~Arno Schmidt, Zettels Traum [Quoted/translated in Innovative Fiction Magazine]
No one reads Arno Schmidt (1914-1979), a little-known major German writer whose corpus ranges from (seemingly) straightforward stories to writing that assails the reader with a literary and linguistic density of the highest degree—he is Germany’s Joyce.
Parsing Schmidt’s trade=mark syntax will reveal, among much else: tremendous wit, metanarratives, caustic social commentary, and passages fully charged with melopoeia.
English readers will have to wait for the amazing John E. Woods to finish translating Schmidt’s magnum opus, Zettels Traum (Bottom’s Dream)—it’s twice as long as Finnegans Wake—but, for the meantime, Woods has already provided us with sublime translations of Schmidt’s works, and he recommends the Collected Novellas as the place to start. In addition, I would suggest beginning with the volume Nobodaddy’s Children, which contains Scenes from the Life of a Faun, Brand’s Heath, and Dark Mirrors. [(un)justly (un)read]
Orchestrating our forgetfulness
Arno Schmidt (1914-1979) is not a well-known figure in German media studies. For the most part, his writings have never enjoyed large audiences and his complex works seem destined to stay at the margins of critical inquiries. Although Schmidt has slowly gained recognition as a “giant of postwar German Literature,” academic criticism so far has produced only a paucity of serious scholarly inquiries. One of Schmidt’s primary concern was to outline the various forms of knowledge formation. The changing nature of these processes of knowledge formation through television and radio posed a special interest. The shift in the transfer of knowledge, from a written text as the storage room of information, to immaterial knowledge production, in the media of radio and television, finds its succinct expression in Schmidt’s literary text Zettels Traum. Embedded in a narrative that claims to preserve our cultural past and present and to serve as a dialogue partner between reader, writer, and text, Zettels Traum, I argue, brings to the forefront the problematic nature of the immaterialities of communication as exemplified in news broadcasting in postwar Germany. The immateriality of communication signals the dissolution of the complex configuration of closed narratives and simultaneously replaces the traditional form of memory with images that orchestrate our forgetfulness. [Watching TV with Arno Schmidt]
An elephantine monster in the service of a dream
Considering the enormous philological and historical erudition of Schmidt’s texts along with the abundance of references, allusions, and parodies of texts from the German, British, French, and classical literary traditions, it should not surprise us that Zettel’s Traum remains a neglected text…. From the outset, Schmidt’s Zettel’s Traum is visually distinguished from other books by its sheer bulk — 1334 pages and dimensions of 12.8 x 12.3 inches (owing to the photomechanical reproduction of the original typescript). With its irregular formatted pages and its division into various columns, the text, as an unknown reviewer observed, gained the status of an “elephantine monster” among postwar German publications. A reader of Zettel’s Traum encounters enlarged letters, advertising materials, photographs, pictorial elements supplementing the verbal narration, alterations, additions, and many other devices revealing the text outside the strict purview of literature.
For over ten years, Schmidt filled 130,000 Zettel (index cards) with information. It took him four years to transform Zettel’s Traum into a narrative of twenty-five hours in the life of the main characters of the text, Daniel Pagenstecher, usually called Dan, Paul Jacobi and his wife Wilma, and their teenage daughter Franziska. All four participants engage in the various problems connected with a translation of Edgar Allen Poe and discuss the life and works of Poe. Throughout the text, the central narrator, Daniel Pagenstecher, to whom the critics often refer as the alter ego of Schmidt, complements the discussions by inserting historical events, psychological findings, geographic discoveries, and cosmological insights. Additional comments and quotations from sources such as literary and historical texts unveil the multilingual texture of Zettel’s Traum as a labyrinthine narration.
…The title and the epigraph of Zettel’s Traum hint at Schmidt’s method of writing in the service of a dream. In this instance, William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of many allusions. “Zettel,” German for the “warp” of woven cloth, evokes Bottom the Weaver as translated in Friedrich Schlegel’s rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is essential to grasp Schmidt’s literary allusions to understand the structure and the signifying practices in Zettel’s Traum. [Arno Schmidt’s Zettel’s Traum: An Analysis]
Wading into the Shower Field
Zettels Traum (1970) by Arno Schmidt is an innovative novel written in three columns with comments in the margins in the style of a scholarly work. This novel which can be translated to mean Slip Dream, is written in the avant garde prose of the Abstract Expressionist style, with concepts such as the Shower Field, which is an erotic metaphor for the Color Field theory of painting. The subtle eroticism of Zettels Traum intrigues the mind, expressing events which otherwise would seem too obvious, and the group consciousness of those involved in a larger project forms two plot lines, which convey the novelistic metafiction to the reader, with the discussion of literary texts, such as Edgar Allen Poe and James Joyce. [Innovative Fiction Magazine]
~Arno Schmidt, Zettels Traum [Quoted/translated in Innovative Fiction Magazine]
The atoms of words
[Schmidt’s] writing style is characterized by a unique and witty style of adapting colloquial language, which won him quite a few fervent admirers. Moreover, he developed an orthography by which he thought to reveal the true meaning of words and their connections amongst each other. One of the most cited examples is the use of “Roh=Mann=Tick” instead of “Romantik” (revealing romanticism as the craze of unsubtle men). The atoms of words holding the nuclei of original meaning he called Etyme (etyms).
His theory of etyms is developed in his magnum opus, Zettels Traum, in which an elderly writer comments on Edgar Allan Poe’s works in a stream of consciousness, while discussing a Poe translation with a couple of translators and flirting with their teenage daughter. Schmidt also accomplished a translation of Edgar Allan Poe’s works himself (1966–73, together with Hans Wollschläger). Some critics even dismissed Zettel’s Traum as non-art, or sheer nonsense, and Schmidt himself as a “psychopath.” but Schmidt’s reputation as esoteric, and that of his work as non-art, has faded and he is now seen as an important, if highly eccentric, German writer of the 20th century. [Wikipedia: Arno Schmidt]
A brief introduction to Zettels Traum and its central characters
Schmidt divides Zettels Traum into three columns, each of which corresponds to a particular theme. The center column reflects upon events which took place between 1965 and 1969, the time in which Zettels Traum (ZT) was actually written, and introduces to the reader the texts of Edgar Allan Poe. The center column of Zettels Traum foregrounds the various texts of Poe. Daniel Pagenstecher himself an author, as well as central narrator of the events in Zettels Traum, lives a scholar-hermit’s existence near a village in Northern Germany, and assists his friend Paul Jacobi, likewise a writer, in the translation of Poe’s works into German. The action is confined to the events of a single summer day. Present are Wilma, Paul Jacobi’s wife, and the Jacobi’s teenage daughter Franziska, who thinks she is in love with the much older Dan. Throughout the day, the five discuss Edgar Allan Poe’s writings and what they reveal of his life and ideas. During the discussions Dan offers his explanation of his theory of language, the etym-theory, to the left of the main column. While the figures discuss the works of Poe in the center column, in this left-hand column Dan tells stories about Poe’s life and inserts citations from Poe’s texts that illustrate his etym-theory of language. Serving as a type of footnote, the right-hand column contains citations and comments that supply additional information and references to other texts. [Watching TV with Arno Schmidt]
A fusion of scientific thinking with modernist writing
“In Schmidt, then, we have a fusion of the striving for scientific thinking with a commitment to modernist writing; for him the founding father of his art is not Zola but Lewis Carroll.” – Keith Bullivant, “Arno Schmidt: The German Context”, in the Review of Contemporary Fiction (Spring, 1988). [The Complete Review]
Between text and intertext
By playing on the dialectic between consciousness and the unconscious, Schmidt conveniently centers the use of citation on a lack of memory, a repression, or an inability to differentiate between text and intertext. Hence Zettels Traum breaks from the traditional understanding of citations by questioning their presuppositions. Most fundamentally, Zettels Traum is a text about texts, a discussion and dissemination of the writings of Edgar Allen Poe. [Arno Schmidt’s Zettels Traum: an analysis by Voker Max Langbehn, in Innovative Fiction Magazine]
The German Book Office reports that compared to the more than 50,000 foreign titles published in Germany each year, only about 3,000 German books make it into translation worldwide. Of these, fewer than 40 works of fiction are translated into English each year, Woods estimated.
For three decades Woods’ award-winning work has often topped this short list, but not for much longer. He plans to retire within a year after finishing Arno Schmidt’s 1,330-page opus, Zettel’s Traum, which will be titled “Bottom’s Dream,” in English.
“When I’m done with ‘Bottom’s Dream,’ I’ve done my work,” he said. “I plan to enjoy Berlin. I love this city. It sparkles for me.” [John E. Woods: Bringing German literature to the world]