A Funny Meister

The Genius of Wilhelm Busch: Comedy of Frustration

edited and translated by Walter Arndt
University of California Press, 253 pp., $35.00

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 …

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