March 31, 2012


May shapes German imagination 100 years on (Deeutsche-Welle, 3/30/12))

You can gain a sense of May's unrelenting popularity in Germany from the sheer number of fan clubs that meet regularly here around the country. At the "Karl May Society" in Leipzig alone, often over 50 members attend meetings - complete with lectures from literature professors - to discuss aspects of the author's life and work.

One of those members, Jenny Florstedt, said on the occasion of the group's 250th meeting in Leipzig that she was fascinated above all by May's "imaginative narrative":

"It's kind of like reading the German version of Sherlock Holmes," Florstedt told DW, adding that "[May] creates another world, and you can go in and ride with his heroes in another country, in the plains ... It's a chance to leave the world you find here."

Werner Geilsdörfer, an internationally recognized May commentator who gave a lecture at the 250th meeting, added that May's romanticized depiction of the Wild West - though never having been there when he wrote his novels - essentially shaped the way Germans view the American frontier.

"Without Karl May we, the Germans, would all see the Wild West and the nascent developments in the United States in a different light. And this vision has been passed down through the generations. If you see a young girl or boy here today dressing up as a cowboy or Indian, you have a good idea where it's come from."
As bizarre as it may seem, it's not all that rare to see German children dressed up as American Indians or Cowboys during Carnival, which is celebrated primarily in western German cities.

In eastern Germany, where May comes from, there are "Karl-May-Festivals" every year that feature theatrical presentations of his novels. This has become an institution for many German families, one where children of all ages can enter the fantastical worlds of Winnetou the Apache chief and Old Shatterhand the heroic cowboy - two of May's most famous characters.

Germany's Best-Loved Cowboy: The Fantastical World of Cult Novelist Karl May (Jan Fleischhauer, 3/30/12, Der Spiegel)

There is no question that May created heroes that entered the collective mythology. There was the Native American Chief Winnetou, of course, or "The Red Gentleman," as he was once referred to in a subtitle in his famous series of novels. Then there was Winnetou's German friend and blood brother Old Shatterhand. But the indestructible German traveler of the Orient, Kara Ben Nemsi, whose popularity surpassed that of all of May's other characters while the author was still alive. Only after May's death did Chief Winnetou become his most beloved fictional character, partly as a result of the popular films with Pierre Brice and Lex Barker that were shown in theaters starting in 1962.

But his works remain adventure literature, driven by the author's desire to dream his way out of the narrow confines of his real life, a unique mixture of genius and triviality. May introduced his readers to people and landscapes they had known only by name, capitalizing on a yearning for distant places that was just as prevalent in the late 19th century as it is today.

Still, May didn't stop at dreaming. Through his literature, he transformed his own life. For him, writing was initially a way of finding himself, and later a way of rescuing himself. In this sense, he could be seen as an early advocate of the modern age.

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Posted by at March 31, 2012 6:39 AM

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