Youth Without God:Introductionby Christopher Hampton
Ödön von Horváth’s 1937 novel Jugend Ohne Gott (Youth Without God) was the indirect cause of his extravagantly bizarre death.
Essentially a man of the theatre, Horváth had no doubt grown dispirited at the fact that very few of the nine plays he had written since the advent of the Nazi government in 1933 had reached the stage; indeed, one of the best of them, Glaube Liebe Hoffnung (Faith, Hope and Charity), which was in rehearsal in Berlin when the new regime came to power, had been immediately suppressed, before it even had a chance to open. So it’s no surprise that he eventually turned to writing novels (there was another, Ein Kind Unserer Zeit (A Child of Our Time) that came hard on the heels of the first). The instant enormous success of Jugend Ohne Gott must have come as a particularly welcome surprise to a man in the throes of extricating himself from post-Anschluss Vienna (where he had moved, from Germany, in 1933); and his trip to Paris to meet Robert Siodmak (one of the many German film-makers on his way to Hollywood) to discuss making a film based on the book must have been undertaken with considerable relief and optimism. Before setting out from Amsterdam, however, incurably superstitious, Horváth had consulted a clairvoyant; she became extremely excited and told him that waiting for him in Paris was the greatest adventure of his life. Apparently, the lunch with Siodmak went extremely well; afterwards, at Siodmak’s enthusiastic insistence, Horváth went to a cinema on the Champs Élysées to see the latest sensation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. As he walked back to his hotel, meditating perhaps on the future of the animated film, a thunderstorm broke out; Horváth chose to shelter beneath a chestnut tree in the Avenue Marigny, a branch of which fell on his head, killing him instantaneously. He was only 36.
An especially unusual feature of this most unusual life-story is that, almost alone among the major German-speaking writers, Horváth chose not to go into immediate exile when the Nazis came in. There’s no clear indication of why he decided to stay: “It’s going to be a very interesting time,” he wrote to a friend, “soon, you’ll see, there’ll be subjects lying around in the street” – and it’s my theory that he couldn’t tear himself away from the grotesque idiocies and brutal illogicalities of a moronic and truculent regime – we perhaps have an inkling of how that feels today. Still, staying to observe everything at first hand was not without its difficulties: readers of his biography in the ’70s were dismayed to discover that he had joined (as presumably one had to, to be able to pursue his profession) the Reichsverband deutscher Schriftsteller, the Nazi writers’ union. His background was impeccably anti-Nazi: in the twenties, he’d been in court for brawling with fascists, at least two of his plays (Sladek and Italienische Nacht (Italian Night)) are straightforward attacks on the Right and his pre-Nazi plays all bear witness to the growing political dangers threatening Germany and Austria. No writer since Flaubert had such a feel for the ignorant clichés of the prejudiced and self-righteous: so the thirties under Hitler must have provided him with an irresistible blank canvas. But the Anschluss, the demented enthusiasm with which Hitler was welcomed in Vienna, must have been the last straw and he left for Amsterdam with his girlfriend (his wife, he always maintained, he had only married to supply with a Hungarian passport, so that she, in turn, could make her escape). In Amsterdam were the émigré publishers Allert de Lange; they published the novel in the autumn of 1937. In a draft of an introduction, later abandoned, Horváth wrote: “Since this book is about ideals, it’s bound to be widely banned. It’s a book against the illiterates, that’s to say the people who know very well how to read and write, but don’t know what they’re writing and don’t understand what they’re reading. I’ve written a book for the young because… out of the stupidities and crap of their predecessors, a new youth is emerging. My book is dedicated to them!” He was expelled from the Nazi writers’ union for never paying his subscription.
Thomas Mann wrote to Carl Zuckmeyer to say he thought Jugend Ohne Gott was the best novel of recent years – and he wrote to Horváth to ask how he had come by such a wealth of inside knowledge. It’s not known what, if anything, Horváth said in reply, but he must have been gratified not only by this response but also by the enthusuastic praise of Hermann Hesse, Franz Werfel and Joseph Roth, who, in a review, called Horváth “the most clear-sighted chronicler of his age”. A French critic, Jean-Claude François, said he was the black-box (flight recorder) of the Third Reich.
Horváth had wanted to come to Britain, but the Home Office, no more enlightened then than now, refused him a visa. So he was no doubt on his way to America, where, in fact, I imagined a life for him in my play Tales from Hollywood. I’ve always been moved by what he wrote to his best friend Franz Theodor Csokor a few weeks before his death: “The main thing, my dear old friend, is work! And furthermore, work! And once again, work! Our life is work, without it there can be no life. It makes no difference whether it brings us triumph or even attracts attention – it makes not the slightest difference, as long as our work remains dedicated to truth and justice. As long as we stay afloat, we’ll always have friends and we’ll always have a home, because we carry it with us – our home is the imagination.”
It still seems to me an exemplary credo for a writer.
A note on the language: in the original 1939 English translation (by R. Wills Thomas and curiously titled The Age of the Fish), Chapter One is called “Niggers”: this is also the last word of the novel. Elsewhere, Thomas has translated the same German word (‘Neger’) as “Negroes”. As the use of this word in its most offensive form is more or less the inciting event of the story, I have retained it as a term used by the Nazi characters. Elsewhere, at moments of officialese, I have also used the word “Negroes”; but, in addition, when the central character, the Teacher, uses the same expression, I have translated it as “Africans”.