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What the Swedes Read: Carl Spitteler

by Daniel Handler
Illustration by Charles Burns

What the Swedes Read: Carl Spitteler

Daniel Handler
20 Snaps
  • LAUREATE: Carl Spitteler (1919, Switzerland)
  • BOOK READ: Two Little Misogynists (translated by Mme. la Vicomtesse de Roquette-Buisson)

It’s an odd side effect of my booky life that I find myself with huge, empty chunks of time free in cities in which I do not know a soul, leaving a slick hotel to walk around a neighborhood not built for walking, until at last it’s time to be picked up for the reading. I won’t name the city, because I have no wish to insult my charming hosts, and the city doesn’t matter anyway, because these neighborhoods I’m talking about—neighborhoods isn’t even the right word, they’re really developments—are in just about every city I’ve visited. It’s either where a downtown died and then was torn completely down and replaced with this, or where nothing was, which was then torn completely down and replaced with this, some miles from the downtown, which is too deserted and spooky even to demolish. There are bland office buildings with wide, shiny staircases, and huge chain restaurants with speakers outside playing pop tunes from years increasingly close to the years I went to high school. There are home-furnishings stores with specific fantasies in the windows—Let’s have an ice-cream party! Let’s have an all-green living room!—and clothing stores with mannequins in flat, gleamy clothing. There are wide promenades suitable for nothing so much as skateboarding, which is not allowed, and there are sidewalks that stop suddenly at parking lots and leave me squeezing between clean parked SUVs. There are art galleries with Marilyn Monroe in them. There’s a Whole Foods. I might have five or six hours to kill.

These places are really weird, and I’m always berating myself for finding them weird. It’s not as if I haven’t bought garlic presses and dining-room tables and Granny Smith apples from these exact businesses, I remind myself, and it’s not that my life at home is so fascinatingly revolutionary that a few hours of bland capitalism should give me the shakes. But it does. It’s weird. It’s a fancy and managed world, so carefully constructed that there’s no sign of anything other than the developers’ plans. It makes me feel utterly adrift. I always tell myself that I could call a cab and find the part of town that wasn’t built from a kit, but I hardly ever do. I usually just have a huge lunch and then, soaked with calories, read on my hotel bed.

That’s how I read Two Little Misogynists, a short, apparently autobiographical work by Carl Spitteler about three children taking a walk. Two Little Misogynists is something of a compromise for this column, as Carl Spitteler is a case where a specific work was cited by the Nobel Committee. “Of this work,” the Committee said, “it can be truly said that its significance has become apparent only in recent years, and that all doubts that prevented a full appreciation had to be carefully considered until its merits, not immediately obvious, could be fully recognized, not only as ornaments of the poetic form but above all as the artistic and harmonious expressions of a superior genius of rare independence and idealism.” They’re talking about ­Spitteler’s 1900–1906 work, Olympian Spring, a mythic, epic poem of some six hundred pages, and I say “mythic” because it appears to have completely vanished from the literary landscape, in English translation, anyway. My search for Olympian Spring took me into the odd, automated world of print-on-demand, which resulted in my receiving facsimile editions—basically bound Kinko’s copies, with stock-photo covers that reminded me of what you can get printed on your checks—of the wrong books. I got the thing in German. I got an old dissertation on the thing, also in German. I got a book about Carl Spitteler, but it didn’t appear to be the same Carl Spitteler, and it was in German. I finally ended up on the phone with a faraway bookseller who told me, I shit you not, that we would have to agree to disagree about the meaning of the phrase “­translated into ­English.” He did tell me that he had another book by Carl Spitteler that conformed to my rather stodgy definition. I asked him what it was called. He told me Two Little Misogynists. Sure, I told him. That sounds good.

Let’s let the publisher sum it up for us: “Two small boys set off to school in company with a little girl—whom they profoundly despise. They are woman haters of the deepest dye. But little Gesima is a real little woman and the youngsters find it out. That is about all there is to the plot.” I’d say “woman haters of the deepest dye” is something of an overstatement, considering that Gerold is ten and Hänsli is nine and that their teasing of Gesima is the usual horseplay you got into with your cousins all the time. Gesima is tough, and teases them right back as the children make their way down the road. Eventually they wander from the path, and I recalled hopefully, stretched out on my Marriott bed, the novel Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter, in which children wander a pastoral landscape that gradually turns quite sinister. But Spitteler’s prose, at least as rendered by Mme. la Vicomtesse de Roquette-Buisson (right, her), promises that things won’t get the least bit cloudy:

Still lying in bed, they stared at the sunshine on the barn roof. The sunshine stared back at them and wearied their eyes so that they had to close them. But when they heard the cheerful rattle of the coffee spoons in the saucers they hopped out of their beds.

A particularly dainty little table had been set for them downstairs in the parlour. In a bowl decorated with ornamental flowers was golden honey in the comb, and near it, wrapped in fresh grape leaves, a pat of butter beautifully embossed with a representation of a lackadaisical bear climbing up a flower stalk.

The whole book is as dewy and rosy as this, and I read it in a setting that was similarly decorative, with no more context than I have about Spitteler’s work. It seems, for instance, that a book like this would be published for an audience already familiar with Spitteler, the way a well-known writer will occasionally toss us a small piece of frippery. But this slim book, unrelentingly cheerful with a jarring title, was the first of his books to appear in English, and the only one that someone looking for Spitteler can get their hands on. Back at home now, I think perhaps that Spitteler will be one Nobel winner that I just won’t get to experience, that there’s no extant example for the English reader of the artistic and harmonious expressions of a superior genius of rare independence and idealism. But back there, in the shiny outdoor mall that smelled everywhere of something that was meant to smell like cinnamon, Two ­Little Misogynists was sort of a perfect read—nothing much happening, just endless lighthearted ornament in a world that seemed to fold right back into itself.

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