Translatables! (Part 2)

This is the second installment of a list of books and writers who should be translated into English, but haven’t yet been. Part 1 (direct link here) listed a number of contemporary writers and books: Reinhard Jirgl’s Abschied von den Feinden, Patrick Roth’s Christus Trilogie, Hartmut Lange’s Das Konzert and Thomas Stangl’s Was Kommt.

Part 2 will feature more classical writers, and spans a far greater period of time, from a book published in 1767, to one, published posthumously, in 1967. With classical writers it’s hard to guess which writers, torn from the immediate cultural and linguistic context, will or could be successful, and worth reading. A lot of writers will fall by the wayside, such as Jean Paul, who is a stunning writer, possibly the best prose writer of his time, but whose extremely long epics of the bourgeois life may not connect well enough with the Anglophone reader. By the same measure I skipped a few extraordinary plays, such as H.L Wagner’s shocking Kindermörderin, a play about a young woman who, left by her lover, kills her newborn child. It’s in many ways proto-modern, laced with a complex social criticism, with images of violence (almost an onstage rape, the brutal murder of the child), and additionally, Wagner lets his heroine take the place that in his time, men occupied. It’s sensational, and both a challenging and engrossing read, but I’m not convinced that it makes as much of an impact on readers who have not read canonical plays like Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen or Schiller’s The Robbers. There are countless more books like that.

The four books below, however, should be translated. You’ll notice that 3 out of the 4 were written (though not published) at roughly the same time. That was one of the most fecund periods of German fiction, yet one of the most neglected, as far as translation are concerned. It’s a shame that these books in particular haven’t yet been Englished, and it’s a loss to Anglophone readers everywhere.

Part 2: Classics

Alfred Döblin, Berge, Meere und Giganten (1932)

Döblin was, above all, a craftsman, and, in equal measures, dedicated to literature and to his political convictions. His work, from early expressionistic stories like Die Ermordung einer Butterblume, to his three-volume epic about the November Revolution in Germany in 1918, touches on a vast array of subjects, and is written in a variety of ways. He is best known for the aforementioned story and his novel Berlin, Alexanderplatz, a mad masterpiece of a book, completely written and constructed in a montage, a technique that he had been playing around with for decades and finally perfected in Berlin, Alexanderplatz. The great amount of different registers and voices and dialects that swamp that particular book make it enormously hard to translate properly, but this one has at least been translated. Among his other masterpieces, for me, two stick out: one would be his biographical novel about Wallenstein, which provides a history of that grand character of the 30 Years’ War, imbued with social criticism and a careful awareness. Less well known than Wallenstein, however, is his gargantuan (in every sense) utopian novel Berge, Meere und Giganten. It’s set up to be a projective history of mankind. In about 600 pages, Döblin races through centuries of upheaval, and we soon notice that most of this is not earnest speculative fiction, it’s expressionistic madness. In order to make the threats understandable that the modern age holds for us, Döblin goes overboard. Civil wars, political reformations, and later, natural disasters plague humanity, until the dinosaurs (yes) walk the earth again. This isn’t a mere novel about an idea or a few ideas, this is a huge explosion of one of the best minds of German literature. One idea races the other, one plot the next and we read on, breathlessly, trying to find out what will become of humanity. This is a spectacular book, one that breaks smaller lights like Jules Verne or Alfred Kubin into pieces. It tells us about the true potential of us human beings, it’s awash with decades of thought, yet it reads like a bestseller. And below it all, the thunderous river of Döblin’s language rumbles. Break out the seat belts, get on for this ride. I mean it, you need to read this book. And I’m honestly bewildered why it hasn’t yet been translated. The scope and depth of it puts contemporary writers like William Vollmann to shame. Really. Translate it.

Additional links

Buy this book on amazon? Link
Read Döblin’s German Wiki page? Link
Read Döblin’s English Wiki page? Link

Rudolf Borchardt, Jamben (1935/1967)

Borchardt is an oddity. Part of circles formed around the two masters of literature in German at the time, Stefan George and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, he was both venerated and hated. He was a man of contradictions, as a Jew, who had been generally read as a proto-fascist, whose last speeches seemed to hail Hitler’s arrival from afar. A renowned cultural scholar, widely praised and admired for his titanic knowledge, he, and those like him, resurrected a German tradition that the Romantics had tried to establish first, a metaphysical German-ness; this reading of his work, however, is deficient, but many people didn’t notice this, until in 1967 his long poem, Jamben, was published. It is a series of smaller poems written in a form that can be called Jamben in German, but are usually called epodes. An epode, a carmen maledictum, is usually written to abuse or vilify someone; in modern usage, by poets such as André Chénier, it has become more vituperative, more angry, more political. Chénier called the form “l’épode vengeresse”. And so it is here as well: Borchardt’s Jamben are an all-out attack on the rising wave of hate, on the new politics in Germany. They were written to the backdrop of the Nuremberg Laws, which were declared the same year. They reveal what a complex writer Borchardt was all along, and that he was content to let contradictions simmer in the literary delicacies he cooked up. Borchardt is one of those German writers with the most intricate knowledge of the German language and German literary tradition. His work, especially his stellar Dante translation, is almost unbearably complex in purely linguistic terms. That doesn’t mean he’s hard to read, but in his work, every word seems fraught with references, puns, and ambiguities; and usually, he’s uninterested in producing a finished work of art. He started lots of projects and was content to finish them in his head; accordingly, much of what he actually published evinces a certain disregard for his audience. Not so the Jamben. They are songs of anger, and although they, again, bear the full weight of German tradition, here we see him trow it at someone, writing not because he can do it, but because he needs to. You don’t need to understand, to ‘get’ German history to ‘get’ these poems. They speak, no, they sing, scream, shout, declaim, whisper for themselves. Jamben is one of the most powerful pieces of poetry published this century, in any language, and although it needs a good translator, it can and does translate to other languages. Everyone should read it. It’s inspiring, haunting, great literature.

Additional links

Buy this book on amazon? Link
Read Borchardt’s German Wiki page?  Link

Christoph Martin Wieland, Agathon (1767)

This is an incredible book, and Wieland is one of German literature’s most underrated genii. Wieland had a long productive career, and there are a few standout books in his work, but the publication of Agathon shows him at his most readable, most complex best. Fresh from having published a successful novel that was inspired by Cervantes, he wrote a book that stands among the most important and most influential German books ever written. It inspired the first extant theory of the Bildungsroman, and until Goethe published Wilhelm Meister, it was generally regarded as the pre-eminent German novel. Agathon is a novel like no other one. It contains material for several other books, as it charts a young man’s search for enlightenment in the tempestuous landscapes of Ancient Greece. There are long discussions of Greek philosophy, erotic games, politics and pirates! Agathon is the work of a writer born into the wrong period of time. Like Melville, Wieland’s complexities are astonishingly modern. Here, as in other books of his, his psychology is subtly wrought and reminds the reader of modern theories of mass and individual psychology. His characters appear to be written with Nietzsche’s philosophy in mind, and it all is written to a backdrop of sin and lust that is beyond simple bawdy games. Wieland, as we quickly see, debates modern theories of sex, gender and sexuality with the language and images of his time; Schlegel’s Florentin could not have been written about it. Wieland went on to revise it three times, softening the impact, imparting upon his narrative the wisdom he won through the years, but there’s no doubt that the first draft is the best one, the least harmoniously reconciled. Agathon is fundamentally contradictory, a book defying tradition and definition. Like Jahnn, Wieland’s other books became more expansive, more complex iterations of the ideas contained in this long but overwhelmingly dense masterpiece. If you can read German read Wieland! Or translate him. Through his heavy influence on the early German novel, he influenced world literature. It’s time the world read him!

Additional links

Read my review of Agathon? Link
Buy this book on amazon? Link
Read Wieland’s German Wiki page? Link
Read Wieland’s English Wiki page? Link
Buy another masterpiece of Wieland’s, Geschichte der Abderiten, in French translation? Link

Hans Henny Jahnn, Perrudja (1929)

I’ll just start with this: Hans Henny Jahnn is the single most underrated writer of the 20th century. Oh, yes, no doubt about it. He has written 5 truly great and mind-blowing plays and a few more very good ones. He has written two mind-blowing, game-changing novels. He has written a handful of mind-blowing shorter prose pieces. Of all that, only one play is still in print in an affordable edition in German. What translations exist into English barely scratches the surface of this man’s great work. It’s a shame. I repeat: it’s a shame. To single out one book of all them is hard, because all of them deserve to be read, translated, and passed around. However, I do understand if translator are careful when it comes to translating his opus magnum, Fluß Ohne Ufer, a sprawling trilogy of over 2000 pages, unfinished, and hard to sum up. Granted, it’s the best German novel of the past century, but that doesn’t make it easier to translate or sell. I understand that. Keeping all this in mind, however, I definitely do not understand why Jahnn’s first novel, the burning meteor that is Perrudja, has not been translated yet. Perrudja is, like Döblin’s novel, about the conditio humana, and about the threats that modernity has to offer the individual trapped in its machinery. But it takes a very different tack. Instead of looking forward, it looks backward: it’s gorged with myth and history. In Perrudja, there’s a main story, a suspenseful story at that, but there are also numerous smaller stories inserted into the main story, who elaborate upon the topics of the main story. Jahnn is an obsessive writer, obsessed with sexuality, religion, history, and violence, and Perrudja can be described as an epic of the body as it deals with all these elements inasmuch as they form part of our culture. It’s one of the most potent novels about how homosexuality is affected by the repressive modern society. Jahnn examines how our culture, behavior, history are permeated with violence, but his book isn’t bleak or negative. Jahnn believes in the potential of humanity for good, and this belief runs through every page of this incredible book. This is a book that will swallow you whole, a genuinely great read, and a great novel. Jahnn writes in a style that is both mythic and modern, and the result is a great, mad, colorful dream. Perrudja is a challenging read but an engaging one, a book that you can’t and shouldn’t miss. Read Jahnn, translate him. It’s shocking that he hasn’t already been translated.

Additional links

Read my review of Perrudja? Link
Buy this book in French translation? Link
Read Jahnn’s German Wiki page? Link
Read Jahnn’s English Wiki page? Link
Read Kebad Kenya, the only English blog dedicated to Jahnn’s work? Link

Please also read Part 1: direct link here

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On Christoph M. Wieland’s “Die Geschichte des Agathon”

When I closed this novel, I was exhilarated and overwhelmed. This is a great novel, strict and philosophical, as well as sensuous and wild. Wieland is an extraordinary reader and thinker as well as a great poet and novelist. There are good writers, and then there are great writers and then there are writers who were not of their time: writers whose work has been misread, misunderstood and largely misappreciated in their time, the most famous among which is probably Herman Melville. Another great example of an influential yet seriously underappreciated writer is Christoph Martin Wieland; his major work is the Geschichte des Agathon (History of Agathon). The Geschichte des Agathon influenced the German novel like few other books, and even today it baffles and fascinates; it’s both an excursus on theology, philosophy, morals and the limits and possibilities of the novel. Christoph Martin Wieland was born in 1733 and died in 1813, and in between he produced an inimitable body of work the depths of which have still not been plumbed. He published the Geschichte des Agathon in 1766, and three revisions during the next 34 years, the last of which appeared in 1800. I have read only the first version of it; it’s is the most influential, and from what I know about the other versions, most interesting, of the four.

To call Agathon a typical Bildungsroman is misleading because it is one of the very first -if not the first- specimen of the genre. Nevertheless, it is typical in many ways, in the sense that it tells of a young man’s coming of age, learning about himself and the world through hardships and patient teachers. Agathon is a character from Plato’s Symposion, and the novel is set in Plato’s time with key characters such as Plato, Dionysos of Syracuse and Hippias of Elis making appearances, some more important than others. Agathon is highly aware of the fact that its readers know about the references, in letters Wieland’s even quite dismissive of potential readers who are not educated enough. The awareness in Agathon means that it is endlessly self-referential, incessantly discussing its own nature as a text and its links to other texts. Sometimes it’s doing the latter playfully, as in its use of historical persons and replacements and shifts of their, well-known and publicized histories, sometimes it opts for heavy swathes of philosophical discussion that poses as a classic discussion between Platonists and Epicureans (a pose that is supported by, for instance, the fact that Hippias and Plato and Agathon are all characters from actual dialogues by Plato), but contains worlds of other thought, most prominently Meister Eckhart.

The most significant way that Agathon is self-referential, however, is achieved by making it a text within a text and making doubts about legitimacy and authenticity and recurrent topic within the story of the novel as well as in the framework’s narrator’s address of the audience. Although, it is misleading to call him the framework’s narrator. The narrator relates the whole story to us, we are always hearing his voice yet at the same time he is assuring us we are getting the truth. It’s not just about telling us that the facts are true, although he keeps reassuring us about that, as well. Actually, he insists on being merely the editor of the text, but he is not just a very intrusive editor, as I said, it is also his voice re-telling the story, he injects unmarked editor’s comments now and then, as he addresses the reader’s incredulity, there’s even a chapter called: “which will make some people suspect that this story is made-up”. As with two of the most significant predecessors of the novel, Fielding and Sterne, narrative is a constant concern.

Wieland, like them, also offers an engaging, complex story, told in a nonlinear fashion. It’s about a young man who grows up a strikingly beautiful boy in the temple at Delphy, apparently an orphan. He is taught proper Platonian philosophy there; falls platonically in love with a girl called Psyche. Shortly before he comes of age, an older priestess hits on him repeatedly. This confuses and disgusts him so much that he leaves the temple head over heels and heads towards Athens. On the way he meets an old man who turns out to be his father and a rich man, as well. Suddenly endowed with a large fortune, he moves to Athens and enters politics. As he runs into difficulties with the corrupt and selfish political establishment, he is banished from Athens and is on the road again. This is where the novel sets in, in one of the most striking and strange scenes I have read in a while: as he perambulates, he comes upon a group of female Dionysian cultists who engage in a sexual and sensual frenzy. As a male spectator, he knows he is in constant danger, yet the spectacle, so at odds with his thinking and beliefs, is so alluring he stays hidden and watches.

This proves to be a mistake, however, as suddenly, pirates alight, try to capture as many women as possible and catch Agathon as well, who finds himself suddenly a slave on his way to the slave market. To cut a long story short, he is finally sold to Hippias, who sees the young man as a fit and entrancing candidate to succeed him as the leading mind of the Epicureans. Agathon, however, is an intractable idealist, scornfully rejecting Hippias’ arguments, who is trying to sway Agathon both with reason and hot women. After a couple of defeats, he tricks Agathon into falling for Daphne, the most beautiful and intelligent woman in his community. Daphne is a seasoned seducer and after the young idealist falls for her, she chips away at his ideals, turning his love into a full, worldly love instead of a mere intellectual infatuation. As Hippias triumphs over him, pointing out the change, Agathon is both ashamed of himself and furious at Hippias and Daphne for deceiving him. Daphne, meanwhile, has fallen for Agathon, and been, to an extent, converted by his philosophy, as he has been by hers.

Once again, he leaves, this time moving to Sicily, to the court of Dionysos the tyrant, and embarks on yet another political endeavor, this time trying to turn Dionysos into the enlightenment’s ideal of an enlightened ruler. Here, as in the discussion about love and sexuality, self and the world, in the confrontations with Hippias, the novel blends contemporary and ancient philosophy. Again, the corrupt mob effects a banishment, although he was singularly successful; as his political hopes are once again dashed, he leaves one last time, going to Tarentum where he is invited by the local potentate, who is Agathon’s ideal of a ruler. In the end, all the threads seem to be coming together rather quickly. He meets Psyche again, who turns out to be his sister, and Daphne. Surprisingly, he finds he’s still in love with Daphne but she won’t take him back just now, since she has turned into an ascetic. There is no resolution to the novel, which closes with an open end of sorts. By telling you the ending, I have not spoiled your surprise, because the story, although fun and engaging, does not in the least rely upon conventional suspense. The revelations at the end are deus ex machina devices.

The end is unusual in that it doesn’t allow for a neat conclusion, a clear moral message. Agathon is both Epicurean and Platonian, he is politically disillusioned yet lands in a political paradise that is a made bed, however, not helping him to understand anything. Most contemporary reviewers such as Gerstenberg, the great playwright, were unable to see this ambiguity, even though it is at the heart of the novel. It was just too unusual for the Germans of his time, and so they claimed to have read a moral ending to the story, proclaiming a defeat of the decadent Epicureism. The critical applause for the novel was thunderous, and well-deservedly so, but for the wrong reasons. Although the long stretches of philosophy might be a bit much for today’s readers, the rest of the book is still remarkably powerful.

And it holds up well even today. There is the way, for instance, that Daphne’s experience cancels out both of the men’s philosophy; and the way that even Agathon the slave is still more privileged than the women. Daphne asserts herself by appropriating the signs and philosophy of the society that oppresses her. This is just a facet of the enormous topic of female sexuality, desire and bodies and how it fits the world where a few men talk and scheme and decide all the issues amongst themselves. Unspoken the question hangs in the air: what does it matter to others? Women are everywhere and it is through them that the episodes gain significance and importance, by waking the men up and mobilizing them, yet at the same time it doesn’t only use women as means: their characters are among the strongest, and their drive and the resulting decisions are often bold and inexplicable to the men. There is the puzzling priestess in the beginning, continued by Psyche, who hunts for Agathon when he leaves, becoming a slave voluntarily to find him (the whole slavery issue alone is worth a whole book’s discussion) and finally slipping away from him; the last in this row is Danae, whose significance I’ve just outlined, additionally there are a number of other women in-between with interesting and fascinating functions that I can’t mention here due to restraints of space.

The narrator knows his limits. He’s a hands-on narrator, providing a constant stream of judgment and comment, addressing our doubts as to the veracity of the story, chuckling about Agathon and lusting for Danae. The latter is quite an important point, although the narrator seems to comment on everybody and everything, he only grazes the women, since he apparently well knows that his scope cannot manage these characters. This is one of the best things about this book. Wieland packed it shock-full with ideas and issues, without a care for being able to manage it all in a cerebral manner. In the way that he sometimes just juxtaposes images and characters, without including them in the ongoing theoretical discourse of the novel, his instincts shine. Die Geschichte des Agathon is a long book, full of digressions, but nothing appears superfluous in the novel, not even the writing which strikes a happy balance between a somewhat sentimental, and, for its time anyway, remarkably reduced use of words. It may be daunting, but it is a riveting read that will overwhelm you as it did me.