The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus 
by Johann Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, translated by Mike Mitchell.
Dedalus, 433 pp., £13.99, April 2017, 978 1 903517 42 0
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Hans​ Grimmelshausen’s Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus, first published in 1668, is one of the great picaresque novels. Like Cervantes and Hašek, Grimmelshausen invented a naive, feckless hero with a guileless yet lovable persona whose innocent wisdom shows up the folly of the world around him. Simplicissimus comes to symbolise sanity in a depraved, degenerate Europe torn apart by the Thirty Years’ War, and the novel, besides being funny, was German Baroque literature’s most powerful plea for peace.

Grimmelshausen, though, shunned the fame he deserved, concealing his identity behind several whimsical pseudonyms. Many of them were anagrams of his name – like German Schleifheim von Sulsfort and Samuel Greiffnsohn vom Hirschfeld. It was only in 1837, 150 years after the novel first appeared, that the scholar Heinrich Kurz showed that its author must have been Hans Jacob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen – but identifying him didn’t get us very far. There’s not a lot of documentary evidence concerning him, and he systematically set out to mislead his readers. His description of the Battle of Wittstock in 1636, at which he was long thought to have fought, was derived, it has now been shown, almost verbatim from a passage in Sidney’s Arcadia. Literary historians, most notably Gustav Könnecke, had to check his writing against archival sources in order to ascertain basic facts.

He was probably born in 1621 or 1622 in Gelnhausen, a poor Lutheran town near Hanau in Hessen, 25 miles east of Frankfurt. We can be sure that he attended the local grammar school, and that he witnessed the execution of a local potter for sorcery near his grandfather’s house on 1 August 1633. Könnecke found out that after the destruction of his home town by Swedish troops in 1635, the 14-year-old Grimmelshausen was kidnapped by Croatian mercenaries along with several other children. His family was too poor to pay the ransom. He was present at the siege, sack and massacre of Magdeburg in 1631: of 30,000 citizens only 5000 survived, and for 14 days afterwards, charred bodies were dumped in the River Elbe to prevent the spread of disease. It seems likely that he joined the regiment of Baron Hans Reinhard von Schauenburg, in which he rose through the ranks as a musketeer, before launching his career as a writer. He became an assistant to the chancellery, composing reports for the commander in chief, Duke Elector Maximilian I of Bavaria, and in 1648 was appointed secretary in the regiment of Colonel von Elter.

In his story Springinsfeld (1670), he recounts one of his military campaigns, a series of sieges and battles from Augsburg to Landshut and Vilshofen. He appears to have converted to Catholicism, but never made much of his religion. In July 1649, a year after the Peace of Westphalia, he resigned and married Katharina Henninger in Offenburg. They had ten children. In the years that followed he earned his living in various lowly administrative posts; these gave him an insight into the agrarian economy but didn’t pay well. He also kept an inn for a time. In 1667, he became the mayor of a little village called Renchen (today a small city of 7300 inhabitants). While in this role he was also employed by the prince-bishop of Strasbourg, one of the leading allies of Louis XIV in the Reich. This made trouble for him in 1673 when, with the bishop’s connivance, French troops invaded the Upper Rhine. Grimmelshausen repeatedly had to protect his peasants from the harsh taxes the French imposed, and was finally driven to arms yet again, this time to defend his homeland from the invaders. He died amid the confusion of war at the age of 55 on 17 August 1676.

The German 17th century witnessed one of the great flowerings of European literature. In poetry, drama and fiction, writers followed the new formal rules laid down by the Silesian poet Martin Opitz in his Buch von der Teutschen Poetery (1624) and brought about a national literary revival. They wrote in a vivid and dynamic style, with larger than life characters and supernatural occurrences. But the rhetorical flourishes that worked well for drama and poetry didn’t suit prose, and many of the novels from the period, such as Daniel Caspar von Lohenstein’s Arminius (1689-90), which runs to three thousand pages, are irredeemably dull. Grimmelshausen’s idea was to get rid of the rhetoric and substitute it with the realist style of earlier German chapbooks, the most popular of which was Faust (1587). Unlike his peers he managed to create plausible characters, and his earliest forays, Satyrischer Pilgram (Satyrical Pilgrim, 1666-67) and Exempel der unveränderlicher Vorsehung Gottes (Example of the Unchangeable Providence of God, 1666), anticipate his magnum opus in showing ‘what a terrible and gruesome monster is war.’

Grimmelshausen reported that he was inspired to start writing Simplicissimus by an etching he found in an inn as a young musketeer. He had gone into the inn hoping to find some fun with a local girl, but was struck by a picture on the wall of a ‘topsy-turvy world’; the image apparently prompted him to ‘see through the world’s follies’. He began reading in earnest, borrowing books from priests and studying in monastic libraries until he acquired an encyclopaedic knowledge. Luther’s works, the basis of German literary style for many years, formed the bedrock of his art. Simplicissimus is full of allusion and recondite data: the Bible, medicine, astrology, geography, science, dietetics, climatology, magic, Rosicrucian lore and mysticism, wisdom literature and ancient history are all points of reference. Yet his pithy, earthy style ensures that the tale proceeds at a zipping pace. It was an instant success and quickly went through several editions. He produced a handful of sequels, beginning with the Continuatio (Continuation, 1669) and Die Landstörzerin Courasche (Runagate Courasche, 1670), the source for Brecht’s Mother Courage.

Simplicissimus was the first ever war novel. Few of the genre’s later exponents, such as Barbusse, Remarque, Waugh and Faulkner, knew it directly, but they followed its formula, fusing an autobiographical perspective with fiction in order to debunk the glory of war. The pathos of battle is translated into bathos. Only Jacques Callot’s picture cycle Les Grandes Misères de la guerre, which appeared fifty years earlier, can match it for ferocity. Grimmelshausen brilliantly captures the brutality of warfare, the pillage, rape, plunder, torture, hanging, rapine and incineration. ‘Simple’ (as his German fans affectionately call him) is a victim of the violence who profits from it too. He is forced from home at the age of ten by a band of marauding cuirassiers, who torture his ‘Da’ and burn down the family house, but is rescued by a hermit who teaches him the Lord’s Prayer and shows him how to read and write. He becomes a page with the Swedish commandant in Hanau, who keeps him as his fool. Having been press-ganged into joining the Croatian horsemen he switches sides, joining the imperial army at Magdeburg just before its destruction. He escapes with the dragoons, becomes a dragoon himself, then achieves notoriety as the ‘Hunter of Soest’, a feared assassin. At his lowest he becomes a marauder for hire, robbing, stealing and killing to order. He doesn’t conceal his worst deeds from the reader, as when he cheats against an opponent in a duel:

Before I could see the whites of his eyes I took aim and burnt off the priming powder on the pan lid. My opponent, assuming my musket had misfired and the touch-hole would be blocked, charged straight at me, pistol in hand, all too eager to make me pay for my presumption. Before he realised what was happening, I had uncovered the pans and fired again, stopping him dead in his tracks.

Closely observed details give the novel a feeling of horrific authenticity. Eventually, Simple escapes to Paris then embarks on a pilgrimage across the known world. He travels to Korea, Japan, Constantinople and Rome, before returning to the Black Forest and becoming a hermit: ‘Farewell, world, there is no trust nor hope in you.’ The Continuatio takes the tale a step further, landing Simple on a remote island – fifty years before Robinson Crusoe – and cutting him off from the world completely. The echoes of Ecclesiastes, a text frequently alluded to in German Baroque literature, are unmistakable: ‘Farewell, world, for in you nothing lasts: tall towers are struck by lightning, mills swept away by flood, wood is eaten up by worms.’

The book’s sense of humour balances the horrors and sordid realities that would otherwise be overwhelming. The title epigram reads: ‘It suited me to tell the truth with laughter.’ A range of comic techniques are used, from satire and irony, situation comedy and farce, to wordplay, slapstick and black humour. Much of the fun comes from Simple’s unworldliness. He is instructed by his father to beware of wild wolves, but mistakes a hermit for a wolf. Anticipating Papageno in The Magic Flute, he inquires: ‘What kind of things are they, “people” and “village”?’ The novel is written in the first person, the voice of the older Simple telling his tale, but the reader also senses a controlling consciousness, a secondary narrator with a wry and compassionate viewpoint who directs the comedy. Humour often colours the military scenes: when Simple and his troops ambush a party of dragoons, one of them ‘bellows like an ox’ and Simple absurdly claims to have captured 17 men and a total of 24 horses. But the laughter turns to disgust when he continues: ‘I could not afford the time to rob the dead.’

The novel fell out of favour during the Enlightenment, but the Romantics rediscovered it and it became a popular example of ‘German’ culture in the eyes of figures like the Brothers Grimm. It has remained in the canon ever since. Goethe was grudging: ‘There’s a lot of poetry in the book, but no taste.’ For Ludwig Tieck, the translator of Don Quixote, it contained the essence of Romanticism, because ‘it represents the whole of human life.’ But the lyric poet Joseph von Eichendorff, whose ‘Moonlit Night’ was set to music by Schumann, grasped it best: ‘Simple is a faithful, poetic fellow, a representative of the people … and it’s a joy to see how the author knows how to overcome this bestial world with humour.’ The book provided one of the sources for his own picaresque fairy tale, The Diary of a Good-for-Nothing (1826), which has a lovable hero who shares Simple’s charming naivety. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the novel’s more violent aspects were addressed, notably by Thomas Mann, who in 1944 called it ‘colourful, wild, crude, amusing, amorous … boiling over with life and death … and immortal in the splendour of its sins’. Following Mann’s assessment, Günter Grass used Simplicissimus as the model for The Tin Drum. Even the cover drawing Grass did of the dwarf-like Oskar Matzerath beating his outsize toy recalls Grimmelshausen’s frontispiece. Today, thanks to Grass’s homage, Simplicissimus is more highly regarded than ever.

Simplicissimus has been well served in English. At least eight translations have appeared to date. An expurgated edition, translated by A.T.S. Goodrick, was published in 1912. It has an antiquarian feel, but reads more like a Victorian novel than a German Baroque one. The best edition, which came out in 1964 from John Calder and was translated by Helmuth Weissenborn and Lesley Macdonald, brought the book up to date. Mike Mitchell’s new one is the raciest and most readable of all, the one most likely to appeal to a contemporary reader. But there are problems. The author’s name is wrong on the cover and the title page. (Hans was sometimes an abbreviation for Johann, but it was also a name in its own right and Grimmelshausen’s anagrams suggest it was the one he used himself.) The title isn’t given in full. The introductory epigram is left out. The author’s playful afterword has been dropped. The Continuation doesn’t appear, on the fallacious grounds that it does ‘not contribute at all to the vision of the original novel’. Readability is bought at the expense of style: the mix of earthiness and erudition that puts the novel in the company of Lucian, Juvenal, Swift and Sterne is jettisoned. The absence of proper editorial matter is regrettable too: the translator doesn’t even say which editions he worked from.

The Thirty Years’ War represents an ‘unclean world’, from which Simple ultimately seeks meaningful release. He explores every field, from mathematics to hieroglyphics, but concludes that religion provides the answer. He envisages a form of Anabaptism quite unlike Grimmelshausen’s own faith:

I came to the conclusion that there is no better subject than theology if you make use of it to love and serve God. Following its guidelines I worked out a way of life which could bring men closer to the angels: if, namely, you brought together a group of men and women, both married and single, who, under the direction of a wise leader, were willing like the Anabaptists to produce everything they needed by the work of their own hands and spend the rest of their time praising God and seeking salvation.

Given the likelihood of persecution by both Catholics and Protestants such a group could not have existed for long – the proposal is just another example of Simple’s unworldliness. Though he is attracted to the life of the Essenes, his plan to live like them fails because he can’t find enough like-minded folk. He realises that ‘only inconstancy is constant,’ which causes him to abandon the world, live in solitude and become a hermit. Finally, Simple finds peace.

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