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 the floating island of the intellectuals, somewhere in the Sargasso Sea, must lie through the Hominid Zone, running north-south through the Rocky Mountain states and separated from the rest of the United States by a twenty-four-foot concrete wall punctuated with blockhouses that are manned by armed guards. It’s a picturesque detour, and no sensible reader will quarrel with a balloon trip into the interior of this federal reserve bank of genetic mutants, presumably caused by the late atomic war.
Suspense is created by the obvious eagerness of the authorities to dispose of our hero, Winer, permanently. They direct him into the most dangerous districts of the Zone, fill his canteen with poisoned gin, are surprised and sorry to see him reappear. But reappear he does, though very reluctantly, having fallen in love with a pubescent and passionate centauress, musically named Thalia. In fact, the centaurs generally are a good sort—superb soccer players, wild and happy nomads, everywhere at home in nature. Other entertaining prospects in the Zone are provided by herds of poisonous spiders who lurk in the cactus-groves and some ephemeral “Flying Masks,” human faces with butterfly wings. The reader who is curious about the direction from which one approaches a centauress—it’s a problem not much addressed in the literature—will be disappointed by the lyrical but imprecise description here; Winer, in 2008, still has a censorship to worry about.
By jet (rocket?) and ferry, we are off now to the Egghead Republic itself, a big symmetrical island/vessel, divided down the middle into a Soviet bloc and a Western or democratic bloc. The library contains all the world’s books; by some remarkable feat of imaginative compression, it is not grotesquely outsized. There are hospitals, clinics, museums, theaters, a sports complex—even a certain amount of calculated open space. For the use of the distinguished fellows there is also a plethora of Xerox machines, computers, and sexually available secretaries. But the eggheads turn out, on closer inspection, to be disgusting representatives of their kind. They do no work, leave the splendid library quite untouched, and spend most of their time sneering at the other faction, a task in which they are encouraged by agents of the secret police on both sides. The climactic discovery of our reporter is that both sides have developed a technique of brain transplantation, which enables them to kidnap the best brains of the opposition and either keep them in deep-freeze or transplant them into other bodies. Having uncovered this culminating horror, our reporter is hastily bustled off the island, his last fond thoughts at the end of his trip being, appropriately, for the sleek young centauress, Thalia.
The Egghead Republic is more heavily stuffed with textual plums than a review can suggest; there are idiot interpolations by the pompous “translator,” artful allusions to a profusion of literary analogues, blurred and distorted references to be deciphered. A semimythical “Formindulls” turns out to be Foreign Minister John Foster Dulles, and a great-great-uncle to whom Winer too tediously alludes is probably the obscure German author Arno Schmidt.
The weakness of most sci-fi novels lies in the flat explanation of mechanical ingenuities. Schmidt avoids this by taking a very short perspective; his reporter is constantly blundering about, finding anomalies that neither he nor the reader understands, and letting the explanations emerge only belatedly and partially. For reasons like these, The Egghead Republic has more texture than Brave New World and most of its successors, and has an artistic interest apart from its social commentary. It’s a satiric vaudeville, to be sure, and can be read as such; but behind the vaudeville lies a distinctive temper, a special vision.
At the moment when Charles Henry Winer bids farewell to his semi-equine friends of the Hominid Zone, a descriptive phrase sets the scene: “A glassblue evening edged in gold.” This phrase alludes prophetically to the second of the books under review, an amazing volume in countless respects. Evening Edged in Gold is remarkable for its price of $75.00, for its physical dimensions (13″ x 18″), for its format (typewritten sheets with interpolated photographs, drawings, street maps, snipped-out advertisements, labels, crude directional signals, graphs), and for its contents, to which no capsule phrase can be adequate. Let us approach the matter slowly, prefacing everything with the remark that this is, to a degree exceeded only by Finnegans Wake, a resistant and entangling book. It has been translated by John E. Woods with a meticulous particularity and brutal accuracy which extend even to reproducing the blots and crossings-out of Schmidt’s original manuscript.
The book can never fully satisfy even a devoted reader because the text includes numberless puns and double-entendres, verbal deformations and distortions, buried unidentified quotations, and multiple allusions, not only to the full range of European literature, but to folklore, ballads, the vulgar subcultures, and to the author’s personal history. There are bits of archaic poetry, attributed, against all probability, to one of the characters; there are extended quotations from analogous literary works—sources sometimes indicated, sometimes not, quotations more accurate or less.
On occasion the narrative splits into three columns to follow the simultaneous words or actions of three groups of characters. There are passages (on pages 111 and 113) which require to be read from the bottom of the page to the top, though still from left to right across the page—but which, even when so read, are hard (I dare not say “impossible”) to connect with what precedes and follows. There are literally hundreds of typographical errors or overtyped letters, which sometimes fulfill a phrase of the subtitle, “For Patrons of Er ra/o,” but often do not. Routine deformations for colloquial effect (such as n=and, y=you, t=to, z=as, etc.) throw no more than a little sand in the reader’s gears. Obscene and scatological distortions serve instantly recognizable expressive ends—explosively funny and obsessively disgusting. But there are also entire nightmare scenes, not to be expressed in sedate syntax or conventionally docile spellings; there particularly, but to some extent throughout the novel, the author engages in trouble-making for its own sake, impish and tormenting. Like Finnegans Wake, Schmidt’s novel gets an unsoundable oceanic effect out of torturing the phonemes; the experience of reading such language remains in the mind like a multitude of tiny bruises.
So much resistance, it’s to be anticipated, will exasperate readers with flat and regular expectations—linear readers, so to speak, who insist on the shortest distance between two points. Even a reader with a zest for challenge may start to feel oppressed after a while until he reaches the zone of reward. To put it simply, this is not a book you sit down to read before you go to bed; it takes up a lot of space in your life. Best to give it a place of its own in a corner of the house and come back to it at intervals. The book is divided into three days, twenty acts, fifty-five scenes; its form is semidramatic. It isn’t hard to pick up after being put down.
And what’s it all about? As the phrase in The Egghead Republic indicated, Evening Edged in Gold is the coming of night and old age, the surrender of youth, freedom, and sexual vigor. The big novel couldn’t be more explicit in setting up this conflict. In a house near Klappendorf on the Luneburg Heath (province of Hanover) live three old men and two women more or less of their age:
Eugen Fohrbach (fifty-seven) called “the major,” a double amputee from the thighs down, with an uncontrollable passion for the literary works of Friedrich Wilhelm Hackländer (1816-1877);
Egon Olmers (seventy), brother-in-law of Eugen, a retired librarian and avid searcher-out of buried sexual innuendos (errata/erota) in any conceivable text on any conceivable topic;
Alexander Ottokar Gläser (sixty), called A&O; writer, translator, polymath, and heart-patient. An evident porte-parole for Arno Schmidt, his last name bringing to mind the “glassblue evening” of The Egghead Republic, his transparency a redemptive gift.
The adult establishment is completed by:
Grete Olmers Fohrbach (forty-five), sister of Egon, wife of Eugen, domestic, religious, tyrannical, stupid;
Asta Reichelt (fifty-eight), housekeeper.
For the first part of the novel these old people sit about, discussing books (which they know in paralyzing detail), bickering, reminiscing, and complaining about the bad behavior of the younger generation. They have bitter, spiteful tongues and foul imaginations—Grete rather more than the average, A&O rather less, but it’s a high average indeed. The weight of all this spite, venom, and disapproval falls on two girls, one permanent, the other transient:
Martina Fohrbach (fifteen) is the daughter of Eugen and Grete; encyclopedic in the book-learning she has picked up from her elders, and occasionally owlish about reciting it; sexually innocent, but bumptiously eager to learn, especially from her schoolfellow Martin, who adores her silently from afar;
Ann’Ev’ (twenty) is Martina’s friend, a skinny blonde Luxembourg girl with interesting powers of divination, self-transmutation, and romantic insight. At the moment she is not living in the house, having antipathies to such close quarters, but in a commodious barrel outside it.
Ann’Ev’ is in fact the leader of a cult group of hippies-gypsies-scroungers, lawless, ragged, and libidinous, who set up on a “hillahay” in back of the house. Their appearance leads to an orgy of multitudinous fornications, a wild tumult of perversions and obscene interlacings which language is dislocated and fiercely fractured to express. The vision is not simply of a jungle of wild copulations, but of filth, fecality, bestiality. Bosch and Breughel are surely the progenitors of these grotesque scenes; the Bastard Marwenne, the drunken, unctuous Egg, and the tiny eleven-year-old prostitute Babilonia seem like carryovers from the peasant wars, followers of the Drummer of Niklashausen, or anabaptist anarchists seeking the New Jerusalem through orgiastic rites of sexual purgation. This is the “fArse” promised by the book’s subtitle; but a black sex-farce it is, a Walpurgisnacht deluge of unspeakable practices and unnatural acts which rushes over the old peoples’ compound and submerges some of them.
How out of this devil’s brew there rises, as in Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, a music of pure and transcendent joy, I think is best not to explain here. As the book moves toward its end, the promised element of “fairytale” comes to the fore, but it is the sophisticated and ironic kind of fairytale cultivated by German romantics like Tieck and Jean-Paul Richter, to whom Arno Schmidt was obviously devoted. Ann’Ev’ is the agent of this transcendence, old A&O the beneficiary—gold shadings on the gathering dusk being touched into the story with surpassing delicacy.
The novel is symphonic in its range of tones and play of fact with fancy. Readers will want to invest different measures of personal reflection in diverse episodes, such as a fantastic excursion (by Ann’Ev’, naturally) behind the surface of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, an extended parable of imagination’s struggle for existence against dark authority, not to mention the bibliographical high jinks of the three old codgers. No doubt the novel has its longueurs; its obstructive mannerisms may be at moments exasperating. But the lyric end is not to be appreciated unless one works one’s way through the thick and rough of the middle passage; the experience of reading the book as one rearranges it in retrospect becomes nothing less than immense.
A special word of gratitude goes to the translator, John E. Woods, for his skill in conveying the rough and gritty feeling of so gnarled a text, and making the final product sound so little like a translation. He deserves all the praise available to practitioners of his exasperating and self-effacing craft. As for the volume as a whole, it’s an example of creative publishing which reflects credit on everyone associated with it. If the book can’t, in the nature of things, be expected to sell widely (at $75.00 a copy), it should at least be recognized as an extraordinary undertaking, likely to serve well the reputations of author, translator, and publisher alike.
March 5, 1981