Jean Paul turned toward the novel only after having worked for more than ten years as a writer of satires. Much of what he had learned as a satirist continued to influence his novelistic art. In the eighteenth century, satire—the ridiculing of representative social vices—relied for its effect on the application of wit. Jean Paul naturally adopted the practice, and it is without doubt his peculiarly witty style that has proved to be the most prohibitive aspect of his novels.
Wit, for the eighteenth century, was defined as the intuitive power through which the mind links seemingly incomparable objects by revealing a similarity in their relation to a common, often more abstract concept or quality. To compare wise Greek philosophers with white clouds on a sunny day—an example Jean Paul used to explain his procedure—strikes the reader as witty only after he or she has made the connection that these two dissimilar sets of entities share their tendency to move with lofty serenity. Jean Paul—his volumes of excerpts organized under such abstract notions as rich and poor, big and small—could provide virtually every object, emotion, action, or thought with a whimsical commentary of remote analogues. He thus created a constantly shifting layer of references that could throw its foreshortening or elongating shadow on everything in this world. The problems for the reader are, of course, staggering. An encyclopedic knowledge and a sheer inexhaustible patience are only the most obvious prerequisites of following Jean Paul on his flights of combinatory imagination. Yet the rewards, faithful readers insist, are more than commensurate, as there arises a humorously bewildering universe in which all things are stripped of their pretensions to serious and weighty self-identity.
After 1790, no longer satisfied with a critique of representative vices, Jean Paul set out to study the shortcomings of human beings in all their uniqueness. In the process, he became convinced that not only foolish people but all people are essentially absurd, because their lot is inherently incongruous. This incongruity stems from the fact that humans must constantly try to square the infinitude of their desires with the finitude of their circumstances, marking everything they are, do, or achieve as ridiculously inappropriate. Jean Paul was, however, also convinced that the infinity—which usually surrounds humans as nothing but a mocking absence—can, on occasion, enter the life of “higher human beings” as an all-sustaining presence. He therefore incorporated into his humorous style lengthy passages in which starry-eyed young men and women experience moments of rapturous bliss in dreamlike landscapes of surrealistic beauty, leaving behind the oppressive “cottage smoke of human existence” for the recognition of an omnipresent harmony.
In spite of his belief that a mixture of styles is the truest representation of the human condition, Jean Paul did distinguish three types of novels according to the perspectives that dominate their style. Borrowing terms normally applied to schools of painting, he spoke of the “Italian novel” as one written in an elevated tone and narrating the actions and passions of noble heroes. The “Dutch novel,” in contrast, focuses on the dull details in the life of humble people. Midway between these two stands is the “German novel,” which tries to mediate the opposing visions of the Italian and Dutch novels. Though Jean Paul was quick to admit that in his novels, as in a museum, Italian, Dutch, and German styles coexist, he stressed that he had written only Italian and German novels, the Dutch style in its pure form having been reserved for his shorter fiction.
Jean Paul listed three of his six novels as belonging to the Italian style: The Invisible Lodge, Hesperus, and Titan. It has often been observed that many parallels in form and content exist among these novels and that they are most appropriately considered as three versions of one theme.
The Invisible Lodge
The Invisible Lodge tells of the emotional and political education of Gustav von Falkenberg. Brought up in total isolation from the world and its corruption, Gustav is sent to the court of the small principality of Scheerau to enter upon a military career. There he becomes friends with Amandus, the son of the physician, satirist, and political liberal Dr. Fenk. Their friendship, however, seems irreparably damaged when both young men fall in love with the same young woman, the angelic Beata. In the end, the prolonged impasse is conveniently overcome as Amandus dies—not, of course, before he has reconciled himself with Gustav and has asked the friend to love Beata in his stead. Everything seems to have worked itself out when Gustav’s and Beata’s bliss is unexpectedly cut short. Gustav has apparently led a double life. Disenchantment with the court of Scheerau must have taken a drastic turn for him, because he has joined a secret society devoted to the overthrow of the government. The conspirators have been discovered, and Gustav is reported to be in prison. With these startling revelations, hastily communicated on the last three pages of the novel, The Invisible Lodge comes to an abrupt and premature end.
Considering that The Invisible Lodge was Jean Paul’s first novel, it constitutes an amazingly complex achievement. A multiplicity of styles—Jean Paul’s most distinguishing trademark—is orchestrated with a sure hand. Moments of high lyric intensity are followed by witty descriptions of court, town, and country, allowing Jean Paul to display his mastery over a wide range of comic moods. Still, something is seriously wrong with the novel: It does not advance convincingly the political education of its hero. Too much is withheld from the reader for too long, and by the time the political plot gets under way, the reader is no longer prepared to adjust to the required change of perspective. Because the novel was originally published in serial installments, radical revisions of the plot were impossible, the first parts of the novel having been published before the work was complete. Jean Paul did the only thing he could do at that point: He dropped the idea of finishing The Invisible Lodge and instead started all over again.
Hesperus, the most successful of his novels published during Jean Paul’s lifetime, concerns a young man’s education at the court of Flachsenfingen. This young man, Viktor, again has a close friend, Flamin, and again their friendship is jeopardized by their love for the same woman, Klotilde. This time, a happy ending is arranged not through the death of one of the rivals but through the discovery that Flamin is the illegitimate son of the prince of Flachsenfingen and, besides, the natural brother of Klotilde. Viktor and Flamin promptly become reconciled, and Viktor is free to marry Klotilde.
Superimposed on this familiar plot is a political intrigue the outline of which Jean Paul took from a contemporary three-volume novel by Wilhelm Friedrich von Meyern with the fantastical title Dya-Na-Sore (1787-1791).
Adjusted to the demands of Jean Paul’s own plot, the story runs like this: Discouraged by the philandering prince of Flachsenfingen, Lord Horion—an English relative and adviser of the prince—arranges for better things from the next generation. He kidnaps four illegitimate sons of the prince and has them brought to England, where they are educated in the liberal ideals of that country. As the novel opens, these sons have grown up and, uninformed about their true identity, are encouraged to come to Flachsenfingen. There they form a revolutionary club and indulge in much rhetorical posturing and some haphazard violence. Viktor, recently appointed physician of the court, joins the club. When the hotheaded and jealous Flamin gets himself into trouble with the court and ends up in prison, his identity as one of the four illegitimate sons of the prince is finally revealed, as are the identities of his three half brothers. The conservative court camarilla realizes that it has been outmaneuvered by Lord Horion and quickly abdicates.
(The entire section is 3381 words.)