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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Adolf Muschg

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To purchase Löwenstern

Title: Löwenstern
Author: Adolf Muschg
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012
Length: 331 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Löwenstern - - Deutschland
  • Löwenstern has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B+ : rich historical fiction that tries to do a bit too much

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung . 2/2/2013 Lorenz Jäger
NZZ . 29/8/2012 Samuel Moser

  From the Reviews:
  • "Löwenstern ist ein grandioses Abenteuer. Weder Seemannsgarn noch Historienroman. Beides würde Muschg sich nicht erlauben. Es geht ihm, wie immer, ums «Ganze». Kommt dieses als Fülle von Figuren, Motiven, Verwicklungen und Zusammenhängen daher, hat der Roman Übergewicht. Zurück bleiben dann beeindruckendes Wissen, blendender Esprit, rhetorische Girlanden." - Samuel Moser, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Löwenstern of the title is Hermann Ludwig von Löwenstern, who lived 1777 to 1836, a German-speaking Estonian (Livonian) who joined the Russian naval services in his teens and whose revealing 1803-6 diaries of the first Russian circumnavigation of the globe were only recently published, in German and English (clearly the inspiration for Muschg's book). Adolf Muschg's novel focuses on this peripheral figure, basing his novel closely on the real-life figure and actual events -- not so much on the well-covered-in-the-diaries 1803-6 period, but rather the times around it --; an afterword 'explains' how Muschg came to find this previously unpublished account in 2011 (though of course it is entirely of his own invention).
       Löwenstern is, in part a quest tale: among the ambitions of the 1803 Russian expedition is to enter then still closed-off Japan, the ship docking and long remaining at Nagasaki but without any success in convincing the Japanese to allow for practically any sort of exchange, social, cultural, or commercial. After this failure, Löwenstern continues to find himself in rather isolated outposts, and is eventually drawn into -- as a rather unwitting but vital central participant -- nothing less than the overthrown of the Russian monarchy.
       Much of the novel is presented in letters that Löwenstern pens to an unidentified 'excellency' -- a clearly well-connected person who is, in part, responsible for guiding Löwenstern's movements and opportunities, but remains shadowy even to Löwenstern. The novel proper -- aside from the editor's (i.e. author's) afterword -- is bookended by a 'Vorspiel' and 'Nachspiel' from a more general perspective; this prelude and postscript setting the stage and then tying things up -- with the German words more apt, especially 'Nachspiel', which also means 'repercussions', which sums up what is tallied in that section.
       Löwenstern spent much of his time on the move -- preferably in ports rather than the open sea -- and the novel begins in 1803, when he and those preparing for the circumnavigation of the globe are in English Portsmouth. For Löwenstern, Japan is a distant, mysterious goal. He can vividly imagine it -- and among those he discusses it with is none less than Goethe, whom he manages to get an audience with in Weimar, who is quite taken with Löwenstern's enthusiasm:

Ihr Japan klingt ja fast wie ein gelobtes Land. Sind Sie sicher, daß es existiert ? Ich möchte es selbst kennenlernen

[Your Japan sounds almost like a promised land. Are you sure it exists ? I'd like to get to know it for myself]
       But, of course, Japan remains unknowable -- an imagined construct, even when based on some factual knowledge, rather than something drawn from actual experience. (Like any work of fiction, especially historical fiction, and so also like this one .....)
       Among Löwenstern's ambitions is to write, as well -- specifically, he envisions publishing an appendix to Gulliver's Travels (in which Japan is famously the only real place Gulliver visited); Löwenstern wants to expand on Gulliver's experiences there. (In echoes of Muschg's approach here, he also wants to publish the book with the claim that it is a new find from Swift's papers, Löwenstern presenting himself as the editor (rather than author), under a pseudonym (the perhaps less than ideal Dr. Shit).)
       The foray to Japan of course fails, but it and its mystique remain significant, including with the 1811 Golovnin incident, when that captain and his crew were captured by the Japanese and held in isolated captivity and several Japanese were then taken hostage in retaliation. Löwenstern is on the periphery of these events, but Muschg devotes considerable space in the story to the various facets and resolution of those events.
       Vivid scenes describe life and work in the harsh conditions of both Arkhangelsk, in northern Russia, and far eastern Kamchatka. Eventually, Löwenstern finds himself in the more comfortable confines of Gryllenburg, where he is well-attended to by Nadja -- Nadescha Iwanowka Loginowa, a prostitute originally from Kamchatka with a colorful story of her own (that includes a prior encounter with Löwenstern which he does not recall). Their relationship covers a significant amount of the story, and is enjoyably odd -- Nadja seductively physically intimate with Löwenstern but, for example, long putting off sharing a meal with him, because that demands a familiarity that takes longer to build to. It turns out that Nadja is essentially grooming him: she has plans for him, involving him in a large desperate conspiracy that would see him assassinate Tsar Alexander I. (Needless to say, it goes spectacularly awry.)
       Muschg firmly roots Löwenstern in history -- though in part he seems too enamored of imagining what happened in that early nineteenth-century past. Prominent figures are arguably pulled in a bit too prominently: aside from Goethe, Löwenstern has a brush with Kleist as well, while the August von Kotzebue connection was too good to pass up: two sons of the German playwright were prominent in the Russian military and actually aboard the round-the-globe expedition with Löwenstern (with Otto later captaining two world tours, resulting in, among much else, the naming of Alaska's Kotzebue Sound after him), and so things eventually come to a head involving a play by the master dramatist.
       Other asides are entertaining but also can seem somewhat tangential, as with Löwenstern's pre-voyage encounters with wild-man Fyodor Ivanovich Tolstoy (who would also be aboard the ship), culminating in an actual duel.
       The rich description and much of the historical detail is often fascinating, and Muschg's writing is engaging (if also involved, to sometimes tortuous extremes). Chapter by chapter -- and many stand quite firmly more or less on their own -- this is powerful, playful historical fiction, and the larger picture impresses as well, but too often the narrative does get sidetracked in detail and incident that draw away from any dominant story. Realistic, in that sense -- there's no neat story-arc to Löwenstern's life or the events covered, after all -- it is also, ultimately, distractingly much.
       A strong but ultimately perhaps simply too historical novel, Löwenstern tries to do, and be, too much, the whole then less satisfying than the parts -- all the more frustratingly so because the larger story does have considerable appeal on its own.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 September 2018

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Löwenstern: Reviews: Adolf Muschg: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swiss author Adolf Muschg was born in 1934.

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