1 Kebei

Arno Schmidt Radio Essays About Education

*By Tim König, co-translator of Melchior Vischer’s 1920 Dada masterpiece Second through Brain (Equus: 2015).

Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream.[1]

An “instrument of terror”[2]

For a long time, Arno Schmidt was an underdog of German literature in the Anglophone world. After 2016, this could change, as his huge masterpiece Zettel’s Traum has been translated into English by John E. Woods under the title Bottom’s Dream. Anglophone scholars could have been waiting for a translation of one of the most experimental texts of German literature since as early as 1979, when an influential article by David Hayman, who included translated excerpts of Zettel’s Traum in Some Writers in the Wake of the Wake, introduced Schmidt’s book as an “attempt to write a German Finnegans Wake”[3]. Hayman presented Zettel’s Traum (the title not yet translated) as proof of the “influence of the Wake on concrete fiction, the ful-fill-ment (however unevenly successful) of the printed word, its gesturalization (immediacy and motion).”[4] Despite that, Bottom’s Dream hasn’t been commonly read as a post-structuralist text, critics seldom drawn to its concrete and performative aspects.

Schmidt was aware of similarities between his and Joyce’s writing and went far beyond reasonably or theoretically conventional literature. Once, probably ironically, but surely arrogantly, Schmidt stated that Joyce had lightened up his work, because he hadn’t imposed order upon Finnegans Wake, and because he’d let the text be typeset in only one column – which would make things more complex than they were. For this reason, Schmidt wrote Bottom’s Dream in three columns, laconically adding: “He [James Joyce] simply enjoyed secretiveness.”[5] In many cases, the voice of Arno Schmidt is as unreliable as that of his figures, often implying: It is more complicated than you think.

Bottom’s Dream has been a challenge for readers of any ilk, from enthusiastic amateurs to progressive literary scholars. Luckily, it is now available in English for $ 56 (which is cheap: the German version costs around 300 €); and may be the heaviest text-object with the most infinitely enigmatic and funniest wordplays one can get for this little sum. Maybe this explains why the first review of Bottom’s Dream was published in The Wall Street Journal, followed by more insightful reports in The New YorkerThe Times literary supplement and, most recently, in the Los Angeles Review of Books. The last one is one step ahead, reflecting on possible techniques of reading and deciphering, as well as proposing the strange conjecture that the English translation of a book that extensively theorises translations could very well say more about the art of translation than the original. Just as the first reviews of Zettel’s Traum in the seventies, the first reactions to Bottom’s Dream focus on the material status of the text as a behemoth that will never fit on any coffee-table. This book undermines its status as a text, both as rupture and continuation of a textual line.

Given the current resurgence of interest in Schmidt, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the German reception of this leviathan of German literature – which enemies and fans it’s garnered over the past half-century and which cults it’s given rise to. Therefore, I am going to give a short introduction to Bottom’s Dream and insight into the main German research communities as it explains some of the major pitfalls and great chances of reflecting on Arno Schmidt’s experimental writing. Finally, I am going to present an attempt to theoretically grasp this book, which basically means finding a way to read it. In this attempt, Philippe Sollers’ Writing and the experience of limits as a “theory of ruptures” is my point of departure (and arrival), the text showing the way[6].

Why does it have to be so complicated?

Bottom’s Dream is one of the most kaleidoscopic literary texts. It has been recognized, appreciated and criticized as avant-garde. It has described as neither understandable by itself nor hermeneutically decipherable. It has been analyzed as a truly innovative text at the same time deeply rooted in traditional literature. It was considered an unreadable book with an almost banally simple narrative. It is probably the most prominently reviewed book of all by Arno Schmidt – and, at the same time, the least read. The book provoked this phenomenon; however organized or categorized it is, it negates order as it moves into an antonymous relation to any order. It is hard to say anything meaningful about Bottom’s Dream. A brief glance at the first chapters gives an impression of this problem. Book 1 (out of 8) of Bottom’s Dream is called “The Horrorfield, or The Language of Tsalal”, whereas ‘Tsalal’ could mean, as the main character explains on the beginning pages “(Charlatanic : it had ’ndeed taken a few days before the insight came to me ! . . .)”[7]

Nevertheless, the basic parameters of Bottom’s Dream can be named in one sentence, if one follows an explanatory radio session with Arno Schmidt[8]: A married couple of translators, Paul and Wilma Jacobi, and their daughter Franziska visit the author Daniel Pagenstecher for twenty-four hours at his home in the north German rural district Celle to discuss the life and writings of Edgar Allan Poe, whose texts the couple is translating.

The layout looks extravagant in the beginning, but might be explained briefly, too: The main text is centered in a column in the middle, taking up half of the page. The text shifts to the left side when it is about Edgar Allan Poe and to the right side if dealing with psychoanalytical issues. Also, there are smaller printed commentaries wherever there is space. The uncertainty of reading appears in confrontation with the literary text, not in its summary; this can be illustrated by the beginning of Bottom’s Dream.

The difficulty of getting into a consistent reading is also reflected within the story, very obviously in the beginning, which remains a complete enigma if one does not know the references of the text. Jörg Drews gave a deep analysis on the first page, so most of the references are given;[9] of interest for me (besides I found one small referential clue that Drews did not name)[10] is that the text stylizes the vulnerability of reading in a pictorial way:

The ‘x’s opening for the “king” could represent the later named barbed wire fence, through which the four protagonists have to step into the Horrorfield after which the first book of Bottom’s Dream is named. While stepping through the fence, Paul Jacobi might say “king” as he does later in the text several times – but as the right side comments, it could be a quote from The Monikins by James Fennimore Cooper protagonist, Noah Poke, or a curse (fu-king).

I have left aside several other meanings of the first line, but the important point is that Bottom’s Dream remains silent for the reader who does not use a method of deciphering – may it be a contrasting reading of other texts like Cooper’s and Poe’s, or a biographical reading (i.e. it is likely that Schmidt had to eat udders, when he was a child). All these techniques are vulnerable, might lead to stupidities, lame jokes or simply ignorance of the diversity of meanings.

One of Arno Schmidt’s most famous sayings, uttered shortly after the publication of Zettel’s Traum in 1970, is an answer he gave to the journalist’s question of who should react to his book: “The intelligent reviewer doesn’t say anything about the book for one year. He simply states that there is something like that.”[11] Today, again, the material of the book is described in the first place, only afterwards, the textual structures of Bottom’s Dream get paraphrased, mostly ending wondering about how the book could be understood. In the article cited above, the interviewer stated later that there is only one reader who could understand the book: Arno Schmidt.

This statement could also be seen as a part of creating a myth as well as having an advertising effect: After three months, all 2000 prints of the German original print were sold, although they cost 298 Mark, which was nearly a third of the average monthly pay in the seventies. There were good reasons for not judging the book in 1970, when it was published five years after Schmidt started combining his sheets of notes and quotes to create Zettel’s Traum: Behind the physical enormity (1334 pages in A3, weight: 17 pound) stands a facsimile of a typescript that was neither a pure product of the author’s nor the publisher’s intention. Friedhelm Rathjen, by now editor of the Bargfelder Bote, goes as far as to say that “[t]he publication as a typescript was a makeshift and, because of its sheer length, Schmidt could not afford the originally intended clean copy of the text so that this typescript contains literally corrections on every page, blackened text and text-additions, often written in Schmidt’s hardly legible handwriting.”[12]

Therefore, the editors of the complete works used improvements in printing-technologies to compose a new edition of the book, in which nearly every blackened text is erased, few typing-mistakes get corrected and the layout is simplified (i.e. additions in Arno Schmidt’s handwriting get transcribed). One of the surprisingly practical things about John E. Woods’ translation is that the foliation of Bottom’s Dream is the same as in the German edition from 2010. Without the existence of a reclusive author living in Bargfeld and the possibility of an interview or nervous chat through a fence with him, the advertising effect of its massive obscurity would not have been that strong: The possibility of a true meaning of it all, or more precisely, the possibility of finding it in a German heath at the writer’s house, has to some extent died with the author.

The Arno Schmidt Foundation maintains his house and last year the foundation offered the opportunity to step inside a darkened room in the Akademie der Künste with exhibits or devotional objects as well as interviews surrounding Arno Schmidt; one of the interviews was held with John E. Woods, who highlights the political implications of Arno Schmidt’s transformation of the German language and its historical embeddedness in post-war Germany. Somehow, the author gathers voices that lead to other directions than Bargfeld.

Unlike for many others, 2016 has been a year of anniversaries for Arno Schmidt scholars. The publication of Bottom’s Dream is one of them. Although published by Dalkey Archive Press, practically, it forms a part of the complete works published by the Arno Schmidt Foundation, which holds the rights of the works and supports translations or studies of them.

At Bargfeld, the Bargfelder Bote celebrated this summer both its 400th issue and Alice Schmidt’s 100th birthday.[13] The magazine was founded by the Arno-Schmidt-Dechiffrier-Syndikat (= syndicate for decoding Arno Schmidt’s works), an ironically named group that claimed to make Bottom’s Dream collectively legible. Until today, one can find people making fun of the cult(s) around Arno Schmidt, as they would try to decode Arno Schmidt like crosswords, trying to find solutions in every inch of Arno Schmidt’s life. In fact, this program was a pun from the beginning, although it came to serious results. Nevertheless, it is tough to get issues of the Bargfelder Bote in libraries these days.

The Gesellschaft der Arno Schmidt Leser (society of readers of Arno Schmidt) celebrated at this year’s conference its thirty years of existence. As a society, the GASL is more institutionalized, but at the same time academically nomadic. The Zettelkasten, its yearbook, is available in at least some libraries. Although most disputes have been laid off in time, there are constant rumors about approaches to Arno Schmidt’s literary texts: The unsettled character of research on Arno Schmidt allows more innovation, as in the same move, it provokes obscurity. Often, one encounters personal histories of reading Arno Schmidt, whereas in the first place, his texts seemed to be highly enigmatic, closed, obscure and difficult. After reading a second or third Schmidt book, one feels at home in his works and can find references, decode them and participate in a dialogue about their meaning; the longer this dialogue goes on, the more obscure it gets. This way of acclaiming not only knowledge, but also an introduction to a certain, literary way of collectively connecting knowledge, seems to be coming to an historical end. Despite that, new ways of reading Arno Schmidt -besides decoding- were explored at this year’s GASL-conference, for example Alexander John Holt’s reading of Republica Intelligentsia (Die Gelehrtenrepublik) as a Foucaultian heterotopia of languages, (latently fascist) eugenics and geopolitical struggles of power. (Here I refer to Alexander John Holt’s lecture, “Der heterotopistische Hominidenstreifen“, given at “31. Jahrestagung der Gesellschaft der Arno Schmidt Leser” in Mainz. Here‘s a brief summary thereof – my thanks to the author for allowing me to read his lecture notes.)

The approach of searching for hints in the works of Arno Schmidt and his library has been successful to a certain degree, it has become useless as a collective project in times of digital humanities and Google. If one analyzes texts as collages of other texts, digital comparison of available corpora is always faster, although the absurdity of it still remains (if it does not get increased). But if one recognizes the absurdity of interpretation and the obscurity of comparative analyses, this does not need to be a vulnerable, but an adventurous aspect of Schmidt’s texts, as Jan-Frederik Bandel has lately argued:

In Sitara und der Weg dorthin (1963), then mainly in his monumental novel of theory Bottom’s Dream, Arno Schmidt has subjected not really fictive, but bibliographically seizable texts firstly by May, then by Edgar Allan Poe to a psychoanalysis (with prominent results like May having depicted symptoms of his homosexuality, Edgar Allan Poe the symptoms of his coprophylic voyeurism, analytically graspable in depictions of landscapes, constellations of characters etc., above all within an unconsciously ambiguous language, as it is named in Sitara the “characteristic, trait=oral lettercreeplings …, the fonetical caricatures, the not=roots=of=words but uncontrolled mandrakes of roaming fantasies”). Schmidt portrays himself in a sort of postscriptum to his book on May as a “pronounced clear=glass=buffoon”, because he was open to comical effects, because he could not resist the “mixtures of creative destruction & pantagruelic revelation”.[14]

The pure principle of comparing two texts that would could have become useless, cannot be practiced without any aim and theoretical background. Often, irony served as a legitimation of cognitive interest and the experimentation with theoretical viewpoints on texts, also discussing the art of referring. I.e. in Bottom’s Dream, mushrooms stand in a Freudian view always for ‘penis’, although Daniel Pagenstecher makes fun of an anecdote in which Freud would have told his daughter Anna about mushrooming when he was a child, giving her the advice “to lay fresh flowers every day for a Madonna set out near the woods, so that it would help them find more” (BD, 739) mushrooms.

Decoding this part as a story about symbolic deflowering may be funny, but in a theoretical viewpoint, there are three processes of decoding: In a (probably) Freudian view, ‘mushroom’ means ‘Penis’, in a Pagenstechrian view, Freud having mushroomed with his daughter is a symbolic deflowering and, finally, in our view, Psychoanalysis as a referential system becomes ridiculous.

Up to this degree, Arno Schmidt’s writing anticipated the theoretical pitfalls one is dealing with until now. Moreover, the difference between a professional and a learning reader gets undermined: The concentrated, complex and polysemantical patterns of words stand in the way of a fluent reception (at least, in the beginning) for both sorts of readers. This explosion of meaning can be read as well with a sense of humor as there is nothing behind the text, only the material objects, which appear directly in texts, like the fence in the beginning or, later in the book, a drawn mushroom (BD, 1141). I sum up two main pitfalls:

  1. An explosion of possible references of his overly complex distillations of words and forms, which can be often reduced by
    1. comparing two texts,
    2. comparing biographical information and
    3. comparing discourses standing above history with texts by Arno Schmidt (like psychoanalytical decoding).
  2. On the other hand, historical and material atoms of everyday life appear and disappear in his texts so that abstraction from atoms to systems is highly difficult.

The latter point leads to a field of problems surrounding the presence and absence of things, which remain silent if they are taken for themselves, if their void doesn’t open a space for speculation. If this speculation should not have the bitter taste of randomness, the can be drawn from their historical embeddedness. The structure of things can always be taken as a steady ground for critique as, on the other side, the structural multiplicity of reference does not give clear hints about where to search. For explaining this at the text itself, there are some reasons for going back to the beginning of this text, the role of James Joyce in Bottom’s Dream.

Daniel Pagenstecher, the reclusive author, asks Wilma Jacobi whether she prays to Termagaunt, a fictive deity of Chivalric romances applied to oriental people, as he discovered once again that the principles of her education of Franziska, the daughter of Wilma and Paul Jacobi, were based upon fictive values – like Termagaunt. She takes this rightfully as an insult, asking him, to which god he prays (he responses: no one), which is his fatherland (he responses: none), which principles he lives by (again: none), and, finally:

»Who is Your leader ? ; who is it that gives You orders ? « / ( – : joyce ? – : freud ? . – ) : »When I am of a mind to obey Them. Moreover, I have no one who commands me.« (BD, 531)

First, one should highlight the very striking implication of the German word for ‘leader’ in this place: ‘Führer’ is mostly used to refer to Hitler. However, naming Joyce and Freud as leaders to which one can “obey” brings them into proximity of a fetish; with ‘Führer’ as an ambiguous word in German, literary ancestry becomes a sadomasochistic, evil, and erotic play. A play insofar, as Daniel Pagenstecher assumes that he can choose freely whether to obey them or not. For us as readers, it is both failure and insight to bring Joyce (or Freud) into contrast with Bottom’s Dream. At the same time, this text forces us to do so – following, I will obey to the possibilities of meaning and matter of selected parts of the text(ure), leading the way to a historical series (which could and should be multiplied in later works).

A well=r’specktable text.

In times dominated by terms like “political correctness,” the possibility of expressing any meaning is still a controversial topic, a question of power. An implication can be an insult, discussing which implications should be taken serious, as a matter of justice. The intimate relation of definition and power is a crucial point within Bottom’s Dream: On page 20f Daniel Pagenstecher argues to be allowed to speak about sexual issues in his analysis of Edgar Allan Poe, but the parents Paul and Wilma Jacobi do not allow it in the presence of her daughter Franziska. Daniel Pagenstecher criticizes this act on a referential level: “Is Franziska forever to label love; (& those parts specially designated for love) with only the most vulgarest expressions of her schoolchums?” (BD, 20) Then, he says to give two arguments that should convince Wilma and Paul that Daniel can speak freely about sexuality. These arguments are explicitly named, then performed. The first one is irony, as he wants Franziska to swear that she understands every expression in the right way. The second one is a threat, which is performed by addressing the husband directly in order to oppress Wilma and, at the same time, impressing her by using “Graeco-Latinate hundredweight words” (BD, 20). Both arguments to not work out, so Daniel Pagenstecher names a third attempt to convince them, making his count wrong. This argument consists of speaking in abbreviations and secret codes: “Shall We not call a kitty a ›pussy‹ ? Shorthands & symbols work inf àct because they’re almost always uncompromised.” (BD, 21)[15] In the German version stands “unvorbelastet” instead of “uncompromised”. In German, it is possible to speak about ‘incriminating’ or ‘vorbelastete’ (the prefix ‘un-‘ meaning a negation) words; mostly it is used in regard to Nazi-language, although acronyms were one of the major techniques of Nazi-speech, which were assumed to sound sharp (therefore, there are a lot of ‘z’s in Nazi-abbreviations, which mostly do not make linguistically sense). However, this attempt of convincing Wilma and Paul seems to work out. There is also a historical continuation inside the usage of language as manipulation.

Therefore, they speak about sexuality as ‘S’ which takes also the phonological related meaning of the Freudian ‘it’, as the German phoneme ‘S’ sounds like ‘es’ (which means ‘it’). But also, Daniel Pagenstecher criticizes German author Hans Henny Jahnn for not naming directly what he wrote about (in Daniel Pagenstecher’s view!), when he wrote ‘loins’ instead of ‘genitals’, arguing: “but that seems so silly to me, so dp=like” (BD, 21). Although it is understandable that DP should mean something alike ‘silly’, this abbreviation gets explained a page later, where Daniel Pagenstecher is asked what is meant by ‘DP’, which is a face-threatening act, because it gives Daniel Pagenstecher another chance to teach something and therefore forcing his listeners into the role of pupils. Also, this can be seen as a theoretical point of view: The performance comes first, like in a Wittgensteinian view,[16] only within the act of explanation the word gets several meanings:

»What’d You mean just now by Your ›dp‹ ? «; (P; and gave his empty pewter a brown=studied gawk.) / : »Oh nothing much really. – It’s my name for the ›seers‹, Y’see; the Orffeuses; the bakers who worship their own biscuits : those Dichter, as we Germans call poets, who imagine they stem from P riests : D (ichter)=P (riests). You can think of ’em as ›Dee Pee‹’s, too; or ›D isplaced P ersons‹ : ›Displaced Personalities‹. A well-circumscribed literary unit; that Y’ can recognize by their astoundingly high regard for ›myth‹, & how they flirt with ›second sight‹. – poe by the by totally belongs=there.«

At this point, John Woods’ brilliant translation reaches a conclusion that can only be understood with a glance at the German version of the text: speaking of ‘DP’s as ‘Displaced Persons’ appears in English in the original German version and is translated by Schmidt in the narrative as ‘Deplatzierte Persönlichkeiten’. Though ‘personalities’ is the right word to use, ‘deplatziert’ means ‘misplaced’, not ‘displaced’, and some meaning is lost. This mistake (which is invisible in the translation) of Arno Schmidt isn’t really a mistake: The Allies called civilians who were not in their home countries at the end of World War II ‘displaced persons’, which referred primarily to victims of German deportations or people, who had to flee from their home because of the war. This also included Germans who fled from the frontlines in the last years of war or who lived behind the newly set borders of 1945. A German translation for ‘displaced person’ without political or moral implications / consequences (i.e. geographical claim of an ‘expellee’, which would be a highly problematic implication if used by Germans) was hard to find in the Seventies; any German equivalent word had unfortunate implications in at least some regions. Therefore, it is not only remarkable that Arno Schmidt used an English word to describe the absence of a domicile or home indirectly referring to the aftermath of World War II, but also that the ‘mistake’ in translation adds meaning: It objectifies the person into a personality which is misplaced like an object. For that it is a mistake, an ‘original’ meaning is negated, both the ‘original’ German text is negated as a ‘true’ version of the literary text (however it can still be discussed whether the text is still literary, then). The origins of meaning and identity get obfuscated, disembodied and multiplied. Eroticism, polysemy and transterritoriality go hand in hand

Abbreviated language has a rupturing effect and is at the same time historically inscribed – continuity is brought into semantics of discontinuity. A practice, based on the prohibition of a ‘perverse’ or literal erotic speech with the aim of addressing bodies, especially the own body, which is not only in the DP-sense an object in the hand of history and politics. A further detour on the way to the own body runs through the analysis of Poe, which is, at the same time, another code to speak about perversions, in this way, abstract ones: Voyeurism. If the body was directly addressed, quasi ‘touched’ by words, the voyeur loses his lust. On the pages before p.181/Z.181 Poe’s Novel The Journal of Julius Rodman is analyzed, whereas Daniel decodes the whole novel as a trip of voyeurs:

Notónly were ›skins the leading objects‹ of the entire voyageur=band, to be procured ›as privately as possible‹ – (we’ll get to that list in justasec – but ’ndeed the S=underpinnings find (fully satisfacktory) expression in phrases à la : ›In no other view of the case can we reconcile many points of his record with our ordinary notions of human action‹. (BD, 181)

The problem, again, is not the validity of his analysis, but the possibility to announce it; as Paul tries to develop this interpretation further, Wilma assaults him. In order to distract Wilma, Daniel throws his own history into the interpretation:

But first back to W; who was trying to bicker with P) : »Dearwilma – : Év’ry=man who came home from the 6=Years=War a somatic=whole is nónetheless to be regarded & treated as a Ψ=&=S=invalid – ›a saturnine brain‹ is the poe’tic term for it« (I iii, 405 : the incredibly self=expósing cunnonade of curses aimed at masson !) – »and that something isn’t=rite in rodman’s cold=jungles should’ve been clear to You, really, from the way it just jumps rite=over the winter months : if there’s one thing the ›born voyeur‹ can’t make=use of, its the impenitrouble coverings of the freezin’ season : a ›Peeping Tom‹ blossoms in the summer ! : Julius rodman & Pierre Junôt : ›June=July‹ «; (& how many heroes are not named AugustuS ! ? – / – (Now ’twas Wilma=herself who came to a halt. (Granted, She at wants began plucking juniper berries (as ›justifickation‹), ›Howse=whyfully‹); She remarkt out into the sweet=smallcheckt green) : »I’m sorry for You, Daniel : what a nice=parzivil lad Yóu were at one time ! So intellecktual & of extréme=purity ! . . . « (BD, 181)

This one is followed by a cynical commentary in brackets (=in thought) by Daniel, stating that straight-laced Wilma does not know anything about pureness. The legitimacy of this cynicism becomes clearer as one sees that her name ‘Wilma’ in German sounds like ‘wanna’ and, on an intradiegetical level, it turns out later that she abuses her daughter Franziska.

Without reaching the bottom of the multiplicity of meanings interwoven in this part of the text, some relations can be drawn: The Second World War described as a 6 years’ war takes it into connection with the 30 years’ war; the psychic and sexual disability is expressed through abbreviations, forming a continuous backside on the historical break of a war, which is tried to made clear for Paul, Wilma and Franziska through talking about Poe. The part in between “poe’tic term” and “Not ‘twas Wilma” is printed in the left column, the rest in the middle. The text’s movement at this point does not make anything clear, it rather obfuscates things, as the analysis of Poe is used to explain or lead to something completely different. The analysis as a detour is also the detour of the text-block; this way of signifying goes beyond the possible mistakes of comparing two texts, also beyond comparing text and biographical information as well as beyond comparing text and theory: It uses Poe as an emblem and detouring code, to get to an inexpressible point.

In between, there’s so called reality: Wilma plucks berries, which could be interpreted as an erotic move as well, then she excuses, making Daniel’s plan of distracting her successful. However, calling him a “nice=parzivil lad” gathers several other meanings (Parzival; pacifistic; civilian) and sexualizes him within attributing him “intellecktual & of extreme=purity”: “lecken” in German means ‘to lick’, making ‘intellectual’, spelled with ‘ck’, into a licking action; his purity makes him also sexually accessible, like the freshly plucked flowers could attract mushrooms. This sexuality is interrelated with nationalism in the view of Daniel Pagenstecher, which makes it a meaning that is fought about: On the right side, it is commented in small letters that an unspecified “Hé”, meaning the young Daniel Pagenstecher in the view of himself as an Other person (because commentaries are internally focalized by Daniel), is followed by the “heck-Se Cuntry”;[17] whereas the last word explains itself in English, the first is a mixture from ‘Heck’ (back of a car), ‘Se’ recalling the ‘S’ and the colloquial pronouncing of an official formal address (‘Sie’ turns into ‘Se’) and, finally through its sound: ‘Hexe’ means ‘witch’. Few lines below, the column moves to the left side again, bringing together Poe, eroticism and nationalism:

»And diddn’t the emurgeance – ’parently beyond His cuntrol – of those ›fairy islands‹ make You prick up your ears at=all ? Y’ didn’t see : nature is forced to play a double role ? That it’S allabout pseudo=butt’ny, pseudo=zoology, pseudo=geograffy; down to little pseudo=tools : yes, about pseudo=Whatefur ? ! – «. (No ? Hmyess then We’ll havta audit His S=enclaves anew. (BD, 181f)

After all, this gives an explanation on why Bottom’s Dream is such an instrument of terror, torturing the reader with that much analyses on Poe and several other authors: As long as one doesn’t recognize the objectification of the Other in the eroticism of nationalism, which, in the end, takes away their status as autonomous, living and human, Daniel Pagenstecher keeps on analyzing. In order to detect this, Daniel Pagenstecher goes beyond human action. Wilma criticizes this as “elitist”, or, in the German version, as “Unvolkstümlich” (BD/ZT 182), whereas the German expression implies that these thoughts do not fit with her ‘Volkstum’, an often used word in Nazi-ideology, coming originally from folklore and then transformed into a part of the blood and soil ideology both meaning race and nation. The proposed transgression is at disposal, because it is not told as a successful story in which Wilma sees the truth after the revelation of Daniel Pagensteiner (who is also a ‘DichterPriest’). Even worse, the repetition of such dialogues on the following 1400 pages is a crucial point. Lenz Prütting for example states that Zettel’s Traum adopts at some points “the character of a delusional compulsory exercise in interpreting”[18] Edgar Allan Poe’s texts. Reading, although comical, is playful torture which should lead the way to freedom in its most complete form, which means for literature always anticipating and evading meaning in order to give the reader the full responsibility and workload of understanding. Finally, the reader herself learns at the same time how to read landscaped in their double role – within this technique, Bottom’s Dream itself gets vulnerable, analyzable; this text can be played as well as it can play you. But what are the rules of this game?

Writing and the Experience of Limits

Writing and the Experience of Limits is the English translation of essays by Philippe Sollers that were published in different contexts. The first publication took place in the Tel Quel review around 1964-1967, having Sollers as an editor. At this time, the review’s discourses started evolving “from a sense of literature tel quel, ‘such at it is’, through a notion of ‘avant-garde’ practice, gesturing then towards some form of ‘scientific’ analysis.”[19] This evolvement was at this time barely in its infancy, when Tel Quel as a ‘group’ was merely starting to have “demarcated identity”;[20] according to Ffrench’s and Lack’s distinction between several ‘moments’ at which the program of Tel Quel changed, this first ‘scientific’ period lasted until approximately 1975.

Shortly before the 1968 outbreaks in France, most of the texts from Writing and the Experience of Limits were published as Logique de la Fiction, contrasting his novel Nombres, which fits to the thinking of literature analysis as a practice. Adequately, the motto of the book, which is also written in the English version (but not translated), is: “C’est de toutes parts et de toutes façons qu’un monde en mouvement veut être changé”[21] – and the first part of the following Prolegomenon is titled ‘Writing and Revolution’. In an improved version, Logique was published again in 1971 as L’Ecriture et l’expérience des limites.

The evolvement to ‘science’ is portrayed by Ffrench and Lack as a rhetorical one that used the initial discourses of Marx, Freud or Saussure critically as “discourses which initiate an epistemological break with the past and construct themselves through this critique; a rhetorical the same as Joyce’s enveloping of multiple languages within his writing”[22] – and here, we come to the idea of a rupture nearer to what gets developed by Sollers in reflections on Lenin, Marx, Engels and specified on an anti-canon of Dante, Sade, Mallarmé, Bataille, Kafka and others (but not Arno Schmidt). The revolutionary practice is a link of semantical and political action; also, both depend on each other.

Out of the late collection of papers, one text stands out. “The Roof: Essay in Systematic Reading”[23] connects the crucial points of materiality, practice and science with the involvement of discontinuity and continuity in one movement of thought.

The initial observation named is ‘typical modern’: The “normal man”[24] had to deal medially and pragmatically with highly complex, contradictory and discontinuous issues and things, but the most affecting medial scandal that made people hit the streets was the archaic violation of tombs – a possibly continuous item, an assaulted “parody of immortality”[25]. Sollers argues that the reason for this situation is that “The transition from the discontinuous (from the significant world comprised of individuals and things) to the continuous (manifested by death, violence, revolutions is part of the fundamental play of prohibition and transgression.”[26]

In order to make prohibition and transgression visible, Sollers opens a metaphor by Bataille, the ‘temple roof’, from where all differences, relations and spaces could be seen – this metaphysical ideal conception is (fortunately) not achieved as a permanent state in this text, but used to make clear that two kinds of pairs can be seen. On one side, there is pseudo-transgression, carrying prohibition always on its backside, i.e. leisure (that depended on work), a ‘return to nature’ (that depended on urban spaces) or drugs (that depended on soberness):

This is the organ of repetition insofar as it conditions, like so many ‚moves‘ [‚coups‘] in the play that governs it, the possibility of passing from a state of belief and internal division to a thought that would know, with an irrational knowledge, that it alone is responsible [en cause], that in itself it conjoins the compliticity and interaction of opposites, that it is, in sum, the basis of conscious selection.[27]

On the other side, there is something that could be called pseudo-prohibition but is set differently. It plays the role of the ‘pure signifier’, the ‘meaning’ – “the world of discourse is prohibition’s mode of being”[28], not regarding that “we never speak about anything, but with (or at the same time as) something”. And in opposition to this kind of prohibition, a new way of transgressing emerges: “A transgression that would recognize the necessity of the prohibition to which it is linked – as history, insofar as this prohibition alone makes transgression possible by ensuring a hold on the ground where transgression takes place [doit jouer].”[29]

The space where history and transgression meet is a literary one, a modern one, historically defined by a ruptural multiplicity of meanings; carrying inner experience, but also serving as a corporal trace; also recalling histories and histories of ‘perversions’ as well as the different incarnations of ‘man’; but still this “modern literature is haunted by this real dimension, so much so that the body has become the fundamental referent for its violations of discourse”[30]. This bodily violation of discourse brings materiality and revolution together.

Its historical (and therefore foreshadowing a new scientific approach in history) form is set within eroticism, connecting rupture and structure: “The principle of all erotic activity [la mise en oeuvre érotique] is a destruction of the structure of the closed being which, in its normal state, is a participant in this play . . . . “[31] and, taking it back into a revolutionary stream: “The point is to bring as much continuity to the interior of a world based on discontinuity as that world can sustain.”[32] Nevertheless, eroticism also has to find itself in a crisis because it is still formulated by objects that cannot be allowed to become “erotic objects” since this “detour” would afford a detour through death – when the body loses its status as a subject, it becomes a corpse.[33]

This problematic effect becomes enclosed and practically possible by the technique of writing; at the same time, Sollers’ text becomes metaphorical, transforming the erotic play, as the author “retraces signs, like ideograms, on the inside of his hand: ‚[…] this hand that writes is dying, and through the certainty of death, it escapes the limits accepted in writing (accepted by the hand that writes, but refused by the one that dies).‘”[34] The traces left were dead signs and only reading them lets the ‘two hands’ “for a moment, in their swiftly effaced contradiction, become the emblem of this ‚roof‘ of writing that only an other may finally observe: ‘Whoever you are who read me: take your chance [joue ta chance]. As I do, patiently, just as in the instant I am writing, I play you.‘”[35]

At this point, a circular movement seems to be closed, still being obliged to see the world from a roof with two slopes, having to categorize in differences that make their opposites invisible. Thus, it is important to highlight the performative aspect of this reading-technique: One exposes oneself to the text, searching for differences, then seeing oneself in an erotic relationship, then avoiding ‘death’ in literature through getting again on a roof – but a different one, at least in time. The possibility of emergence persists in this change of the theoretical roof through confrontation with literature. But also, it should not be dismissed that on the way, historical and revolutionary possibilities become visible – as, in the end, social phenomena or techniques in between reading literature and perceiving reality. In Julia Kristeva’s reading of Sollers’ novel H, she pointed out that H

is a music that is inscribed in language, becomes the object of its own reasoning, ceaselessly, and until saturated, overflowing, an dazzling sense has been exhausted. H asks for nothing – no deciphering, at any rate, no commentaries, no philosophical, theoretical, or political complement that might have been left in abeyance, unseen and forgotten. H sweeps you away.[36]

This reading experience is opposite to how I have proposed to read Bottom’s Dream: Where H may be a pleasuring read, Schmidt’s book hurts, kidnaps and makes deadly serious fun of his readers. All the signs, detours from standard orthography and the simple plot (so it doesn’t even give you the choice of saying: ‘It is hard to read’) makes fun of the reader who searches for meaning: “Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream” (BD,7), cites Arno Schmidt Shakespeare in the motto.

But as the same movement is detected within a contrast, one has to acknowledge that the environment in which Zettel’s Traum was thrown, not only the specific German environment, but West-Germany, trying to be international, trying to play a powerful role in the Cold War by establishing atomic power, atom bombs and a technically advanced German army. It was the time of the ‘Wirtschaftswunder’ in which former Nazis could still work in high political positions and international economical boundaries made the growing middle class free from accusation of nationalism whereas national stereotypes as incorporated in Wilma still were able to control social orders: And literature was not a freeing power; the Group 47 played in this regard the historical role of a conservative literary monopole.[37] In this contrast, the role of Schmidt as an outstanding outsider itself could be seen as artistic; of forming a space for living outside an overwhelming power of pseudo-transgression.

But as the relationship between author and book, especially in this seemingly obvious case, is a highly complex one, the relation to possible fields of action may be drawn out of the pages. The stepping through a barbed wire fence in the beginning of the book gets repeated later, when the four protagonists return to Daniel Pagensteiner’s house and have to cross a garden door which is surrounded by barbed wire. Whereas Paul plucks a string and naively listens to the deep sound, which leads to a reflection of resistibility of a fence in winter (if it’s too tight and therefore sounding high, the cold ruptures it), Daniel comes to the result “that it mite well be a considrubble art to lock yourself in at the rite moment”(BD, 339).

Then, Franziska and Daniel start, as often in the book, to flirt, encoded in a conversation about a cat sitting on the garden door; Wilma interrupts the flirting and Daniel tries to drive the talk back to analyzing Poe through erotically framed cat-motives; but as Daniel starts ‘teaching’ Wilma the ‘truth’ about Poe, she announces a truly justified obstacle, as her speech position gets often degraded with the justification, she had to act – and just listen to the men’s conversation – like a woman: “’f You=two could kéép from=instructing & correcting Me for just 1 minute ? : that’d be something vèry=special”, then taking Daniel back to the question of the reason for locking himself up:

You managed to elude Me very cleverly Dän – (once=again ; You were a master at it even as a lad) – but isn’t it really a minor psy=riddle : how You, (seeing as You both endured such awful things as pris’ner’s of war, behind barbwire, over the course of many hundreds of days !) how it is, then, that Yóu can even bear this wire cagery; ? no : how Y’ could’ve laid it around You ? ! « (BD, 339)

But Daniel answers evasively, saying that he slept in a cot with bars; psychological talk is used also as an obscuration. But what is striking about this passage is that the barbed wire has lost its spatial expression; once inside, the reader is not allowed to see the wire that’s surrounding him, because this network of relations is the multiplicity of meaning.

Being locked up, taking over as well as analyzing the voyeur’s position in the character of Poe (but also Daniel goes peeping several times) is the specific position for a narrator both inside and outside the story he is telling. Distance plays insofar a crucial role, as its design avoids or keeps the enigma of uncertainty; as well the technical alienation of view through, i.e. binoculars or panoramas[38] may create a multiplicity of meaning going hand in hand with a transgression: a sensual rupture. In both bondage and voyeurism, Sollers and Schmidt meet again, which leads me to the last point of coupling Sollersian thought with Zettel’s Traum: The bodily experience incorporated in the text.

1961 Le Parc, a novel by Philippe Sollers was published; its orthography is standardized, but the general design fits the precepts of the nouveau roman, as it is a fluid description of the house on the other side of a street, the park beneath and the people moving inside; but no names are told, a world of distance is created, as Foucault analyzes: “For this world of distance is in no sense that of isolation, but of a proliferation of identity, of the Same at the same point of bifurcation, or on the curve of its return.”[39] But this world is radically worn out by its narrator, finding a crucial expression in a blank space in the middle of the book, as the narrator closes his eyes and it is written:

“It is five o’clock in the morning. Open, then shut, they should have seen the close whiteness of the pillows that my cheek rubs against as I wake.”[40]

It happens inside the relished measuring of visibility that the words vanish to give transgression a corporal space within a referential network and the same time it directs to the perceptive reality and the death of meaning; blank space is the erotic detour of writing. A similar move happens in Zettel’s Traum: The narrators suffers a heart attack; the erotic detour (followed by a kiss from Franziska!), the corporeal text is expressed by pain, reflecting a different historical and discursive position:

Zettel’s Traum takes the other side of the fundamental transgression, making text hurting, going through a near-death experience so that it is not hard to say that a masochistic reading, a reading that understands the eroticism in textual obstacles and therefore not only tries to solve the enigmas, but as well captures them, moves them to a certain point where subjectivity becomes fluid, as near to death as possible, as real as possible. On the other hand, this is a quote from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy[41] – the most present part of the book, depicting what is meant, is still interwoven.

The narrator wake by being kissed by Franziska; a few pages before this passage, Daniel Pagenstecher explains, why he never sent letters to her:

Give me Mittageisen

Despite the contradictory affinity of early Tel-Quel-thought and Zettel’s Traum, the most affirming sentence about left-winged political movements in Zettel’s Traum is that “in comparison with the word ‘catholicism’, ‘communism’ sounds like FREEDOM!”[42] Although there were also in Germany revolutionary movements, Christa, an in Bottom’s Dream always absent friend of Franziska, epitomizes contemporary critical and deliberating thought; it is her sentence that gets quoted twice by Franziska: “Give me FANTA or give me DEATH.”[43] This phrase refers to Patrick Henry’s speech emphasizing the American War of Independence, having substituted ‘Freedom’ for a soft drink-brand that was invented in Germany (originally, it was produced with whey), when the German brand of Coca Cola went out of Cola in the Nazi-Era, because of embargos.

It is not only the economical linkage and complicity between the ’68-movements and neoliberal individualism that makes this change from today’s perspective interesting for further research, especially for the end of Zettel’s Traum, where the locked-up group perceives the world through media. It is also that Fanta was invented in Germany during World War II, as the basic material for Coca Cola was missing and the name derives from fantasy: From this point on, the fight in the field demarcated by fantasy and reality, is the revolutionary field. Or, as Brinkmann recalls Burroughs around ’68:

Who has dated the political consciousness up to which time? A grotty, shabby and demised humanism … an ‘idea’ of man that stands before ‘man’ and clouds everything … yellowed photographs .. “and what is it that the phantom cops shout from Chicago to Berlin, from Mexico City to Paris? We are REAL REAL REAL! Real as this rubber truncheon! While they feel in their clouded, animal way, that reality slips away from them.”[44]

Therefore, locking-up as a literally movement in-between picturality and textuality forms not a fundamental transgression that could change the order: But a fundamental, nearly masochistic prohibition that shows the power its uncontrollability. In this regard, the literary text shifted the theoretical approach, although still being read in the latter realm: like my beginning hypothesis demanded.

At last, it is important to name the uncommented things and the necessity for further and methodical connected research on Bottom’s Dream: There are points that came up in my article, but should not get generalized; instead they should get validated in further attempts of. There are for example the role of gender and chauvinism against Wilma, the question of how far the love between Daniel Pagensteiner’s and Franziska is morally acceptable.

Can these irritating points be read in a masochistic light so their harmful existence in the text leads to an inversion of the idea? I would not be too fast and too sure with that. The proposal I gave may be a starting point for further research, but has to be brought to its limits, where it gets ruptured and new ways of reading are made. There is hard work still to do in order to reach that turn. And beyond that, even more.

[1] Arno Schmidt, Bottom’s Dream. Translated by John E. Woods. Berlin: Suhrkamp 2016, 7. Following, cited as “BD, [page]”

[2] Jörg Drews, “Arno Schmidt: ‘Zettels Traum’. Ein Kommentar.” In: Bargfelder Bote (1974) Lieferung 9, 15.

[3] David Hayman, „Some writers in the wake of the Wake”. In: Scott Anderson & David Hayman (eds.), In the wake of the Wake. University of Wisconsin Press 1978, 19.

[4] ibid. 11.

[5] Arno Schmidt, “Vorläufiges zu Zettels Traum”. In: Lesungen, Interviews, Umfragen.(=BA/Supplemente, Bd. 2) Bargfeld: Edition der Arno Schmidt Stiftung im Suhrkamp Verlag 2006, 34. Translated by myself.

[6] The main thoughts of this text came up in the seminar literary theories held by David Vichnar in winter term of 2014/15 at Charles University; later, I developed the thoughts for a German article in the Bargfelder Bote, a project alike A Wake Newslitter, and got published as “Zettel’s Traum und Tel Quel im Kontrast” from which I retranslated parts for this text. cf. Bargfelder Bote, Lfg. 397-398, Februar 2016, pp. 3-25.

[7] Arno Schmidt, Bottom’s Dream. p. 20.

[8] The radio session was noted by his wife Alice Schmidt, firstly published 1977, in the complete works it is at: Arno Schmidt, Lesungen, Interviews, Umfragen. Bargfeld: Edition der Arno Schmidt Stiftung im Suhrkamp Verlag 2006 (=Bargfelder Ausgabe. Supplemente Bd. 2). p. 31-72.

[9] Jörg Drews, Arno Schmidt: “Zettels Traum”, Seite 1 (ZT 4).. See also: Lorenz, Christoph F.: Leitmotivik als tektonisches Prinzip im Spätwerk Arno Schmidts. In: Arno Schmidt. Hrsg. von Heinz Ludwig Arnold. München: Edition text + kritik 1986. S. 141–159 p. 146. See also this Blog, which is a commenting reading of ZT that stopped after the first pages, by Fränzel, Marius: Zettel‘s Traum lesen. http://www.zettels-traum-lesen.de/ (accessed 19.02.2015).

[10] The luminary of bulls is associated with the titan Helios, as it is named in a text called “The attempt of making Finnegans Wake readable”. It perfectly points out the difficulties of following the intertextual threads: Here it goes from ZT to a text by Schmidt in which he creates four voices (with different opinions) analyzing Finnegans Wake, in this case with Campbell and Robinsons Skeleton Key to Finngegans Wake at hand, leading back to a certain interpretation of mythology. Schmidt, Arno: Der Triton mit dem Sonnenschirm. (Überlegungen zu einer Lesbarmachung von FINNEGANS WAKE von James Joyce). In: Bargfelder Ausgabe. Eine Edition der Arno-Schmidt-Stiftung. Zürich: Haffmans 1991. S. 31–70. p. 43 (due to space reasons, I give only my translation: “And I haven’t understood what ‘búlly famous’ shall mean untill today . . . . . (suddenly enlighted): or maybe ‘bulls’; the ‘cattle of Helios’? And may it be only because German translators always say ‘oxen oft he sun’.“

[11] Gunar Ortlepp & Arno Schmidt, Gunar Ortlepp über Arno Schmidt: “Zettels Traum”. APROPOS: AH!; PRO=POE. In: Der Spiegel (20.4.1970). http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-44944192.html (17.2.2015). S. 225–233. p. 225: orig.: „Ich würde empfehlen: Der kluge Rezensent sagt ein Jahr lang gar nichts. Er sagt nur, daß es so etwas gibt.“ [transl. by myself, T.K.]

[12] Friedhelm Rathjen, Arno Schmidt lesen! Orientierungshilfe für Erstleser und Wegweiser im Literaturdschungel. 1. Aufl. Emmelsbüll-Horsbüll: Edition ReJoyce 2014 (=Edition ReJoyce 52). p. 157. [orig. German; transl. by myself, T.K.]

[13]Bargfelder Bote (2016). Lieferung 400.

[14] Jan-Frederik Bandel, “’Mirror, mirror on the wall …’ Lewis Carroll, Arno Schmidt, Abraham Ettleson und die Komik des Verstehens.” In: Kultur & Gespenster 17, Spring 2016. pp. 259-281, 260. Transl. by myself. Original: „Und Arno Schmidt hat mir seiner “Studie über Wesen, Werk & Wirkung Karl May’s”, Sitara und der Weg dorthin (1963), dann vor allem in seinem monumentalen Theorieroman Zettel’s Traum (1970) nun nicht fiktiv entstandene, sondern bibliografisch fassbare Texte erst von May, dann von Edgar Allan Poe einer durchaus „wild“ zu nennenden Psychoanalyse unterzogen ( mit den bekannten Resultaten, May habe in seinen Werken Symptome seiner Homosexualität, Poe etwas komplexere eines koprophilen voyuerismus abgebildet, analytisch fassbar in Landschaftsbeschreibungen, Figurenkonstellationen usw., vor allem aber in einer unbewusst aufgeladenen Sprache, in, wie es in Sitara heißt, „charakteristischen, verräter=rischen buchstabeneinschleichlingen …, den fonetischen Karikaturen, den Wort=nicht=wurzeln sondern=alräunchen unbeaufsichtigt vagabundierender Vorstellungen“). Wenn sich Schmidt dabei, in einer Art Postskriptum zu seinem May-Buch, als „ausgesprochener Klarglas=Witzbold“ zu erkennen gibt, so doch ausdrücklich nur, insofern er, komischen Effekten überaus zugänglich, dem „Gemisch von schöpferischer Zertrümmerung & pnatagruelischer Offenbarung“ nicht habe widerstehen können.“

[15] Arno Schmidt, Zettel’s Traum, 21: „Abkürzungen & Siglen sind dèswegen am Platze, weil sie fast immer unvorbelastet sind.“ Note:.

Addition: Lately, feminist celebrity Alice Schwarzer lauded Arno Schmidt for having invented the capital ‘i’ within words to mark two genders, i.e. ‘heroIne’. Nearly every job-title in German can be gender-neutralized by this, because nearly every job-title is in its traditional form male, but can be inflected with the suffix ‘in’ to make it refer to female persons. Writing the ‘in’ with a capital letter is seen as gender-neutral language, although it could be criticized for not referring to trans- or intersexual identities. Cf. Bargfelder Bote, Lieferung 405-407 (2016), 43.

[16] cf. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 2008 (=Bibliothek Suhrkamp 1372). §43.

[17] Arno Schmidt, Zettel’s Traum, 181; in Bottom’s Dream: „witchy=cuntry“.

[18] Lenz Prütting, Eintrag “Schmidt, Arno” in Munzinger Online/KLG – Kritisches Lexikon zur deutschsprachigen Gegenwartsliteratur. http://www.munzinger.de/document/16000000501 Note: translated by myself.

[19] Ffrench, Patrick & Roland-François Lack, “Introduction.” In: Ffrench & Lack (eds.), The Tel quel reader. London, New York: Routledge 1998, 3.

[20] Ibd. p. 2.

[21] Philippe Sollers, “Writing and the experience of limits.” New York: Columbia University Press 1983. 1968 (=European perspectives). Translation by myself: „It depends on every parts and ways that a moving world wants to be changed.“

[22] Ffrench, Patrick & Roland-François Lack, “Introduction,” 4.

[23] Philippe Sollers, “The Roof: Essay in Systematic Reading.” In: Writing and the experience of limits. New York: Columbia University Press 1983, 103–134.

[24] Ibid, 103.

[25] Ibid, 104.

[26] Ibid, 104.

[27] Ibid, 106.

[28] Ibid, 110.

[29] Ibid, 110.

[30] Ibid, 113.

[31] Ibid, 114.

[32] Ibid, 115.

[33] Ibid, 119.

[34] Ibid, 131.

[35] Ibid, 132.

[36] Julia Kristeva, “The Novel as Polylogue.” In: Desire in language. A semiotic approach to literature and art. New York: Columbia University Press 1980, 159.

[37] Cf. Hermann Peter Piwitt, “Monstrum mit Monopol? Hermann Peter Piwitt über Lettaus Handbuch ‘Die Gruppe 47’.” In: Der Spiegel (2.10.1967): 174–177.

[38] The relation of panoramas and literary texts gets extensively reflected. cf. BD, 152.

[39] Michel Foucault, “Distance, Aspect, Origin.” In: The Tel quel reader, eds. Patrick Ffrench & Roland-François Lack. London, New York: Routledge 1998, 99.

[40] Philippe Sollers, The Park. New York: Red Dust 1977, 51f.

[41] Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Vol. I. London: Dodsley 1760, XII,73f.

[42] Arno Schmidt, Zettel’s Traum. p. 474 / Z. 468. Orig.: “im Vergleich mit dem Wort ‚Katholizismus‘ klingt ‚Kommunismus‘ immer noch wie FREIHEIT!“

[43] Ibid, p. 326 / Z. 324 and p. 949 / Z. 882. Orig.: “Gib mir FANTA oder gib mir TOD!“

[44] Rolf Dieter Brinkmann, Der Film in Worten. Prosa, Erzählungen, Essays, Hörspiele, Fotos, Collagen, 1965-1974. Rowohlt 1982, p. 224. Orig.: “Wer hat das politische Bewußtsein zurückdatiert bis in welche Zeit? Ein mieser, lumpiger abgelebter Humanismus … eine ‚Idee‘ vom Menschen, die vor dem ‚Menschen‘ steht und alles eintrübt … vergilbte Fotos … ‚und was schreien die Phantom-Bullen von Chicago bis Berlin, von Mexico City bis Paris? Wir sind WIRKLICH WIRKLICH WIRKLICH! Real wie dieser Gummiknüppel! Während sie auf ihre trübe tierhafte Art spüren, daß Realität ihnen entgleitet.” Translated by myself.

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Schmidt is a great guide to literature: he is, admittedly, very opinionated, but he is also undeniably incredibly knowledgeable. He has actually read all these books by all these authors, and he understands the context in which they were written, and the biographical and literary-historical details of importance. Equally importantly, Schmidt is very conscious of his role as entertainer. The idea of these "literary dialogues" is a brilliant one (and we acknowledge being strongly influenced by them in writing the Literary Saloon dialogues at the cr Quarterly). His "radio dialogs" effectively convey a great deal of information, give a good sense of the authors and works under discussion - and make for some fine drama too. Significantly, they also read very well.
Translator Woods begins with a short introduction - a brief biographical note about Schmidt and some detail about these dialogues and the characters covered in them. (One unfortunate - and very disappointing - slip must be noted: Woods offers "a sentence or two" about each of the authors discussed by Schmidt - including, tantalizingly, Johann Gottfried Schnabel (who, we are told, was in "Schmidt's pantheon of literary gods"). The only problem is that the Schnabel-dialogue (a grand one, by the way - and particularly important in terms of some of Schmidt's own work) is not included in this volume.)
A Prelude, then, is the first of Schmidt's works here - a sort of mini-dialogue arguing against the dry, academic approach to literature, of reducing it to mere scholarship. Literature is a vibrant thing, Schmidt insists, and in conclusion he has his three speakers "swear in unison": "I have resolved : to treat all who have ever written, whether out of love and hate, as alive and living !" It is certainly one of Schmidt's credos in the dialogues that follow.
The first dialogue, Nothing is Too Small for Me, is about one of the obscurer writers Schmidt covers, Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680-1736). For Schmidt: "he was the first to advance - resolutely, tenaciously, and most consistently - toward the border of realism", or, indeed, simply "The First Realist" (far ahead of Adalbert Stifter). The dialogue has only two speakers, working in tandem (unlike in some of the more contentious dialogues). It includes extensive quotes from Brocke's work - though these are barely even a smattering of what the man wrote.
Brockes is typical of the authors Schmidt admired, with his efforts at precision, his large-scale ambition, and his devotion to minutiae. He was responsible for the nine volumes of the Earthly Pleasures in God, in whose "precise surfeit of ten thousand pages : we have everything right here in Germany." This is Schmidt's type of encyclopaedism: "the integral of the entire range of the language for the past thousand years".
Brockes also "translates in his spare time" - an internationalism that also appeals to sometime-translator and literarily very worldly Schmidt. His description of Brockes' efforts are also revealing about his own attitudes towards the peculiar endeavour of translation:
Nevertheless, all his translations are laudable attempts at transposing foreign masterpieces into a heterogeneous system of sound & syntax
Brockes' life and career are summarily presented - an interesting story as well. Along with the liberal excerpts the dialogue gives a good impression of an author who is essentially unknown and unread (and whose works are practically impossible to find).
The subject of the second dialogue, Christoph Martin Wieland, is more widely read - more now than when Schmidt wrote the piece, it appears. Wieland, or, the Forms of Prose is again a two person dialogue, but here the speakers are more typical of Schmidt's literary dialogues:
A.: elderly, tends to lecture
B.: young; fiery=impatient; loves to interrupt
It begins with present-day (1957) events intruding, and B. annoyed by how little mankind and civilization seems to have progressed. A. then brings up the prolific Wieland as a counter-example to the idea that like mankind, writers don't progress, that every author only has a single book in him (each new book being a mere variation on the theme) - i.e. that even the artist does not evolve and change.
Wieland wrote a great and varied amount - "a life's work of 54 volumes". Among his works are many dialogues (certainly influencing Schmidt in his), and he often used historical material, reshaping it for his (and modern) purposes - much as Schmidt does in some of his fiction. But Schmidt would probably even have been drawn to him simply for the fact that: "He had several fallings out with Goethe" (Schmidt being notoriously less than impressed by Goethe).
Aside from his own writing, Wieland exhibits another trait familiar in many Schmidt-favoured authors: enriching a literature by bringing in foreign works. Wieland "was the first to present 22 of Shakespeare's plays in translation".
As an author Wieland is praised for his intellectualism: his heroes are intellectual, well-educated, "utterly this-worldly" - far different from what is found in, for example, Romantic literature. He also has real (if idealized) women characters: rather than the frail, romanticized creatures so many others create his women are clever, businesslike, "very independent". Schmidt also emphasizes the variety of approaches that Wieland took in shaping his art - and specifically the appropriateness of each form to what Wieland was trying to do in a given work (contrasting this nicely with what Schmidt sees as Goethe's crude efforts).
Schmidt gives one sample of his work - a generous ten pages, the least he apparently figures could give even the beginning of an impression of Wieland's writing.
Fifteen: The Prodigy of Meaninglessness considers Ludwig Tieck. It is a dialogue between a "Reporter" and a "Listener & doubter" - along with three voices to read the various quotes, and two gongs (one "normal, matter of fact", the other "gives a bright effervescent trill").
The central figure is cleverly introduced with a quote from a visiting traveller: James Fenimore Cooper, envious of what admiration the arts arouse in Europe (as opposed to the indifferent mob back in America: "logs could hardly be less receptive"). (Throughout the dialogue quotes - especially from Tieck's own work - are used very effectively, and more ambitiously than in the earlier dialogues.)
Tieck was a real book-lover - "a real book fiend" -, as obsessed as Schmidt. His library "once contained sixteen thousand volumes" (even Schmidt has to italicize in awe and admiration), and though Tieck sold them all (apparently to unburden himself) "he at once began to collect again, faster than ever", accumulating eleven thousand volumes in short order.
Schmidt provides a nice overview of Tieck's curious life, especially in considering him within the broader Romantic tradition ("'Romantics' - as you can hear I use this falsest of all terms only in quotation marks"). The dialogue - the longest included here - strays far into the Romantic field, with Schmidt offering his interpretation of that whole movement.
In closing one also finds Schmidt's lament of how hard it is to find much of Tieck's work (a situation that has also been largely rectified over the past forty years). And, at least for literary pedants like us, it's still fun to hear him rant about various editions of an author's work: "Beware of 2 volumes edited by Paul Ernst with a famous pompous Afterword and the equally famous sloppy texts", etc.
Abu Kital, or, Concerning the new Grand Mystic is about the odd Karl May, one of the most popular German authors for adolescents who, despite writing many works set in America, never really caught on in the United States. (Schmidt would go on to write a longer study of May, Sitara (1963).)
Schmidt isn't a great fan of most of May's popular adventure-tales, concluding: "heed my advice, and stick strictly to just these two: In the Realm of the Silver Lion and Ardistan and Jinnistan". These two books, he grants, are remarkable; the rest of May's oeuvre is decidedly less so. Still May was a fascinating figure - a complete and remarkable fraud - and so the biographical detail is also of considerable interest. Schmidt is largely dismissive of May and his influence, but he still considers it fairly closely.
Of particular interest is the transformation of the work - not by May but by his publishers:
Over the course of time, you see - be it in the GDR, in Austria, or even in the Federal Republic - the works of Karl May have been frequently and thoroughly "edited" - or, to put it more precisely : "debased".
Schmidt's close reading of the changes is both incredibly sad and hilarious, as different regimes, publishers, and editors all put there stamp on the texts. Poor literature ! it never seems to stand a chance ! Beside ideological changes, Schmidt even points to "thousands of lines of blank verse" that "have been 'de-iambified'" - "throttled iambics" reduced to "rattletrap" that now rolls along "in the crudest halting rhythms." (So it is not just American publishers that show no respect for authors or the written word....)
Schmidt was also very familiar with English-language literature, and numerous of his dialogues deal with English and American authors. The two included here consider the Brontë-sisters and James Joyce.
Angria & Gondal: The Dream of the Dove-Gray Sisters deals specifically with the "Extended Mind Game" that the Brontë's are left to occupy themselves with in their isolation. They famously lost themselves in - and wrote extensively about - imagined worlds: Angria, and Gondal.
Much of the dialogue offers a biographical overview of the sisters: more such detail than in the other dialogues, as German-speakers were less likely to know anything about these lives. English readers will be familiar with much that he writes about Emily, Anne, and Charlotte - and Branwell, of course - but his focus on this long-sustained fictional world is a useful perspective.
The final dialogue, The Triton with the Parasol offers: Reflections on a Readable German Rendering of Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. Schmidt truly appreciated what Joyce was trying to do in Finnegans Wake, and it was a very important book for him. (His admiration for it was much like Nabokov's for Ulysses.) He studied it for years, in part hoping to translate it. Schmidt's work in this area - "idiosyncratic" as his view of the book was, as Woods notes in his introduction - is considered to be important. (They have even published a German edition of his annotated copy of the Wake.)
The dialogue has not one but two questioners, both quite overwhelmed. It begins, challengingly (especially for a radio piece), with a nearly five-page excerpt from Finnegans Wake. Schmidt suggests: "The language of the WAKE has to be learned". He suggests how this might be done, how the language (and the text) must be approached and what resources must be at hand.
It is a good introduction to how one might look at the Wake - though there is an sense of distortion in reading this particular version of the text: it considers translations of the work in German which are here offered in the original (i.e. much of the issue at issue is non-existent in the English version of the text). Some of the most interesting points are thus, to a certain extent, lost - but Joyce's work (and his language) is far enough removed from what we understand to be English that Schmidt's discussion is of interest to English-speaking readers as well.
...These dialogues are informative and entertaining. Anyone who loves literature should love how it is presented here. Highly recommended." - The Complete Review"This, then, my credo : directed against all the literal=airy men and aged seekers of textual variants, bundles of stinkhorns in their crippled hands . . .
Weary of wandering wastelands of letters full of vacuous brainchildren and hidden in pretentious verbal fogs; disgusted with both aesthetic sweet-talkers and grammatical waterers of drink; I have resolved : to treat all who have ever written, whether out of love and hate, as alive and ever living ! - - -"
Arno Schmidt, whose work is gradually being made available in English by the proficient and adventurous translator John E. Woods (also responsible for recent renditions of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain and Buddenbrooks) is one of German literature's best kept secrets. Like Joyce, who is the subject of the final piece in the book, Schmidt indulged in unorthodox punctuation, spellings, and grammatical experimentation; his work is also acerbic, somewhat misanthropic, maddening and entertaining - the result, most likely, of the cruel segment of German history he witnessed, and of his lively intelligence. All of the characteristics of his fiction are toned down somewhat in this collection of "radio dialogs" - and understandably so, as these were his concessions to entertainment, his way of making a living. The dialogs do, however, make use of his radiant passion for literature, as well as some of his odd, but effective, punctuation.
Radio Dialogs I, which is the first of three volumes of such plays, contains five of the many "Evening Programs" Schmidt wrote for Süddeutsche Rundfunk (South German Broadcast). It's hard to imagine this being anyone's "bread and butter work," much less to imagine a radio station airing such programs today, but this was the late 1950s/early '60s; there were far fewer TV celebrities to vie with. While the scripts of Radio Dialogs I are animated by characters identified merely as "A.," for example, "tends to lecture," or "1st questioner; firmly-scornful," what makes these discussions so lively is that the voices all seem to be those of the sometimes-cranky, often-irresistible Arno Schmidt himself. In these discussions, for which he wrote all the parts, Schmidt plays all of his devils and their advocates with equal ferocity. Despite their sketchy descriptions at the offset, all of the voices take on large personalities as they pontificate on, and pillory, or simply ramble playfully about Schmidt's favorite subjects: literature, literature, and literature.
In these five dialogs, Schmidt takes on 17th-century poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes, whom he admires for his "realism" and surfeit ("we have everything right here in Germany); Ludwig Tieck, one of the "Four Great Romantics"; Christoph Martin Wieland, whose name appears more than a couple times in his own fiction; and the prolific SF writer, or "Great Mystic," Karl May. He ventures across the channel for his pieces on the Brontës and James Joyce, and along the way comes up with some idiosyncratic definitions of realism, romanticism, and classicism. Telling tales of these authors' lives, arguing about the texts, and citing long passages from the authors' work, the dialogs destroy any tendencies toward idol-worship but still convey a deep respect and fascination.
The piece on the Brontë sisters comes as the greatest surprise in the collection. Schmidt's radio persona tells a good rendition of the sisters' childhood on the moors, and especially of their 1000-page creation of Angria & Gondal, but his fascination with "the Dove-Gray Sisters" becomes most obvious when he says, "What is left is for the final salvation of many a youthful genius who finds her- or himself in extremity. What is left is - (with impressive emphasis) : the <> !" Clearly, an author's ability to actively engage his/her own mind, preferably in a vacuum of sorts, forms the basis of much of Schmidt's literary taste. When defending Karl May, often considered a second-rate kids' author, "A." brings up May's dreary childhood with a particular sense of awe, describing how, as a result of poor nutrition, May was actually blind for four years.
In his discussion of Finnegans Wake, the ultimate literary mind game, one character proposes the idea of a "readable German rendering" of this Irish novel, while the others offer both encouragement and guffaws. Apparently Schmidt himself endeavored some translations of Joyce's most difficult book, and this play seems closest to capturing Schmidt's own writerly dilemmas, as well as the dilemmas of Schmidt's translator. Skeptical "B." says, "the English original is totally out-of-the-question for the German reader! - He can only hope that sooner or later, there will be a passably clear, humanely-paraphrased and richly commented Germanization that mediates for him some notion of what Joyce intended with FW." I imagine Woods cringing at these words, his own task in translating Schmidt's fiction being similar in its seeming impossibility. One voice describes Finnegans Wake as "well-equipped with sawtoothed prefixes, bedraggletailed with sly suffixes, croaking away pseudo-profoundly in err-earthly details" - not a bad description of some of Schmidt's fiction as well.
Woods makes his way through Joyce via Schmidt with grace and humor. The Radio Dialogs convey more than a "passably clear" vision into Schmidt's mind games, at the same time illuminating a pathway toward the even more dense and rewarding phrasings of his fiction." - Carolyn Kuebler


Arno Schmidt, Radio Dialogs II, Trans. by John E. Woods. (Green Integer, 2003)

"As in the first volume of Radio Dialogs, published by Green Integer in 1999, this second volume contains dialogic discussions of literary figures, performed over German radio from 1953 to 1971 by the great German novelist. Here Schmidt discusses, again, his beloved James Joyce, as well as the English writer Bulwer-Lytton, and the German language authors Johann Gottfried Schnabel, Adalbert Stifter, and Gustav Frenssen."

"This pocket-sized volume is the second of three collecting Schmidt's musings on writers and their works. As one might expect from this most ludic author, one of the more undeservedly unknown masters of twentieth-century prose, these essays are hardly traditional academic exercises. Rather, they appear in the form of two- or three-part conversations between nameless speakers, playlets about such figures as Herder, Frenssen, Bulwer-Lytton, and Joyce, and were originally broadcast on German radio mainly in the 1950s and sixties. As most of the names under discussion are relatively unrecognizable to readers of English-raise your hand if you've never heard before of Johann Schnabel's 2,300-page utopia, Felsenburg Island-the central appeal of this translation of Radio Dialogs lies not in what Schmidt says about other writers, but in what his comments suggest about his own work. The Joyce chapter is most telling in this regard. In it, two of Schmidt's somewhat Beckettian characters attempt to make sense of the many connotations of the coinages in Finnegans Wake: "A: ... What does an Englishman ... think about when he hears the syllable ?" "B. (reserved): Well, a poetical : ... and or .-(experimenting): ..." "A.: Hmyes. There are, of course, still more ... but that's enough.... We had best invent a new technical term for use on this compelling evening of Ours.... What shall We call this basic structure of the linguistic fabric that ties so many things together? What might be available?-(feigns enlightenment): : the system of genuine meaning : let Us simply baptize this polyvalenced fellow an -agreed?" "B. Presuming there's not some other new trick hidden in it."

Many of Schmidt's books, of course, are rich in meaning precisely because they are built of such etyms. These are strung together by a system of punctuation far more difficult to parse than in the above example; Radio Dialogs would have benefited from a more comprehensive introduction to Schmidt's methods and perhaps an explanation of how this kind of typographical holy-foolery came across in an aural medium. Such supporting material isn't essential, however, and the book is unquestionably an intriguing puzzle that provides an infinite number of launching points for study and imagination." - James Crossley
"Arno Schmidt's radio dialogues are among the small literary gems of recent times. Written for (and broadcast on) German radio in the 1950s and 60s they were an attempt to bring the work of several dozen German and English authors to the attention of the reading public. They were not, however, merely didactic (though they certainly were that too), but were genuine entertainments - dramatized dialogues (that fortunately also read very well). In one of the more admirable contemporary publishing ventures, Green Integer is presenting a generous (but, alas, not complete) selection of English translations of them in three volumes. (Green Integer may appear generous in devoting resources to publishing these odd, fat little books about generally obscure and unknown authors, but we suspect that if the reading public ever catches on to what wonderful things these volumes are they'll be flying off the shelves.)
Schmidt means to educate his listeners into readers with these dialogues, suggesting what true literature might have to offer. His success here lies in how he goes about it: this isn't pedantic professor-talk, lecturing to the listener or reader. No, this is passionate discussion, by an author with a true love for literature (and, like Nabokov, a very precise notion of what literature is (or might be)). And it is very learned passion: this isn't some young poet, swooning abstractly: Schmidt has read... well, it sometimes seems like: everything, and he marshals good (if occasionally odd) arguments. He conveys his philosophy of life - which is, of course, largely a philosophy or reading (and/or writing) - and while he might not completely win over all readers, he at least convincingly shows what literature can be to anyone open to it. And all the while he entertains too, making for a marvelous, exciting reading experience.
Schmidt does revel in obscurity - there's no discussion of Goethe or Thomas Mann here (well, they do find mention in some of his dialogues - but he doesn't hold them in quite the high regard many others do). Schmidt concentrates on authors that he believes are overlooked (and was, in fact, almost single-handedly responsible for the renewed interest in some of them in the German-speaking countries over the past decades). The unfamiliar names should not be off-putting to English-speaking readers: some of these authors are hardly more familiar to German-speaking readers (and one in this collection - Edward Bulwer-Lytton - certainly less so). And at least one of the authors in this collection is at least very familiar: James Joyce.
The first dialogue in this collection introduces Johann Gottfried Schnabel, author of a mammoth novel called Insel Felsenburg ("Felsenburg Island") - "a utopian Robinsoniade, a self-contained island of words to which Schmidt was only too happy to escape", as Woods describes it in his introduction. Schmidt admits the work is not entirely a success - perhaps not surprising given how it got bloated to 2500 pages:
the dubious=obscene tintinnabulation grows louder and louder : the 1st and 2nd volumes are wonderfully fresh; but the 3rd is still already dubious, and the 4th nothing but a pitiable concoction "for the remuneration."
But he still thinks more of it than "the far far more shallow Robinson Crusoe". Such island-worlds, cut off from civilization and allowing civilization to arise anew is a Schmidt favourite: he does it in several of his own books Schnabel's book particularly fascinates him because it is something he (and others) have effectively been able to cannibalize: literary influence always interests Schmidt, the trail of copying and imitation, and one of the admirable qualities of Schnabel's text was how it allowed itself to be used by others (while, at the same time, itself practically becoming lost and forgotten, overcome, in a sense, by the works built up on it).
Schmidt also goes on an extended tangent showing the similarities between Tristan da Cunha and Felsenburg island - interesting, among other reasons, because Schmidt points out:
Uncanny is when I have to discover the following absurdity : that people live on Tristan da Cunha in the same fashion Schnabel sketched for them - at a time when the island group was devoid of all human life.
The second dialogue discusses a more familiar figure, Johann Gottfried Herder. Another Schmidt-favourite, Christoph Martin Wieland (discussed in Radio Dialogs I) recognised Herder's talents early on, Schmidt quoting him: "I am eager to see what becomes of him : a perfect fool; or more probably, a very great writer !" As Schmidt explains:
For Wieland had spotted, and delighted in, that rarest of literary phenomena : a mind of polymath cast, for whom words tumble onto paper like a thick flurry of hot ashes. And here, in the case of Herder, or nowhere, is the place for an explicit vindication of such unfortunates : it is not easy to be a polymath !
Schmidt follows Herder's complicated life - enjoying, of course, among other things the comparison with Herder's sometime friend Goethe (who went on to greater success, but who Schmidt certainly holds to be generally less worthy). Schmidt - himself no easy, sociable fellow - understands the difficulties the difficult man Herder faced:
For it is a truism that all writers are incapable of friendship in the bourgeois sense, and moody by nature, undependable in their habits and malicious as monkeys.
A prolific writer (Schmidt loves his prolific writers) who struggled for much of his life and ultimately was likely too ambitious for his own good: Schmidt recognises his important contributions - but also notes: "one never feels quite at ease when reading Herder" and points out that: "one can refute Herder with Herder at every point !"
The third dialogue is about Adalbert Stifter, and in particular his Nachsommer (a title translated here as Indian Summer (and, in one unfortunate typo, Indian Surnmer), which doesn't convey the beauty of the far more appropriate German word (literally: "After-summer"). Here, for once, Schmidt tackles an author who is - or was, at the time - well-known and favoured: "For some time now, Adalbert Stifter has been idolized, to the point one hardly dares having one's own opinion about his work".
Nachsommer is another massive work - "1 point 4 million letters ! - and Schmidt is certainly all for what appears to be the fundamental idea behind it. As he explains, he believes:
There is one thing, however, that every poet should achieve just once : leave us a picture of the time in which he lived !
Stifter's novel certainly aspires to be such a work - but Schmidt finds much fault with it:
The pleonastic banality of the language must at last be branded for what it is; for consciously, or unconsciously, making a point of expressing anything and everything as prolixy as possible, whether out of elegant boredom or perhaps, as well, out of a helpless fear of the world.
The fourth dialogue is an "exercise in tolerance", a look at the author Gustav Frenssen, taking the centennial of his birth to attempt a re-appraisal of the once famous but then disgraced Frenssen, one of the few German authors of any talent that actively supported the Nazi regime. Frenssen was also an extremely popular author, and Schmidt finds that in Frenssen's case this likely also complicated an accurate appraisal of his worth, as it was his poorer, less demanding works that found popular appeal, while his better (and more demanding) stuff was too difficult for many to deal with - making the best of his work less likely to fall into the hands of even those who might be receptive to it.
Schmidt shows that even the case of Frenssen is not easily reduced to black and white, and he handles the complex issues well. A good survey of the author's life and work, it culminates in his finding at least one of Frenssen's works - Otto Babendiek - "not top rank, certainly not; but all the same a good second-level masterpiece". In fact, he says if he had to reduce his library to a mere three hundred volumes, "it would be among them" - high praise indeed. (Surprise, surprise, by the way: Otto Babendiek weighs in at thirteen hundred pages.)
(In this dialogue one unfortunately finds the repeated misspelling (and printing in capital letters) of the name "FRIEDRICH NEITZSCHE": quite irritating.)
Arno Schmidt translated about two dozen works from English into German, notably Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, Stanislaus Joyce's My Brother's Keeper, several James Fenimore Cooper novels - and two of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's most massive novels, My Novel and What will he do with it ?. ("What will he do with it ?" is surely something everybody thought about those two manuscripts... but he did get them published.) The fifth dialogue bravely tackles Edward Bulwer-Lytton - and, in less than seventy pages, offers a more well-rounded picture of the man and especially his work than, for example, the most recent English-language biography, Leslie Mitchell's Bulwer Lytton. Schmidt again is very good in pointing out influence and regard, something otherwise easily overlooked, and while he skims across the surface manages still to provide a great deal of salient detail, giving a better impression of the man's accomplishments and significance than most full-length biographies or studies.
As mentioned in the Stifter dialogue, Schmidt has a weakness for writers capturing their times, and Bulwer fit the bill with the novels that were "comprehensive portraits of the age" - which include, of course, the two novels Schmidt translated. Of course, not everyone will be won over by praise such as:
At least the first 1,000 pages are the match for any of the familiar & approved large=solid family portraits d'outre mer - and as for psychological subtlety ? : here and there BULWER is capable of outdoing them=all !
The final dialogue is about James Joyce, written for the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death. (Another Joyce-dialogue can be found in Radio Dialogs I.)
Schmidt's Joyce fascination is focussed almost entirely on the two last works: Ulysses and Finnegans Wake ("You would eliminate all the rest ?"; the answer: "In brief : yes"). He quickly goes through the earlier work, and then expands on the two favoured novels, offering his perspectives. On Ulysses he's not that far beyond popular explication - but with Finnegans Wake he indulges in his pet etym-theory, showing how the book might be read, and insisting:
the queer, indeed forbidding prose of FINNEGAN is therefore not 'a higher foolishness'; but rather is perfectly open to a decoding. Indeed to several
Again: not everyone is going to be convinced. Still, as always, Schmidt puts on a good show in explaining what he means.
The dialogues are also enjoyable for some asides about literature in general, and it's place in the contemporary world, and Schmidt makes some fine points along the way. He gets on the case of unimaginative publishers:
They reprint all kinds of crap nowadays; devoid of all imagination : nothing against Werther : but there are thousands of editions out there ! 50 of the most immortal, yet fully forgotten books wait in vain; the litterati - their eyes pasted shut, blinders for their whole bodies, bundles of stinkhorns in their crippled hands - swarm around the book fairs : where is the publisher who will reprint these 50 books (and I'd be glad to supply him the titles !)?(It should be noted that Schmidt's influence was great enough to eventually lead to the re-publication of numerous such forgotten titles - would that there were such a powerful voice in the English-speaking world !)
He also defends his defense of those thousand-page tomes, arguing that readers would do well to spend such great lengths of time with characters - and indeed that TV serials and the like are popular because viewers do in fact want to immerse themselves for extended periods of time in - and be able to return to an - ever-more familiar world, and that there's no reason the same should not apply to reading.
The dialogues generally consist of a well-informed speaker and someone who poses more questions (or is at least in need of some enlightenment), as well as, occasionally a third voice used to present material by the author in question. Schmidt handles the form effectively, managing a bit of dramatic tension along the way, but always focussed on conveying as much information as possible.
Like the preceding volume, this is a wonderful collection. It is a very literary collection, and readers who aren't very bookish probably won't find that much of interest, but for anyone with a love of literature it is highly recommended.
Note also that comes in the marvelous Green Integer paperback format, a fat pocket-sized book measuring a comfortable six inches by four and a quarter, allowing one to conveniently carry it along everywhere - as one will likely want to, until one has made it through all four hundred plus pages." - The Complete Review


Arno Schmidt, The School for Atheists: A Novella = Comedy in 6 Acts, Trans. by John E. Woods (Green Integer, 2000)

"Published originally in 1972, The School for Atheists is one of the great works of fiction by the renowned German novelist Arno Schmidt (1914-1979), whose masterpiece is Zettel's Traum, often compared to Joyce's Finnegans Wake.
Complex in plot, this later novel permits a more traditional reading than many of Schmidt's works. In 2014 envoys of the nation's great powers, including the matriarchal United States and the patriarchal China, hold a summit in the home of William T. Kolderup and his granddaughter Suse near the Danish border in the German town of Tellingstedt. In a story within a story Kolderup recalls his previous adventures with the mother-to-be of Isis, the man-devouring American Secretary of State. But Schmidt takes this even further by presenting his fiction as drama, in which the ship that carries Kolderup ant the mother of Isis is wrecked, testing the atheist stances of the characters. The wonder of this book, however, lies not in its hilarious plot, but in its amazing language, the fascinating typography, and his complex references to culture—popular and classical—from Jules Verne to William Shakespeare."

"For the patient reader, this is a saucy story meatightily told, but Schmidtian pacing is quick only in its minutiae. The underlying plot is related slowly, but Schmidt’s playfulness is pyrotechnic." - Eckhard Gerdes
"Arno Schmidt's The School for Atheists is a play-novel. It is novelistic fiction, yet in play form (and a comedy, not a drama). It is presented in six acts, divided into many scenes. It opens with a "Playbill" ("Comödienzettel") - introducing the settings and the cast of characters.
The School for Atheists is, in appearance, vaguely play-like. But the form is Schmidt's own - metadrama that becomes metafiction. The School for Atheists is unstageable: it is too massive, and too detailed. Dialogue dominates completely, but unlike in a play Schmidt does not leave it simply at that. Scenes are set with great precision, utterances and actions carefully described. Asides abound - including everything from imagined "STIPULATIONS of a Rental = Agreement" ("PUNCTATIO eines Mieth = Contracts") between Plato and Aristotle to a scene straight out of Beaumont & Fletcher (from The Sea=Voyage).
The work is exacting. Accounts and descriptions are thorough: Schmidt wants to convey very distinct impressions, and often leaves practically nothing for the reader to fill in. (Much of the writing is, however, in a dense, clipped style.) The School for Atheists is, often, textbook exact. The work is more than even cinematic, since much of what Schmidt offers is not merely physical description, but referential: background, allusion, emphasis, explication. Elaboration builds on elaboration.
The School for Atheists is one of Arno Schmidt's oversize typoscript-fictions (DIN A3 in the original). Schmidt also presents much of the text in unusual form. Narratives run side by side, incidental notes are presented carving out portions of pages, - and there are even a few illustrations. In addition, Schmidt's wordplay runs riot throughout the text.
Sound is more important to Schmidt than spelling, rooting in etymology is an exercise he can't pass up at any turn, and every few sentences he forces two words where usually there is only one (beginning a word with the same letters, for example, but allowing for two endings, e.g. go- -thic/-dless, or changing the middle letters, e.g. c- -rit/-yn -ical). And those are only the most obvious aspects of the writing.
The School for Atheists is also a work of science fiction. It opens "at the foot of 7 October 2014", and is set largely in the German town of Tellingstedt. The "First Doomsday" shifted the world's political landscape. Germany is here again caught between East and West in a Cold War-type atmosphere, but the two world powers are the USA and China. Representatives for these two nations have come to Tellingstedt to negotiate: the American Secretary of State, Nicole Kennan (also known as "ISIS") and China's foreign minister, Yuan Shi Kai. Eventually they agree to a "Toleration Pact".
About a week's worth of negotiations and misadventures are covered, but the focus is less on the conflict between the ruling powers than on the life - domestic and public - of local justice of the peace, William T. Kolderup. Kolderup is also central to the goings-on between the ISIS and Yuan, but much more of the book focusses on the behind the scenes day to day activities in the Kolderup household.
Kolderup is an august 75, a serious, literary type - and last bridge to the old world. Kolderup is a true Schmidtian edifier and bookworm, and much of his conversation involves allusions to and descriptions of the obscure and forgotten texts Schmidt so loves. The idea of "library as harem, as seraglio" is among those that appeal to him.
Kolderup's 17 year-old granddaughter, Suse, lives with him, and her friend "Nipperchen" comes to join the household too. The young ladies liven up much of the narrative, as they face different sorts of issues. (They also seem almost perpetually in some sort of states of undress.) Old and new, old ways and new ways, are in constant tension - half typical youth-contra-age, half commentary on the dystopian future Schmidt offers. It also allows Schmidt (through Kolderup) to lecture extensively - though, as always, in entertaining fashion.
There is a second narrative in the book as well, recounted by Kolderup: forty five years earlier, in 1969, he was on board a ship with ISIS' mother, Marjorie Kennan, and several others. It was occasion, again, for great disputation and argument, with a somewhat literary and philosophically minded crowd. (In a typical Schmidt touch, Kolderup's "travel library" ("ReiseBiblio") consisted solely of the two volumes of Theodor Däubler's Nordlicht and a volume of Jean Paul.)
A shipwreck back then complicated matters - and made for more serious talk. The situation also allowed for, in a sense, a "school for atheists".
Schmidt never had much respect for religion, god bless him, and he makes his case here again. He also finds room to expound on his not always sympathetic political views:
Before the First Doomsday, people 'd become 40=hour=a=weekers, meaning >totally underworkt<; ('nd then were f'rever striking, tòò; until entire economies were shot to hell; 'nd the helpless governments, as always knew nothing better than to divert attention, and start a war) [...] >To blame< ? : why, ultimately, as for so many things, Christentomb - (?) : well b'cause , f'rexample, it sabotaged any reasonable birth-control. And represst the insite : that the greatest beasts of burden & moralists are THE ATHEISTS !; (every gover'ment that wants to advance its interests oughta keep a good %age of 'em on hand.) ( Vor'm Erstn WeltUntergang waren die Menschn 40=Stundn=Wöchner gewordn; d's heißt >total unterarbeitet<; (und da streiktn sie nòch andauernd; bis ebm sämtliche VolksWirtschaftn kaputt gingn; und die ratlosn Regierungn, wie immer, nichts andres mehr wußtn, als, zur Ablenkung, 'n Krieg anufangn) [...] >Schuld< ? : war, wie an so vielem, imgrunde das Christentumb - (?) : nu weil's, zum Exemplel, eine vernünftige GeburtnRegelung sabotiert hat. Und ebm auch die Einsicht verhinderte: daß die größtn ArbeitsTiere & Moralistn, DIE ATHEISTEN sind !; (jede Regierung, die ihren Vorteilkennt, sollte sich einen guten %satz davon haltn). )

The stories in Schmidt's novel are themselves interesting enough, but of course it is the singular presentation that is the true appeal. Story, character, morals are all enriched by the presentation. It's not your usual book - novel, drama, or what have you - but it's not your usual experimental fiction either. Form and style here are used for depth rather than flash. They also make for surprisingly rich characters - Kolderup and Suse, in particular, but others too. And the stories gain from the multifacetation as well. Yes, there's a lot of word play, and a seeming excess of allusion (much of which will probably be impenetrable to many readers - sorry, no annotations or footnotes beyond Schmidt's own included !) and what appears, at first glance, to be a dizzying jumble of print. But there is a lot of story, a lot of action, a lot of thought and cleverness as well - and it does unfold clearly enough, if read closely enough. It won't be to everyone's taste - be warned, be very warned - but for anyone in the least bit interested in what all can still be done with the written on the page, it is certainly recommended. John Woods' translation (and the Green Integer edition in general) is a marvel. Translation is a horrible thing, and Schmidt, with his constant wordplay (and typographical play) would seem more untranslatable than most. However, Schmidt's etym-ological interests, his rooting in / for word-roots, and his poly-glot/gluttony make for a metaGerman original that does, in many respects, simplify the foreign re-renderers task; in addition, English is the popular second tongue in the book. The English version of The School for Atheists is a page-for-page re-creation of Die Schule der Atheisten - easing the task of comparing original and copy (and allowing one to use the English version even regarding references to the original). Bless Woods & GI for making it so ! The book looks largely as it does in the original (only the format is slightly smaller) and all of Schmidt's games, illustrations, etc. have been preserved. (However, unlike in the German original the dual-words - written in tiny type one above the other in the original - are here presented still at different levels but slightly askew: aesthetically not quite as pleasing, but perhaps the only possibility, given the smaller page-size.) Woods' translation is an impressive one. He attacks the text gamely, and manages very well for most of the way. Much of the dialogue and description is in dialect, and almost everything is presented in the abbreviated and elliptical style of everyday speech and thought, but Woods manages to find English equivalents all the way through. He manages to preserve an astonishing amount of Schmidt's wordplay: the dual meanings, the alternate-words-in-one-description, and the rest. Of course, Schmidt can and should only be read in the original, but for the non-native speaker that is a daunting undertaking. Woods can't keep the same hard edge as Schmidt does, line after line after line, as Woods is forced to soften and limit at every turn (that's what translation is: choosing, limiting, reducing - making for a soggy version of the original (though this one is crisper than most)). But for those who can't appreciate the original Woods offers a damn fine alternative. It is the equivalent of a postcard reproduction of an oil painting, but the original is so impressive that even this will do. (A rare disappointment comes with the epigraph that opens the book, taken from the finale of Verdi's Falstaff. Cf. the three versions: Tutto nel mondo é burla. / L'uom é nato burlone, / La fede in cor gli ciurla, / Gli ciurla la ragione. Alles ist Spaß auf Erden, / der Mensch ein geborener Tor; / (und dünkt er sich weise zu werden, / ist er dümmer noch, als zuvor). Life's for the satirizer, / and furthermore man's a born fool; / (and should he think himself wiser, / he's more foolish than an old mule). ) Woods also offers a brief (two page) but perfectly adequate introduction, warning of the "verbal hellamaumau" to be found here (and noting that a quick glimpse of the unusual-looking text might already be enough to put off or turn on the prospective reader). (Woods does mix up the dates of publication of this novel and Evening Edged in Gold here, which might cause some confusion: he notes that The School for Atheists lies in between Zettels Traum and Evening Edged in Gold, but then gives dates that suggest otherwise - no, that's not a Schmidtian game, just a mistake.) As the only one of Schmidt's typoscripts currently in print in English (Evening Edged in Gold has long been out thereof, Zettels Traum and Julia remain untranslated), it is a must-have for any Schmidt-fan. It is also highly recommended to any and all who are interested in modern literature. A remarkable work, and an impressive translation. (But go for the original if you can.)" - The Complete Review


Ursula Heise: "The Intellectual after World War III: Arno Schmidt's Science Fiction"http://www.altx.com/ebr/reviews/rev7/r7hei.htm



Volker Max Langbehn, Arno Schmidt's Zettel's Traum: An Analysis (Studies in German Literature Linguistics and Culture) (Camden House, 2003)


Setting: The three visitors will begin in two days at Dan. The plot by four o’clock in the morning with showers entering the field. It is crossed, and they leave at the other end. At the bridge at the end…
~Arno Schmidt, Zettels Traum [Quoted/translated in Innovative Fiction Magazine]


(un)justly (un)read

No one reads Arno Schmidt (1914-1979), a little-known major German writer whose corpus ranges from (seemingly) straightforward stories to writing that assails the reader with a literary and linguistic density of the highest degree—he is Germany’s Joyce.

Parsing Schmidt’s trade=mark syntax will reveal, among much else: tremendous wit, metanarratives, caustic social commentary, and passages fully charged with melopoeia.

English readers will have to wait for the amazing John E. Woods to finish translating Schmidt’s magnum opus, Zettels Traum (Bottom’s Dream)—it’s twice as long as Finnegans Wake—but, for the meantime, Woods has already provided us with sublime translations of Schmidt’s works, and he recommends the Collected Novellas as the place to start. In addition, I would suggest beginning with the volume Nobodaddy’s Children, which contains Scenes from the Life of a Faun, Brand’s Heath, and Dark Mirrors. [(un)justly (un)read]


Orchestrating our forgetfulness

Arno Schmidt (1914-1979) is not a well-known figure in German media studies. For the most part, his writings have never enjoyed large audiences and his complex works seem destined to stay at the margins of critical inquiries. Although Schmidt has slowly gained recognition as a “giant of postwar German Literature,” academic criticism so far has produced only a paucity of serious scholarly inquiries. One of Schmidt’s primary concern was to outline the various forms of knowledge formation. The changing nature of these processes of knowledge formation through television and radio posed a special interest. The shift in the transfer of knowledge, from a written text as the storage room of information, to immaterial knowledge production, in the media of radio and television, finds its succinct expression in Schmidt’s literary text Zettels Traum. Embedded in a narrative that claims to preserve our cultural past and present and to serve as a dialogue partner between reader, writer, and text, Zettels Traum, I argue, brings to the forefront the problematic nature of the immaterialities of communication as exemplified in news broadcasting in postwar Germany. The immateriality of communication signals the dissolution of the complex configuration of closed narratives and simultaneously replaces the traditional form of memory with images that orchestrate our forgetfulness. [Watching TV with Arno Schmidt]


An elephantine monster in the service of a dream

Considering the enormous philological and historical erudition of Schmidt’s texts along with the abundance of references, allusions, and parodies of texts from the German, British, French, and classical literary traditions, it should not surprise us that Zettel’s Traum remains a neglected text…. From the outset, Schmidt’s Zettel’s Traum is visually distinguished from other books by its sheer bulk — 1334 pages and dimensions of 12.8 x 12.3 inches (owing to the photomechanical reproduction of the original typescript). With its irregular formatted pages and its division into various columns, the text, as an unknown reviewer observed, gained the status of an “elephantine monster” among postwar German publications. A reader of Zettel’s Traum encounters enlarged letters, advertising materials, photographs, pictorial elements supplementing the verbal narration, alterations, additions, and many other devices revealing the text outside the strict purview of literature.

For over ten years, Schmidt filled 130,000 Zettel (index cards) with information. It took him four years to transform Zettel’s Traum into a narrative of twenty-five hours in the life of the main characters of the text, Daniel Pagenstecher, usually called Dan, Paul Jacobi and his wife Wilma, and their teenage daughter Franziska. All four participants engage in the various problems connected with a translation of Edgar Allen Poe and discuss the life and works of Poe. Throughout the text, the central narrator, Daniel Pagenstecher, to whom the critics often refer as the alter ego of Schmidt, complements the discussions by inserting historical events, psychological findings, geographic discoveries, and cosmological insights. Additional comments and quotations from sources such as literary and historical texts unveil the multilingual texture of Zettel’s Traum as a labyrinthine narration.

…The title and the epigraph of Zettel’s Traum hint at Schmidt’s method of writing in the service of a dream. In this instance, William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of many allusions. “Zettel,” German for the “warp” of woven cloth, evokes Bottom the Weaver as translated in Friedrich Schlegel’s rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is essential to grasp Schmidt’s literary allusions to understand the structure and the signifying practices in Zettel’s Traum. [Arno Schmidt's Zettel's Traum: An Analysis]



Arno Schmidt’s collection of index card notations used in the writing of Zettels Traum.


Wading into the Shower Field

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