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the Complete Review
the complete review - dialogues

Radio Dialogs I

Arno Schmidt

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To purchase Radio Dialogs I

Title: Radio Dialogs I
Author: Arno Schmidt
Genre: Dialogues
Written: (Eng. 1999)
Length: 380 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Radio Dialogs I - US
Radio Dialogs I - UK
Radio Dialogs I - Canada
  • Translated and with an Introduction by John E. Woods
  • Includes a Prelude and six dialogues
  • Written for broadcast as radio-programmes on SDR (Süddeutscher Rundfunk)
  • These dialogues written (and first broadcast) 1955-1961
  • Contents:
    • Prelude - a brief introduction
    • Nothing is Too Small for Me - about Barthold Heinrich Brockes
    • Wieland, or, the Forms of Prose - about Christoph Martin Wieland
    • Fifteen: The Prodigy of Meaninglessness - about Ludwig Tieck
    • Abu Kital, or, Concerning the new Grand Mystic - about Karl May
    • Angria & Gondal: The Dream of the Dove-Gray Sisters - about the Brontë sisters
    • The Triton with the Parasol (Reflections on a Readable German Rendering of "Finnegans Wake" by James Joyce)

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Our Assessment:

A- : fascinating, entertaining, informative approaches to authors

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Arno Schmidt was amazingly well-read. He was not only aware of tradition, but intimately familiar with it, and this is reflected throughout his writings. Schmidt was one of the great experimentalists of the 20th century, but he was also solidly a part of the Western/European literary tradition: all his writing clearly had its antecedents there. In this he can certainly be compared to Joyce, one of the few authors to use the literary past as effectively in completely novel works.
       Between 1955 and 1971 Schmidt wrote over thirty literary dialogues, to be broadcast on the radio, about a wide variety of authors -- mainly German, but also some English and American, mainly from before the 20th century. Green Integer intends to publish translations of nineteen of these in three volumes -- of which this is the first. (The second is -- was -- promised for "early 2000" (so the back cover of this volume); we're still keeping our fingers crossed that it will appear. -- And now (2003) it has: see our review of Radio Dialogs II) Translated by the estimable (and apparently happily Schmidt-fixated) John E. Woods, there can be few more significant enterprises in contemporary American publishing.
       Schmidt is a great guide to literature: he is, admittedly, very opinionated, but he is also undeniably incredibly knowledgeable. He has actually read all these books by all these authors, and he understands the context in which they were written, and the biographical and literary-historical details of importance. Equally importantly, Schmidt is very conscious of his role as entertainer. The idea of these "literary dialogues" is a brilliant one (and we acknowledge being strongly influenced by them in writing the Literary Saloon dialogues at the cr Quarterly). His "radio dialogs" effectively convey a great deal of information, give a good sense of the authors and works under discussion -- and make for some fine drama too. Significantly, they also read very well.
       (In addition, Green Integer must again be praised for the exemplary packaging of their books: perfectly (and truly) pocket-sized, Radio Dialogs I is a handy, attractive volume, almost worthy of being purchased simply for its aesthetic appeal.)

       Translator Woods begins with a short introduction -- a brief biographical note about Schmidt and some detail about these dialogues and the characters covered in them. (One unfortunate -- and very disappointing -- slip must be noted: Woods offers "a sentence or two" about each of the authors discussed by Schmidt -- including, tantalizingly, Johann Gottfried Schnabel (who, we are told, was in "Schmidt's pantheon of literary gods"). The only problem is that the Schnabel-dialogue (a grand one, by the way -- and particularly important in terms of some of Schmidt's own work) is not included in this volume.)

       A Prelude, then, is the first of Schmidt's works here -- a sort of mini-dialogue arguing against the dry, academic approach to literature, of reducing it to mere scholarship. Literature is a vibrant thing, Schmidt insists, and in conclusion he has his three speakers "swear in unison": "I have resolved : to treat all who have ever written, whether out of love and hate, as alive and living !" It is certainly one of Schmidt's credos in the dialogues that follow.

       The first dialogue, Nothing is Too Small for Me, is about one of the obscurer writers Schmidt covers, Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680-1736). For Schmidt: "he was the first to advance -- resolutely, tenaciously, and most consistently -- toward the border of realism", or, indeed, simply "The First Realist" (far ahead of Adalbert Stifter). The dialogue has only two speakers, working in tandem (unlike in some of the more contentious dialogues). It includes extensive quotes from Brocke's work -- though these are barely even a smattering of what the man wrote.
       Brockes is typical of the authors Schmidt admired, with his efforts at precision, his large-scale ambition, and his devotion to minutiae. He was responsible for the nine volumes of the Earthly Pleasures in God, in whose "precise surfeit of ten thousand pages : we have everything right here in Germany." This is Schmidt's type of encyclopaedism: "the integral of the entire range of the language for the past thousand years".
       Brockes also "translates in his spare time" -- an internationalism that also appeals to sometime-translator and literarily very worldly Schmidt. His description of Brockes' efforts are also revealing about his own attitudes towards the peculiar endeavour of translation:

Nevertheless, all his translations are laudable attempts at transposing foreign masterpieces into a heterogeneous system of sound & syntax
       Brockes' life and career are summarily presented -- an interesting story as well. Along with the liberal excerpts the dialogue gives a good impression of an author who is essentially unknown and unread (and whose works are practically impossible to find).

       The subject of the second dialogue, Christoph Martin Wieland, is more widely read -- more now than when Schmidt wrote the piece, it appears. Wieland, or, the Forms of Prose is again a two person dialogue, but here the speakers are more typical of Schmidt's literary dialogues:
A.: elderly, tends to lecture
B.: young; fiery=impatient; loves to interrupt
       It begins with present-day (1957) events intruding, and B. annoyed by how little mankind and civilization seems to have progressed. A. then brings up the prolific Wieland as a counter-example to the idea that like mankind, writers don't progress, that every author only has a single book in him (each new book being a mere variation on the theme) -- i.e. that even the artist does not evolve and change.
       Wieland wrote a great and varied amount -- "a life's work of 54 volumes". Among his works are many dialogues (certainly influencing Schmidt in his), and he often used historical material, reshaping it for his (and modern) purposes -- much as Schmidt does in some of his fiction. But Schmidt would probably even have been drawn to him simply for the fact that: "He had several fallings out with Goethe" (Schmidt being notoriously less than impressed by Goethe).
       Aside from his own writing, Wieland exhibits another trait familiar in many Schmidt-favoured authors: enriching a literature by bringing in foreign works. Wieland "was the first to present 22 of Shakespeare's plays in translation".
       As an author Wieland is praised for his intellectualism: his heroes are intellectual, well-educated, "utterly this-worldly" -- far different from what is found in, for example, Romantic literature. He also has real (if idealized) women characters: rather than the frail, romanticized creatures so many others create his women are clever, businesslike, "very independent". Schmidt also emphasizes the variety of approaches that Wieland took in shaping his art -- and specifically the appropriateness of each form to what Wieland was trying to do in a given work (contrasting this nicely with what Schmidt sees as Goethe's crude efforts).
       Schmidt gives one sample of his work -- a generous ten pages, the least he apparently figures could give even the beginning of an impression of Wieland's writing.

       Fifteen: The Prodigy of Meaninglessness considers Ludwig Tieck. It is a dialogue between a "Reporter" and a "Listener & doubter" -- along with three voices to read the various quotes, and two gongs (one "normal, matter of fact", the other "gives a bright effervescent trill").
       The central figure is cleverly introduced with a quote from a visiting traveller: James Fenimore Cooper, envious of what admiration the arts arouse in Europe (as opposed to the indifferent mob back in America: "logs could hardly be less receptive"). (Throughout the dialogue quotes -- especially from Tieck's own work -- are used very effectively, and more ambitiously than in the earlier dialogues.)
       Tieck was a real book-lover -- "a real book fiend" --, as obsessed as Schmidt. His library "once contained sixteen thousand volumes" (even Schmidt has to italicize in awe and admiration), and though Tieck sold them all (apparently to unburden himself) "he at once began to collect again, faster than ever", accumulating eleven thousand volumes in short order.
       Schmidt provides a nice overview of Tieck's curious life, especially in considering him within the broader Romantic tradition ("'Romantics' -- as you can hear I use this falsest of all terms only in quotation marks"). The dialogue -- the longest included here -- strays far into the Romantic field, with Schmidt offering his interpretation of that whole movement.
       In closing one also finds Schmidt's lament of how hard it is to find much of Tieck's work (a situation that has also been largely rectified over the past forty years). And, at least for literary pedants like us, it's still fun to hear him rant about various editions of an author's work: "Beware of 2 volumes edited by Paul Ernst with a famous pompous Afterword and the equally famous sloppy texts", etc.

       Abu Kital, or, Concerning the new Grand Mystic is about the odd Karl May, one of the most popular German authors for adolescents who, despite writing many works set in America, never really caught on in the United States. (Schmidt would go on to write a longer study of May, Sitara (1963).)
       Schmidt isn't a great fan of most of May's popular adventure-tales, concluding: "heed my advice, and stick strictly to just these two: In the Realm of the Silver Lion and Ardistan and Jinnistan". These two books, he grants, are remarkable; the rest of May's oeuvre is decidedly less so. Still May was a fascinating figure -- a complete and remarkable fraud -- and so the biographical detail is also of considerable interest. Schmidt is largely dismissive of May and his influence, but he still considers it fairly closely.
       Of particular interest is the transformation of the work -- not by May but by his publishers:
Over the course of time, you see -- be it in the GDR, in Austria, or even in the Federal Republic -- the works of Karl May have been frequently and thoroughly "edited" -- or, to put it more precisely : "debased".
       Schmidt's close reading of the changes is both incredibly sad and hilarious, as different regimes, publishers, and editors all put there stamp on the texts. Poor literature ! it never seems to stand a chance ! Beside ideological changes, Schmidt even points to "thousands of lines of blank verse" that "have been 'de-iambified'" -- "throttled iambics" reduced to "rattletrap" that now rolls along "in the crudest halting rhythms."
       (So it is not just American publishers that show no respect for authors or the written word .....)

       Schmidt was also very familiar with English-language literature, and numerous of his dialogues deal with English and American authors. The two included here consider the Brontë-sisters and James Joyce.
       Angria & Gondal: The Dream of the Dove-Gray Sisters deals specifically with the "Extended Mind Game" that the Brontë's are left to occupy themselves with in their isolation. They famously lost themselves in -- and wrote extensively about -- imagined worlds: Angria, and Gondal.
       Much of the dialogue offers a biographical overview of the sisters: more such detail than in the other dialogues, as German-speakers were less likely to know anything about these lives. English readers will be familiar with much that he writes about Emily, Anne, and Charlotte -- and Branwell, of course --, but his focus on this long-sustained fictional world is a useful perspective.

       The final dialogue, The Triton with the Parasol offers: Reflections on a Readable German Rendering of "Finnegans Wake" by James Joyce. Schmidt truly appreciated what Joyce was trying to do in Finnegans Wake, and it was a very important book for him. (His admiration for it was much like Nabokov's for Ulysses.) He studied it for years, in part hoping to translate it. Schmidt's work in this area -- "idiosyncratic" as his view of the book was, as Woods notes in his introduction -- is considered to be important. (They have even published a German edition of his annotated copy of the Wake.)
       The dialogue has not one but two questioners, both quite overwhelmed. It begins, challengingly (especially for a radio piece), with a nearly five-page excerpt from Finnegans Wake. Schmidt suggests: "The language of the WAKE has to be learned". He suggests how this might be done, how the language (and the text) must be approached and what resources must be at hand.
       It is a good introduction to how one might look at the Wake -- though there is an sense of distortion in reading this particular version of the text: it considers translations of the work in German which are here offered in the original (i.e. much of the issue at issue is non-existent in the English version of the text). Some of the most interesting points are thus, to a certain extent, lost -- but Joyce's work (and his language) is far enough removed from what we understand to be English that Schmidt's discussion is of interest to English-speaking readers as well.

       Radio Dialogs I offers only a sample of Schmidt's dialogues, less than a fifth of them. We're always ones for comprehensive editions, and so we'll stick to the four-volume Haffmanns edition -- but for those who can't handle the German this small book at least offers something, and the promised two forthcoming volumes will offer more. Indeed, one should be grateful for each dialogue -- and this is a fairly good sample, covering the whole spread of Schmidt's interests.
       These dialogues are informative and entertaining. Anyone who loves literature should love how it is presented here. Highly recommended.

       Note: Woods provides only English titles for the works discussed here, which in some cases (it seems to us) makes for less, rather than more clarity. Wouldn't it have been possible to give the original/actual title -- parenthetically or in footnotes or in a bibliography ? Indeed, a bit more supporting material generally would certainly not have been amiss.
       (Our least favourite example: in the Prelude Klopstock's Gelehrtenrepublik is mentioned, and Woods gives an English title -- Republica Intelligentsia. This, confusingly, isn't even English (though it does give a good idea of what Klopstock meant). Die Gelehrtenrepublik is also the title of one of Schmidt's own novels: it was translated by Michael Horovitz as The Egghead Republic (1979). Woods titles his translation of this particular Schmidt-work Republica Intelligentsia (published in Collected Novellas (1994)), so there is some uniformity -- but, since there are no explanations of any of this to be found anywhere, also considerable confusion.)

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Radio Dialogs I: Reviews: Arno Schmidt: Other books by Arno Schmidt under review: Books about Arno Schmidt under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of German literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       German author Arno Schmidt lived 1914-1979. In addition to his ground-breaking fiction, he wrote extensively on literature and authors and worked as a translator.

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