Online Edition: Fall 1999

Radio Dialogs I

Arno Schmidt
translated by John E. Woods

Green Integer ($12.95)

by Carolyn Kuebler

"This, then, my credo : directed against all the literal=airy men and aged seekers of textual variants, bundles of stinkhorns in their crippled hands . . .

Weary of wandering wastelands of letters full of vacuous brainchildren and hidden in pretentious verbal fogs; disgusted with both aesthetic sweet-talkers and grammatical waterers of drink; I have resolved : to treat all who have ever written, whether out of love and hate, as alive and ever living ! - - -"

Arno Schmidt, whose work is gradually being made available in English by the proficient and adventurous translator John E. Woods (also responsible for recent renditions of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain and Buddenbrooks) is one of German literature's best kept secrets. Like Joyce, who is the subject of the final piece in the book, Schmidt indulged in unorthodox punctuation, spellings, and grammatical experimentation; his work is also acerbic, somewhat misanthropic, maddening and entertaining -- the result, most likely, of the cruel segment of German history he witnessed, and of his lively intelligence. All of the characteristics of his fiction are toned down somewhat in this collection of "radio dialogs" -- and understandably so, as these were his concessions to entertainment, his way of making a living. The dialogs do, however, make use of his radiant passion for literature, as well as some of his odd, but effective, punctuation.

Radio Dialogs I, which is the first of three volumes of such plays, contains five of the many "Evening Programs" Schmidt wrote for Süddeutsche Rundfunk (South German Broadcast). It's hard to imagine this being anyone's "bread and butter work," much less to imagine a radio station airing such programs today, but this was the late 1950s/early '60s; there were far fewer TV celebrities to vie with. While the scripts of Radio Dialogs I are animated by characters identified merely as "A.," for example, "tends to lecture," or "1st questioner; firmly-scornful," what makes these discussions so lively is that the voices all seem to be those of the sometimes-cranky, often-irresistible Arno Schmidt himself. In these discussions, for which he wrote all the parts, Schmidt plays all of his devils and their advocates with equal ferocity. Despite their sketchy descriptions at the offset, all of the voices take on large personalities as they pontificate on, and pillory, or simply ramble playfully about Schmidt's favorite subjects: literature, literature, and literature.

In these five dialogs, Schmidt takes on 17th-century poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes, whom he admires for his "realism" and surfeit ("we have everything right here in Germany); Ludwig Tieck, one of the "Four Great Romantics"; Christoph Martin Wieland, whose name appears more than a couple times in his own fiction; and the prolific SF writer, or "Great Mystic," Karl May. He ventures across the channel for his pieces on the Brontës and James Joyce, and along the way comes up with some idiosyncratic definitions of realism, romanticism, and classicism. Telling tales of these authors' lives, arguing about the texts, and citing long passages from the authors' work, the dialogs destroy any tendencies toward idol-worship but still convey a deep respect and fascination.

The piece on the Brontë sisters comes as the greatest surprise in the collection. Schmidt's radio persona tells a good rendition of the sisters' childhood on the moors, and especially of their 1000-page creation of Angria & Gondal, but his fascination with "the Dove-Gray Sisters" becomes most obvious when he says, "What is left is for the final salvation of many a youthful genius who finds her- or himself in extremity. What is left is -- (with impressive emphasis) : the < Extended Mind Game > !" Clearly, an author's ability to actively engage his/her own mind, preferably in a vacuum of sorts, forms the basis of much of Schmidt's literary taste. When defending Karl May, often considered a second-rate kids' author, "A." brings up May's dreary childhood with a particular sense of awe, describing how, as a result of poor nutrition, May was actually blind for four years.

In his discussion of Finnegans Wake, the ultimate literary mind game, one character proposes the idea of a "readable German rendering" of this Irish novel, while the others offer both encouragement and guffaws. Apparently Schmidt himself endeavored some translations of Joyce's most difficult book, and this play seems closest to capturing Schmidt's own writerly dilemmas, as well as the dilemmas of Schmidt's translator. Skeptical "B." says, "the English original is totally out-of-the-question for the German reader ! - He can only hope that sooner or later, there will be a passably clear, humanely-paraphrased and richly commented Germanization that mediates for him some notion of what Joyce intended with FW." I imagine Woods cringing at these words, his own task in translating Schmidt's fiction being similar in its seeming impossibility. One voice describes Finnegans Wake as "well-equipped with sawtoothed prefixes, bedraggletailed with sly suffixes, croaking away pseudo-profoundly in err-earthly details" -- not a bad description of some of Schmidt's fiction as well.

Woods makes his way through Joyce via Schmidt with grace and humor. The Radio Dialogs convey more than a "passably clear" vision into Schmidt's mind games, at the same time illuminating a pathway toward the even more dense and rewarding phrasings of his fiction.

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Fall 1999 Table of Contents