The Art of Arno Schmidt

Michael Irwin

  • Evening Edged in Gold by Arno Schmidt
    Marion Boyars, 215 pp, £60.00, September 1980, ISBN 0 7145 2719 X
  • Confessions of a Lady-Killer by George Stade
    Muller, 374 pp, £6.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 584 31057 9
  • Seahorse by Graham Petrie
    Constable, 169 pp, £5.95, August 1980, ISBN 0 09 463710 5

The reviewer of fiction can pretty easily acquire enough second-hand information to enable him to imply easy familiarity with the oeuvre of a writer he has only infrequently encountered. There can even be a temptation to go a step further, by seeming to assume that this knowledge will be common to all cultivated people. In the case of Arno Schmidt I am tempted towards no such subterfuges, partly because my ignorance of the man and his work, prior to my reading of Evening Edged in Gold, was total, partly because I imagine numerous other potential British readers will be in a similar position.

Any such doubts are likely to be reinforced by the price of this translation: at 25p to the page it would appear to be something less than a snip. But this is an unusual piece of book production as well as an unusual piece of fiction. In size and shape it resembles a paving-stone. The text is a reproduced typescript each page of which, depending on the spacing, runs to 60 or 90 lines, with at least twenty words to the line. In terms of pounds per word the cost seems much more reasonable. On the other hand, the singularity of the format makes for tiring reading, merely in physical terms. The eye cannot flicker vertically down the centre of the page, as with the orthodox book, but must make a separate excursion along each extensive line. And this difficulty is compounded by numerous radical eccentricities of layout spelling, style and punctuation. In particular, the narrative is frequently set out in two, or even three, columns, to denote simultaneous happenings, while additional boxes interpolate illustration or commentary, usually in the form of quotations. The mind, again in quasi-mechanical terms, is kept as busy as the eye.

The fantastical story, which emerges slowly and indistinctly, is told in dramatic form, with dialogue and stage-directions, and comprises 55 scenes. It shows how a household of elderly people is disrupted by the visit of a swarm of goatish hippies en route for the new world, where they plan to establish a settlement. The hippies camp beside the house for a couple of days during which the generality occupy themselves with copulation, defecation and grotesque variants of these activities. They are led, however, by an ascetic 20-year-old girl named Ann‘Ev’, who appears to be a visionary with supernatural powers. Her two henchmen are the Bastard Marwenne, a giant, physically and priapically, and a sketchily-drawn trickster named Egg. The householders are fascinated and appalled by the anties of their visitors. Least influenced of the six is Major Fohrbach, a legless bibliophile. His wife, Grete, and their housekeeper, Asta, enthusiastically invite seduction by Marwenne and Egg, respectively, and join the party when it resumes its journey across the world. Grete’s senile brother Olmers goes with them, in thrall to the sexual ingenuities of an 11-year-old. The two remaining residents are moved not to just but to love. The Fohrbachs’ teenage step-daughter, Martina, becomes deeply attached to Ann‘Ev’, confiding to her various hopes and fears, notably her passion for a boy named Martin, whom she sees on the train going to school. Through the agency of Ann ‘Ev’ the two are blissfully united. The other elderly gentleman in the house. A&O, a distinguished writer suffering from heart disease, and a character who seems to represent the author himself (who was 60 when he began to write the book in 1974 and who died last year), falls in love with Ann‘Ev’, and with her pays a brief visit to a mysterious spirit world before she leaves him for ever. The two love stories are closely, even solipsistically, linked. Martin wants to be a writer: a notable interpolation in the novel is a fragment of poetic narrative by him that Martina submits to A&O for the latter’s approval. A&O sees promise in the work, and undertakes to advise or help the boy – whose name is Schmidt.

To pick out the ‘story’ in this way is to give a false emphasis, since much of the novel consists of lengthy conversations that have virtually no bearing on the events and relationships I have summarised. The old people, obsessed by books and ideas, love to discourse about youth, age, sex, religion, politics, psychology, the state of the world. Two recurring topics seem to be central to the meaning of the novel. The householders take a bleak view of the future: A&O sees himself as one of the last representatives of a dying cultural tradition. Despite the affectionate presentation of Martina, and, at one remove, of Martin, the author seems to fear and despise the younger generation. Among other things, his novel is a rich compendium of allusions to and quotations from the works of scores of European writers, whether of poetry or of prose. Schmidt was a polyglot and a scholar, and is here concerned to celebrate the richness of his knowledge. He asks whether this heritage is to be thrown away.

The other main theme is explicitly Freudian in origin. Through his characters Schmidt argues that there are several levels of personality, each with its own needs and aspirations, its own modes of expression. It follows that truth must be multiple to take account of this plurality. The flimsiness of most of the characters in the novel suggests that each is designed to speak for one ‘level’ alone. Olmers and the Major, if less obviously than A&O, may represent aspects of Schmidt.

The Freudian theory also has implications for the style of the work. Since for most readers of Evening Edged in Gold the author’s style is likely to be overwhelmingly the most potent source of pleasure or of irritation, it seems necessary to quote extensively and to analyse. Unfortunately the prose is idiosyncratic to such a degree that it isn’t possible to employ both these procedures within a review: each sentence generates too much commentary. But here is a fragment of complaint from A&O:

M = m. Young folks = nowadays – and whole movements too, à la Marxism – ’r enemies a tradition. And We for our = part’r strangers n the realms a modern art & the temper a the times.

If the mannerism is to be justified, one must assume that each slight oddity of orthography or punctuation contributes some fleck of significance. It wouldn’t be hard to devise an explanation for the ‘=’ between ‘folks’ and ‘nowadays’, or for the capitalisation of ‘We’. But equally it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that either of these effects was the result of a misprint. There is no obvious consistency in details of this kind. The word ‘and’ may be so spelt, or it may be reduced to ‘n’, or, as here, it may be represented by an ampersand. Some abbreviated words carry an apostrophe, some don’t. What is being said here is conventional enough: it is as though the author had taken a hint from Professor Gombrich and placed an orthodox picture behind warped glass to make it look ‘modern’ in its irregularity.

All the characters speak in the same idiom – as translated, a colloquial American idiom that doesn’t seem particularly relevant to any of them. Ann‘Ev’ remarks of a particularly loathsome hippie:

I shdn’t put up with Vulla: a vaginabond, she beats ev’ry = body out for the uncleanaliness award; (but among the boys ’r a few who like I get a hand = full a stincky butt-ermilk!)

In this case there is an additional mannerism, copiously employed throughout the text: the use of portmanteau neologisms in the tradition that James Joyce took over from Humpty Dumpty. The effectiveness of the device is more limited than is often allowed: it’s an easy trick to learn, and while the odd hit in this mode attracts praise, who keeps a tally of the numerous misses? But what would seem certain is that such effects are untranslatable. In general, John Woods’s translation seems to me a remarkable feat: he is endlessly ingenious, and has produced a marvellous range of styles to cope with the formidable range of quotations.

It is no accident that the second meaning of Schmidt’s portmanteau words is so frequently scabrous. He delights in pointing to double-entendre in the work of major writers, seeing it as the ‘subcon’ raising its hairy head. The Humpty Dumpty technique permits two levels of personality to speak simultaneously, as though striking a chord. In this way, and in others, art can mediate between man’s disparate powers and appetites. If there is any hope for the future it would seem to lie, in Schmidt’s view, in the transcendent power of the aesthetic impulse. Ann‘Ev’, in a striking scene, shrinks to diminutive size, climbs into a reproduction of Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’, talks to some of the figures there represented, and emerges bearing some fruit. In the same way (the suggestion seems to be), something precious may be retrieved by future generations from Evening Edged in Gold. If that is to be the case, such explorers had better broach the German version. Even in English this is a remarkable work – but remarkable as a compilation or collage rather than as a novel. The parts are not fused, imaginatively or stylistically.

Victor Grant, the narrator of Confessions of a Lady-Killer, is deserted by his wife after feminist friends raise her consciousness. He decides, reasonably enough, to murder the ringleaders in revenge. The early sections of the novel contain some lively satire against the wilder excesses of contemporary feminism, hitting the barn-door with confident frequency. But as the story develops the author hedges his bets. In his pursuit of revenge, Victor becomes a parodic representative of exaggerated masculinity, enacting the roles of strong man, hired assassin and private eye. The novel is not anti-feminist in any crude sense: it argues that the interdependence of the sexes is a necessary equilibrium not lightly to be tampered with. Victor makes many wise and humane observations on this theme. The wisdom and the decency, however, although admirable in themselves, lend to dilute and confuse what might have been a fine black comedy. ‘She was surprisingly strong for a dead woman,’ notes Victor, as he struggles to disengage himself from the clutches of his first victim. There are other contradictions in the book. The racy style of the narrative is at odds with Victor’s pains and his needs. Characters are made monstrous for satirical purposes and abruptly humanised when the going gets serious. There are also some over-extended farcical sequences in which the author gives the impression of treading water with furious energy. Like many other comie first novels, this one tries to be funny in too many ways, some of them incompatible.

Seahorse, also a first novel, is set in a mysterious seaside village in an unnamed country. The narrator moves as a baffled observer among the primitive residents learning of their strange superstitions, and of their fear of the nearby Institute, which many believe manufactures nightmares to impose upon the inhabitants. Certainly the narrator himself is plagued by cruel and haunting dreams as well as being disorientated by the baffling illogic of an environment in which ‘cause follows effect, answer precedes question, time is jumbled, fragmented, deconstructed.’ The local fishermen regularly compel him to join them in an incomprehensible card-game called ‘Seahorse’. He is increasingly bewildered as he comes upon cards which prove to represent scenes from his personal life, scenes from his nightmares, and even future encounters. He struggles to make sense of the patterns and correspondences he dimly glimpses, but finds himself more and more sucked into the life of the sinister and hostile community. This curious tale is told sparely and vividly. It generates a sequence of teasing, dreamlike images; and the surrealistic extravagances seem more than mere sport, since the narrator’s plight recalls more familiar dilemmas – most obviously, one’s everyday attempts to rationalise one’s own experiences, desires, hopes and fears.