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Jan 2008 Journal

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A fond farewell

On 8 November 2007, Siegbert Prawer, Taylor Professor Emeritus of German at Oxford, delivered what he called his valedictory lecture: ‘Sigmund Freud’s Shakespearean Autobiography’. His farewell lecture was an enthralling experience, though tinged with sadness for the many colleagues and students who gathered to hear it.

Professor Prawer was born in Cologne in 1925, the son of Jewish parents who emigrated to Britain in 1939. He is the brother of the distinguished author and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who wrote the screenplays for the delightful Shakespeare Wallah, for the film of her own Booker Prize-winning novel Heat and Dust, and for the much admired E. M. Forster adaptations A Room with a View and Howard’s End, in which last Siegbert Prawer plays a cameo role.

Professor Prawer began his career as a lecturer in the high-powered department of German at Birmingham, where Roy Pascal had assembled a team that included Richard Hinton Thomas, who went on to found the department of German at Warwick, and W. B. Lockwood, the internationally known expert on Germanic languages. Evidently, Prawer flourished amidst this group of Marxist-inclined left-wingers, for in 1952 he published his German Lyric Poetry, a collection of beautifully crafted analyses of poems ranging from Klopstock to Rilke.

His output of publications has been prodigious and wide-ranging: he has written a number of books on poets, notably Heine, and formidably erudite studies like Karl Marx and World Literature, not forgetting The Penguin Book of Lieder and a lecture on the Yiddish poet A. N. Stencl. In recent years, he has written, as he puts it, ‘three books on Thackeray and four and a half on film’. His penultimate lecture, given in 2006 at London University, was on ‘Freud between Goethe and Darwin’, encompassing no less than three giants of the world of ideas.

Readers of this journal will know Siegbert Prawer from his contributions to our letters’ page, which have in recent years ranged effortlessly from Shakespeare to Wilfred Owen. But he was also familiar to an earlier generation of readers: over 40 years ago, AJR Information carried an admiring report on a lecture he had given on the Jewish contribution to German lyric poetry, on 17 January 1963 at the Leo Baeck Institute, London.

In his farewell lecture, Professor Prawer reminded us that Freud was given a copy of the Schlegel-Tieck translation of Shakespeare at the age of eight, in 1864, on the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. He then delivered an analysis of the role played by Shakespeare in Freud’s writings that was erudite, stimulating and stylish. Of the many fascinating instances he cited where Freud employed Shakespeare to express his own concerns, the most striking was perhaps Freud’s use of figures like Hamlet to reveal his own ambivalent attitudes towards his father, and, in his scientific works, of children in general towards their parents.

The panorama included Hamlet, both in his loyalty to Old Hamlet, his father, and in his revulsion towards Claudius, the usurper-father who claims his mother, a revulsion intensified by the consequent foregrounding of his mother’s sexuality; Lear and the tragedy of his relationship with the modest, loyal Cordelia; Brutus and Caesar; and, among Freud’s real-life patients, the troubled feelings of the Rat Man towards his father. Shakespeare’s adage that the wish is father to the thought was, said Prawer, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams in a nutshell.

The lecture was a tour de force based on a profound knowledge of the works of both its subjects and on a range of insights that illuminated the way that Freud’s thinking reflected, and was shaped by, his reading of Shakespeare. The Jewish dimension was also present, in the form of the uneasy relationship between the emancipated, secularised Jews of the Western, German-speaking cities, like Freud, and the Eastern European, Orthodox shtetl world of their forefathers: among all the references to The Merchant of Venice in Freud’s writings, Professor Prawer found no mention of that classic ghetto figure, Shylock.

Anthony Grenville

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