Monday, March 9, 2009

Matters of Form: Christoph Ransmayr's "Notiz am Rand"

Having just prepared and taught a school lesson on Der fliegende Berg (to a bunch of incredibly noisy and utterly disinterested kids), a short note in which the author remarks upon his choice of an unusual form caught my interest. It strongly reminds me of Milton's "The Verse" (Paradise Lost, 2) in which he justifies the use of blank verse, though there are probably many examples of similar notes. Since I have read the novel roughly two years ago and my memory needs refreshing, I see the following thoughts as an essay – with strong overtones of the etymological roots – that will hopefully help us think about the use of verse in Der fliegende Berg. First off, here is said note quoted in full:
Notiz am Rand

Seit die meisten Dichter sich von der gebundenen Rede
verabschiedet haben und nun anstelle von Versen freie
Rhythmen und dazu einen in Strophen gegliederten
Flattersatz verwenden, ist da und dort das Mißverständnis
laut geworden, bei jedem flatterndem, also aus ungleich
langen Zeilen bestehenden Text handle es sich um ein
Gedicht. Das ist ein Irrtum. Der Flattersatz – oder besser:
der fliegende Satz – ist frei und gehört nicht allein den

CR (Der fliegende Berg, no pagination [p. 6])
Quite obviously there are some terminological issues that ought to be clarified. Ransmayr seems to use the word 'Dichter' in its narrower sense, so one would have to translate it as 'poet' ("someone who writes poetry") as opposed to the much more general 'writer.' Interestingly, as becomes apparent in the final sentence, he does not think of himself as a poet, but as a writer reclaiming a certain form that is considered to be typical of poetry. The phrase "gebunden[e] Rede" refers to traditional verses defined by metre and, in some cases, rhyme. So far, this is not problematic, but the following description of what is commonly called 'free verse' is, as I will attempt to show.

Ransmayr names three defining characteristics: free rhythms, stanzas and "Flattersatz," which is used instead of verses. The first two agree with common notions of free verse; with the third, however, he introduces a typographical concept which should be familiar to anyone using text-editing software. (Ironically, or maybe intentionally, the note is printed in Flattersatz, wherefore I have preserved the original line breaks in the quotation.) The problem is that, in Flattersatz, the line breaks are arbitrary; they are solely based on how much space there is for one line and whether there is still enough room for any given word. If not, it will appear as the first word of the next line.

In contrast, poets using free verse place their line breaks deliberately, as they see fit. This is exemplified by how enjambments are sometimes used to great effect (see Andrew's post on Autobiography of Red). When one applies these two notions to Der fliegende Berg, it suffices to take but a look at any page of this novel to realize that it is written in free verse and not simply printed as Flattersatz. As it seems unlikely that Ransmayr uses one or both of these terms mistakenly, the idea of a form that is distinctly new and particularly suited to his endeavour is conveyed. This is emphasized by how he calls it "der fliegende Satz," analogous to the title of the novel. (Additonally, he probably tries not to scare potential readers away by calling it verse.)

This leaves us wondering about the salient formal characteristics of Ransmayr's fliegendem Satz. From what I remember, most line breaks are placed according to natural syntactic phrases; there are hardly any striking and strong enjambments. Similarly, there seems to be, however mild, a tendency to correlate sentences and stanzas. Regarding metre, there are usually around one to three unstressed syllables between two stressed ones, which leads to a rhythm that is very natural for the German language. Ransmayr, on the one hand, does not exploit the potential of verse to the fullest and, on the other hand, frees himself from the limitations of a regular metre; his verse is tame in that it does not bend language, at least as far as rhythm and line breaks are concerned. As it stands, only a careful (re-)reading will shed more light on the purpose and properties of Ransmayr's fliegendem Satz.

Works Cited
  • Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. by Gordon Teskey. (A Norton Critical Edition.) New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005.
  • Ransmayr, Christoph. Der fliegende Berg. Frankfurt a.M.: S. Fischer, 2006.

1 comment:

  1. Addendum:
    I forgot to add that, from among the verse novels I have read so far, "Der fliegende Berg" is the least poemesque. Aleksandr Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin" and Vikram Seth's "The Golden Gate" are both written in sonnets, which is of course a very strict form. "For All We Know" and Bernardine Evaristo's "The Emperor's Babe" exclusively or at least predominantly use stanzas consisting of two verses (the latter also experiments with a variety of forms). Therefore I think that "Der fliegende Berg" is leaning more towards the novel side of things and less to the verse, which can also be seen in its scope.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.