Readers unfamiliar with Bertolt Brecht’s life should approach the new translation of his letters warily or not at all.[1] From Brecht’s collected letters and the editors’ notes, the uninitiated are unlikely to comprehend the man’s character—if that word can stand for its own absence. An objective biography (the most accessible one in English is Ronald Hayman’s)[2] is a prerequisite for the understanding of Bertolt Brecht: Letters 1913-1956, although the perceptive reader might get a fraction of the truth even from perusing this hefty volume. But he must be able to read as much between the lines as in them.

This is not an assessment I make lightly. I find it profoundly disturbing that a man several of whose plays I admire and many of whose poems I love should have be ...