50 years on my reading list

cover of Parzival

When I ordered it the woman in the bookshop said, I’m afraid it might not be in until Monday.

That’s all right, I said, I’m not in a hurry: it’s been on my reading list for 50 years. Not very high up on it, it’s true.

It was a small exaggeration. It’s only been on my reading list for 48 or perhaps 47 years. When I was an undergraduate I studied Middle High German, but never read Parzival. One of my friends was reading it for a special paper, and even thought he might go on to do a doctorate on it. He raved about it, which was a pretty solitary thing to do, because none of the others of us in the group knew what he was talking about, or shared his enthusiasm. Still, I respected him and his opinions enough to think, well, maybe I would get around to reading it one day.

It’s a retelling and completion of Chrétien de Troyes’ Li contes del graal, an important part of the great Arthurian mythos of the Holy Grail. Wolfram von Eschenbach’s poem is one of the great achievements of German literature, the inspiration of Wagner’s opera Parsifal. The Holy Grail has always fascinated me, too - doesn’t it everybody? - yet for some reason none of the stories I’ve tried to read quite lives up to the mystical attraction. They never do what you think they say on the tin.

Then when we were on our European river cruise back in September, we kept passing through places in Austria and Germany where those great German writers we know a little about had flourished. Passau, where the Nibelungenlied may have been written. Würzburg, where Walter von der Vogelweide got a pension from the Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa, and is remembered in a peaceful secluded cloister garden beside the cathedral. Wertheim, where I climbed to the very top of the castle keep where Wolfram lived for a time, and wrote some parts of Parzival. Rüdesheim, where we walked out of town to Hildegard of Bingen’s abbey at Eiblingen. It felt as if all my long-neglected Germanic past was circling around and coming back to me.

So, it feels like time to visit Parzival at last. This Penguin Classics edition, translated by A. T. Hatto, ends with a helpful section entitled An introduction to a second reading. I’m wondering how optimistic this might prove to be?

Written on January 20, 2017