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A review of Lenz from Ritchie Robertson in The Times Literary Supplement


George Büchner’s story Lenz, written probably in October 1835 and published in 1839, tow years after its author’s early death, has become a totemic work of German literature.  It straddles fiction and documentary by sticking closely to the ascertainable facts concerning Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (1751-92), a poet and dramatist whose main works date from the Sturm and Drang period of the 1770s, and who fascinated Büchner as a literary ancestor.

Lenz and his generation revolted against neoclassical idealization, demanding instead the creation of lifelike characters.  Sharing the literary Anglophobia of eighteenth-century Germany, Lenz defined his aspirations by playing off Richardson against Fielding: “What is Grandison, that financial abstraction, compared to a Partridge who stands there in front of you?” he wrote in his programmatic Notes on Theatre (1774).  His preferences for Partridge, the comic servant in Tom Jones, indicates a commitment to “low” subject matter, reinforced by the enthusiasm for Shakespeare which was shared by Büchner sixty years later.  Büchner works into his narrative a dialogue on aesthetics where Lenz passionately defends realism: “What I demand in all things is life, the potentiality of existence, and that’s that; we need not then ask whether it be beautiful or ugly.”

Respect for reality also determines Büchner’s literary method.  He had access to unpublished documents reporting how in January 1778 Lenz, after being expelled from the presence of his adored Goethe in Weimar, stayed in the Vosges mountains with the famous Protestant clergyman J. F. Oberlin (after whom Oberlin College in Ohio is named). Oberlin’s own circumstantial narrative of Lenz’s stay is reprinted here.  It shows us how carefully Büchner adhered to the record, taking over entire sentences and, in particular, preserving as much as possible of the direct speech Oberlin retains.  Thus the moment when Lenz bursts into Oberlin’s house and, with his disheveled blonde locks, is initially mistaken for a journeyman but greeted with “Welcome, whoever you are,” is as vivid in Oberlin’s account as in Büchner’s narrative.  This respect for reality reminds us that Büchner was a contemporary of Carlyle, who, in his essay “Biography” (1832), comments on a little incident preserved by Boswell (when Johnson said to a street-walker, “No, no, my girl, it won’t do”): “Strange power of Reality! Not even this poorest of occurrences, but now, after seventy years are come and gone, has meaning for us.  Do but consider that it is true; that it did in very deed occur!”  But of course Büchner also interprets reality.  Lenz in 1778 was threatened with madness.  Having rebelled against an authoritarian father, he had unsuccessfully sought a substitute in Goethe.  He repeatedly tried to bolster his self-esteem by frequenting (perhaps harassing) women associated with his authority figures, such as Goethe’s ex-girlfriend Friederike Brion.  When rebuffed, he fell into appalling fantasies of guilt, imaging that he was a murderer who had sinned against the Holy Ghost.  He terrified the Oberlins by repeatedly attempting suicide, and had to be kept under constant watch.  Büchner shows us this mental state from the inside.  As Lenz crosses the mountains to reach Oberlin, landscape merges into mindscape: “gray clouds drifted across the sky, but every-thing so stifling, and then the fog floated up and crept heavy and damp through the bushes, so sluggish, so clumsy…Everything seemed so small, so near, so wet, he would have liked to set the earth down behind an oven.”  The inner desolation from which Lenz seeks refuge in Oberlin’s happily devout and orderly household finally triumphs when “atheism crept over him and held him fast in its firm imperturbable grasp.”

That last cadence, neatly matching the emphases of the original, illustrates Richard Sieburth’s verbal sensitivity.  Slips like “oven” above, where “stove” is required, or “the eternal Jew” which ought to be “the Wandering Jew,” are very rare.  Though this version does not surpass John Reddick’s excellent Penguin translation, it provides a worthy American counterpart.  Sieburth also provides detailed notes and a well-informed afterword, with much about Büchner’s Revolutionary and scientific activities, and a chronology of Lenz’s life. Büchner’s story, Oberlin’s recollections, and some unsympathetic paragraphs about Lenz from Goethe’s autobiography, are all given in German with the translation opposite.  As a result, Büchner’s limpid, direct, concrete and urgent prose is made accessible to learners of German, for whom this neat little book can be especially recommended.

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