I admit that I’d never heard of Lenz–Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (1751-1792) until this review copy from Archipelago Books . Wikipedia identifies Lenz as a Baltic German writer of the Sturm und Drang movement. Here comes a slight digression….what is it with these artists who slotted into significant literary movements? Did they feel as though they had to live the very essence of the movement they were part of? Take the Sturm und Drang movement, for example. Lenz is one of those authors who fall under the movement’s umbrella, and his life appears to be an embodiment of the movement. Of course, this sets the mind off thinking about Oscar Wilde and the Decadents, Charles Bukowski and Transgressive Fiction, Byron and the Romantics etc… There’s a lot here to chew on, but back to Lenz.
Lenz is composed of the 1839 novella Lenz by Georg Büchner, Mr. L ... by Johann Friedrich Oberlin, and an excerpt concerning Lenz from Goethe’s Poetry and Truth. According to translator Richard Sieburth, Büchner’s Lenz is “an experiment in speculative biography.” Lenz, the son of a minister, rejected the study of theology and instead turned to literature. He then left his studies to become a “tutor” to the two young barons von Kleist and followed them to a number of garrisons. Later, he made friends with Goethe and became part of a group of young writers. A period of some literary success followed, but Lenz’s relationship with Goethe turned sour, and at Goethe’s instigation, Lenz was thrown out of the Weimar court. The translator’s afterword goes into some detail about the incidents that took place, but to give a hint: the trouble erupts over a woman.
Lenz begins with our main character, Lenz, wandering on the mountains. A simple walk turns into a monumental, epic journey, and we are privy to Lenz’s increasingly fragmented thoughts. It’s not immediately apparent, but becomes so as the story plays out, that Lenz is on the fringes of a total mental meltdown:
Everything seemed so small, so near, so wet, he would have liked to set the earth down behind an oven, he could not grasp why it took so much time to clamber down a slope, to reach a distant point; he was convinced he could cover it all with a pair of strides. Only sometimes when the storm tossed the clouds into the valleys and they floated upwards through the woods and voices awakened on the rocks, like far-echoing thunder at first and the approaching in strong gusts, sounding as if they wanted to chant the praises of the earth in their wild rejoicing, and the clouds galloped by like the wild whinnying horses and the sunshine shot through them and emerged and drew its glinting sword on the snowfields so that a bright blinding light knifed over the peaks into the valleys; or sometimes when the storms drove the clouds downwards and tore a light-blue lake into them and the sound of the wind died away and then like the murmur of a lullaby or pealing bells rose up again from the depths of ravines and tips of fir trees and a faint reddishness climbed into the deep blue and small clouds drifted by on silver wings and all the mountain peaks, sharp and firm, glinted and gleamed far across the countryside, he would feel something tearing at his chest, he would stand there, gasping, body bent forward, eyes and mouth open wide, he was convinced he could draw the storm into himself, he stretched out and lay over the earth, he burrowed into the universe, it was a pleasure that gave him pain
That passage captures the beauty of nature–its violence and its peace, and through the sentence structure we also see Lenz’s erratic state of mind. But this scene is nothing compared to what awaits. An Alsatian pastor takes Lenz in to his home, and it’s there that Lenz unravels. The novella is a fictionalised account of the three weeks Lenz spent with Oberlin.
The second part of this volume, Mr. L is an extract from the diary written by Johann Friedrich Oberlin, the pastor who took on more than he planned when he took Lenz into his home. Oberlin chronicles three weeks of hell with Lenz throwing himself out of the window, trying to drown himself and getting way too familiar with a pair of scissors.
The third section’s matter-of-factness, written by Goethe, is in stark contrast to Lenz’s wildly irrational behaviour:
One is aware of that species of self-torture which, in the absence of any external or social constraints, was then the order of the dat, afflicting precisely those possessed of the most exceptional minds. Things that torment ordinary people only in passing and which, because unengaged in self-contemplation, they seek to banish from their thoughts, were instead acutely registered and observed by the better sort, and set down in books and diaries.
Of all the full- or half-time idlers intent on digging into their inmost depths, Lenz excelled in cultivating and perpetuating this state of conflict, and thus he suffered in general from that tendency of the age to which the depiction of Werther was meant to put a stop; but he was cut from a different cloth, which set him apart from all the others, whom one had to admit were throughly open, decent creatures. He, by contrast, had a decided propensity for intrigue, indeed, for intrigue pure and simple, without any particular goal in view, be it reasonable, personal, or attainable; on the contrary, he was always concocting some twisted scheme, whose very contortions were enough to keep him wholly entertained. In this way, throughout his life his fancies played him for a rascal, his loves were as imaginary as his hates, he juggled his ideas and feelings at whim, so that he would always have something to do. By these topsy-turvy means, he would attempt to impart reality to his sympathies and antipathies, and then would himself destroy this creation again; and so he was never of use to anybody he loved, nor did he ever do harm to anybody he hated, and in general he seemed only to sin in order to punish himself, only to intrigue in order to graft some new fiction onto an old one.
Obviously when Goethe wrote this, he was long out of patience with a man he once considered his friend–or at least someone you could safely invite into your home. This volume gives us three very different views of Lenz–all of them unhappy, all of them tortured. Lenz seems to be a truly damaged individual–although Goethe indicates that at least some of the drama was fabricated. Lenz ended up in Russia, and he died there in 1792, aged 41, homeless on a Moscow street.
A few words on this edition… In terms of quality, the book reminds me of those excellent little high-quality pocket-sized editions from Pushkin Press. The cover is made of heavy card with flaps for both front and back covers. This is a dual German-English edition which is rather wasted on me as my two years of German stagnated after the discovery of the word “vater.” But really, this volume is a gem for anyone interested in German Literature (even if, like me, you can’t speak the language).
Special thanks to Amy at The Black Sheep Dances for arranging this review copy.