Tag Archives: Arno Schmidt

Reading Zettel’s Traum Suspended

Medieval_sysiphus.jpegI started reading Arno Schmidt’s legendary magnum opus about a year ago.  I knew quite well that it was an enormous challenge not least because German is the weakest of my reading languages, although the “germanness” of Schmidt’s language in this book frequently emulates the “englishness” of Joyce’s in Finnegans Wake. By keeping my reading diary I’ve managed to stay on course until now. What is more, I’ve got somewhat accustomed to all the quirks and joyful transgressions of Schmidtian writing, and the scavenger hunts he has been constantly sending me on have been a lot of fun too, as all my favourite books such as The Recognitions, Terra Nostra, Los Sorias and Gravity’s Rainbow have stimulated my curiosity in a similar way. But, as with any cerebral pleasure, there is a serious downside to a thorough and attentive reading of Zettel’s Traum: the amount of time invested in the effort. While assiduously deciphering the Rosetta stone of Schmidt’s text, I was robbing myself, and consequently my readers, of other great books that had to be made known on my blog. I naively thought that I would manage to have it both ways until I realised that I was facing a serious dilemma: either abandon all my reading and dedicate myself solely for the reading and exegesis of Zettel’s Traum for at least a year (otherwise, at the present pace, it would take me four more years to finish the book) or to address all the backlog of the untranslated literature I’ve been meaning to review, some of it truly marvelous. I have decided in favour of the latter. This, however, does not mean that I have abandoned my project altogether: anything can happen, and I might resume my Sisyphean labour, especially when John E. Woods’ translation finally becomes available and, hopefully, throw some light on the numerous obscurities of the original. I know that there is a group of faithful readers who have been diligently following all my posts and  have encouraged me with their comments. Thank you all! Without your support I would probably have stopped much earlier. I know that there is at least one reading group of Bottom’s Dream already established on Goodreads under the auspices of Nathan “N.R.” Gaddis, who, for all I know, may be the present-day reincarnation of Borges. When you finally get your copies, you may want to join this or a similar cenacle, for I am sure you will get more out of the book by reading it along with others. As for my copy, to the shelf it goes (the lowest one, firmly resting on the floor, of course!) until better times as I am already reaching for the next untranslated book to be reviewed here.


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Reading Zettel’s Traum: Week 27, pp. 337-350

Wilma talks disapprovingly about Pagenstecher’s eremitical existence, calling it “TIMON=Dasein”, invoking the rich Athenian from Shakespeare’s play Timon of Athens who ends up living in a cave after squandering his fortune on the manipulative friends and various hangers-on. Daniel is bluntly reproached for being an eccentric who lives as if he were in a fairy tale. His reaction is, as usual, calm. He urges her to think for a moment that the ability to lock oneself in at the right time may be a formidable art form.

An interesting digression on the significance of cats. Pagenstecher tells his companions how, according to an old Baden flood legend, human race was saved by a cat. The obvious pun on the word Menschgeschlecht (mankind) is made in the jocular supposition that it might have been derived from schlecht (bad). The legend in question belongs to the rich tradition of sunken cities or kingdoms that can be traced back to the island of Atlantis and beyond. The mythological place mentioned by Daniel is called Sunkenthal or Suggenthal. Let me give you a short summary of the legend provided by Jacob Grimm in his seminal study Teutonic Mythology:

When the water had wrecked and swamped all the houses in Suggenthal, there remained alive only that old man and his son, and one small infant. This child, a boy, floated in his cradle all through the flood, and with him was a cat. Whenever the cradle tilted to one side, the cat jumped to the other, and restored the equilibrium; in this way the cradle safely arrived below Buchholz, and there stuck fast in the dold or crown of a tall oak. When the water had subsided, and the tree was accessible again, it was fetched down, and child and cat were found alive and unhurt. As nobody knew who the boy’s parents had been, they named him after the tree-top Dold, and the name is borne by his descendants to this day.

Actually you might have encountered a reference to this legend before in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow that extensively uses Grimm’s treatise. Here is the relevant passage beautifully describing a Swiss city as seen by Tyron Slothrop, the protagonist of the novel, from a mountain top in the Alps:

The city below him, bathed now in a partial light, is a necropolis of church spires and weathercocks, white castle-keep towers, broad buildings with mansard roofs and windows glimmering by thousands. This forenoon the mountains are as translucent as ice. Later in the day they will be blue heaps of wrinkled satin. The lake is mirror-smooth but mountains and houses reflected down there remain strangely blurred, with edges fine and combed as rain: a dream of Atlantis, of the Suggenthal. Toy villages, desolate city of painted alabaster. . . .

Back to Zettel’s Traum. When Pagenstecher finishes retelling the legend, he points out that the surviving baby and the cat are the progenitors (die Ahnherrn) of, respectively, “the new human- and catkind” (Neuen Mensch= & Katzheit). Thus the Biblical myth of the Great Deluge and the legend of the submerged city are fused together. If you can read German, I recommend checking out this captivating post which looks in more detail at this particular episode in the book as well as at the treatment of cats in Zettel’s Traum in general.


The Deluge, Francis Danby

What made Poe volunteer for military service? Good question to ponder. Just like Marcel Proust’s year long stint in the French army. Wilma observes that Proust must have felt like in a harem what with all the men around him.

Pagenstecher discusses the origins and the meaning of the name Arnheim. The Dutch city of Arnheim was built in the place that the Romans had used to call Arnoldi Villa, and since the maiden name of Poe’s mother is Arnold, it is pretty obvious for Daniel why the writer chose this name for the fictional domain in his tale.

Provoked by Wilma’s wondering whether he has ever desired a foreigner or a Negro woman (Negerin), Pagenstecher comes out as an inveterate linguistic bigot. He confesses that he could not love even a local woman if she spoke only a dialect such as Plattdeutsch or Bayrisch and not standard German. His justification is the already mentioned fact of him being a brain-animal (Gehirn-tier) whose thinking is inextricably linked with language – dialects, therefore, irritate him. I guess this really shows to which extent Daniel has transformed himself into a purely bookish person. But shouldn’t alarm bells start ringing when any kind of “purity” is being pursued so vehemently?

The aphoristic marginal statement ” ‘zoophile’ is the Greek for ‘misanthrope'” emerges when the discussion touches on the often observable fact that hostility towards fellow humans goes hand in hand with love for animals. Surely, we can find numerous examples of this in life and literature: from  the farouche cat lady in your house to Gulliver’s last voyage.

Pagenstecher returns to Walter Scott. He focuses, in particular, on his novel Anne of Geierstein. In quite a bold statement based on an entry in Encyclopaedia Britannica he places this writer beside Shakespeare and Dickens, emphasising the tremendous influence Scott has had not only on his contemporaries but also on the following generations, including Poe. He quotes a landscape description from Scott’s novel which bears affinity to the domain described in Poe’s tale.

Ellison, the creator of the domain, is discussed at some length. Pagenstecher marvels at his enormous fortune and the way he dispenses with it. He also looks at the four “conditions of bliss” espoused by Ellison.

to be continued ?

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Reading Zettel’s Traum: Week 26, pp. 317-336

“The intricacy of the universe is drifting, it seems, towards a new maximum”. Thus begins the third part of Zettel’s Traum, which is called Dan’s Cottage (A Diorama). This statement could refer both to the expansion of the universe we know about from modern cosmology and to the growing complexity of the fictional world of Arno Schmidt’s novel.

Daniel and his guests have breakfast pursuing an idle chat peppered with  the usual obscene puns and references to Poe. For want of amontillado, they have to make do with Fanta. Wilma calls Pagenstecher’s garden “a little Eden”, and that’s enough of a pretext to explore the theme of the garden as paradise in Poe’s works and elsewhere. Since the host of the Jacobis prefers to pronounce “Eden” as Aidenn, he doesn’t have any trouble in arriving at the etyms he is most interested in. The Greek language dictionary fetched by Franziska comes in handy. Therein he points out the word Aidoion (private parts, pudenda) which Franziska can’t read as she doesn’t know the Greek letters. The Lenore of The Raven mentioned by Wilma fares no better than Eden: as Pagenstecher  indicates, lena is the Latin for “whore” (but, actually, a procuress or a brothel-keeper).

A digression on the importance of wit as a way of thinking produced by the unconscious (and which, as notes Daniel, writer and theologian Joseph Görres believed to be of demonic nature) leads Pagenstecher to yet another pronouncement in which he places Joyce above Poe. In his opinion, a writer who parodies himself is by far wiser than the one who takes himself seriously. Thus Joyce is a more honourable writer than Poe.

Unexpectedly, Franziska sings the mechanical doll’s aria  (Les oiseaux dans la charmille) from Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann. The song is about a girl in love who finds the reflection of her feelings all around her: in the birds singing in the hedgerow and in the sun shining in the sky. Why exactly this song? Perhaps for Franziska it shares some garden/paradise motifs with the unfolding discussion. Wilma is surprised, as her daughter’s French has never been any good. 

Pagenstecher offers to his audience a brief insight into Islamic eschatology: the conceptions of the Judgement Day and the paradise (Jannah). He recommends to the Jacobis the vivid descriptions of the things to come found in Karl May’s Oriental adventure novel Am Jenseits (In the Hereafter) in which a blind seer, saved in the desert by the protagonists Kara Ben Nemsi and Haji Halef Omar on their way to Mecca, recounts his formidable visions of the end of time. Perhaps the exotic adventure novel of Karl May is not the best source for the Islamic views on the last days and the afterlife, but, as you probably know it, Karl May was one of Arno Schmidt’s (and, consequently, Pagenstecher’s) favourite writers.


Cul de Paris. Image Source

PARadISe for Poe, in terms of etyms, also stands for the city of Paris. Not only is it the setting for such stories as Rue Morgue and Purloined Letter, but also French was the foreign language that Poe knew best.  Pagenstecher comes up with various arguments as to why Paris is of paradisaical nature for Poe, most of them related to what Mikhail Bakhtin would call “material bodily lower stratum”. In The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade, the legendary queen castigates the element of female dress which she describes as “the protuberance of the region which lies not very far below the small of the back”. As it turns out, the name of this fashionable item was cul de Paris, literally “the ass of Paris”. For Daniel, of course, it should be ambiguously perceived as cul de Par(ad)is, i. e. also as “the ass of paradise”. Via a dubious etymological interpretation of  Lutetia Parisiorum, the name of the ancient town established at the place of the present-day Paris, Pagenstecher arrives at the notion of Paris as the excremental paradise. Contrary to what he says, I couldn’t find anything scatological about the word luteus. Different places in the French capital are also subject to etym-analysis. A volume of the Brockhaus encyclopedia brought by Franziska reveals to Daniel’s guests that “the vicinity of Palais Royal” mentioned in Rue Morgue was a stomping ground of prostitutes.

Pagenstecher seems a bit confused by Wilma’s request to clarify the significance of the names that appear in a text from Poe’s Marginalia, a compendium of aphorisms and witty observations:

Here is a book of “amusing travels,” which is full enough of statistics to have been the joint composition of Messieurs Busching, Hassel, Cannabitch, Gaspari, Gutsmuth and company.

Eventually, Daniel says that he seriously doubts that Poe has read any of the authors on this list, and, what is more, he questions the very idea of Poe being well-read.  The only explanation Pagenstecher can produce is etym-based, no surprise here: bush, hussy, cunny & bitch etc.

to be continued


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Reading Zettel’s Traum: Week 25, pp. 301-314

Pagenstecher draws the Jacobis’ attention of  to the fact that Poe completely lacked planning when creating his works. What he did instead was “combinatorics” (not in the mathematical sense, of course). Also, one of Poe’s serious disadvantages was absence of any translation experience. Daniel relegates the American writer to the status of “sampler’ (Probierer), saying that he had never reached the level of “a genius tinkerer” the way James Joyce did.

After briefly talking about Poe’s favourite word “gorgeous” and his relationship with Roma people, Pagenstecher recounts to his audience how on one occasion dust from the Sahara desert ended up falling in his neighbourhood along with snow. A mixture of quartz and limestone particles had been carried all the way from Africa to Germany by the sirocco wind. Daniel points out that the earliest mention of the hot wind coming from the Sahara is to be found in Muslim geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi’s famous treatise Al Rojari or Tabula Rogeriana.

Daniel and Franziska again part ways with the spouses, as Pagenstecher wants to make a brief detour to pick up a white stone for his cottage land. The separation is marked by the division of the main text into two columns. At some point the man and the girl decide to take a rest. They sit down, and, at Franziska’s urging, Daniel returns to the subject of the hollow earth. As you might remember this concept has already been discussed previously in connection with Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.


Mattia Preti, Saint Paul the Hermit

Pagenstecher is happy to oblige. In his own words, the hollow earth is a “literary Rundling“. He borrows this metaphor from the typical German circular villages characteristic of the early medieval period. He briefly mentions various literary and mythological sources exploring this idea, and even quotes from St. Jerome’s The Life of Paul, the First Hermit (his source is Joseph  Görres’ Die Christliche Mystik, a series of saints’ biographies). The quoted passage recounts how Paul of Thebes discovers a mountain cave that turns out to be a secret mint. Daniel also mentions the 18th century mining engineering professor Johann Gottfried Steinhäuser who came up with the quirky idea that in the hollow of the earth there was an orbiting planetoid which he intermittently called Minos, Minerva, or Apollo. In the course of his lecture, Daniel inevitably transitions from the hollows in the earth to the hollows in the human body, and from there to the Freudian hypotheses about infant sexuality and the wish to return to the mother’s uterus. An etym-based example of the latter is drawn from Poe’s The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Sheherazade in which there is a description of an immense cave footnoted by the author as “The Mammoth Cave of Kentucky”. Pagenstecher interprets this name in the following way: “>Mammas + cave + cunt + tuck=tack=(tictac)<“.

However, besides the openings in the earth, and the human body, adds Pagenstecher, there are also hollows in the human unconscious that hoard numerous images inherited from the previous generations. That’s already the Jungian archetypes he is talking about. According to Daniel, the Extended Mind Game (Längere Gedankenspiel) is inseparable from the notion of the Underworld or the Kingdom of the Dead. Their conversation is interrupted by the appearance of a fat hare that doesn’t seem to be scared of them. This triggers a longish quotation from  Acta Sanctorum,  a compendium of saints’ biographies, in which the story of the Blessed Oringa is recounted. Most pertinent to the situation is her encounter with a friendly hare that saved her life when she was wandering in a dark forest. Then they see a man with a walking stick dressed in a green jacket and brown trousers. It is none other than Arno Schmidt whom they have already met before. The man with the stick stops near the uncommonly frightless hare that doesn’t even move, and shaking his head says that the most humane way of dealing with the animal would be to smash its head with the stick. When the man is gone, Franziska flies into a rage at the cruel words of the stranger. Pagenstecher, however, defends the passerby’s opinion as the hare is doomed anyway: it must be suffering from highly contagious rabbit haemorrhagic disease, which is why it is so unabashed in the first place. Shortly afterwards, Daniel and Franziska are reunited with Wilma and Paul.

The ensuing conversation touches upon the enumeration of different animals in Julius Rodman, with the attendant etym-analysis. They also talk about the cavern/tavern in the same novel whose “dismal appearance” leads Pagenstecher to the etym “di=smell”, i.e. a smell that is produced twice. As they are approaching Daniel’s cottage, the conversation turns towards the topic of plants and their equal rights with humans. This eccentric notion owes its emergence to Daniel’s reading Kurd Lasswitz’s science fiction novel Sternentau: die Pflanze vom Neptunsmond (Star Dew: the Plant of Neptune’s Moon) which philosophically examines the relationship between human beings and plants through the story of an extraterrestrial plant on earth.

Our literary quartet finally reaches Pagenstecher’s house, and this concludes the third part of Zettel’s Traum.

to be continued

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Reading Zettel’s Traum: Week 24, pp. 281-300

First off, an important correction: I was gravely mistaken about the meaning of the word “gall” (Galle) discussed in the previous installment of my read. As it turns out, it is a botanical term denoting an abnormal, usually ball-like excrescence on a plant caused by various parasitic insects. Pagenstecher mentions the widespread phenomenon of “jumping galls” when the infested  spheres of plant tissue fall from the trees to the ground and start jumping as if having an uncanny life of their own. In reality, it is just baby insects, such as gall-forming wasps Neuroterus saltatoriusfrantically beating inside these balls. Daniel brands the relationship between the animal parasites and their host plants as Unzucht (an unnatural sexual act), the word which is usually used when referring to sodomy or bestiality.

The theme of  Poe’s plagiarism or literary borrowings, if we don’t want to be as harsh as Pagenstecher, is reintroduced and explored at some length. This time Daniel demonstrates to his audience how Poe used The Journals of Lewis and Clarke in Julius Rodman.  The said journals document the exploratory expedition through the uncharted north-western territories of the US commissioned by Thomas Jefferson after the Louisiana purchase. Besides that, Pagenstecher also points out Poe’s indebtedness to Washington Irving’s Astoria or Enterprise beyond the Rocky Mountains, an official history of the Astor Expedition whose goal was the establishment of a fur-trading post at the mouth of the Columbia River. In Daniel’s opinion, the text of Julius Rodman should be regarded as a cento on account of  its numerous borrowings.


Hieronymus Bosch, Saint Christopher Carrying the Christ Child

The ironic and self-conscious revisiting of the legend of Saint Christopher is triggered off when Franziska complains of being too tired to walk further and Pagenstecher goes on to carry the girl on his shoulders. The girl even wonders if she isn’t too heavy for Daniel. As she later confesses, her weight is at least “42 Cúlo” (a pun on “kilo” and the Spanish word  for “ass”).  While riding Pagenstecher, Franziska recalls a scene from The Fifth Voyage of Sinbad in which the Old Man of the Sea in a similar fashion climbs the sailor’s shoulders and by twisting his legs tightly around the poor man’s neck makes him his captive. Sinbad has to serve as the Old Man’s mount for several weeks until contriving to get his captor drunk on wine and killing him.

A lengthy quotation form William Rhind’s 19th century botanical treatise A History of the Vegetable Kingdom provides an account of insects “impregnating” plants — another example of Unzucht across the species.

Paul recounts two recent dreams, and Daniel gladly takes the part of the interpreter predictably resorting to Freudian concepts and etym-analysis. Wilma is outraged by the content of her husband’s dreams:  he makes as if to slap her, pushes her into the river and even lashes her with his trouser belt. Pagenstecher, however, maintains that these dreams are evidence of Paul’s unconditional love and passion towards his wife.

Pagenstecher teaches Franziska the word game Doublets invented by Lewis Carroll. The idea is to change the start word into the end word (often with an opposite meaning) by successively altering one letter of each word in the chain leading to the final transformation. For example this is how Carroll changes “poor” to “rich”:  POOR – BOOR – BOOK – ROOK – ROCK – RICK – RICH. In the right-hand margin, next to the dialogue between Franziska and Daniel, it is demonstrated how the word “head” is changed into “tail” in five steps. Is Arno Schmidt poking fun at the reader struggling to make head or tail of Zettel’s Traum?

Pagenstecher tells Wilma about the importance of drawing distinction between the action in the book (Handlung) and the Extended Mind Game (see Week 18 of my ZT read). In comparison to ordinary people, the EMG aspect of the artist is hypertrophied.  Thus it would be wrong to separate the author from his or her text. Poe himself expresses a similar idea in a series of critical articles named The Literati of New York City:

The supposition that the book of an author is a thing apart from the author’s self, is, I think, ill-founded. The soul is a cipher, in the sense of a cryptograph; and the shorter a cryptograph is, the more difficulty there is in its comprehension; at a certain point of brevity it would bid defiance to an army of Champollions.

The discussion around the psychoanalytical interpretation of the bodies of water in Poe’s tales as stand-ins for urination briefly touches upon the famous Seven Sisters waterfall in the Geiranger Fjord, Norway, and the possible significance of its name. According to Wilma, one would have to be utterly mad if the first image that came to his mind when observing this majestic waterfall was seven pissing giantesses.

to be continued

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