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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The School for Atheists

(Die Schule der Atheisten)

Arno Schmidt

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To purchase The School for Atheists

Title: The School for Atheists
Author: Arno Schmidt
Genre: Novel
Written: 1972 (Eng. 2001)
Length: 301 pages
Original in: German
Availability: The School for Atheists - US
The School for Atheists - UK
The School for Atheists - Canada
Die Schule der Atheisten - Deutschland
  • A Novella = Comedy in 6 Acts
  • German title: Die Schule der Atheisten: Novellen = Comödie in 6 Aufzügen
  • Translated and with an Introduction by John E. Woods
  • Written 1970-1971

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Our Assessment:

A- : unusual, challenging, entertaining

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Fall/2002 Eckhard Gerdes
TLS . 21/7/1972 S.S.Prawer

  From the Reviews:
  • "For the patient reader, this is a saucy story meatightily told, but Schmidtian pacing is quick only in its minutiae. The underlying plot is related slowly, but Schmidt’s playfulness is pyrotechnic." - Eckhard Gerdes, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "In fact, it would be hard to find any work, other than the much more difficult Zettels Traum, which affords so good an introduction to the world of the obsessed and fascinating writer. (...) This is a strange amalgam indeed (.....) The mixture works, however, and makes -- for the most part -- delightful reading. Arno Schmidt has here given us a refreshingly funny book, whose high and low comedy derives from many sources. (...) No less important, however, is the texture of Schmidt's language." - S.S.Prawer, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Zweideutig bleibt alles bis zum letzten Satz dieses epischen Gebildes einer Neurenaissance, das gleichzeitig auch Komödie ist und theologisch-politischer Traktat. (...) Auch der Optimismus des Schlusses ist nicht zu trauen." - Hans Mayer, Die unerwünschte Literatur (1989)

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 The School for Atheists is a play-novel. It is novelistic fiction, yet in play form (and a comedy, not a drama). It is presented in six acts, divided into many scenes. It opens with a "Playbill" ("Comödienzettel") -- introducing the settings and the cast of characters.
       The School for Atheists is, in appearance, vaguely play-like. But the form is Schmidt's own -- metadrama that becomes metafiction. The School for Atheists is unstageable: it is too massive, and too detailed. Dialogue dominates completely, but unlike in a play Schmidt does not leave it simply at that. Scenes are set with great precision, utterances and actions carefully described. Asides abound -- including everything from imagined "STIPULATIONS of a Rental = Agreement" ("PUNCTATIO eines Mieth = Contracts") between Plato and Aristotle to a scene straight out of Beaumont & Fletcher (from The Sea=Voyage).
       The work is exacting. Accounts and descriptions are thorough: Schmidt wants to convey very distinct impressions, and often leaves practically nothing for the reader to fill in. (Much of the writing is, however, in a dense, clipped style.) The School for Atheists is, often, textbook exact. The work is more than even cinematic, since much of what Schmidt offers is not merely physical description, but referential: background, allusion, emphasis, explication. Elaboration builds on elaboration.
       The School for Atheists is one of Arno Schmidt's oversize typoscript-fictions (DIN A3 in the original). Schmidt also presents much of the text in unusual form. Narratives run side by side, incidental notes are presented carving out portions of pages, -- and there are even a few illustrations. In addition, Schmidt's wordplay runs riot throughout the text.
       Sound is more important to Schmidt than spelling, rooting in etymology is an exercise he can't pass up at any turn, and every few sentences he forces two words where usually there is only one (beginning a word with the same letters, for example, but allowing for two endings, e.g. go- -thic/-dless, or changing the middle letters, e.g. c- -rit/-yn -ical). And those are only the most obvious aspects of the writing.

       The School for Atheists is also a work of science fiction. It opens "at the foot of 7 October 2014", and is set largely in the German town of Tellingstedt. The "First Doomsday" shifted the world's political landscape. Germany is here again caught between East and West in a Cold War-type atmosphere, but the two world powers are the USA and China. Representatives for these two nations have come to Tellingstedt to negotiate: the American Secretary of State, Nicole Kennan (also known as "ISIS") and China's foreign minister, Yuan Shi Kai. Eventually they agree to a "Toleration Pact".
       About a week's worth of negotiations and misadventures are covered, but the focus is less on the conflict between the ruling powers than on the life -- domestic and public -- of local justice of the peace, William T. Kolderup. Kolderup is also central to the goings-on between the ISIS and Yuan, but much more of the book focusses on the behind the scenes day to day activities in the Kolderup household.
       Kolderup is an august 75, a serious, literary type -- and last bridge to the old world. Kolderup is a true Schmidtian edifier and bookworm, and much of his conversation involves allusions to and descriptions of the obscure and forgotten texts Schmidt so loves. The idea of "library as harem, as seraglio" is among those that appeal to him.
       Kolderup's 17 year-old granddaughter, Suse, lives with him, and her friend "Nipperchen" comes to join the household too. The young ladies liven up much of the narrative, as they face different sorts of issues. (They also seem almost perpetually in some sort of states of undress.) Old and new, old ways and new ways, are in constant tension -- half typical youth-contra-age, half commentary on the dystopian future Schmidt offers. It also allows Schmidt (through Kolderup) to lecture extensively -- though, as always, in entertaining fashion.
       There is a second narrative in the book as well, recounted by Kolderup: forty five years earlier, in 1969, he was on board a ship with ISIS' mother, Marjorie Kennan, and several others. It was occasion, again, for great disputation and argument, with a somewhat literary and philosophically minded crowd. (In a typical Schmidt touch, Kolderup's "travel library" ("ReiseBiblio") consisted solely of the two volumes of Theodor Däubler's Nordlicht and a volume of Jean Paul.)
       A shipwreck back then complicated matters -- and made for more serious talk. The situation also allowed for, in a sense, a "school for atheists".
       Schmidt never had much respect for religion, god bless him, and he makes his case here again. He also finds room to expound on his not always sympathetic political views:

Before the First Doomsday, people 'd become 40=hour=a=weekers, meaning >totally underworkt<; ('nd then were f'rever striking, tòò; until entire economies were shot to hell; 'nd the helpless governments, as always knew nothing better than to divert attention, and start a war) [...] >To blame< ? : why, ultimately, as for so many things, Christentomb - (?) : well b'cause , f'rexample, it sabotaged any reasonable birth-control. And represst the insite : that the greatest beasts of burden & moralists are THE ATHEISTS !; (every gover'ment that wants to advance its interests oughta keep a good %age of 'em on hand.)

( Vor'm Erstn WeltUntergang waren die Menschn 40=Stundn=Wöchner gewordn; d's heißt >total unterarbeitet<; (und da streiktn sie nòch andauernd; bis ebm sämtliche VolksWirtschaftn kaputt gingn; und die ratlosn Regierungn, wie immer, nichts andres mehr wußtn, als, zur Ablenkung, 'n Krieg anufangn) [...] >Schuld< ? : war, wie an so vielem, imgrunde das Christentumb - (?) : nu weil's, zum Exemplel, eine vernünftige GeburtnRegelung sabotiert hat. Und ebm auch die Einsicht verhinderte: daß die größtn ArbeitsTiere & Moralistn, DIE ATHEISTEN sind !; (jede Regierung, die ihren Vorteil kennt, sollte sich einen guten %satz davon haltn). )
       The stories in Schmidt's novel are themselves interesting enough, but of course it is the singular presentation that is the true appeal. Story, character, morals are all enriched by the presentation. It's not your usual book -- novel, drama, or what have you -- but it's not your usual experimental fiction either. Form and style here are used for depth rather than flash. They also make for surprisingly rich characters -- Kolderup and Suse, in particular, but others too. And the stories gain from the multifacetation as well.
       Yes, there's a lot of word play, and a seeming excess of allusion (much of which will probably be impenetrable to many readers -- sorry, no annotations or footnotes beyond Schmidt's own included !) and what appears, at first glance, to be a dizzying jumble of print. But there is a lot of story, a lot of action, a lot of thought and cleverness as well -- and it does unfold clearly enough, if read closely enough. It won't be to everyone's taste -- be warned, be very warned -- but for anyone in the least bit interested in what all can still be done with the written on the page, it is certainly recommended.

       John Woods' translation (and the Green Integer edition in general) is a marvel. Translation is a horrible thing, and Schmidt, with his constant wordplay (and typographical play) would seem more untranslatable than most. However, Schmidt's etym-ological interests, his rooting in / for word-roots, and his poly-glot/gluttony make for a metaGerman original that does, in many respects, simplify the foreign re-renderers task; in addition, English is the popular second tongue in the book.
       The English version of The School for Atheists is a page-for-page re-creation of Die Schule der Atheisten -- easing the task of comparing original and copy (and allowing one to use the English version even regarding references to the original). Bless Woods & GI for making it so !
       The book looks largely as it does in the original (only the format is slightly smaller) and all of Schmidt's games, illustrations, etc. have been preserved. (However, unlike in the German original the dual-words -- written in tiny type one above the other in the original -- are here presented still at different levels but slightly askew: aesthetically not quite as pleasing, but perhaps the only possibility, given the smaller page-size.)
       Woods' translation is an impressive one. He attacks the text gamely, and manages very well for most of the way. Much of the dialogue and description is in dialect, and almost everything is presented in the abbreviated and elliptical style of everyday speech and thought, but Woods manages to find English equivalents all the way through. He manages to preserve an astonishing amount of Schmidt's wordplay: the dual meanings, the alternate-words-in-one-description, and the rest.
       Of course, Schmidt can and should only be read in the original, but for the non-native speaker that is a daunting undertaking. Woods can't keep the same hard edge as Schmidt does, line after line after line, as Woods is forced to soften and limit at every turn (that's what translation is: choosing, limiting, reducing -- making for a soggy version of the original (though this one is crisper than most)). But for those who can't appreciate the original Woods offers a damn fine alternative. It is the equivalent of a postcard reproduction of an oil painting, but the original is so impressive that even this will do.
       (A rare disappointment comes with the epigraph that opens the book, taken from the finale of Verdi's Falstaff. Cf. the three versions:
Tutto nel mondo é burla. / L'uom é nato burlone, / La fede in cor gli ciurla, / Gli ciurla la ragione.

Alles ist Spaß auf Erden, / der Mensch ein geborener Tor; / (und dünkt er sich weise zu werden, / ist er dümmer noch, als zuvor).

Life's for the satirizer, / and furthermore man's a born fool; / (and should he think himself wiser, / he's more foolish than an old mule). )
       Woods also offers a brief (two page) but perfectly adequate introduction, warning of the "verbal hellamaumau" to be found here (and noting that a quick glimpse of the unusual-looking text might already be enough to put off or turn on the prospective reader). (Woods does mix up the dates of publication of this novel and Evening Edged in Gold here, which might cause some confusion: he notes that The School for Atheists lies in between Zettels Traum and Evening Edged in Gold, but then gives dates that suggest otherwise -- no, that's not a Schmidtian game, just a mistake.)

       As the only one of Schmidt's typoscripts currently in print in English (Evening Edged in Gold has long been out thereof, Zettels Traum and Julia remain untranslated), it is a must-have for any Schmidt-fan. It is also highly recommended to any and all who are interested in modern literature. A remarkable work, and an impressive translation. (But go for the original if you can.)

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The School for Atheists: Reviews: Die Schule der Atheisten - the play: 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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