Vol. XXII, #3 Louis Zukofsky / Nicholas Mosley / Coleman Dowell
Review of Contemporary Fiction
The School for Atheists: A Novella = Comedy in 6 Acts, by Arno Schmidt. Trans. and Intro. John E. Woods
reviewed by Eckhard Gerdes
Trans. and intro. John E. Woods. Green Integer, 2001. 301 pp. Paper: $16.95.
Arno Schmidt, the great novelist, not the widely published Waldorf Astoria chef, has been called the German James Joyce and the clown prince of European fiction. In The School for Atheists, one sees why. He has cooked up one meal of a novel (even the format is large—7” x 11”) that is part gallimaufry, part Bauernfrühstück. Yet here, as in his other brilliant and novel works, he has carefully blended the ingredients to delicious result. Digressively (one must remember Schmidt’s penchant for parenthical intrusion (a device he uses frequently (see “The Republic of the Learned,” also in John E. Woods’s translation (the other translation, as The Egghead Republic, is also worthwhile))) as well as his passion for idiosyncratic punctuation (and sbelling)), using parallel texts set off in boxes, pictures, puns, and wordplay, Schmidt relates the story of one William T. Kolderup (a seventy-five-year-old senator and justice of the peace), who hosts a summit in 2014 between the two great world powers, the U.S. and China. Kolderup is a collector of antiques and obscure book knowledge, a friend of dignitaries, and a dirty old man (he spies on his own seventeen-year-old granddaughter Suse and her friend Nipperchen, who has come to live with them (William T. called-her-up?)). The summit between Isis (the U.S. secretary of state) and China’s foreign minister frames a long flashback “Interlude” set in 1969, when a passel of atheists (calling themselves a “school”) meets Isis’s eventual mother on board a ship that is wrecked, but most compelling are the romantic intrigues of the two girls. Schmidt knows how to hold our attention, despite the verbal complexity of the book. For the patient reader, this is a saucy story meatightily told, but Schmidtian pacing is quick only in its minutiae. The underlying plot is related slowly, but Schmidt’s playfulness is pyrotechnic. The entire novel is set in the form of a six-act play, though even the bravest dinner theater would have reservations trying to stage this novel-cum-closet play. The conceit of this as drama is just one more way that Schmidt pokes at the limits of the novel in order to feed us his flavorsome fiction.