Schattenfroh by Michael Lentz

What was it like to be THERE in 1851, when Moby-Dick was published? Or in 1913, when Swann’s Way came out? Or in 1922, when Ulysses crashed into our culture like a meteor and changed it forever? Or in 1955, when The Recognitions was not recognised for the masterpiece it was? Or in 1959, when The Tin Drum inaugurated the birth of new German literature: complex, linguistically overwhelming, and irreverent? Now I know because I was THERE in 2018, when Michael Lentz’s Schattenfroh saw light. Some critics were upset that this novel had not been nominated for any literary prizes. To which I can only say: Are you even serious? Prizes imply competition, but what competition can we talk about when dealing with perhaps the greatest German-language novel of the 21st century up to now? This in equal measure baroque and surrealist explosion of a novel belongs to the pantheon of the best works of world literature published in the past two decades, which includes so far Miquel de Palol’s The Troiacord, Antonio Moresco’s Songs of Chaos, and Mircea Cărtărescu’s Solenoid. In some fifty years, the grandchildren of the literary judges who chose to ignore Schattenfroh will be studying it at universities and maybe even writing their PhD theses about it, whereas most of today’s German prize-winning books will be completely forgotten.

I am not the only one to use such effusive terms with regard to Schattenfroh. It is uplifting to know that some other readers were prepared for this book and were able to give it the deserving attention and evaluation. For example, Andreas Puff-Trojan has the following to say for SWR2: “The novel Schattenfroh is without a doubt one of the most interesting experiments in German-language literature in the recent years. […] Schattenfroh is a prosework which goes far, far beyond the affairs of the current literary scene.” According to Michael Braun in Der Tagesspiegel, “Michael Lentz is the language-possessed letter-augur of the present time.” And Andrea Köhler’s verdict in Die Zeit perfectly encapsulates the bewildering effect Lentz’s unclassifiable work is likely to exercise on its reader: “Depending on how you look at it, it is a genius, insane, dark or ridiculous book before which one can only helplessly surrender.” The longest and most detailed review so far has been penned by Matthias Friedrich, an astute and knowledgeable contributor to this blog. He examines Schattenfroh as “a psychogeography of the self” as well as gives a short shrift to another German critic for an unsubstantiated and perfunctory dismissal of the novel as a “self-indulgent” and “amorphous” work “which pretends to depict the totality of events, and yet has nothing to say”. As Matthias conclusively proves, far from being amorphous, Schattenfroh is an intricately structured composition that has so much to say that it will take us several close readings to take in at least half of the message. I am also looking forward to Jan Wilm‘s essay on Schattenfroh featured in the forthcoming Text+Kritik issue dedicated to Michael Lentz.

As it is usual with novels of such scale and ambition which are so different from most of what is published and celebrated nowadays, part of the problem why the general response to Schattenfroh has not been as extensive and positive as one would have expected lies in the modern reader. Lulled into a semi-coma by easily digestible prose and Wikipedia-researched pseudo-intellectual yarns, the reader was caught off-guard by the cacophonous onslaught of this thousand-page monster. How many have caved under its weight and had to abandon the book just after the first hundred pages? Only a few have been stubborn enough to accept the challenge and set out on a journey that would eventually bring them a bit closer to the ideal reader of Schattenfroh. What? The ideal reader? We have heard this before. Wasn’t that somebody suffering from an ideal insomnia? Yes, the ability to extend waking hours would be an asset, but besides that the ideal reader of Schattenfroh is expected: to be conversant in the basics of Kabbalistic teachings; to have a firm grasp of Northern Renaissance art, especially Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings; to know the history of the German Reformation and Peasants’ War; to have an advanced understanding of the mechanics of the printing process in the 16th century; to have a solid grounding in the theological thought, doctrines and disputes of the same period; to be acquainted with the botanical and geological features of the north of Thuringia; to be able to read and understand texts in Early New High German set both in a contemporary font and in the old blackletter; to be a connoisseur of the German Passion poetry genre dedicated to detailed and often gruesome descriptions of Christ’s suffering on the cross; to have visited and admired the Panorama Museum in Bad Frankenhausen exhibiting Werner Tübke’s colossal 14 by 123 metre painting Early Bourgeois Revolution in Germany; to understand the technicalities of the design and construction of the cylindrical building of the said museum; to have listened several times to Bach’s oratorio St John’s Passion; to be willing to unravel anagrams and detect numerous embedded quotations, allusions, and references; to understand 17th-century Spanish; to follow page-long labyrinthine sentences that would have given nightmares even to Thomas Mann; to have either read or have at least a cursory knowledge of the 180 titles in the bibliography of Schattenfroh compiled by the author himself and inserted right in the middle of the book. I will never be the ideal reader of Schattenfroh, but I will try my utmost to convey the experience of reading this extraordinary work.

A couple of general observations about the novel. There are no chapter divisions, but, mercifully for the reader, the text does have paragraph breaks, and it is not really the daunting monolith it seems at first glance. As we read, we come across a variety of insertions, interpolations and interruptions. The most significant of those are the said bibliography and a list of the victims of the 1944 Allied bombing of Düren, Michael Lentz’s hometown, hand-written by the author on more than seventy pages. Apart from that, there is a completely black page (a nod to Tristram Shandy), the four loopy graphs lifted directly from Sterne’s novel, a completely blank page, several reproductions of paintings, texts in mysterious cyphers, a music score, scanned pages from other books. For the author, both the textual and visual aspects of material culture are equally important, which explains the abundance of ekphrases. Lentz offers lengthy and painstakingly detailed descriptions of various paintings, and it would take a visual arts scholar to identify all of them, but the most easily recognisable ones are, of course, Hieronymus Bosch’s overcrowded hellscapes and Werner Tübke’s Bosch-inspired monumental panorama of death, destruction, and hope. Another pervasive feature of the book is its unapologetic metafictionality. Michael Lentz gives the lie to the notion that self-reflexive texts are a preposterous relic of the 1960s and 1970s, and plays his textual games with a disarming bravura. Occasionally, the characters refer to the exact number of the page on which they are located. Sometimes, the text of the main narrative gets repeated in the books situated at a lower diegetic level. The use and abuse of anagrams is another constant in the novel. The problem of re-assembling some of the scrambled names is compounded by the fact that the original names are not that well-known. What also distinguishes Michael Lentz’s writing is that it is consistently aphoristic. A lot of pithy statements from the book invite a moment of self-reflexion and rumination.

Having read the initial pages of the novel, the reader realises that at the core of the novel is the ages-old confrontation between the artist striving for absolute freedom and the authority in all its manifestations bent on gaining absolute control over the artist. Can a writer create freely within a totalitarian repressive system? Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s long narrative poem Dorozhenka (The Road), which was “written” in its entirety in prison camps, proves that it is possible. The Russian author composed the text of about 10,000 lines in his head and memorised it using a bread rosary as a mnemonic aid. The authorities could control his physical access to paper and writing tools, but they were helpless when it came to the workings of his mind. I can imagine some prison camp official, upon learning about that, clenching his fists in frustration and exclaiming: “I wish I had the means to control that! If I could only see what they do in their heads!” Michael Lentz in his novel depicts exactly this triumph of total domination when even the thoughts of a prisoner become accessible to the prying gaze of the guard.

The main premise of the book is outlandish and unsettling. The narrator, called Nobody (Niemand), is held captive in a dark room in complete isolation from the rest of the world. He is wearing a face mask equipped with the technology that harnesses his thought processes, the product of which he calls “brainwater script” (Gehirnwasserschrift).  The writing of the book Schattenfroh, apparently the one we are reading, takes place in the captive’s mind, but the advanced technology is capable to transfer the text into a more tangible form; whether it is a digital book or an old-fashioned printed manuscript is not specified. The mystical creature called Schattenfroh is Nobody’s evil jailor. (It’s worth noting that Schatten is the German for “shadow”, and froh means “glad”) He has lured the protagonist into the dark room by a certain game of numbers, which involved the city map and the number 666, and now his victim is trapped inside the middle 6, forced to write the book for Schattenfroh whose total control over Nobody makes him a co-athor of the book, if not more. Schattenfroh represents a mysterious organisation called the Frightbearing Society (Die Furchtbringende Gesellschaft), which is an allusion to the 17th century Fruitbearing Society (Die Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft – note that Furcht is an anagram of Frucht) whose goal was to standardise and promote vernacular German. The book Schattenfroh is envisioned as the foundational text of the secret group on whose behalf Nobody’s detainer is acting.

The character Schattenfroh is a complex identity-shifting creature of enormous metaphysical proportions. He is God, but also the Devil, he is the embodiment of totalitarian rule, but, more than anything else, he is Michael Lentz’s father who died in 2014 and in whose honour the book is designated as a requiem on the title page. In narrating the story of his alter ego endowed with the Odyssean sobriquet, the author effortlessly blends minute autobiographical details with over-the-top fantastic and logic-defying elements, making Schattenfroh a two-tiered construct: it is a very personal, introspective investigation aimed at finding the ways of coping with the loss of the father whose authoritarian and often cruel nature is portrayed without any varnish, and at the same time, it is a metaphysical, centuries-spanning quest to critically examine the devastations of power struggle and violence stemming from the primary violent act: the crucifixion of Christ. To achieve the latter, one has to have the supernatural ability to hop into different periods of history as well as to enter the signal artworks depicting the relevant places and events. The power of Nobody’s imagination grants him this ability, and what is left to us is to watch in awe how he traverses centuries of German history and wanders about in the spectacular environments found on canvasses that adorn the walls of world-renowned galleries and museums.

Another important character is a certain Mateo, who doesn’t lag behind Schattenfroh when it comes to assuming different personas and foul play. He is introduced as Mateo Atschel, the chief secretary of Nobody’s father, who is the city manager of Düren, just like the father of Michael Lentz. But he is also the high official’s second secretary Peter Ozianon. Moreover, he keeps appearing in different guises as Antonio Atome (the last name is the anagram of “Mateo”) as well as acts as God’s (i.e. Schattenfroh’s) formidable intermediary – the angel Metatron whose name incorporates the letters making up the last name “Atome”. There is ample evidence to suggest that Mateo is not satisfied with his subordinate position and harbours treacherous plans to overthrow Schattenfroh and take his position.

The main character’s name, which is obviously a tribute to the alias used by Odysseus to trick the Cyclops, implies nothing short of an odyssey, and an odyssey we get. The right panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Last Judgement serves as kind of wormhole through which the protagonist gains access to the major stages of his multi-dimensional journey:

An unsightly figure with incandescent eyes steps through a toad-infested archway, more a beast than a man; instead of the stomach, he has a grilled oven with red-hot embers, which is revealed in his unzipped black garment as the triangular eye of God. On his head he is wearing a green turban whose green loose ends, which are decorated with pearls in the upper third part, are hanging down to the right and to the left. The infernal firebrand in his belly is bursting through his head. His mouth is wide open, showing four pointed fangs in the blazing maw. As the Master of Ceremonies he is carrying a four-bladed scythe with which he is going to twist the word in my mouth four times. The figure knocks loudly with the scythe against the ground.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Last Judgement, c. 1482. Detail of the right panel.

Thus the ceremony, led by Schattenfroh as the Boschian Lucifer, begins, inaugurating a dizzy progression of things to come. First and foremost, this Last Judgement is just one of the  several trials to which the narrator is going to be subjected (incidentally, the blindfolded naked man pierced by the sword is Nobody); moreover, the solemn tapping of the scythe-snath also sets in motion a voyage of discovery, an initiation rite, and an ambitious attempt to embrace the totality of European culture and history.

Nobody’s travels are so rich in events that just listing the major ones would require several thousand words, so I will focus instead on the three principal journeys undertaken by the protagonist. It is important to remember that none of them are linear, and each journey can be subdivided into a series of minor ones.

First, the narrator visits Düren at the time of the Thirty Years’ War by entering a large carpet on a wall of his father’s office. This carpet is more like a tapestry which depicts the panorama of the town at different periods in history. In the space-time fabric of the panorama, between years 748 and 1543, resides Zellen Warhol, a philosopher, an artist and a historian of the town. By unscrambling the letters of his name, we get “Wenzel Hollar”, which is the German version of “Wenceslaus Hollar” – the name of the Bohemian etcher who produced a bird’s eye view of Düren in 1643. The narrator will make use of this etching to find his bearings in the town in the same year. We learn from Warhol that the carpet is in fact a four-dimensional continuum which makes travel in space-time relatively easy. He keeps quoting some 19th century scientist from Leipzig who is an ardent enthusiast of the 4th dimension. It is not difficult to guess that he is talking about philosopher and physicist Gustav Fechner, the author of the influential essay Space Has Four Dimensions. According to Warhol, the learned man from Leipzig intends to find a way of creating a million-strong army by slicing up a single person who is “fanned out” along the infinitely long crossbeam of space-time. Warhol’s town map facilitates Nobody’s entrance into the 17th-century Düren, but proves to be also the cause of his undoing when he is captured and subjected to a Kafkaesque trial that ends up in a re-enactment of Jan Hus’ burning at the stake, which took place two centuries earlier. Among the accusations directed at the narrator are his illegal penetration into the town by using the ill-conceived etching, which exposes Düren to an enemy invasion, and the writing of a heretical book (i. e. Schattenfroh) which purports to look into the future as well as denigrates the author’s father.

Wenceslaus Hollar, Bird’s Eye View of Düren, 1634. Image source

The second and most extensive journey starts out as a long walk the narrator takes with his father. Their final destination is supposed to be Prüm, where they are going to attend a reunion of the grandfather’s former students, the father being one of them. However, they end up at the Panorama Museum in Frankenhausen, which is some 500 kilometres away. Surprisingly enough, the reunion does take place, but it quickly escalates into yet another ekphrastic phantasmagoria. The omens of the forthcoming trial and execution are amply scattered along their way. Their itinerary lies through the picturesque landscapes captured by Northern Renaissance painters, and there is no way they can avoid bumping into the macabre subject matter often found on those canvases. As the faint view of Prüm appears in the distance, they come across the victims of the most popular types of execution at the time: breaking on the wheel, hanging, impalement. The condemned loom grotesquely across the clear skies as a thrice-emphasised memento memori message. The view of the wheel, perched on a high pole, on which the victim is helplessly lying exposed to clowds of ravens prompts the father to go on a lurid and long-winded tangent about the peculiarities of this type of punishment. When the father and son finally get inside the Panorama Museum (after getting past the doorkeeper who tries to overwhelm them with the technical details of its construction lifted verbatim from civil engineering manuals) the enormous painting engulfs them. Nobody assumes the identity of Thomas Müntzer, the 16th-century German preacher who headed the peasant uprising of 1525 and who was captured and executed by the feudal authorities after the disastrous outcome of the Battle of Frankenhausen, which proved to be more of a massacre than a battle. The father (who is also Schattenfroh, we shouldn’t forget) becomes Landgrave Philip I, one of the victors in the battle and later on transforms into Philip II, the King of Spain.

Werner Tübke, Early Bourgeois Revolution in Germany also known as the Peasants’ War Panorama, 1976-1987. Detail. Image source

The true destination of the seemingly innocent hike from Düren to Prüm turns out to be the notorious place of Müntzer’s incarceration and torture – the sinister Heldrungen Castle belonging to Ernest II, Count of Mansfeld-Vorderort. On the way to the castle, the convoy with the captured Nobody makes a halt in a place which seems to be the singularity of esoteric symbolism of the whole book. It is a rocky area traversed by a fissure which serves as the orchestra pit for a choir of shofar sounders. Nearby there are the ruins of a building amid which commoners are dancing, a group of nobles feasting at a table, a fire-breathing winged dragon perched on a wall and a print shop. Philip I and George, Duke of Saxony, (his ally in the suppression of the peasants’ revolt) get inside the shop after a sophisticated ceremony involving circular walking and the blasting of the ancient ceremonial horns. Inside, a great mystery takes place: the book Schattenfroh gets printed before our eyes. Since this time white ink is used, the whole process is called “unprinting” (futuristically referring to the recent technology of removing print from paper and thus allowing its re-use), and the narrator himself  is integrated in the process as a mechanical part of the printing press. One of the genuine surprises of this printing extravaganza is the appearance of a complete page from a Spanish edition of Don Quijote, which is faithfully reproduced in the book. This is not just Michael Lentz’s evocation of the first great European novel, which also happens to be the first great metafiction. The odd page inevitably makes us think of Jorge Luis Borges’ Pierre Menard, and it is owing to the paradoxical insight of Borges that Lentz manages to solve a difficult aesthetic issue that springs up when Nobody is finally delivered to a dungeon in the Tower of Heldrungen and awaits his fate in the company of his double, an identical twin engineered by the omnipresent Mateo, and Mateo himself who acts as the jailer. The themes of torture and execution are supposed to reach a crescendo here, and hence the problem: how to give the most shocking description of impalement after Ivo Andrić’s The Bridge on the Drina? Lentz’s response to that is simple and ingenious at the same time. The only working solution is, following Pierre Menard’s suit, to give exactly the same account. The double reads out loud the shocking passage to Nobody and Mateo. At first, the narrator has no clue what is going to happen to the man condemned to impalement. Mateo postpones the horrific scene by interrupting the narrative to ask the protagonist leading  questions about the possible outcome of the minutely described preparations. The context in which Ivo Andrić’s text resurfaces in Schattenfroh makes it even more disturbing than in its original form as Nobody realises that he might well be having a detailed insight into what is going to happen to him shortly. Luckily for him, if we can say this, while history can be revisited, it cannot be changed. We all know that Müntzer was beheaded near the town of Mühlhausen and that his head was displayed on a stake. That is the only way how this journey may end, either for Nobody or for his double.

The final journey is the shortest one and the most intense. It takes place within a paradoxical space, perhaps another fourth dimension outcropping, and is invested with the calculated madness of the early Alejandro Jodorowski. The original setting is the edge of a gorge descending to the valley below. The narrator is sitting at the edge and stares down at the shallow stream running through the valley in which a bed with a lying man is placed. The bed is approached by another man wearing a tail-coat and a top hat. On the outer surface of the bed’s footboard there is a projected image of two boys: the narrator and his brother. Next to the bed there is a mysterious cone-shaped optical device with two square eyepieces. Nobody experiences this scene at least six times, and each time there are variations. For example, the identity of the man in the bed changes from the Prussian general Friedrich Bismarck-Bohlen to Nobody’s father and then, to Nobody himself. The primary agent of change is the device which allows the protagonist to peer inside his own mind and consequently to observe any events in the book Schattenfroh at any point. The observation of his own consciousness leads Nobody to conclude, with genuine bitterness, that for him “the Being-in-itself is beyond itself” and therefore he will never be able to grasp his own being. To mark this revelation, which alludes to paragraph 231 of The Phenomenology of the Spirit, he dubs the mysterious device Hegel. The cascading perspectives unleashed by the optical apparatus lead Nobody to the moment of  creation, which is also the moment when the book Schattenfroh comes into existence, but it is not a return to the beginning so that the narrative can loop back onto itself. For the protagonist it is the moment of metaphysical triumph when he can disassociate himself from Schattenfroh and cease being Nobody. His Odyssey is going to end not with the trite homecoming sung by a myriad of poets, but with universal undoing, the reversal of the tzimtzum, which will erase the text of Schattenfroh’s Schattenfroh, a product of totalitarian control and manipulation, and will let the protagonist transcend to creative freedom and finish his new novel Schattenfroh as Michael Lentz. “It is called writing” (Man nennt es schreiben) is the first and the last sentence of the novel, but when we come across it for the second time, after reading the whole book, its meaning acquires a whole new dimension: what we have just witnessed, this impossible feat of wordsmithery, imagination and polymathy is also called writing, writing of the highest order.

Fratzenstuhl, 17th century. Image source.

By mentioning the Kabbalistic notion of tzimtzum (the withdrawal of God within himself to create a space for the universe) in the previous paragraph, I leave myself no other option than to touch upon, no matter how amateurishly and superficially, the way Michael Lentz makes use of Kabbalah in his novel. The Kabbalist practice of rearranging letters in a word or a sentence to form new words that would reveal a hidden message is amply represented throughout the book. In fact, all the numerous anagrams in Schattenfroh can be regarded as the layman’s offshoot of either temurah (permuting letters in a word or phrase) or notarikon (forming new words from the first, middle, or last letters of the words in a sentence or a passage). There is also Merkabah mysticism stemming from Ezekiel’s vision of God’s chariot in the sky. Under the guidance of Mateo the Metatron, the narrator accomplishes a twisted version of the Merkabah ascent by walking through a series of guarded chambers and reaching the Pargod, the celestial curtain, beyond which he discovers his father sitting in a talking blue chair, which is closer to him “than any other creations that are his servants”. The blue chair, which is anything but the divine throne one would expect to see upon the completion of the mystical ascent, emanates firestorm that feeds the flames of Gehenna. In Schattenfroh heaven and hell are not as disparate as the followers of traditional religions might think. We also come across the creation of the golem, a procedure belonging to the realm of Practical Kabbalah, whose goal is to change the world by the use of magic. Actually, there are several golems in Schattenfroh, but the weirdest of them is the wooden doll that Nobody finds when roaming the 17-th century Düren. The doll was made from a chunk of wood that was left when the apple-shaped mouth of a baroque face chair (Fratzenstuhl) was carved. The face chair instills life in the doll first by performing (with some mistakes) the letter rearrangement activity described by the German Kabbalist Eleazar of Worms and then by inscribing EMETH (truth) on the doll’s forehead. Because of the bungling nature of the whole ritual, the golem proves to be defective, and the face chair is eventually compelled to erase the first letter of the magic word, changing it to METH (dead), which immediately returns the doll to the inanimate state. There is no doubt that upon further readings a text which is informed by the Kabbalistic thought to such an extent as Schattenfroh will yield many surprises both in terms of its allusions to the mystical texts and not-so-obvious spin-offs of letter manipulation.

To return to my initial thoughts about being in the moment when a great work of literature emerges, I’d like to share my ambivalent feelings about it. On the one hand, there is the predictable jolt of pride I get when realising that I have written the first English-language review of this landmark novel. No matter how ridiculous it may sound, but this rambling, poorly informed review on a free blog platform will go down in history as the first critical reaction in the English language to a monument of early 21st century German literature. On the other hand, I now somewhat regret reading Schattenfroh as a reviewer, and not as a reader. The attendant research into Kabbalah, Northern Renaissance, Baroque aesthetics, the Reformation and the Great Peasants’ War helped me clarify certain places in the novel but also made me feel like a studious exegete who pores over some arcane volume, looking for the hidden revelations, and never realises that he can actually have them by simply surrendering himself to the text. The reading which resulted in this review, with a stack of secondary literature on the desk and the ever-glowing computer screen, robbed me of the continuous aesthetic experience of the novel which I would have got had I just let this mighty river of words and images take me up and bring me along its winding course wherever it flows into. I can only make up for this lost opportunity during a second reading. My computer will be switched off; the dictionaries, encyclopedias and textbooks will be reshelved – I wouldn’t allow any distractions, except maybe just one, which veers into the territory of wishful thinking: it would be great to have an album with complete colour reproductions of all the artworks described in the novel, preferably in the order of appearance.

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6 Responses to Schattenfroh by Michael Lentz

  1. George Salis says:

    Another great and inspiring article. Thanks for allowing a miserable monoglot like me to peek into other lingual dimensions.

    I hope to learn Greek in the near-ish future. I plan to do so as I work on my third novel, something like a Greek Midnight’s Children is what I have in mind, but with Joycean wordplay, etc.

    • Thanks for the kind words! I understand all too well English native speakers – everybody speaks English to them wherever they go. But if you set a goal, at least one reading language shouldn’t be a serious problem: it all boils down to the hours of learning and practice packed into every day.

  2. Bidé says:

    Great great great article as usual. My German sucks, I hope it will be translated into Italian quite quickly, or at least in a language I know (English, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian: do you know if a translation is to be expected in any of these?).

  3. languagehat says:

    Sounds amazing, and I hope it gets a worthy translation into English (and, of course, into other languages). But to be fair, it sounds more like Finnegans Wake than Ulysses, and my guess is that like the former it will be more admired from afar than read. You can’t reasonably expect many people to put in the kind of effort you did for a novel, however much they love literature.

    • My intention was to make it sound exciting, but perhaps you’re right and I have scared off the potential readers, translators and publishers! There are some passages which could be called Wakeian, but this novel is still much easier than Finnegans Wake or Zettels Traum. It’s more a kind of book Umberto Eco would have written if he had been into Surrealism and German philosophy.

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