Lucinde: Confessions of an Awkward Man, by Friedrich Schlegel. In my new translation.

An incendiary, experimental and proto-modernist novel

When Part One of Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde is published in 1799, it’s the literary equivalent of an anarchist nonchalantly lobbing a hand grenade into the middle of a royal court, only for the thrower, in this case the novelist, to then stand his ground and observe with a smile the mayhem he’s created. It is, all at once, a stream of consciousness narrative, a eulogy to unrepressed sex, free love, and platonic love, a critique of bourgeois matrimony, and a call-to-arms against the deferential and smug literary establishment that has entrenched itself around Goethe and Schiller in nearby Weimar. Schlegel writes the book from Jena, only fifteen miles away.

Peter Neumann, in his new book Jena 1800 [English trans. as yet unpublished; Munich: Siedler, 2018], provides a lively and knowledgeable account of Schlegel’s novel in the context of the Jena Romantics. Turning to the reactions the publication triggered, Neumann writes:

“Part One of Lucinde is a literary revolution. Just as the conclusion of Schiller’s Wallenstein trilogy is being premiered in Weimar – The Death of Wallenstein, staged by Schiller himself, with Goethe as artistic director – this book comes out, which is far more fantastical than the contemporary world can imagine, a text that is dying to fall apart into its individual bits, yet which constantly resurrects itself out of them: ‘like an apparition from a future world, God knows how far off still,’ as Schleiermacher puts it.” (2018: 69; my translation.)

The Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, only four years Friedrich Schlegel’s senior and a foul weather friend of both Friedrich and his elder brother Wilhelm, is the type of figure that US publishers, editors and translators have misread for the past two hundred years, in their failure to grasp the aesthetic window that Schlegel’s novel throws open. This helps explain why there have been only two previous English translations of the work. Paul Bernard Thomas’s bowdlerizing effort, published 1915, cuts out around forty percent of the text, and is prefaced by a warning from his father, Calvin Thomas. It is indicative of how far we’ve come, that Thomas Senior’s tirade will make first time readers today want to read Lucinde all the more:

“a book about the metaphysics of love and marriage, the emancipation of the flesh, the ecstasies and follies of the enamored state, the nature and the rights of woman, and other such matters of which the world was destined to hear a great deal during the nineteenth century. Not by accident, but by intention, the little book was shocking, formless, incoherent – a riot of the ego without beginning, middle, or end. Now and then it passed the present limits of the printable in its exploitation of the improper and the unconventional.” (Jeffrey L. Sammons, Kuno Francke’s Edition of the German Classics (1913-15), New York: Peter Lang, 2009, 135)

After such puritanical condemnation, the book is then shoved into the “foreign smut” pigeonhole, albeit without any justification, where it languishes for decades. It is not until the late 1960s that the languages professor and translator Peter Firchow has the acumen to dig it out, and engage in a new translation, which is then published in 1971, entitled Lucinde and the Fragments.

Firchow’s translation has such varied aspects to commend it, that a blog post cannot do it justice. Committed as I am to a translation practice that aims to transport classic texts into contemporary English idiom, without corrupting the sense or period detail of the original, it is high time, after half-a-century, that a new English translation is published. I look forward greatly to my Lucinde: Confessions of an Awkward Man coming out as a print and e-book in 2023. Here’s an excerpt from the start:

Julius’s First Letter to Lucinde

When I thought back to that time, human beings and what they want and do appeared to me like ashen grey, immobile figures; but in the holy solitude around me all was light and colour, and a fresh, warm breeze of life and love blew against me, and sped and wriggled in all the branches of the profuse glade. I watched and enjoyed everything at once, the strong green, the white blossom, and the golden fruit. And so I also saw, with my inner, spiritual eye, the One eternal and inimitable Beloved in all her guises, here as naive girl, there as women in the full blossom and energy of love and of femininity, and then as upstanding mother with the solemn infant in her arms. I breathed spring, saw clearly the eternal youth around me, and said with a smile: even if this world isn’t the best or most useful one there is, at least I know that it is the most beautiful. Nothing could have disturbed me in these feelings or thoughts, neither general doubts nor my own awe. I believed that I was taking a deep look into that hidden part of nature; I felt that everything lives forever, and that death, even, is friendly, and merely an illusion. Although I actually wasn’t thinking about it very much, or at least I wasn’t particularly in the mood to categorize and anatomize the concepts. I lost myself instead, happily and deeply, in all the co-minglings and convolutions of joy and pain, from which stem the spice of life and the flowering of sensibility, intellectual lust and sensory felicity. A fine fire streamed through my veins; what I dreamt was no mere kiss.

Translation as a New Birth

Comparing the process of translating and getting new translations published to a new birth, or a rebirth, might be seen as melodramatic. Having been present at the births of my four children, it’s the type of melodrama I’m prepared to risk. The effort involved in transporting narratives and theories from German into English will often last longer than nine months per book, and results in creations that talk to people from bookshelves (be these wooden or digital) for years to come. We want to ensure that these are good conversations. Regarding revolutions: the best German-language literature—from the great poems by Ingeborg Bachmann and Else Laske-Schüler that still remain unpublished in English, to the finest essays and theoretical texts by Rosa Luxemburg—does contain revolutionary capacity. Five years experience of translating Luxemburg for the first ever Complete Works (Verso Books, 16 volumes) has taught me that the revolution-word shouldn’t be used flippantly, but should be used. In this I agree with Peter Neumann, author of the recent Jena 1800,who succinctly describes Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde: Confessions of an Awkward Man: “Part One of Lucinde is a literary revolution.”