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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

Ashes for Breakfast

Durs Grünbein

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To purchase Ashes for Breakfast

Title: Ashes for Breakfast
Author: Durs Grünbein
Genre: Poetry
Written: (2005)
Length: 293 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Ashes for Breakfast - US
Ashes for Breakfast - UK
Ashes for Breakfast - Canada
  • Translated and with a Preface by Michael Hofmann
  • Selected poems from the collections originally published as: Grauzone morgens, Schädelbasislektion, Falten und Fallen, Nach den Satiren, and Erklärte Nacht
  • Some of these poems have been published in English-language periodicals, including The New Yorker, Times Literary Supplement, and the London Review of Books
  • Note: the US (FSG) edition is bilingual, containing both the German originals as well as the English translations, but the UK (Faber) edition IS NOT !

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Our Assessment:

B : fine selection -- but translation issues ...

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 29/1/2005 James Fenton
The Independent . 10/11/2006 Philip Oltermann
The LA Times A 9/10/2005 Benjamin Lytal
The New Republic A 5/11/2008 Helen Vendler
The NY Times Book Rev. A 8/5/2005 Melanie Rehak
San Francisco Chronicle . 6/3/2005 David Hellman
TLS . 31/3/2006 Jamie McKendrick

  From the Reviews:
  • "I do my best, when reading in this volume, not to use the Hofmann versions simply as a crib for the German, but to read them for their own sake first. The translator anticipates, and he is right, that printing the two texts creates its problems(.....) This is particularly the case when, as happens not seldom, Hofmann has used an odd word or idiom that provokes one into wondering what the equivalent could have been in German." - James Fenton, The Guardian

  • "Grünbein loves to jump from one register to another -- one moment he is the street poet of Berlin, the next he comes over all marble and ancient philosophy. In English, Grünbein in public-intellectual-mode is as much of a mouthful as in the German -- but the more colloquial passages never quite seem to get off their teutonic stilts. At times, Hofmann's phrases ring with the triumphalism of the accomplished bilinguist rather than with their proper music." - Philip Oltermann, The Independent

  • "Ashes for Breakfast is a major translation, exceptional for a poet in midcareer -- a translation motivated, probably, by interest in Grünbein's striking attitude toward evolving German guilt over World War II. (...) The British poet Michael Hofmann's translation is excellent (if liberally idiomatic)." - Benjamin Lytal, The Los Angeles Times

  • "There is hardly a page here that does not contain a real poem, out of Grünbein by Hofmann, a poem "real" enough -- in emotion, in cadence, in imagination -- to make a reader's hair stand on end." - Helen Vendler, The New Republic

  • "Ashes for Breakfast is a brilliantly layered book, which, despite Grünbein's obsessive recitation of his main themes, never become repetitive thanks to its almost organic sensibility." - Melanie Rehak, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Grünbein is a vital new voice in the world of poetry, but his poems require a certain amount of effort to be truly appreciated. Many of them require several readings before yielding their full graceful and even profound significance. Grünbein does not offer the pedestrian pleasures of, say, a Billy Collins, but like Joseph Brodsky, to whom he is often compared, he is a serious and focused poet whose work has a depth that deserves our attention. If given the chance, this momentous volume will offer many pleasures." - David Hellman, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Grünbein's later poems consolidate and develop many of these openings and potentials, even if perhaps they never quite achieve the freshness of the outset." - Jamie McKendrick, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Long overdue, Ashes for Breakfast is the first collection of Durs Grunbein's poetry to be published in English translation. Though still young, Grünbein has been one of the leading Germans poets for over a decade -- certainly ever since he received the most prestigious German literary prize, the Georg Büchner Prize in 1995.
       Ashes for Breakfast offers selections from five of his poetry collections, omitting only the playful epitaph collection, Den Teuren Toten, and the recent Cartesian epic, Vom Schnee. The range, and Grünbein's rapid evolution as poet, is certainly evident in this generous selection.
       Born and raised in East Germany, Grünbein's first collection, Grauzone morgens ('Mornings in the Grayzone'), was published when it still was the GDR -- though the collection only appeared in West Germany. Whereas the poems in later collections are more strictly formal, in some of these the words are literally all over the place. Among them are a series of 'Monological Poems', as well as poems titled: No.3', 'No.8', and 'Untitled', while others promise something more specific, such as a 'Reason to be temporarily in New York'. Descriptive, the poems mostly loosely unfold and leap unexpectedly to different images or thoughts.
       Quickly, translator Hofmann's presence is felt: the "Kino des Status Quo" becomes "BBBBBB films", "Landungspontons strudelnd in Seenot" suddenly gets an unignorable -- and doubly emphatic -- political subtext rendered as "pontoons were adrift Mayday Mayday", while in one instance when he can't choose between meanings he offers both:

Da war diese grüne Hülle der Zahlungs-
There was this green carapace of bank-
       ability or do I mean creditworthiness
       It's one way of conveying the ambiguity of a term -- give both translations -- but it is a lot extra to shove into the poem (and as the 'I' here the translator surely imposes himself much too much on the poem).
       Grunbein's playing with language, and especially the tight leash he keeps it on -- these are poems that are precise and concise -- poses obvious problems for the translator. The approachable 'Untitled' sounds fine in English too, beginning, for example:
A new poem began
on this foggy morning
of the anniversary of García
Lorca's murder
       But "foggy morning" is only the best one can do for the German "Nebelmorgen" that Grünbein chose (rather than the "nebliger Morgen", as the literal translation of Hofmann's English would have it), and the anniversary of the murder lacks the direct power of the original "Ermordungstag". Hofmann does reasonably well with these choices, but other -- simpler ones, one might think -- are more questionable.
       '"Accept it !"' begins:
Soviele Tage in denen nichts sich
       erreignete, nichts als die
knappen Manöver des Winters
       Unaccountably then Hofmann does not repeat the "nichts" ('nothing'), offering instead:
So many days and nothing
       happening, only
sketchy winter maneuvers
       Elsewhere Hofmann chooses to provide more translation than is perhaps called for, for example in translating what Grünbein leaves in the original:
Nicht erst seit Vico oder Machiavelli sind
       I due occhi della storia blind.
That says it wasn't Vico or Machiavelli
       Who said history is blind in both eyes.
       Hofmann admits in his Preface that: "There are many poems and places where Grünbein is too skilful, too euphoric, and too rhetorical for me to follow him". This is reflected first in the choice of what poems are translated, but then also the translations themselves; Hofmann offers some explanations for how he approached them, but there's only so much satisfaction to be found in that. Fortunately, the collection is bi-lingual, the unadulterated originals facing Hofmann's versions
       Among the poem-choices Hofmann makes is to take from the collection Schädelbasislektion only one long cycle, 'Portrait des Künstlers als junger Grenzhund' (which he elaborates into: 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Border Dog (not Collie)'). Offering only this cycle misses the transitional quality of the collection, with poems written from the late 1980s through German reunification, but the impressive series of canine-portraits cum cultural-political commentary, artfully but accessibly expressed (without the denser ambition of some of the later cycles) is an obvious choice for a foreign audience.
       Hofamnn offers a generous portion of Falten und Fallen, the bulk of the poems 'Variations on No Theme'. Starker, more physical, the variations make clearer some of Grünbein's obsessions, though strikingly the shades, shadows, and talk of death are still very much focussed on the present, whereas in his later poetry Grünbein leans much more on the classical and historical, and much of the death and afterlife-talk comes with classical allusions.
       Death and history mix especially successfully in the selections from Nach den Satiren, and several of the poems address specifically German history (with a focus on Grünbein's native Dresden), from Germanicus's campaign to the Elbe to the firebombing of Dresden. Including the 'thirteen fantasies' of the title-poem, 'Ashes for Breakfast' (beginning cheerfully: "And then comes the fun part of dying"), it includes several of the most powerful poems and cycles, including 'Europe after the Last Ruins'.
       Erklärte Nacht is then only represented by a brief excerpt, two fuller poems, 'Berlin Posthumous' and 'Arcadia for All', perhaps giving the misleading impression of a more specific approach that Grünbein might have moved towards; in fact, the actual collection is remarkably varied. The title-poem from that collection, making the claim: "Was bleibt, sind Gedichte" ("What remains, are poems"), is in its summary a regrettable omission from Hofmann's collection.

       Ashes for Breakfast is a good introduction to the work of Durs Grünbein, the selection of poems at least broadly representative. His work poses huge problems for a translator, and Hofmann's approach isn't entirely satisfactory -- though at least he has clearly thrown himself into this with considerable energy and quite a bit of abandon. The results can be hit or miss (and some of the English renderings miss Grünbein's qualities by quite a wide margin), but Hofmann is certainly sympathetic to this verse, and that does come across. With the German originals at hand (only in the US edition ! the Faber edition does NOT include the originals) to compare Hofmann's versions it is easier to accept (or rather overlook) some of the questionable choices -- though readers who have only English don't have it quite so easy.
       Certainly recommended, but handle with care.

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Ashes for Breakfast: Reviews: Durs Grunbein: Other books by Durs Grünbein under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Durs Grünbein was born in Dresden in 1962. He has won many literary prizes, including the 1995 Georg Büchner Prize.

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© 2005-2008 the complete review

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