It was actually quite fortuitous and undramatic. The private college in Massachusetts where I taught in the German Department had, and still has a remakably sizeable academic library with a generous book-ordering budget. One of my senior colleagues had ordered the original edition of Die Insel shortly after its publication in 1953, probably as part of an order of several post-war German-language novels. By the time I ran across the book sometime in the late 1970s, it had stood unconsulted on the library shelf in between works by August Thalheimer and Frank Thiess.
What made you embark on actually translating it?
The most cogent answer to this question can be found in the pages of Thelen’s book itself. I’ll quote from near the end of Chapter 23 of Book IV, where Vigoleis relates how he first discovered a major work by the Portuguese poet-philosopher Teixera de Pascoaes, who was later to become his and his wife’s personal protector during World War II:
I read the work in a single sitting, a feat that I rarely accomplish with any book, especially when the topic is religion…As I read on, I found myself mentally translating whole passages, assuring myself that I was going to transfer this book [Pascoaes’ treatise on St. Paul] into my own language.
That passage pretty well summarizes what I felt as I read the first hundred pages or so of the Insel. For one thing, outside of the 16th-17th –century baroque pages of Fischart and Grimmelshausen I had never before encountered such a free-wheeling display of the German language-such a willful, exuberant spectacle of vocabulary, much of it totally unfamiliar to me from any source in life or literature. That in itself provided motivation enough for a bilingual reader like me to take on the challenge of finding ways to render Thelen’s complex prose into readable English while preserving as much as possible of his signature style. Besides, in keeping with its title the work as a whole revealed an overall, subtle double aspect: an intriguing combination of high comedy and undercurrent of personal and historical melancholy. Finally, the sheer bulk of the work (over 900 pages in the original Diederichs edition) presented an additional challenge. Luckily, I took on the task of the translation entirely on my own time. I thus became, to borrow a term from Thelen himself, a long-distance translator, but unlike him during his years on Mallorca and beyond, facing no deadlines whatever.
I understand that you visited Thelen and his wife Beatrice during their later years. Did you receive help and encouragement from them for your translation?
I should stress that I worked on my translation, a labor of love if there ever was one, over many months and years, with no deadlines to face and with countless lengthy periods of inactivity. I completed the translation in early 2003, more than twenty years after picking the book off the shelf in our college library.
On two different occasions during the 1980s I sent Vigoleis and Beatrice samples of my work, and accepted their invitation to meet with them, first in Lausanne, and later, a few short years before they both passed away, in Dulken, not far from where Vigo spent his childhood. They were very encouraging and Thelen agreed to help me out by mailing me replies to my queries concerning particularly arcane words and passages in the Island. Needless to say, I treasure the memory of those visits, and cherish the several letters he wrote to me.
Can this work be compared to any other work of literature? If so, which?
For his deft handling of narrative tricks and his spirited humor, Thelen has often been compared-with some justification, I think-to such towering classics as Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, and Tom Jones. Within the field of German literature, we can think of Grimmelshausen’s early picaresque masterpiece Simplizius Simplizissimus. The Insel was a best-seller in Germany for a time during its initial years, and a winner of the prestigious Fontane Prize in 1954. The book has never been out of print since the first edition of 1953. It continues to enjoy a small but devoted following among German-speaking readers. A few years after its publication, two German works of fiction appeared that have since overshadowed Thelen’s book: Thomas Mann’s Confessions of Confidence Man Felix Krull (1955) and Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum (1959). But the Insel, I am sure, will remain near the top of anyone’s list of great books of the 20th century.
Why is it important that an English version of Thelen’s work should be published after all this time?
To my mind there is a quite significant historical aspect to Thelen and this book of his. All in all, it is the artistic record of a highly sensitive, non-Jewish German expatriate of the 1930s and beyond, recalling his and his beloved wife’s experiences in a Mediterranean “paradise”, told with a great deal of humor and genuine pathos. My English translation may help to change the rather negative picture of Germany and German literature that has prevailed in the UK and the USA for a long time. The Island of Second Sight is, I think, among many other things a living example of the fact that not everybody in Germany went along with Nazi ideology, and that not every German writer lacks a sense of humor.
‘The Island of Second Sight,’ by Albert Vigoleis Thelen
By ALAN RIDING
Published: October 12, 2012
It’s somewhat intimidating to review a book already described by Thomas Mann as “one of the greatest” of the 20th century — or so its publisher claims. It also seems odd that, despite Mann’s blessing, Albert Vigoleis Thelen’s picaresque romp, “The Island of Second Sight,” only recently became available in English — published in Britain in 2010, 57 years after its first appearance in German. But welcome it is. Without presuming to echo Mann, this is one of the most unusual and entertaining books I have ever read.
The cover announces that it’s a novel, although a subtitle inside (“From the Applied Recollections of Vigoleis”) clearly identifies it as a memoir, specifically of the time Thelen and his Swiss wife, Beatrice, spent in Majorca between 1931 and 1936. Later German editions carry lengthy corrections, included in Donald O. White’s excellent translation, that suggest its author valued accuracy. That said, the narrator is not Thelen but his alter ego, Vigoleis, a nickname he earned at college.
Still, why should we care about a destitute German writer living on a Mediterranean island many decades ago? Because he has a narrative style that is variously farcical, byzantine and philosophical, and a sense of humor that makes light of countless catastrophes. Vigoleis also provides droll portraits — or are they caricatures? — of the friends, conspirators, eccentrics and enemies encountered on this madcap journey. And in its 730 pages, the book has ample room for digressions about life before and after Majorca. (Thelen died, at the age of 85, in 1989.)
Politics add darker variables. Then, as now, the island was much loved by German expatriates, retirees and tourists. And well before Hitler came to power in 1933, his shadow already divided its German community. At the same time, shortly before Thelen and Beatrice reached Majorca in 1931, the Spanish Republic replaced the monarchy. Right-wing agitation followed until General Franco plunged Spain into civil war in 1936. By then, things were too hot for Thelen and Beatrice. With both Nazis and fascists on their heels, they fled Majorca.
But five years earlier, their lives were shaped more by happenstance. Alerted by a cable from Beatrice’s brother in Majorca that reads, “Am dying. Zwingli,” they set off on a mission of mercy only to discover that Zwingli’s actual problem is a former prostitute with a furious sexual appetite who has left him a physical wreck. Zwingli insists that Vigoleis and Beatrice move in with him and his captor, the beautiful Pilar. Foolishly, they agree.
Beatrice’s savings are soon exhausted by Zwingli’s numerous creditors, who, upon discovering his sister’s loyal generosity, come banging on his door. More disturbing, however, is the flighty Pilar, who soon notices Vigoleis’s burning lust for her. One day, when they’re alone in Zwingli’s apartment, she lures our ardent narrator to her bedroom: “I was still attempting to strip away the last mundane trappings from my goddess, when the Divinity Herself bent down, grasped her right stocking and drew forth a dagger.” He panics. “She will make love to you,” he tells himself, “and then plunge the blade up to the hilt between your ribs.” After briefly wondering if there could be “a more beautiful death for a melancholy poetaster,” he bolts. Only later, after Zwingli is treated for syphilis, does Vigoleis realize what else he has escaped.
In due course, having run out of money, Vigoleis and Beatrice are thrown out by Pilar and move into a crumbling guesthouse run by “a half-anarchistic, semi-Catholic count” and peopled by an exiled Viennese actress, a sickly Dutch plantation owner, a disenchanted Prussian Army officer, assorted anarchists and a cook who keeps a pipe in her cleavage. Soon, unable to pay the rent, they find a roofless room in a brothel that services bullfighters and opium smugglers. When the rainy season floods their room, they find an apartment they cannot afford to furnish.
Things look up when they are hired to guide German day-trippers from their cruise ships to scenic points around the island. As it happens, Vigoleis, an outspoken anti-Nazi, dislikes most Germans and knows little about Majorca. But he is hungry, so he bites his tongue and invents his patter, not least at an abandoned monastery where Chopin and his mistress George Sand spent a miserable winter a century earlier. When some of his charges complain about the cafe they’ve been assigned to patronize at lunchtime, he explains: “Well, you see, in this house and on this balcony, Cervantes wrote his ‘Don Quixote,’ in 95 nights by the light of an oil wick. During the day he slept, as many writers do. This is sacred ground. Surely I need say no more.” Duly reprimanded, the Germans silently clean their plates.
Meanwhile, still more unlikely characters join the parade: the poet Robert Graves, whose book “I, Claudius” Vigoleis claims to have typed; Count Harry Kessler, an exiled German diplomat, who dictates his memoirs to Vigoleis; a fugitive Honduran general plotting a revolution back home; an American millionairess who believes Christian Science has cured her diseased kidney; a sex-crazed German Jewish. . . . Well, you get the idea.
When Franco launches his revolution in July 1936, Vigoleis and Beatrice are staying outside Palma, the island’s capital, initially unaware that the Franquistas are hunting down leftists and anarchists. Weeks later, Vigoleis learns he is on a death list and is presumed to have been murdered. Clearly it is time to leave.
To do so, Vigoleis needs his passport stamped by the Third Reich’s consul, who receives him with the words, “You? Haven’t you been shot?” Somehow Vigoleis gets his way. And, days later, with Beatrice by his side, he steps aboard a British destroyer evacuating foreigners. He is hiding 200 letters to be posted abroad and, by good fortune, the customs officer has overslept. Thanks, Vigoleis notes, to “some insatiable Spanish whore.”