BOOKS / Many hands make enlightenment work: Peter Forbes meets Germany's poet and controversialist, Hans Magnus Enzensberger

When Hans Magnus Enzensberger came to Brighton to launch his Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, pounds 8.95) and talk with Michael Ignatieff at the Festival of Literature, he spoke about his poems of the Fifties, the years of German reconstruction: 'I felt caged,' he said, 'by the historical situation, you see. I needed to get out of the German cage.'

Traps and cages recur in Enzensberger's work. Some of his best poems show people hopelessly in thrall to forces they can't understand, let alone control: the 33- year-old woman, a child of '68, trapped by trendiness, a pair of spinsters imprisoned in their grey world of an ironmonger's shop. Enzensberger has a passion to probe such traps while reserving the right to fly off at a tangent occasionally.

He tells of the formative influence that 'The Story of Flying Robert' from Struwelpeter had on him. In that story 'All good little girls and boys' are exhorted to 'stay at home and mind their toys', but not Robert, who thinks, 'No, when it pours it is better out of doors'. He is blown away in a storm with his red umbrella and never seen again. 'I remember well, when I was five years old, it had the opposite effect on me - I identified with him'. The story neatly encapsulates both Enzensberger's relish for getting into trouble by heading into the storm, and his desire to get 'anywhere out of this world'.

A slim, bright-eyed 64, who affects a Tom Wolfish line in clothes, Enzensberger is urbanity personified, and he gives the impression of having a great store of amusements laid up as an antidote to Weltschmerz. He spent his first night in Brighton on the Pier. He is a political heavyweight who has retained the light touch.

And he is no stranger to mischief: in 1969 he slipped the German cage to spend a year in Cuba - the result was denunciation by Castro as a CIA agent, Enzensberger's recognition that communism as it existed was no alternative to capitalism, and The Sinking of the Titanic, the long poem sequence that is widely regarded as his greatest poem. In this he achieves what he regards as essential for writing poetry: 'a certain distance from what you're talking about'. In The Titanic and his next collection The Fury of Disappearance, Enzensberger attains a miraculous balance between gravitas and a debonair, fly-away manner. He has always, like Louis MacNeice (a poet he resembles in several respects), valued the moment: 'one way of puncturing the excessive continuity of things in public life - even in private life - is of course the instant, the moment - this is something the mystics knew very well, that you could puncture the flow of time.'

But it is always reality Enzensberger returns to; he deals curtly with the postmodern notion that the representation of reality, whether in science or art, is impossible: 'I'm rather impatient with all this talk about the disappearance of the subject, the I. It is a French fashion that has colonised the academic world. People at large are not affected by this.'

His poems are full of marvellously evoked paintings, especially Dutch and German landscapes and still lives, and it is above all the illusion of representation that grips him, the creation of this Janus object, part figment, part recreation of a version of reality. 'Before landscape painting there was in a certain sense no landscape,' he says. And what attracts him in still life is the link with science - the fact that many still-life artists were naturalists.

Enzensberger's breadth of interests seems inspired by the Enlightenment tradition he has espoused. Politics enters his poetry automatically: 'As little as I could imagine poetry that excluded all things to do with love and sex, how could I exclude something which so much impinges on my life.' He is a most tenacious critic of Western civilisation, but he abhors the tendency of some commentators to speak as if they were outside the thing they criticise. He is the diagnostician who attempts to show us - himself included - just what we are up to.

His new prose book, Civil War (Granta, pounds 6.99) locates the crisis firmly in the West, and not in Bosnia, the former Soviet Union or any other place we are currently wringing our hands about. Put simply, he believes that Civil War is not something that happens elsewhere, it is now omnipresent. He calls the urban violence of the skinheads, racist gangs and crack dealers 'molecular civil war'. He believes that all perpetrators of contemporary mass violence are on a par in that - unlike with communism and fascism - they have no ideology behind them: 'Right wing violence is not nationalistic. The classical nationalist was in some sense a nation builder, whereas these people are nation destroyers. A large part of public disclosure still insists on taking at face value the rationale handed out. In Yugoslavia the Serb nationalists might or might not have a cause: making Serbia an uninhabitable place.' He does not believe that Germany's problems with racist violence are any different to anybody else's: 'Most of the more terrifying aspects of the Nineties are not specific German problems. The whole question of migration and xenophobia is all over Western Europe, even in countries where you would have thought it was out of the question, the Scandinavian countries.'

The three essays in Civil War look at xenophobia and the ruined Europe of 1945, out of which grew the order which collapsed in 1989 and has still to be resolved into a new pattern. He believes the common factor in all of the world's troubled societies is a collapse of patriarchy, a power vacuum. 'Civil War has existed for a very long time. Probably before the 18th century nobody expected that humanity would establish all over the world the rule of law. Huge expectations have been held for the past two and half centuries. History has come back with a vengeance.'

This is not what anybody wants to hear, least of all the Germans, who, Enzensberger believes, have never quite recovered from the Thirty Years War of the 17th century. He has made a habit of telling Germans what they don't want to hear about reunification or Saddam Hussein. Now in suggesting that Germany (and the West) puts its house in order before tackling the globe's other trouble spots, he is flouting one of the most cherished pieties of the German liberal-left. Enzensberger shares their feelings but believes that with 40 or more civil wars raging throughout the world, universal policing is now impossible.

Civil War shows Enzensberger's appetite for controversy undiminished, but while contemplating the world situation with alarm, his intellectual composure is unruffled. He speaks fondly of his fine-book-publishing venture, die andere Bibliothek, of his collection of German and Dutch Old Masters, of typography and new poetry. At the public reading with Michael Ignatieff he lambasts the 'spooky make-believe' of the Serbs in resurrecting spurious ancient justifications for their terror. Like Primo Levi, Enzensberger possesses in abundance the only possible antidote to encroaching madness and barbarity: an unshakeable faith in clear thinking, human decency, and the curious charm of the material world.

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice