Arno Schmidt’s Leviathan

Last weekend I read the second of Arno Schmidt’s stories from the Collected Novellas. Entitled Leviathan or The Best of Worlds, this is a claustrophobic short story set during the Fall of Berlin. Presented as the diary of a dead German officer, the story recounts the attempted escape of a motley crew of soldiers and civilians on a steam train.

This being Schmidt, there is a lot more to the story than the high drama and love story that make up the surface reading. Read after Enthymesis, which I now gather (from poring over a Google-translated version of Arno Schmidt Stiftung) was issued with Leviathan and the following story, Gadir, as part of a triptych, the two stories assume a different texture, which I’m sure to reconsider after I read the last of the triptych.

In both cases what I’ve enjoyed most is trying to understand what Schmidt is attempting to say. Two reasonably short stories have sent me delving through reference books and web sites, and, autodidact that I am, taking some satisfaction from what I am learning and remembering along the way. I quite accept that this type of reading is a marginal taste. As Joyce wrote in The Dubliners: ““He would never be popular: he saw that. He could not sway the crowd, but he might appeal to a little circle of kindred minds.”

In Leviathan, as the train hurtles across Berlin, Schmidt’s narrator debates with an old man whether the universe is infinite or merely boundless. Without a working knowledge of Euclidean geometry, some of the nuances were lost on me, but I enjoyed picking through the philosophical and cosmological argument. If you’d care to recommend a decent layman’s book on the geometry of the universe, I’d be appreciative. Schmidt soon makes me aware of gaping holes in my understanding of cosmology.

Knowing that the two Schmidt stories are of a family makes it easier, to the extent anything is easy with Schmidt’s work, to grasp the references to the Book of Job; the argument that God is the creator of Leviathan and therefore responsible directly and indirectly for all moral evils. Enthymesis is then the projection of some or all of those evil attributes onto some person or thing below on earth, in this case within the Roman Empire or Nazi Germany. This reminds me that I’d like to read a decent translation of the Book of Job. Alfred Lord Tennyson called it “the greatest poem of ancient or modern times.” If you can recommend one that stands on its literary merits I’d be appreciative.

8 thoughts on “Arno Schmidt’s Leviathan

  1. I almost ordered this today but then I talked some sense into myself looking at the stacks of hopeful titles awaiting my attention. Are these readable and coherent pieces that invite but do not require further reading/research, at least at the surface level?


    • Yes, the stories are coherent without the need of any supplementary props, more than coherent in fact; his use of language, mediated by a translator that knows his subject’s work intimately, is very rewarding, Don’t be deterred by my geekiness. I’ve always been an obsessive reader of etymologies and dictionaries, with a tendency to branch wherever a writer’s work leads me. Schmidt’s work is highly allusive, so appeals to my autodidact’s curiosity. Having said all that, if you aren’t going to follow Schmidt down some of his rabbit holes, there will almost certainly be books on your reading pile more likely to reward your attention.

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      • Unfortunately I am the type to follow threads and I am currently weaving quite a tangled web between outside critical reviews (which demand more time, research and attention than my blog reviews) and the array of reading I am doing toward writing. One author/essay seems to lead to another. So I know that my resources are limited. I am most curious however, and with smaller pieces I could simply read one here and there. The book is not expensive (there is a collection of short stories too I noticed). There’s bound to be a lot of talk as the release of Bottom’s Dream nears and I will want to know what the fuss is about.

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        • I’m not reading these stories back to back. As I have this tendency to follow those threads, the stories are best read at home, and a lot of my reading is done while commuting or waiting around elsewhere.

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  2. i’m really enjoying you to dig out all the arno schmidt, and all the wonderful richness of his writing. it’s great stuff. coincidentally i read a lot of this guy at the moment, student of schmidt and fellow translator, just as great.

    @roughghost, yes they are eminently readable (depending on taste of course), and in my view you don’t need research, but more research makes them all the richer and even more enjoyable and even funny. you can start anywhere. (although i never read him in english so don’t know whether he suffers in translation)


    • I’ve been interested in your Wollschläger references, and enjoying your new blog. It doesn’t seem that any of Wollschläger’s work is in English translation (yet). I’d love to read his Herzgewächse one day.


      • i think you would enjoy that herzgewaechse thing, like schmidt but also then again completely its own thing. also nice to see you read redonnet. did so ages back but yeah that time compression thing struck me too. glad you like the new blog, i made the separation so as to do more blogging like back in the old days. you seem to blog more too which is good.

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