to put them both into the historical context and into the context of the original anthologies they were taken from.
The wonderful article, "Working with Charlie Chaplin," for example, is the climax of Kisch's ironically titled collection, "Paradise America." Throughout this collection, Kisch uses the technique of montage, not unlike Dos Passos in his USA trilogy or Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath, inserting little scenes about the film industry throughout articles on Chicago, Detroit, and other places, in order to highlight the pervasiveness of the Hollywood dream factory as a stabilizing factor for American society, as an undercurrent, as the equivalent of religion. The piece about the communist Chaplin works mainly in contrast with the other vignettes from Hollywood: Chaplin's is the only studio where production was non-alienated (because the director was a communist); as such, Chaplin is the positive counterimage of the capitalist mainstream of American society.
Some pieces in the anthology are superfluous, while others should have been included - a cheap argument, I know, but let me make it anyway: Instead of including the wonderful poetology of "The Blind Methodius", or at least one chapter from his novel "The Pimp" - after which he left fiction behind and turned to reporting and biography, Segel affectionately includes an unimportant little magazine piece that Kisch wrote about his various tatoos - he was probably one of the most tatooed writers in the world. To mix ink and blood would make a wonderful metaphor: it seems to sum up Kisch's use of aesthetic means to passionately socialist ends - and it sums up his highly personal, often autobiographical use of his own persona, the inscription of the reporter's bodily presence as part of his political writing. The tatoos in themselves are not the sensation; but their meaningful interpretation would make them interesting as examples of Kisch's at once time deeply proletarian and, to our eyes, radically postmodern act of inscribing his body as politic(al). But Segel here as elsewhere offers no perspective on why he might have included the piece. Maybe he just did it as a pretext to include the nice drawing of Kisch's tatoos.
3) The translation is very good, with only minor mistakes, as far as I could see. In "Journey to the Antipodes," for example, Kisch writes about a French mob calling out: "The unwelcome guests of France spill the blood of welcome ones," accusing foreigners of having killed the Serb prince. Segel translates this sentence as "(they) shout that the foreigners are to blame and cry for their blood." An example of a slight lack of precision - which is outweighed by the translator's emphasis on the idiomatic over the overly correct.
Segel also has done a good job as editor, cropping the stories by as much as ninety percent. Indeed, Kisch tended to enumerate every little detail he saw - maybe because TV hadn't influenced viewing and reading habits yet. Segel's abridgments bring Kisch up to our more restless reading habits.
In some instances the cropping is not marked, though, for example in the beginning of the story, "Soldiers on the Seashore," a wonderful, lively piece about the war as seen from the hinterland, at a military hospital of the Republican International Brigades. Kisch's piece in the original starts with an eye-winking reference to some ignorant writer (Kisch himself, of course), who years ago passed through this village. This observation of the observer is a strategy that was in the same year tried out by James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men - and was later, in a wave of Agee-renaissance, taken up by Norman Mailer in Armies of the Night and especially by Tom Wolfe in, for example, Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Sadly, the chance to establish this lineage gets lost in the unremarked cropping of "Soldiers on the Shore."
4) Kisch's "Soldiers on the Shore" is a wonderfully told nonfiction tale, about the new inhabitants of a former catholic high-brow community that now houses a republican paradise: a hospital for soldiers. Kisch describes it as a multinational family of mankind, with flirting woman-soldiers-cum-nurses, goodnatured soldiers from all over the world who want to go back to the front and therefore pretend to be healthy, but obey the doctors' orders and draw "colorful-colorful paintings" of zoos and shops for the kids, listen to classical music or go to readings. Like Hemingway in his underrated "Death in the Afternoon," Kisch experiments with fictional scenes about former highbrow-owners talking about the loss of their property in snobbish tones. A cheap trick to create a contrast, but hey, that's what many writers did back then, even The Papa. Disaster strikes Kisch's paradise in the form of fascist bombers - and Kisch changes from the third person to the first person plural - we get bombed, the flames shoot up high into the sky: "progressive mankind," the piece ends, "become an International Brigade for freedom and justice." This article is maybe the best socialist propaganda ever written. But it has grave deficits as literature and may not even be good reporting either, by today's standards. As Erhard Schütz, a German scholar, likes to point out: Kisch wouldn't stand a chance of getting the renowned Kisch Prize that bears his name today - because for him reportage was a form of fighting, not neutrality. His pen was a weapon. Here as elsewhere, propaganda and Kisch's felt need to fight fascism gets in the way of stylistic purity. It must have been a tough choice for Kisch. It was the right one, politically. But it also dooms many of Kisch's texts to become period pieces. Without the propaganda, they might have become avantgarde experiments and evaluated as such today.
But Segel does not point out the fact that Kisch's text are a battlefield of conflicting impulses - not the least of them being the different conventions of journalism and of fiction. Segel, unaware of that conflict, notes only that "Kisch never invented anything. As a journalist, Kisch had a passionate respect for truth and would have considered it beneath his dignity as a reporter to embellish a story for the mere sake of adding zest to it." By today's journalistic standards, this simply is not so. On the other hand, this fact does not diminish Kisch's achievements at all. Rather, it adds a historical dimension that should not be glossed over in simplistic, moralistic terms such as "dignity," "truth," or "embellishment." Obviously, Segel lacks finer critical tools, such as the vocabulary developed by Mas'ud Zavarzadeh, Ronald Weber, Shelley Fischer Fishkin, or John Warnock to discuss style in nonfiction writing.
It might seem surprising, but the art of nonfiction is no easier to discuss than fiction. On the contrary - criticism becomes complicated by the mixing of the aesthetic and the referential planes. If the nonfiction critic wants to move beyond mere re-telling, he ventures into a quagmire of conflicting standards: Kisch and Hemingway and Gertrude Stein may have accepted as fact that a fact is a fact is a fact. But then, the times they have a-changed.
In march 1953, Mary McCarthy published "Artists in Uniform," a nice little article in Harper's Magazine about an antisemitic Colonel she met in a train station restaurant. Some art critics interpreted her story in terms of the then-fashionable symbolism, reading facts as symbols. McCarthy disagreed, because it was below her dignity to "embellish facts." In her article, "Settling the Colonel's Hash" she tried to fight the "symbol-hunters," weakly arguing that all the details she gave "were part of the truth" - but then unwittingly admitting that in any creative process there has to be "an insurrection" of the story against the author(ity). So who is in control in nonfiction, the facts or the writer? And what are the permissible lexias, the ways to read a nonfiction text? The discussion continued from there, touching on all the difficult questions of how to read a nonfiction text. The discussion showed that a "passionate respect for the truth" is not a category in literary nonfiction criticism, it doesn't say anything about style, metaphor, and meaning in journalism. Three texts from this exciting debate can be looked up in Norman Sims' wonderful anthology, Literary Journalism in the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, 1990).
By taking the mythical Raging Reporter at face value, Segel fails to discuss him and his work on his own terms, that is, in the terms of nonfiction criticism. Ironically, he thereby contradicts his own praise of Kisch as an important literary figure and denies the reportage the high status he pretends to celebrate.
But then, again: It is a good textbook, a nice read - and it leaves a lot for the readers and interpreters to do. What more can we expect?