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Genesis. The Making of Literary Works from Homer to Christa Wolf

11 December 2020

Honorary Fellow Professor Jim Reed (Taylor Professor of German Emeritus) tells us about his impressively wide-ranging new book, Genesis. The Making of Literary Works from Homer to Christa Wolf, published by Camden House / Boydell & Brewer.

‘This is a book I’d planned to write from way back. I’ve always approached literary works through the circumstances of their creation – personal, social, traditional, political, where author and work are at the centre of all those pressures: a traditional (it’s fair to say a typical Oxford) humanities approach. It’s consciously not in line with negative twentieth-century theory, but still persuasive to good sense, especially now that the once so influential ‘theory’ has just about exhausted its shelf-life.

‘I set out to offer an account of the creative process, illustrated by outstanding examples from more than just my professional sphere of German. That meant claiming the rights of the Common Reader (a term of Dr Johnson’s) so as to take in Homer, the Bible, Montaigne and Shakespeare as a preliminary to some of the most prominent German writers – Goethe (he needed three chapters), Georg Büchner, Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Bertolt Brecht, Paul Celan, ending with Christa Wolf. This wasn’t research exploring a new field but a new look at long familiar works, you might say very much a fin de carrière project.

‘Yet in a way working on a succession of different writers was like going back to undergraduate days, when you were sent off to read up and write about a new author every week. It was as enjoyable as ever, though each ‘week’ was now around three months. With a first general chapter, it all took three years.

‘Problems? My American publisher was worried that at first all my authors were men, but I was able to renew an old interest in Christa Wolf, and, as the chronologically latest of my case-studies, she has a tactfully prominent place in the book’s title. It hadn’t been easy to find a publisher in the first place. Some were put off by the broad range of subjects, especially as some of them were being treated by a declared non-specialist. But in the end I had a happy landing with the New York firm Camden House, now part of the British company Boydell & Brewer.

‘Regrets? Any number, since every great work has a genesis, and there were two or three pipe-dreams. But you can’t cover them all. I could only try to convey through a few examples something of the live processes that are always at work in literature. With some awareness of that, we read differently. I do, though, especially regret not doing a chapter on Pascal’s Pensées, the classic case of a work left unfinished at the author’s death. But it would probably have taken more than one of my ‘weeks’ to work my way back into the seventeenth-century theological world that I’d visited for half a term as an undergraduate. So on the French front I had to be content with Montaigne, the other experience of that undergraduate term, indeed the experience of a lifetime, and much the preferred mind of the two. But that’s another story.’