When The Novices of Sais was translated into French in 1925, the surrealists avidly embraced it and claimed Novalis as a guiding light. The English translation by Ralph Manheim was first published in 1949. It included an introduction, as it does now in this elegant reprint, by the English poet Stephen Spender, who compares Novalis to Keats, and presented sixty stunning drawings by the Swiss-born German artist Paul Klee (1879 — 1940), images created not as illustrations but rather as visual improvisations on Novalis’s tale. There are, therefore, two poets at work in the body of this mysterious and transporting book, one using language, the other line. And what an intriguing, epoch-spanning duet they form.
Novalis envisions a gathering of novices, or spiritual seekers, in the ancient Egyptian city of Sais. They have gathered around their teacher, who has meditated so intently on life “he ceased to see anything by itself.” The novices, some ebullient, some morose, share their thoughts and revelations, tell stories, and listen to the tales of travelers on their own quests for meaning. As one voice takes up where another leaves off, an esoteric, occasionally wry, sometimes exalted, otherwise down-to-earth, wistful, and shrewdly open-ended discourse takes shape. The eloquent speakers dissect everything from the role of poets and scientists in society to the nature of true love, and ask whether it is nobler to live a life of solitary reflection or one of joyful human connection.
There is much to parse and contemplate here, and so tightly grained and subtle are Novalis’s arguments, so pointed his portraits of the novices, so crystalline the details he limns, that his enchanted prose poem yields new insights with each reading. Novalis’s lustrous style and penetrating vision call to mind the books of W. G. Sebald, another writer whose work is at once mythic, philosophical, and acutely attuned to the living world. Like Novalis, Klee was born into a time of bloody upheavals, war, and radical change, and he, too, became a perceptive and passionate student of nature. His imagination was also stoked by both the magic of fables and the reason of philosophical inquiries. Klee looked to the subconscious for inspiration and sought to retain the spontaneity of a child when making art. The son of a music teacher and a musician himself, Klee brought the fluency of music to his fantastic drawings in their grace of composition, the rhythm of their patterns, and their subtle resemblance to musical scores.
Just as Novalis creates a streaming narrative, Klee’s drawings look as though he never lifted pen from paper. They are as faceted as crystals, as meshed as leaves, as finely patterned as a shell. Klee’s complex, lovely, whimsical, and enigmatic drawings evince a profound affinity for Novalis and add dimension to the intricate text, while Novalis’s fable provides a provocative context for Klee’s images.