PROPHETS WITHOUT HONOR: A Background to Freud, Kafka, Einstein and Their World by Frederic V. Grunfeld

PROPHETS WITHOUT HONOR: A Background to Freud, Kafka, Einstein and Their World

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Frederic Grunfeld, a German-born historian and journalist, offers here eight essays on German Jews who contributed mightily to German culture before and after World War I. In an obvious reaction to Peter Gay's downplaying of the specifically Jewish element in German culture (see Freud, Jews, and Other Germans, 1978), Grunfeld plays it up--so much so that his first chapter leaves one wondering if, in his view, Christian Germans had anything to say at all. At the same time, however, Grunfeld's exploration of the ""family resemblance"" that linked these writers, poets, musicians, and scientists, works against his theme, for their commitment to Judaism was marginal (many converted) and their shared energy and concentration--which he terms a ""specifically German Jewish malaise""--actually characterized the whole gamut of German culture, including such eminent non-Jews as Thomas Mann and Max Weber. Despite this confusion, Grunfeld has performed a real service by concentrating in large measure on some important Germans of Jewish origin who remain inaccessible to the English-speaking public. In richly detailed vignettes he describes, among others, the expressionist novelist Alfred Doeblin, whose Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) has been termed the German Ulysses; Else Lasker-Schuler, who was known to contemporaries as ""the greatest lyric poet in modern Germany""; Ernst Toller, the expressionist poet who rose to prominence in the 1918 Bavarian Revolution and ended as a suicide in New York; and Kurt Tucholsky, the brilliant political satirist and contemporary of Kafka. On the whole, Grunfeld introduces these figures skillfully and gives the impression that he has read and understood their work. He is less successful with the well known: his essays pairing Freud and Mahler, and Einstein and Schoenberg, as well as his discussions of Kafka and Broth (the latter shockingly brief), say nothing that is new. The book's title, moreover, is unfortunate: even if the argument can be made that Freud and Kafka were insufficiently honored by their countrymen in their day, Doeblin, Einstein, Mahler, et al., did not lack for a sizable and a sympathetic public. The book's value, overall, is incidental to its purpose.

Pub Date: Sept. 27th, 1979
Publisher: Holt, Rinehart & Winston