Many years ago, when I was a newly-minted undergraduate, way out of my depth at Cambridge University, I was given a play called Danton’s Tod by Georg Büchner to read. The name Büchner won’t mean a lot to most people, although some might have heard of the opera Woyzeck, which was adapted from another of his works. Büchner was a curious anachronism, an early nineteenth-century writer almost supernaturally ahead of his time. He didn’t write very much because he died of typhus at the age of 23, and what he left behind was ignored for another fifty years because no one could understand it. I had a lot of sympathy for the doubters when I was a callow youth of eighteen. The play left me cold, it was so far out of my own registers of comprehension, and I made the terrible error of suggesting that Büchner’s inability to please the audience (me) might have stemmed from his immaturity. And thus I learned the hard way, from the red ink and exclamation marks on my essay when it was handed back, that such value judgements were not the province of ignorant first year undergraduates. It didn’t help that I was mortally terrified of the supervisor who was teaching me German literature. He used to sit with a single spotlight shining over his shoulder that glinted on the steel rim of his glasses before dazzling my eyes, and if you weren’t smart he couldn’t be bothered with you. I spent the first year watching his attempts to restrain himself from heaving great sighs of distress at my mindless remarks, but all he ever said was ‘I think you’ve missed the point.’ I have been allergic ever since to the kind of literary criticism that spends all its time proving that other people have missed the point.
Anyhow, time passed, I learned a thing or two, and in my final year Georg Büchner turned up again. In fact, Danton’s Tod and the same supervisor turned up again, but much was different now. I had overcome my old terrors of him thanks to my friend, Mel. ‘He’s only human!’ she used to berate me. ‘Imagine him in his underpants!’ If I have always taken great care to be sympathetic with students in my own time teaching them, it must partly have been motivated by the desire to avoid such measures being taken. But it did work. Alas, struggle as I might with the great Büchner, I still couldn’t manage to produce an essay that really satisfied this supervisor, and I would probably have consigned old Georg to the dustbin of history if I hadn’t come across a small novella written by him, entitled Lenz. It was a mere 50 pages of prose, but what prose it was. I was completely, utterly blown away. Lenz shot up my internal bestseller list and remained there for many years, until my ability to read in German slowly gathered dust and rusted away. Everything passes, the good, the bad, the indifferent. I had all but forgotten about it, until I saw that Oneworld Classics had published a new edition, which in a fit of nostalgia I immediately ordered. When it came last week, I couldn’t resist reading it right away; what can I say? It had made such an impact on me back then, and it was with the most profound satisfaction that I made my way slowly, carefully, through its pages. It was every bit as remarkable as I remembered.
So, Lenz. Büchner wrote it about 1836, a year or so before his death. It was based on the real life playwright, Jacob Lenz, who was born in 1751; one of those febrile, over-intelligent young men who studied theology in lukewarm fashion whilst really worshipping at the altar of literature. He left college to become a private tutor to two young boys, and it was whilst traveling with this family that he met Goethe. Goethe, we were always told, was the German equivalent of Shakespeare, and he was quite a character in himself, still I will save his story for another day. Apart, that is, from one small element of it. Goethe, whilst on an extended stay with friends in the country, fell in love with the pretty daughter of the local pastor and dallied rather mercilessly with her heart. Her name was Friederike Brion, and he wrote her verses and letters and generally made all the moves of courtship. I was particularly tickled to read that in order to impress her, he extended his eyebrows with a burnt cork (early kohl, one assumes) so that they met in the middle, in the hopes of presenting a more devilish air. How marvellous: a historical era in which the monobrow was in fashion. Anyhow. The whole affair became a bit too hot for Goethe to handle; marriage really wasn’t on his agenda and he only proposed once in his life, at the age of 74. So, rather shamefaced, Goethe broke it off, and broke Friederike’s heart. Now, having heard this gossip on the grapevine, Lenz came along and started to befriend Friederike himself. Whether he did or didn’t make her love him, on the rebound from Goethe, remains lost to the mists of time. Lenz liked to claim he did, but the madness that was going to overwhelm him shortly was already starting to show. In any case he wrote her beautiful poems, confusing many a literary historian, as they were often attributed to Goethe. In some ways it’s not unreasonable to think this: Lenz was interested in Friederike because of Goethe, the point was not the girl, but the occupation of a privileged persona, the shadowing of a man whose literary talents were already gaining a reputation, an imaginative leap into the outline of someone he wanted to be: talented, wealthy, famous, sane.
Friederike Brion didn’t really want Lenz and she sent him on his way. Many decades later, Goethe would immortalize her pastoral beauty in one of his works and she became an ideal of femininity. In fact she still lived at that point, poor, unmarried and abandoned to obscurity. Lenz went away and turned irrevocably mad. I always felt the story of this trio was a fabulous one and in those days, when I still liked the idea of writing novels, I longed to fictionalize their love triangle. But really what I wanted to do, if I could have done it, was to write Lenz again. Büchner’s novella picks up with our hero shortly after the Friederike episode when Lenz is losing himself to insanity. It is written in the third person, but from a perspective so close to Lenz, so tightly aligned to his perceptions, that the reader is dragged into the maelstrom of mental instability whilst still maintaining one foot in the solid, exquisitely written world of the story. It’s an extraordinary point of view, and one that would not be reproduced until modernism came along. Drawing on accurate biographical material, Büchner shows Lenz retreating to the mountains to live with a gentle pastor’s family. Oberlin represents Lenz’s only hope of regaining his health, in the quiet goodness that he casts over those who surround him. For a while, Lenz calms. And then another crisis hits. On a night when Oberlin is away, Lenz hears about a young child, coincidentally named Friederike, who is dying. Lenz knows he shouldn’t, but the force of magnetic attraction is too strong, and he rushes to her bedside. When he arrives, the child has already died, but that doesn’t prevent Lenz from making a humiliating, hopeless attempt to bring her back to life by the sheer power of invocation, pleading with God for a miracle. Inevitably, he is doomed to failure, and this setback puts him on the route to suicide.
It doesn’t sound much fun, does it? Well, no, and the writing is so fierce and anguished that I felt myself clinging onto my twenty-first century reality as I read each compelling page. But it is so well done, so sublime, in the old sense of awe and terror mixed. Here’s Lenz in full nutcase mode, out on the mountainside at night: ‘Clouds were passing swiftly across the moon; now all was in darkness, now the nebulous, vanishing landscape was revealed in the moonlight. He ran up and down. In his breast hell was rehearsing a song of triumph. The wind sounded like the singing of Titans. He felt capable of clenching an enormous fist, thrusting it up into heaven, seizing God and dragging Him through His clouds’. Or here again: ‘In order to rid himself of his immeasurable torment he had clung anxiously to every person and thing around him. At certain moments it was clear to him that he was merely deceiving himself: he treated himself like a sick child. Some thoughts, some violent emotions he could not ward off without intense anxiety; then again he would suddenly be driven back to them with boundless urgency, he would tremble, his hair almost on end, until the enormous tension left him exhausted.’ To think that this was written back in 1836 is quite incredible, and Büchner leaves us with a psychiatric portrait more worthy of the modern age. But it is also an exercise in rollercoaster ride literature, a vivid and devastating account of a mind headed over the edge, and yet containing the cold acuity of a writer like Bernhard. It’s a little literary oddity, but also a small gem. I was glad to find it in my undergraduate days and even more glad to be reunited with it now.