Bottom’s Dream.

Edwin Turner writes:

Arno Schmidt’s 1970 novel Bottom’s Dream is finally available in English translation by John E. Woods. The book has been published by the Dalkey Archive.

It is enormous. […]

Look, I know that dwelling on a book’s size probably has nothing to do with literary criticism, but Bottom’s Dream poses something of a special case. As an article on Bottom’s Dream at The Wall Street Journal points out, Schmidt’s opus is 1,496 pages long, contains over 1.3 million words, and weighs 13 pounds. […]

The obvious easy reference point here is Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which indeed Schmidt was actively following, both in form and style: competing columns, a fragmentary and elusive/allusive style, collage-like metacommentary, an etymological explosion—words as paint, text as meaning. Etc.

Turner has screenshots which will give you an idea of what the book is like, both externally (it’s enormous!) and on the inside. As I wrote on MetaFilter (where I learned about it):

Sounds really interesting, in the way that the Wake is interesting, but I still haven’t gotten very far into the Wake after decades of off-and-on trying, so I’m not about to tackle a book based on it that’s 1,496 pages long, contains over 1.3 million words, and weighs 13 pounds. But much respect to the translator, and to readers younger and gutsier than I who plunge into it!


  1. It seems to me considerably less dense and easier than the Wake, more like the “Circe” and “Penelope” chapters of Ulysses.

  2. “Screenshots”?

  3. Checked Wikipedia article on this book and learned that one of the novel’s main themes is the alleged coprophilia of Edgar Allan Poe.

    I wonder if the novel’s title refers to this allegation…

    I think I’ll pass on this one, thanks.

  4. “Screenshots”?

    Sorry, whatever they are. Images. I am immigrant in your century!

  5. I was just curious about why you used that word, rather than just “photos” or something. “Screenshots” are normally images captured from a computer screen, without the involvement of a camera, and usually show parts of a computer interface of some sort (like a website). Those are just ordinary photos of books, with nothing screen-related.

  6. Yeah, I realize that now, but last night, as I was making myself post before tottering off to bed, my brain was fuddled and not coming up with the right words. Just wait a few years, and this blog will read like late Joyce!

  7. I am immigrant in your century!

    That brings to mind:

  8. I’d love to read more about the practical side of Woods’ translation. How did he even format his manuscript? Were editors involved? What did the stylesheet look like? Can it even be viewed directly without precipitating madness? Is smoked glass sufficient to protect a proofreader, or is it best to use a bronze mirror while three interns recite the Lament for Ur from within a protective circle of chalk?

  9. Phil Jennings says

    Not available on Kindle.

  10. Even my Kindle for PC crashes trying to open files with over 1 million words.

  11. Is smoked glass sufficient to protect a proofreader, or is it best to use a bronze mirror while three interns recite the Lament for Ur from within a protective circle of chalk?

    If a man hacking in fury at a block of wood make there an image of a cow (say) has he made a work of art? […] What impeded Bloom from giving Stephen counsels of hygiene and prophylactic to which should be added suggestions concerning a preliminary wetting of the head and contraction of the muscles with rapid splashing of the face and neck and thoracic and epigastric region in case of sea or river bathing, the parts of the human anatomy most sensitive to cold being the nape, stomach, and thenar or sole of foot? […] Positing what protasis would the contraction for such several schemes become a natural and necessary apodosis? […] What past consecutive causes, before rising preapprehended, of accumulated fatigue did Bloom, before rising, silently recapitulate? […] Womb? Weary? […] With? […] When? […] Where?

  12. Has no body pointed it out because it’s just too obvious, that it’s called Bottom’s Dream because it hath no bottom?

  13. Actually, all the bottom-related speculations are beside the point. The German title is Zettels Traum, with Zettel “slip of paper” being the German name of the character “Bottom” from Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

  14. PlasticPaddy says

    From wikipedia:
    “His weaver Bottom (bottom = ball of yarn) bears accordingly a German term of weaving as his name, Zettel, which was apt for a translation of the last line [because it hath no bottom] (to “weil darin alles verzettelt ist”, roughly ‘because in it all is mixed up’) Hence “Zettels Traum” is German for Bottom’s Dream.”

  15. My point was that German Zettel (and also verzettelt) have very different associations compared to “bottom” and “bottomless”, so while bottom puns are always welcome, they don’t really explain why Schmidt chose that title.

  16. I didn’t even know (or had forgotten) that bottom = ‘ball of yarn,’ so I’ve learned several things here — thanks to both of you!

  17. OED s.v. bottom:

    a. A core on which to wind thread; (also) a skein or ball of thread or yarn. Also figurative. Now rare and archaic.

    ▸ 1440 Promptorium Parvulorum (Harl. 221) 45 Botme of threde.
    1490 W. Caxton tr. Boke yf Eneydos xxxi. sig. Hviiv He must take wyth hym a botom of threde.
    1555 R. Eden tr. Peter Martyr of Angleria Decades of Newe Worlde i. v. f. 26v Of gossampine cotton ready spunne foure great bottomes.
    1577 J. Grange Golden Aphroditis sig. Divv If she wanted a bottome whereon to winde hyr silke.
    1611 R. Cotgrave Dict. French & Eng. Tongues Fondrillon, a bottom to wind silke, thread or yarne on.
    1614 W. Raleigh Hist. World i. ii. xiii. §7. 433 Hee receiued from her [sc. Ariadne] a bottome of thred.
    1645 J. Howell Epistolæ Ho-elianæ vi. xiv. 24 I will twist up what I know..upon as narrow a bottom as may be shut up within the compasse of this Letter.
    1698 S. Clarke Scripture-justif. 112 It’s high Time now to wind up my Bottoms.
    1731 E. Peyton Divine Catastrophe Stuarts 64 I have ravelled out the Pieces to wind up this Bottom.
    1754 Bp. W. Warburton Lett. (1809) 168 So you see I am winding up my bottoms.
    1893 J. Salisbury Gloss. Words S.E. Worcs. 4 It’s all of a robble, like a bottom o’ yarn.
    1937 P. K. Devine Folklore of Newfoundland 9 Bautom, the ball of wool or yarn from which stockings, mitts and gloves are knitted.
    2003 V. Cunningham in J. Wolfreys Glossalalia 360/2 Ariadne..gave him a clew, a bottom, a bobbin, a rolled-up ball of yarn, to help her beloved escape the labyrinth once he’d killed her brother.

  18. 24.b., in case you were wondering, is “The cocoon of a silkworm. Obsolete“:

    1599 T. Moffett Silkewormes i. 8 Many silken bottoms hangd in piles.
    1609 W. Stallenge tr. J. B. Le Tellier Instr. for Increasing of Mulberie Trees sig. C4 Vpon the branches..the wormes will fasten themselues, & make their bottoms.
    1783 H. Fielding in Wks. V. 141 Fortune looks on him of no more use than a silkworm, whose bottom is spun.

  19. PlasticPaddy says

    OK, the word bottom in English is not relevant to the author’s choice of title. But the last line (weil Alles drin verzettelt ist”) of the play is very relevant. The author may have also known the English name for Bottom and wanted to write a bodenloses Buch, to go with another german-speaking author’s unendliche Geschichte☺

  20. Not the last line of the play, but of Bottom’s soliloquy; very confusing. (What is the last line of the play is a hard question: there is a bit of dialogue after the play-within-the-play ends, telling us that it will have a dance (which we don’t see) rather than an epilogue, then the play itself has an epilogue, in which Puck makes a speech and then sings, and then addresses the audience directly.)

    GT by the way translates as “Because everything is bogged down in it”, which is rather more poetic, in its un-Shakespearean way, than anything I’d expect, although I am not a native user of bog in this sense.

  21. If we shadows have offended,
    Think but this, and all is mended,
    That you have but slumbered here
    While these visions did appear.
    And this weak and idle theme,
    No more yielding but a dream,
    Gentles, do not reprehend:
    If you pardon, we will mend:
    And, as I am an honest Puck,
    If we have unearned luck
    Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
    We will make amends ere long;
    Else the Puck a liar call;
    So, good night unto you all.
    Give me your hands, if we be friends,
    And Robin shall restore amends.

    This is noteworthy for tongue/long probably having been a (very steep) slant rhyme even when the play was written.

  22. @Paddy: Schmidt certainly knew both English and the original Shakespeare, so I can’t say that “bottom” or “bottomless” were not on his mind at all, but in my view, verzettelt “bogged down, lost in details and side-projects” is a better description for the kind of book he wrote than “bottomless”; after all, it’s finite, so you can get to the bottom of it, so to speak.

  23. PlasticPaddy: From wikipedia:
    “His weaver Bottom (bottom = ball of yarn) …

    This adds another layer to the Norw. Harry Potter translation’s Nigel Longbottom -> Nilus Langballe. The surname Langballe exists in the wild (it’s the name of a Danish parish). It sounds a little more naughty to adolescents than ‘bottom’ does in English (balle f. “male genitalia”, probably through reinterpretation of the Eastern dialect def. form balla “the balls” as a f.sing. def.), but what can you do? The new layer (to me) is that balle “bale” (høyballe = “bale of hay”) corresponds to bottom “ball of yarn”.

  24. @Trond Engen: Longbottom’s first name is Neville, not Nigel. The name Neville is transparently Norman “new village.” It was the surname of the earls of Warwick, among the greatest English magnates during the Wars of the Roses; Richard III’s queen consort was Anne Neville. Longbottom is a old English name, but it seems to appear in literature nowadays mostly for it’s humor value. In Harry Potter it is probably an allusion to Tolkien; Longbottom Leaf was a major tobacco brand in the Shire.

  25. Zettel’s Traum is primarily something to gape at, no matter where the title comes from. There is much more interesting work by Schmidt, in particular the two-part series “essays for radio” on German and other writers (Nachrichten von Büchern und Menschen, available on audio CDs and in print). The bookseller woman I knew at the Ludwig bookstore in the Cologne main train station lent me her copy of the two paperbacks. They are entertaining, enlightening essays on 18C+ writers such as Wieland, Klopstock, Dickens, the Brontës, Karl May, Joyce and even Bulwer-Lytton.

  26. Brett: Neville, not Nigel


    In Harry Potter it is probably an allusion to Tolkien; Longbottom Leaf was a major tobacco brand in the Shire

    Heh. Now I have to look up Torstein Bugge Høverstad’s translation of Ringenes herre. He also translated the Harry Potter series. Though if I’d noticed it (and my inner adolescent surely might have), I don’t think I’d have caught the allusion, but rather have given Høverstad a point for recycling.

  27. @Stu: I second your recommendation of Schmidt’s essays, they acquainted me with many writers and literary works and also some historical facts I didn’t know about, and they’re usually also good entertainment value. I like snarky when it’s coupled with actual knowledge.

  28. Now I have to look up Torstein Bugge Høverstad’s translation of Ringenes herre.

    Three years have passed. As I said on an earlier occasion: Trond, report!

  29. Trond Engen says

    I realized that we don’t own Høverstad’s Bokmål translation, only Eilev Groven Myhren’s Nynorsk, and before I got anywhere near one, I forgot. But we’ll have a family friend over tonight, who I think might have it, so I’ll ask her to bring it along.

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