Papa Hamlet (Book acquired, 20 Aug. 2021)

Papa Hamlet is kind of a weird one. This is the first time Arno Holz and Johannes Schlaf’s collaborative 1889 German novel has appeared in English, thanks to translator James J. Conway and publisher Rixdorf Editions. Here’s their blurb:

Adultery, vulgarity, disordered lives on the brink of collapse: the feverish existence of failed actor Niels Thienwiebel shocked German readers when Papa Hamlet was first published in 1889. In declaiming the soliloquies of his most famous role, ‘the great Thienwiebel’ finds delusional refuge from the squalid room he shares with despondent wife Amalie and infant son Fortinbras. But it was the radical style as much as the moral outrage of this novella that so confounded contemporaries. Reflecting their own bohemian Berlin milieu, Arno Holz and Johannes Schlaf showed the dream of the self-authored life turning to nightmare through apathy and self-absorption. Originally credited to a fabricated Norwegian writer, Papa Hamlet signalled the explosive arrival of Naturalism while also pointing ahead to Modernism; its appropriations, irony and play of identity even foretold Postmodernism. Appearing for the first time in English, it is teamed here with an early incarnation of the same narrative by Schlaf alongside further collaborations with Holz. Together their fearless candour and anarchic ingenuity reveal another side to German Naturalism that is well overdue for rediscovery.

Just four years in duration, the collaboration between Arno Holz (1863-1929) and Johannes Schlaf (1862-1941) created a revolution in form and content which exerted a huge influence on German literature. As well as Papa Hamlet their partnership produced the play The Selicke Family, a number of shorter prose works and an autobiographical comic. After living and working in bohemian isolation just outside Berlin, the pair split acrimoniously in 1892 and continued sniping at each other for decades as they moved on from their Naturalist origins. Arno Holz was something of a tragic figure, consumed with bitterness; works like his verse collection Phantasus were years head of their time yet security eluded him. The more amenable Johannes Schlaf enjoyed greater success but his posthumous reputation suffers from his later embrace of the Nazis. Neither writer has previously appeared in English.

Read an excerpt here.

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