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Martens, Kurt 1870–1945

MARTENS, Kurt 1870–1945

PERSONAL: Born January 21, 1870, in Leipzig, Germany; committed suicide February 16, 1945, in Dresden, Germany; son of Heinrich Oscar and Henriette (Erckel) Martens; married Mary Fischer, 1899; children: Hertha Helena. Education: Attended University in Heidelberg; studied law in Berlin. Religion: Roman Catholic.

CAREER: Novelist and author of short fiction. Lawyer, 1895–96.

WRITINGS:

Sinkende Schwimmer: Novellistische Skizzen aus dem Strudel der Zeit, Hochsprung (Berlin, Germany), 1892.

Wie ein Strahl verglimmt (three-act play), Wild (Leipzig, Germany), 1895.

Die gehetzten Seelen: Novellen, Fontane (Berlin, Germany), 1897.

Roman aus der Décadence, Fontane (Berlin, Germany), 1898.

Aus dem Tagebuch einer Baronesse von Treuth und andere Novellen, Fontane (Berlin, Germany), 1899.

Die Vollendung (novel), Fleischel (Berlin, Germany), 1902.

Kaspar D Hauser (four-act play), Fleischel (Berlin, Germany), 1903.

Katastrophen: Novellen, Fleischel (Berlin, Germany), 1904.

Kreislauf der Liebe: eine Geschichte von besseren Menschen, Fleischel (Berlin, Germany), 1906.

Der Freudenmeister (four-act play), Fleischel (Berlin, Germany), 1907.

Drei Novellen von adeliger Lust, Fleischel (Berlin, Germany), 1909.

Literatur in Deutschland: Studien und Eindrücke, Fleischel (Berlin, Germany), 1910.

Die alten Ideale, Volume 1: Deutschland marschiert: ein Roman von 1813, Fleischel (Berlin, Germany), 1913, Volume 2: Pia: der Roman ihrer zwei Welten, Fleischel (Berlin, Germany), 1913, Volume 3: Hier und drüben: Roman, Grethlein (Leipzig, Germany), 1915.

Geschmack und Bildung: Kleine Essays, Fleischel (Berlin, Germany), 1914.

Verse, Bachmair (Munich, Germany), 1914.

Jan Friedrich: der Roman eines Stätsmannes, Grethlein (Leipzig, Germany), 1916.

Die großen und die kleinen Leiden: Novellen, Grethlein (Leipzig, Germany), 1917.

Der Alp von Zerled (novel), Grethlein (Leipzig, Germany), 1920.

Schura: Novelle, Hillger (Berlin, Germany), 1920.

Schonungslose Lebenschronik 1870–1900, Rikola (Vienna, Austria), 1921.

Die Pulververschwörung 1603–1606, Deutscher Verlag (Leipzig, Germany), 1922.

Zwischen Sumpf und Firmament: Novellen, Paetel (Munich, Germany), 1922.

(Editor) Die deutsche Literatur unserer Zeit: in Charakteristiken und Proben, Rösl (Munich, Germany), 1922, enlarged edition, Franke (Berlin, Germany), 1933.

Abenteuer der Seele: Novelletten, Reclam (Leipzig, Germany), 1923.

Des Geliebten doppelte Gestalt (novel), Scherl (Berlin, Germany), 1923.

Schonungslose Lebenschronik: Zweiter Teil 1901–1923, Rikola (Vienna, Austria), 1924.

Blausäure: Ein Schuß im Wiener Wald: Kriminal-Novellen, Sieben Staebe (Berlin, Germany), 1929.

Gabriele Bach: Roman einer Deutschen in Paris, Neff (Berlin, Germany), 1935.

Die Tänzerin und der Blinde, Limpert (Berlin, Germany), 1935.

Feldherr in fremdem Dienst: Schicksale des Grafen Matthias von der Schulenburg: Historische Erzählung, Möhring (Leipzig, Germany), 1936.

Die junge Cosima (novel), Janke (Leipzig, Germany), 1937.

Forsthaus Ellermoor (novel), Seyfert (Dresden, Germany), 1937.

Verzicht und Vollendung (novel), Steuben (Berlin, Germany), 1941.

(Translator and adapter, with Hertha Martens) Sudraka, Vasantasena, Drehbühne (Berlin, Germany), 1943.

Contributor to periodical Das literarische Echo.

SIDELIGHTS: While German writer Kurt Martens wrote numerous novels and novella-length works during his career, he remains best known for his literary friendship with novelist Thomas Mann. In the early part of Martens's career, he and Mann shared thoughts about writing and shared admiration for each other; Mann even dedicated his well-known novella Tonio Kröger to Martens as a token of their camaraderie. Gradually, however, as Mann's star rose and Martens's fell, the friendship faded. After Dresden was bombed during World War II, two of Martens's manuscripts, along with his household, perished in flames, and he committed suicide in the ruins of his home shortly after.

Martens was born on January 21, 1870 in the city of Leipzig. His parents, Heinrich Oscar and Henriette Erckel Martens, were wealthy; as George C. Schoolfield put it in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Martens came from "a patrician and conservative home." He was educated thoroughly at boarding school, though he later described his schooldays in harrowing terms. Schoolfield explained: "The burden of Martens's first volume [of his autobiography, Schonungslose Lebenschronik or "Unsparing chronicle of life," 1921] … was the harmful effect his upbringing in boarding schools had had upon him. Some of the teachers had been excellent … but the headmaster was unaware of what went on outside the classroom, and Martens had early been introduced to homosexual practices. These involvements, however much Martens claims to regret them, are recounted with a great deal more ardor than are his later heterosexual adventures and the vague and hasty story of his engagement and marriage." Regardless of his difficulties in boarding school, Martens pursued his education diligently, eventually attending the University at Heidelberg, and then studying law in Berlin.

In 1895, Martens moved to Dresden to begin a legal career, but a year later he decided to focus wholly on his writing. In 1896, he began to compose his first and best novel, Roman aus der Décadence, a semi-autobiographical story about Just, a young trainee in the Leipzig court system.

In Martens's story, Just seems to be uncertain of his position in the world; though he is courting the genteel Alice, he still sleeps with a beggar he calls Amaryllis. While Just wrestles with his own societal position, he gradually loses his friend, the jurist Erich Luttwitz, when Erich becomes increasingly decadent. Finally, Just watches passively as Erich throws a "death festival" in a rented mansion. There, Erich provides his guests with lavish music and theater, until the guests become crazed with art and begin to revel orgiastically in the audience. Erich sweeps away to marry a wealthy widow, leaving Just to consider his own position in this society. Alice, his genteel love interest, marries another man; another likely wife, Esther, is already secretly married. The novel ends while Just is deciding whether to become a revolutionary—but the reader never knows what Just has decided.

Roman aus der Décadence, evoked some interest from critics, but, as Schoolfield remarked, "Martens lacks that 'elevation' of which Thomas Mann would speak; as Just's narrative voice is dryly unimpassioned, so Martens is incapable of making almost any of his characters or milieu seem alive." Nevertheless, the novel solidified Martens's career as a writer. One year after its publication, Martens moved to Munich, married Mary Fischer (with whom he had one daughter, Hertha Helena), and became a novelist.

After his first success, the remainder of the author's career proved to be anticlimactic. Though as a young editor Mann had accepted a story of Martens's for his magazine, Simplicissimus, Mann became increasingly critical of Martens's work. When his autobiography, Schonungslose Lebenschronik, was published in 1921, Mann reviewed it shortly though with some kindness. As Schoolfield suggested, Mann "must have been flattered by Martens's tributes to his exceptional talent, yet pained by the crass revelations Martens made about himself in an often wooden and pedantic style."

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Martens continued to write about the same subject that had initially interested him: the conflict between wealth and birth. Increasingly, however, he wrote in the mode of entertainment rather than the mode of social critique. Der Alp von Zerled, for example, tells the tale of a talented young lawyer, Roderich, who becomes obsessed with the aristocratic daughter of the house of Zerled—but also becomes obsessed with the girl's governess. Ultimately, the poor lawyer is slain by the nobility whom he both emulates and despises.

In Verzicht und Vollendung, Martens's last published novel, he fantasizes that ill-fated King Louis XVII escapes the French revolution to live in a sort of muted moral glory over his would-be assassins. Martens often used an historical frame in order to comment on the struggles between the wealthy middle class and the aristocracy. While in his writing he seems, ultimately, to support a social hierarchy based on birthright, throughout his career he wavered between the importance of accumulating wealth and significance of the accident of birth.

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 66: German Fiction Writers, 1885–1913, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1988, pp. 391-395.

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