No one reads Reinhard Lettau (1929-96), a German-American writer, activist, and scholar who wrote: numerous short stories, a radio play, critical works, poetry, English translations (with Ferlinghetti) of love poems by Karl Marx; and, whenever permissible, avoided noting his middle name: Adolf.
Among the vast archipelago of short(-short) fiction—near the islands of Buzzati, Calvino, Thurber, Barthelme, and Hildesheimer—there is the seldom visited and often uncharted islet of Lettau’s short works. Chief thereof is found in his American debut Obstacles (1965), a volume that contains English translations of his first two books of stories: Schwierigkeiten beim Häuserbauen (Difficulties in Housebuilding, 1962) and Auftritt Manigs (Enter Manig, 1963).
The 21 of the three- to eight-page prose pieces that comprise Difficulties in Housebuilding are Lettau at his most charming and inventive. A favourite of mine is the epistolary “Potemkin’s Carriage Passes Through”; here is an excerpt that reveals the essence of the book (my emphasis):
April 11, 1784
[…] Of course the roofers are really painters, and so are the glaziers who insert windows with deft brushes. The bricklayers are painters and so are the masons; the only people who work at their true trade here are the stagehands who put up the scaffoldings and lent a hand with our lodgings. But since then no one’s seen them do any work. I am told that they are lying around drinking behind the wooden wall that looks like a tavern from the road. One of them supposedly had the idea of throwing a stone through one of the not-so-well-painted windows in the village, the other day, and replacing it with real glass. If this practice spreads, I almost fear for the success of my mission.
April 12, 1784
The meaning of my last sentence in yesterday’s annotations can best be illustrated by the fact that more and more fake window fronts have, since then, been replaced by real ones. […] Sometimes I can’t help feeling that we are in reality building two villages: a false one and a real one, without actually wanting to build the real one, as though it were growing by itself out of the false one, as if by necessity.
All the stories in the American (Pantheon) edition are translated by the prolific Ursule Molinaro. The British (Calder & Boyars) edition of Obstacles (1966) supplants eight of Molinaro’s translations with new ones by Ellen Sutton and adds a Sutton translation of another Lettau story (“The Road”) to the end of the first book. However, in all eight cases, I prefer Molinaro’s translations for their economy and diction, and her in-sentence sequencing of events makes for better poetic and comedic effects.
Enter Manig, the second book, is dedicated to the avant-garde writer Jürgen Becker, and it is expertly summarized in the Dictionary of Literary Biography (DLB), v. 75, p. 191:
[The 57 shorts, none longer than a page, are centered on the character Manig, who] is treated like a tracing powder that is thrown into turbulent water to expose hidden currents: Lettau uses Manig to isolate and depict behavioral patterns, only to cleverly undo them. Manig is portrayed predominately through pantomime, and some of his gesticulations are clownlike. […] Lettau disrupts reality by equating the thing with the word and the absolute with the relative, and by separating image from reality through leaps in logic and optical illusions.
Lettau’s other works in English translation:
- Enemies (1973), Agnes Rook’s translation of Fiende (1963). A six story collection that is best saved for completists, because the set of three new stories ridiculing war are outdone by the two similar war stories in Obstacles: “A Campaign” and “A Pause Between Battles”. The three shorter, supplemental stories, one of which is Rook’s version of “The Road”, are also redundant.
- Breakfast in Miami (1982), Lettau’s and Julie Prandi’s translation of his radio play Frübstücksgespräche im Miami (1977). Caricatures of deposed dictators meet in Miami and say their piece. Yet another only for the completist, but, on the strength of Obstacles, I remain optimistic with regard to his still untranslated later works, which can be found—with promising cover art—in Alle Geschichten (Complete Stories, 1998).
For more about his life and works:
(Images: the cover art is by Günter Grass; here’s an online gallery of Grass’ graphic work, 1972-2007.)