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

Blogging about God

I don’t regularly highlight blogs, except when I mention or link a post of them. I adore quite a few blogs and they turn up now and then, but this is different. This is a blog about the best German novelist of the 20th century, Hans Henny Jahnn. It is maintained by the wonderful Will who also maintains the well known (and fairly popular, I think) and equally wonderful blog A Journey Round My Skull. His blog about Jahnn takes its name from a story included in Jahnn’s magisterial and frighteningly amazing masterpiece Fluß Ohne Ufer (Shoreless River), about a character called Kebad Kenya. Prior to Will’s laudable efforts, no blog existed that was devoted to the man’s work which is largely out of print in German and largely untranslated into English (but well translated into French, curiously).  It’s still growing but already it’s the best resource on the man’s work in English. Direct link here.


(incidentally, in case you crave an update on what I do, amongst other stuff like my phd work, I’m currently translating Medea and Pastor Ephraim Magnus into English).

Abyss: Hans Henny Jahnn’s “Perrudja”

Jahnn, Hans Henny (1985), Perrudja, Hoffman und Campe
ISBN 3-455-03630-9
[Originally published 1929]
[Traduit par Reinhold Werner et Jean-Claude Marcadé, aux Éditions José Corti]

This is novel crawling with sex and violence. It’s about modernity, myth and masculinity. Can you believe no-one wanted to buy this huge and brilliant novel when it came out originally? I can’t, but here’s the deal. I’m biased, I guess. I love, cherish and admire Hans Henny Jahnn like few other writers. I think that he is, along with Döblin and Feuchtwanger, the greatest German novelist of the first half of the 20th century. He was also an accomplished playwright (see this blog next week for more news on that). When he wrote and published Perrudja, he was known as the infamous author of two scandalous plays. Perrudja took a long while to gestate, and almost as long to get published. And when it was published, few people bought it. This and other minor issues, such as the Third Reich, stopped him from finishing a sequel.

After the war he then published the first installment of what turned out to be his masterpiece, the three-volume Fluß Ohne Ufer, which is in many ways a continuation of Perrudja, only with the weight of Germany’s darkest decade behind it. Thinking and writing about that heinous period is, for a German, as it should be, always tinged with guilt. It is our grandparents and their neighbors who committed these atrocities or failed to stop them. Shame is also an important part of Perrudja, but Jahnn is ashamed of his fellow human beings, not just (but especially) of his compatriots. And, to a large extent, it is about fear: this book throbs with violence, but it is theirs, it is always a violence experienced by the main character, not a violence acted out, and the shame that the protagonist feels towards his fellow human beings, is but fear of that part of himself that is like them, it’s a fear of his own abyss.

Perrudja is a Bildungsroman-ish novel about a character called Perrudja. Perrudja is an anti-hero, or as his wife says at the end: a “not-hero”. The book does not chronicle his exploits, it shows him making sense of the world, and at the same time, the novel itself uses him to make sense of its own world. The way it does that is by using all the means that precocious, makin’-it-new modernism had to offer. Perrudja is a novel of many voices and traditions. Unexpectedly, for a playwright, these voices do not include an array of different human voices, no demotic speech ‘a la Joyce et al. Instead, Jahnn digs deep into the coffers of literature and culture and constructs a mosaic of language. There are mythical passages, modern short stories, folk tales, Jahnn is equally adept at levity and gravitas, he can write a chapter about a Babylonian king in almost Lutherian style and shine, and a small Kafkaesque story about a lost boy and dazzle. All these are interwoven with the main story, they both comment upon the story and are commented upon again by the main story.

And throning above it all is Jahnn’s authorial voice, which is both visceral & direct and aloof & heavy. Jahnn can lead you through a Norwegian wood, making you afraid of the cold and the animals therein; he can make your spine tingle upon hearing the screams of hungry horses in a stable; he can make you feel the pain of illicit sexual desire and the mortification at being not merely turned down, but being violated and humiliated by the man you want. Reading this novel you feel that nothing is out of reach of Jahnn. This is, of course, one reason why people did not take to it: it can be overpowering, this is a novel about everything, it contains at least five different books, among them a treatise about economics and one about myth. Oh, and sheet music. In many ways, this is a ‘typical’ modernist novel, a project along the lines of the Cantos, Pound’s attempt to “write paradise”; even its fragmented nature, due to the aborted second part, fits the pattern. Much of the appeal of works such as the Cantos will also appeal to the reader of Perrudja, but this novel is far more than just a grandstanding attempt to capture mankind in a fictional maze.

The difference is its protagonist: Perrudja is a weak character, a broken, despairing man, who cannot manage the modern world. At the beginning of the novel we meet him in the woods of Norway where he buys a horse to go with a piece of land and a farm that he just bought. He is, as far as he knows, without parents. At this point we have no idea about his financial situation: we don’t know where he had the money from to buy animals and property, and we don’t care. Perrudja’s youth and other events that have led up to him settling in the remote Norway mountains are later told us in a few inserted stories. That first chapter, “The Horse”, introduces us not only to Perrudja’s horse, but also to the emblematic nature of many of the book’s natural references. Elements such as the horse are shown to be a constant in cultural history. The retreat into the woods is not a retreat from civilization, it is rather a return to what Jahnn considers essential about modern man. Perrudja is not exceptional, as a character, but in the end, he turns out to transcend mere mortals, by encapsulating not just the conditio humana, but also the general build of our society, as the book moves from an almost abstract deluge of concerns to real-world particulars, such as the intricacies of modern capitalism.

The beginning can be taxing since Jahnn throws everything at us that he has: the topoi of animals, violence and history are touched and elaborated upon, even before we get a chance to get to know this Perrudja better. Also, to reread these passages is, also, to see, how much of the novel is seeded there, how nothing is wasted, although the book seems, especially in the early stages, excessive and indulgent. Plowing through the beginning is like a deal struck with the writer, who demands of the reader to understand the parameter of the story that is about to follow before he hands over that story. However, if I have made reading the beginning sound like a chore, I can assure you, it’s not. It may be difficult but it’s not forbidding. In fact, the first two chapters are deeply intriguing and they have, some years ago, sold me on the man’s work. The best section of the book, however, is a story from Perrudja’s youth that is inserted roughly halfway through the novel; many early fans of the novel, such as Klaus Mann, remarked upon the emotional power and brilliance of that episode.

Perrudja is 14 years old when his sexuality awakens. He lives with his aunts in the country and he is a spoiled boy, who makes friends with a 16 year old farm hand, Haakon. We see immediately that there is a power imbalance between the two and it’s not just the difference in age that creates this imbalance. As Haakon starts to make Perrudja pay him small sums of money, he is also involving the boy in the nitty-gritty reality of farm life. There are two events that are particularly significant to Perrudja’s awakening. The first is Perrudja’s confrontation with violence in the daily slaughter of swine and cows on farms. Having to slaughter a pig himself opens his eyes to the darkness in his culture. This marked difference between knowing that atrocities happen and becoming a part of the system that produces them is repeated near the end of the novel, where Perrudja finds out that he is the richest man on earth and complicit in many modern atrocities. Perrudja is aghast to find out he’s the master of over “a hundred million slaves”. No matter how much we may retreat, we are always, to an extent, complicit in the things we don’t try to stop. Running away does not absolve you of these things.

The other event is even more significant: to accompany Haakon across the country, Perrudja saddles up behind him, clinging to his back while feeling the wild rhythms of the horse below him. Perrudja falls for Haakon, although he doesn’t know it. Haakon does, however, and tempts his young acolyte time and again, stripping him naked, daring Perrudja to move on him. Perrudja, however, is completely confused and helpless. He’s a typical teenager, he has no idea how to translate his confused desire into action. Thus, all he does is trail Haakon on his exploits until events come to a head when he witnesses Haakon rape a maid. Upon seeing Perrudja’s fear and befuddlement, Haakon threatens him into silence, beats him and humiliates him by urinating on him. This event forms Perrudja’s adult sex life. Perrudja turns into a man who has many desires but is afraid of acting on them. Being attracted to men is something he is never able to own up to, although he does have homosexual affairs now and then. He literally transforms his farm into a fortress against the society around him that is intolerant of his urges.

He is his own worst enemy, however, internalizing the prejudice. There is violence in his relationships with men, but it’s triggered by his fear and his way of coping (or not) with that fear. He’s also riving away people that love him, engaging in self-destructive behavior and giving himself, simply, up. Critics in Jahnn’s time have attacked Perrudja for being a novel of “flesh and death”, and it is between these two poles that Perrudja is caught, opting for retreat, quietude, until he cannot retreat any more because, as mentioned, he practically owns the world. He marries but his wife, Signe (pun intended, clearly), leaves him, reproaching him for “not having changed her world”. Critics, among them the editor of his collected works (see bibliographic reference above), have pointed to the way that she makes her short appearance in the novel and drops out again quickly enough. What they don’t understand is that the normative relationship within the novel is homosexual. They are violent, but because of Perrudja’s failings, not because of an inherent fault. The relationship to Signe is different: the patriarchal assumptions behind many heterosexual relationships are exposed in the rituals of courtship that are expected of Perrudja. The relationship is less important than its beginnings and its end.

Near the end, his former wife Signe runs in with a circus and it is this circus who encapsulates much of the world’s depravities and brutality, turning into another of Jahnn’s emblematic images. Jahnn’s novel charts the pessimism of a sensitive soul up against the world. There are two key phrases that people utter when discussing Perrudja’s humanity. Signe points out the fact that he is a “not-hero” (not anti-hero), defining a hero as someone who acts upon his desires and makes them come true. She closes with a direct address, telling Perrudja: “You are the human one.” In contrast, Haakon, when he dresses Perrudja down, tells the crying bundle of misery that 14 year-old Perrudja was: “You are a useless human being if you cry.”

Being a useless human being is not a bad thing in Jahnn’s book. Jahnn, similar to Hawthorne, has been founder of a spiritual community, which did not survive for long. This bitterness towards utopia, combined with such world-shaking events such as the Great War, which had taken place all of ten years ago and rising Nationalism, Antisemitism etc. among the Germans, clearly inform the abyss that opens up beyond Perrudja’s fortress and the abyss in his own heart. Reading the book one cannot help but think of the “uses” that a few years later his compatriots made of human beings. Perrudja is a harrowing novel that leads us deep not into the darkness behind civilization, but the darkness civilization is made of. Joyce, whose influence on Perrudja is palpable, might have been a paragon in this, as well. Jahnn, together with geniuses like Döblin, was clearly engaged in trying to create the conscience of his race. He did not forge it. Instead, as Perrudja testifies, he violently tried to break it from the stone quarry of Western culture.


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