Bottom’s Dream – Arno Schmidt (translated by John E. Woods) – Initial thoughts

bottomsdreamYesterday was the anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s death, he died on 7 October 1849 aged forty. Making this an appropriate day to put together my first thoughts on Arno Schmidt’s “Bottoms Dream”.

Why the link to Edgar Allan Poe? More will be revealed shortly.

Let’s start off with my initial thoughts of this massive work. As most visitors here would know this book is massive, besides running to close to 1500 pages, each page is A3 in size.

Upon opening this work you are confronted with a language that appears to not be English. You then very quickly notice that each page is split into various shapes and columns. First thoughts obviously being oh my god, what is this? How on earth will I be able to read this? Answering yourself is simple you cannot explain this book and it will be read with extreme difficulty. That is not to say that it won’t be an enjoyable journey through this monolith, an eye opening experience in German (and world) literature.

I had been fortunate enough to spend time researching this book before it arrived on my doorstep, and what a massive package that was. Research lead me to “The Untranslated” blog where the owner had spent months on end reading, in German, this book and explaining the intricacies. I can assure you it is a very useful reference site.

Whilst I have no intention of replicating the detailed explanations at the untranslated blog, for those intending to take on this work, here’s a few brief explanation as to the structure, characters, language etc.

Firstly, the structure: The page is split into three columns (on the majority of pages), the left column primarily containing discussions about and quotes from Edgar Allan Poe’s collected works, the right column primarily containing quotes from other works of literature, myth or newspaper clippings and the centre column containing the main narrative. However these columns, at times, overlap, the page is a canvas.

Next up the main characters: we have Daniel Pagenstecher, an Edgar Allan Poe expert, Paul and Wilma Jakobi, Poe translators and their sixteen-year-old daughter Franziska. Throughout the text the characters are abbreviated they become P, W, F, D, Dän, Franzel, Fr, or DP. Having said that DP is also a “displaced person” or “Writer-Priest” – for more detail see The Untranslated blog – There are two types of writer’s “DP’s are averse to technical progress and innovation; they ‘flee civilisation’, but by doing it they also reject science and the very spirit that enables them to write in the first place: “to all intents and purposes these DP gentlemen would prefer to completely abandon >spirit< as week=fantastic and lecherous (geil) little creature: and write just >automatically<.” This refers to Poe – and note it is quoted from a blog post and not James Wood’s translation of the book. “The second category is Mosaikarbeiter (Mosaic Worker). Schmidt is one of those and artisan who creates texts from already available tesselae rather than through some mystical inspiration.

Which leads me to the “mosaic tiles” that Schmidt uses here. The book’s original title is “Zettel’s Traum”, a Zettel being an index card, Schmidt writing and collecting over 130,000 Zettel’s which were used in the construction of this text. So why Zettel = Bottom in the translation? The character Bottom from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by William Shakespeare speaks the epigraph to this “novel”. (I have copied this letter for letter so if there are typos I have copied them).

>>I have had a most rare vision! I have had a dream – past the wit of man to say what a dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was – there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had – but man is put a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report whay my dream was. – <<

And the German translation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” had the character Bottom translated as “Zettel”.

Onto the story itself, it commences with Paul, Wilma and Franziska, just before dawn, heading across “Horrorfield” after croxxing the barbed wire represented as follows:


The horrorfield is full of rusty barbed wire, thistles, that they will come across later, which detract campers and there are cows (a few quotes to give you the idea):

(Cows & clouds : symbols of one another)

:>Ana moo=moo!<

Cause I bull calf came bounding over; and in delite at this rare visit lifted up an amorfuss cry:!

If you are going to tackle this book I do suggest you have a dictionary handy, as well as other reference materials. Within the first few pages I had learned that a “dragoman” was an interpreter, translator and official guide between Turkish, Arabic and Persian speaking countries. Translation is part of the story, Paul and Wilma are Poe translators, there it is an important element, even if it is a tireless activity, “before I could distinguish twixt >dragoman< and >dromedary<”

Another essential reference is the collected works of Edgar Allan Poe, for example within the first pages (second page) we have “My wanderings amid such scenes have been many & fur=surching (FAY)” is a reference to “The Island of Fay” by Poe. Which in part reads:

The other, or eastern end of the isle was whelmed in the blackest shade. A somber, yet beautiful and peaceful gloom here pervaded all things. The trees were dark in color and mournful in form and attitude – wreathing themselves into sad, solemn, and spectral shapes, that conveyed ideas of mortal sorrow and untimely death. The grass wore the deep tint of the cypress, and the heads of its blades hung droopingly, and hither and thither among it, were many small unsightly hillocks, low, and narrow, and not very long, that had the aspect of graves, but were not, although over and all about them the rue and rosemary clambered. The shade of the trees fell heavily upon the water, and seemed to bury itself therein, impregnating the depths of the element with darkness. I fancied that each shadow, as the sun descended lower and lower, separated itself sullenly from the trunk that gave it birth, and thus became absorbed by the stream; while other shadows issued momently from the trees, taking the place of their predecessors entombed.

Yes – within two pages of “Bottom’s Dream”, I have headed off and read a five-page short story by Edgar Allan Poe. As you can see the mood of the traveler’s scenery is depicted by a few short words in the left hand column, prompting you to branch off and read Poe. This story aligns with “>>so I day in green pastures ‘ll do him good; get his mind on other things._ niletest=blouse?-<<” exploring the wonders of nature.

Other reference material is required, for example the right column, second page, refers to Archimago, the sorcerer from Spencer’s “The Faerie Queen” (fortunately I have a copy) aligning with a reference to Wilma’s “bosom” and on the first page there is a quote “did diuide her daintie paps” (refers to young pert breasts) aligning with the dress description of the sixteen-year-old Franziska. The work full of sexual innuendo, in fact the discussion of sexual subjects are references as “S” to keep the virginal ears of F away from the subject.

As I have already mentioned, this is deeply rooted in language, for example the fourth page refers to the word ‘goosebumps, “The Ancient Romans?:- They didn’t kno the feeling: They didn’t have a word for it!<<” Each sentence you read you are dwelling on references, you are reveling in the wonder of language, the tone, the sound, reading this aloud becomes a ritual and you fall into a spell of the text, even if you do not have a clue what is going on.

I know that I am in for an amazing journey here, it will be a long long one and it will have bumps and delays, but already the style, the referencing, the delving is doing wonders for my other reading exploits. Given the sheer size of this book it stays on a large table, with a notebook and Collected works of Poe nearby, and therefore as I travel to work each day I read another book. At the moment I am reading more poetry and essays as the shorter form being more flexible when having to switch from one text to another.

Back to Edgar Allan Poe, let’s finish the first journey through a few pages of Arno Schmidt with a quote by Schmidt, about Poe, in “Bottom’s Dream”:

– Let us agree to the following : he was an interesting writer; and unusual human beings are always somewhat rare : one may boldly term as >original< that person of whom there are a mere=thousand like him, and have him stufft after death,<</:

13 thoughts on “Bottom’s Dream – Arno Schmidt (translated by John E. Woods) – Initial thoughts

  1. This is fun. I am not the least little bit tempted to get a copy myself, but I know I am going to enjoy your adventures as you work your way through it.
    Now, technical tip for your shiny new blog. I see you have tagged your post with Bottom’s Dream, and yes you do have a search button, but perhaps you could add a tag cloud (you’ll find it in widgets) so that readers can click on all your posts tagged Bottom’s Dream and find them all together at once. If you look at my tag cloud you can see where I have done that for Ulysses, Disordered Thoughts of an Amateur, where I did a post for each chapter of the book as I read it.
    (You could also start a Categories widget (GermanLit/Experimental Lit, whatever?)
    PS Would love to see a photo of how you’ve set things up to read the book!


  2. PPS, remember, if you do post photos, to check the image size. WP will upload big images, but they will slow down the loading of your blog, if not immediately, then over time. For rural readers with lousy internet access (bring on the NBN, the real one!) this can be the difference between being able to read your blog or not, because (as I’ve found in places like the Hunter Valley and parts of Burleigh on the Gold Coast) the page will time out.


  3. I’ve seen this monolith of a book floating around but haven’t done much looking into it, so this post is the first I’ve actually properly read about it. It sounds like a very daunting book, but also fun – a proper reading project I think. Good luck to you!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I have discovered two things from your post:
    1) How much I am going to enjoy following your reading of Bottom’s Dream
    2) That’s it’s not really 1500 pages – it’s probably at least three times that when you take into account the sources, research, etc!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Bottom’s Dream – Arno Schmidt (tr John E. Woods) pages 57-71 | Messenger's Booker (and more)

  6. Pingback: A World of Ulysses? | Messenger's Booker (and more)

  7. Pingback: German Literature Month – Celebrating Arno Schmidt’s ‘Bottom’s Dream’ | Vishy's Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s