Bottom’s Dream, by Arno Schmidt
Translated by John E. Woods
I have always been wary of books that demand attention. Garish covers, deliberately awkward page or font sizes, titles that sound like lines from failed experimental poetry – the need to stand out is understandable, especially in a literary market, but all too often it stems from a lack of substance on the page. So when Zachary Jensen, ACR’s editor-in-chief, asked me to review Arno Schmidt’s fourteen hundred page, fourteen pound Bottom’s Dream, I was rather skeptical. After I realized I would have to put my back into holding the thing up to read, I opened to a random page and found what I assumed to be a garbled mess, as if someone had ground up a dozen novels in a blender and randomly rearranged them character by character. When I got home and sat down in my reading chair (yes, I have a reading chair), I was unable to read the book in my normal, comfortable fashion. The top of the page was too far away. The book’s center-mass meant my arms had to extend out to hold it. The edge pressed into my thigh like an impatient dog, eager to play. In the book’s afterword, translator John E. Woods describes a conversation with Schmidt in which the author wonders why anyone would want to read the entirety of the novel. For Woods, the answer lay in the act of translation, of meeting and equaling an arduous task. For me, Bottom’s Dream became something of an obsession, a physical and psychological white elephant that squatted in my thoughts, filled my vision, and defied just about all of my expectations. This text is a leviathan ouroboros, locked in a constant, cyclical metamorphosis and magnifying a simple, organic process to an impossibly vast scale so that we might see the inherent complexity within.
Aristotle’s concept of beauty, particularly the idea that one cannot assess beauty without taking into account the whole of the thing being examined, is deeply resonant here. When I opened to the random page and found the madness on display, there was no way I could have appreciated what was happening. That is not to say that sections of this novel cannot stand alone, because many of them can, but engaging with Bottom’s Dream is a process of translation, transliteration, and seminal deconstruction. Reading this version is akin to being included halfway into the process of decoding the Rosetta Stone or the Dead Sea Scrolls. On that note, I have nothing but respect and admiration for John E. Woods and what I imagine must have been both the height and the terror of a translator’s career. The novel has a reputation for being “untranslatable” and, even in an English version, the text is as intimidating as it is enticing. The reader, if they wish to engage with the novel, simply has to start from the beginning and naturally grow accustomed to the manner in which the text presents itself. Strangely, this actually lends itself to finding the end. The reader builds forward momentum as pieces of the work are effortlessly linked together and the de-encryption becomes a bread crumb trail leading toward revelation.
Piquefully wrencht at My gate=key hand : !) / (Whereupon W, (half awakened & puzzld) : ››Silly dolly !‹‹. (P, actually a passable thorobred=literatus), made more=notes in His allen : ….) / (And Fr came sprinting back)
If you are not used to the experimental in literature, that quote must seem at least a little insane. But I encourage you to remain calm and take in the whole of what you are seeing. This is literature almost decoupled from a temporal constraint. The multiple, seemingly redundant and “incorrect” uses of punctuation are options given to you. The misspelled words and phrases coupled with = are themselves deconstructions of the very languages being used to relay the ideas. This is text as it is being formed in the author’s mind, and as it is being reformed in the reader’s mind. On the one hand, we are presented with the writing and the rewriting, as deliberate choices are made and reconsidered in real time. On the other, we are watching the diagraming of the text on the page, complete with concrete and abstract notes that trail off into infinity. It is the literal manifestation of the cycle of subjectivity in literature.
Amidst all of this individualistic wordplay, there is something tangible going on. The novel, to put it simply, has a plot. An aging writer meets with married translators to discuss the translation of the writing and themes of Edgar Allan Poe. In that discussion, ideas of existentialism, sexuality, and raw sensation are all at the forefront, as anyone familiar with Poe’s work might expect. There is a palpable and uncomfortable sexual tension between Daniel, the closest thing the novel has to a protagonist, and Franziska, the sixteen year old daughter of the translators. Questions of perspective and privacy, ideology and boundaries, lace every interaction and line of dialogue. In the end, Bottom’s Dream can easily be seen as a mammoth meta-commentary on the acts of writing and reading, of probing into the most guarded moments of characters, or of shouldering the responsibility of constructing lives to be lived on the page. Arrogance and sexism rear their ugly heads again and again, particularly in some of Daniel’s words, but the novel is not concerned with portraying any of its characters as wholly innocent or wholly noble or wholly despicable. They are like the text that they exist in, sitting in a kind of quantum superposition, dependent on observation for any kind of reality.
›In a similar frame of mind was jacopone of Todi; when, enraptured by those tongues of fire and penetrated by rays of divine light in its fullness, he wanted about as if out of his senses; now singing; now weeping; from time to time venting his emotions in sighs.
When more traditionally leaning prose asserts itself, such as in the above quote, the text makes use of its momentary (and illusory) stability to be very clear in its portrayal of ambiguity. And yet it is an ambiguity that should feel familiar to anyone who reads anything with even a modicum of complexity. Is it all that strange that someone might feel the need to sing and weep? To expel emotion? Is it really a contradiction that divine fire and light, while empowering, also engender madness? Do the venting sighs at the end of the quote need to be either relief or resignation, or can they be both? Bottom’s Dream never tells the reader how to feel about any of its meticulous jumble of language or its uncomfortable situations or any of its fourteen hundred pages. It really doesn’t even ask the questions in a direct way. It prefers to present the reader with an endless assortment of moments in which you feel compelled to ask.
One of the many questions to be asked is why the novel uses side columns throughout its length. These columns appear on either side of the text and sometimes their boundaries are momentarily ignored or utilized in an unconventional way. And far from being explanatory or supplementary, these columns include more of the same text, neither independent nor dependent from the main body. It wasn’t until the end of the novel that I realized that, when reading in the traditional Western left to right fashion, Bottom’s Dream opens and closes with text in these columns. Its very first and very last words, excluding titles and epigraphs, are:
: ›Anna Mooh=Mooh!‹ –
(: No wheel to my wagon. Still I’m rowling along.)
Given the novel’s use of language, character, and structure’s thus far, it is easy to assume that the columns are providing yet more space for contribution and interpretation. They allow Schmidt to include thoughts that hover around and weave through the main story, providing commentary and tangents at the same time. There is something curiously Joyce-esque in this technique, but its use here is far too unique to be labeled as merely imitative. For me, the use of columns is a tangible reminder that there is never one voice or thought process dominating Bottom’s Dream. Like looking at a stone pillar or edifice with inscription on multiple sides, reading the text gives the feeling that it can be rotated to present entirely new information that has only been hinted at previously. The novel is an amalgam of history in literature, with layers etched on top of and around one another, bursting at the seams and, as the earlier quote suggests, venting the pressure of its emotions. In a strange and poetic sense, the presence of the columns and the sheer size of the novel make it feel like a physical edifice of alien design. Even when translated, the text emanates the presence of disturbed geniuses of the past, including Joyce, Poe, and Schmidt himself.
The novel gets its title from a quote from another literary titan; specifically, William Shakespeare and his A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The beginning of the quote is actually used as something of an epigraph at the start of the novel, but the epigraph ends before the title’s reference can be included. The remainder of the quote reads “I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream: it shall be called Bottom’s Dream, because it hath no bottom;…”. I do not know why Schmidt left this part of the quote off of his epigraph. Perhaps he felt that to finish it would reveal too much or be too unsubtle a reference. But I find it incredibly apt now. On several levels, this novel feels like it has no bottom. There is no concrete surface on which to land and situate one’s self. This is not a work that will leave you with closure or a tightly wrapped gift of understanding. It is a dream, the meaning of which will never retain stability for any length of time. It is unwieldy and unconsciously aggressive, filling empty spaces with its own shifting, distorting mass like a tidal wave. I encourage you to approach this novel only if you enjoy the swarming possibilities of language and have the patience to let the rip tide pull beyond your comfort zone.
Bottom’s Dream is available now through Dalkey Archive Press.