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Review of Lenz, from Susan Salt Reynolds, in The Los Angeles Times

 

First published in 1839, Lenz is a novella based on three weeks in the tortured life (1751 to 1792) of the schizophrenic Livonian playwright J.M.R. Lenz. This new translation includes two important additions: a section from the diary of the pastor J.F. Oberlin, who took care of Lenz for several weeks, and a portion of Goethe’s memoirs. (The two writers were friends in their early 20s.) Translator Richard Sieburth calls it “a cubist portrait painted from several perspectives at once,” but the most striking is Büchner’s original novella. Authors such as Rimbaud and Canetti were haunted by its intensity. Lenz’s madness is acute; he finds refuge in Oberlin’s household but is unbearably sensitive to every sound, emotion, flicker of light. “Only one thing remains, an infinite beauty passing from form to form, eternally unfolding,” he thinks in a calm moment. “Now I feel so confined… sometimes I feel as if my hands were hitting up against the sky; O I’m suffocating!” he cries in another. And sometimes he is so lucid that Goethe dismisses his madness as a “species of self-torture which, in the absence of any external or social constraints, was then the order of the day, afflicting precisely those possessed of the most exceptional minds.”

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