64. Review of Stefan Heym’s Die Schmähschrift oder Königin gegen Defoe

Early in 1980, the editor of the GDR BULLETIN: Newsletter for Literature and Culture in the German Democratic Republic (published by the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at Washington University, St. Louis) contacted me and asked if I would write a review of Stefan Heym’s novella, Die Schmähschrift oder Königin gegen Defoe (The Lampoon or Queen Against Defoe). Heym had initially published this delightful satirical tale in English, back in 1970, and in 1978 the German version was finally published in the GDR by Buchverlag Der Morgen. When I agreed to take on this assignment, I could not have anticipated that my harmless review would be the victim of editorial censorship—and without any consultation! The review appears in it entirety below, minus the final sentences which the editor—Dr. Patricia Herminghouse—took the liberty of deleting:

Published first in English under the title The Queen Against Defoe (1970), Stefan Heym’s short prose work did not appear in the GDR until 1978. Still, given the restrictive cultural-political climate that prevailed after the “expatriation” of dissident author Wolf Biermann in November 1976, it is remarkable that Heym’s satirical story was ever approved for publication in his own country.

Die Schmähschrift recounts Daniel Defoe’s clash with nobility and clergy during the reign of Queen Anne following the anonymous publication of his pamphlet, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702). Appearing to support the English Establishment in the most exaggerated terms, Defoe satirized the extremist position of many high churchmen and Tories on the question of how to deal with religious dissent. Unfortunately, the trenchant humor in his treatment of this ecclesiastical/political problem was lost on most readers, and the anonymous author was denounced as an enemy of Church and State. When Defoe’s identity was discovered, a reward was offered for information leading to his capture, and after several months he was apprehended. At the Old Bailey trial Defoe’s defense was poorly managed, and he was persuaded to plead guilty. Consequently, he was fined 200 marks, condemned to be pilloried three times, and sentenced to indefinite imprisonment. His exposure in the pillory, however, was more a triumph than a physical punishment or public humiliation, for the people (aroused in Heym’s account by Defoe’s recitation of passages from his Hymn to the Pillory) took his side and protected him from bodily harm. Heym’s historical novella is concerned chiefly with the role of literature and the problems facing writers in states which attempt to restrict artistic freedom. Not only is Defoe portrayed as a pillar of strength in the battle against his oppressors, but he is also shown to achieve that elusive socialist goal—the solidarity of proletariat and intellectuals—through his courageous defiance of the Establishment. Told in a manner reminiscent of the early 18th century, and based on the notes of the fictitious police agent Josiah Creech, Heym’s tale has the ring of authenticity. In fact, it sounds so convincing that a professor of English at a well-known American university once asked Heym to help him locate the original Creech manuscript, as he had been unable to find any reference to it through libraries.

Like Defoe some three centuries ago, Heym has not shied away from political conflict and controversy, and he, too, has preferred to suffer the consequences rather than compromise himself as a writer. His first confrontation with the authorities came in 1931 because of an anti-imperialistic poem he wrote while a high school student in Chemnitz. This poem, an attack on General von Seeckt who was sending German officers to China to instruct Chiang Kai-shek’s army, led to a public denunciation of Heym and his expulsion from school. More recently, following the publication in the West of his novel Collin (1979), which loyalist GDR writers described as “anti-communist rubbish,” Heym found himself in trouble with the ruling Socialist Unity Party. Facing prosecution for alleged currency offences, he wrote to me in late April of 1979: “If you’ve been following the news, you may have noticed that there’s trouble brewing in this place — I am going to be prosecuted on a trumped-up charge of violation of foreign currency rules, in reality, because I refused to ask the GDR authorities for permission to have my books printed abroad if they’re forbidden here. I refer you to Schmähschrift — it’s all told there.” (Fall 1980, Vol. VI, No. 3, pp. 15-16)

The conclusion of the book review I had submitted read as follows:

. . . I refer you to Schmähschrift — it’s all told there.” (A few months later, Heym was tried and fined 9,000 West German marks, but he was not made to stand upon the pillory.)

As Heym said, read the Schmähschrift, it is all there!

When I asked why the final two sentences of my review had been omitted, Dr. Herminghouse told me that my contribution was too long. But a perusal of other issues of this bulletin revealed that book reviews longer than mine had been published. I had the strong sense that she was afraid the GDR authorities might find my concluding remarks offensive and was reluctant to offend them. I asserted that this was a blatant case of censorship and threatened to inform a number of influential US Germanists of the incident. In the end, the editor relented and agreed to reprint the entire final paragraph of my review in the next issue of the GDR BULLETIN. It appeared at the beginning of the book review section, prefaced by the following comment:

We reprint the following conclusion of Richard Zipser’s review of Stefan Heym’s Die Schmähschrift at the author’s insistence, including two final sentences that were cut because of its length. We regret any impression of censorship this may have caused, although we do not share the author’s perception that their omission changes the overall tone and thrust of his comments. (Winter 1981, Vol. VII, No. 1, p. 5)

Needless to say, this book review was my first and final publication in the pages of the GDR BULLETIN.