To non-Germanic readers, Heinrich Heine is predominantly known as a poet. His verse has inspired music by Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms, the majority of the inspiration coming from his Book of Songs. In The Harz Journey and Selected Prose, a number of works of prose, some unfinished, some complete, have been collected to show the range, wit, satirical skill and intelligence of Heine throughout his life. Heine can be forgiven if the selection is thematically uneven, coming as they do from nearly three decades of his life. Each piece has its merits, though the whole falls shorter than sum of its parts.
The book opens with The Harz Journey , a piece that was written after a three week walking tour when he was twenty-seven. The Harz Journey is by far the most immediately enjoyable of the six pieces. It is witty and insightful, with clever jokes strewn throughout the text, as well as containing sharp observations on ordinary peasant and university life. The satire is never laugh-out-loud funny; rather, it is more subtle:
'I was also much displeased to see that the multiplication table, which conflicts dangerously with the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, was printed on the last page of the catechism, so that children could be led at an early age into sinful doubts.' The Harz Journey is a collection of loosely stitched together observations and vignettes, with Heine himself noting towards the end that, ' The Harz Journey is and remains a fragment...Individual works may remain fragments, so long as they form a whole when put together.' Inserted within the text are a few poems, which show that in his late twenties, Heine was already skilled with the pen.
Ideas: The Book of Le Grand is much less and much more cohesive. It is confusing and enthralling, a mash of concepts, fragments and ideas which seem to have little in common, though careful rereading shows strong thematic development and continuity. Though the individual snippets - and even the whole, at times - could be taken as dream-like, ephemeral, consisting of the fancies of thought rather than the concreteness of visual description and plot, there is a consistency of expression and strength of intelligence that binds the work together. Ideas can be read as autobiographical in parts, but it can easily be enjoyed as fragments of thought that come together to create a cracked portrait of a man - dare we say Heine? The references are there, of course, but to confuse content with intent would be foolish. 'In all the preceding chapters there is not a single line that is not strictly relevant; I write concisely, avoiding everything superfluous, indeed I often miss out on essential matters' - are we to take this seriously? Yes and no, for then Heine goes on to lament his horrible lack of intellectual quotations in the text, for as everyone knows, a piece is only clever if it refers to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Heine's bite is sharp.
The Town of Lucca is, for me, the weakest piece of the book. The writing is clever - though not funny as before, - the imagery is evocative - though not as appealing as The Harz Journey. In short, The Town of Lucca is interesting, even worthwhile, but coming after the first two pieces, it falls flat. In a similar vein, Differing Conceptions of History is very short, a mere two pages long, so it is difficult to comment on its quality.
On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany is very interesting for the scholar of philosophy and the layman alike. Heine was writing this piece for his French readers, and it is assumed that they had limited knowledge of Germany's history or philosophy. As such, we have a light, popular-minded piece which aims to give an overview, rather than a detailed criticism, of the major themes of philosophy in Germany. Which is quite welcome, all things considered. Heine, the introduction informs us, was aware of Germany's philosophical progress, but he was not a philosophy professor. As such, his depth of knowledge is small, though his intelligence and wit make up for this deficiency. This piece should be considered as a sturdy starting point for the interested reader, as well as an interesting essay from one of the foremost voices in nineteenth-century Germanic literature. Heine gives a lengthy description to goblins and other mythological figures, but he also devotes much time and space to Kant, Luther, Judaism and finally Hegel. He states that 'all these stories illustrate the beliefs and character of the German people,' which goes a long way to understanding what it was Heine was attempting to achieve with this piece. His readers, all French, were as Heine's students, learning the basics of a people in whom he firmly loved, no matter how sharp his criticism became.
The final piece is an unfinished Memoirs. There is too little of this to make an accurate judgement, dangling as it does many unfinished threads and broken thoughts. What is there is admirable and entertaining, but it could have been so much more. Heine, in the last eight years of his life, was bedridden and very sick, which perhaps explains the unfinished aspect of the piece. It is a shame, really, that we are given only forty-odd pages of Memoirs, which serve more as an introduction to the themes he wished to present than an autobiography of Heine. There are details of his extended family - including a rather humorous look at his mother - but little on the man himself.
The Harz Journey and Selected Prose is not cohesive as an overall text, but nor is it meant to be. Rather, it shows a wide spread of Heine's literary talent in prose, virtually ignoring his verse output, which was ample, lasting and profound, both in influence and artistry. What other prose pieces of Heine's remain to be read is unclear, as the majority of his prose works are difficult to find in English translation or, where they can be found, are often of low quality - so sayeth the translator of this book. Recommended highest of all for The Harz Journey, but also worthwhile for the curious snippets of memoir, history and sprawling Ideas, The Harz Journey and Selected Prose is perhaps overall recommended for keen readers interested in studying one of the masters of German literature.