Do Stay, Giraffe

19/03/2023

     To understand Wolfgang Borchert’s short story, 'Do Stay, Giraffe', one can usefully think of Surrealism, the Absurd and Trummerliteratur. Yet at the same time, this is a very simple story to describe. One evening a woman asks a man on the station platform if he will give her a cigarette, they share a few words, they even kiss, then go their separate ways. She is surely a prostitute and we can assume he is tall, or a lot taller than she is as she nicknames him Giraffe. It is a brief encounter and perhaps hardly a story at all. If many a classic tale insists on a twist, and a modern story on a thematic subtext, then what does 'Do Stay, Giraffe' offer? Is it just a fragment, possibly a prose poem or what now would be called flash fiction, a work like ‘Chapter V’ by Hemingway, ‘Give it Up!’ by Kafka and ‘Sticks’ by George Saunders?

     But the story is also perplexing and thus complex and this is where surrealism, the Absurd and the term Trummerliteratur might help us. One of the key Dadaists/Surrealists was Andre Breton, who during WWI used his medical training to fathom the experiences of traumatised soldiers, with the aid of Freudian methods. He tried to understand what couldn’t be immediately rationally comprehended. And part of that incomprehension didn’t just rest on the fractured minds of the recovering soldiers; it was also a broader problem of societal collapse. As David Piper said of Dadaism: “the orgy of destruction that convulsed the Western world between 1914 and 1918 checked the progressive spirit that had animated the arts in the years just before…” Piper adds: “the most significant movement took the form of a revolt against the culture and the corrupt, complacent values (many felt) that had encouraged the suicidal massacre of trench warfare.” (The Illustrated History of Art) If Breton and others could claim that Surrealism was an insistent break with rationality, to see that after the war, the world couldn’t easily be put back together again, then imagine how much more broken must the belief in reason and logic have been after a second World War within just over twenty years of the first? How many more shell-shocked and traumatised people were there after another war and how could literature find a way to understand modern society, just as Breton had tried to comprehend those shell-shocked patients? 

      This is where the Absurd meets the Surrealistic. The imagery throughout the story suggests a painterly nightmare as the piece offers us impossible images or images that suggest the possible when generated from a mind in extreme angst. “He stood on the wind-howling night-empty platform in the great greysooted moon-lonely hall” the story begins. The German language might be full of compound nouns including such weird wonders as sorrow bacon (das Zahnfleisch) to describe someone who has put on weight through comfort eating, or tooth meat (der Kummerspeck) to mean chewing gum. But wind-howling and night-empty are compounding the meaningless as the narrator adds “And void, void, void. But if you go further you are lost.” We will say more about that meaninglessness in a moment but other surrealist images include when “a night train yowled through the station. And suddenly tore off. Its miserly, shimmering tail light oozed away in embarrassment into darkness.” Near the end of the story, we have “the reptile-eyed windows looked dead, as though glazed with a milky film. The curtains, sleep heavy secretly breathing eyelids, billowed gently.” This is imagery from an irrational hell, and the story might bring to mind Magritte’s Decalcomania (those curtains) or Dali’s melting watch. But though the story is in the third person, its surrealism is given a subjective hue, as though the narrator comprehends the world the giraffe is finding his way around in after the war. It is there when the narrator says “then there were hands, faces and lips. But all the faces are bleeding, he thought, bleeding from the mouth, and the hand grasped his bony arm. Then there was a groan and a steel helmet fell and an eye broke.” 

    If Surrealism was heavily a reaction to the first World War, the Absurd was a reaction to the second. Though Martin Esslin in The Theatre of the Absurd could trace its history back to, amongst others, Lewis Carroll, Georg Buchner and the Flaubert of Bouvard and Pecuchet, it was vitally associated with the post-war years. “World War II was the catalyst that finally brought the Theatre of the Absurd to life,” Jerome B. Crabb says. “The global nature of this conflict and the resulting trauma of living under threat of nuclear annihilation put into stark perspective the essential precariousness of human life. Suddenly, one did not need to be an abstract thinker in order to be able to reflect upon absurdity: the experience of absurdity became part of the average person's daily existence.” (Theatre Database) The Absurd of course wasn’t exclusive to the theatre, even if it appeared to be its natural home. Camus famously wrote The Myth of Sisyphus with its remark that “…at any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face”, and we might think of the narrator’s claim in Beckett’s Malone Dies, that “what matters is to eat and excrete. Dish and pot, dish and pot. These are the poles.” 

     Borchert’s images are surreal but his tone is absurd if we take absurdity to be associated more with emptiness and the surreal with the irrational. The Absurd is there in that line about the void and going further and getting lost. But if that were true of many countries after WWII it was surely more so in the countries that lost the war and the country that had so provocatively started it - and acted so atrociously during it. There are rarely good deeds during conflict but had the Germans taken the misdeeds to a new level? Post-War German writing could not have been other than a reckoning. There hadn’t just been a war Germany started and lost; they had fought it too on the most vicious terms, exemplified in Oradour-sur-Glane, the French village still preserved to reflect the gravity of the brutality, one “…unique in Europe: a fully preserved, ruined village that was the site of the worst Nazi massacre of civilians carried out on French soil. Six hundred and 42 people, including 247 children, were shot or burnt alive on 10 June 1944 in an unexplained act of barbarity.” (Guardian) And who can put aside the millions of Jews who had been murdered in the pursuit of an Aryan ideal? The country’s now-dead leader became a byword for evil and German citizens were so poor that they were enormously reliant on the nations they had tried to defeat for financial aid. Heinrich Boll, Sigfried Lenz, Gunter Grass and Wolfgang Borchert were amongst the figures in this post-war attempt to comprehend the war and its aftermath, and a term was created for it: Trummerliteratur, with Borchert one of its most important exponents. 

   The term translates as rubble literature and we find numerous examples of it in the cinema as well, post-war works in Italy and Germany, showing just how much damage had been done by bombing. If the metonym for WWI resided in the trenches; in WWII it manifested itself in cities gutted by bombs dropped from the sky. Germany of course didn’t drop the biggest, which was reserved by the Americans for the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Britain destroyed far more German cities than Germany destroyed British ones, none more so than Dresden — which was associated no longer with its Saxonic significance but as a blitzed conurbation. Yet no nation more than Germany needed to question itself after WWII and thus a movement was born. The first broadcasting of Wolfgang Borchert's radio play The Outside Man on, February 13, 1947, as Group 47, was an important event, with the term rubble literature covering the state of Germany, and Group 47 the aesthetic shift that was needed. Borchert would surely have become central to this group that included Boll, Walser and Grass but also Ingeborg Bachmann, Ilse Aichenger, and Wolfdietrich Schnurre if he hadn’t died the same year it was created. Thus, he is associated with rubble literature exclusively, and alongside Boll was seen as its main practitioner. Here was writing that was inside the chaos, trying to find a form to reflect a feeling of homelessness within a nation that had lost all self-respect. But while Boll has often been viewed as post-war Germany's literary moral arbiter, Borchert offered a different perspective. R.E. Sackett says, “scholars and critics often characterize Boll as a moralist. The major tendency has been to use moral terms both for interpretation of his work and for admiration of him as a person.” (‘Germans, Guilt and the Second Threshold of Heinrich Boll’) Boll was a writer who chronicled not just the rubble years but the economic miracle of the fifties, the lingering presence of Naziism after the war, and the terrorist years into the seventies. Borchert died at 26, living only long enough to explore the immediate aftermath, and did so while rejecting the realism Boll usually incorporated. It is why we can invoke Surrealism and the Absurd to help understand his work, to try and make sense of fiction that cannot immediately offer easy comprehension. Introducing, Borchert’s work, Stephen Spender says “Borchert’s post-war Germany is a universal apocalypse seen in the language of symbolic horror of the ruin of German cities. For him, it was simply the affirmation by mankind of a spirit of destruction in the world.” (The Man Outside) That irrationality the surrealists insisted upon after seeing what reason could create out of industrialised warfare, became the absurd awareness that it was as though there was an absent meaning in humankind that could lead to such destruction. Borchert had the immediate imagery of that devastation in the rubble of the cities he saw, but he also insisted on finding a language that would try to find a new expression for such primitive instincts. 

  Borchert wasn’t just writing about the war but about a manifestation the war exemplified. Here he is in a short story, Elbe: “dropsical human wrecks, death-yearning living creatures, wave-knowing, wave-loving, water corpses, all farewell and finality to the lonely brass scream of the narrow-winged seal-gulls.” It is broken language for broken bodies, many broken by WWII. But these were bodies there to be broken by Borchert’s reckoning, a reckoning that many writers after the war in Germany wished indeed to reckon with. Yet let us not pretend that such damage long preceded the war and would continue in different manifestations long after it. The list is long - Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, Syria, and of course now the war in Ukraine. The broken bodies keep piling up and writers still have to find a form to comprehend why they continue to do so. Some might see it in a lust for power; others in a greed that insists munitions must be made and must be used. The writer often works with the consequences and not the motivations, and one could do worse than look at Borchert’s work to see what the fractured repercussions look like.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Do Stay, Giraffe

To understand Wolfgang Borchert's short story, 'Do Stay, Giraffe', one can usefully think of Surrealism, the Absurd and Trummerliteratur. Yet at the same time, this is a very simple story to describe. One evening a woman asks a man on the station platform if he will give her a cigarette, they share a few words, they even kiss, then go their separate ways. She is surely a prostitute and we can assume he is tall, or a lot taller than she is as she nicknames him Giraffe. It is a brief encounter and perhaps hardly a story at all. If many a classic tale insists on a twist, and a modern story on a thematic subtext, then what does 'Do Stay, Giraffe' offer? Is it just a fragment, possibly a prose poem or what now would be called flash fiction, a work like 'Chapter V' by Hemingway, 'Give it Up!' by Kafka and 'Sticks' by George Saunders?

But the story is also perplexing and thus complex and this is where surrealism, the Absurd and the term Trummerliteratur might help us. One of the key Dadaists/Surrealists was Andre Breton, who during WWI used his medical training to fathom the experiences of traumatised soldiers, with the aid of Freudian methods. He tried to understand what couldn't be immediately rationally comprehended. And part of that incomprehension didn't just rest on the fractured minds of the recovering soldiers; it was also a broader problem of societal collapse. As David Piper said of Dadaism: "the orgy of destruction that convulsed the Western world between 1914 and 1918 checked the progressive spirit that had animated the arts in the years just before..." Piper adds: "the most significant movement took the form of a revolt against the culture and the corrupt, complacent values (many felt) that had encouraged the suicidal massacre of trench warfare." (The Illustrated History of Art) If Breton and others could claim that Surrealism was an insistent break with rationality, to see that after the war, the world couldn't easily be put back together again, then imagine how much more broken must the belief in reason and logic have been after a second World War within just over twenty years of the first? How many more shell-shocked and traumatised people were there after another war and how could literature find a way to understand modern society, just as Breton had tried to comprehend those shell-shocked patients?

This is where the Absurd meets the Surrealistic. The imagery throughout the story suggests a painterly nightmare as the piece offers us impossible images or images that suggest the possible when generated from a mind in extreme angst. "He stood on the wind-howling night-empty platform in the great greysooted moon-lonely hall" the story begins. The German language might be full of compound nouns including such weird wonders as sorrow bacon (das Zahnfleisch) to describe someone who has put on weight through comfort eating, or tooth meat (der Kummerspeck) to mean chewing gum. But wind-howling and night-empty are compounding the meaningless as the narrator adds "And void, void, void. But if you go further you are lost." We will say more about that meaninglessness in a moment but other surrealist images include when "a night train yowled through the station. And suddenly tore off. Its miserly, shimmering tail light oozed away in embarrassment into darkness." Near the end of the story, we have "the reptile-eyed windows looked dead, as though glazed with a milky film. The curtains, sleep heavy secretly breathing eyelids, billowed gently." This is imagery from an irrational hell, and the story might bring to mind Magritte's Decalcomania (those curtains) or Dali's melting watch. But though the story is in the third person, its surrealism is given a subjective hue, as though the narrator comprehends the world the giraffe is finding his way around in after the war. It is there when the narrator says "then there were hands, faces and lips. But all the faces are bleeding, he thought, bleeding from the mouth, and the hand grasped his bony arm. Then there was a groan and a steel helmet fell and an eye broke."

If Surrealism was heavily a reaction to the first World War, the Absurd was a reaction to the second. Though Martin Esslin in The Theatre of the Absurd could trace its history back to, amongst others, Lewis Carroll, Georg Buchner and the Flaubert of Bouvard and Pecuchet, it was vitally associated with the post-war years. "World War II was the catalyst that finally brought the Theatre of the Absurd to life," Jerome B. Crabb says. "The global nature of this conflict and the resulting trauma of living under threat of nuclear annihilation put into stark perspective the essential precariousness of human life. Suddenly, one did not need to be an abstract thinker in order to be able to reflect upon absurdity: the experience of absurdity became part of the average person's daily existence." (Theatre Database) The Absurd of course wasn't exclusive to the theatre, even if it appeared to be its natural home. Camus famously wrote The Myth of Sisyphus with its remark that "...at any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face", and we might think of the narrator's claim in Beckett's Malone Dies, that "what matters is to eat and excrete. Dish and pot, dish and pot. These are the poles."

Borchert's images are surreal but his tone is absurd if we take absurdity to be associated more with emptiness and the surreal with the irrational. The Absurd is there in that line about the void and going further and getting lost. But if that were true of many countries after WWII it was surely more so in the countries that lost the war and the country that had so provocatively started it - and acted so atrociously during it. There are rarely good deeds during conflict but had the Germans taken the misdeeds to a new level? Post-War German writing could not have been other than a reckoning. There hadn't just been a war Germany started and lost; they had fought it too on the most vicious terms, exemplified in Oradour-sur-Glane, the French village still preserved to reflect the gravity of the brutality, one "...unique in Europe: a fully preserved, ruined village that was the site of the worst Nazi massacre of civilians carried out on French soil. Six hundred and 42 people, including 247 children, were shot or burnt alive on 10 June 1944 in an unexplained act of barbarity." (Guardian) And who can put aside the millions of Jews who had been murdered in the pursuit of an Aryan ideal? The country's now-dead leader became a byword for evil and German citizens were so poor that they were enormously reliant on the nations they had tried to defeat for financial aid. Heinrich Boll, Sigfried Lenz, Gunter Grass and Wolfgang Borchert were amongst the figures in this post-war attempt to comprehend the war and its aftermath, and a term was created for it: Trummerliteratur, with Borchert one of its most important exponents.

The term translates as rubble literature and we find numerous examples of it in the cinema as well, post-war works in Italy and Germany, showing just how much damage had been done by bombing. If the metonym for WWI resided in the trenches; in WWII it manifested itself in cities gutted by bombs dropped from the sky. Germany of course didn't drop the biggest, which was reserved by the Americans for the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Britain destroyed far more German cities than Germany destroyed British ones, none more so than Dresden which was associated no longer with its Saxonic significance but as a blitzed conurbation. Yet no nation more than Germany needed to question itself after WWII and thus a movement was born. The first broadcasting of Wolfgang Borchert's radio play The Outside Man on, February 13, 1947, as Group 47, was an important event, with the term rubble literature covering the state of Germany, and Group 47 the aesthetic shift that was needed. Borchert would surely have become central to this group that included Boll, Walser and Grass but also Ingeborg Bachmann, Ilse Aichenger, and Wolfdietrich Schnurre if he hadn't died the same year it was created. Thus, he is associated with rubble literature exclusively, and alongside Boll was seen as its main practitioner. Here was writing that was inside the chaos, trying to find a form to reflect a feeling of homelessness within a nation that had lost all self-respect. But while Boll has often been viewed as post-war Germany's literary moral arbiter, Borchert offered a different perspective. R.E. Sackett says, "scholars and critics often characterize Boll as a moralist. The major tendency has been to use moral terms both for interpretation of his work and for admiration of him as a person." ('Germans, Guilt and the Second Threshold of Heinrich Boll') Boll was a writer who chronicled not just the rubble years but the economic miracle of the fifties, the lingering presence of Naziism after the war, and the terrorist years into the seventies. Borchert died at 26, living only long enough to explore the immediate aftermath, and did so while rejecting the realism Boll usually incorporated. It is why we can invoke Surrealism and the Absurd to help understand his work, to try and make sense of fiction that cannot immediately offer easy comprehension. Introducing, Borchert's work, Stephen Spender says "Borchert's post-war Germany is a universal apocalypse seen in the language of symbolic horror of the ruin of German cities. For him, it was simply the affirmation by mankind of a spirit of destruction in the world." (The Man Outside) That irrationality the surrealists insisted upon after seeing what reason could create out of industrialised warfare, became the absurd awareness that it was as though there was an absent meaning in humankind that could lead to such destruction. Borchert had the immediate imagery of that devastation in the rubble of the cities he saw, but he also insisted on finding a language that would try to find a new expression for such primitive instincts.

Borchert wasn't just writing about the war but about a manifestation the war exemplified. Here he is in a short story, Elbe: "dropsical human wrecks, death-yearning living creatures, wave-knowing, wave-loving, water corpses, all farewell and finality to the lonely brass scream of the narrow-winged seal-gulls." It is broken language for broken bodies, many broken by WWII. But these were bodies there to be broken by Borchert's reckoning, a reckoning that many writers after the war in Germany wished indeed to reckon with. Yet let us not pretend that such damage long preceded the war and would continue in different manifestations long after it. The list is long - Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, Syria, and of course now the war in Ukraine. The broken bodies keep piling up and writers still have to find a form to comprehend why they continue to do so. Some might see it in a lust for power; others in a greed that insists munitions must be made and must be used. The writer often works with the consequences and not the motivations, and one could do worse than look at Borchert's work to see what the fractured repercussions look like.


© Tony McKibbin