How did you sketch your memoir

Around the world in 80 pages

Heinrich Heine: "Memoirs"

Reviewed by Pieke Biermann

Heinrich Heine, sketched by Ludwig Emil Grimm in 1827 (AP Archive)

Although they are not really his memoirs and Heine's eventful life would hardly fit on 80 pages, the "Memoirs" published in 1854 give an interesting insight into the events of the day. The reader always has to think about the second half of the biography of the real Harry Heinrich Heine. But even if not all allusions are immediately understandable, one can read Heine without any fear of threshold.

Of course these are not really memoirs, and of course the first-person narrator of these memoirs is not identical to the real Heinrich Heine. How should such a long and detoured life, almost 60 years of age, fit into eighty pages? Especially when at least a third of them are devoted to thoughts about God and the world - about powder faces and hair bags, witches and love potions, the soldier's stand, the cleverness of the monkeys and again and again love and women.

Heine published these "memoirs" in 1854, in the last years of his life, which were already doomed to die. And in the preface to an "dear lady" he himself restricts that he could not allow her to read my memoirs "partly out of unfortunate family considerations, partly also because of religious scruples [...]". Then he changes from you to you and promises "the fairy tale of my life".

And of course that is also a fairy tale. So what are we reading, the dear readers now addressed? We read facets of the childhood of a son from a liberal, in two senses well-heeled Jewish home, born in Düsseldorf, trained with Franciscans. The mother of this artistic self is the embodiment of a refreshing career pragmatism fueled by the freedoms of Bonapartist emancipation.

An admired "Eastern great uncle" dominates the boy's dream world and forms the second half of the often hermaphroditic biography of the real Harry Heinrich Heine, who is baptized in 1825 as an "Entrée ticket to European culture". And finally the father, who ironically acknowledges the flirtation with the "Oriental" with the warning that hopefully his uncle does not want to change it one day.

"I have not been shown any such oriental bills of exchange and I have had enough trouble with my own occidental bills of exchange."

One can hardly grasp the real power relations for European Jews in a more powerful way.

This father is by the way a winking little anti-Goethe: As is well known, the "mother" was responsible for the "happy nature". Heine's "father" is "addicted to pleasure, cheerful, rose-humored, in his mind there was always a fair." This is meant as an allusion and just as cheeky as the term "my blessed colleague Wolfgang Goethe".

You don't have to know all the details of contemporary history, you don't have to understand all the allusions. You can read Heine without any fear of threshold, enthusiastic about its elegant linguistic florets, with a bleeding heart about the little cruelties out of which socialization and culture are forged, and chuckling with pleasure about the caustic puns of this Teutonic-French mocking thrush.

It only increases enjoyment if you know something about "Heine and his time". On the other hand - every line from him is pure seduction to take a closer look.

Heinrich Heine: Memoirs
Illustrated by Volker Kriegel, Eichborn
Frankfurt / Main 2005
80 pages 14.90 euros