Posts Tagged ‘Arno Schmidt’

I discovered Arno Schmidt’sBottom’s Dream‘ a few years back when the English translation came out. Someone in Twitter, probably the publishers, wrote about it. It looked like a chunkster and it was translated by one of my favourite translators John E. Woods – I loved his translations of Patrick Süskind’sPerfume‘ and ‘The Pigeon‘ – and so I decided to get it.

When the postal courier arrived, I was surprised, because he carried the package on his shoulder! It was huge! When I took it from him, I nearly dropped it! It was that heavy! I discovered later that it weighed around six kilos (if you are into pounds, it is a little more than thirteen pounds). It was bigger than any other book I had in my collection – ‘War and Peace‘ and ‘Les Miserables‘ paled in comparison. It was so huge and massive that its immensity was intimidating. It was also the heaviest. It was next to impossible to hold it in your hand and read. It has to be kept on a table or a special book holder if one wanted to read it. It was also the most expensive single-volume novel that I had got till that time – it cost me the equivalent of fifty dollars. (It trades on Amazon at 855 dollars now, so not a bad investment 😁)

More facts emerged later. I discovered that only 2000 copies of the book were published, 1000 for the American market and 1000 for the rest of the world. I was able to get hold of one of the rest-of-the-world copies. There is no Kindle edition – the estate of Arno Schmidt refused to approve that. It was published by Dalkey Archive, who have been publishing beautiful works by lesser known authors for the past forty years. The publishers and the writer’s estate seem to have adopted a publishing philosophy from an earlier century – publish limited copies of the book, and that’s it. The book is out-of-print now and I hope existing copies cost a fortune when I get old – I hope to get rich with this.

The book is produced in a classic German (or rather European) style. That is there is no introduction, no analysis of the book or its place in literary history. The book proper starts on the first page. There are no distractions. No potted biography of the author, no description of the translator, nothing. It is you and the book, 1500 pages of it, and nothing in between. The translator seems to have taken pity on the readers and so has sneaked in a one-and-half page afterword in the end, which doesn’t say much. There is a short description on the back of the slipcase through which we discover that the book is about Edgar Allan Poe, Shakespeare, the art of translating. Otherwise we can’t fathom anything about the book.

I know only three other people who have got the book – Melissa from ‘The Book Binder’s Daughter’, Tony from ‘Messenger’s Booker (and more)’ and one more friend from Twitter. Only Tony has read a significant part of the book, I think. You can find his first post on the book here. Tony’s posts are encyclopaedic and an education to read. I don’t think there is anyone who has read the book fully. I see many readers have reviewed the book on Amazon. But I doubt whether any of these readers have read the book fully. Anyone can write a review of any book. I am very good at it – I can write a review of any book I haven’t read. If I can do it, anyone can do it. I will believe it only when I see it.

I thought for this year’s edition of ‘German Literature Month‘, I’ll read a few pages of ‘Bottom’s Dream‘. I thought that would be a great way of celebrating this 10th edition of GLM. I read the first three pages. I couldn’t understand anything. Only a vague inkling of what it was about. But it was nice to read the first three pages. I am sharing them here. Go ahead, do read them. And tell me whether you can understand what they say.

This is my last post for the 10th year celebrations of ‘German Literature Month‘ hosted by Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ and Lizzy from ‘Lizzy’s Literary Life’. I couldn’t read much this year, but I had fun participating and sharing thoughts on my favourite German writers and poems and attempting to read Arno Schmidt’s magnum opus. Thanks so much to Caroline and Lizzy for hosting GLM. It is my favourite reading event of the year and I can’t wait for next year’s GLM already.

Have you tried reading Arno Schmidt’s book? What do you think about it? Did you participate in German Literature Month this year? Which were your favourite reads?

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A few days back one of my book group members wrote a post on rare books asking readers to share their thoughts on rare books and list out their favourite rare books – rare books that they have and rare books they would like to have. 

As this is one of my favourite topics, I thought I will write about it here. So, here are some of my favourite experiences with rare books. I hope you enjoy reading it. Please do share your experiences with rare books in the comments or post on your blog and tag me.

For me, typically a rare book is something I read when I was a kid and it went out of print and I couldn’t find it again. Other rare books are ones which I found in the library when I was in school / college but which are no longer available now. Some of my favourite rare books and the experiences I have had with them 🙂


(1) The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett – Arnold Bennett wrote many books and at the beginning of the 20th century, he was one of the important writers in English. But most of his books have gone out of print now except for ‘The Old Wives Tale‘. ‘The Grand Babylon Hotel’ was an odd book in his list, because it was, what we can call today, a thriller. In Bennett’s days there were no thrillers. Most of the story in this book happens in a hotel, there are cool, stylish dialogues, and the main character in the story is the heroine, who is awesome. This book was far ahead of its time. I didn’t read it when I was a kid – my dad read it aloud to me and my sister, and told us the story. I have lots of fond memories of it. When I tried getting it when I went to work, it was out of print. Then I discovered a publisher who printed out-of-print books when a customer orders. I got it from them. It was expensive and it was the pre-Kindle era and the book was poorly formatted. But when I read it, it took me back to my childhood, and that made me very happy – so I am glad I got it.

(2) Nobody’s Child by Elizabeth Dejeans – This was probably the first book I ever read. Read is actually an exaggeration. My mom read it and told me the story. It was probably the first thick book I tried reading. I was reading Ladybird books those days which had adventures similar to Enid Blyton’s books. My dad laughed at me and said that I should read more serious books and sent my sister with me when I went to the library next time. My sister thrust ‘Nobody’s Child‘ on me. It was thick and when I tried reading the first page, I couldn’t understand a word. Then my mom took pity on me and read it and told me the story. I don’t remember the story now, but I remember vaguely that it was sad and it was about a girl who was an orphan. Years later, after I grew up, I tried getting this book. I didn’t remember the name of the writer, and there were many books called ‘Nobody’s Child‘. But after a lot of searching, I finally discovered the writer’s identity and also found an e-copy. It was one of the great days of my life. Hoping to read it one of these days.

(3) A Study of History by Arnold Toynbee – Toynbee’s book was the historian’s bible before it went out of vogue. In this book, Toynbee tries to study all civilizations since the dawn of time and tries to fit them into a common framework – bssed on how civilizations are born, how they grow, how they achieve their heights, how they die. In a sense, he was trying to write the mother of all history books. The original had 12 volumes, which was later abridged to 2 volumes. My dad was a history teacher for decades and he has been raving about it since I can remember. A few years back, when I discovered that my favourite bookstore had published a one volume illustrated edition of Toynbee’s masterpiece, I was thrilled! It is one of the treasures in my collection.

(4) The Art of Cricket by Donald Bradman – I read this when I was in school. It was an exquisite 1958 first edition with amazingly thick paper, the likes of which we will never see again. It is one of the finest books on cricket and it talks about everything – how to play cricket, cricket history and everything in between. There is even a wonderful cricket puzzle in the end. When I tried getting a copy of this book after I went to work, it was impossible to find. Then one of the publishers brought it back in print and I was thrilled.

(5) Beyond a Boundary by C.L.R.James – James’ classic is regarded as the greatest book on cricket ever written. For many years, it was almost out of print. The only edition available was published by an American university press in the sociology category. It was ironic that the greatest cricket book was out of print in the cricket playing world, but was kept in print in a country which doesn’t play the game and hates the game. I was glad though. I paid a king’s ransom and got it. Reading it was one of the greatest experiences of my reading life.

(6) Two books by Alexei Tolstoy – Alexei Tolstoy is a distant relation of the more famous Leo. During his heyday in the 1920s, he was famous for two famous epic novels – ‘Ordeal‘ and ‘Peter the Great‘. ‘Ordeal‘ was regarded as THE novel about the Russian Revolution, for years. Alexei Tolstoy also wrote science fiction for children, much before science fiction for children was written by western writers. He was a pioneer. After the collapse of communism, all his works went out of print. Fortunately, I have both ‘Ordeal‘ and ‘Peter the Great‘. I got it during my schooldays at my school book fair, when Soviet era books were still available. I will never lend them to anyone.


(7) And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokov – Sholokov won the Nobel prize for this book. It is in 4 volumes and it is bigger than ‘War and Peace‘. Unfortunately, it is out-of-print. When visiting a secondhand book sale a few years back, I saw a hardback edition of one of the volumes. My heart started beating faster! I was so excited! I asked the organizers of the sale whether they had the other volumes. They took out all four and gave it to me! Wow! It cost me 400 rupees (100 rupees per volume), but for me it was priceless! I don’t know whether the sale organizers knew the value of the thing they were giving away!

(8) Dragon City (Tex Willer comic) – I read this when I was in school. It was around 200 pages long and it was the longest comic I had read at that time. One of my friends borrowed it from me and I never got it back. I have pined for it for years. Recently, the publishers brought it back on print. They jazzed it up – the new edition was a hardback and it was in full colour. When the courier guy delivered it and I held it in my hand, I cried.

(9) Karunguyil Kunrathu Kolai (Murder in Black Sparrow Hill) by T.S.Duraisamy – There is an old Tamil movie called ‘Maragadham‘ (Emerald) starring Sivaji Ganesan and Padmini. It is a family favourite. It is based on this book. But this book has been out-of-print for decades. Then someone saw a copy in a library in Pondicherry, found a publisher and brought a new edition out. When I got a copy, my mom was still around. I came home late that night, found mom sleeping and left it next to her pillow. When she got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, she saw the book next to her and she couldn’t resist opening it and start reading it. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. I hope it made her happy too.

(10) Paradiso by Jose Lezama Lima – I discovered this Cuban classic through the movie ‘Strawberry and Chocolate‘. The book was banned in Cuba, I think, and the English translation was out-of-print. When it came back in print, I was so excited and got it.

(11) Basingstoke Boy by John Arlott – This autobiography of John Arlott has long been out-of-print. When I discovered a secondhand copy on Amazon, I pounced on it. It is a hardback and as good as new. Sometimes we get lucky.

(12) Winnetou by Karl May – I have read Spaghetti Westerns (Western stories written by Italian writers), French / Belgian Westerns, even Indian Westerns. When one of my friends told me that Karl May’s ‘Winnetou‘ is her favourite Western, I was surprised that I hadn’t heard of it. Then I did some research and discovered that it is a German Western. English translations of Karl May’s books were either non-existent or hard to come by. Then a beautiful soul called George A. Alexander translated the first volume of the trilogy into English. I was so excited! I don’t think he has translated the second and third volumes. I am still waiting for them.

(13) Don Juan, the Life and Death of Don Miguel de Mañara by Josef Toman – While discussing favourite books, one of my friends told me that her alltime favourite book was this one. She said that one day she hoped to find a used copy and read it again. I have never heard of this book or this writer before. So I did some research and discovered that he was a Czech writer of yesteryears and this was his most famous book and it was highly acclaimed during its day. There was one English translation done in 1958 and that was long out-of-print. I thought I will try to track a used copy and if I am able to find one, gift it to my friend for Christmas. Luckily, I was able to. I was so excited when the book arrived and I held it in my hands! And I couldn’t resist reading it, before gift-wrapping it, because I knew that the chances of this rare book passing through my hands again was extremely remote. I have to say that it is a beautiful, powerful book and I am glad I read it.

(14) The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie – I haven’t read any of Rushdie’s books yet. But this being his only book which is not available in India, and the only book which is probably still banned in India, it has always had the attraction of the proverbial forbidden fruit. So when I went to work abroad and chanced upon this book in a bookshop, I couldn’t resist getting it. I smuggled it in my luggage when I moved back home. I hoped to read it someday. One day one of my father’s friends came to visit and he spied my bookshelf and his gaze immediately fell upon this book and he asked me whether he could borrow it. He was a person whom I knew since I was born and he has always been kind to me and so I said ‘Yes’. And that was that. The book went and disappeared and now it is never coming back. This is what comes of keeping your rare books on display at home.

(15) Film World by Ivor Montagu – I had a professor on college who used to give away his old books every year. He didn’t give it away for free, but used to charge a nominal price for each book, like 5 rupees. He wanted students to know that they had to earn the book. He also wanted to make it affordable for them. He was a wonderful human being. When I first went to the book giveaway he had organized, I was amazed at the collection, he had put on display! Most of them were out-of-print. I got a few. This was one of my treasured ones. In it, filmmaker and film critic Ivor Montagu talks about all aspects of film making and the film industry of his time. It is not very big, but it is very beautiful. Used copies of this book are still available in Amazon (US) for affordable prices, even now.

(16) Bottom’s Dream by Arno Schmidt – It feels strange to include this book here, because it came out only last year. The original was in German and it was published in the 1970s. This was the first ever English translation. It is around 1500 pages long and it is the mother of all books I have, in terms of physical size (photo below – it is nearly the size of a newspaper as you can see). Only 2000 copies of the book were printed in hardback, and they have been sold out. There are no plans for a paperback or a Kindle edition. The book is already out of print. I think I am the only Indian to have a copy of this book. (If you have a copy, I would like to meet you and catch up over a cup of coffee.) I know only two others – Melissa (from The Book Binder’s Daughter) and Tony (from Messenger’s Booker) – who have a copy of this book. I don’t think anyone has reviewed this book yet, though I remember Tony starting to review it. I have kept the book in a safe, dust-free place. I hope that when I get old, and get poor, this book will make me rich. (I wrote a post about this, when I got this book. If you are interested, you can find it here . )


Rare books that I covet very much and hope to get some day are :

(1) The Mediterranean by Fernand Braudel – I saw this first in my college library. It was a Penguin paperback from the ’80s. I have been coveting it since. This and ‘The Identity of France’, also by Braudel. Both of them are out-of-print and hard to come by. However, I was able to get Braudel’s ‘Civilization and Capitalism’ when it came back in print. It is one of my treasured books.

(2) The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by  João Guimarães Rosa – it is regarded as one of the greatest Latin American books, but the English translation is long out of print. An online scanned copy version was available but the publishers ensured that it was taken down. It was like people didn’t want to publish it and they also didn’t want people to read it. I hope they bring it back. Used copies in Amazon are available from $350 to around $2500. I hope to buy it when it becomes $35.

(3) Cricket Country by Edmund Blunden – Blunden’s First World War memoir and his poetry are in print. But his cricket book is not. I want this back!

There are two books I have which are about rare books.

(1) Lost Classics : Writers on books loved and lost edited by Michael Ondaatje, Michael Redhill, Esta Spalding and Linda Spalding – Writers talk about books which they loved and which are rare or out-of-print now. Beautiful book! I wrote a long review of it when I read it. If you are interested, you can find it here.


(2) A Pound of Paper by John Baxter – it is Baxter’s memoir on collecting rare books.

That is it. That is the end of this novel 🙂

Please do share your experiences with rare books in the comments or post on your blog and tag me.

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I got a package on the mail today. When I saw it I couldn’t stop smiling. When I opened it, the object of my affection slowly crept out of the package and looked at me. It was the book ‘Bottom’s Dream‘ by Arno Schmidt.

I discovered ‘Bottom’s Dream‘ through an article I discovered through Twitter. The article said that the book was thick, it was originally written in German, this was the first time it was getting translated into English, it was translated by the old German hand John E. Woods, and the book had influences of Joyce and Poe. I have a soft corner for chunksters and everything about the book gently whispered to me to get it and I ordered it eventhough it cost me a small fortune. I was thrilled when it arrived today. Dalkey Archive Press, the publishers, say that only 2000 copies of the book have been printed. I am thrilled to be one of the lucky 2000 to have a copy! Yay!

The first thing that hits you when you look at ‘Bottom’s Dream‘ is its size. There is an article by Scott Esposito which describes the book as a ‘chunkster‘, ‘enormous‘, ‘giant‘. Its dimensions are given as 11×14 inches with 1500 pages. Tolstoy’sWar and Peace‘ is that long and so we expect something of that size. But ‘Bottom’s Dream‘ defies all expectations. ‘Chunkster‘ doesn’t begin to describe it. It is HUGE! Comparing it to other novels in terms of size is meaningless. I have seen some huge books during my time, but none like this one. I have around two thousand books in my collection and this is the biggest of them all. I take out ‘War and Peace‘, ‘Les Miserables‘, ‘The Count of Monte Cristo‘ and put them next to it and ‘Bottom’s Dream‘ towers over them all. It towers over even the huge one volume edition of Arnold Toynbee’sA Study of History‘. To give you an idea, if I take a knife and cut it in the middle into two, each of the resulting two books are as big as ‘War and Peace‘ in terms of dimensions and thickness. It is not a ‘chunkster‘ or a giant. The best way to describe it is this. There is a scene in the TV show ‘Game of Thrones‘, in which Daenerys’ dragon flies and descends and lands next to her. The dragon is huge and Daenerys is tiny next to it. ‘Bottom’s Dream‘ is that dragon – it is a book dragon. It dwarfs every other book in sight.

Here is a picture of the book. I have put it on top of today’s newspaper, so that you can see the relative size.


I took the book out of its slipcase and opened it. It was so heavy that I couldn’t hold it in my hand for long. I put it on my lap. It weighs a little more than six kilograms (thirteen pounds) and I could feel every ounce of it. This is definitely not a book you read when you commute by the subway. It is too big to carry. It is not even a restaurant book, because of its size. This is a book that you can only read in the library or at home after putting it on the table. 

After opening the book, I flipped through the first few pages. Every page had three columns – the main text ran through the middle column, while the left and right columns had notes and comments. The prose was hard to read – it looked like a combination of surrealistic Joycean prose and Burgess’ nadsat. I looked at the last pages of the book and read the afterword by the translator, James E. Woods. Woods describes how he got into translating the book and shares his thoughts on it. It is brief and to-the-point. It is just two pages long. I smiled when I read that, because a 1500-page book might have benefited by a longer afterword. Or maybe a fifty page introduction. But the publisher and the translator had decided not to have any unnecessary words – Arno Schmidt is what you want, Arno Schmidt is what you will get.

Thanks to James E. Woods for taking twelve years of his life to translate this book. Translating epic length books is a labour of love and one can’t pursue it unless one loves the book in question very deeply. There is not much money to be made here. Thanks to Dalkey Archive Press for publishing this work. Bottom’s Dream, Arno Schmidt, thanks for coming to live in my home. I hope you like it here. I am normally bad at taking care of my books, but I will keep you wrapped in plastic sheets, keep you in a dust-free environment and take care of you well. And hopefully, I will read you one day soon. German Literature Month is around the corner and so that day is not as far as you think.

Bottom’s Dream‘ has been sighted in a few other places. Here is an article about it.

Here is an article comparing ‘Bottom’s Dream‘ to other big chunksters which can’t be read in the subway.

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