Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Die Nachtwachen des Bonaventura / The Nightwatches of Bonaventura

A review begun but never completed, rediscovered this evening. Apologies for its incompleteness, but as this is a book which one must come back to, perhaps a fuller assessment can be made at some future date…

An air of mystery surrounds the authorship (now generally attributed to Ernst August Friedrich Klingemann) of this work of high pessimism from the early German Romantic era. The Nightwatches are scattered and sometimes confusing statements on the vanity of human existence in a hostile and meaningless universe. The narrator is a foundling and former poet; in the madhouse he plays Hamlet to Ophelia, an actress who has adopted the mask as her own face, who dies in childbirth, and who he will glimpse again as a grinning corpse, snuggling with the infant in the grave. The madhouse, quite simply, is the world itself, with the inhabitants rushing about in various delusional guises, marionettes in a cosmic farce The watchman wanders the darkened, colorless streets, witnessing episodes of pathos and farce, raging against human manipulation and oppression, exemplified by the frequent appearance of marionettes in the narrative. For amusement, he rouses the town with the pronouncement of a false apocalypse, he composes a funeral oration for the birth of a child, and a too-pointed satire upon a local worthy lands him in the madhouse. The narrative takes the form of sixteen “night watches”. A dark cloud of hopeless despair covers this midnight shadow world, the shadow world of life, which someone famously described as a dream (nightmare?) from which we struggle to awake.

As a work of fiction, there are frustrations in the Nightwatches. The narrative is chronologically confused, and there are strange devices such as the tale of Don Juan, told twice – once as a straight narrative and then immediately afterwards as a marionette play. There are abrupt changes in focus and disconcerting alternations between sardonic wit and outright nihilistic rage against the injustices of being. Not only textually difficult, the book itself is rather difficult to find, at least in an affordable edition. My copy of this book was published in 1972 by the Edinburgh University Press in a bilingual edition. I have recently discovered a 1968 thesis translation by Elmar Theissen online. Thanks to benwaugh for alerting his acolytes to the existence of this unique - and uniquely disturbing - work.