Best known for his bestselling biography of Mozart, Wolfgang Hildesheimer was a polymathic novelist, translator, painter and dramatist. A member of the influential literary association Gruppe 47, with Günter Grass, Heinrich Böll and Paul Celan, he was extremely well-connected in the world of German publishing and an astute observer of the literary scene. As this 1980 letter to his publisher Siegfried Unseld, the formidable director of Suhrkamp Verlag, reveals, he was one of the first to notice the importance of Renata Adler’s experimental novel Speedboat.
You were not mistaken in your suspicion that Renata Adler’s Speedboat would ‘hit home’ with me. I find it – to use a fashionable word – a captivatingly good book, at least the – more or less – five sixths that I understand: to understand the remaining sixth, one would either have to be an American or know America very well, because it is an eminently American book, and sometimes I lack the key to the metaphors. But that does not compromise a reading of the book, because its structure allows you to open it up at random and read it, without being aware of the context, like a breviary.
Now you ask me why the book is so good. I may assume that you have read it, so that my answer can only be seen as a recommendation to those who have not read it. To sum up this answer in a sentence, I would say: here journalism has grown far beyond its own boundaries to create a masterpiece. That has, to my knowledge, never happened before, not least because journalism, however outstanding it may sometimes be, must be measured by its currency value, and thus has to respond to a precise theme. But I have never read a report whose theme, as here, is nothing less than our life.
In general, it does not take any particular analytical perspicacity to unmask our life as an absurd and potentially catastrophic sequence of events, deliberate or otherwise, an implementation of something that is essentially impossible. But this book does more than that, it deals with the vanity of the demand to be able to lead a meaningful existence as a sophisticated and sensitive intellectual with precise standards and moral commitment, and the ability to depict the melancholy of this vanity with such a truly sublime, almost floating lightness clearly remained Renata Adler’s intention. At the same time, everything that is said here, is only recorded in the margin, so to speak, as a provisional report, a flashback or a digression. But it is in the formally perfect whole that arises out of these apparently sober, sometimes poker-faced, but in fact brilliantly trenchant – and never excessively trenchant – notes that great art lies. And thus the book justifies its subtitle of ‘novel’. A novel ‘as if written by life’, but truly, not everyone’s life, not a novelist’s life, but the life of a highly intelligent and spirited individual, with a many-layered and seismographic consciousness and an irresistible sense of comedy, beneath which, by way of counterpoint, and only in delicate hints, deep grief shines forth over the fact that everything is as it is and not as it should be.
The book is on my bedside table, and sometimes the reading of a few pages harmonises with the sad reality that it depicts. I agree with John Updike’s assessment: ‘A wonderful writer’.
With best wishes,
This piece was selected for inclusion in the January 2016 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He is Associate Director for the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and an editor for The Cahiers Series and Music & Literature.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Wolfgang Hildesheimer(1916-1991) was a novelist, playwright, painter, and the translator of Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood into German. His books include Loveless Legends, Mozart and Marbot, all of which have appeared in English. Later this year, Dalkey Archive Press will publish Hildesheimer’s Tynset. A volume of his correspondence is currently in preparation for Suhrkamp Verlag.
Shaun Whiteside’s most recent translations from German include The Giraffe’s Neck by Judith Schalansky (Bloomsbury) and Swansong ’45 by Walter Kempowski (Granta).