Hans Henny Jahnn - The most terrifying author of the 20th century: writer of Baroque sexuality, of fleshiness and macabre desperation

Hans Henny Jahnn, The Ship (Scribner, 1961)

«Hans Henny Jahnn (1894-1959) is one of Germany's most controversial modern authors, in large part due to sharply diverging reactions to the depictions of sado-masochistic brutality, incest, and homoeroticism in his plays and novels. Jahnn's rank as a writer has long been a topic of intense debate between rival schools of critics, and his works have provoked extreme responses, both positive and negative, from a wide spectrum of scholars, writers, and critics, including such prominent figures as Alfred Döblin, Walter Benjamin, Thomas and Klaus Mann, Wolfgang Koeppen, Walter and Adolf Muschg, Wilhelm Emrich, Hubert Fichte and many others.»

«This book is devastating. Even in the fairly rough English translation, it lodged in my brain and I consider it one of the more powerful and disturbing works of the twentieth century. I first encountered Jahnn in the collection Black Letters Unleashed - an excerpt from The Ship called "Kebad Kenya," which can be read as a stand-alone story. "Kebad Kenya" is also contained in Thirteen Uncanny Stories. Try to find and read this story! I'll post some of it here soon.
Atlas Press published a translation of Jahnn's 1962 novella The Night of Lead. They say that it "shows Jahnn at his darkest: man is portrayed as the toy of supernatural powers, where his only certainty is a bodily existence which, in turn, is blindly bound to the laws of growth, death and decay and procreation - the major themes of Jahnn’s writing." This description can also apply to The Ship. Even after reading Lovecraft and Thomas Bernhard, I'm tempted to think of Jahnn as the most terrifying author. Bernhard can make me feel a little crazy (finishing Correction was one of the more masochistic things I've ever done, and I grew up on gore movies), but he's often hilarious. Jahnn isn't very funny. He's bleak and unrelenting bizarre.» - ajourneyroundmyskull.blogspot

«the intro namechecks both melville and giorgio de chirico and the book indeed is an odd combination of nautical metaphysics and surrealism’s insidiously creepy emptying out.
an intense mystery story, not unlike the slow build-up of a bela tarr movie. in places it moves at a wild pace like a murder story’s final confrontation or a chase scene; other times it lingers endlessly over each character’s neurotics and guilt and anxiety–everyone in it an active raskolnikov. (and maybe the book is one long crime and punishment minus the denouement–just accusations and guilt.)
i did find myself a little struck by tedium midway through, waiting as the horror story set up itself–but then man, did i get walloped by the ending. it certainly leaves an impression…
and other than this overall, final and somewhat crushing impression, which is weighty and mysteriously achieved, the sentence-by-sentence style is what i think’s also most memorable about it. (even so, it’s a sum greater than its parts.) but here’s but one early example:
“We have witnessed the horrible again and again, a transformation no one could foresee. A healthy body is run over by a truck, crushed. Blood, once secreted, once feeling its way blindly through the body, pulsating in a meshwork of thin streams, spreading the chemically charged hormones and their mysterious functions like a red tree inside man–this blood now runs out shapelesssly in great puddles. And still no one grasps that, in a network of veins, it has form. But even more horrible–the death struggle itself, in which the innumerable organs, which we believe we feel, take part. Terror is stronger in us than delight”» - Eugene Lim

Some quotes from the book:

"And he discovered that he was inferior to these men. They had had experience in every direction. At fourteen they had already mistaken the joys of Hell for the bliss of Paradise, and, later, stood again and again with empty hands in a completely illuminated world . . . Gustave envied them, not for their miserable experiences, but for the particular smell of reality which would never be his because he didn’t have the courage, wasn’t sufficiently carefree, to let himself be torn to shreds for no good reason."

"He, Gustave, had seen him hanging in the thorny thicket of overpowering hellish hatred, at the mercy of a horrible heightening of his desires, a supernatural instrument of accumulated sterility, bursting upon all growing things like a shower of hail."

"The futile expectations of a condemned creature are without parallel; the hope of being allowed to cross the saving threshold of a miracle is the bedfellow of the fear of death."
Hans Henny Jahnn, The Night of Lead, Tran. by Malcolm Green (Atlas Press, 1995)

«This may be one of the most uncomfortable books of all time.
It's still in print, but only 300 copies were made, many of them reserved for subscribers.
Atlas's copy:
Self-revelations after time and death, an extraordinary novella from the oddest of the German Expressionists whose works are undergoing a complete revaluation in France at present where many translations are appearing.
Hans Henny Jahnn, (1894-1959) established his name as a major writer with his first publication, Pastor Ephraim Magnus, a play written in exile during the First World War which brought him the coveted Kleist Prize. It also revealed him as an highly uncomfortable writer; his style was and remained idiosyncratic, bearing the discerning influence of Expressionism and later Joyce, and containing the timbre of the antique tragedies. In both his writing and life he rejected society’s morals and institutions, psychological interpretation, dualism, and the enslavement of the world about us by homo faber, championing in their stead a heathen, pan-erotic return to the deeper strata of mythology, where time and place converge into one.
The Night of Lead, published in 1962, shows Jahnn at his darkest: man is portrayed as the toy of supernatural powers, where his only certainty is a bodily existence which, in turn, is blindly bound to the laws of growth, death and decay and procreation - the major themes of Jahnn’s writing. But in the compassion demonstrated by the novel’s central character, Jahnn points to the one possibility to gain some kind of liberty: turning one’s back on conventional morals and embracing creation in its fullness.
Jahnn has never enjoyed popular success, but he is often viewed as one of the most influential and important German-speaking writers of this century, his works are currently being re-evaluated in France, where the majority have now been translated.» - kebadkenya.blogspot

Hans Henny Jahnn, Thirteen Uncanny Stories; Trans. by Gerda Jordan, Peter Lang Publishing, 1984.

"The stories presented in this volume were selected by Jahnn from [his novels] Perrudja [1929] and Fluß ohne Ufer and published in a separate volume in 1954. Their collective title, Thirteen Uncanny Stories (13 nicht geheure Geschichten) is misleading and may have been chosen as a catch word for selling purposes. They are in no way 'uncanny' in the light of Jahnn's philosophy and of his entire work. In the two novels they appear in various contexts, for example, as reading of history, 'Sassanidian King'; as entertainment at a sick-bed, 'The Slave's Story'; as a memory, 'A Boy Weeps.' This selection shows a cross section of various themes, or rather of Jahnn's variation on one theme, as well as a cross-section of his varied styles, from terse, saga-like compactness to the highly ornamental language of the Baroque."
...."'He was a writer of Baroque sexuality, of fleshiness and macabre desperation [...]. The reader continuously stumbles over coffins and tombs, witnesses deeds of horror, awesome fear of death and the performance of the necessities of metabolism....'
Thus wrote Werner Helwig to his close friend Hans Henny Jahnn. It was not Helwig's own criticism of Jahnn, but that of a critic he had invented in order to show Jahnn what the public thought of his work. No invented critic was needed, however; Jahnn is known as 'the writer who uncovered the hells of the flesh and drives, the abyss of demoniacal passions and sinister licentiousness,' his writings are described as 'materialism of pure faith in the body,' his reader is 'numbed by the eternal drone of the hormone organ.' Polite euphemism calls him the 'uncomfortable' writer.
...The object of this and similar criticism, Hans Henny Jahnn, novelist and dramatist, misunderstood in his life time and since his death, is little known in his own country, not to mention the outside world..."» - Gerda Jordan

Hans Henny Jahnn, Perrudja

(Originally published in 1929, the book was never translated into English. The German is available from Hoffman und Campe (1985), José Corti publishes the French translation by Reinhold Werner and Jean-Claude Marcadé.)

«I’ll just start with this: Hans Henny Jahnn is the single most underrated writer of the 20th century. Oh, yes, no doubt about it. He has written 5 truly great and mind-blowing plays and a few more very good ones. He has written two mind-blowing, game-changing novels. He has written a handful of mind-blowing shorter prose pieces. Of all that, only one play is still in print in an affordable edition in German. What translations exist into English barely scratches the surface of this man’s great work. It’s a shame. I repeat: it’s a shame. To single out one book of all them is hard, because all of them deserve to be read, translated, and passed around. However, I do understand if translator are careful when it comes to translating his opus magnum, Fluß Ohne Ufer, a sprawling trilogy of over 2000 pages, unfinished, and hard to sum up. Granted, it’s the best German novel of the past century, but that doesn’t make it easier to translate or sell. I understand that. Keeping all this in mind, however, I definitely do not understand why Jahnn’s first novel, the burning meteor that is Perrudja, has not been translated yet. Perrudja is, like Döblin’s novel, about the conditio humana, and about the threats that modernity has to offer the individual trapped in its machinery. But it takes a very different tack. Instead of looking forward, it looks backward: it’s gorged with myth and history. In Perrudja, there’s a main story, a suspenseful story at that, but there are also numerous smaller stories inserted into the main story, who elaborate upon the topics of the main story. Jahnn is an obsessive writer, obsessed with sexuality, religion, history, and violence, and Perrudja can be described as an epic of the body as it deals with all these elements inasmuch as they form part of our culture. It’s one of the most potent novels about how homosexuality is affected by the repressive modern society. Jahnn examines how our culture, behavior, history are permeated with violence, but his book isn’t bleak or negative. Jahnn believes in the potential of humanity for good, and this belief runs through every page of this incredible book. This is a book that will swallow you whole, a genuinely great read, and a great novel. Jahnn writes in a style that is both mythic and modern, and the result is a great, mad, colorful dream. Perrudja is a challenging read but an engaging one, a book that you can’t and shouldn’t miss. Read Jahnn, translate him. It’s shocking that he hasn’t already been translated.» - shigekuni.wordpress

«This is novel crawling with sex and violence. It’s about modernity, myth and masculinity. Can you believe no-one wanted to buy this huge and brilliant novel when it came out originally? I can’t, but here’s the deal. I’m biased, I guess. I love, cherish and admire Hans Henny Jahnn like few other writers. I think that he is, along with Döblin and Feuchtwanger, the greatest German novelist of the first half of the 20th century. He was also an accomplished playwright (see this blog next week for more news on that). When he wrote and published Perrudja, he was known as the infamous author of two scandalous plays. Perrudja took a long while to gestate, and almost as long to get published. And when it was published, few people bought it. This and other minor issues, such as the Third Reich, stopped him from finishing a sequel.
After the war he then published the first installment of what turned out to be his masterpiece, the three-volume Fluß Ohne Ufer, which is in many ways a continuation of Perrudja, only with the weight of Germany’s darkest decade behind it. Thinking and writing about that heinous period is, for a German, as it should be, always tinged with guilt. It is our grandparents and their neighbors who committed these atrocities or failed to stop them. Shame is also an important part of Perrudja, but Jahnn is ashamed of his fellow human beings, not just (but especially) of his compatriots. And, to a large extent, it is about fear: this book throbs with violence, but it is theirs, it is always a violence experienced by the main character, not a violence acted out, and the shame that the protagonist feels towards his fellow human beings, is but fear of that part of himself that is like them, it’s a fear of his own abyss.
Perrudja is a Bildungsroman-ish novel about a character called Perrudja. Perrudja is an anti-hero, or as his wife says at the end: a “not-hero”. The book does not chronicle his exploits, it shows him making sense of the world, and at the same time, the novel itself uses him to make sense of its own world. The way it does that is by using all the means that precocious, makin’-it-new modernism had to offer. Perrudja is a novel of many voices and traditions. Unexpectedly, for a playwright, these voices do not include an array of different human voices, no demotic speech ‘a la Joyce et al. Instead, Jahnn digs deep into the coffers of literature and culture and constructs a mosaic of language. There are mythical passages, modern short stories, folk tales, Jahnn is equally adept at levity and gravitas, he can write a chapter about a Babylonian king in almost Lutherian style and shine, and a small Kafkaesque story about a lost boy and dazzle. All these are interwoven with the main story, they both comment upon the story and are commented upon again by the main story.
And throning above it all is Jahnn’s authorial voice, which is both visceral & direct and aloof & heavy. Jahnn can lead you through a Norwegian wood, making you afraid of the cold and the animals therein; he can make your spine tingle upon hearing the screams of hungry horses in a stable; he can make you feel the pain of illicit sexual desire and the mortification at being not merely turned down, but being violated and humiliated by the man you want. Reading this novel you feel that nothing is out of reach of Jahnn. This is, of course, one reason why people did not take to it: it can be overpowering, this is a novel about everything, it contains at least five different books, among them a treatise about economics and one about myth. Oh, and sheet music. In many ways, this is a ‘typical’ modernist novel, a project along the lines of the Cantos, Pound’s attempt to “write paradise”; even its fragmented nature, due to the aborted second part, fits the pattern. Much of the appeal of works such as the Cantos will also appeal to the reader of Perrudja, but this novel is far more than just a grandstanding attempt to capture mankind in a fictional maze.
The difference is its protagonist: Perrudja is a weak character, a broken, despairing man, who cannot manage the modern world. At the beginning of the novel we meet him in the woods of Norway where he buys a horse to go with a piece of land and a farm that he just bought. He is, as far as he knows, without parents. At this point we have no idea about his financial situation: we don’t know where he had the money from to buy animals and property, and we don’t care. Perrudja’s youth and other events that have led up to him settling in the remote Norway mountains are later told us in a few inserted stories. That first chapter, “The Horse”, introduces us not only to Perrudja’s horse, but also to the emblematic nature of many of the book’s natural references. Elements such as the horse are shown to be a constant in cultural history. The retreat into the woods is not a retreat from civilization, it is rather a return to what Jahnn considers essential about modern man. Perrudja is not exceptional, as a character, but in the end, he turns out to transcend mere mortals, by encapsulating not just the conditio humana, but also the general build of our society, as the book moves from an almost abstract deluge of concerns to real-world particulars, such as the intricacies of modern capitalism.
The beginning can be taxing since Jahnn throws everything at us that he has: the topoi of animals, violence and history are touched and elaborated upon, even before we get a chance to get to know this Perrudja better. Also, to reread these passages is, also, to see, how much of the novel is seeded there, how nothing is wasted, although the book seems, especially in the early stages, excessive and indulgent. Plowing through the beginning is like a deal struck with the writer, who demands of the reader to understand the parameter of the story that is about to follow before he hands over that story. However, if I have made reading the beginning sound like a chore, I can assure you, it’s not. It may be difficult but it’s not forbidding. In fact, the first two chapters are deeply intriguing and they have, some years ago, sold me on the man’s work. The best section of the book, however, is a story from Perrudja’s youth that is inserted roughly halfway through the novel; many early fans of the novel, such as Klaus Mann, remarked upon the emotional power and brilliance of that episode.
Perrudja is 14 years old when his sexuality awakens. He lives with his aunts in the country and he is a spoiled boy, who makes friends with a 16 year old farm hand, Haakon. We see immediately that there is a power imbalance between the two and it’s not just the difference in age that creates this imbalance. As Haakon starts to make Perrudja pay him small sums of money, he is also involving the boy in the nitty-gritty reality of farm life. There are two events that are particularly significant to Perrudja’s awakening. The first is Perrudja’s confrontation with violence in the daily slaughter of swine and cows on farms. Having to slaughter a pig himself opens his eyes to the darkness in his culture. This marked difference between knowing that atrocities happen and becoming a part of the system that produces them is repeated near the end of the novel, where Perrudja finds out that he is the richest man on earth and complicit in many modern atrocities. Perrudja is aghast to find out he’s the master of over “a hundred million slaves”. No matter how much we may retreat, we are always, to an extent, complicit in the things we don’t try to stop. Running away does not absolve you of these things.
The other event is even more significant: to accompany Haakon across the country, Perrudja saddles up behind him, clinging to his back while feeling the wild rhythms of the horse below him. Perrudja falls for Haakon, although he doesn’t know it. Haakon does, however, and tempts his young acolyte time and again, stripping him naked, daring Perrudja to move on him. Perrudja, however, is completely confused and helpless. He’s a typical teenager, he has no idea how to translate his confused desire into action. Thus, all he does is trail Haakon on his exploits until events come to a head when he witnesses Haakon rape a maid. Upon seeing Perrudja’s fear and befuddlement, Haakon threatens him into silence, beats him and humiliates him by urinating on him. This event forms Perrudja’s adult sex life. Perrudja turns into a man who has many desires but is afraid of acting on them. Being attracted to men is something he is never able to own up to, although he does have homosexual affairs now and then. He literally transforms his farm into a fortress against the society around him that is intolerant of his urges.
He is his own worst enemy, however, internalizing the prejudice. There is violence in his relationships with men, but it’s triggered by his fear and his way of coping (or not) with that fear. He’s also riving away people that love him, engaging in self-destructive behavior and giving himself, simply, up. Critics in Jahnn’s time have attacked Perrudja for being a novel of “flesh and death”, and it is between these two poles that Perrudja is caught, opting for retreat, quietude, until he cannot retreat any more because, as mentioned, he practically owns the world. He marries but his wife, Signe (pun intended, clearly), leaves him, reproaching him for “not having changed her world”. Critics, among them the editor of his collected works (see bibliographic reference above), have pointed to the way that she makes her short appearance in the novel and drops out again quickly enough. What they don’t understand is that the normative relationship within the novel is homosexual. They are violent, but because of Perrudja’s failings, not because of an inherent fault. The relationship to Signe is different: the patriarchal assumptions behind many heterosexual relationships are exposed in the rituals of courtship that are expected of Perrudja. The relationship is less important than its beginnings and its end.
Near the end, his former wife Signe runs in with a circus and it is this circus who encapsulates much of the world’s depravities and brutality, turning into another of Jahnn’s emblematic images. Jahnn’s novel charts the pessimism of a sensitive soul up against the world. There are two key phrases that people utter when discussing Perrudja’s humanity. Signe points out the fact that he is a “not-hero” (not anti-hero), defining a hero as someone who acts upon his desires and makes them come true. She closes with a direct address, telling Perrudja: “You are the human one.” In contrast, Haakon, when he dresses Perrudja down, tells the crying bundle of misery that 14 year-old Perrudja was: “You are a useless human being if you cry.”
Being a useless human being is not a bad thing in Jahnn’s book. Jahnn, similar to Hawthorne, has been founder of a spiritual community, which did not survive for long. This bitterness towards utopia, combined with such world-shaking events such as the Great War, which had taken place all of ten years ago and rising Nationalism, Antisemitism etc. among the Germans, clearly inform the abyss that opens up beyond Perrudja’s fortress and the abyss in his own heart. Reading the book one cannot help but think of the “uses” that a few years later his compatriots made of human beings. Perrudja is a harrowing novel that leads us deep not into the darkness behind civilization, but the darkness civilization is made of. Joyce, whose influence on Perrudja is palpable, might have been a paragon in this, as well. Jahnn, together with geniuses like Döblin, was clearly engaged in trying to create the conscience of his race. He did not forge it. Instead, as Perrudja testifies, he violently tried to break it from the stone quarry of Western culture.» - shigekuni.wordpress

The first time Hans Henny Jahnn's trilogy Fluß ohne Ufer came to my attention was in Reiner Stach's biography of Kafka. I noted that of the "five monumental unfinished ruins of modern German-language prose" that includes two by his subject, River Without Shore is the only one still to be translated into English. A few years later, China Miéville recommended The Ship, the first part of the trilogy that had been translated over forty years ago. Imagine a longer, more expressionist version of The Stoker and you have a good idea of what it's like. It made me wish the rest was available in English, not out of some generalised curiosity but an unfocused yearning, as if the German volumes resting on a bookstall stood for the generalised promise of all unread books, the fulfilment of which also remains untranslated.
It wasn't until I read Landscape as the Origin of Music, Noor de Winter's essay published in the first edition of Reliquiae, that the content of the trilogy revealed itself and suggested in part why it remains untranslated: "full of reflections on music, nature and the creation of art", Fluß ohne Ufer "tells the story of fictional composer Gustav Anias Horn and his friend Tutein, their travels and friendship". This is a long way from an uncanny thriller and much closer to Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus. No wonder publishers have shied away. "Anias" the essay explains, "is haunted by the possibility of permanent pain without salvation" to the extent that, on a trip to Norway, he empathises with the suffering of birch trees whose leaves are used to feed livestock. He develops "a supernatural longing" to "capture the melody of the soil, the song of the gravel on which the birches grew".

De Winter describes Anias as an artist-as-listener rather than "someone who imprints his vision upon his surroundings"; he is "someone through whom a vision of something else can be transported, translated, transformed". In this way the landscape is an unread book whose translation takes another form. The literal nature of this transformation is revealed when Anias discovers that birch bark looks very much like mechanical piano rolls whose growth rings can be transliterated into written music.
Ever-changing interpretations braided themselves into each other, appeared like a deluge of strange harmonies suddenly dissolving, falling apart to lamenting antiphonies. [...] When I had played this music I knew it didn't originate in me, it came to me. A miraculous telluric power of disclosure had used me.
However miraculous, the essay concludes by acknowledging that such music "can express only something of the wonder that [Anias] experienced in the birch grove" and that it is "perhaps the lot of the artist-as-listener to acknowledge the deficiency of any particular realisation of their theme".
This final point reminds us of the closeness we have to the book and distance to its object. While we read of Anias' project and perhaps become enchanted by his example and practice, what we read is the opposite of any epiphanic vertigo we might experience before a landscape or listening to a piece of music. Any lyricism the narrative might have is a result of the animation of the distance between itself and its subject. Music is its own unmediated presence; literature is entirely mediation. We are like Anias himself with the only difference being that our realisation of deficiency is itself the experience of art. An impoverished experience, we might think. So what does this mean for the novel if, as Walter Pater wrote, "all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music"?
The difference between the novel and music appears like that between sociology and sleep: the first only a matter of comprehension and density and, the second, a matter of their absence. The curious thing about "the condition of music" is its lack of content. Music can lead one to sense an elemental pressure irreducible to notation or lyric sheet. If we compare it to a vision of nature, the condition is equivalent to where a landscape leads: the blank horizon. From stoney escarpment and dense copse to lush meadow and glistening stream, the eye is drawn to the empty sky in the distance; an epiphany without manifestation. The urge to capture the experience can be seen in the incessant and forlorn posting of heavily filtered nature photographs.
In contrast, there is no visible horizon of the novel. The reader experiences the book by descending into a literary landscape: walking along a dirt path, sheltering in a dappled grove, paddling in a stream. The horizon is obscured. Poetry, which may be thought more tuneful, is elevated by being set to music – think of Blake's Jerusalem – while a novel turned into an opera has no bearing on the original. What's closer might be the Proustian epiphany in which time opens and collapses like a concertina, except, again, this is narrated like Anias' experience of telluric power. We might therefore assume that even closer is dreamlike, automatic writing taking precedence over conscious mastery, allowing the chance effects of music to occur. But this would seem to diminish the form, at best subordinate it to music and nature. Notice that the distance between Ulysses and Finnegans Wake is immeasurably greater than that between a Bach fugue and a Schoenberg piano piece. Yet what if you read novels to approach that horizon? Where is the horizon of narrative?
Perhaps merely asking these questions defines a particular experience of reading and indicates a fundamental disconnection with the prevailing mode of reading fiction, which focuses on the foreground and, if it is aware of something more, misplaces the horizon, like Bach admirers seeking the true Goldberg among all his variations. What's lacking from literary criticism is the expression and investigation of this experience and even though, for me, this must be its primary purpose. It's why Knausgaard's My Struggle is such a remarkable work. He is able to unite the banality of a life with the unaccountable experience of art. So perhaps indirection is the necessary future of the form, although, as Fluß ohne Ufer demonstrates, it has always been the form, waiting to be translated, a song waiting to be heard, a clearing waiting for daylight.
- Steve Mitchelmore

 Posts about Jahnn at flowerville

Thomas Freeman, The Case of Hans Henny Jahnn: Criticism & the Literary Outsider

Read it at Google Books