Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Three Reasons to Learn German

There's an old European joke that becomes less true with every passing year: A person who speaks three languages is trilingual, a person who speaks two languages is bilingual, and a person who speaks one language is American. I'm an American who speaks English, French and enough Italian to make myself understood by silk-suited mafiosi on the Amalfi Coast (long story), but recently I've been regretting that my knowledge of German is limited to what I've picked up from old movies and reruns of Hogan's Heroes. (And let's face it, "jawohl, mein kommandant!" is not exactly a useful phrase in the Germany of today.) I've read most of the canonical krauts--Goethe, Holderlin, Trakl, Kafka, Mann, Grass, Celan, Sebald, Jelinek, Handke, Bernhard, et al--in English translation but now I'm frustrated by the fact that the following three major works of twentieth-century German literature have yet to be completely translated:

The Aesthetics of Resistance by Peter Weiss. Weiss is best known in the English-reading world as the author of that wild and crazy Sixties play Marat/Sade (which is still outraging Brits after all these years in a 50th anniversary RSC revival), but The Aesthetics of Resistance (a novel which can count W.G. Sebald among its admirers) is surely his prose masterpiece. A three-volume fictionalized account of leftist resistance to the Nazis (but that description hardly does it justice; it's like saying Sebald's The Rings of Saturn is a travel book), Weiss's book digresses into topics much further afield and begins stunningly with a description of the Pergamon Altar at the Berlin antiquities museum that cinematically 'pulls back' to show us the central characters walking and talking in and around the altar. It's a brilliant opening to a fantastic book, but unfortunately only the first volume has been translated into English. (And it's only available in a seriously pricey edition from the University of Chicago Press.) I hope translator Joachim Neugroschel and U. of C. Press intend to English the rest of this brilliant novel.

The History of Sensitivity by Hubert Fichte. This monumental nineteen-volume work of fiction and nonfiction (That's right, 19 freakin' volumes!! I guess the dude was pretty sensitive) is described on the flap copy of the Serpent's Tail edition of Fichte's Detlev's Imitations as "a dialogue with Proust's Remembrance of Things Past" that has "established [Fichte] as one of the great European writers of the twentieth century." Sounds like it's worth at least a partial translation, n'est-ce pas? Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find any of these books in English.

Zettels Traum (Bottom's Dream) by Arno Schmidt. The magnum opus of one of the 20th century's most original writers, this 1334-page Finnegans Wake-influenced novel might just be the single most important German literary work of the last century not yet translated into English. John E. Woods, whose recent English versions of Thomas Mann have won great acclaim, is reportedly at work on a translation to be published in the near future, presumably by Dalkey Archive Press. I eagerly await it.

3 comments:

Joe Miller said...

'Bottom's Dream' sounds amazing. Are there any excerpts from the original available online? Do you know if anything else he's done is worth looking into?

Joe Miller said...

And how's that novel coming along?

BRIAN OARD said...

Joe,

Rough draft of Steiner's Journey is about 3/4 done, ludditely handwritten on yellow legal pads. Thanks for asking.

Dalkey Archive has published 3 volumes of Arno Schmidt's works, all translated by Woods. I liked the novella "Scenes from the Life of a Faun" in the Nobodaddy's Children trilogy, his best-known work, but it appears that Zettel's Traum is his masterpiece. There might be some German excerpts out there online; I believe a new German edition was recently published, but it's pricey.