THE CLOWN PRINCE of contemporary German fiction, Arno Schmidt, died last year, the author of some 20 novels, a satirist who first wrote rather straight, pessimistic, intensely visual allegories of post-Nazi society, with excursions into the time of Alexander the Great and A.D. 541, and then soared into tight, allusive word-play that translates uncommonly well into English. Although a couple of his other untranslated novels might have been a more prudent introduction to his work, what we are now offered takes us right into Schmidt as his feistiest, his most ingenious, and his most captivating.
Much of The Egghead Republic (1957) is sheer, complex fun, the book's time being the year 2008, when an American journalist, Winer, visits two secret regions of the globe: an Arizona desert reserve, complete with mutants and experimental hybrids (centaurs, for example, and spiders with human heads), and an island afloat in the Pacific which serves as a ghetto for intellectuals. In Arizona the flippant Winer, having fun while compiling his report, learns the arts of love from Thalia, a centauress with an ashblond mane who is "24 Gow-chromms" old and who gives him supplementary tuition in the aphrodisiac uses of stinging nettles. On the jet-propelled island he learns about brain transplants and the art of freezing geniuses, neither of which gives him half the kick of the centauress' huge tongue in his mouth ("tasted good and warm; of grass-seeds") or watching centaur calves crack eggs with their hooves.
The reader may sigh for a less convulsive, less telegraphic prose style (supposedly Winer's fault of course), and fewer entities so close to cartoon, as well as wishing the egghead island weren't routinely polarized between East and West; but there is enough snazzy stuff to keep you cheerful as you flash forward from paragraph to paragraph (each with its topic sentence or phrase in eye-catching italics), assimilating puns ("moronsters," "inconsolubly," "I wasn't Her Cules after all") while over-hearing Winer report on centaur soccer, a boy in love with a butterfly, the island's being made from 123,000 steel chambers riveted together, novels written by a committee called "Cadre 8," the "brain-sized dallop" of mashed potato you get in the greasy spoon near the transplant clinic, and the quaintest epiphany of all: "If a strapping 30-year-old had her brain transplanted into a young man she could spend one or two nights with her own other-brained body."
Perhaps the sprightiest (and least overtly exploited) jape is that Winer's ostensible report, done in 21st-century American, has been punitively translated by the authorities into German, by then a dead language, from which we now have a retranslation back into 21st-century American, based on the text known as "Specimen No. 5 (Valparaiso)." If the tenses bother you, tempting you to re-cast "has been" into "will have been," they should; this is a prophetic novel, spawned by insecurity and especially by nightmares of impermanence, such as the one in which 2008 and 2009 never come, except in fiction (though 1984 looks reasonably certain now).
Whereas The Egghead Republic is a textual freak, a forward anachronism, Evening Edged in Gold dramatizes the fluid phase in a text's history known as the Final Draft. Weighing 10 pounds, measuring 17 inches by 13, and hard to manage manually unless you have a piano to rest it on, Evening takes the form of a reproduced type-script, thus reminding you that it might never have been published at all (and in one sense it hasn't, not at a price beyond the pockets of most booklovers). Presumably any paperback edition would also have to have the same format; wide lines, which excitingly lead the eye much farther to the right than usual, pages divided into two or three columns to convey a slewed simultaneity and pose the mesmerizing choice of which column to tackle first, other pages designed to be read from bottom to top, while still others sport important or trivial information set off in the margins or in boxes. Deletions, maps, postage stamps, clippings from magazines, diagrams, quotations, doodles and asides drag at the eye all over the place, signs not of a book gone wrong but of a book going fabulously well, a book which reveals the author's mind in the fine frenzy of cooking things up, attempting different versions of one phase, and most of all auditing a tumult of language which is the backdrop against which the novel's compound voice will finally come clear.
Such is the narcissistic side of an engrossing superbook, superbly and creatively translated, whose title page says, disarmingly enough, "Materials gathered: 1972-75," as if the whole thing were an idiosyncratic album of folk songs, nursery rhymes, graffiti, or curses: unique but unintruded into. In a sense that's true of this last book, in which Schmidt voluptuously spreads himself over a continuum of voices heard and overheard, misheard and unheard of, awash with lubricious puns and preposterous echoes that bring back all the dead folk behind the words in the dictionary. Fifty-five scenes in 20 acts over three consecutive days, it transforms humdrum material into golden garrulity. A couple of girls go to swim in a pond early in October 1974, and a couple of days later take a shower together, but are you ready for this?
"The swimming=hole by Klappendorf, a bawling of color on green ('You are ev'rything to me, 'cause I love you 'xclusiv'lee: Micae=la=a=a), in the afternoon lite. Very warm for the 1st of October (24*!): little white clouds, pasturing themselves, ("The aviong's leaving trayls' Ann'Ev' remarkt; but Martina: 'Aw c'mon. The wind's doing 0.03; kdn't thro a bee from a buttercup.')"
Or this, in the shower, where "2 smooth creatures" are "saponifizing each other" and Ann'Ev' says "Do y sents it, too, when the forbidden wishes a men gather about you!
What does your mutsch feel & say?"; (tss; ought t be briter lite-bulbs in here . . ."
Other prosaic material -- oldster taking breakfast on the terrace, dreaming of infinity, gathering elderberries, digging for treasure -- yield Joycean figures no less rich, and, once your eye has settled down to Schmidt's typographical ways, no less comprehensible. True, a few of the dozen or so characters are offbeat to begin with, one being a double amputee from the thigh down, another an 11-year-old already a widow several times over, but the rest are average sensual creatures -- very sensual indeed during one three-columned sequence, really a three-ring sexual circus, in which the middle column, spoken to each other by Martina and Ann'ev', turns high voyeuristic Iyricism whipped up by the bawdiness that flanks it. It's as if the two girls have read the words on either side of them.
What is so wonderful and welcome in this masterwork is how the voices, the narrator-cum-stage-director's among them, transcend themselves nonstop; what the reader hears in the mind's ear, never from whom, is the human heart of all the ages lustily or dreamily talking loneliness and boredom to a standstill. Or, contrariwise, fixating on bodily pleasure, in which this book abounds, until the mind almost (but never quite) gives up. The passages I'd really like to quote are so radiantly blunt that no newspaper would print them; but they can be found, on great big creamy pages that turn like wafting sails and settle with a noise of canvas. Be careful not to sprain your wrist.