The Genius of Wilhelm Busch: Comedy of Frustration
All translators of dead writers are pushers. Introducing his translations of the German comic poet/illustrator Wilhelm Busch, Walter Arndt gropes around for comparisons to sell his product: Daumier, Gogol, Dickens, Ogden Nash, Thurber, Al Capp, Dostoevski, Goncharov, Lewis Carroll, and Morgenstern are all tried out for one aspect or another. A pity Arndt didn’t think of W.C. Fields: his cuddly, avuncular exterior belies a sophisticated, savage, and cynical heart as he stumbles grimly through a world littered with banana skins: it is Busch’s world, and Fields comes pretty close to his persona.
Wilhelm Busch (1832-1908) was the father of the strip cartoon. It was after seeing Max und Moritz, his cautionary tale of two mischievous boys, that William Randolph Hearst commissioned Rudolph Dirks’s Katzenjammer Kids; and all cartoon animals, from Felix the Cat through Donald Duck to Dogmatix, surely carry genes from Fipps the monkey and Plisch and Plum, the mongrel puppies. Busch never resorted to Wham! and Boing! in balloons, but he put noise between hard covers. Open one of his books and a fearful din pours out: crockery smashes, furniture splinters, bodies thud from ladders or splash into ponds, canes whiz through the air, babies bawl, hens squawk, and the whole hullaballoo is punctuated by yells of Schadenfreude from evil-looking peasants in clogs and stocking caps.
Everything is in motion. Busch had an extraordinary gift for drawing movement. Even static occupations like sleeping or savoring or sitting become dynamic: you hear the breathing, feel the tongue nestle against the palate, the body digging into the upholstery. Inanimate objects are like coiled springs: jars crouch balefully on shelves, waiting to fall on people’s heads; bushes bristle with aggressive prickles ready to puncture the human behind. Busch is credited with pinpointing die Tücke des Objekts, the spite of inanimate things—of which the banana skin is only the commonest symbol.
Arndt calls Busch’s narratives in verse and drawing “picture tales.” Busch called them Bilderbogen—picture sheets—the German word for pennyplain, two-pence, colored sheets of prints sold for children. These and their deluxe version, the famous French Images d’Epinal, were among the ancestors of Busch’s creations. They had many others: ballad reciters at fairs (Brecht parodied their manner with Mack the Knife) accompanied their performance by pointing to scrolls of consecutive pictures; there was Hogarth, and the Swiss Rodolphe Toeppfer, who saw himself as Hogarth’s heir in book format; and Struwweipeter made his appearance when Busch was thirteen. All these told continuous illustrated stories: but their pictures were tableaux vivants to Busch’s theatrical performances (he called his work a “paper theater”); or slides to his movies. His drawings do not illustrate the text any more than the text captions the drawings: the two are in dialogue, the one commenting on the other, most often ironically: the words will be demure, for instance, or deadpan, while the drawing is suggestive or full of catastrophe.
Arndt deplores The New York Review’s use of Busch’s drawings without his text. “Few in Germanic Europe, save perhaps for the luckless total-war batch born between 1935 and 1950, would need to look up the true context…of those exiled ‘vignettes’…Their memory would instantly restore it, and they would start reciting.” This is an exaggeration—if only because many high-minded German households both before and after World War II were deliberately Busch-free: he was considered too violent for the nursery—and the nursery is where Busch gets into the system. Not that most of his works were intended for children. Still, it is true that vast numbers of Germans have isolated Busch couplets—often unidentified—rolling around in their heads. “They jumped into literature as fully armed quotations,” Erich Heller said; and often as ready-made proverbs.
So even today Busch tends to be taken for granted as part of popular culture. True, the first monograph on him appeared in his lifetime when Die fromme Helene (inexplicably translated here as Helen Who Couldn’t Help It—why not keep the irony with Virtuous Helen?) had sold over 100,000 copies; the Wilhelm Busch Society was founded in 1930 (and now administers a Busch museum in Hanover). The Nazis claimed him as a Blut und Boden writer because of his earthiness: they must also have appreciated one or two anti-Semitic passages. But the full spate of books, articles, and theses did not really begin until after World War II, when, Arndt says, “cultural self-definition [had] become an acute problem…and the boundaries between freedom and anarchic violence and between social cohesion and reactionary bourgeois stuffiness…demanded redrawing.” So whereas Busch used to be a knockabout comedian or at best the satirist of the German petty bourgeoisie, he has become the symbol of the German nineteenth-century predicament, the entire German predicament, even the entire human predicament. And his life begins to read like a Freudian cautionary tale. Freud, incidentally, pounced on the Oedipal element in the beatings administered to Max and Moritz.
Busch was born, the eldest of seven children, at Wiedensahl near Hanover, where his father kept the village store. Life was peaceful and patriarchal. His parents never went out. His mother was fond of reading after the day’s work was done. The servants ate with the family—“as good friends should,” Busch said. When he was nine, Wilhelm’s mother took him to be educated by her brother, who was pastor first at Ebergötzen and then at Lüthorst, two small Lower Saxon villages just like Wiedensahl. Eight people piled into the farm wagon: Wilhelm, his mother, four brothers and sisters, the maid, and the driver. The luggage included a piano minus legs and a gigantic ham off which they picnicked in order to avoid the inns. Two nights were spent en route with relatives.
No wonder Wilhelm hardly ever came home on holiday. His biographers attribute his later “alienation” from life to the early separation from his mother. All the same, his happiest days were with Pastor Kleine: in his six years there he was beaten only once, with a dried dahlia stalk; it was for teasing the village idiot. With all the merciless teasing and perpetual whacking that go on in Busch’s work both the cause of the punishment and its mildness suggest that the world he knew was less brutal than the one he created; and the peasants who shared the family meals can’t have been like the malevolent louts galumphing through the drawings.
From Lüthorst Busch went to study engineering at Hanover. He did extremely well, but dropped out before the end of the course and went on dropping out for the rest of his life. At one point he even dreamed of emigrating to Brazil to keep bees. From Hanover he went to Düsseldorf to study painting; he lasted two months before moving on to Antwerp. The discovery of Netherlandish art was “a second birthday” for him, he said. Rembrandt, Rubens, Hals, Brouwer, and van Ostade (the influence of the last three is clearly visible in his work) bowled him over to such an extent that he never recovered confidence in his own painting. Yet although he never showed or sold a painting and destroyed large numbers of them, he went on thinking of himself as a painter—a failed painter—for the rest of his life, and never derived much satisfaction from his colossal success as a comic poet/illustrator.
After a year at Antwerp he returned home in a state of physical, nervous, and financial collapse, and hung around for a couple of years collecting folk tales à la Grimm. Then he went to Munich to pursue his studies. The academy there did not suit him any better than the one at Düsseldorf, and he left to work in the breakaway studios of genre painters who, like himself, were out of sympathy with the grandiose history painting of the day.
Busch’s Munich period lasted off and on from 1854 to 1869, but for two-thirds of it he was holed up with different members of his family in north Germany. In Munich he moved in the snug Bohemia of artists’ fraternities and drinking clubs, and drew and wrote for their amateur publications and performances—and professionally too, whenever he got the chance. Eventually he was asked to contribute to Fliegende Blätter, Germany’s most established satirical journal. It published Max und Moritz in 1865, and from that moment Busch was famous in the German-speaking world. The rest of the Bilderbogen followed over the years until 1884.
In 1869 Busch moved to Frankfurt, where his brother was tutor to the Kessler family. Frau Kessler was a patron of the arts. She encouraged Wilhelm and set up a studio for him. Predictably he became too attached to her, and the relationship ended in disarray. Busch retreated to Wiedensahl where his sister’s husband was the pastor; for the rest of his life he never left her again except for a second spell in Munich (1872-1879), as intermittent as the first.
The last thirty years of Busch’s life were increasingly reclusive. After 1884 he gave up producing Bilderbogen in order to concentrate on painting. (His later work—such as he did not destroy—now enjoys a certain vogue.) It is mostly landscape—the unempathetic landscape of his homeland suffused with Stimmung—spring mornings, sunsets. There are a few paintings of humble cottages and portraits of peasants. The style is mid-century realism with increasingly free brushwork but no hint of Impressionism. And throughout his life Busch made enchanting drawings, especially of children and animals. In 1896 he gave up painting to concentrate on waiting for death. It took twelve years to arrive.
His love life was even more negative than his painting career. In youth he had a proposal rejected. Then there was Frau Kessler, and late in life he had a brief crush on her daughter Nanda. In between came an increasingly affectionate pen-friendship with Maria Anderson, a widowed Dutch novelist. Busch’s letters—embarrassingly arch and coy—are published under the giveaway title: Conversations Over the Platonic Garden Fence. Eventually the two made a rendezvous at the railway station at Mainz. Busch returned in the worst of tempers: Maria Anderson was not at all attractive.
In all Busch’s drawings there is not a single attractive man. There are plenty of attractive girls, and they all look sexy, smug, and sly. Desirable women either are unattainable or spell trouble; though middle-aged wives, when not conventionally brandishing brooms or rolling pins, are sometimes wistfully depicted as comfortable and comforting. All men are lechers—you can tell from their expressions. Not all of them get what they want, or even dare to try: but there is plenty of satisfaction in watching others fail or pay for their sins. Busch was the archetypal bachelor, a creature now as rare as the oryx, but very common in the nineteenth century, especially in the thickets of German literature.
Three of the Bilderbogen have a strong autobiographical element—or rather, they reflect Busch’s defeatist view of himself. Maler Klecksel (Painter Squirtle) is a Bildungsroman about an idle and conceited boy who wants to be a famous painter but never gets down to painting: in the end he marries an innkeeper’s widow and runs the inn where he has wasted so much time. Balduin Bählamm (Clement Dove) is a clerk with a wife and four obstreperous children who dreams of becoming a poet. He takes a trip to seek peace and inspiration in the countryside and meets with the usual misfortunes: pestered by small boys, stung by mosquitoes, ducked by an alluring dairymaid and her lover, he returns home with a toothache and nothing accomplished. These two are comedies of artistic frustration.
The Knopp Trilogy is more general and more nihilistic. In Part I—Adventures of a Bachelor—Knopp, already paunchy and balding, sets off in search of a wife. A number of disappointing and humiliating encounters follow, the last with a revolting old hermit who has renounced flesh-and-blood women for drink and the worship of a female saint. In Arndt’s translation (which will be quoted throughout), this is the turn-off for Knopp:
Knopp reflects: this anchorite
Was a pretty loathsome sight,
And long-distance mooning, roundly
Said, depresses me profoundly.
Busch understood his own hang-up, Knopp, however, draws the consequences and marries his cozy housekeeper. Part II is an idyll of genial domesticity, only occasionally disturbed by the traditional comic contretemps of marriage. Dorothea pours Knopp’s coffee and embroiders him a smoking cap. They also have sex, quite explicitly and in the morning. When you think what would have been acceptable in an English or American coffee-table book in 1877 it is amazing how far Busch in his Lutheran parsonage went in sexual and often in scatological innuendo. Part II contains a series of drawings of trousered behinds demonstrating different facial expressions: meanwhile the exceptionally broadminded heroine of a Fontane novel published in the same year rebukes her husband for being on the point of using the word “trousers” in public.
The Knopps’ activities result in the birth of Julchen (Part III), an averagely willful and destructive baby whom Busch observes through his W.C. Fields eye. But not entirely: the drawings show him aware, reluctantly perhaps, of the charm of small children. Julie grows into a fine little cocktease, and her many suitors undergo the usual vicissitudes in her pursuit: they fall, things fall on them, mockers abound. Her parents are naturally keen to get her settled, but as soon as she is married,
Nature’s plan for him is met.—
Wrinkled grows his silhouette.—
and in a few lines Knopp shrivels away and dies. The sole purpose of life, it turns out, is reproduction; a pessimistic conclusion, especially in view of the fearful banality of the life just ended.
But useful too, for it demonstrates Busch’s debts to Darwin and to Schopenhauer. Darwin’s theory that man and monkeys share a common ancestor was instantly congenial to Busch. “True or not,” he said, “the resemblance is there, and the proof of this universal resemblance chimes well with the view that has always been indelibly lodged in my skull.” He gave an equally warm welcome to German materialism and the notion that the universe is composed of atoms: “The idea of liveliness right down to the smallest entity would fit in well with the kind of mental amusement I am accustomed to.” It corroborated die Tücke des Objekts. Darwin corroborated the brutishness of man. Busch might also have claimed to possess an innate theory of the survival of the fittest. Not that his survivors survive by virtue of their superior physical attributes. Far from it: most of them are even plainer and more repellent than the norm, but wilier, more ruthless, and, especially, more adaptable to their surroundings, i.e., to the demands of a hypocritical society.
Busch became a serious student of Schopenhauer because his brother was writing a thesis on him. Many theses have since been written about Schopenhauer’s influence on Busch. Gert Ueding’s Marxist-Freudian study Wilhelm Busch: The Nineteenth Century in Miniature* takes Busch’s life as well as his work as emblematic of Germany at that period. Pessimism was not peculiar to Busch; inspissated by a general vogue for Schopenhauer, it hung like a miasma over the middle classes (including Mann’s Thomas Buddenbrook) after the failure of the 1848 revolution had dashed their hopes. They retreated into their shell—the shell of a quiet, virtuous, unassuming, unambitious, and, at its most typical, provincial—life.
There was an element of self-humiliation in this, though the writers of the Biedermeier period (a generation older than Busch) tended to present it as an idyll of uncorrupted unworldliness. Busch was more ambivalent: by his time the rat race of the Gründerjahre was getting under way, and though he was patriotic to the point of chauvinism and sympathetic to Bismarck, he wanted no part in that. He chose renunciation and the quiet life. On the other hand he saw that small could be hideous: an innocent retreat could become a cell padded with self-righteousness and moral clichés. There was, as Nietzsche saw, an element of slave morality about the values of the petty bourgeoisie: you keep your head down and toe the line, but take it out with savage vindictiveness on those who don’t. Busch was a paid-up member of the petty bourgeoisie, but he hated his party with a venom that squirts off the page.
He had no difficulty in accepting Schopenhauer’s version of the doctrine of Original Sin: man, the Bilderbogen say, is ruthless by nature, congenitally averse to goodness; the only goodness he is capable of is negative:
The good (I am convinced, for one)
Is but the bad one leaves undone.
These lines encapsulate—and mock—Schopenhauer’s Buddhist-inspired notion that all action is evil. They are her uncle’s epitaph on Helen, who grew from a naughty child into an adulterous wife, took to the bottle, and accidentally set herself alight. Surveying the charred remains (“quite useless now”) Uncle Nolte concludes with odious sanctimony:
One thing in this I don’t lament:
Thank God that I am different!
Like adulterous wives throughout nineteenth-century literature, Helen pays the price for breaking society’s laws. But one is not meant to sympathize with her: she was as hypocritical and self-righteous as the rest.
Society is out to get the lawbreakers. With Busch these are often children or animals: they represent insubordination and anarchy, even, if that is how one chooses to look at it, Schopenhauer’s Will. They storm through the tales in a frenzy of violence, leaving a trail of destruction behind them. But society reacts no less violently. Beating is chicken-feed: Max and Moritz are literally fed to the hens after being ground small by the miller in punishment of their misdeeds.
Hilaire Belloc’s naughty children also come to grisly ends, but these are never deliberately inflicted by the adults. Still, Max and Moritz’s fate is perfectly bearable because it is grotesque. Poker-faced acceptance of terminal disaster is the essence of Galgenhumor and short, sharp sadism part of the stock in trade of farce. But permanently displayed mutilation is another matter: Fipps the monkey traps Gripps the cat and pulls out his claws with tweezers from “the tips of his paws…where he most exquisitely feels.” After that Gripps goes on through the Bilderbogen with stumps. This is too much.
Busch is always going over the top. A kind of furor germanicus seizes him and he cannot stop rampaging and punishing. It has a bad effect on his story line, which tends to be shapeless and repetitious. There is much to be said for taking him in small doses.
The question is: can one take him in translation at all? He himself would have thought not. “In order to understand what is droll, or mischievous, or sly about a language, in order to understand its facial expressions, one needs to have been born and brought up in it,” he wrote to his Dutch friend. So how can one hope to succeed in translating Busch’s verse where the tone of every line mocks the meaning? A tireless verbal mimic, Busch parodies every style: heroic, devotional, pedagogic, scientific, sentimental, bureaucratic. He specializes in the jargon of Bouvard, Pécuchet, and the Halbgebildete. He tosses in colloquialisms and deliberate errors of grammar, syntax, and versification. And with all these intellectual games his language can still be as tactile as his pencil stroke. Here comes an earwig crawling toward Bählamm’s ear:
Engherzig schleicht er durch das Moos,
Beseelt von dem Gedanken bloss,
Wo’s dunkel ist und eng und hohl,
Denn da nur ist ihm pudelwohl.
Mean-souled (engherzig) though the earwig may be, he has colossal appeal and one cannot help sharing his longing for a dark hollow to curl up in.
Deaf to creation’s joyous chord
He clambers meanly through the sward.
To feel protected, snug, and smug
Is all that matters to the bug.
By now Busch has fallen into his own tone of voice, conversational, unruffled, confidential, throwaway. Its immense charm is much more sophisticated than the monde in the drawings suggests—and never, ever captured by Walter Arndt.
Arndt has moments of inspiration when he manages to combine all the ingredients of Busch’s diction, fit them into English verse, and bring them in on cue with the pictures. He also has moments of dotty perversity: why, for instance, does he mess about with the names? Why can’t Bählamm be Ba’alamb; why does Meier turn into Oscar, Pauline into Kate, and Rektor Debisch into the crypto-Jewish Eggbert Nebischitz, MA? The attempt to Americanize what is so arch-German is doomed to failure; and so is the attempt to bring up to date what is so utterly of the nineteenth century: the bonneted, frockcoated people in the illustrations look bewildered by “bra” and “legit.” Sometimes things get out of hand and Arndt puts in jokes of his own; but on the whole he fails very honorably: the task he has set himself is simply too difficult.
Emerging from reluctant total immersion in Busch (in German) I am persuaded of what Arndt wants us to believe: he was a genius. But the charm, wit, and slyness of his text and his funniness are lost in translation. It seems better to let the drawings speak alone with what Ueding calls their “rhetoric of movement.” Busch himself thought them more important than the words: when an English translation was announced “with 180 illustrations” he complained that it was like putting an advertisement in the paper: “Key for sale, house attached.”
Wilhelm Busch: Das 19. Jahrhundert en miniature (Insel Verlag, Frankfurt, 1977).↩
Wilhelm Busch: Das 19. Jahrhundert en miniature (Insel Verlag, Frankfurt, 1977).↩