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Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Alabama Literary Review, Bellingham Review, Fiction International, Literary Heist, Saturday Evening Post, and Superpresent.


Trigger Warning

Jean Paul was the pen name of Johann Paul Friedrich Richter, who lived in Germany from 1763 to 1825. He published at least twenty-six books of varied length and character. Some are immensely long, like Titan, while some are as short as a story. They include novels, literary criticism, satire, and commentary on events of the day. Though very popular in the 1790s and early 1800s, they fell from favor. They never found a place among the literary standards taught in German schools. And their perverse style, loaded with idioms, allusions, and puns, has inhibited translation into English.

Sublunary Editions, a small press in Seattle, took on a mission to bring Jean Paul to the American reading public. “The Empyrean Catalogue,” their series of small red paperbacks, has five books by him, including new translations. One of the titles is Prefaces, a collection of Jean Paul’s prefaces to his books, a project as odd as they are. Biographical Recreations, another Sublunary title, has a “Satirical Appendix” as long as the text. Maria Wutz and Two Stories are pamphlet-size. The opening of the first of the two stories, “The Wondrous New Year’s Eve Company,” is a good elevator pitch for the whole lot:

“We have all read unsettling stories that charmed and frightened us with their lovely twists and turns and that left us anxiously groping about for a bright exit until the unexpected line ‘when I awoke’ pulled the whole series of warrens out from underfoot.”

Joshua Rothes is the motive force behind Sublunary Editions, which is “dedicated to producing new editions of overlooked works from the history of world literature.” Sublunary authors include Djuna Barnes, Miguel de Unamuno, and Emanuel Carnevali. Rothes also runs a distribution cooperative called Asterism Books for sixteen small presses, including Big Lucks, Inside the Castle, Kernpunkt, Sagging Meniscus, and Sublunary.

Influenced by the satires of Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne, and Tobias Smollett, Jean Paul has always had admirers in the English-speaking world. Thomas Carlyle translated some of his work, and a Rhode Island poet, transcendentalist, and Unitarian pastor named Charles T. Brooks, 1813-1883, translated three long novels, The Invisible Lodge, Hesperus, and Titan, a Herculean labor that is unreadable today.

My introduction to Jean Paul came by way of a book of essays by Hermann Hesse. In the essay “About Jean Paul” dated 1921, Hesse begins with a hypothetical question and answer: if asked “in what book of modern times does the German soul express itself most forcefully and characteristically, I would answer without hesitation – Jean Paul’s Flegeljahre (Unfledged Years).” A brief biography follows, some high praise, and as you might expect from Hesse, “This is the secret of Jean Paul’s wealth of vision, of his profusion, of his tropical proliferation: his communication with the unconscious was accomplished easily and playfully.” Theories of Carl Jung are invoked, the realization of the Self, and the psychological novels of Dostoyevsky. Jean Paul was a century ahead of his time. Hesse then gets down to brass tacks:

“In the judgment of the better-read historians and scholars he is considered an original, highly gifted, but chaotic and unbearably sentimental writer. If you contradict this judgment, you will be reminded of the oceans of tears wept in Jean Paul’s books, of the tumult and misery he depicts in men’s souls, of the maiden figures he has created composed of cobwebs and moonlight, hypersensitive, moved to tears by nothing. All this is true. But above all he loved the opposite, created the opposite. For Jean Paul is not an intellectual or an emotionalist, a thinker or an intuitive or a sensitive – he is all of these, the perfect example of a genius who has not cultivated a single specialty but whose ideal is the free play of all the powers of the soul, who would like to say yes to everything.”

The son of a provincial schoolmaster, Jean Paul was one himself from 1787 to 1794, when fame intervened. He moved to Leipzig and then to Weimar, where “his remarkable conversational powers and his genial manners made him a favorite in general society.” Goethe and Schiller, the great classicists, disdained him and his writing. He married in 1801, unhappily in Hesse’s opinion, and settled in Bayreuth in 1804. Here he remained and wrote for the next twenty years, helped by a pension from the local prince-primate.

A sampling of Jean Paul reveals a familiar type, the precocious student who needs to show off, the buttonholer who cannot shut up, the pedantic enthusiast who veers from one train of thought to the next. Fast talkers like this appear at open-mike events and television shows. Hesse found what he wanted in Jean Paul, a reflection of himself.

If not for his essay, though, I might have missed one of the great eccentrics of literature, and some comic characters on par with Don Quixote: the merry little schoolmaster Maria Wutz, the public defender and faker Siebenkäs, and the army chaplain Schmelzle. Jean Paul invented the doppelganger, the strange double of the hero, and writers have copied it ever since. E. T. A. Hoffmann, known for his tales of the supernatural, is Jean Paul’s spiritual love child. For a different take, here is Oskar Walzel in his 1932 book German Romanticism:

“Jean Paul delighted in following ‘steam baths of emotion’ with ‘cold showers of satire’; he himself defines his humor as the result of the effervescence of the spirit of both when his negative electric philosophy and his positive electric enthusiasm are struggling to recover their equilibrium. A favorite form of Jean Paul’s humor is to thrust the person of the author between the reader and the story and to give an account of his trade, his troubles as a writer, or his vexation with his work. Then finally the author, who has been pretending that he is merely a faithful copyist, and that the bulk of his story is merely a manuscript which has been turned over to him, gets to know in person the characters which he himself has created, while they themselves read what he has written about them.”

For a taste, here is the first sentence from one preface: “I am writing this quite simply so that readers do not take the first chapter for a preface, and thus will not skip over it, but over this.” Here is another: “It has often been a source of much annoyance to me that to every preface I write I am obliged to append a book – like the endorsement on a bill of exchange – or an appendix to letters A to Z.” And here is the opening of the “Sixth Biographical Recreation”:

“The Count had a country estate near Rosneath, a town whose environs are strung with the echo of an Aeolian harp. I wish that every reader might make a journey there and might compel the echo to answer him, to antiphonize like a second chorus. I assure every one of you, that since I learned of it from Madame Genlis’s Evening Hours, I have lain my head back and closed my eyes – whenever my brain is suffering from the brain-drill of the migraine – to wrap this echo round the flower-wreath of my fantasy like a bandage.”

Jean Paul is hard to read, hard to find, and hard to classify. Some alphabetical lists put him under J for Jean Paul, as if obeying an invisible hyphen. Other lists put him under R for Richter, his real last name. A bookstore I frequent, one with an excellent foreign language selection, has put two of his novels printed in German in the French subdivision. Another bookseller tells me that he places a book by whatever name is printed on the title page, so Jean Paul goes under P. Persevere, and obtain a rich reward.

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