The Collected Stories of Arno Schmidt
John E. Woods has won many prizes for translations of Arno Schmidt. Translating Schmidt, who called himself “the German James Joyce,” is a challenge. Like Joyce, Schmidt plays with language. His eccentrically punctuated narratives are full of neologisms, interjections, symbols, foreign phrases, and enigmatic allusions.
“Tales from Island Street” and “Sturenburg Stories,” averaging only three pages each, are relatively accessible or “reader-friendly.” The styles resemble those in Joyce’s ULYSSES. “Drummer for the Czar,” for example, will remind readers of the cabman’s shelter scene in the “Eumaneus” chapter of ULYSSES. The ten stories in “Country Matters,” the last section of the book, will only appeal to connoisseurs of highly experimental fiction. They will remind the English-speaking reader of Joyce’s FINNEGANS WAKE. Here, from “Tails,” is a description of empty fields: “Ryeroes swather scythle coxcome/ sickles deschamp reeshes sedgit/ sockles thistle straidle stickers/sadders ivy wutters jocker . . . ”
Woods’ introduction describes Schmidt’s working habits, his struggle to survive as a writer after being released from a prisoner of war (POW) camp in 1945, and his interest in literature in English (Schmidt translated Edgar Allan Poe, William Faulkner, and Joyce). Woods calls Schmidt a “solipsist” (one who believes the self is the only reality), a word which seems to explain much about these stories. Schmidt writes in the private shorthand of a man talking to himself, for his own amusement and edification, without faith that anyone is out there listening.
Many stories are compelling, even though only wafer-thin slices of life with rarely anything that can be called a “point.” Their value lies in their impressions of existence in the anxiety-ridden Cold War years following Germany’s defeat, devastation, and political dismemberment.