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the Complete Review
the complete review - dialogues


Dialoge zwischen Unsterblichen,
Lebendigen und Toten

Hans Magnus Enzensberger

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To purchase Dialoge zwischen Unsterblichen, Lebendigen und Toten

Title: Dialoge zwischen Unsterblichen, Lebendigen und Toten
Author: Hans Magnus Enzensberger
Genre: Dialogues
Written: 2004
Length: 214 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Dialoge zwischen Unsterblichen, ... - Deutschland
  • Dialoge zwischen Unsterblichen, Lebendigen und Toten has not been translated into English.
  • Several of these dialogues have been published previously

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Our Assessment:

B+ : entertaining and clever

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 30/9/2004 Friedmar Apel
Süddeutsche Zeitung . 5/10/2004 Christoph Bartmann

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ausgespielter Anachronismus als Lob der Differenz und als Mittel zum heiteren Lebensgenuß ist auch ein Leitprinzip der Dialoge, die in der Tradition Diderots dem "Hasenherz des Lesers" einiges zumuten." - Friedmar Apel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

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:

       Dialoge zwischen Unsterblichen, Lebendigen und Toten contains eight dialogues (or sets of dialogues) 'between immortals, the living, and the dead' that Hans Magnus Enzensberger has written over the past quarter of a century or so (only two are published here for the first time). Several are closely based on the material of others: a set of two dialogues is a reworking of pieces from Alexander Herzen's From the Other Shore (which Tom Stoppard also used in his trilogy, The Coast of Utopia), while an early one is a scene after Lu Xun, about the classical Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi (who famously didn't know whether he had dreamt he was a butterfly, or was a butterfly dreaming he was a man who dreamt he was a butterfly).
       Like Milan Kundera, Enzensberger is a great Diderot-fan, and several of the dialogues are variations on the man. One offers five conversations on Jacques le fataliste, a very Kundera-like defence and tribute to this work, specifically as the forerunner of the modern novel, sabotaging the genre (as it existed at that time) in order to renew it. Diderot und das dunkle Ei is an interview -- the interviewer a contemporary writer, familiar with Diderot's legacy (though it's his small tape-recorder that most fascinates and disturbs the 18th century author), Enzensberger inventing Diderot's responses by (re-)using his own words.
       Anachronism is a significant tool in these dialogues -- obviously so in the Diderot-interview, where 20th century literally meets 18th, but even more so in the book's centrepiece, Nieder mit Goethe ! ('Down with Goethe !' -- subtitled: Eine Liebeserklärung ('A Declaration of Love')). It is presented as a TV-talkshow -- Charlie Rose meets Jerry Springer (intellectual content, but looking for the lowest common denominator -- and some on-stage friction). None of the figures on the stage are real, but almost all their comments are taken from those of dozens of Goethe's contemporaries. And while the subject is the great author, his name is never once mentioned. (He is said to have been invited, but declined to come.) Amusingly, Enzensberger even offers commercial breaks, taking anachronism to absurd lengths such as Spanish flies being flogged as a 19th-century Viagra, with pretty much the same approach and lines.
       Anachronism is the approach of choice because, as Enzensberger clearly demonstrates, Goethe himself was apart from his time, himself an anachronism, misunderstood, suspiciously regarded, his talent and worth widely doubted. A brief afterword Über den Anachronismus ('About anachronism') explains why Enzensberger believes these fast-paced (and relentlessly forward-looking) times need anachronism as "Antidot ihrere Zukunfts-Sucht" ("antidote to its future-obsession"). The artist and poet, specifically, is among the few who often stand apart from the present, focussed not on it but on something timeless.
       (Enzensberger also points out that the Goethe-material is especially rewarding because there is such a detailed written record: a day-by-day and even hour-by-hour record left behind by many of the actors of the time in their voluminous correspondence with one another. Events are recorded and fixed in such detail as at almost no other time in history.)
       There are also purely invented dialogues: one on luxury-consumption, and a more elaborate one, Ohne Uns ('Without us' -- subtitled: Ein Totengespräch ('A conversation of the dead')). The latter is set in the near future in a military camp in Malaysia. Philipp is a sixty year-old former banker, Thomas a nearly fifty year-old former terrorist and drug-courier. They are prisoners, cut off from society except for a television set (when the power doesn't go). The world is changing around them: on TV they follow an uprising of the 'Wandler' ('wanderers'), people taking to the streets for no specific reason. Ideology or faith barely matter any more: as Philipp explains: "Die glauben, ohne zu wissen an wen und woran" ('They believe, without knowing in who and what'). Philipp and Thomas' old beliefs barely matter either, neither in their own circumstances nor in this distant world at large: one hilarious scene has them denouncing each other's old mantras ("London Interbank Offering Rate !" and the like Thomas spits out, while Philipp retorts with the names of revolutionary groups). It's a hopeless dystopia, darkening in the distance, even as they live in their own small hell.

       Enzensberger has a nice way with words, and he's particularly good at using those of others in his dialogues: the Goethe talk-show is great fun, the Diderot-pieces excellent. The dialogue -- not quite a play, not quite a scene and encounter presented in prose -- is an unusual form, but this variety of dialogues shows some of the potential of the form. Certainly, he uses it to generally very good effect. An enjoyable collection, with more than a few moments that leave one mulling over the issues he's raised.

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Dialoge zwischen Unsterblichen, Lebendigen und Toten: Reviews: Hans Magnus Enzensberger: Other books by Hans Magnus Enzensberger under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       German author Hans Magnus Enzensberger was born in 1929. He is best-known as a poet and essayist.

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