ROSEMARY O’GRADY. Meanings of War.

Jun 16, 2018

As war memoirs go, the horrors of the conflict concluded by the Treaty of Westphalia, 1648, have long stood in a class of their own. They are also the subject of the autobiographical, first novel of the German language.

Survivors of the hot and cold wars of the past century, matured, now, into resigned acceptance of the pervasiveness of war, might find timely a recent release from Penguin Classics: The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus translated by J.A.Underwood.

Twenty-one years after the conclusion of the Treaty, in 1669, there was published in German by an unknown author named only by a pseudonym, German Schleifheim von Sulsfort: Der Arbenheutliche Simplicissimus Teutsche. It would be 150+ years before, in 1837, the identity behind the nom de plume would be disclosed as Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, a native of the hill-range country of the Spessart, east-south-east of Frankfurt-am-Main, near Hanau – ‘rediscovered’ by 19th Century German Romantics Brentano, von Arnim and von Eichendorf.

Now, in 2018, comes the second translation into English in twenty years, of this unique modern classic. Literary translator Mike Mitchell’s version appeared in 1999.

In the Times Literary Supplement May 4 2018, Oxford professor in German, Richie Robertson, reviewed the Penguin – Underwood edition with zestful approval, comparing its fluid colloquialism (‘Bully for him!’) to Mitchell’s more formal 1999 interpretation (‘I was glad of it for him.’) – not unfavourably. 

Robertson concludes that each of the 21st-century approaches to the text is good.

‘One aims at reproduction, the other at recreation. There is no need to choose between them. I am glad to have both on my shelves, and glad also that this great novel is available to the English-speaking public in more than one form.’ My own copy of Simplicissimus is a 1961 translation first produced by John Calder (Publishers) Ltd of London, who had it printed in Dublin in 1964. It is an objet, stitched not glued, on pale plum-coloured paper embellished with heavy dark print and engravings and woodcuts designed by Hellmuth Weissenborn, who is one-half of the translating team of Weissenborn and Lesley Macdonald, who, in the context of several contemporaneous German editions chose, mid-century, to work from the original 1669 text. In their own words: ‘This is a novel incomparable in its significance – a work of great poetic beauty, satirical strength, and a lasting historical document of timeless value.’

Grimmelshausen’s life story emerges like a saga out of Brecht. Drawn into an Imperial Army he experienced atrocities at first-hand and recorded them. This could have been not the least reason he disguised his identity on the title page, and why he spent many peripatetic years away from Hesse, ‘wanderings’ in Westphalia, Saxony, Bohemia, Switzerland, and probably in Russia, Amsterdam and Paris.

His ‘natural’ writing style differs from the professional formalism favoured in his age – preferred mode of literary snobs of the time. But it offers great scope to 21st-century translators like Underwood. ‘I wasn’t the son of this crude bumpkin’ in Mike Mitchell’s 1999 rendition, becomes, in 2018, ‘I was not the scrote’s own sprog’ in Underwood’s capturing the earthiness and fun of the original.

Nineteenth Century German editions of the text derive from Berlin University’s copy of the 1669 version which had belonged to Jacob Grimm. A copy of that edition is held by the British Museum. It is a strong chain of connection and authenticity.

In 1963 Hellmuth Weissenborn wrote of his appreciation of the work: ‘The abyss of human hell was opened – vice, crime, cruelty, hate were let loose; murder, robbery, gambling and whoring were commonplace; soldiers and priests, racketeers and torturers, parvenus and fools, and the sober working man, are images of humanity that could be alive today. Only the frame and the costume have changed, and the machinery of war, but the human element is the same. 

Comparisons with our own time are obvious, yet there is consolation and hope for mankind – the human soul which turns away from crime and temptation and finds refuge in spiritual values.’

Despite evident knowledge and learning, Simplicius, even so, is a person entangled in trouble, in belief in witchcraft, for example. Born Protestant, later Catholic, his own view is that it is enough simply to be Christian, eschewing all sects – a precursor to Lessing a century later. He is understanding and tolerant, flawed and resilient. 

Weissenborn saw the novel as ‘full of natural strength, born from an unspoiled and open heart…the strength of his own poetical vision is never disturbed.’ It is born of his trust in his teacher, the hermit, who has told him, from his deathbed: ‘Know yourself, avoid bad company, stand firm.’ At the end of his life, as Simplicius turns towards the wilderness, it is in a spirit of consolation and confidence. It is a triumph of the human spirit.

Rosemary O’Grady is a lawyer & writer.

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