Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Blurry Lines Between Fact and Fiction

A review of  "Lenz" Georg Büchner, translated by Richard Sieburth

Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (1751-1792) was a complicated man. Perhaps the best way to capture the life and work of this poet, playwright, schizophrenic and visionary is through an equally complicated literary work. Richard Sieburth has put together such a masterpiece, in his new translation of Georg Büchner's biographical novella “Lenz.” 

This was my first time reading anything about Lenz, and my first experience with Büchner’s work. And I’m glad I read this edition, because the different parts of this book combine to form a unique whole. The book is composed of “Lenz” the novella, the journals of an Alsatian priest who looked after Lenz, and Goethe’s impressions of Lenz. These individual pieces offer, as the translator says in his afterword, “something like a cubist portrait painted from several perspectives at once.”

Büchner’s novella is simply impeccable. The piece is decades ahead of its time, providing perhaps the first widely-read work of fiction seeped in the perspective of someone with mental illness. The book is a third-person view into the mind of insanity. It's startling, moving and wonderfully poetic. Presented in the original German on one side of the page and English in the other, "Lenz" really is a literary experience to remember.

After “Lenz” the novella, the book moves on to the real-life journals of Johann Oberlin, a priest in Alsace who takes Lenz in while he is facing serious mental problems. It essentially acts as a factual recounting of Büchner’s fictional work, adding an entirely new perspective to the novella. In his collection of journal entries, titled “Mr. L.,” Oberlin analyzes the weeks he spent looking over Lenz. Oberlin describes Lenz’s “fits of melancholy,” which Büchner so eloquently writes of in his novella. After a suicide attempt in which Lenz jumps out of a window, Oberlin becomes overwhelmed with Lenz's mental and emotional state. He tells Lenz that, “things have gone on long enough now, now you must be watched.”

The end of the book contains a lot of Büchner’s own thoughts on Lenz, as well as his thoughts on poetry, politics and psychology. Büchner, like Lenz, believed in the raw power of poetry and prose to address the complexities of the human situation. “The dramatic poet is, to my eyes, nothing but a writer of history, but he is superior to the latter in that he recreates history for a second time for us and transports us immediately into the life of an era instead of giving a dry account of it…” Büchner uses his fiction not as an end in itself, but as a means toward understanding history, and subsequently, understanding human consciousness.

In the translator’s afterword, it’s very interesting to read how Georg Büchner’s mental state mirrored Lenz’s. Buchner was studying at the University of Giessen, and wrote about how much he hated the city: “everywhere a hollow mediocrity; I can’t get used to this landscape, and the city is abominable…” He later writes: “Every night I pray to the hangman’s rope.” A short-lived left-wing agitator who died at 24, Büchner's life was as chaotic, if not more so, than Lenz's.

As the translator explains in the afterword, “Lenz” the novella isn’t only inspired by events, it actually is a sort of nonfiction. About one-eighth of the text is lifted directly from Oberlin’s journals. This blending of fiction and nonfiction is masterfully done, and it also fits with the subject matter. As the translator says, “Far from merely constituting a covert act of plagiarism, Buchner’s strategy of quotation is in fact a brilliant (post-)modernist experiment in intertextuality, for it allows him to incorporate bits and pieces of documentary ‘fact’ as design elements in the larger collage structure of his fiction.” And isn’t that, in essence, what all great fiction writers do to some degree or another?

If you’re interested at all in German literature, mental health and the blending of different literary traditions and genres, this new translation of “Lenz” is for you. If you’re going to read it at all, read this edition. It’s a complex work of art, one that I devoured with glee.

And, hey, it appears to be free for Kindles on http://www.amazon.com/.

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