BOOK REVIEW / The beautiful and damned: 'The Thief and Other Stories' - Georg Heym trs Susan Bennett: Libris, pounds 20 / pounds 5.95

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The Independent Culture
GEORG HEYM's first volume of poetry, Der ewige Tag (Eternal Day), was published in 1911, and like others of his generation he was obsessed by the dream of a Destructor God, of a Giant War that would scour out the infected clutter of imperial Germany. Unlike others, he did not live to die in it. He was skating near Berlin in 1912, went through a hole cut by someone out fishing, and drowned under the ice. He was 25.

What is surprising, for a barely published poet who died so young, is the influence his warped imagery left in the minds of those who survived the war, in such Expressionist films as Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari: this collection of seven stories makes up a core text for anyone interested in the development of 20th-century theatre and cinema.

The most haunting image here is that of a madman smashing children's skulls together with a sound 'like pure thunder' as he sings Luther's Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott. But there are other images, equally horrible: the bubonic plague in the guise of a half-glimpsed old woman, the thief leering through eye-holes he has cut in the Mona Lisa as he dies in a fire, a boy in love with the girl in the next ward having his legs amputated, or the autopsy where doctors work with hammers and bone-saws to release the dead man's dream:

The black blood of death ran over the blue decay of his forehead. It evaporated in the heat in a horrible cloud, and the dissolution of death crawled with its gaudy claws all over him. His skin began to fall apart. His belly grew as white as that of an eel under the greedy fingers of the doctors who dipped their arms elbow-deep in his wet flesh. Decay pulled the man's mouth apart, he seemed to be smiling; he was dreaming of a glorious star, a sweet-smelling summer evening. His decomposing lips trembled, as if touched by a fleeting kiss.

When Heym's first publisher urged him to find something more commercial than these stories, he said he hadn't chosen them, they had chosen him; they have a terrible inevitability that makes them, for all their gothic horror, very beautiful, exorcising evil rather than dabbling in it.