Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Friedrich Schlegel, _Lucinde_, trans. Peter Firchow

I MAY BE among the every first to read this mainly in order to be up to speed for reading John Beer's new book.

I came to it out of obscure duty, then, but what a delight it turned out to be. Brief--only about ninety pages in this edition--but a wild ride. Published in 1799, Lucinde is "about" Julian and his…wife? lover?…Lucinde, and ignores all good principles of sound novelistic construction, past, present, and yet to come, with a thoroughness that is so complete as to be gleeful.

Like a good many of the novels that might broadly be called the progeny of Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther--Constant's Adolphe, Senancour's Obermann, Balzac's Louis Lambert, on up to Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and Teju Cole's Open City--Lucinde is less about narrative, plot, character, or setting than it is about the contours of a particular sensibility as it matures.

A case can be made for its structural coherence, I suppose, and translator Firchow, who wrote the introduction for this \volume, tries his best to make it, but the great delight of the book for me lay in its willingness to veer anywhere it wanted whenever it wanted, to take up lines of thought and abruptly drop them, to mix genres, to explain nothing save what it spontaneously felt like explaining.

Someone really ought to get the English translation of this back into print.  Used copies are going for forty and fifty dollars a shot, I noticed.

I think it was Morse Peckham who argued that Enlightenment thinkers were persuaded that human beings were best understood by analyzing them in some neutral, ordinary condition, but that Romantic thinkers were convinced that extremity--madness, criminality--or some other kind of marginalization from the normal--childhood, exile, poverty--revealed more authentically what the human was. Julian is a man in love, and the novel is largely about that peculiar exaltation, a deeply unusual state that may reveal more about us than our usual, customary condition does.

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