Cover image for The bells in their silence : travels through Germany
The bells in their silence : travels through Germany
Gorra, Michael Edward.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, [2004]

Physical Description:
xvii, 211 pages ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
DD21.5 .G67 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Nobody writes travelogues about Germany. The country spurs many anxious volumes of investigative reporting--books that worry away at the "German problem," World War II, the legacy of the Holocaust, the Wall, reunification, and the connections between them. But not travel books, not the free-ranging and impressionistic works of literary nonfiction we associate with V. S. Naipaul and Bruce Chatwin. What is it about Germany and the travel book that puts them seemingly at odds? With one foot in the library and one on the street, Michael Gorra offers both an answer to this question and his own traveler's tale of Germany.

Gorra uses Goethe's account of his Italian journey as a model for testing the traveler's response to Germany today, and he subjects the shopping arcades of contemporary German cities to the terms of Benjamin's Arcades project. He reads post- Wende Berlin through the novels of Theodor Fontane, examines the role of figurative language, and enlists W. G. Sebald as a guide to the place of fragments and digressions in travel writing.

Replete with the flaneur's chance discoveries--and rich in the delights of the enduring and the ephemeral, of architecture and flood-- The Bells in Their Silence offers that rare traveler's tale of Germany while testing the very limits of the travel narrative as a literary form.

Author Notes

Michael Gorra is Mary Augusta Jordan Professor of English at Smith College. He is the author of After Empire and The English Novel at Mid-Century , and the recipient, for his work as a reviewer, of the Nona Balakian Citation of the National Book Critics Circle. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review , the Times Literary Supplement , the Atlantic Monthly , and other publications.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Gorra's introspective, impressionistic account of his travels through Germany is shaped--perhaps even haunted--by figures from the past: historical, literary, personal. His musings on Weimar, for example, are shaded by both Goethe's oak and the nearby woods, Buchenwald, and the way in which their mutual presence mediates the visitor's experience. Lubeck and the Hanseatic north are untangled with the help of, among copious others, Thomas Mann, Walter Benjamin, Italo Calvino, and W. G. Sebald. Few travelogues are as literary, and even fewer as self-conscious about the aspirations and failures of travelogues in general. Yet for all his erudition, Gorra enters the deep waters of German cultural memory a humble, inquisitive novice, weaving personal and literary experiences, always uber-aware of Germany as the foreign, the cultural Other, no stranger to malevolence. Seasoned Germanophiles may well raise their eyebrows, but by journey's end, they will likely also be reminded of what they found so fascinating about Germany in the first place. A captivating, unique work of synthesis, this selection will draw readers back to the library, bibliography in hand. --Brendan Driscoll Copyright 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

Gorra, a Smith College English professor, first visited Germany in 1993, when he was invited to give a lecture. He was taken aback at how much he liked the country, and how interesting he found it. "I was startled to find I was enjoying myself, startled because once you get past the idea of Oktoberfest, the words 'enjoy' and 'Germany' don't, for an American, seem to belong together." This unlikely travelogue explores the nuances of Gorra's social, cultural and even monetary exchanges. The author's accounts illustrate his hypothesis that our American memory of WWII still informs our relationship with contemporary Germany. In one episode, Gorra finds himself at a customs office, struggling with the language and trying to retrieve a damaged parcel from the U.S. "I was given a knife and asked to open it. Books. And on top, the very first volume that both the customs official and I saw, was Hitler's Willing Executioners.... I felt vaguely embarrassed about it, as if the book's appearance at the top of the box had confirmed the German stereotype about the American stereotype of Germans." Gorra is most successful in these moments of surprise and sometimes even shame. Other times, the book feels burdened by references to scores of other writers and philosophers and reads more like an academic text than insightful travel writing. (May) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

Library Journal Review

The title of this academic hodgepodge misleads, as readers won't encounter the "the bells in their silence" until the last chapter. As for the subtitle, it also leads us astray. Gorra (English, Smith Coll.; After Empire) states in his prolog that he has no intention of providing a typical travel book. In this respect, he succeeds admirably. Although he spent a sabbatical year in Hamburg and had briefly visited Germany at an earlier date, his explorations are primarily limited to Buchenwald, Berlin, small sections of Hamburg, and the Harz Mountain region. He uses Goethe's Italian travels as a foil to contemporary Germany, a peculiar choice at best. In the last chapter, he contrasts his own family with that of Thomas Mann's fictional Buddenbrooks; again, one wonders at the relevance. There's a feeling that this is a cut-and-paste effort, an attempt by Gorra to use or salvage some of his favorite musings and intellectual wanderings. The best moments are brief, as when Gorra actually evaluates his environment. A marginal purchase for sophisticated collections and academic libraries.-Janet Ross, Sparks, NV (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.