In his Introduction, translator Peter Wortsman describes Chamisso as a writer trapped between two homelands and languages. Born Louis Charles Adelaïde de Chamisso de Boncourt in France, the author grew up and studied in Berlin, his family having fled the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror in 1890 when the boy was just nine years old. In Berlin Chamisso served as a page for Emperor Wilhelm Friederich’s wife and eventually entered the Prussian army, which put him in a dire position when in 1806, during the war between France and Prussia, Napoleon decreed execution for any Frenchman discovered in foreign military service. After the war, Chamisso found himself still stuck between two hostile cultures, and when war broke out between France and Prussia again in 1813, he retreated to a friend’s estate and composed Peter Schlemiel to entertain himself and his friend’s children.
Clearly influenced by Goethe’s Faust and by the ubiquitous German folktales that the Brothers Grimm were just beginning to publish, Peter Schlemiel somehow remains one of the most original and haunting works in Western literature. It prefigures Poe and Kleist and Kafka and Borges and the magical realists of the twentieth century; it’s referenced several times in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time; and when postmodernist Italo Calvino was asked what work by another author he would most like to claim as his own, he unhesitatingly replied, “Peter Schlemiel.”
The novella begins with the eponymous narrator describing his arrival at an unnamed port-town, his sole prospect and hope being an introduction that he carries in his pocket to a rich and influential landowner named Mr. Thomas John. At Mr. John’s estate Schlemiel is virtually ignored during an afternoon party, and so he mostly stands aside and observes the unusual goings-on. Most remarkable to him is a strange man in gray, whom the party hardly notices but who, when anyone mentions needing anything to make their day more amusing or comfortable, miraculously pulls it from his pocket. He first produces a bandage for a woman’s finger, followed by a large telescope, a luxurious Turkish carpet, a tent to cover the carpet, and finally three beautiful horses. The party pays no attention to the man in gray, and when the narrator makes an inquiry about him, it seems that nobody knows the strange man or even notes his presence.
Dazzled by the brightness that he’s traded his shadow for, Schlemiel then very quickly finds himself the object of fear and derision, and he suddenly has to find refuge among shadows, where his strange condition goes unnoticed. He throws gold in every direction in order to buy solitude, secluding himself in the deepest recesses of a series of inns and estates to buffer himself from human notice.
True to his name, nothing goes right for Schlemiel, but none of his problems are comic. By elaborate means of obfuscation, he tries to re-enter human society, but his ruses are constantly discovered. In high German Romantic fashion, he eventually finds true love with an innocent young girl named Mina, from whom he seems to have kept his secret, and just as they’re finalizing their nuptial plans, Schlemiel’s unscrupulous major-domo exposes him. The traitor has hoarded millions in gold and offers himself to Mina as a more suitable husband, but at that point it’s only a few days until the man in gray is due to come back to re-evaluate the deal, and so Schlemiel promises to produce his shadow to Mina’s family so that he can marry their daughter. Otherwise, Mina will immediately be handed over to marry the traitor. When when the man in gray finally arrives, however, with just enough time left to return the shadow to its rightful owner and avert disaster, he has no interest at all in the gold-producing purse. The price for the shadow is now Schlemiel’s soul.
The imminent process of decision-making and subsequent consequences make this book into a profoundly affecting examination of the meanings of light and dark—and of how our every decision both narrows and opens our futures to the possibilities of damnation and redemption. The novel is framed as a letter written by the aging Schlemiel to Chamisso as a kind of last testament, and as we read these marvelous pages, we see in their resigned words to an old friend the varied paths of our own mutable fates.
I recently read the book aloud to a friend, and we both found ourselves entirely rapt by its astonishing progressions—for both similar and different reasons. We both loved the story and the storytelling and the details and the endless levels of meaning that it all encompasses, but my auditor remarked that she found herself having to accept the most fantastic events and progressions and that she never knew where it could all possibly go. The book’s hypnotic momentum and its final totality held it all together for her, though, and she was deeply moved in a way that was similar to my initial reading more than a decade and a half earlier. Nabokov always claimed that there were no good readers, however, only good re-readers, and as I read the book aloud as a somewhat older man, I saw and heard how seamlessly and even inevitably Chamisso’s masterpiece moves through its metamorphoses. It seems at first to take outlandish steps in the most far-flung directions, but as a whole it ultimately takes the spherical form of the Earth that the aging Schlemiel inherits in lieu of his shadow.
Chamisso never fully mastered the German language, and Wortsman’s translation seems to reproduce his idiosyncratic prose in a version as unique as Chamisso’s novel itself. There will be leaps that may jar you—seven-league leaps in fact—but this is a book that’s as unshakable as your own shadow. Read it once to be astonished. Read it a second time to live inside of it. Read it again and again to be repeatedly enraptured by its strange and inevitable totality.