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Leopard

Leopard

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Die Insel des zweiten Gesichts: Aus den angewandten Erinnerungen des Vigoleis - Albert Vigoleis Thelen ( The Island of Second Sight , by Albert Vigoleis Thelen - 1903-1989)In the seven months or so I have been a member of GR, I have run across a good number of books I would otherwise never have heard about. But I thought I had a fairly decent idea of 20th century German literature; I was not expecting a big surprise from that corner. However, in the Buried Book Club, moderated by the most dashing, but punctuationally challenged Nathan "N.R." Gaddis (all praise be to Him), I ran across a mention of a great work of German literature from the early 1950's I had never even heard a whisper of before. No way! That's my revier! With likes to Jonathan and Rod, whose reviews convinced me, I sought far and wide for the book in German und bin fündig geworden. With glowing recommendations by two of my favorite authors, Thomas Mann and Paul Celan, urging me on, I dived into the 915 thin pages with densely set, small type and started swimming for my life. Wow! And again wow! Thelen lifted himself into my little pantheon of German stylists.Though the book is based upon his own experiences, Thelen holds the story at a certain distance by telling the story about Vigoleis, his stand in, who is often, but certainly not always, indistinguishable from the author. Thelen plays around with this sometimes present, sometimes absent ironic distance. Indeed, das zweite Gesicht has two meanings in German: "second sight" and "second face", and both meanings are played upon alternately throughout the book. Vigoleis is Thelen's second face. And Vigoleis/Thelen sometimes has second sight.Already the title warns that Thelen is going to use one of the pleasures of literature which is least amenable to translation - the pun. These range from simple little joys likeDie Eifersucht ist eine Leidenschaft, die mit Eifer sucht, was Leiden schafft.to the deeper investigations into the wonders of German compound words strewn throughout the text. Thelen, whose bedside books always included the great dictionary composed by the Grimm brothers (yes, those Grimm brothers) - still known as the richest mine in the German language - loved words perhaps even more than he did his beloved Beatrice. Along with the German language, whose riches he systematically mined for 30 years before he wrote his masterpiece, he was fluent in Dutch, French, English, Spanish and Portuguese (that I know of for certain). And he indulged himself in this love to the fullest in this book.And digression? Sterne has nothing on Thelen! And Thelen, who constantly stands back from the story and makes comments about the events, characters, his mode of writing about them (yes, standard postmodern gadgets; but remember that this book was published in 1953), addresses his digressions and calls them his "cactus style", not merely because there are so many bifurcations in the text, but also because "eyes appear at unexpected places". Why write 10 words when it can be said with 100, no, 200, 500? The words whir around themselves faster and faster, generating more words; and then, the vast mass falls to the ground and Thelen starts stirring the pot elsewhere... The style is alternately exhilarating and exhausting. I'm not even going to try to give an overview of the hundreds of stories and substories and subsubstories Thelen recounts with glee. Not all are of equal interest, of course, but if you find one story dragging, just wait for a page or two, because three more are on their way. Suffice it to say that the narrative mainly takes place on the island of Mallorca during the 1930's, but it really runs from early in Thelen's childhood to just before he finishes the book. And it is stuffed with hundreds of colorful characters, each more memorable than the last.Today's postmodern literati should read this book and note how it is so very full of life and humor, and not a sign of our poor age's authors' depression and bitterness. Please take an example. Addendum 1 In the German edition I read there is a 25 page Afterword by Jürgen Pütz relating much interesting information about Thelen the person, Thelen the author and the reception of Thelen's writings in Germany. Here is a brief selection.Born in the worker class, Thelen's early inclination to read and write were tolerated but not encouraged by his family. He started a few apprenticeships, visited a Fachhochschule for textiles, and studied briefly at university. He worked for a while. Finally, in 1931 he changed his name - adding Vigoleis - and left for Amsterdam, where he barely kept his head above water by writing the occasional article for periodicals and translating from Dutch to German (and vice versa ). He had already met Beatrice, the love of his life, in Cologne, and they were inseparable for the next 61 years.The major incidents related in Insel actually occurred - the (false) emergency call to Mallorca by Beatrice's irresponsible brother, Zwingli; the dispensing of all of their funds to help Zwingli; the years of living as paupers on Mallorca; the fascists' hunt for their lives during the Spanish Civil War. They escaped to Switzerland, then Portugal, where they were taken in by the writer and mystic Teixeira de Pascoaes, whose books Thelen subsequently translated into German. They were in Portugal from 1939 till 1947, when they returned to Amsterdam and continued barely getting by with translations and belle-lettristic articles. Pütz recounts how the idea to write Insel arose (not surprisingly, Thelen was a marvelous storyteller in company, and some of his friends urged him again and again to write them up). One such friend was a Dutch publisher, who stated his willingness to publish the book in German in the Netherlands. (Initially he was going to publish a Dutch translation of Thelen's book, but deadline constraints caused him to publish the original.) Ultimately, a German Verlag published the book simultaneously in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Thelen keeps writing and writing as his cactus style asserts itself; he did not plan to write a thousand page monstrosity (his book contract gave him less than a year to write it; the deadline kept getting postponed and the publishers upset). The book appeared in November, 1953. It was well received in the press by such influential writers as Siegfried Lenz and Maarten 't Hart (Celan's praise was in a letter to his wife; I don't know where the praise from Mann appeared). But the literary opinion makers in Germany at that time were the people in the Gruppe 47 , led by Hans Werner Richter. Twice a year these people would get together and young authors would read from their new works. Thumbs up, thumbs down. For Thelen it was thumbs down, because at that moment Richter wanted to "strip the underbrush out of the German language". It was exactly the wrong moment for Thelen to come with his wonderfully rich prose! By 1958 the attitude of Gruppe 47 had completely changed; when Grass read from his Blechtrommel , a similarly rich fountaining of language, they awarded him their prestigious prize... It also didn't help that Insel was full of "whore stories" in 1953. The police in Düsseldorf initiated an investigation for obscenity which was ultimately laid on ice.But there was enough encouragement for Thelen to write another long (and, according to Pütz, comparably excellent) book, Der schwarze Herr Bahssetup , set in the Netherlands, which appeared in 1956. The 700 page work was blasted as "disappointing" by the German critics. (I've located a used copy in Germany and am anxious for its arrival.) After that experience the sensitive Thelen wrote only poems and the occasional story. I review one of them here:http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/718939706Thelen and Beatrice lived for many years in Switzerland and only returned to Germany in 1986, after the German government awarded him the Bundesverdienstkreuz.Before Die Insel des zweiten Gesichts appeared in 1953, when he was 50 years old, Thelen had published only some poems and translations of other author's works. He had written masses and masses of manuscripts but had lost or burnt most of them. Who knows what wonders we have missed because of Thelen's many misfortunes? Addendum 2 Well, after the effort I made to transmit some of the information in the Afterword of the German edition to the non-German readers was so well received (I even lost a "like"), I think I'll not make the further effort to compare White's translation with the original. I'm sure it's wonderful.