Georg Büchner's Lenz is a stark piece of writing, a short and disturbing description of the writer JMR Lenz's stay with Pastor Johann Oberlin in a village in the Alsace in 1778. Büchner reworked the pastor's notes into a novella or a fragment - nobody's quite sure - during the 1830s and it was published in 1839, after his death. The text has inspired many. It's remarkably accessible, despite Büchner's generous use of free indirect speech. I wrote about it as an undergraduate - something I'll come back to a little later.
So now Eduard Habsburg has tried his hand at something akin to an homage. His teenage protagonist Lena suddenly turns up in Oberlin's former village of Waldersbach, determined to trace the real Lenz's footsteps for a school essay. She has contacted the modern-day Lutheran pastor and defies her mother to jump on a train and walk the landscapes so important in Büchner's text. Housed in the parsonage where Lenz himself spent time, she explores the mountainous region but is clearly hiding something from her hosts - and from herself.
There is much splashing in cold water, Lenz's preferred therapy for what modern readers have classified as paranoid schizophrenia. There are walks in nature, another helpful activity for the object of her obsession. There's a trip to a local family and a night spent in a stone hut - the hut none of the researchers have found up to now? There's the local family's teenage son and his motorbike and his leather jacket. There are dreams of dead mothers and bears and visions of roses, and there is local folklore. And then there's a storm.
Habsburg opens and closes his short story with Büchner's words, lightly adapted, and his writing is at its strongest when he's imitating the older text. Nature as a force to be reckoned with, but also a saviour. The storm scene works well, up to the point when falling trees are described as giants. However, when he's writing about Lena's everyday life rather than her confusion, Habsburg rarely rises above banal adult-describes-teenager prose. And a tender love story is all well and good, but certainly not what I'd expect someone to make out of such a strong original. I have more complaints but I don't want to go into them in any great detail.
One key aspect though is the theme of madness in both texts. Büchner was writing before mental illness was classified into separate disorders, but I believe it was beginning to be seen as an illness as such. I would know more about this, had I followed my professor's instructions and read Foucault's Madness and Civilization in concurrence with Lenz. Unfortunately, I thought I was very big and clever and would apply my own ideas to the subject he set me for an essay: Madness and Sanity in Georg Büchner's Lenz. Re-reading my tattered Reclam edition (as Lena does incessantly, a nice touch played upon in the rather good cover design), I see from my pencilled notes that Büchner portrayed madness as being accepted in certain circumstances, even admired, in fact. That stone hut that Lena finds, for instance, is home to a motley band of crazed individuals who spend all night chanting and praying, but the man of the household is widely respected as a kind of healer. I presume this is the overlap with Foucault.
We also read, in a different course, Peter Schneider's 1973 text by the name of Lenz. Refreshing my memory with an improved understanding of left-wing politics in West Germany, I read it as an anti-psychiatry text and was rather surprised by that. And I admired the way Schneider made West Berlin his backdrop for Lenz to wander against - which made me wonder whether Lenz is one of fiction's first flaneurs, walking around mountains rather than streets. Unlike Büchner, who knew what was going to happen to the real-life Lenz after the period he described, Schneider seems to give his own Lenz a rather upbeat send-off on the final page.
Which is something Habsburg does too, and yet in Lena in Waldersbach I found that optimism merely twee. The explanations of Lena's mental illness, which Habsburg gives her - and us - towards the end, took a great deal away from Büchner's original for me. A modern-day stamp of simple diagnosis, plus a pharmaceutical solution, plus a backstory explaining what has happened to the poor girl - I felt rather patronised.
While I am fascinated by the idea of writers riffing off other writers' books - like high-level fan fiction, perhaps - I think I often find the end product disappointing. I had a similar experience with Teju Cole, whose book shouted "modern-day Sebald" at me almost all the way through, although it did reward me in the end. In this case, tackling such an incredible piece of writing as Büchner's Lenz is a tall order for any writer - one that Habsburg fails to deliver.