The Egghead Republic: A Short Novel from the Horse Latitudes
Evening Edged in Gold
By a bitter bit of mistiming, Arno Schmidt, who died in 1979, has now become at least partly accessible in English. On the evidence, he was an enormously important talent in the fictional line of cruel comedy that runs from Rabelais through Swift and Joyce—or to say it straight out, a “Major European Novelist.” It’s a shame that we are learning about his career only now when it’s over; all the more reason, then, to blow the untimely trumpet. He was a very great writer; we should have known his work sooner.
Even now, with only two novels (out of some twenty) translated, some reasons for our ignorance are apparent. Schmidt isn’t an easily approachable writer, and in the two novels so far translated, we have a low road and a high road to his work; though neither leads to a complete view, the outlines are broad. The Egghead Republic of 1957 is a short anti-Utopian novel, the action set in the year 2008, i.e., fifty years in the future.
The book purports to have been written in the Americanese of that day by a journalist accredited to the newspaper of Douglas, Michigan (at the mouth of the Kalamazoo river, population as of 1980 minuscule). His name is Charles Henry Winer; he is at the time of writing 30.8 years old, and his report, though subversive, has been translated into a dead language (German; after the great atomic war, only 124 Germans remain alive), so that it may be preserved safely in the archives of the Egghead Republic. The translator, whose work (as he tells us) was done in Argentina, is 67.3 years of age, splendidly learned in Old High German, with an erotic drive rating of 0.04 (compared with the author’s splendid 8.1). Temperamentally, politically, artistically, and intellectually, he despises the author he is forced to translate, venting his anger mostly in indignant footnotes.
These are the layers of irony in the German text; the work of Schmidt’s translators has therefore been to translate The Egghead Republic back into American from its supposed translation into German. This they have done very well, catching not only a certain exaggerated slanginess but also the nervous jerkiness of journalistic style, setting riddles for the reader in the shape of distorted and phonetic spellings, and maintaining the conventions of the new punctuation, which produces constellations like: “Heeeeeahh!!”/—:!:!!: and :?—:!//:??:!!!:. From this sort of thing the prose acquires a nubby surface that can be pleasant when one gets used to it.
As for the Egghead Republic itself, we don’t get to it until nearly halfway through the book. In the world of 2008, and especially for anyone proposing to visit IRAS (the International Republic of Artists and Scientists: one visitor every twelve years, time of visit strictly limited to fifty hours), there are innumerable formalities, document registrations, sanitary inspections, and security clearances. And finally, for reasons not made altogether clear, the path to …