Composed in 1836, Georg Büchner’s novella-fragment Lenz still seems ahead of its time. While Lenz’s themes of madness, art, and ennui can be found throughout literature, Büchner’s strange, wonderful prose and documentary aims bypass the constraints of his era.
Let me share some of that prose. Here is the opening paragraph of Lenz:
The 20th, Lenz walked through the mountains. Snow on the peaks and upper slopes, gray rock down into the valleys, swatches of green, boulders, firs. It was sopping cold, the water trickled down the rocks and leapt across the path. The fir boughs sagged in the damp air. Gray clouds drifted across the sky, but everything so stifling, and then the fog floated up and crept heavy and damp through the bushes, so sluggish, so clumsy. He walked onward, caring little one way or another, to him the path mattered not, now up , now down. He felt no fatigue, except sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head. At first he felt a tightening in his chest when the rocks skittered away, the gray woods below him shook, and the fog now engulfed the shapes, now half-revealed their powerful limbs; things were building up inside him, he was searching for something, as if for lost dreams, but was finding nothing. Everything seemed so small, so near, so wet, he would have liked to set the earth down behind an oven, he could not grasp why it took so much time to clamber down a slope, to reach a distant point; he was convinced he could cover it all with a pair of strides.
Büchner sets us on Lenz’s shoulder, moving us through the estranging countryside without any exposition that might lend us bearings. The environment impinges protagonist and reader alike, heavy, damp, stifling. Büchner’s syntax shuffles along, comma splices tripping us into Lenz’s manic consciousness, his mind-swings doubled in the path that is “now up, now down.” We feel the “tightening” in Lenz’s chest as the “rocks skittered away,” as the “woods below him shook” — the natural world seems to envelop him, cloak him, suffocate him. It’s an animist terrain, and Büchner divines those spirits again in the text. The claustrophobia Lenz experiences then swings to another extreme, as our hero, his consciousness inflated, feels “he could cover [the earth] with a pair of strides.
And that baffling line: “He felt no fatigue, except sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head.” Well.
The end notes to the Archipelago edition I read (translated by Richard Sieburth) offer Arnold Zweig’s suggestion that “this sentence marks the beginning of modern European prose,” as well as Paul Celan’s observation that “whoever walks on his head has heaven beneath him as an abyss.”
Celan’s description is apt, and Büchner’s story repeatedly invokes the abyss to evoke its hero’s precarious psyche. Poor Lenz, somnambulist bather, screamer, dreamer, often feels “within himself something . . . stirring and swarming toward an abyss toward which he was being swept by an inexorable force.” Lenz is the story of a young artist falling into despair and madness.
But perhaps I should offer a more lucid summary. I’ll do that in the next paragraph, but first: Let me just recommend you skip that paragraph. Really. What I perhaps loved most about Lenz was piecing together the plot through the often elliptical or opaque experiences we get via Büchner’s haunting free indirect style. The evocation of a consciousness in turmoil is probably best maintained when we read through the same confusion that Lenz experiences. I read the novella cold based on blurbs from William H. Gass and Harold Bloom and I’m glad I did.
Here is the summary paragraph you should skip: Jakob Lenz, a writer of the Sturm and Drung movement (and friend and rival to Goethe), has recently suffered a terrible episode of schizophrenia and “an accident” (likely a suicide attempt). He’s sent to pastor-physician J.F. Oberlin, who attends to him in the Alsatian countryside in the first few weeks of 1778. During this time Lenz obsesses over a young local girl who dies (he attempts to resurrect her), takes long walks in the countryside, cries manically, offers his own aesthetic theory, prays, takes loud late-night bath in the local fountain, receives a distressing letter, and, eventually, likely—although it’s never made entirely explicit—attempts suicide again and is thusly shipped away.
Büchner bases his story on sections of Oberlin’s diary, reproduced in the Archipelago edition. In straightforward prose, these entries fill in the expository gaps that Büchner has so elegantly removed and replaced with the wonder and dread of Lenz’s imagination. The diary’s lucid entries attest to the power of Büchner’s speculative fiction, to his own art and imagination, which so bracingly take us into a clouded mind.
In Sieburth’s afterword (which also offers a concise chronology of Lenz’s troubled life), our translator points out that “Like De Quincey’s “The Last Days of Immanuel Kant” or Chateaubriand’s Life of Rancé, Büchner’s Lenz is an experiment in speculative biography, part fact, part fabrication—an early nineteenth-century example of the modern genre of docufiction.” Obviously, any number of postmodern novels have explored or used historical figures—Public Burning, Ragtime, and Mason & Dixon are all easy go-to examples. But Lenz is more personal than these postmodern fictions, more an exploration of consciousness, and although we are treated to Lenz’s ideas about literature, art, and religion, we access this very much through his own skull and soul. He’s not just a placeholder or mouthpiece for Büchner.
Lenz strikes me as something closer to the docufiction of W.G. Sebald. Perhaps it’s all the ambulating; maybe it’s the melancholy; could be the philosophical tone. And, while I’m lazily, assbackwardly comparing Büchner’s book to writers who came much later: Thomas Bernhard. Maybe it’s the flights of rant that Lenz occasionally hits, or the madness, or the depictions of nature, or hell, maybe it’s those long, long passages. The comma splices.
Chronologically closer is the work of Edgar Allan Poe, whose depictions of manic bipolar depression resonate strongly with Lenz—not to mention the abysses, the torment, the spirits, the doppelgängers. Why not share another sample here to illustrate this claim? Okay:
The incidents during the night reached a horrific pitch. Only with the greatest effort did he fall asleep, having tried at length to fill the terrible void. Then he fell into a dreadful state between sleeping and waking; he bumped into something ghastly, hideous, madness took hold of him, he sat up, screaming violently, bathed in sweat, and only gradually found himself again. He had to begin with the simplest things in order to come back to himself. In fact he was not the one doing this but rather a powerful instinct for self preservation, it was as if he were double, the one half attempting to save the other, calling out to itself; he told stories, he recited poems out loud, wracked with anxiety, until he came to his sense.
Here, Lenz suspends his neurotic horror through storytelling and art—but it’s just that, only a suspension. Büchner doesn’t blithely, naïvely suggest that art has the power to permanently comfort those in despair; rather, Lenz repeatedly suggests that art, that storytelling is a symptom of despair.
What drives despair? Lenz—Lenz—Büchner (?)—suggests repeatedly that it’s Langeweile—boredom. Sieburth renders the German Langeweile as boredom, a choice I like, even though he might have been tempted to reach for its existentialist chain-smoking cousin ennui. When Lenz won’t get out of bed one day, Oberlin heads to his room to rouse him:
Oberlin had to repeat his questions at length before getting an answer: Yes, Reverend, you see, boredom! Boredom! O, sheer boredom, what more can I say, I have already drawn all the figures on the wall. Oberlin said to him he should turn to God; he laughed and said: if I were as lucky as you to have discovered such an agreeable pastime, yes, one could indeed wile away one’s time that way. Tedium the root of it all. Most people pray only out of boredom; others fall in love out of boredom, still others are virtuous or depraved, but I am nothing, nothing at all, I cannot even kill myself: too boring . . .
Lenz fits in neatly into the literature of boredom, a deep root that predates Dostoevsky, Camus, and Bellow, as well as contemporary novels like Lee Rourke’s The Canal and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.
Ultimately, the boredom Lenz circles around is deeply painful:
The half-hearted attempts at suicide he kept on making were not entirely serious, it was less the desire to die, death for him held no promise of peace or hope, than the attempt, at moments of excruciating anxiety or dull apathy bordering on non-existence bordering on non-existence, to snap back into himself through physical pain. But his happiest moments were when his mind seemed to gallop away on some madcap idea. This at least provided some relief and the wild look in his eye was less horrible than the anxious thirsting for deliverance, the never-ending torture of unrest!
The “never-ending torture of unrest” is the burden of existence we all carry, sloppily fumble, negotiate with an awkward grip and bent back. Büchner’s analysis fascinates in its refusal to lighten this burden or ponderously dwell on its existential weight. Instead, Lenz is a character study that the reader can’t quite get out of—we’re too inside the frame to see the full contours; precariously perched on Lenz’s shoulder, we have to jostle along with him, look through his wild eyes, gallop along with him on the energy of his madcap idea. The gallop is sad and beautiful and rewarding. Very highly recommended.
The Chums of Chance vs The Legion of Gnomes (Citation from + Riff on Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day)
At first the “noise” seemed no more than the ensemble of magnetoatmospheric disturbances which the boys had long grown used to, perhaps here intensified by the vastly resonant space into which they were moving ever deeper. But presently the emission began to coalesce into human timbres and rhythms—not speech so much as music, as if the twilit leagues passing below were linked by means of song.
Lindsay, who was Communications Officer, had his ear close to the Tesla device, squinting attentively, but at last withdrew, shaking his head. “Gibberish.”
“They are calling for help,” ~delared Miles, “clear as day and quite desperately, too. They claim to be under attack by a horde of hostile gnomes, and have set out red signal lamps, arranged in concentric circles.”
“There they are!” called Chick Counterfly, pointing over the starboard quarter.
“Then there is nothing to discuss,” declared Randolph St. Cosmo. “We must put down and render aid.”
They descended over a battlefield swarming with diminutive combatants wearing pointed hats and carrying what proved to be electric crossbows, from which they periodically discharged bolts of intense greenish light, intermittently revealing the scene with a morbidity like that of a guttering star.
“We cannot attack these fellows,” protested Lindsay, “for they are shorter than we, and the Rules of Engagement clearly state—”
“In an emergency, that choice lies at the Commander’s discretion,” replied Randolph.
They were soaring now close above the metallic turrets and parapets of a sort of castle, where burned the crimson lights of distress. Figures could be discerned below gazing up at the Inconvenience. Peering at them through a nightglass, Miles stood at the conning station, transfixed by the sight of a woman poised upon a high balcony. “My word, she’s lovely!” he exclaimed at last.
Their fateful decision to land would immediately embroil them in the byzantine politics of the region, and eventually they would find themselves creeping perilously close to outright violation of the Directives relating to Noninterference and Height Discrepancy, which might easily have brought an official hearing, and perhaps even disfellowshipment from the National Organization. For a detailed account of their subsequent narrow escapes from the increasingly deranged attentions of the Legion of Gnomes, the unconscionable connivings of a certain international mining cartel, the sensual wickedness pervading the royal court of Chthonica, Princess of Plutonia, and the all-but-irresistible fascination that subterranean monarch would come to exert, Circelike, upon the minds of the crew of Inconvenience (Miles, as we have seen, in particular), readers are referred to The Chums of Chance in the Bowels of the Earth—for some reason one of the less appealing of this series, letters having come in from as far away as Tunbridge Wells, England, expressing displeasure, often quite intense, with my harmless little intraterrestrial scherzo.
After their precipitate escape from the ill-disposed hordes of thickset indigenous, over another night and day, as time is reckoned on the surface, the Chums swept through the interior of the Earth and at last out her Northern portal, which they beheld as a tiny circle of brightness far ahead. As before, all remarked the diminished size of the planetary exit. It was a tricky bit of steering, as they emerged, to locate the exact spot, on the swiftly dilating luminous circumference, where they might with least expenditure of time find themselves in the vicinity of the schooner Etienne-Louis Malus, carrying the Vormance Expedition toward a fate few of its members would willingly have chosen.
1.The above citation comprises the final paragraphs of The Light Over the Ranges, the first book in Thomas Pynchon’s massive, byzantine novel Against the Day, which is perhaps too massive and too byzantine for me to approach in any way other way than the occasional riff and citation as I read it.
2. The Light Over the Ranges both begins and ends by focusing on The Chums of Chance, an intrepid band of adventurers who sail their skyship Inconvenience into every manner of trouble. The passage above—which, hey, don’t worry, there are no real spoilers there—-the passage above showcases a jocular, jaunty voice that Pynchon employs frequently throughout the book, a voice appropriate to pulp fiction, to serialized “boy’s novels,” to speculative fiction narratives, etc. The voice is somehow simultaneously engaged and detached, urging its listener to care about the heroes in peril, but also acknowledging its own formal artificiality, the flatness of its characters, their position as placeholders or checkerboard pieces in Pynchon’s big project.
3. The voice that relates the Chums of Chance episodes is wonderfully didactic, its earnest, moral tone buoying the narrative into adventure (and fun!); at the same time, everything else in the novel—its violence, its class warfare, its analysis of exploitation—-ensures that this voice is to be read and interpreted with dark irony.
4. And yet the spirit of adventure, of fun—of imagination—inheres (and not just in the episodes with the Chums).
5. The Chums of Chance: Miles Blundell, Chick Counterfly, Lindsay Noseworth, Darby Suckling, and commander Randolph St. Cosmo. The names are Pynchonian, tautologies be damned! (They also remind me of porn aliases). I am remiss: Let me include Pugnax, a dog of discerning literary taste, his ability to read just one of many seemingly-metaphysical powers Pynchon grants his characters in Against the Day.
6. My favorite paragraph in the above citation is the penultimate one, where we find our heroes “creeping perilously close to outright violation of the Directives relating to Noninterference and Height Discrepancy” by diving into a strange underworld adventure and battling The Legion of Gnomes. Pynchon (or Pynchon’s adventure-voice, if’n ya’ll permit me) offers us a too-brief peek at “the royal court of Chthonica, Princess of Plutonia, and the all-but-irresistible fascination that subterranean monarch would come to exert, Circelike, upon the minds of the crew of Inconvenience” and then refers us to The Chums of Chance in the Bowels of the Earth, a book we cannot read because it doesn’t exist.
7. But what am I saying? Of course The Chums of Chance in the Bowels of the Earth exists!—we just have to imagine it.
Prospective reading list for the summer.
First, I’ll finish Mikhaíl Bulgakov’s The Master & Margarita, not pictured here because I’m reading it on the Kindle. No new novels until I finish this novel! (Will break this rule).
I just finished another trip through Ulysses, again via audiobook plus tandem-rereading on the Kindle. I like big audiobooks (and I cannot lie), so I’ll get into Against the Day on mp3.
This weekend I read “The Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk,” the first story in a freshly translated collection from Nikolai Leskov. The Enchanted Wanderer is new in translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I’ll be reading it in chunks this summer.
Also: Matt Bell’s novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods.
And I still haven’t read Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts, so I’ll try to fix that this summer.
I also plan to read Evan Lavender-Smith’s Avatar, but I’d like to do it in one sitting, which means I need to free up a few hours.
Finally: Who knows. Reading lists are kind of ridiculous.
One is sometimes asked about the “obstacles” that confront young writers who are trying to do good work. I should say the greatest obstacles that writers today have to get over, are the dazzling journalistic successes of twenty years ago, stories that surprised and delighted by their sharp photographic detail and that were really nothing more than lively pieces of reporting. The whole aim of that school of writing was novelty—never a very important thing in art. They gave us, altogether, poor standards—taught us to multiply our ideas instead of to condense them. They tried to make a story out of every theme that occurred to them and to get returns on every situation that suggested itself. They got returns, of a kind. But their work, when one looks back on it, now that the novelty upon which they counted so much is gone, is journalistic and thin. The especial merit of a good reportorial story is that it shall be intensely interesting and pertinent today and shall have lost its point by tomorrow.
Art, it seems to me, should simplify. That, indeed, is very nearly the whole of the higher artistic process; finding what conventions of form and what detail one can do without and yet preserve the spirit of the whole—so that all that one has suppressed and cut away is there to the reader’s consciousness as much as if it were in type on the page. Millet had done hundreds of sketches of peasants sowing grain, some of them very complicated and interesting, but when he came to paint the spirit of them all into one picture, “The Sower,” the composition is so simple that it seems inevitable. All the discarded sketches that went before made the picture what it finally became, and the process was all the time one of simplifying, of sacrificing many conceptions good in themselves for one that was better and more universal.
Any first rate novel or story must have in it the strength of a dozen fairly good stories that have been sacrificed to it. A good workman can’t be a cheap workman; he can’t be stingy about wasting material, and he cannot compromise. Writing ought either to be the manufacture of stories for which there is a market demand—a business as safe and commendable as making soap or breakfast foods—or it should be an art, which is always a search for something for which there is no market demand, something new and untried, where the values are intrinsic and have nothing to do with standardized values. The courage to go on without compromise does not come to a writer all at once—nor, for that matter, does the ability. Both are phases of natural development. In the beginning the artist, like his public, is wedded to old forms, old ideals, and his vision is blurred by the memory of old delights he would like to recapture.
The Borzoi, 1920