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the Complete Review
the complete review - dialogues

Radio Dialogs II

Arno Schmidt

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To purchase Radio Dialogs II

Title: Radio Dialogs II
Author: Arno Schmidt
Genre: Dialogues
Written: (Eng. 2003)
Length: 405 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Radio Dialogs II - US
Radio Dialogs II - UK
Radio Dialogs II - Canada
  • Translated and with an Introduction by John E. Woods
  • Dialogues on Johann Gottfried Schnabel, Johann Gottfried Herder, Adalbert Stifter, Gustav Frenssen, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and James Joyce
  • Originally broadcast on German radio between 1956 and 1969

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Our Assessment:

A- : another literary treat

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
American Book Rev. . 9-10/2003 Steven Moore
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction A- Fall/2003 James Crossley

  From the Reviews:
  • "Radio Dialogs would have benefited from a more comprehensive introduction to Schmidtís methods and perhaps an explanation of how this kind of typographical holy-foolery came across in an aural medium. Such supporting material isnít essential, however, and the book is unquestionably an intriguing puzzle that provides an infinite number of launching points for study and imagination." - James Crossley, Review of Contemporary Fiction

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:

       Arno Schmidt's radio dialogues are among the small literary gems of recent times. Written for (and broadcast on) German radio in the 1950s and 60s they were an attempt to bring the work of several dozen German and English authors to the attention of the reading public. They were not, however, merely didactic (though they certainly were that too), but were genuine entertainments -- dramatized dialogues (that fortunately also read very well). In one of the more admirable contemporary publishing ventures, Green Integer is presenting a generous (but, alas, not complete) selection of English translations of them in three volumes (see also our review of Radio Dialogs I) -- translated by the estimable John E. Woods (who is responsible for most of the other Schmidt-translations available in English -- see, for example, The School for Atheists). (Green Integer may appear generous in devoting resources to publishing these odd, fat little books about generally obscure and unknown authors, but we suspect that if the reading public ever catches on to what wonderful things these volumes are they'll be flying off the shelves.)
       Schmidt means to educate his listeners into readers with these dialogues, suggesting what true literature might have to offer. His success here lies in how he goes about it: this isn't pedantic professor-talk, lecturing to the listener or reader. No, this is passionate discussion, by an author with a true love for literature (and, like Nabokov, a very precise notion of what literature is (or might be)). And it is very learned passion: this isn't some young poet, swooning abstractly: Schmidt has read ... well, it sometimes seems like: everything, and he marshals good (if occasionally odd) arguments. He conveys his philosophy of life -- which is, of course, largely a philosophy or reading (and/or writing) -- and while he might not completely win over all readers, he at least convincingly shows what literature can be to anyone open to it. And all the while he entertains too, making for a marvelous, exciting reading experience.
       Schmidt does revel in obscurity -- there's no discussion of Goethe or Thomas Mann here (well, they do find mention in some of his dialogues -- but he doesn't hold them in quite the high regard many others do). Schmidt concentrates on authors that he believes are overlooked (and was, in fact, almost single-handedly responsible for the renewed interest in some of them in the German-speaking countries over the past decades). The unfamiliar names should not be off-putting to English-speaking readers: some of these authors are hardly more familiar to German-speaking readers (and one in this collection -- Edward Bulwer-Lytton -- certainly less so). And at least one of the authors in this collection is at least very familiar: James Joyce.

       The first dialogue in this collection introduces Johann Gottfried Schnabel, author of a mammoth novel called Insel Felsenburg ("Felsenburg Island") -- "a utopian Robinsoniade, a self-contained island of words to which Schmidt was only too happy to escape", as Woods describes it in his introduction. Schmidt admits the work is not entirely a success -- perhaps not surprising given how it got bloated to 2500 pages:

the dubious=obscene tintinnabulation grows louder and louder : the 1st and 2nd volumes are wonderfully fresh; but the 3rd is still already dubious, and the 4th nothing but a pitiable concoction "for the remuneration."
       But he still thinks more of it than "the far far more shallow Robinson Crusoe". Such island-worlds, cut off from civilization and allowing civilization to arise anew is a Schmidt favourite: he does it in several of his own books Schnabel's book particularly fascinates him because it is something he (and others) have effectively been able to cannibalize: literary influence always interests Schmidt, the trail of copying and imitation, and one of the admirable qualities of Schnabel's text was how it allowed itself to be used by others (while, at the same time, itself practically becoming lost and forgotten, overcome, in a sense, by the works built up on it).
       Schmidt also goes on an extended tangent showing the similarities between Tristan da Cunha and Felsenburg island -- interesting, among other reasons, because Schmidt points out:
Uncanny is when I have to discover the following absurdity : that people live on Tristan da Cunha in the same fashion Schnabel sketched for them -- at a time when the island group was devoid of all human life.
       The second dialogue discusses a more familiar figure, Johann Gottfried Herder. Another Schmidt-favourite, Christoph Martin Wieland (discussed in Radio Dialogs I) recognised Herder's talents early on, Schmidt quoting him: "I am eager to see what becomes of him : a perfect fool; or more probably, a very great writer !" As Schmidt explains:
For Wieland had spotted, and delighted in, that rarest of literary phenomena : a mind of polymath cast, for whom words tumble onto paper like a thick flurry of hot ashes. And here, in the case of Herder, or nowhere, is the place for an explicit vindication of such unfortunates : it is not easy to be a polymath !
       Schmidt follows Herder's complicated life -- enjoying, of course, among other things the comparison with Herder's sometime friend Goethe (who went on to greater success, but who Schmidt certainly holds to be generally less worthy). Schmidt -- himself no easy, sociable fellow -- understands the difficulties the difficult man Herder faced:
For it is a truism that all writers are incapable of friendship in the bourgeois sense, and moody by nature, undependable in their habits and malicious as monkeys.
       A prolific writer (Schmidt loves his prolific writers) who struggled for much of his life and ultimately was likely too ambitious for his own good: Schmidt recognises his important contributions -- but also notes: "one never feels quite at ease when reading Herder" and points out that: "one can refute Herder with Herder at every point !"

       The third dialogue is about Adalbert Stifter, and in particular his Nachsommer (a title translated here as Indian Summer (and, in one unfortunate typo, Indian Surnmer), which doesn't convey the beauty of the far more appropriate German word (literally: "After-summer"). Here, for once, Schmidt tackles an author who is -- or was, at the time -- well-known and favoured: "For some time now, Adalbert Stifter has been idolized, to the point one hardly dares having one's own opinion about his work".
       Nachsommer is another massive work -- "1 point 4 million letters ! -- and Schmidt is certainly all for what appears to be the fundamental idea behind it. As he explains, he believes:
There is one thing, however, that every poet should achieve just once : leave us a picture of the time in which he lived !
       Stifter's novel certainly aspires to be such a work -- but Schmidt finds much fault with it:
The pleonastic banality of the language must at last be branded for what it is; for consciously, or unconsciously, making a point of expressing anything and everything as prolixy as possible, whether out of elegant boredom or perhaps, as well, out of a helpless fear of the world.
       The fourth dialogue is an "exercise in tolerance", a look at the author Gustav Frenssen, taking the centennial of his birth to attempt a re-appraisal of the once famous but then disgraced Frenssen, one of the few German authors of any talent that actively supported the Nazi regime. Frenssen was also an extremely popular author, and Schmidt finds that in Frenssen's case this likely also complicated an accurate appraisal of his worth, as it was his poorer, less demanding works that found popular appeal, while his better (and more demanding) stuff was too difficult for many to deal with -- making the best of his work less likely to fall into the hands of even those who might be receptive to it.
       Schmidt shows that even the case of Frenssen is not easily reduced to black and white, and he handles the complex issues well. A good survey of the author's life and work, it culminates in his finding at least one of Frenssen's works -- Otto Babendiek -- "not top rank, certainly not; but all the same a good second-level masterpiece". In fact, he says if he had to reduce his library to a mere three hundred volumes, "it would be among them" -- high praise indeed. (Surprise, surprise, by the way: Otto Babendiek weighs in at thirteen hundred pages.)
       (In this dialogue one unfortunately finds the repeated misspelling (and printing in capital letters) of the name "FRIEDRICH NEITZSCHE": quite irritating.)

       Arno Schmidt translated about two dozen works from English into German, notably Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, Stanislaus Joyce's My Brother's Keeper, several James Fenimore Cooper novels -- and two of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's most massive novels, My Novel and What will he do with it ?. ("What will he do with it ?" is surely something everybody thought about those two manuscripts ... but he did get them published.) The fifth dialogue bravely tackles Edward Bulwer-Lytton -- and, in less than seventy pages, offers a more well-rounded picture of the man and especially his work than, for example, the most recent English-language biography, Leslie Mitchell's Bulwer Lytton. Schmidt again is very good in pointing out influence and regard, something otherwise easily overlooked, and while he skims across the surface manages still to provide a great deal of salient detail, giving a better impression of the man's accomplishments and significance than most full-length biographies or studies.
       As mentioned in the Stifter dialogue, Schmidt has a weakness for writers capturing their times, and Bulwer fit the bill with the novels that were "comprehensive portraits of the age" -- which include, of course, the two novels Schmidt translated. Of course, not everyone will be won over by praise such as:
At least the first 1,000 pages are the match for any of the familiar & approved large=solid family portraits d'outre mer -- and as for psychological subtlety ? : here and there BULWER is capable of outdoing them=all !
       The final dialogue is about James Joyce, written for the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death. (Another Joyce-dialogue can be found in Radio Dialogs I.)
       Schmidt's Joyce fascination is focussed almost entirely on the two last works: Ulysses and Finnegans Wake ("You would eliminate all the rest ?"; the answer: "In brief : yes"). He quickly goes through the earlier work, and then expands on the two favoured novels, offering his perspectives. On Ulysses he's not that far beyond popular explication -- but with Finnegans Wake he indulges in his pet etym-theory, showing how the book might be read, and insisting:
the queer, indeed forbidding prose of FINNEGAN is therefore not 'a higher foolishness'; but rather is perfectly open to a decoding. Indeed to several
       Again: not everyone is going to be convinced. Still, as always, Schmidt puts on a good show in explaining what he means.

       The dialogues are also enjoyable for some asides about literature in general, and it's place in the contemporary world, and Schmidt makes some fine points along the way. He gets on the case of unimaginative publishers:
They reprint all kinds of crap nowadays; devoid of all imagination : nothing against Werther : but there are thousands of editions out there ! 50 of the most immortal, yet fully forgotten books wait in vain; the litterati -- their eyes pasted shut, blinders for their whole bodies, bundles of stinkhorns in their crippled hands -- swarm around the book fairs : where is the publisher who will reprint these 50 books (and I'd be glad to supply him the titles !)?
       (It should be noted that Schmidt's influence was great enough to eventually lead to the re-publication of numerous such forgotten titles -- would that there were such a powerful voice in the English-speaking world !)
       He also defends his defense of those thousand-page tomes, arguing that readers would do well to spend such great lengths of time with characters -- and indeed that TV serials and the like are popular because viewers do in fact want to immerse themselves for extended periods of time in -- and be able to return to an -- ever-more familiar world, and that there's no reason the same should not apply to reading.

       The dialogues generally consist of a well-informed speaker and someone who poses more questions (or is at least in need of some enlightenment), as well as, occasionally a third voice used to present material by the author in question. Schmidt handles the form effectively, managing a bit of dramatic tension along the way, but always focussed on conveying as much information as possible.
       Like the preceding volume, this is a wonderful collection. It is a very literary collection, and readers who aren't very bookish probably won't find that much of interest, but for anyone with a love of literature it is highly recommended.
       Note also that comes in the marvelous Green Integer paperback format, a fat pocket-sized book measuring a comfortable six inches by four and a quarter, allowing one to conveniently carry it along everywhere -- as one will likely want to, until one has made it through all four hundred plus pages.

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Radio Dialogs II: Arno Schmidt: Other books by Arno Schmidt under review: Books about Arno Schmidt under review: Other books of interest under 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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