The Foreign Quarterly Review (essay date 1843)
SOURCE: "Immermann's New Munchhausen," in The Foreign Quarterly Review, Vol. XXXI, No. XLI, April, 1843, pp. 5-23.
[In the following excerpt, the critic offers a general overview of Muinchhausen, arguing that the novel can be divided into two parts: comedy and social realism.]
The recent death of Immermann seems to have raised him to an importance in Germany which he did not enjoy during his lifetime; and if his productions were at one period less noticed than they deserved to be, they are now, if the little book at the head of this article is an index of national feeling, likely to be considerably overrated. Under the superintendence of the poet Freiligrath, a number of enthusiastic admirers have contributed each his mite towards the immortalization of their favourite author; and scraps illustrative of Karl Immermann are collected with the care and earnestness which distinguish the collectors of materials towards the life of Gothe or of Schiller. One tells us what Immermann did at Weimar; Freiligrath himself furnishes a few letters which he received from the deceased; and two critical gentlemen, MM. Kinkel and Schucking, give us a couple of critiques on the 'Merlin,' which, they inform us, is one of the most wonderful works that ever was penned; and hint pretty broadly, that although, from the time of its publication in 1832, it created no great sensation, it ought by rights to throw Faust into the shade.…
The most original genius cannot help straying into the paths in which some favourite author has already trodden; but in Immermann we can see that he laboriously essayed to follow. Even where we cannot detect a predecessor, we can perceive that nothing was done without toil; and in those places where the author affects to sport with the lightest recklessness, we feel that he is most seriously plodding.
Münchhausen, though from the variety of its contents it might be separated into fifty divisions, may readily be considered as containing two. One of these is a humoristic novel, of which Mtinchhausen, grandson of the great liar, is the hero, and which abounds in strange narratives, fantastical incidents, and literary satire: while the other exhibits the life of the peasants in Westphalia. These two parts of the tale are not formally separated, but, nevertheless, they are so distinct, not only in subject, but also in tone and treatment, that the work may almost be considered as two novels, united under one common title, and, as was said of a certain English history of German literature, rather connected by the thread of the bookbinder, than by a link springing from their nature. It is in the Munchhausen portion of the book that all the Shandyisms appear; and this portion, though it is enlivened with pictures and adventures of great humour, is certainly the weakest of the two, and often runs into mere dull absurdity. The Westphalian part, on the other hand, is only objectionable from its tediousness, since, on the whole, it is intrinsically good; and the author, if here, as in the other part, he is seen fagging hard, has at any rate solid material to work upon. Obvious labour does not appear so strange, when we find it employed in a sturdy portraiture of real life, as when we find it aping the tricks of spontaneous fancy.
The scene of the Munchhausen part is the old tumbledown castle of Schnick-Schnack-Schnurr, the property of an old baron, who hopes for the return of the times that existed before the French invasion, and his consequent elevation to the honourable post of privy councillor to a Prince, whose dominion, alas! has been destroyed by the latest partition of Germany. This wish is with him a sort of lunacy; and he has with him a daughter, an old young lady, who believes herself born for the same Prince, and who, likewise mad upon this point, expects from year's end to year's end the appearance of her noble lover. It is a melancholy place, the old castle:—the flag-stones that lead to it have been pulled up; the rails have been taken down to relieve the necessities of the family; a stone shepherd in the garden stands with hands and mouth formed for playing on the flute, but the flute is lost; a stone dolphin turns up its nose mournfully in a dry basin:—altogether it is a symbol of the dilapidated state, of the proud poverty of an old German baron, still adhering to the French fashion of the last century. The old baron cannot for ever amuse himself with hopes—what is he to do with himself?—as a last resource he takes to reading. A few dull books are in his library, but these will not satisfy him; so he belongs to a reading society, and becomes a student of journals.
This amusement was quite to the old baron's taste. 'At last,' cried he, joyously, when he had made himself acquainted with the extent of the newly-discovered treasures,—'at last there is something in print, which instructs without fatiguing.' And indeed his mind was wonderfully enriched by the reading of journals. If one sheet gave him a short notice of the great poison-tree in India, which infects the atmosphere for a thousand paces round; the next told him how to keep potatoes from the frost during the winter. In one minute he read of Frederic the Great; in the next of the water-cure of Grafenberg, at which, however, he did not stop long, as he went on at once to an account of the new discoveries in the moon. One quarter of an hour he was in Europe; then again, as if transported by the mantle of Faustus, under the palm-trees; sometimes he had a historical Redeemer, sometimes a mythical one, sometimes none at all. In the forenoon he attacked the ministers with the extreme gauche; in the afternoon he leaned towards absolutism; in the evening he did not know which way to turn; and at night he went to bed, as a juste-milieu, to dream of the juggler Janchen, of Amsterdam.
But even these varied enjoyments wear out after a while, and it is a real delight to the old baron, when a neighbouring school-master, who has become insane, and who has in consequence lost his school, comes to the castle, and boldly asks the owner to receive him as an inhabitant. The origin of the pedagogue's madness will be particularly diverting to those who are familiar with the aspect of a German philosophical grammar.…
The endeavour to learn has turned the poor schoolmaster's brain. He sighs for a land where learning was unknown, and where the subtleties of modern grammar never entered; he sighs for ancient Sparta; and converting his name 'Agesel' into 'Agesilaus,' he fancies himself a descendant of the Lacedcemonian king. The goodnatured Baron Schnurr, partly out of compassion, and partly to have a companion besides his wearisome sentimental daughter, allows the pedagogue to live in a little summer-house in the garden. There he dwells in an imaginary Sparta: wearing no garment but a cloak; calling the hillock upon which the summer-house stands Mount Taygetus, and a streamlet in the vicinity, the river Eurotas; and appeasing his appetite with a home-made imitation of the antique black broth. The monotony of the castle is for a while interrupted. The baron can discuss with the schoolmaster whether Brutus was right in killing Casar, and what would have happened if Frederick the Great and Napoleon had been contemporaries. But the subjects are soon exhausted, the three inhabitants of the castle become as weary as the two were before the arrival of the third, and the demon of ennui reigns once more in Schnick-Schnack-Schnurr. A new visiter is required to break the spell, and this visiter is the Baron Munchhausen.
This descendant of the great professor of marvels has so far a family likeness to his grandfather, that he indulges in the narration of improbable. incidents; but he differs from him, inasmuch as almost all his legends have a definite purpose, and satirize some feature of the day. The state of the German stage, the vagaries of Poickler Muskau, the dreams of Justin Kerner at Weinsberg, the modern philosophy of Germany, the rage for projects and shares: all these, and more than these, receive severe sarcasm through the medium of Munchhausen. He is supposed to have an effect on his hearers almost magical. He entraps them into listening to one story, then runs that into another—and another—and another,—so that their brains are completely bewildered, and they follow him like an ignis fatuus. Some of the narratives are excellent, and some remarkable for their poverty; while of some perhaps it would scarcely be fair for a foreigner to judge, for a want of familiarity with the more trivial objects of the satire. The most amusing of them is his own life, in which it is impossible not to perceive that he has in a great measure followed Swift.
According to his own account of himself, his father and mother had a violent quarrel in his infancy, which ended in the former leaving his home, and setting off for Thessaly with the baby Munchhausen in his coat-pocket. The child is miserably uncomfortable in his position; he is annoyed at the presence of certain eatables, which the same pocket contains; he sighs for fresh air; and above all, he is annoyed at a habit in which his father is wont to indulge, namely, that of jumping about when he is in an ecstasy of delight, which has the effect of bumping the young gentleman against the calves of the paternal legs. He creeps out, and a vulture carries him off. An Englishman shoots the vulture, but...
(The entire section is 3912 words.)