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Poeta ludens

Oliver Ruf has gone to Saarland to visit Ludwig Harig, poet and master of the football sonnet

Now we're leaving the highway and heading through the valley. North-east of Saarbrücken. Exploded "West Wall" bunkers from World War II and a "burning mountain" (info in German). Its interior houses a lit coal seam that's been smouldering for 300 years. The steam warms the stones amid sulphurous fumes, "the woods still cushion the craggy ravine." At its foot the little town: Sulzbach/Saar, population 20,000. Oberdorfstraße leads from the town entrance. At its end is a peaceful building. The host opens the door: welcome to a house of poetry!

Ludwig Harig and friends in Munich in 1982/83. From the left: Hans Dahlem, Michael Krüger, Ludwig Harig and Hans Jürgen Fröhlich. © Ludwig Harig

We have come to Ludwig Harig, the juggler of words. As a school teacher in the fifties of the last century he met Max Bense, the mathematical poetry wizard, who later said of his protege's experimental style that it never got stuck in "aesthetic engagement." Harig joined the so-called Stuttgart School, whose ranks included Helmut Heißenbüttel, Arno Schmitt, Franz Mon, Reinhard Döhl and Eugen Gomringer – influential exponents of ludic literature after 1945. In this milieu Harig passionately composed texts, poems, "new" radio plays (including the infamous "Staatsbegräbnis" "State burial" of 1962) as precise as they were experimental. Having escaped his teaching duties, he then wrote unforgettable books like "Sprechstunden für die deutsch-französische Verständigung" (Consultation hours for German-French understanding) of 1971 or "Allseitige Beschreibung der Welt zur Heimkehr des Menschen in eine schönere Zukunft" (General description of the world for the return of mankind to a better future) of 1971.

Not a single day in the life of Ludwid Hartwig goes by without some literary pruning of the world. This keeps him young. "It holds me together!" The 79-year-old leaps from his felt chair in the living room and rushes off to one of the brimfull bookshelves that tower above the room. Back at the table he reads aloud. A change of tack. "No, could you give me a sheet of paper please." Then he writes down numbers. And demonstrates his speciality: permutations! But not with numbers, with sentences. Language games! Language experiments! The laboratory is here, in his house in Sulzbach.

"Even as a young boy I was deeply thrilled by the secrets of poetry!", says Harig. His grandmother called him a "head-in-the-clouds". He remains "child-brained" to this day. He learnt about the historical avant-garde from Carola Giedion-Welcker's "Anthologie der Abseitigen" (Poetes a l'ecart). "The signs danced, the paper laughed and smirked". Later Max Bense didn't hesitate to publish Harig's "Wortfuge in Blau" (Word fugue in blue) and its anacoluthic text "metamorphoses" in his magazine augenblick. "My playful instinct was irrepressible", says Harig. Every free weekend he spent in Stuttgart, the group got together even during the holidays, in Provence, or for a barbecue on the heath. There was a lot of talk, a lot of discussion. This spilled over into Harig's work. Gradually he became narrative.

1978, with "Rousseau. The novel about the origins of nature in the mind" he had finally abandoned the tight restraints of experimental writing and turned to the freedom of "ordered" narrative. He wrote three autobiographical novels which brought him fame, "Ordnung ist das ganze Leben" (Order is life itself - 1986), "Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt" (Woe be to those who dance out of line - 1990) and "Wer mit den Wölfen heult, wird Wolf" (He who howls with the wolves becomes one – 1996). Imposing narrative works that put the big questions of guilt and responsibility to the German 20th century in a small way: true and important stories that have not yet been told, unspectacular but moving.

Ludwig, don't be so narrative!" Bense told him back in the mid-seventies. "There was no going back," Harig says today. "But all I'd done was combine mathematical and narrative forms." And indeed, his autobiographical literature is only conventional at first glance. Harig's background quite literally shines through every book. As ever it is the permutations, anacoluthons, word games, collages which arrest the narrative flow. Memories and fiction, fantasy and reality are interwoven. Harig had already demonstrated this process in 1983 with "Walks in Trier," in which he blends Roman history with images of the present. He read Gertrude Stein, when her roses still bloomed in secret, translated Raymond Queneau and made his way pleasurably through Jean Paul, always retaining a portion of them. From the provisions he stored up from his early literary influences he has retained a steely ration for himself over the years. This is something we experience memorably this Thursday morning in early June. "I've just finished my new novel," says Harig. "Here it is." He points to the corner by the dining table where four cardboard boxes are piled on top of one another. They are painted with green dinosaurs, blue elephants and other brightly coloured animals. "I've read too many fairy tales in my life," comments Harig, not without pride. The bottom-most box contains city maps and documents; then come outlines, first draughts and other material and in the top box, the "manuscript".

Harig opens it with obvious pleasure, takes out a wad of paper bound by an elastic band. On the individual sheets are countless bits of paper and notes, hand-written comments, yellowed scraps of paper stuck together, cut up and collaged. Consecutively this forms a complete novel. It's about an old friend. Ludwig Harig met Roland Caszet in 1949, as a German tutorial assistant at the Collège Moderne in Lyon. This became a life-long friendship, and now a book which describes this life: "abundant in adventure," "saturated in ups and downs."

Harig works every morning, from six thirty to twelve thirty. Consistently. His desk stands behind the wall of books that separates the eating from the working space. It is littered – hardly surprisingly – with multitudes of paper scraps, and even paper tissues on which Harig has scrawled ideas and updates. Next to it, raised on a specially carpentered piece of wooden furniture: the typewriter, his beloved "Carina", which he "moves to a tender game of touch." He types every one of his manuscripts on her, standing, in the best Goethe fashion. Long ago Goethe travelled to the "burning mountain" above Sulzbach, which is visible from Harig's living room and which Harig often walks to with his wife in the afternoon. Goethe described the hill in "Poetry and Truth": "the one side of the grotto was almost aglow, covered in a reddish, scorched white stone." Harig takes Goethe's book from the shelf and immediately it opens to the right page. There's something for us to read, to keep us busy while he helps his wife unpack the groceries.

Ludwig Harig, the player, is a polite and cheerful person. And his writing is imbued with the "flawless mixture of precision and serenity" (Marcel Reich-Ranicki, more on the critic here) that runs through Harig's oeuvre, from his early experimental texts and his wide-ranging prose up to the present day. Literature pursued with a lithe stringency. These playful moments unfailingly crop up as thematic segments in Harig's poems; they are inevitably reflected in conventional literary topoi. Harig loves to write humoristic, empathetic football sonnets. He's composed them during World and European Championships of the past, as well as Championship League and friendly games, and has collected them in a wonderfully tactile new book bound in green velvet. "Oh trickled ball! Oh toe-flicked leather! / All proffer themselves to the foot-born art together / Tribute and obolus in one brain-enraptured cry."

Football is Harig's favourite hobby, and it's not long before conversation comes round to it. He spent his Sundays as an adolescent on the football pitch, in Saarbrücken, Kaiserslautern and Worms. At the time he was starting to plumb the depths of the sonnet as the "ideal form" for grasping life poetically. "And it's precisely football that's a copy of life, or better: life is a copy of football," he says. That's why he's written each game at this year's FIFA World Cup into his appointment calendar. He wants to miss as few games as possible. Pen and paper are always at the ready when he watches the games on television. And this time, too, when the game is in full swing, he wants to write football sonnets.

Harig is not only cosmopolitan for his football poetry, but also in every other respect. The first two volumes of what will be a ten-volume edition of his works have already appeared, the next will come out this autumn. But for all that he remains provincial: Harig tells stories from the periphery, looking deep into the heart of Saarland and the Saarlanders (for example in "Saarländischen Freude. Ein Lesebuch über die gute Art zu leben und zu denken" (Saarland joys. A reader on the right way to live and think, 1978). The side-effect is that the more energetically he talks, the faster he falls into dialect. He writes: "We only travel to come back home. And as air travel is becoming more dangerous every day – but also because of my eccentric head-trips – we prefer to keep our feet on the ground."

This ground can also take the form of a football pitch. In Harig's work the playful moment in language is reflected in the game of games, football, which is "not the world's most alluring bagatelle," but "a big thing, an affair of state," which he likes to reflect both in his poetry (for example in the grandiose "herumgezogen flanken lauf" – "flanked rambling run") and in the football sonnet: "What happened once in Bern, sounds like a fable. / Covert ambiguity, art in the ball of pure purpose, / decided the course of the game; the studied corner kick / befogged Hungary's team with a cryptic parable." Life as a game and in the game, a game with words. For Harig that game is a game for life.

Ludwig Harig: "Die Wahrheit ist auf dem Platz. Fußballsonette" (Truth is on the pitch. Football sonnets). Hanser Verlag, Munich 2006. 76 p., 12,50 euros. Ludwig Harig: "Gesammelte Werke" (collected works). Hanser Verlag, Munchen 2004. To date the edition comprises three volumes.


The article originally appeared in German in die tageszeitung on June 12, 2006.

Ludwig Harig was born in 1927 in Sulzbach in Saarland, and worked as a schoolteacher. Aside from literary texts and translations, he brought his experience in experimental literature to the radio, becoming one of the most influential proponents of the 'new radio play'. His work has won numerous awards, among them the Marburg Literature Prize and in 1994 the Friedrich Hölderlin Prize.

Translation: lp, jab.

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