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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography

Arno Schmidt

Sven Hanuschek

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To purchase Arno Schmidt

Title: Arno Schmidt
Author: Sven Hanuschek
Genre: Biography
Written: 2022
Length: 886 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Arno Schmidt - Deutschland
  • Arno Schmidt has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B+ : collects and presents the information about Schmidt's life well

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 28/4/2022 Andreas Platthaus
Frankfurter Rundschau . 10/4/2022 H.-J.Linke
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 13/6/2022 Paul Jandl
Die Welt . 11/4/2022 Richard Kämmerlings

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mag sein, dass es da gar nichts gegeben hätte, aber das Desinteresse von Hanuschek an den Realien des Lebens ist eklatant. (...) Neue Gesichtspunkte zum Werk von Arno Schmidt liefert Hanuschek nicht, wenn man von seiner arg ermüdenden Nutzung des modisch gewordenen Metalepse-Begriffs absieht. (...) Bleibt aber auch ein starker Aspekt in dieser nicht lieb-, aber leblosen Lebensbeschreibung ? Aber ja: Alice Schmidt. Wie wichtig sie fürs Schaffen ihres Mannes war, daran bestanden zwar nie Zweifel, hier jedoch wird sie sichtbar als geradezu schaffensnotwendige Begleiterin, ganz praktisch als Schreibkraft und ganz physisch als Muse. Das Auf und Ab dieser Ehe ist wie ein großer Roman, und es ist bezeichnend, dass Arno Schmidt nichts damit Vergleichbares geschrieben hat." - Andreas Platthaus, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "(W)enn es um Texte geht und biografische Kontexte, um die Herausbildung eines Charakters und um die allmähliche Entstehung einer vielschichtigen Poetik aus komplex determinierten Anfängen, gibt es Bezüge, die nicht in eine räumliche noch gar chronologische Ordnung einzupassen sind. So weicht Sven Hanuscheks biografische Setzungsarbeit zwar nicht grundlegend von der Wohn-Chronologie ab, verfolgt aber daneben und darüber hinaus Themen entlang der Logik ihrer Entfaltung und Überwindung. (...) Sein Vorgehen ist überlegt und systematisch. Jeder biografisch-epochale Abschnitt hat eine eigene Literaturliste, und Hanuschek hat, so scheint es, alles gelesen und über alles nachgedacht. Er ist umsichtig, geduldig und souverän im Umgang mit der Materialfülle. Er ist ein empathischer Erzähler mit wissenschaftlicher Grundhaltung, und er kann Widersprüche ertragen. Es ist, als hätte er Schmidts implizites Konzept einer Meta-Literatur auf die eigene Arbeit angewandt." - Hans-Jürgen Linke, Frankfurter Rundschau

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

[Note: Arno Schmidt has not yet been translated into English. This review is based on the German original, and all translations of quotes are mine.]

       German author Arno Schmidt's life and work has been extensively documented and chronicled since his death in 1979 -- not least through the remarkable work of the Arno Schmidt Stiftung -- but largely in very piecemeal fashion, bit by bit. Sven Hanuschek's is now the first -- and long overdue -- full-scale biography, bringing much of this material together.
       A lifelong Schmidt-fan -- 'Arno Schmidt has accompanied me for forty year', he notes in his Acknowledgements -- Hanuschek displays an impressively intimate knowledge of Schmidt's writing (which itself extensively (if also often very creatively) borrows from and builds on the author's biography) and ties it in well in his account of Schmidt's life. He also follows the other paper trails, examining, following up on, and comparing much of the available biographical documentation, ranging from correspondence to reminiscences of those who knew Schmidt to the paperwork from legal proceedings and other sources -- whereby he often openly weighs the likelihood of one version or another being the more plausible for a given occurrence. (There's rather a lot of this weighing of sides -- over-much, one can argue, especially given that some of the matters dealt with in this manner are not all that big a deal and a more succinct mention summing up and noting that they aren't entirely clear would certainly suffice in more than a few places, with the details then best relegated to the endnotes.)
       Hanuschek doesn't dive straight into biography but rather begins with a preface and then a short introductory section in which he discusses how (the unusual) man and work can be considered, and so also how he approaches them (and the connections between them). Some of this is a bit odd (and sometimes oddly put), such as the (apparent) point that Schmidt was no jet-setting author, spending, as he did, basically twenty years in a single place, which Hanuschek suggests means: 'The CO₂-footprint of Arno Schmidt is a quantité négligeable'. (The extent of an author's CO₂-footprint seems a rather contemporary -- though, I suppose, valid -- concern; but surely then it should also be noted that, while Schmidt did not drive a motor vehicle, the Bargfeld house was apparently heated with firewood which most certainly did spew a great deal of CO₂ into the atmosphere; certainly his footprint was not negligible.) At least once Hanuschek gets on track with presenting the actual life-story his presentation is on firmer ground.
       Schmidt is often seen as a kind of writer- and reader-ideal, devoted completely (and somewhat misanthropically) to the literary, cloistered in his book-filled house in Bargfeld, far from the maddening crowds. Book-filled Schmidt's residences always were, but one of the things Hanuschek's biography makes clear is that for much of his life Schmidt did not live in much splendid isolation, with housing -- especially after the Second World War -- a constant problem and worry, and Schmidt and his wife moving frequently; they only reach and move into the final retreat of the Bargfeld house two-thirds of the way -- 600 pages into ! -- Hanushek's chronicle. (There are a (small) number of photographs interspersed in the biography, but a map of Schmidt's stations would also have been welcome.) Bargfeld, too, proves only to be so idyllic: aside from the fact that visitors proved harder to keep at bay than the Schmidts had apparently hoped, among the most disturbing parts of Hanuschek's biography is the long-time concern about fire, a local arsonist (and the occasional wildfire) doing considerable damage in the area, and threatening the Schmidts' home on several occasions.
       Schmidt's father Otto was a soldier and policeman, stationed 1907 to 1909 in the German colony in China, Kiautschou (Jiaozhou); he was eleven years older than Clara, whom he knocked up when she was just sixteen. They had their first child, Lucie, in 1911, a year before they then married; Arno followed on 18 January 1914. Lucie would emigrate to the United States with her husband before the war -- a welcome provider of some support then in the difficult post-war years, with Arno's correspondence with her interestingly apparently largely in English.
       Schmidt's father died in 1928, when Arno was just a young teen, but even so he would say: 'My parents are my curse !' (adding: 'My mother most of all !'), and would later lament -- admittedly in a drunken state -- how: 'If I had been born in an artist-family, I'd be so much sure in everything. As is, my petty bourgeois upbringing always dogs me'. Lucie describes mom as rather frivolous -- teenager-like -- but she was also a reader (albeit of fluff): Lucie recalls sometimes having to go twice a day to exchange books for her at the local book-lending stationers. Arno took to reading, too, with the first book he ever bought Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, which he purchased at age six -- a claim that at least seems plausible as, unlike much of his library, Schmidt managed to keep the copy through the many moves he made and still had it in his final library.
       Schmidt also took to writing early -- conceiving many projects that didn't quite pan out, beginning, in 1931, with a planned opera based on an E.T.A Hoffmann story. The path to becoming an author was, however, not a straightforward one, and he apparently weighed abandoning it several times: being an author was all or nothing for him, and if he was unable to devote himself entirely to it he thought he might be better advised to turn to something else. Amusingly, his first publication appears to have been a set of chess-problems in a small newspaper in 1940 (reproduced in the biography).
       Schmidt and Alice Murawski married in 1937, and Alice was to be a vital support for her husband, not least in typing and correcting his manuscripts -- translations, essays, and fiction. As Hanuschek chronicles, the marriage was not always a happy one -- Arno was completely on board with her wish not to have children, but less so with her devotion to her cats, and apparently somewhat disappointed with her lack of interest in doing housework (a lack he certainly seems to have shared). Always tending towards loner-dom, there's certainly some sense of an increasing isolation in his later years then, when even: 'Alice no longer read along with the typoscript-novel' (the oversize late works that Schmidt typed himself).
       Schmidt spent most of his time in military service posted in Norway -- relatively safely, even comfortably --, with Hanuschek reminding readers of the huge German military presence there, an often forgotten aspect of how the Second World War was conducted. Schmidt's knowledge of English proved useful after the war when he was a British POW and functioned as an interpreter.
       Hanuschek chronicles how long it took and arduous it was for Schmidt to establish himself as a writer -- leading Schmidt to also consider continuing in a more traditional 9-to-5 job. He established a relationship with publisher Rowohlt, but it was never an easy one. Among the interesting titbits: the publisher hoped to get The Other Side-author Alfred Kubin to illustrate Schmidt's early texts (which would certainly have helped them make a bigger splash with book-buyers) -- but Kubin ultimately declined. Only with the 1950 award from the Mainz Academy of Science and Literature -- shared with four others, but still paying out DM2000, and with the validation of having been chosen by a jury that included Alfred Döblin and Hans Henny Jahnn -- does Hanuschek see Schmidt definitively deciding to devote himself to being a writer. (Say what one will about literary prizes, they proved to be a great help to Schmidt, not so much in establishing his reputation as providing the funds necessary for survival and simply get on with his writing.)
       Schmidt didn't make it easy for himself -- so also, for example, with his long-time obsession with Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué (best known for his slim but much-praised Undine), resulting in the 'biographical attempt' Fouqué und einige seiner Zeitgenossen -- one of Schmidt's larger works that is still untranslated. (Among the interesting titbits about that: Schmidt at one point considered writing it in dialogue-form.) Though he struggled to find a publisher for it, as Hanuschek notes, it ultimately did reasonably well -- some 12,650 copies sold in Schmidt's lifetime (and the 1988 Haffmans mass-market paperback edition -- that's the one I have -- certainly padding that total since).
       Hanuschek gives some sense of Schmidt's (relatively) remunerative radio-work -- though there could be more about this. And, all along, Schmidt worked as a translator. Some of these efforts were very successful: Hanuschek reports that Schmidt's translation of Hammond Innes' The White South shifted at least 223,000 copies, and Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White likely sold over 300,000 copies. As interesting are the projects that he might have taken on: he pushed for a new translation of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (claiming -- rather wildly, as Hanuschek points out -- that 'it was as good as unknown in Germany', despite there having been at least ten translations to (then-)date), while he declined, for various reasons, to translate books by Nicholas Mosley, Flann O'Brien, Vladimir Nabokov (!), as well as The Lord of the Rings and John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor.
       An early shock to the system were the legal proceedings against Schmidt (as well publisher and long-time friend Alfred Andersch) for Lake Scenery for Pocahontas for blasphemy and pornography. While the consequences of this well-known case were ultimately limited, it's interesting to note that only in 2013 did it become clear who was behind these actions -- the cleric Wilhelm Böhler.
       The relationship with publisher Ernst Krawehl and his Stahlberg Verlag would prove to be an enduring one, continuing also when the publisher was bought by the Holtzbrinck-group and made part of S.Fischer (though after Schmidt's death his widow Alice ended that relationship). As Hanuschek notes, Schmidt's books did not sell huge amounts -- 3000 copies was a good result --, but Stahlberg also published Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, and better-selling authors such as the very popular Gabriel Chevallier and Curzio Malaparte. Krawehl became more than just Schmidt's publisher, Hanuschek noting that, over the years, he also began to serve more as: 'information bureau and advisor to Arno and Alice Schmidt'.
       Schmidt was a hard drinker -- and apparently voluble when drunk -- but gave up alcohol entirely when he suffered his first heart attack. His health was apparently not good after that, and remained a concern; there were several more heart-related incidents, and a worry about having a stroke (as he eventually did; that's what did him in). It's sad to note that only in 1977 did Jan Philipp Reemtsma appear with his very generous offer of patronage -- a DM350,000 handout that would certainly make Schmidt's by-then reasonably comfortable life much easier. (Schmidt did take two days to consider the offer before accepting.) As is, Schmidt only saw Reemtsma four times in total before his death -- even as he had planned on a good ten to twelve more productive working years, beginning with his Lilienthal-project; it was, of course, not to be. (Reemtsma remained a generous and vital supporter of Schmidt's work, not least in co-founding the Arno Schmidt Stiftung and generally helping to promote his work over the decades since Schmidt's death.)
       The basic framework of Arno Schmidt is chronological, and chapters tend to focus around individual books, but Hanuschek does move fairly freely back and forth in time and work -- appropriately enough, as there are connections between life and work (and among the different works) throughout, with Schmidt often taking years or decades to work through specific material. Along the way, Hanuschek also goes on smaller and larger tangents -- most amusingly in a section in which he describes reader-reactions to Schmidt and his work, from what many sent him (from their own manuscripts to cash) to various visits that fans made (a surprising number of whom were welcomed, after a fashion). Among the more interesting observations are those on Schmidt's library(s): aside from the disappointment of the losses of his early libraries in various moves and circumstances, Hanuschek makes clear that Schmidt's library was a fluid one, with books moved out of it as he shifted from one project to the next and books often generously passed on to others. It is perhaps surprising to learn that Schmidt was not, in fact, an obsessive book-hoarder, and that his collection changed as much as it did.
       Other asides include several looks at the role of women in Schmidt's life and work, beginning with a rather defensive observation that he did, indeed, have many female readers and supporters and isn't just an author whose fan-base is male. Still, Hanuschek does step back at several points to, for example, consider: 'So what's the deal with women characters in the early and middle works ?' -- and then, especially, with the late-period typoscripts in which, as Hanuschek points out, very young women figure in prominent roles. (As Hanuschek also notes, wife Alice was no longer reading over and correcting these oversize typoscripts -- perhaps freeing Schmidt some in what he was willing to write (not that he was ever particularly prudish, of course).) They are interesting questions, but Hanuschek only gets so far with them; as throughout, he's stronger on the literary than personal side of the question. (For all the male-dominance of most of the most ardent Schmidt supporters, it should be noted that Susanne Fischer now runs the Arno Schmidt Stiftung and has done much of the leading interesting work on the author; Hanuschek mentions her and her findings frequently in his biography.)
       Arno Schmidt does cover the author's life very well -- even if it seems to offer relatively little that is new. Hanuschek did speak with numerous people associated with Schmidt -- long-time housekeeper Erika Knop is one source of information about Schmidt's day-to-day life -- but Arno Schmidt is certainly much more focused on Schmidt-as-writer than looking deeper into his private life. Hanuschek does weave together the (great amounts) of available information and material, and his close familiarity with Schmidt's creative work is obvious, and well-used in tying it into Schmidt's life. Admittedly, the actual writing-process is probably not the stuff of great biography, but readers might wish for more of a sense of it, especially in the later years, in the work on the oversize typoscript fiction.
       Hanuschek largely limits his biography to Schmidt's own life-span, with only a few observations about his work and its publication and reception afterwards. English-speaking readers likely are surprised and bit disappointed that Schmidt's great translator, John E. Woods rates just three mentions -- and all relate to Woods' conversation with Schmidt's sister, rather than his translation-work. Indeed, the translation and the foreign reception of Schmidt's work generally gets short shrift -- though Hanuschek does note the first translation, into French, in 1963, and how both André Breton and Maurice Blanchot greeted it enthusiastically.
       (The first Woods mention is actually what opens the book, in an epigraph, and Hanuschek's epigraphs -- each chapter comes with one -- are sometimes something of a headscratcher; I'm a Wolf Haas fan, too, but five of them (and there aren't that many ...) are by Haas, who otherwise, after all, doesn't really have much to do with Schmidt. There's also an epigraph by Lyndon B. Johnson .....)
       Hanuschek does show a Schmidt who did venture out quite a bit, at least in the name of research, and paints a mixed picture of just how anti-social the author was. He weighs various reports of particular incidents -- most notably when Schmidt won the Fontane Prize in 1964, suggesting about the breakfast on the day of the prize ceremony that: 'there probably are as many versions as there were participants' (and quite an august gathering it was, with Ingeborg Bachmann, Günter Grass, and Uwe Johnson among them); Uwe Johnson's report from that day suggests Schmidt was really reserved. Of course, different situations made for different reactions: early on Hanuschek reports how, in company, Schmidt 'didn't want to discuss but rather lectured', but then also quotes a fan who found that Schmidt 'didn't hold a monologue but rather sought out dialogue'. So, often, much that is presented here proves only so revealing .....
       Hanuschek often likes to show his work and thinking -- rather more than one might like (or need) to find in the text-proper; most biographies would slip these bits and discussions into the endnotes. So, for example, he notes in his section on the early piece Pharos that: 'As difficult as the text itself already is, the question of the dating of its writing was at times as exciting', going on then to explain what pointed towards specific dates before, a full page later, discussing the expert opinion commissioned by the Arno Schmidt Stiftung in 2000 that determined there were only three typewriter-models that could have been used in writing the typoscript (and then explaining how the candidates were further narrowed down). This is a great story of literary detective-work but certainly something better-suited for a foot- or end-note (Hanuschek goes for endnotes -- though almost only for reference); in the text-proper it becomes something of a distraction.
       Meanwhile, while for example relying on the 1948/9 diaries of Arno Schmidt's wife to no small degree, he also sees fit to complain about how one 'drowns' in (mundane) details in these -- and suggests that: ''Anyone who takes pleasure in such details can read them at length there, the diaries 1948/9 having been transcribed by Susanne Fischer and published with a commentary by her in 2018' -- again, hardly the type of information that needs to be related (much less in such words) in the main text; a snide endnote would have sufficed here as well (and even that is hardly necessary, given that the text is already referred to -- and has been quoted from there).
       There also some odd interpolations -- such as the observation: 'There is regrettably not yet any monograph on the role of pants in postwar German literature, although their significance was considerable', followed by an Erich Kästner anecdote (having nothing to do with Schmidt). Yes, that is then followed by a story of a pair of pants being given to Schmidt -- complete with variations on how that played out --, but still .....
       Hanuschek has done remarkable work in bringing together the known information about Schmidt's life, and the excellent documentation facilitates any follow-up readers might want to undertake. Schmidt's work is discussed at length, and tied well into the ongoing life-story (as much of his writing, in fact, was), and there's a decent amount about the reception of the work as well -- though readers may have wished for Hanuschek to venture more beyond Schmidt's own lifetime than he does, both in terms of influence and reception, in Germany and abroad. A few quirks in style and approach -- several noted above -- are ... quirky, but overall it's a satisfying presentation of life and work. There's not that much that is truly new to fans, with Hanuschek perhaps overly cautious in probing Schmidt's personal life, but he does present the material well, making for a welcome, comprehensive one-volume overview of the great writer.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 March 2023

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Arno Schmidt: Reviews: Arno Schmidt: Sven Hanuschek: Books by Arno Schmidt under review: Other books about Arno Schmidt under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Biographical works under review
  • See Index of German literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Sven Hanuschek teaches at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München. He was born in 1964.

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© 2023 the complete review

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