Johannes Speyer and the Active Reader

by Georgy Riecke

This article was going to be all about Lucio Ganzini (whose pointless memoir, Where the Power Lies: Pricks, Prats and Publishing Houses, hit the shelves last week) but circumstances, like a stiff summer wind, have blown me from one field to another, leaving me free to pursue alternative thoughts.

It just so happens that I have recently found myself, on several occasions, laying down the law on my late teacher, Johannes Speyer (1913-1984) – a man whose influential doctrines any reader of mine will have come across, in various forms, throughout my writing. Some say I have lived my critical life in Speyer’s shadow. They are probably wrong - but in case they aren’t, let me say this: I’d rather sit in Speyer’s shadow than melt like a soporific snowman under the smouldering sun of chronic ignorance.

The truth is that I have, for some time, considered writing a book about him (Wolfgang Heizler’s 2004 critical biography, Surfing on Words, though good in parts, failed to get a sense of the man as he really was). Conversations with Speyer was the first title that came to mind. At last a chance to utilize those patient transcriptions I made of all our early conversations! Looking back on these, however, I realised that for every wise thing Speyer said, I would offer something quite inane in reply. Perhaps it would be better, in the long run, to go for Speyer Stories, a compendium of my favourite Speyer anecdotes: the time he almost drowned off the Adriatic Coast trying to read Moll Flanders for the thirteenth time on a makeshift raft; the time he asked a skywriter to reproduce the opening line of Paavo Laami’s The Phoenicians across the sky and refused to pay up on account of a missing comma; the time he threw a glass of vanilla milk at Maria von Küppelberg’s five year old daughter; maybe even the time he killed a facetious magpie with a large German lexicon. So many great stories. Perhaps too many.

What about a collection of quotations instead? Speyer was eminently quotable, after all. ‘Read, re-read and re-read again’ was his most famous phrase – one which bears repeating, re-repeating and re-repeating again. Oh, but to reduce a man to a mere parade of aphorisms: it’s a cruel sport. No - what the world really needs, I thought, is a book that puts Speyer’s life and work into perspective; a book that outlines the relevance of his theories for contemporary readers. Speyer and the Twenty-First Century - something like that.

Should you doubt the immense necessity of such a study, allow me to spend the rest of this short article explaining, for those who don’t already know, just why modern readers ought to know more about Johannes Speyer.

He had his faults, I’ve never denied that. He could be wilfully obscure at times, or just plain silly. Take his infamous surfing metaphors, for example. Whatever provoked a man of his intelligence (nevermind a landlocked Austrian) to pepper his prose with quite so many references to surfing? We shall never know - suffice it to say that beneath the weird frothy waves of his language swam fish of remarkably good sense. Indeed, the foundations of Speyer’s thought were, to some extent, frighteningly simple. He fought, in short, for better understanding; for a greater effort made on the part of the reader to fully comprehend the glorious creations of the writer (curiously he never questioned whether the writer was worth understanding: he took this for granted). He was, you could say, a critic of criticism, constantly haranguing his colleagues for their failure to make an effort worthy of their roles. Lazy readers annoyed him like nothing else. The perfect reader, for him, was one that squeezed every last drop of potential out of a book; that made every page of every book sweat for its very life. To his mind, reading was far from a relaxing activity: it was a fierce struggle, a violent tussle, maybe even an erotic rumble between reader and writer. Anything but a calm afternoon on a cosy armchair. God forbid.

How does this translate into actual practice? As I hinted, Speyer’s methods were somewhat extreme. What’s more, he spent so much time attacking critical methods, he rarely gave himself the opportunity to apply his own. It is up to us, therefore, to try and pick up where he left off; to smooth down the rough edges of his philosophy into a workable form, whilst retaining the core of his provocative thoughts.

I have attempted to do this, in the main, by pushing forward the idea of ‘Active Reading’. Speyer believed not only in re-reading, but in pursuing a range of reading styles. This is something we can all integrate into our own reading practice. Have you ever considered, for example, reading underwater? Maybe it sounds a little mad – but it can do wonders for one’s understanding of resonant themes in early twentieth century Hungarian poetry. I cannot even begin to describe the pleasingly different perspectives one gets from reading Virginia Woolf once on a boat, and then again in a field full of manure. Oh, the nuances, the nuances! They simply seep from a book in the hands of a truly Active Reader. Trust me. Once you’ve read Boris Yashmilye up a tree, in a cave and then again in sub zero temperatures, you’ll never look at literature the same way again. ‘Stop skirting along the surface of things,’ as Speyer once said to me, ‘take a dive, for art’s sake, take a dive’.

Georgy Riecke has been dipping his wrinkled toes into the strange lake of obscure European literature since the 1980s. After studying in Germany, he co-founded a literary magazine, ‘Groping for Allusions’, in London. In the mid 90s he founded another journal, ‘Underneath the Bunker’, which has been online since 2004 ( Since 2008 he has been regularly blogging at

Photo Credit: Jude Giles with thanks to our own Grace Read for sitting in a lake!