Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Zettel's Traum/Bottom's Dream

I know there are a good few Arno Schmidt enthusiasts out there. And presumably they're all holding their breath until 1 October, when the new edition of Zettel's Traum comes out in German.

The book is a mammoth project, originally published in folio format in 1970, presenting Schmidt's typescripts with handwritten corrections, and crossings-out. Each page is divided into three interrelated columns. You can watch a video of someone turning the pages to get an idea of just how wrist-achingly huge it was. Apparently it weighed 17 pounds. And despite the incredible price of 345 DM (or 298 DM for a subscription), the original print run of 2000 copies sold out in three months and is now of course a collector's item.

It tells the "story" of a couple, their daughter and a friend who is considered an expert on literature. The couple are translating Edgar Allen Poe (as was Arno Schmidt), so he comes up rather a lot. Otherwise, they go on long walks and talk a lot with a bit of voyeurism thrown in. All vivid with tiny details and allusions, which Schmidt claimed to have collected beforehand on 120,000 scraps of paper (or Zettel, hence the title - which of course is not as simple as all that, also referring to Bottom's unbelievable dream in Shakespeare, hence the English title). A kind of rural Finnegan's Wake, if you will, only much longer.

Now last time I asked, eminent translator John E. Woods was still plugging away at his English version and hoping to have it published "somewhere" in 2011 0r 2012. So real enthusiasts will probably have to make do with the new German edition for the time being - which will be "set in type and not the offset printing of the original, but like a Real Book" (said John). It'll cost somewhere between €198 and € 448, depending on what edition and subscription model you choose. And to really whet your appetite, the Schmidt expert Marius Fränzel has started a blog on reading it, inventively entitled Zettel's Traum Lesen.


Hannes said...

Arno Schmidt enthusiast reporting in! I remember spending one not at all wasted evening comparing the first ten pages of Schmidt's "Brand's Haide" with Woods's marvelous translation entitled, of course, "Brand's Heath." I was baffled by every single one of his inventive and well chosen phrases to match the Schmidtean firework of punctuation marks, lower German dialect, and quite imaginative invectives. The books by Schmidt available in translation are, unfortunately, unforgivably ugly, but the reading pleasure is well worth the aesthetic embarrassment of their hideous dust jacket typography.

The first few pages of "Scenes from a Life of a Faun" ("Aus dem Leben eines Fauns") can be skimmed through online via Amazon's jovially titled "Take a look inside!" feature:

Take the first "paragraph" (what Schmidt would have called "snapshot"):

"Auf die Sterne soll man nicht mit Fingern zeigen; in den Schnee nicht schreiben; beim Donner die Erde berühren : also spitzte ich eine Hand nach oben, splitterte mit umsponnenen Finger das 'K' in den Silberschorf neben mir, (Gewitter fand gerade keins statt, sonst hätt ich schon was gefunden !) (In der Aktentasche knistert das Butterbrotpapier)."

Woods's translation, managing to keep the tone perfectly while diverging a bit from the original Schmidt, reads:

"Thou shalt not point thy finger at the stars; nor write in the snow; but when it thunders though the earth : so I sent a tapering hand upward, with beknitted finger drew the slivered 'K' in the silver scurf beside me, (no thunderstorm in progress at the moment, otherwise I'd have come up with something !) (In my briefcase the wax paper rustles)."

Given his excellent work, I am happy that Woods is still at it ("it" being "Zettel's Traum"). Maybe the English edition will be a little more affordable than the German one.

(In a bookstore I won't name I once saw an original copy of Zettel's Traum being used as a tray for flyers and leaflets. As unsuspectingly as possible I asked how much they would charge for it. Quoth the bookseller: "I don't really know. The book has been around before I started working here and no one ever asked for it." I didn't buy it, though, despite the rather reasonable price he finally quoted. Probably slowly breaks your thighs while reading.)

kjd said...

Thanks, Hannes! Yet again, proof that John Woods deserves a knighthood.

Unknown said...

Hannes-- are you Hannes Riffel? If so, how're you doing? How's life with the baby?

Hannes said...

At least a knighthood, if not a cottage in Lower Saxony and some decorative Heidschnucken.
(and @Shelley: Sorry, wrong Hannes.)

bonaventura said...

The Schmidt experts name is Fränzel (or Fraenzel if you like). :-)

kjd said...

Oh God, I'm so sorry. I'm a terrible one for spelling names wrong.

Anonymous said...

thanks a lot for that update on Schmidt! It's not a coincidence that a new edition (a 'corrected' one that is) of Finnegans Wake is also scheduled to be published this year from Houyhnhnm and Penguin. And, by the way, it's Finnegans Wake, without the apostrophe.

Anonymous said...

The covers of the American editions are regrettable. However, in just a few minutes one can fashion a cover that by gluing a sheet of paper over the hideousness.

Anonymous said...

Also, by the way, it's Edgar Allan (not Allen) Poe.

Arjan Schipperus said...

Hannes. I found an old edition of this book in our attick. It weighs 17 pounds and looks old. A3 format, no autograph.

Do you know someone that would appreciate the book?

You can reach me: Arjan (At)