Reinhold Messner takes a distinct stance on mountain literature
After carving out a place in history as an extreme alpinist, Reinhold Messner segued into a second career as a director of multiple museums. But why stop there? On the evidence of a book procured from a local second-hand shop, he’s also put together a unique collection of mountain literature.
By the standards of most alpine anthologies, this is an extreme one. For in his “Lesebuch” (reader), Messner takes as his remit the whole of mountain literature – not just mountaineering. As he explains in his introduction, “Fortunately, alpine literature is not simply the books that alpinists read; rather it is everything that concerns the mountains and our relationship to them.”
So, if breadth and variety are what you’re looking for, this collection won’t disappoint. “What I want to make visible and tangible,” says Messner, “are the different levels of experience that mountains all over the world represent – in short, what they mean to people everywhere.”
The book has four sections. First come the myths and origins of alpinism, taking in some old chestnuts such as Petrarch’s ascent of Mont Ventoux and Konrad Gesner’s
Pilatus climb. But also included are Livy’s account of Hannibal crossing the Alps and a snippet by Mao Tse-tung.
Then follow the “classics and romantics”. According to Messner, a distinct genre of alpine writing emerged from the scientific and travel literature of the late 18th century, subsequently becoming more specialised. This section spans both the literary men such as Goethe and Schiller
and scientists like Humboldt and Darwin – although, of course, there was only a single culture in those days.
And here too we encounter Georg Büchner’s Romantic hero Lenz, who in the eponymous story “forged on into this vastness... completely alone, wanting yet unable to talk to himself, indeed hardly daring to breathe, his mere footfall sounding like thunder beneath him”. Is it possible that Messner the high-altitude soloist sees a fellow spirit here?
The third section covers what Messner calls “expressionism”. These are the writers of alpinism’s classical age, here represented by Guido Lammer (1863–1945) and Ludwig Purtscheller (1849-1900), both pioneers of guideless climbing. The more literary contributions of Ludwig Hohl and René Daumal, the author of Mount Analogue
, also get an airing.
Finally comes the age of postwar “realism”. As you’d expect, this section includes writings from Messner’s immediate predecessors and peers, such as Walter Bonatti (1930-2011), Gaston Rébuffat (1921-1985) and Kurt Diemberger (b.1932).
More surprisingly, it also embraces writers who probably never drove a piton in their lives. Ernest Hemingway is there, and so are Bruce Chatwin, John Steinbeck and Simone de Beauvoir – of course, you knew she was a hard-driving solo mountain walker
. And, as this is the most cross-cultural of extreme anthologies, Milarepa (1052-1135) and Inoue Yasushi
(1907-1991) get a look-in too.
Who’s out is as significant as who’s in. Readers will search in vain for Paul Bauer, Luis Trenker and Fritz Bechtold, those prominent alpinists of the 1930s. Messner deplores their “alpine triumphalism”, by which he means mountaineering fired up for nationalist purposes. And he has little taste for modern mountain novels, even if they win literary awards. As Messner explains:
However competent alpinists may be as climbers, their writings have to measure up to the standards of literature. In selecting these extracts, therefore, I’ve placed more emphasis on the quality of the writing and less on the historical significance of the deed it describes.
If applied rigorously, that principle would galvanise any compilation of other people’s writings. Sadly, though, Reinhold Messners Lesebuch
doesn’t seem to have attracted much in the way of reviews and commentary since it was published in 1985. That’s a pity. As a bold attempt to redefine the alpine anthology, it could shake up thinking about what constitutes the essential literature of the mountains. ReferencesReinhold Messners Lesebuch
, Bruckmann Bergsteiger Bibliothek, Munich 1985 (German language).
Literature about the mountains – excerpts from the introduction to Reinhold Messners Lesebuch
Mountains are as elemental as seas. Yet mountains don’t seem to resonate through literature as the sea does. Why not, one might ask. But my purpose with this book isn’t to answer a question, but rather to choose among the host of mountain writings and verses, gathering together what I think is worth reading about the mountains. So this anthology follows the timetable set by the history of literature and of mountaineering, as sketched out by the book’s partition into four main chapters ...
When Hannibal crossed the Alps in 218 BC with 60,000 soldiers, elephants and horses, it was the boldest mountain expedition of all time. What came next is less improbable, up to and including the first ascent of Mount Everest without an oxygen mask. Dante and Petrarch, with their sense of form and space, brought the mountains home even to folk who found all peaks forbidding and sinister. The former climbed the Bismantova near Reggio as the mountain of his penitence, the latter Mont Ventoux in Provence, which he ascended in 1336, urged on “by the desire to see for myself the singular altitude of this place on earth”.
The versatile Leonardo da Vinci did not climb the mountains as a painter. Instead, like Charles Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt after him, he approached the mountains scientifically. As botanists, mineralogists and topographers, these men picked out and recorded key facts. It was from this scientific and travel literature, which took root at the end of the 18th century, that a distinct genre of mountain literature emerged during the Romantic era and subsequently became more and more specialised.
The young Goethe may have found Switzerland’s St Gotthard Pass “desolate as the valley of death” with its “naked rock and moss and storm wind and clouds”, but that didn’t stop the adventurers that soon afterwards thronged to the highest peaks of the Alps, spurred on by ambition and the spirit of exploration. In their minds, they blended the “conquest of the mountains” with patriotism, and later with idealism too, and from this heady mixture they distilled the alpine literature of the times.
In another sense, though the mountains are beyond human comprehension. As depicted by Caspar David Friedrich, they embody utter desolation, like the painter’s solitary “Watzmann”, or Georg Büchner’s hero in his eponymous story “Lenz”, who “forged on into this vastness... completely alone, wanting yet unable to talk to himself, indeed hardly daring to breathe, his mere footfall sounding like thunder beneath him”. These mountains are severe, they shrug off humanity. For all they cared, Lenz “could have left the earth behind him”.
Friedrich Hölderlin too found something sublime in the “divinely built palaces” of the peaks, and “heaped up all around” they became a source of spiritual solace for him. But expressionism, which coincided with the classical age of alpinism, yielded little in the way of lasting literature. Any attempt we make to explain what we do in the mountains pales in comparison with Büchner, who among his other achievements was the true originator of modern alpine literature. As his hero Lenz exclaims: “I can’t stand it anywhere but around there … If I couldn’t sometimes climb a mountain and look around, and then go back down … I’d be great! great! Leave me alone!”
Ludwig Hohl, the Swiss writer whom readers long chose to ignore, wrote in his Bergfahrt
(Ascent) what a thousand other mountain books left unsaid. For this, he gave up his alpine days for years as an author, scribbling away in a basement.
As for the mountaineers, from Edward Whymper to Hermann von Barth and Ludwig Purtscheller, they have expressed themselves better by their deeds than through their writings. Even so, some of their books on rock and snow are worth reading. For anybody who wanted to depict the mountains before photography was discovered had to be able to write or paint. With numerous reservations, some successful descriptions can be found in the likes of Eugen Guido Lammer’s Jungborn
and Oskar Erich Meyer’s Tat und Traum
. And the same can be said for Leo Maduschka, although his Junger Mensch im Gebirg
contains both literature and kitsch.
Even today, in the era of modern realism, alpinists have contributed little to true literature. Again, we have to look to more casual mountaineers if we seek the essence of mountains. Ernest Hemingway, for example, creates a whole world in just a few pages of An alpine idyll.
Likewise, Max Frisch and Martin Walser convince one with their atmospheric renderings, and Werner Herzog’s Of walking in ice
provokes more thoughts than all the hiking books of the last hundred years put together.
Among the few exceptions, Gaston Rébuffat, that humanist among the climbers, does have something to say to me, as does the existentialist Pierre Mazeaud, and Lionel Terray too. By representing mountaineering as the “conquest of the useless”, the latter comes out convincingly against the mere exploitation of the world. Walter Bonatti is as much author as alpinist, and Reinhard Karl demands as much of himself in writing as he did in climbing (...)
None of this century’s books of alpine triumphalism have been chosen for this selection because I find it deeply repugnant to read about a mountain characterised as the enemy. When Paul Bauer or Oskar Günther Dyhrenfurth describe their expeditions, they read like a report from the front. When Luis Trenker hears the mountains calling and Fritz Bechtold will not rest until the swastika flag flies at the summit of Nanga Parbat, they are not only children of their time but they are the exponents of a dangerous ideology (...)
But must we trash all those stories that depend on heroic self-sacrifice, just so that our critics can see that we are neither masochists nor death addicts? And how much longer must we genuflect towards that idol of “mountain comradeship”, and when will alpine club officials or magazine editors learn to discriminate between Grub Street and genuine literature?
(...) So, in making the selections for this book, I took heed neither of reviewers nor of bestseller lists. Nor did I refer to the likes of the German alpine federation’s DAV Book Prize, an otherwise praiseworthy institution (...)
Books and biographies based on personal experience represent a third genre of this type of cult literature. Most aim for some kind of self-gratification, even if quite a few weren’t even written by the protagonists themselves. After all, a mountaineer can only number among the “greats” if he has written a book. And who can resist the temptation of being a great climber?
But climbers may sometimes express themselves in more than one way. In my case, though, my climbing has nothing to do with my writing. Both may be creative acts, but each is subject to a completely different set of rules.
However competent alpinists may be as climbers, their writings have to measure up to the standards of literature. In selecting these extracts, therefore, I’ve placed more emphasis on the quality of the writing and less on the historical significance of the deed it describes. To fully appreciate a first ascent, I have to repeat it. But in order to judge a book, I need to read it as a literary work....
The crisis of alpinism is above all a crisis of its literature. Rather than overwriting, its real malady is to idealise. The exaggerated self-portrayal that mountaineers – whether extreme climbers or weekend tourists – like to project is one reason why one finds so little good literature among those countless mountain books. In the face of these mountainous reams of alpine literature - comprising tons of lyrical kitsch, nature worship that degenerates into empty phrases, self-discovery delivered in soundbites – I sometimes feel like Büchner’s Lenz in the mountains: “the only thing that bothered him is that he couldn’t walk on his head.”
This is why, although I am a mountaineer, I haven’t put together a collection of mountaineering stories for mountaineers. For I’m more interested in how mountains affect people and then in how these effects are reworked into literature.
My aim with this selection is to entertain, and to make you think and ask questions. I want to show you that there really is a literature about the mountains, and one which in Büchner’s words can “rise like a deep blue crystal wave into the sunset”.