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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Munchausen and Clarissa

Paul Scheerbart

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Title: Munchausen and Clarissa
Author: Paul Scheerbart
Genre: Novel
Written: 1905 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 162 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Munchausen and Clarissa - US
Munchausen and Clarissa - UK
Munchausen and Clarissa - Canada
Münchhausen und Clarissa - Deutschland
directly from: Wakefield Press
  • A Berlin Novel
  • German title: Münchhausen und Clarissa
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Christina Svendsen

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Our Assessment:

B : nice playful mix

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Munchausen and Clarissa is set in 1905, and begins with a surprise visit by Baron von Munchausen to the Berlin (Wannsee) home of Count Adolf von Rabenstein. It's a surprise not only because he comes unannounced, but because Munchausen, famous from the Rudolf Erich Raspe-fiction recounting his marvelous adventures, had quite reasonably been believed by one and all to be long dead; instead, he is now, in 1905, merely of very advanced age -- a hundred and eighty years old ("No one would ever guess", the Count flatters him).
       Munchausen is idolized by Rabenstein's daughter, young countess Clarissa -- all of eighteen -- who even has a picture of the Baron, "riding on a cannonball -- high in the air -- and with his pigtail flying", hanging on the wall of her room. (Just how devoted she is to the image is later made clear when she explains the trouble she had to go through to be allowed to hang it in her room.) No one could be more thrilled by the appearance of this hero whom she had believed to be long dead than Clarissa.
       Just before she learns of his arrival, Clarissa had been lamenting:

Last century, so many things were turned upside down. But people themselves never got turned upside down or inside out. So now they no longer fit with the times. Old Munchausen should come along and turn us all upside down. If only the old baron were alive today -- he would probably only ride on dynamite.
       Munchausen is certainly willing to play the explosive part; conveniently he has been literally on the other side of the earth, and he agrees to regale Rabenstein and an invited crowd with tales of his recent antipodean experiences -- specifically, to report on his experiences at the latest World Fair in Melbourne.
       A busy man -- he constantly has to rush off to Potsdam, advising the government and others on improvements they should make -- Munchausen suggests seven days will be necessary to describe all the wonders he has seen, and Rabenstein is happy to accommodate him. The initial invitations for the grand event don't go well -- "people wrote back very bluntly to explain that they had no time for long-winded multi-day digressions and circus jokes" -- but Clarissa saves the day, chiding her father for inviting the wrong people (the local philistines) and then proceeding to invite: "all the celebrities in Berlin", who indeed prove to be much more enthusiastic: when the day of the first event comes around: "Over one hundred guests arrived -- and nearly all of them had famous names".
       After the introductory Prelude-chapter, setting the scene, the novel proceeds day by day for the week of Munchausen's performances -- 'That Monday', etc. -- before then concluding with a Postlude chapter. Munchausen's accounts are neither long-winded nor even very long -- he is often in a hurry, and has to quickly rush off yet again -- but day by day he tells of the wonders that were found at the Melbourne World Fair.
       The choice of distant locale at the other, upside down end of the world is ideal for Scheerbart's purposes; Clarissa is all for a: "Turning Upside Down of all things", and Munchausen is the man for the job. And, set in a time when information still travels much more slowly and Europeans can not be expected to be au courant about the goings-on down under, Munchausen can paint a picture of a society in many ways much more advanced than the tired one of Berlin (and Europe) of the day.
       Munchausen points out:
In Europe, or so they say, there was a fatal defeat of art in the years 1895-1905 -- and it was mainly motivated by an upsurge in technological development in the same period.
       In Melbourne, meanwhile, he found technology not inimical to or crowding out art, but rather being utilized, advancing art with its new potential. So also the mere site of the World Fair -- on the outskirts of the city -- is spectacular. Beyond that, much of the art looks beyond the local, earth-bound: unsurprisingly, among the exhibitions at the fair is an excursion in a: "luxury train every Friday into the Earth's core", while composers create music that: "makes listeners feel as if they are hearing sounds from another world, a distant world of the spirit", and literature now focuses on: "works describing life on other stars".
       As to painting:
There's no more representative painting in Melbourne -- and Impressionism has already been completely left in the dust. Australian painters have a different relationship to nature; even in their first sketches on paper or canvas, they don't try to do justice to what appears in nature. The Australian doesn't mean to imply by this that nature is inferior -- on the contrary ! But he is of the opinion that imitation ruins the imagination and has no real purpose, since we have photographic equipment if we need an imitation, and that works much faster than using a brush or graphite.
       As Munchausen sums up: "For Australians, creation means creating something new !" -- Scheerbart's rallying cry. Clarissa finds all her admiration for her idol was well-placed; his words and vision confirm he is the man to help lead -- at least her -- out of this rut:
We live in a totally dead time nowadays, a time that we need to bring back to life. And if we want to bring it back to life, we need to turn everything upside down.
       Clarissa and Munchausen are clearly soulmates, and they enjoy a good rapport over the course of the week. Clarissa, however, wants to take it further -- a union, of sorts, of the like-minded pair who share the same ambitions. Part of the appeal of it is the scandal -- the teenage girl running off with the centenarian --, which fits with the program of upside-down-turning that she is so keen to embrace.
       This part of the novel runs into some difficulties in translation. Clarissa complains that she doesn't want to live the life expected of her -- "I simply refuse to play 'mama'" --, and so what she proposes is:
Und aus diesem Grunde möchte ich mit Ihnen, Herr Baron, sehr gerne nächsten Montag -- wie man so sagt -- durchgehen.
       Christina Svendsen translates this as:
And that's why, next Monday, I would very much like to go with you, Herr Baron, to -- as they say -- pass through to the other side.
       'Pass through to the other side' is suggestive but doesn't really capture "durchgehen" -- which she then also translates (it's used repeatedly then, to describe what Clarissa and Munchausen have in mind) as to: "go through" (in single quotation marks, presumably to avoid possible confusion with other forms of going through things ...).
       Scheerbart's durchgehen is a sort of running off -- what a mistress might do with her lover (though of course it also suggests -- as the English then does better -- a simple going-through-with (or transcending) something). Scheerbart clearly means to tinge the relationship with a whiff of the romantic -- Clarissa certainly flirts -- but it is also clear that the point of it is a union of the like-minded, rather than of the romantically-paired. So also eventually Munchausen proposes to her father that they do, eventually, get married:
"Would you have anything against it if we -- that is, Clarissa and I -- if we were to get 'engaged' in the year 1919 ?"
     "No," Adolf answered, "as long as you promise me that you'll hold the wedding in the year 1991 -- then I'll be completely fine with an engagement in 1919."
       The quotes around 'engaged' suggest how pro forma it is -- reïnforced by the distant dates (1919 is fourteen years in the future, and by 1991 even Clarissa would be ancient). And just to makes sure everything is clear, in parting Clarissa tells her parents:
Papa and Mama, you can tell any sort of bad story about us that you want, as long as you don't say that we -- Munch and I -- that we're a couple. That would be too ridiculous.
       In the original German Scheerbart writes Liebespaar for 'couple', making much clearer what Clarissa means -- that they're not romantically or sexually involved. (On the other hand, they are, after all a kind of couple, so the English feels a bit inadequate, even if the meaning presumably comes across.)
       Scheerbart has Munchausen insist:
Timidity is exactly what you have to unlearn in the arts -- even if here or there something gets destroyed through an all-too-enthusiastic storming forward -- above all, don't be afraid !
       Scheerbart certainly tried to live -- and write -- by this. The suggestion in this novel seems to be that the Australian vision presented here is not necessarily the only or true way forward, but at least it -- and Clarissa's attitude -- are in the right spirit: ambitious, forward-looking, daring, and not mired in tradition and traditional expectations. Much of the presentation of Munchausen and Clarissa itself is nevertheless fairly conventional (certainly also compared to some of Scheerbart's other fiction); indeed, as translator Svendsen writes in her Introduction, the writing is fairly deadpan -- and: "Scheerbart's language is grotesquely ordinary, his Munchausen almost a hack" -- making for an interesting mix of the forward-looking and the familiar; overall, it works quite well in that Munchausen and Clarissa is an approachable and engaging little fiction, with enough story to it to go with the alternative-visions on offer.
       It makes for an enjoyable little work, neatly combining both silly and serious, and prodding towards an openness to the new and other -- without forcing it too insistently on the reader.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 January 2021

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Munchausen and Clarissa: Other books by Paul Scheerbart under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Authors:

       German author Paul Scheerbart lived 1863 to 1915.

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© 2021 the complete review

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