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All ID Reviews by Cooper Renner

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Translations from the German:

W.G. Sebald
On the Natural History of Destruction
Modern Library, 2004

Jeffrey L. Sammons, ed.
German Novellas of Realism: Volume One
Continuum, 1989

Eduard Mörike
Mozart's Journey to Prague and a Selection of Poems
Penguin, 2003

Hans Erich Nossack
The Impossible Proof
Farrar Straus Giroux, 1968

Martin Walser
Runaway Horse
Holt Rinehart Winston, 1980

Gustav Janouch
Conversations with Kafka
Derek Verschoyle, 1953 (now available from New Directions)

Joseph Roth
The Spider's Web and Zipper and His Father
Tusk/Overlook, 2003

On my most recent trip to Booked Up, Larry McMurtry's enormous rare and used book store in Archer City, Texas, one of my intentions was to look for some of the authors discussed by W.G. Sebald in On the Natural History of Destruction (Modern Library, 2004). Sebald's title points toward something he considered an oddity: the general failure of German post-war literature to deal with the destruction of German cities during World War II. The authors Sebald writes about are by definition contemporary or near-contemporary writers, but I was also on the lookout for a few nineteenth-century authors, sparked by stumbling across a Penguin edition of Eduard Mörike's Mozart's Journey to Prague when I was traveling in Malta earlier this year.

The authors Sebald writes about are by definition contemporary or near-contemporary writers, but I was also on the lookout for a few nineteenth-century authors. . .

I finally ended up buying the Mörike novella, after returning to the States, in German Novellas of Realism: Volume One, edited by Jeffrey L. Sammons and published in the Continuum series called "The German Library". Here the novella is translated as Mozart on the Way to Prague (by Walter and Catherine Alison Philips), a version first published in a separate edition in the 1940s. Whether this translation is a more accurate reflection of Mörike's 19th-century German or is, rather, stilted by the literary tone of the '40s, I do not know, but reading it is not as pleasurable an experience as reading David Luke's newer translation published by Penguin. The Philips version begins, for example, "In the fall of the year 1787 Mozart set out on a journey to Prague in company with his wife, there to produce Don Giovanni," where Luke has, more colloquially, "In the autumn of 1787 Mozart, accompanied by his wife, travelled to Prague, where he was to stage the first production of Don Giovanni." Luke's version requires more words, but flows better and sounds more "natural". Likewise, Mozart's first dialogue in the story sounds quaint in Philips: " 'Through how many forests,' remarked Mozart, 'have we not already passed today, yesterday and the day before!' " Luke, on the other hand, gives us a version which might easily have been written originally in English: " 'I wonder,' said Mozart, 'how many woods we've passed through, today and yesterday and the day before yesterday!' " After reading a few pages of Philips, one accustoms oneself to the stilt and reads without hindrance, but the Luke is certainly more inviting. In either case, however, the story is a charming one, an idyll of a sort, of no consequence, one might say, at all. Making a halt in their journey, Mozart's wife remains at the inn to settle in while Mozart goes for a walk in the garden of a local nobleman. Seeing an orange tree, certainly a rarity in this climate, Mozart begins to reminisce and unthinkingly picks one of the oranges and cuts into it. The lord's gardener catches him and insists on making a report to his employer of the "theft." And thus begins Mörike's light-hearted exploration of Mozart's entanglement with the noble's family.

While Luke's translation is clearly superior to the Philipses's as a piece of reading material, one might still want to purchase the Continuum volume for the other novellas it contains (not all of which I read, to be sure). Certainly Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's The Jew's Beech is an interesting depiction, with Gothic overtones, of the lives of a rural woman and her ne'er-do-well son in the "hills of Westphalia" a couple of centuries ago. Franz Grillparzer's "The Poor Musician" is, in its writing style, not at all unconventional for its era, but the central idea of a man devoting himself to music, though he apparently has no talent at all, seems practically existential.

I had, then, several authors in mind as I browsed McMurtry's shelves of German literature in English translation. While I had no luck with some of them, I wandered into other books as I browsed the shelves and finally came away with Hans Erich Nossack's The Impossible Proof, Martin Walser's Runaway Horse, Gustav Janouch's Conversations with Kakfa, Joseph Roth's The Spider's Web and Zipper and His Father, and another Continuum volume, Complete Works and Letters of Georg Büchner.

Nossack's novel is a Beckettian story of a man on trial after the disappearance of his wife during a freak snowstorm. As the brief introduction tells us, however, the trial takes place only in the protagonist's mind, with himself as prosecutor, defendant and judge. Interesting enough, but hardly essential reading in my estimation.

Much more satisfactory is Walser's Runaway Horse, a book which is almost wholly fine.

Much more satisfactory is Walser's Runaway Horse, a book which is almost wholly fine. In summary it sounds like nothing so much as a conventional story of, and for, aging readers: two school friends who long ago lost touch meet up again while both are vacationing with their wives. One would qualify in contemporary American terms as one of those confident, athletic few, fighting off middle age successfully, with a second, younger, "trophy" wife. The other, through whose eyes we observe the story, is much more "normal" and, in fact, has to be prodded before he even remembers this friend from so far into the past.

What makes the book remarkable is not its subject matter--which at one point Walser comes very close to losing control of--but its writing: brisk, pert, vivid. "He dreamed he was turning over in his coffin and that, in spite of the complete darkness, he sensed that one side of the coffin was missing. This impression was so vivid that one of his hands began to grope toward the side that seemed to be missing. Sure enough, it wasn't there. Immediately, an upward movement followed, faster now. The coffin lid was there. But where the side was missing his hand kept groping apprehensively. It touched a step. He had to push himself up and came to lie on the step outside the coffin. He mustn't stay there. Involuntarily he rolled down the other side of the step and lay where he landed. But now he realized that he was in a hall from which it was possible to get out. This suited him. He knew he would emerge into daylight, among people. And he knew there was only one condition: if even a single person recognizes you, it's all over, forever. He woke up in terror and thought: the new life."

Joseph Roth's The Spider's Web is entirely different. Equally brief, but journalistically restrained and emotionally detached, it looks directly into the conditions which allowed (maybe even encouraged) otherwise nondescript men like its central character Theodor Lohse to sign on to Nazism. Perhaps even more remarkable than the book's nimble and "cold" depiction of Lohse's inhumanity are both its sharp insight into the double- and triple-crossing the characters carry out against each other and the fact that Roth died in 1939: he "saw" and wrote about what was going on in Nazi Germany almost as it was happening.

[I]t looks directly into the conditions which allowed (maybe even encouraged) otherwise nondescript men like its central character Theodor Lohse to sign on to Nazism.

Gustav Janouch's Conversations with Kafka is exactly what the title says: a collection of brief anecdotes in which Janouch, as a young man, engaged in conversation with Kafka. These contacts took place in the last few years of Kafka's life and reveal a perhaps surprisingly kindly, open and self-deprecating man, well aware of the approach of his death. The humanity and friendliness of the middle-aged Kafka toward the young Janouch, who also wants to be a writer, measurably expand one's sense of the renowned author.

I haven't seriously dipped into the Büchner volume yet, and I find myself singularly unimpressed with Roth's Zipper and His Father, which I probably won't finish. But I recommend any of these other titles, most of which can be read in a couple of hours or even less. As for what's next on the translation reading front, I'm not sure: maybe, shifting languages, the new version of War and Peace, or maybe, just maybe, a bit of Goethe. Wilhelm Meister, anyone?

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About Cooper

Cooper Renner edits the online magazine elimae and is an associate editor with Ravenna Press, for whom he is now working with Kim Chinquee and Daryl Scroggins on their fiction collections, scheduled for publication in 2008.


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