Monday, January 04, 2010

Simplicius Simplicissimus: a forgotten classic


I have taught my year-long course on early modern European history 1400-1800 maybe 10 different times. From the beginning I was aware that there was a classic novel of the 30 years war called Simplicius Simplicissimus, written in German not long after the events it describes. The book is considered a valuable resource for people studying the war and the experience of soldiers in it. I never had time to get hold of it myself, since it wasn't in any of the University libraries that I frequented.

I have temporarily relocated for my sabbatical and now have been able to put my hands on the book. And you know, it is really good. It is a typical 17th-century satire where the hero is a fool, which is to say that he has a clear-eyed view of what other people do and why they do it, and the same for himself, for whom he makes no excuses. Simplicius starts out as a poor orphan, and travels through society rising and falling in wealth and status, mostly depending on his luck at any given time.

A book like this has a real chance of being absolutely deadly to modern tastes. But somehow it isn't, at least not in this translation by George Shulz-Behrend from 1965. The prose is clean and light with no fake archaic flavor. In fact, it has a real contemporary feeling, meaning fresh and contemporary by the standards of the middle 60s. Not so long ago even if you weren't born then. Despite the fact that it exposes the sins and foibles of all sorts of people, it isn't brutal as it so easily could be.

The main fault of the book is that the author, Johann Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, throws in more digressions that I care for with the result that the book is about 20% too long and sort of runs out of steam rather than ending properly.

Image: the cover page of the 1669 edition.

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