September 01, 2005


The Novices of Sais. By Novalis. With illustrations by Paul Klee. Archipelago Books. $18.

My Body and I. By René Crevel. Archipelago Books. $14.

Archipelago Books continues to issue handsome paperback editions of works that are emphatically not for everyone but that will be of great interest to readers seeking the unusual and the obscure. The Novices of Sais is by Friedrich von Hardenberg, who wrote under the name Novalis and died of consumption at age 29 in 1801. Some aspects of his life foreshadow the life of Edgar Allan Poe, notably his love for a 13-year-old (he was 23 when he fell for her) and her death at 15. Like John Keats, Novalis had a Romantic temperament plus a practical streak (he studied medicine to try to save his beloved’s life). The Novices of Sais combines emotional Romanticism with a love of nature and an attempt to show how Man and Nature interrelate. Ralph Manheim’s translation from the original German flows well: “Now the country became richer and more varied, the air mild and blue, the path more level, green copses lured him with comforting shade, but he did not understand their language, they seemed indeed not to speak, and yet they filled his heart with green color and a cool stillness.” But the meanderings and proto-Surrealist philosophizing of Novalis may be of less interest to the curiosity-driven modern reader than this edition’s 60 illustrations by Paul Klee. They are a world unto themselves, reflecting Novalis’ inner one into a highly detailed and fascinating exterior.

My Body and I actually is a Surrealist work, written in 1925 by René Crevel. It is an explicit attempt to explore the relationship between body and spirit -- a subject that The Novices of Sais handles more implicitly and obliquely. Crevel’s work, as translated from the French by Robert Bononno, seems in some ways more clichéd and dated than Novalis’ much earlier one: “Your expression is not one of sincere humanity. But rest assured, it’s no better anywhere else.” Or: “I am in front of my paper, subdued by my pen’s arabesques. In a few moments I will have lost even the memory of a fear of reassuring purity. I will no longer be in danger.” Or a chapter title, complete with ellipsis: “Alone, a long obscene membrane…” Style aside, My Body and I has a variety of memorable moments, some of them confessional, some witty, some thoughtful. There is dialogue as well as narrative here, mostly handled adroitly. Although an odor of self-indulgence permeates the whole book, some readers will surely consider if a rarefied and enjoyable scent.

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