Lenz: A Stream of Dreamfulness

I had not heard of Archipelago Books until recently I received their editions of Lenz by Georg Buchner and Three Generations by Yom Sang-seop. Archipelago is devoted to literature in translation, a noble and valuable devotion, because so much writing from throughout the past and present still waits to be brought to the United States.

Three Generations, in a translation from the Korean by Yu Young-nan, will have to wait a while for comment from me, because it's a nearly-500-page family saga, and so I'm going to save it for this summer, when I have time to savor it. (And savor not just the words and story, because Archipelago's books are beautiful artifacts, with high-quality paper and binding, and tasteful design.)

Lenz, though, is a work I have already read in a couple of different translations, and it's short, so I was able to read the entire book in a few days. This edition is not just another translation of Buchner's remarkable and innovative short story, but includes along with the story two manuscripts that Buchner drew on for inspiration.

Buchner's story, here translated admirably by Richard Sieburth, is based on some moments in the life of Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (1751-1792), a contemporary of Goethe who is best remembered, if he is remembered at all, for two plays, The Tutor and The Soldiers, both of which are minor masterpieces. (The Tutor was adapted by Brecht, which gave it some momentary notice in the middle of the 20th century. Lenz also wrote poetry, essays, and an epistolary poem, but they haven't garnered much attention over the years, at least not in the U.S.) Lenz seems to have suffered from schizophrenia, and his erratic behavior, delusions, and suicide attempts are the primary focus of Buchner's story.

Sieburth calls Lenz "an experiment in speculative biography, part fact, part fabrication". Read on its own, the story seems more like an experiment in point of view, of a writer burying a narrative within the subjective experience of an unhinged mind. The reader must be attentive and imaginative when reading Lenz, because the events of the story, the things outside of Lenz's consciousness, are described mostly as they affect his perception of them. It's a kind of mild stream of consciousness, and yet not -- more a stream of dreamfulness. Here's a passage from the beginning:
He went through the village, lights shone through the windows, as he passed by he saw children at tables, old women, young girls, the faces all calm and quiet, the light seemed to pour forth from them, he felt at ease, he was soon in the parsonage in Waldbach. They were sitting at the table, he went in; curls of blond hair fell around his pale face, his eyes and mouth twitched, his clothes were torn. Oberlin welcomes him, he took him to be a journeyman. "Welcome, whoever you are." --I am a friend of ... and bring you greetings from him. "Your name, if you please?" ...Lenz. "Aha, it's appeared in print, hasn't it? Haven't I read several plays attributed to a gentleman by this name?" Yes, but I beg you not to judge me by that. They continued talking, he searched for words and they came tumbling out, but it was torture; little by little he calmed down, the cozy room and the tranquil faces looming out of the shadows, the bright facce of a child on which all the light seemed to rest, trusting eyes raised in curiosity, and finally the mother sitting quietly back in the shadows, angel-like.
One of the many values of this edition is that it includes the primary document Buchner consulted as a source of his tale, the diary of Johann Friedrich Oberlin, the pastor who cared for Lenz for three weeks in 1778, and so readers can compare what Buchner wrote to his source:
At first glance, given his long curly hair, I took him to be some sort of traveling apprentice; his candid manner however soon revealed that his hair had misled me. --"Welcome, whoever you are." "I am a friend of K...'s and bring you his compliments." -- "Your name, if you please?" -- "Lenz." -- "Aha, it's appeared in print, hasn't it?" (I remembered having read a few plays that had been attributed to a gentleman by this name.) He answered: "Yes; but I beg you not to judge me by them."

We took pleasure in his company; he made sketches of some of the local costumes of the Russians and Livonians for us; we discussed their customs, etc. We put him up in the guest room in the schoolhouse.
I have admired for years the mix of solid realistic details and mystic visions of madness that Buchner balanced in Lenz, a technique that is the literary equivalent of an optical illusion: viewed from one perspective, everything in the story is fantastical; from another, even the most bizarre moments have the heft of realism. Now, though, having had the chance to read Oberlin's words for the first time, I am in awe of Buchner's alchemy, his ability to transform the flat facts of events into something that is not historical fiction so much as it is a kind of life-giving to the dead past. The events and dates and details that are necessary for a textbook study of history are here subsumed in the material that fiction is so well suited for conveying: the intimate, transient details of thought, memory, and sensation.

The Archipelago edition of Lenz also includes some excerpts from Goethe's Poetry and Truth that describe Lenz with less sympathy and more amusement than either Buchner or Oberlin did. Sieburth says, "What emerges from the juxtaposition of these three temporally and generically distinct visions of the figure of Lenz is something like a cubist portrait painted from several perspectives at once -- a multiple exposure of an original model too evasive to be seized by any single image." It's an interesting idea, and an accurate description of the experience of reading this edition from cover to cover.

My one regret about this edition is that it contains nothing by Lenz himself -- his "Remarks on Theatre" would have been appropriate to include, for instance. (As would some of Buchner's letters.) It may have been a good decision, though, to include nothing by the real Lenz, because this book is not so much about the truth of history as it is about the truth of feeling, or, rather, the multiple truths of perception.

For anyone interested in how a genius uses source material for the creation of fiction, this book is invaluable -- it is simply thrilling to be able to compare Oberlin's account to Buchner's story and to measure the boorish practical joker of Goethe's account with the strange and enigmatic creature depicted by the other two writers. The facts of history and biography seem almost petty beside the fierce beauty collected here, and Buchner's experiment in the sympathetic imagining of madness becomes more impressive and complex than it ever has before.

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