Bottom’s Dream: The Longest Novel Published in 2016

atkins-bookshelf-literatureJust in time for the holiday season, Dalkey Archive Press has published a limited edition (a press run of only 2,000 copies) of the English translation of German writer Arno Schmidt’s (1914-1979) magnum opus, Zettels Traum, originally published in 1970. The focus should really be on the word magnum — this book is massive; in German, the book spanned 1,334 pages and 1.1 million words. The English edition, Bottom’s Dream, translated by John Woods, is 1,496 pages long and consists of 1.3 million words. The $70 book requires some heavy lifting: measuring 10.8 x 14 inches, with a 3.5 inch spine, it weighs 13.4 pounds — equivalent to the weight of four hardback copies of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1,000 pages) or five copies of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (1,088 pages).

Inspired by Finnegan’s Wake, the novel is about a single day (4:00 am to the next morning) of a married couple, who are both translators, and their teenage daughter who visit a Poe scholar to get help in translating the work of Edgar Allen Poe. The group discusses the meaning of life, language, literature, and love; and like a Joyce novel, it is filled with literary and cultural allusions. One early reader elaborates on the challenge of reading such a complex work. He had planned on reading five pages a year, to finish Bottom’s Dream in one year. “I now realize that was overly ambitious — [it will take two years.]… You spend more time googling and finding other books than you do actually reading.”

Jeremy Adler, a British scholar who is an expert on German literature, reviewed Bottom’s Dream for The New York Times: “In this world, as he writes, everything proves to be a ‘PHALIBILD… NOTHING BUT A PENIDIN.’ These elusive etyms are perhaps the true heroes of Schmidt’s masterpiece, Bottom’s Dream. That book is in some sense Schmidt’s response to Finnegans Wake; it is a sprawling novel about a brief period, from 4 A.M. to early the next morning, outwardly centered on a discussion of that American father of European modernism, Edgar Allan Poe. Written in three columns and published only as a facsimile of an idiosyncratic typography designed by the author, the ‘Dream’ represents the ultimate but untranslatable challenge to any translator. Mr. Woods has already shown his ability to translate late Schmidt with his version of Evening Edged in Gold (1975). Let us hope that he will have an opportunity to attempt the impossible and give us an English Bottom’s Dream too. Then Arno Schmidt will assume his rightful place in modern literature.”

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