…we all suffer from light addiction.
It is the most modern of diseases.
— Mrs. Hortense, from Paul Scheerbart’s The Light Club of Batavia: A Ladies’ Novelette, trans. Wilhelm Werthern.
No one reads Reinhard Lettau (1929-96), a German-American writer, activist, and scholar who wrote: numerous short stories, a radio play, critical works, poetry, English translations (with Ferlinghetti) of love poems by Karl Marx; and, whenever permissible, avoided noting his middle name: Adolf.
Among the vast archipelago of short(-short) fiction—near the islands of Buzzati, Calvino, Thurber, Barthelme, and Hildesheimer—there is the seldom visited and often uncharted islet of Lettau’s short works. Chief thereof is found in his American debut Obstacles (1965), a volume that contains English translations of his first two books of stories: Schwierigkeiten beim Häuserbauen (Difficulties in Housebuilding, 1962) and Auftritt Manigs (Enter Manig, 1963).
The 21 of the three- to eight-page prose pieces that comprise Difficulties in Housebuilding are Lettau at his most charming and inventive. A favourite of mine is the epistolary “Potemkin’s Carriage Passes Through”; here is an excerpt that reveals the essence of the book (my emphasis):
April 11, 1784
[…] Of course the roofers are really painters, and so are the glaziers who insert windows with deft brushes. The bricklayers are painters and so are the masons; the only people who work at their true trade here are the stagehands who put up the scaffoldings and lent a hand with our lodgings. But since then no one’s seen them do any work. I am told that they are lying around drinking behind the wooden wall that looks like a tavern from the road. One of them supposedly had the idea of throwing a stone through one of the not-so-well-painted windows in the village, the other day, and replacing it with real glass. If this practice spreads, I almost fear for the success of my mission.
April 12, 1784
The meaning of my last sentence in yesterday’s annotations can best be illustrated by the fact that more and more fake window fronts have, since then, been replaced by real ones. […] Sometimes I can’t help feeling that we are in reality building two villages: a false one and a real one, without actually wanting to build the real one, as though it were growing by itself out of the false one, as if by necessity.
All the stories in the American (Pantheon) edition are translated by the prolific Ursule Molinaro. The British (Calder & Boyars) edition of Obstacles (1966) supplants eight of Molinaro’s translations with new ones by Ellen Sutton and adds a Sutton translation of another Lettau story (“The Road”) to the end of the first book. However, in all eight cases, I prefer Molinaro’s translations for their economy and diction, and her in-sentence sequencing of events makes for better poetic and comedic effects.
[The 57 shorts, none longer than a page, are centered on the character Manig, who] is treated like a tracing powder that is thrown into turbulent water to expose hidden currents: Lettau uses Manig to isolate and depict behavioral patterns, only to cleverly undo them. Manig is portrayed predominately through pantomime, and some of his gesticulations are clownlike. […] Lettau disrupts reality by equating the thing with the word and the absolute with the relative, and by separating image from reality through leaps in logic and optical illusions.
Lettau’s other works in English translation:
- Enemies (1973), Agnes Rook’s translation of Fiende (1963). A six story collection that is best saved for completists, because the set of three new stories ridiculing war are outdone by the two similar war stories in Obstacles: “A Campaign” and “A Pause Between Battles”. The three shorter, supplemental stories, one of which is Rook’s version of “The Road”, are also redundant.
- Breakfast in Miami (1982), Lettau’s and Julie Prandi’s translation of his radio play Frühstücksgespräche im Miami (1977). Caricatures of deposed dictators meet in Miami and say their piece. Yet another only for the completist, but, on the strength of Obstacles, I remain optimistic about his still untranslated later works, which can be found—with promising cover art—in Alle Geschichten (Complete Stories, 1998).
For more about his life and writings:
- BookRags.com has most of the DLB’s article on Lettau.
- The obituary from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), where Lettau taught Writing and German Literature from 1968-90.
(Images: the cover art is by Günter Grass; here’s an online gallery of Grass’ graphic work, 1972-2007.)
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.
For more about this juggernaut of literature, see:
- Arno Schmidt at the Complete Review, where he is well-loved, and strongly influenced their Literary Saloon dialogs (Radio Dialogs I, II)
- “The Intellectual after World War III: Arno Schmidt’s Science Fiction”, an essay by Ursula Heise
- “Watching TV with Arno Schmidt”, an essay by Volker Langbehn; also, see his analysis of Zettels Traum (Google preview)
- Dalkey Archive is the current fountainhead of Schmidt in English
- Green Integer publishes the little sibling of Zettels Traum, The School for Atheists, and a selection of Schmidt’s erudite literary criticism, Radio Dialogs I and II
(Image: “Kühe in Halbtrauer” (trans. “Cows in Half Mourning”) by Jens Rusch; a title of a short story by Schmidt)
Marcel Reich-Ranicki (b. 1920, Poland) is a German literary critic and member of Gruppe 47. He is regarded as one of the most influential contemporary literary critics of German literature; so much so that he is often referred to as the ‘Pope of [German] literature’ (Literaturpapst), which should provide a sense of the admiration (and contempt) Germans have for him.
He was the creator and a host of Literarisches Quartett (1988-2001), a German television show that discussed and reviewed modern and contemporary literature. Reich-Ranicki’s commentary is entertaining and interesting, even when it is old-fashioned and, like some of my favourite critics, rashly dismissive—the program is more show than literary journal. (I have looked for the series on DVD, hoping for English subtitles, but all I could find was German transcripts and audio recordings; there are a few clips on Youtube—in the meantime, I’ll keep building my German vocab. Also, if anyone knows of an English show of similar caliber, do let me know.)
Of particular interest is Reich-Ranicki’s Canon of German Literature (Der Kanon): a massive multi-volume anthology of German language novels, stories, poetry, plays, and essays; a listing of its content can be found on the Der Kanon - Wikipedia page. Of the many authors Reich-Ranicki champions, it seems to me that Hermann Burger's writings are the most in need of English translation.
(Image: photo by Herlinde Koelbl)
No one reads Ilse Aichinger (b. 1921, Vienna). She and her husband, the poet, Günter Eich (now deceased), were honoured members of an exclusive and prestigious postwar literati constellation, Gruppe 47—Wolfgang Hildesheimer (another author no one reads) was also a member; see here for an extensive roster.
Ilse Aichinger’s short stories—with their haunting imagery, deft escalations of strangeness, chilling humour, poetic concision and lyricism—will leave you stirred. “The Bound Man”, “Story in a Mirror”, “Speech Under the Gallows”, and “Where I Live” are excellent stories to read through first; the former three are her most highly acclaimed.
Sources in English (Amazon US links):
- Herod’s Children - her groundbreaking (and only) novel.
- The Bound Man and Other Stories - her must-have collection of short stories.
- Selected Poetry and Prose of Ilse Aichinger - a worthy compilation, but start with the previous.
Unfortunately, her books, in English translations, are out of print, making them difficult and (usually) costly to acquire. With that said, her writing has been included in many anthologies; here’s a listing, courtesy of IBL (be wary of shoddy translations, though):
- Best Short Shorts (1958)
- Great German Short Stories (1960)
- Modern German Stories (1961)
- Slaying of the Dragon, the (1984)
- Art of the Tale, the (1986)
- Evidence of Fire: An Anthology of Twentieth Century German Poetry (1989)
- Contemporary German Fiction (1996)
- Contemporary Jewish Writing in Austria (1999)
- Nightshade: 20th Century Ghost Stories (1999)
- Escaping Expectations (2001)
- Dedalus Book of Austrian Fantasy 1890-2000, the (2003)
Note: For the really keen, a Google search of Aichinger’s “The Bound Man” might be worthwhile. ;-]
I would like to have become someone else, wouldn’t you? But we should have started earlier; now, it is too late. Indeed, it would not be so bad never to have been born in the first place, but that happens more and more seldom, I could scarcely list any cases, except right off the bat; but you certainly would not care for that, and you are right not to, I do not like that either. We have been given our lives—I do find that expression highly euphemistic, but be that as it may: gifts from parents or from people who become parents only by the act of giving can be neither rejected nor passed on, for one would never find the right taker. Besides, at the time of the giving, one does not yet possess the right vocabulary to make the thing palatable to others. Oh well, it would not be possible to return the gift anyway. But I am amazed that the recipient’s screams of protest right after the act of giving do not give the givers food for thought.
Excerpts from the dust jacket, The Collected Stories of Wolfgang Hildesheimer:
The funny and bittersweet stories of Wolfgang Hildesheimer are peopled with delightful eccentrics: an insomniac who makes a midnight visit to his bird dealer to purchase an owl (not gift-wrapped) that he might carry it to Athens; a world-famous pianist whose lifelong dream is to be an insurance agent; a retired magician who with his last conjure turns himself into a nightingale.
Here also are accounts of unlikely historical figures such as Theodor Pilz, a man whose “contribution to the history of Western civilization was expressed in the nonexistence of works which never came into being thanks to his courageous, self-sacrificing interference”[.]
The book concludes with the masterful “Missives to Max”, an epistolary meditation on age and the modern age, on quotidian and universal existence. In a serendipitous ramble the correspondent allows a pun or double entendre to lead him from one topic to the next. In such multilayered prose the translator’s art is at its highest, and the nuance and whimsy of the original are preserved with faithfulness and elegance.
Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s writings are, in one word, cerebral. If you enjoyed the footnotes about De Selby in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, if (Stephen Fry’s) wordplay tickles you pink, and if you think you can appreciate humour delivered in the form of expertly placed parenthetical phrases, then this collection of shorts is worth a read.
Hildesheimer also authored a brilliant biography of Mozart.