May 1, 2015KR OnlineFiction

The Meeting at Telgte: An Excerpt from the Novel*

Translated from the German by Ralph Manheim

From The Kenyon Review, New Series, Spring 1981, Vol. 3, No. 2

The five geese were already lined up on one spit and the three suckling pigs on the second, while the sheep stuffed with sausages was turning on the third. The long table from the taproom had been moved up to the bushes bordering the outer arm of the Ems, so that it remained untouched by the smoke from the fires that were flaring in the middle of the courtyard. Landlady Libuschka and her maids rushed back and forth between house and courtyard, setting the table. Closer inspection revealed that the tablecloths had formerly done service on an altar. The plates, cups, mugs, and bowls seemed to belong in one of the many Westphalian moated castles. Apart from two-pronged serving forks, there was no other cutlery.

Blowing across the courtyard in the direction of the stable, the smoke veiled the alders that fringed the inner arm of the Ems and bordered the town, the gables of the Herrenstrasse, and off to one side the parish church. Gelnhausen’s musketeers attended the roasting spits. Since they caught the fat dripping from the geese, pigs, and sheep in earthenware bowls, they were able to baste the roasts continually with goose, pork, and mutton fat. From the juniper bushes that covered the Emshagen as far as the fulling mill, the stableboy brought dry fagots, which from time to time made the fires smoke more abundantly. The town of Telgte lay flat-painted behind the animated picture into which the tavern dogs kept moving, sometimes singly, sometimes gathered into a pack. (Later they fought over the bones.)

Meanwhile Gelnhausen’s horsemen were busy driving stakes into the ground, on which to stretch patterned canvas—that might have been taken from the tent of a Hessian colonel—over the laid table like a canopy. Garlands were plaited of fresh foliage, and wild roses from the landlady’s garden woven into them. Soon garlands were affixed to the stakes of the canopy. The fringes around its edges were twisted into tassels, on which hung bells that later, when a breeze came up, contributed to the festive mood.

Although it was still day and the dusk was taking its time in falling, Gelnhausen brought five heavy silver candlesticks of ecclesiastical origin, still fitted with almost unused candles, from the covered wagon that had been harnessed that morning and had brought the geese and pigs and sheep, altar cloths and canopy. Stoffel then placed the three-armed silver pieces on the table. After several attempts to position them informally, he adopted a military stance as though lining up a company. Off to one side in groups, the poets saw all that; and I kept the record.

When under Gelnhausen’s supervision a figure the size of a small boy, cast in bronze and representing Apollo, was brought from the inexhaustible covered wagon, when finally this work of art was placed in the middle of the table (after the candlesticks had once again been moved), Simon Dach felt obliged to do something more than stand dumbfounded, admiring the display with mounting trepidation. Taking aside first the landlady, then Gelnhausen, he asked where and by what right these treasures had been seized, how paid for, or with whose permission borrowed. So much miscellaneous richness—meat linen metal—did not, he said, fall from the trees.

Yes, said Gelnhausen, all that was true, and he also had to admit that the geese, pigs, and sheep came from Catholic houses, but the whole transaction could only be regarded as honorable, for on the occasion of his necessarily secret visit to Münster—and there were incidentals that he was still unable to divulge—several of the delegates to the peace conference had spoken with enthusiasm of the meeting of German poets, which had been bruited about by then. Monsignor Chigi, the papal nuncio, had commissioned him to ask Harsdörffer to write a personal dedication into his, Chigi’s, copy of the Conversation Plays for Women, a first edition dated 1641, which he carried with him at all times. Venetian Ambassador Contarini sent greetings to Maestro Sagittario, who was still remembered at St. Mark’s, and took the liberty of informing him once again that Master Schütz’s return to Venice would at any time call forth not one but many ovations. The Marquis de Sable had immediately sent a courier to Cardinal Mazarin with the news of the poets’ gathering, and would have his palace put in order if the company would do him the honor. Only the Swedish ambassador, newly arrived from Osnabrück, had made eyes like a calf in a thunderstorm on hearing the world-famous names, which were Greek to him, even though the great Oxenstierna was his father. But Count Johann von Nassau, who had been representing the emperor at the conference since Trauttmannsdorff’s departure, had been all the more cordial and had hastened to bid Isaak Volmar, a high official at the imperial chancellery, to provide for the well-being of the poets who had traveled so far, and make certain they did not lack for sustenance, refreshment, or loving gifts. And here, sure enough, was a gold ring for Herr Dach, here finely wrought silver cups, and here, and here . . . Whereupon Volmar, equipped with written instructions concerning the forthcoming banquet, had turned Gelnhausen’s knowledge of the country to account. He, Gelnhausen, had hurried hither and thither. For indeed he knew Westphalia like the back of his hand. As the once famous huntsman of Soest, he had familiarized himself with every nook and cranny in the triangle formed by Dorsten, Lippstadt, and Coesfeld. Münster itself had been unable to offer much; everything went to the embassies. But the surrounding countryside still had resources. In short: as an imperial agent acting on instructions from Count von Nassau, he had had little difficulty in carrying out the order, for one thing because the region was more Catholic than the Pope ever meant it to be. There was plenty of everything. Only game would be wanting. Would Herr Dach care to see the list? Every single item checked off—wine, cheese, and so on. Was Master Dach displeased?

At first Dach had listened to the report (rounded out with anecdotes about the doings in Münster and adorned with here uncited subordinate clauses invoking members of the ancient pantheon as witnesses) by himself, then accompanied by Logau, Harsdörffer, Rist, and Hofmannswaldau, and finally surrounded by us all. He had listened at first with distrust, then with increasing wonderment, and at the end feeling somewhat flattered. He toyed with the gold ring, which embarrassed him. The silver cups passed from hand to hand. Though Logau (from old habit) might make a barbed remark or two, though there might seem to be a bit of exaggeration in the report, the company were not loath to accept greetings and commendations from persons so highly placed. And when Gelnhausen produced from his courier’s bag a copy of the Conversation Plays for Women—true enough, a first edition, dated 1641!—the ex libris of which identified the owner as Fabio Chigi, the papal nuncio (later Pope Alexander VII), held out the book, and smilingly asked Harsdörffer to write in a dedication at his convenience, everyone was convinced that there could be nothing dishonorable about the forthcoming banquet; even Logau was mute.

Residual doubts—could they as good Lutherans accept these popish gifts?—were dispelled by Dach, who reminded Gryphius, and finally Rist and Gerhardt as well, of the revered Opitz’s willingness to serve the Catholic cause, of how as an irenicist in the tradition of the learned Grotius and as a student of the late Lingelsheim, the Bober Swan had at all times advocated freedom of religion and opposed all exclusivity. Ah, if only the peace proved such that Lutherans would dine at one table with Catholics and Catholics with Lutherans and Calvinists. As for himself, in any event, even a Catholic suckling pig made his mouth water.

And then the landlady called out that the meat was ready to carve.

At last! cried Greflinger, shaking his black curls, which tumbled over his shoulders. Rist and Lauremberg felt certain of having deserved this roast meat. But Czepko and Logau had misgivings: what if the Devil had kindled the three cooking fires? Birken was determined to do justice to what he had so long gone without. And he promised the silent Scheffler, whose eyes were on the maids, that he would. With wolfish hunger Moscherosch thrust himself between Harsdörffer and his publisher. When Gryphius boasted of his spacious stomach, Hofmannswaldau reminded him of the transience of the palate’s joys. Schneuber’s arse was still so sore that even in the presence of such gastronomic delights he found it hard to sit down. Old Weckherlin thought he had better wrap a goose breast in his handkerchief as a provision for hungry times ahead, and he advised Gerhardt to do the same. Looking past Zesen, who was staring spellbound at the cooking fires, Gerhardt threatened to impose moderation on the company when he said grace. But Dach, who had his Albert beside him, said that on this occasion young Birken would pray aloud for all. Albert cast a searching look around him and asked a question of the merchant Schlegel, who passed it on to the publisher Mülbe by way of Elzevihr, but by the time the question had reached Buchner, it had answered itself: Schütz was absent from the table.

How do I know all this? I was sitting in their midst, I was there. It was no secret to me that landlady Libuschka had sent one of her maids to town to recruit wenches for the night. Who was I? Neither Logau nor Gelnhausen. Still others might have been invited—Neumark, for instance, but he stayed in Königsberg; or Tscherning, whose absence was especially deplored by Buchner. Whoever I may have been, I knew that the wine in the casks was sacramental. My ear picked up what the imperial musketeers called out to one another while carving the geese, the pigs, and the sheep. I had seen Schütz—as soon as he had entered the courtyard, caught sight of the preparations, and listened for a moment to Geinhausen—go back into the house and climb the stairs to his room. I even knew what no one else did, that while the banquet of the German poets was getting under way at the Bridge Tavern in Telgte, the Bavarian delegates in Münster were pledging Alsace to France and obtaining the Palatinate (plus a promise of the electoral dignity) in return. Wretched horse trading! I could have cried, but I laughed, because I was privileged to be there, to be present while under the Hessian canopy, in the gathering dusk, the candles in the Catholic candlestick were lighted and we clasped our hands. For now Birken, who was sitting next to Scheffler, stood up, half concealed from me by the child-size Apollo but equally beautiful, to pronounce an out-and-out Protestant grace: “May Lord Jesus set us free, In the world the world to flee. . . .” Then, standing in his place halfway down the table, the outer Ems behind him and before him the town, darkened against the sky—Dach spoke again to them all, though the carved meat was already steaming in the seignorial porcelain. Possibly because Birken’s grace had been too somber and unworldly—”Let us, while we are living, mortify our flesh”—Dach, whose Christianity was of a more practical nature, wished to provide earthly encouragement. If even the spirit did not live by the spirit alone, it was fitting, he said, that a proper morsel should fall to the lot of poor poets, those forever hungry onlookers. Consequently, he would not trouble Gelnhausen—to whom thanks—with further questions about the whence, but let well enough alone. And in the hope that God’s blessing rested on everything that the table bore so superabundantly, he bade his friends do well by their far from spoiled palates. And might the present banquet provide an ample foretaste of the peace to come!

They fell to. With both hands. With elbows devoutly propped. With Silesian, Franconian, Elbian, Brandenburgian, Alemannic hunger. Similarly the horsemen, the musketeers, the tavern mongrels, the stableboy, the maids, and the town wenches. They attacked the geese, the pigs, and the sheep. Half of what the sheep had had inside it, the blood sausages and liver sausages, had been put on the table, while half had stayed with the cooks. Into the juice, which dripped from rounded beards, pointed beards, and twirled mustaches and stood fatty in the dishes, they dipped freshly baked white bread. How crisply the skin of the suckling pigs crackled. The juniper fagots had lent their savor to the meat, especially to the mutton.

Only the landlady and Gelnhausen kept moving restlessly back and forth. They continued to serve up the food—millet steamed in milk with raisins, bowls full of crystallized ginger, sweet pickles, plum butter, great jugs of red wine, dry goat cheese, and lastly the sheep’s head, which had been prepared in the kitchen. Into the mouth Libuschka had wedged a large beet; she had encased the neck in a gentlemanly white collar, and with a crown of marsh marigolds transformed the head into a crowned sheep’s head. As Courage carried it in, her queenly bearing gave further dignity to the head she was dishing up.

That admitted of jokes. The sheep’s head demanded comparisons. Homage was paid to it in iambs and trochees, in trisyllabic feet, Buchnerian dactyls, and alexandrines, with metathesis, alliteration, internal rhymes, and nimble improvisations. Assuming the role of a betrayed sheep, Greflinger bewailed the loss of his faithless Flora; the others resorted to political allusions.

“Nor eagle proud nor lion, Adorns the German blazon, But the good submissive sheep” was Logau’s contribution. Moscherosch made the emblematic beast of the Germans “converse in courtly Spanish wise.” Gryphius, who was shoveling the food in as though determined to engulf the world, desisted from the forepaw of a piglet for the time it took to rhyme: “The sheep that bleats for peace forever Will get it from the butcher’s cleaver.”

Augustus Buchner, magister of letters, put up with hasty rhymes, pretended not to hear Zesen’s “Three four seven eight eleven, All good sheep will go to heaven,” and only remarked on how lucky it was that the stern Schütz had been spared such tidbits. . . . In response to which the startled Dach desisted from the goose leg he had coated with plum butter, looked around at the likewise startled company, and asked his Albert to go quickly and see to their guest.

The cathedral organist found the old man in his room, lying coatless on his bed. Raising himself a little, Schütz said it was kind of them to notice his absence, but he would like to rest another little while. He had many new impressions to think over. The realization, for example, that cutting wit, such as Logau’s, was not conducive to music. Yes indeed. He was ready to believe that a merry mood prevailed down there in the courtyard. The merriment rose up to his room polyphonically, making a mockery of thoughts such as this: if, as he believed, reason was prejudicial to music, if, in other words, the writing of music was at cross-purposes with the rational writing of words, how, then, was it possible that Logau should nevertheless, with cool, unclouded mind, achieve beauty? Cousin Albert might well be inclined to smile at such hairsplitting and call him a lawyer manqué. Ah, yes, if only he had persevered in his study of the law, before music had taken up all his attention. But his period of apprenticeship in Marburg had sharpened his wits, which still came in handy. Given a little time, he could see through the finest fabric of lies. Some little thread was always missing. Now take that ruffian Stoffel, who, to be sure, spun more amusingly than some of the visiting poets: the world of lies he concocted had a logic of its own. What? Was Cousin Albert still taken in? In that case he would not disturb his sweet simplicity. Yes, yes, he would be down after a while for a glass of something. Sooner or later. No need to worry. His cousin should just go and make merry.

Only when Albert was halfway through the door did Schütz speak briefly of his accumulated worries. He called his circumstances in Dresden wretched. On the one hand, he regarded his return to Weissenfels as desirable; on the other, he was in a hurry to go to Hamburg and beyond to Glückstadt. There he hoped to find a message from the Danish court, an invitation to Copenhagen: operas, ballets, sprightly madrigals. . . . Lauremberg had given him hope. The crown prince was devoted to the arts. In any case he was carrying with him a printed score of the second part of the Sinphoniae sacrae, dedicated to the prince. Then Schütz lay down again but did not close his eyes.

In the courtyard the news that the Dresden Kapellmeister would come down for a while later on was received with relief. Partly because it was not vexation that was keeping the world-famous man away, and partly because the stern guest would still be absent for a time from the poets’ merry-to-tumultuous board. We welcomed the prospect of being among ourselves for a while longer.

Greffinger and Schneuber had motioned the landlady’s three maids over to the table as well as—with Gelnhausen’s encouragement—a few of the wenches from Telgte. Elsabe was sitting on Moscherosch’s lap. Someone, presumably old Weckherlin, had foisted two excessively low-cut women on the pious Gerhardt. The dainty and delicate Marie leaned on the student Scheffler with the familiarity of old acquaintance, and the young man was soon heaped with mockery. In which pursuit Lauremberg and Schneuber distinguished themselves. Was Marie substituting for the Blessed Virgin? Was he intending to become a Catholic by mating with her? And suchlike offensive remarks, until Greflinger gave them a piece of his Bavarian mind and showed his fists.

Elsewhere Rist, whose preacher’s hand had been exploring one of the town wench’s topography, was insulted by Logau. The Belittler had only wanted to tell The Valiant One that his busy treasure hunting seemed to leave him no free hand for the wine jug. Whereupon Rist, gesticulating with both hands, had waxed loudly bellicose. Logau’s wit, he declared, was corrosive because it lacked wholesome humor, and because it lacked wholesome humor it was no better than irony, and because it was ironical it was not German, and because it was not German, it was intrinsically “‘un-German and anti-German.”

This gave rise to a new disputation, during which the maids and wenches were as good as forgotten. The argument over the essence of irony and of humor kept the company too busy to do anything but reach thirstily for the wine jugs. Soon Logau stood alone, for Zesen now joined Rist in denigrating, and in the most literal sense “damning,” his belittling view of things, people, and conditions as alien, un-German, Gallic, and, in a word, ironic; for once in agreement, Rist and Zesen termed the usually two-line epigrams of the always insidious Logau mere works of the Devil. Why? Because irony is the work of the Devil. Why of the Devil? Because it’s French and therefore diabolical.

Hofmannswaldau tried to put an end to this all too German quarrel, but his humor hardly served the purpose. Old Weckherlin, freshly returned from England, was amused by the old-country uproar. Fortified with wine but no longer a master of words, Gryphius contributed fiendish laughter. When Moscherosch ventured a word in Logau’s favor, remarks were dropped about his name, which couldn’t be Moorish and was certainly—by God!—not German in origin. Lauremberg shouted the evil word from ambush. A fist struck the table. Wine sloshed over. Greflinger scented a brawl. Dach had risen to stem this outburst of violence with his thus far respected “”That’se nough, children!” when out of the darkness Heinrich Schütz came striding across the courtyard and sobered the company.

Although the guest begged the poets not to let him disrupt their conversation, the humor-irony controversy evaporated forthwith. No one had meant any harm. The maids and wenches withdrew to the still-flaming cooking fires. Buchner relinquished the chair intended for Schütz. Dach gave vent to his joy that the guest had finally come—better late than never. Landlady Libuschka wanted to slice him some hot leg of mutton. Gelnhausen poured wine. But Schütz neither ate nor drank. In silence he surveyed the table and then looked out at the fires in the courtyard, around which the musketeers and horsemen had begun their own festivities. One of the musketeers was a passable bagpiper. Two, then three couples were seen dancing before and behind the fire in varying illumination.

After contemplating the bronze Apollo for some time and the silver candlesticks only briefly, Schütz turned to Gelnhausen, who was still standing beside him with a wine jug. And flung the question straight in Stoffel’s face: how had one of the horsemen and that musketeer—the one dancing there!—come by their head wounds? He demanded a straight answer and no evasions.

Whereupon all those at the table learned that a bullet had grazed the horseman and a dragoon’s saber had wounded the musketeer—only slightly, praise God.

When Schütz questioned further, it was learned that an engagement had occurred between Gelnhausen’ s imperial troops and a Swedish detachment stationed in Vechta. But they had put the foraging Swedes to flight.

And taken spoils in the process? Schütz persisted.

It then came to light that the Swedes had just slaughtered the geese, pigs, and sheep on the farm of a peasant whom, admittedly, Gelnhausen had been planning to visit. The good man, whom sad to say the Swedes had spitted to his barn door, was an old acquaintance from the days when he, Gelnhausen, had been known throughout the region as the huntsman of Soest. Ah, he and his green doublet with the gold buttons had . . .

Schütz wasn’t standing for any digressions. It finally came out that the church silver, the child-size Apollo, the Hessian tent canvas, the castle porcelain, and the altar cloths, not to mention the plum butter, crystallized ginger, sweet pickles, cheese, and white bread, had been found in a covered wagon captured from the Swedes.

As though to keep his report as realistic as possible, Gelnhausen explained how it had been necessary to transfer the cargo, because in trying to get away, the Swedish vehicle had sunk axle-deep into a bog.

Who had given him the order for this robbery?

That, said Gelnhausen, seemed to be roughly the gist of Count von Nassau’s instructions as passed on to him by the imperial chancellery. It was not robbery, however, but a military engagement that had resulted in the transfer of the foragers’ loot. Exactly as ordered.

What was the precise wording of this imperial order?

The count had sent cordial and courteous greetings and bidden him, Gelnhausen, see to the material needs of the assembled poets.

Did this solicitude necessarily imply loot—that is, an assortment of roast meat, sausages, two casks of wine, finely wrought bronze, and other luxuries?

In view of yesterday’s experience with the fare at the Bridge Tavern, the count’s instructions to provide for their material needs could not have been carried out more nutritively. And as for the modest festive setting, had Plato not written . . . ?

As though to leave no area of shadow, Schütz then asked Stoffel whether, apart from the peasant, other persons had been injured in the disgraceful robbery. And Gelnhausen replied casually that it had all happened so quickly, but as far as he could remember, the rough manner of the Swedes had not agreed with the hired man and the maidservant. And as she lay dying, the peasant woman had worried about her little boy, whom he, Gelnhausen, praise God, had seen running into the nearby woods, so escaping the butchery.

Stoffel went on to say that he knew a story that had had a similar sad beginning in the Spessart Mountains. For that was just what had happened to him as a boy. “Paw and Maw” had perished miserably. But he was still alive. God grant that as much good fortune could come the way of the little Westphalian boy.

The festive board was a picture of desolation. Piles of bones big and little. Puddles of wine. The formerly crowned, now half-eaten sheep’s head. The disgust. The burned-down candles. The savagely barking mongrels. The bells on the canopy tinkled in mockery. The general gloom was deepened by the merriment of the horsemen and musketeers; around the fires, with the women, they sang, laughed, and bellowed undismayed. It took a shout from the landlady to silence the bagpiper. Off to one side, Birken vomited. The poets stood in groups. Scheffler was not alone in weeping: Czepko and the merchant Schlegel did likewise. Gerhardt was heard praying under his breath. Still under the influence of wine, Gryphius staggered around the table. Logau assured Buchner that he had suspected skulduggery from the start. (With some difficulty I restrained Zesen from going to the Ems to see corpses drifting.) And Simon Dach stood there like a broken man, breathing heavily. His Albert opened his shirt. Only Schutz kept his composure.

He was still in his armchair by the table. And from his seat he advised the poets to go on with their meeting and dispense with useless lamentations. In the eyes of God, he said, their complicity in the horror was slight. Their undertaking, however, which would benefit the language and help their unfortunate fatherland, remained great and must be carried on. He hoped he had not interfered with it.

Then he stood up and said good-bye—especially to Dach, warmly to Albert, to the others with a gesture. Before setting out, he informed the company that he was leaving early because of his hurry to get to Hamburg and beyond, not because of the shameful incident.

Brief orders were given—Dach sent Greflinger for Schütz’s luggage. Then the Kapellmeister took Gelnhausen aside, and they walked a few steps together. To judge by his tone, the old man spoke kindly, words of comfort. Once he laughed, then both laughed. When Stoffel went down on his knees before him, Schütz pulled him up. It seems, as Harsdörffer later reported, that he told the regimental secretary never again to put his murderous fictions into practice, but to write them down bravely, for life had given him lessons enough.

Along with the covered wagon, two imperial horsemen escorted Schütz as far as Osnabrück. By torchlight the gentlemen stood in the courtyard. Then Simon Dach summoned the gathering to the taproom, where the long table was again standing as though nothing had happened.

*Grass’s novel is set in May, 1647, just before the signing of the treaties ending the Thirty Years’ War. To an imaginary meeting at Telgte, a town in Westphalia known for its miracle-working madonna, come the leading German intellectuals of the day: poets (Albert, Czepko, Dach, Gryphius, Hofmannswaldau, Logau, Scheffler, Weckherlin), composers (Schütz), professors (Buchner, Lauremberg, Schneuber), publishers (Greflinger, Mulbe, Elzevihr), writers (Birken, Gelnhausen, Harsdörffer, Moscherosch, Rist), and hymn writers (Gerhardt).—Ed.

Copyright 1987 by Hermann Luchterhand Verlag, Darmstadt and Neuwied

English translation copyright 1981 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.

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Günter Grass (1927-2015) was a German poet, novelist, playwright, sculptor, and printmaker. His first novel, Die Blechtrommel (1959) was a literary spokesman for the German generation that survived the war after growing up in the Nazi era. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1999. Ralph Manheim(1907-1992) was an American translator of German and French literature. He also occasionally translated works from Dutch, Polish, and Hungarian.