Travel literature review: The Bells in Their Silence

The Bells in Their Silence by Michael Gorra

Rating: 4 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark Broadhead

Michael Gorra's The Bells in Their Silence (travels through Germany) is not a typical travel book, but the author suggests that it is typical of post-war German travel literature.

It has been said that Goethe fathered the great German philosophers of the 19th century by the awe he instilled in his descendants. They felt he had achieved all the honour that could be achieved in the written arts (plays, novels, letters, etc) so they devoted themselves to philosophy instead. Like Adorno, who felt that poetry was impossible after Auschwitz, Gorra finds German travel literature impossible - or at least not the usual contemporary travel literature with its 'sense of footloose freedom that so often makes both the writing and the journey itself seem a diversion from one's actual life'. Even when Gorra's book veers into travel lit territory, it seems more like a reference check for Germany - hard worker, stickler for details, prone to violent outbursts - than a collection of travel stories.

It is work that takes the American Gorra to Hamburg, where his wife is teaching medieval history for a year. The book reports on their visits to medieval churches, but the majority of the book's German sights are limited to Hamburg, Weimar, Berlin and Lübeck. Even then these are not your normal travel anecdotes. There is a seriousness to writing about Germany. 'At Buchenwald you may meet various ghosts, but you are not apt to have an amusing human encounter of the sort that can elsewhere yield an anecdote - at least you hope you won't.'

Occasionally he does mention German everyday characteristics, like the ubiquitous square bed pillows or how retail staff avoid placing change in customers' hands, though in general Gorra struggles with the travel literature genre. Nevertheless, it is this struggle that makes the book interesting; every cultural insight comes with pages of debate and doubt.

Of course, Gorra is an American literary academic, so one would also expect his writing to be theoretical and historical. And his book is similar to the work of another literary academic: the great German 'travel writer' W. G. Sebald, whom he mentions approvingly. So it comes as no surprise in the last chapter of The Bells in Their Silence when Gorra becomes very Sebaldian. The eponymous bells reside, where they fell after a British bombing raid in 1942, in the rebuilt Lübeck cathedral. They are approached wonderfully by Gorra via Thomas Mann's autobiographical novel Buddenbrooks, Gorra's own family history, and the tourists who come to visit it. It is a fitting closure to the book.

Probably not the best primer for a trip to Germany, but a good book to read once you come back and you're in a thoughtful mood.

Mark Broadhead is the Research Librarian at Lonely Planet's Melbourne office.

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