‘Scenes from the Life of a Faun’ by Arno Schmidt, translated by JE Woods

If you’re after raw, overlooked talent, how about Arno Schmidt? A very nice Irishman introduced me to him and I’m forever grateful. Your eyes pop out when you first look at a page of Schmidt. All those exclamations marks !! And <strange punctuation> and every new paragraph beginning in italics. Surely this isn’t going to work, you think to yourself. Too distracting, trying too hard. In answer to the unspoken accusation Schmidt himself declared, “We are not dealing with a mania for originality or love of the grand gesture, but with… the necessary refinement of the writer’s tool… Let us retain the lovely=essential freedom to reproduce a hesitation precisely : ‘well – hm –: Idunno – – : can we do that….’ (Instead of the rigidly prescribed: ‘Well, I don’t know…’)”
You get the idea. But does it work? <Yes> !! Before two or three pages have passed the semi-pictogram style drops away and, suddenly, you’re in direct communion with Arno Schmidt’s mind. Which is a very good place to be. Such energy. The writing’s discursive, touching on many subjects of interest to him and – another virtue – he never bothers with transitions. Or rarely. Those workmanlike chunks of prose that other writers feel obliged to create in order to produce a satisfying transition from one scene to the next hold no interest for Schmidt. The result is a giddy headlong style, yet he never loses sight of his story. ‘Scenes from the Life of a Faun’ starts in 1939 and tells the tale of Herr Düring, a middle-aged government administrator working under the Nazi regime. Having fought in WW1, he’s too old to be called up again so, head down, he goes quietly on while despising those around him. (Not coincidentally, the narrator of each of the three stories found in this volume, one of which is set in the future, is by far the most intelligent person encountered). Given an archiving job by his boss, Düring comes across the historical figure of Thierry, a deserter from the Napoleonic Wars (‘the faun’) who once hid out in a wooden shack in a nearby forest. Düring takes the cue and, by 1944, it saves his life.
A superlative quality of Arno Schmidt’s writing is his power of description. How about this: “Bushes in scaly sea-green capes appeared along all paths and waved me ever deeper down the road; stood as spectators at meadow’s edge; did trim gymnastics; whispered wantonly with chlorophyll tongues.” Or this description of a woman’s face: “She glided in nearer… soundlessly unbolted that hangar of a mouth: dental slabs the size of dictionaries occupied her jaw bow, beneath nasal pilasters; her eyelashes bristled like carpenter’s nails.”
‘Scenes from the Life of a Faun’ concludes with a five page description of a firebombing raid which is just one of the best things I’ve ever read. “Every maid wore red stockings; each with cinnabar in her pail… Hundreds of hands spurted up from the sod and distributed stony handbills, ‘Death’ inscribed on each.”
Hunt, hunt, hunt down Arno Schmidt, like Herr Düring hunted down his Napoleonic deserter.

First published in German in Aus dem Leben eines Fauns, 1953. Translated as Scenes From the Life of a Faun, Marion Boyars, 1983. Collected in Nobodaddy’s Children, Dalkey Archive, 1995