Reading Zettel’s Traum: Week 1, pp. 11-20

ZettelsTraumAccording to the latest information at Arno Schmidt Stiftung the English translation of Zettel’s Traum is scheduled for publication at the beginning of 2016. (Update: the publication now is scheduled for September) As I realised that I don’t want to wait that long, I have decided to start reading it in German, several pages a week, and share my experience weekly on this blog. At the moment I do not know how long it will take me to finish this behemoth of a tome, nor am I sure that I will succeed in this enterprise in the first place. I won’t be the first one to attempt such a reading. There has been one similar attempt on this German blog, but, unfortunately, it ground to a halt early on. Nevertheless, I do believe that my endeavour will be useful both for me and for the readers of The Untranslated regardless of the result and that without at least trying I will never find out what I’m capable of. So, without further ado, let’s get down to business.

I’ll be reading the 2010 Suhrkamp edition that has a smaller format than the previous facsimile editions of the book; this has been achieved at the expense of the page number. This one clocks in at 1536 pages and has the following dimensions: 27,3 x 9,2 x 35,6 cm. Compare it with this Fischer edition, which has 1360 pages but is by more than 10 centimeters taller. My secondary resources at the moment are the LOA edition of Edgar Alan Poe’s Poetry and Tales, Volker Max Langbehn’s monograph Arno Schmidt’s Zettel’s Traum: An Analysis, and Dieter Stündel’s Register zu Zettels Traum.

The epigraph for the novel has been taken from Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is weaver Nick Bottom’s words uttered when he wakes up after a magic-induced spell of sporting a donkey’s head and being loved by the Queen of the Fairies. The square-bracketed sentences are not included in the epigraph but contain the clue to the novel’s title.


John Anster Fitzgerald, Titania and Bottom: A Scene from a Midsummer-Night’s Dream

I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had—but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was. [I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be called ‘Bottom’s Dream’, because it hath no bottom.]

Karl Friedrich von Schlegel renders”Bottom” in his German translation of the play as “Zettel” (which means “warp”), so the title of the book, Zettel’s Traum, is kind of a translation of “Bottom’s Dream”. But not quite. Just like the title of Finnegans Wake, which was the major inspiration for Schmidtcan be interpreted in different ways, so Zettel’s Traum is also ambivalent. The word Zettel is also the German for an index card. Bearing in mind that Arno Schmidt filled 130,000 Zettel with all kinds of information which he subsequently used in his text, it is evident that the title also playfully characterises the novel as a dream emerging out of these numerous pieces of paper crammed with data.


Arno Schmidt’s index cards used for writing Zettel’s Traum

The first chapter is called The Field of Terror or the Tsalal Language and apparently is dedicated to the discussion of Poe’s only novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. As I begin reading, I realise that there is precious little I can comprehend. The comparison to Finnegans Wake is well deserved. The best strategy at the moment seems to make at least some sense of what I can actually understand and not to worry of all the things going over my head. Reading ZT is  a long and strenuous apprenticeship, and one can only hope to eventually evolve into its true reader during the painstaking progress through the chaosmos of this monstrous book.

The majority of the pages are divided into three columns. The main story is in the middle. On either side there are quotations, notes, tangential observations, doodles, background noises. Judging by the first pages, it is difficult to determine the exact function of either marginal column. This is what Volker Langbehn has to say on this account:

Discussions of the writings take place to the left of the main column. In addition, the four discussants narrate stories about Poe’s life and insert quotes from his texts […] The right column contains extensive quotations from literature, myth, and devotional texts, and other references such as radio and TV news or dictionary definitions and translations.

However, even at a cursory glance it is evident that Arno Schmidt does not strictly keep to this arrangement. One pretty soon realises that it is not a good idea to think about inviolable rules when dealing with such a text as ZT.

What strikes the reader at first blush is the unconventional spelling and the notorious use of different typographical symbols alongside the letters of the German alphabet. Almost every other word is a pun. Lots of foreign (i.e. not German) words and phrases. Some kind of conversation is in progress. Its participants are Daniel Pagenstecher, an Edgar Alan Poe expert, Paul and Wilma Jakobi, his friends and translators of Poe’s works, and their 16-year old daughter Franziska. They’ve just negotiated a barbed wire fence typographically depicted as xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx and are going across Schauerfeld (the field of terror from the title), which is referenced in the Register as a plot of land in Bargfeld belonging to Arno Schmidt. Their destination is Pagenstecher’s house. Their walk is accompanied by the mooing of  cows and the sounds of a cuckoo. The imagery of cows is persistent throughout the episode. Here are some of the references to cows from the right-hand column:

“(Goloka=Goloka; The World of Cows; (+Galaxy).”

“(Cows and clouds : Symbols of each other”

Goloka (“the world of cows”) in Hindu mythology is the heavenly abode of Krishna. The word “galaxy” is derived from the Late Latin “galaxias”, which means “milky way”. Also, as you might remember, one of Arno Schmidt’s stories is titled Cows in Half Mourning.


Kühe in Halbtrauer, etching by Jens Rusch

A typical example of one of the easier puns is the following phrase from the left-hand column which is a kind of comment on the mentioning of the early morning (Morgenfrühe) in the middle column: “Rue >Morgue<: Morgen=Reue”. Thus, the reference to the famous Edgar Alan Poe’s tale is intertwined with the notion of “morning remorse”.  A bit later we learn that in all of her 16 years Franziska has never seen a sunrise. Further on, there is a quotation from the Italian Baroque poet Giambattista Marino’s epic L’Adone: “Blond hair, blue eyes and brown eyelashes”. I wonder if it’s meant as a sketchy description of Franziska’s appearance.


The Imre Thököly medal mentioned in Zettel’s Traum

Pagenstecher invites the family to his house and offers them some refreshments. A  marginal quotation from The Fall of the House of Usher marks their arrival at his place: “the huge antique panels to which the speaker pointed threw slowly back, upon the instant, their ponderous and ebony jaws.” The host then proceeds to distribute among his friends Xeniolen, small presents for guests. Wilma receives some kind of rosary which she calls Spielkette (toy chain). A longish quotation from Kurd Lasswitz’s science fiction novel Two Planets follows. In it, one woman tells another about the superiority of the sense of touch over the other senses. Paul receives an old medal commemorating Imre Thököly, a Hungarian noble who led a Protestan uprising against the Austrian Habsburgs. As for Franziska, Pagenstecher gives her a ring made by famous French goldsmith Olivier Coldore, which she immediately puts on her left ring finger. The host draws the parents’ attention to the fact that their daughter has reached nubility, and, what is more, has the full right to participate in their discussion of Poe’s works. In his own words: “You would probably know more about EDGAR POE, if you had given Fränzel freedom of thought= & speech.” The idea of Franziska’s virginity is played with when the “Virginia Edition” of the complete works of Poe is mentioned by Pagenstecher.

The discussion of Pym starts with Pagenstecher’s  observation about the typographical error  in the word Malvinas, which Hervey Allen, one of Poe’s biographers, erroneously corrects as Manilas. However, Franziska’s interest in the origin of the name “Field of Terror” diverts everyone’s attention to the tale of the same name by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, a German Romantic writer. Pagenstecher makes Franziska read an excerpt from the story, which is represented with the usual Schmidtian quirky spelling. The Field of Terror in the tale is a haunted parcel of land left by a deceased landowner to his inheritors. An excerpt from Poe’s short story The Angel of the Odd runs parallel to this episode. It’s a tale of a hallucination experienced by a heavy drinker who is visited by a strange creature made up of barrels and bottles who claims to be the agent of all odd and unexpected events.

At this juncture, Pagenstecher makes an inportant reference to Sigmund Freud, quoting one of his letters to Martha Bernays. Here is a more extended quotation:

I remember something that occurred to me while watching a performance of Carmen: the mob gives vent to its appetites, and we deprive ourselves. We deprive ourselves in order to maintain our integrity, we economize in our health, our capacity for enjoyment, our emotions; we save ourselves for something, not knowing for what. And this habit of constant suppression of natural instincts gives us the quality of refinement.

Freud’s theories about the different ways in which the unconscious manifests itself in dreams, jokes, slips of the tongue etc. are crucial for ZT. Numerous instances of risqué or outright vulgar puns appear to be the examples of overcoming the suppression imposed by the bourgeois culture and upbringing. On the same page (17), we have, for example, “Galápagos~kallipygos” . The latter word means “having beautiful buttocks”.  Further on, “royal” amusement is described as  “könni/ cunny glich” wherein the words for “king” and “cunt” are juxtaposed.

On page 18, the discussion of the Field of Terror is continued. There are just bits and pieces that I can grasp. Pagenstecher is not sure whether he should talk about certain things in front of Franziska. In particular, he mentions “nupta verba” (literally “married words”), expressions of sexual nature that only married people were allowed to hear in Ancient Rome. Hence the pun “OHROPAX=vobiscum!” which contains the expression “peace be with you” and the brand-name of earplugs which the girl might need in order not to listen to some salacious details that might crop up in Pagenstecher’s discourse. We then learn that some writer was murdered and buried in the Field of Terror by peasants at the instigation of the local pastor. Some Hungarian castle in which chess games usually started with “b2=b4” moves is briefly mentioned. Then there  is a quotation from George Burrow’s novel  The Romany Rye, which recounts  a young man’s adventures among Romanies in the 19th century Britain. A request to provide synonyms for “mad” leads to another bawdy wordplay: “insane. Lunatic=loony. – : Crasy. : Delirious!<; (+tremens!)).-:>mentally=ill< – Pluss >mentula=Peniss!<)”

The theme of drinking introduced by the excerpt from The Angel of the Odd is broached in the main column when Pagenstecher suggests discussing the role of alcohol in the life of  “a brain animal” (Gehirntier), a word probably used to denote an intellectual. That is what Schmidt used to call himself, by the way. This, of course, ties in with Poe’s drinking problems and the frequent references to boozing in his works. Wilma counters Pagenstecher’s facetious defence of alcohol consumption, which he shores up by quoting Poe himself, by another quotation, also by Poe: “Convince the world that spirituous liquors are poison to the body, and it will be scarcely necessary to add that they are ruin to the soul.”

Pagenstecher finishes his story about the writer who was murdered and buried in the field 120 years before and whose ghost has been seen since that time wondering in the neighbourhood and making notes in a piece of paper (Zettel). What is also remarkable about this page (19) is that James Joyce gets mentioned in connection with the aphorism about drinking (trans. from German: “He who does not work, shall not drink”) ascribed to him by Pagenstecher, but which I have been unable to trace.


Constantin Brancusi, Princess X

Finally, the discussants return to Pym. Pagenstecher reveals to the Jacobis that he has some understanding regarding the mysterious language of the inhabitants of Tsalal Island in Poe’s novel. In this connection, Marie Bonaparte’s statement is invoked: in it she confesses her cluelessness as to the meaning of all the Tsalal words invented by Poe, like “anamoo-moo”, relegating them to “infant babble”. Princess Marie Bonaparte was an active participant of the early Freudian scene. She became famous, among other things, for penning a voluminous psychoanalytic study of Poe’s works, developing her own theory of frigidity, and being rendered by Constanin Brancusi in bronze as a gleaming phallus.

Pagenstecher again exhorts the parents of Franziska to let her participate in all the discussions no matter what turn they might take with a snide aside: “Do you believe she still thinks that FUCKING is a town in China?” (Of course, as we know, Fucking is a village in Austria.) In general, Pagenstecher’s behaviour and thoughts regarding the nymphet seem to be taking more explicitly lascivious character.  There is some leering and as-if-inadvertent touching  creeping into the dry scholarly atmosphere of the Jacobis’ visit. To reinforce his persuasion game, the host has Franzika take a farcical oath promising NOT to understand anything which ensues in the course of the discussion, as well as jokingly states that he has been partially infected with megalopsychia  (Aristotelian virtue that can be translated as “magnanimity”) through the Jacobis’ reading of Poe.

to be continued

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11 Responses to Reading Zettel’s Traum: Week 1, pp. 11-20

  1. You are a brave man tackling this and, presumably a rich man, as it is not cheap, particularly with the Stündel and Langbehn thrown in. I shall follow your reading with interest but I suspect even the English version will prove too daunting for me.

  2. I can only concur with your first assumption, as I actually had to take a credit to buy the book. What I’ve found out thus far is that if you take it in small doses, it’s not that daunting; moreover thanks to the almighty Google, you don’t waste so much time on tracking the crucial references. I also realised that this kind of public reading would be a good motivation for me to plod on.

  3. kshomer says:

    Thanks for posting this; I only wish I had the English translation already so I could follow along. The text sounds sufficiently complex that I doubt I’d get very far without a read-along of some sort.

    Do you recommend Schmidt’s shorter fiction? I think Dalkey published three or four volumes in the 90s but I haven’t had a chance to read any of them yet.

    • Bernie says:

      kshomer –

      My introduction to Schmidt was volume 1 in that series, his Collected Novellas, and I maintain that it is the best introduction. The short stories are good, but his miniature novels in the first volume give you a better feel for his style. I would honestly recommend going through the series as Dalkey has it : Novellas > Nobodaddy’s Children > Stories > Two Novels. And when it comes to getting the oversized works like Evening Edged in Gold, don’t forgot about your local library – it’s the only chance I had to read that one.

  4. In my opinion, Schmidt’s short stories are the best and least painful introduction into his work. They have the germs of the later, more complex texts. I think it’s a good idea to read Dalkey’s Collected Short Stories first and find out if you like them.

  5. Bernie says:

    Great project. And the fun thing with Schmidt is that nothing is inviolable. Trying to pin down hard and fast rules for his typographical shenanigans is a futile task. You can see he has a general idea, but wanders as he feels it, which I appreciate as a reader. Keeps me on my toes.

  6. Thanks for following my hermeneutic endeavour! I’ll try my best.

  7. Sergio Bernales says:

    Thanks for this! I recently bought the Dalkey Edition of ZT through amazon in germany, (sold out at the USA)! I have one spanish edition of Seelandschaft mit Pocahontas and the Umsiedler and all the other Dalkeys…I hope you resume this reading notes someday soon. Saludos!

  8. Are you done? The comments in 2015 were really good. I am reading it in chunks and trying not to get bogged down in the obstacles it throws up. I want to think about why it is this peculiar thing, and how it helps us think the post modern. I use the expression with some trepidation. Post modern
    is another way to call it unreadable. which it is not. I think someone called it ergodic when they were talking about another book and referenced this one as an exemplar. Your comments do find some entryways. Thank you. Tim

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