Friday, May 13, 2011

Guttersnipe Bookshelf: Life of a Good-for-Nothing

Joseph Von Eichendorff, Life of a Good-for-Nothing

Translated by F.G. Nichols

Hesperus, 2002

This is the kind of book where, when the hero gets bored and impatient, he climbs a tree.

Maybe you can resist books like that. I can’t.

No one ever falls asleep in this book without being transported to a new location or surrounded by flowers. A man lost in the forest comes upon a trio of woodwinds. That’s just how it works. It’s all an exercise in divine providence – everyone the hero meets is going precisely where he needs to go.

Life of a Good-for-Nothing was written in 1826 by Eichendorff, a lyric poet and novelist. It is said to be a perfect example of German Romanticism. Of course, you shouldn’t read it for that reason. Read it because it is an extraordinarily good time. In just a hundred pages there are so many adventures and rewards – there is even an argument with a parrot!

A sentence from the first page gives the feeling of the whole: “I was secretly delighted when to right and left I saw all my old friends and acquaintances going out to work, to dig and plough, as they had done the day before and the day before that and the day before that, while I was free to wander off into the world. In my pride and happiness I called out ‘Farewell!’ to all the wretched people around, but nobody took much notice.”

The translation reads beautifully and is studded with delights:

“The gardener scolded me for my laziness, and I was discontented, and the tip of my nose seemed to get in the way when I looked out upon God’s wide world.”(10)

More on noses:“I consider your delicately pointed nose, and regard you as a genius on vacation.” (77)

Despair, in this book, is extreme. And lasts approximately twenty-five seconds. “I firmly resolved to turn my back for ever on the treacherous land of Italy, with its crazy painters, its oranges and its chambermaids.” (82)

And, my favorite: “Tollkeeper, we haven’t much time, so please be so good as to get all your astonishment done with as quickly as possible.” (100)

I’d never heard of this book when I found it in a bookshop in the Himalayan foothills and it fairly flew off the shelf to me. Good fortune! What a gem it is, and a balm. One last suggestion: I think anyone who loved this book must hurry to read Gyula Krudy’s Sunflower.

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