The Friendly Alien in the Fish Tank

By Katharina Friege

During her MWW internship Oxford student Katharina Friege stayed two month at the German Literature Archive. She worked on "The role of landscape and the environment in German literature". In her report she shares her impressions.

Katharina Friege during her internship in Marbach
Katharina Friege during her internship in Marbach

On a summer’s evening in August, a couple of visiting researchers and I sat drinking white wine on a roof terrace overlooking the Schiller National Museum, the Museum of Modern Literature, and the German Literature Archive (DLA). All three are strategically placed around a statue of Friedrich Schiller at the top of a hill in Marbach am Neckar, a picturesque town with cobble-stoned streets and half-timbered façades, embedded in a wider landscape of southern German vineyards and farmland. In that moment, of course, we saw very little of this view. It was much too dark. But no matter; charming as it may be to wander through Marbach during daylight, it is the archive itself, and not the town it is located in, that has been my focal point these past six weeks.

The German Literature Archive

One of the opportunities I appreciated most about my internship at the DLA has been getting to know and talking to the researchers, librarians, archivists, and academics whose varied and far-ranging paths crossed mine for a few days or weeks during one of the hottest summers Germany has known in decades. That evening on the terrace we spoke about topics ranging from the heightened aestheticism of Stefan George to substance abuse amongst famous philosophers and literary figures; from Ernst Jünger’s political ideology to the fundamental differences between Star Trek (science fiction) and Star Wars (fantasy masked as science fiction). Eventually, conversation turned to academic research, and what it means to work with archival material. 

“It’s exciting, isn’t it,” said the young woman on the terrace, “to sit there and to read their hopes, their worries, firsts drafts with notes scribbled in the margins, letters asking for jobs or money, birthday cards to their mothers. Those sheets of paper covered in illegible handwriting are proof that ‘your people’ – and they are your people now, aren’t they – really existed, that they lived and breathed behind the scenes. Eventually you begin making out sentences, after a while it’s not so hard to decipher anymore, and soon the handwriting has become as familiar to you as your own. It’s voyeurism, the purest voyeurism, all in the name of scholarly research of course, and what can I say—” the young woman leaned back, took a drag from the cigarette she had just rolled with extra thin rolling paper, shrugged, and exhaled “—I love it. You have to love it. Otherwise, there’s no point.”

Schiller National Museum and DLA reflected in the window of the Museum of Modern Literature

The reading room at the DLA is attached to the library. Two of its walls as well as its ceiling are made of glass. A certain symbolic value can no doubt be attributed to its transparent design. However, the blazing heat of August gave rise to concerns of a more practical nature. Despite attempts to block out the heat of the sun, readers found themselves sitting and sweating as they studied the documents that had been brought up from the archive for their perusal. The underground storage hall, where all the files are housed in numbered boxes, is air-conditioned at a stable 18 degrees Celsius in order to ensure the preservation of the material. Notwithstanding the heat in the reading room – more of a glass cauldron as a result of ever-climbing temperatures by this point – it was consistently inhabited by readers wishing to take advantage of the relatively free summer months. The woman on the roof terrace that night was right – there is something irresistible about holding in your own hands the letters, papers, and diaries that ‘your people’ had once held in theirs. I myself spent a considerable amount of time with the correspondence of Veza Canetti during these weeks. She was the first wife of Austrian Nobel laureate Elias Canetti, and herself a talented and underappreciated writer. 

In 1938 the Canettis fled from Austria, under Nazi rule, and ended up in London, where Veza Canetti was to remain until her death in 1963. In a letter to Franz Baermann Steiner in Oxford, Veza asked whether he too had been classified as a 'friendly alien'. In the letter, written sometime in late 1939 or early 1940, she seems amused by the term, but also weary of being marked an outsider. Her whole life, Veza considered Vienna to be her home, yet consigned herself to a life of perpetual exile in London, a place she somewhat disdainfully described as a 'fish tank' to Hermann Broch in December 1950. For twenty-five years, Veza lived her life as a friendly alien in the fish tank, with all the highs and lows it brought her way. She came to terms with the repeated rejection of her own literary pursuits, played matchmaker for her friends, supported her husband’s career, welcomed visitors, travelled around the UK, read innumerable books, subscribed to countless literary magazines, and worked as a freelance editor and translator for British publishing houses. 

While there is still a gap in the research regarding Veza Canetti, both in terms of her literary work and her experience of living in exile, I was personally most struck by the two small comments I mentioned earlier. First, that Veza was bewildered at the thought of being officially termed a “friendly alien” upon her arrival in the UK, and second, her characterization of London as a “fish tank”. One reason these two comments stayed with me might be the ease with which they can be translated into the context of the archive. I too found myself in some sense to be a “friendly alien” with regard to the letters I was reading. I was a total outsider and had invited myself in as an observer, but my intentions were benign and motivated by genuine fascination for the world I was investigating. Furthermore, in the glass tank of the reading room I also felt a little bit like a fish in a sea of documents. The sheer amount of material that even a comparatively minor research task like my work on Veza Canetti can unleash seems overwhelming at first. The more I read, the more the boundaries of what was available became clear. The more those boundaries solidified, the more I found myself wishing I could escape the fish tank and plunge into a real sea.

Staircase in the Museum of Modern Literature

Within the scope of my internship and research time here, I had the chance to peek behind the scenes of the public archive in numerous other ways as well. I gained insight into international archival research and various collaborative projects, participated in the background organization of the summer school that comes to Marbach every three years, and read letters by the likes of Hannah Arendt, Thomas Mann, and Hermann Hesse. I checked out an enormous pile of books ranging from Ursula von Kardorff’s war diary to essay collections by Reinhart Koselleck. I translated texts about literary networks in Brazil, independent marzipan production in Jerusalem, and the process of preserving and cataloguing archival collections. I visited the audio-visual media department, the underground archive, and toured the modern literature museum, where I saw Franz Kafka’s personal travelling fork and where, at the press of a button, an automatic poetry machine composed a verse for me. In short, I had an incredibly multifaceted experience of what it means to work in a research institution that strives to establish meaningful and productive relationships with archives and universities around the globe, while also remaining open and accessible to researchers and members of the public on a local level.

Poetry Machine at the Museum of Modern Literature

The clichéd archive experience is characterized by dark, dusty reading rooms, teetering stacks of folders and paper, and rushed lunches in slightly dilapidated common rooms. Yet nothing could be further removed from my experience in Marbach. For one thing, I encountered absolutely no dust. For another, weekly coffee meets for archive users, regular afternoon research seminars, and the two-week summer school ensured that a substantial part of my experience here consisted of discussion and exchange with other students and researchers, something I found particularly rewarding and which helped me quickly feel at ease. All the same, now and then I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was a friendly alien, scrutinizing slightly smudged documents in the confines of a sweltering, glass fish tank. It was all in the name of scholarly research of course. And what can I say – I loved it.