Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) was a virtuoso German poet, satirist, and visionary humanist whose dynamic life story and strikingly original writing are ripe for rediscovery. In this exploration of Heine's life and work, George Prochnik contextualizes Heine's biography within the different revolutionary political, literary, and philosophical movements of his age. He also explores the insights Heine offers contemporary readers into issues of social justice, exile, and the role of art in nurturing a more equitable society.
In his compact biography, Heinrich Heine: Writing the Revolution, George Prochnik conjures a restless and aggrieved malcontent who met and often tempted resistance and resentment at every turn ... The facts of the life are intriguing – but what makes Prochnik’s narrative so vigorously engaging is the sense that he gets Heine and perhaps identifies with the aspirations and griefs of the outsider. This connection emerges through tone – and by not getting too deep into the weeds of literary analysis ... Prochnik does an adequate job of tersely describing the evolving sounds of Heine’s work ... finely captures the major moments.
George Prochnik has done a splendid job of capturing the many contradictions and complexities in Heine’s biography and oeuvre. As with his earlier, well-received biographies of Stefan Zweig and Gershom Scholem (two later German Jewish literati), Prochnik possesses an uncanny knack for inhabiting the mind of his subject. This is not biography at an ivory-tower remove, but rather an attempt to discover, using his subject’s own writing, what made him tick. Because Prochnik does not provide footnotes (preferring, instead, a copious bibliographical essay), it is not always entirely clear where he is ventriloquizing Heine and where he is speaking in his own voice. Either way, the result is a high-octane account of Heine’s life in what seems convincingly the way he himself experienced it.
Mr. Prochnik’s book passes quickly over Heine’s Paris years, the second half of his life. Partly this is due to space limitations, but it’s also because Mr. Prochnik is primarily drawn to the youthful rebel and idealist in Heine. He offers a portrait of the poet as a crusader for truth and beauty in a world where both were in short supply. Less to the fore in Mr. Prochnik’s treatment is Heine the ironist, who made fun of everybody’s ideals and passions, including his own ... Mr. Prochnik’s subtitle is 'Writing the Revolution,' but for Heine the writing was more serious than the revolution.