The Living Are Few, The Dead Many — Reviews

The Unnormable website 21.3.2014.


(The Atlas Press re-release of Hans Henny Jahnn’s The Living Are Few, The Dead Many)

More mysterious than author Hans Henny Jahnn himself is the fact that (aside from the indefatigable efforts of our trusty friend at there is so little interest in Jahnn’s writing, at least as expressed by the English speaking world. Once again, a tip of the hat goes to Atlas Press and their re-release of his novella The Night of Lead in 2012, with the addition of three stories, originally from a German paperback of Jahnn’s work called 13 nicht geheure Geschichten (13 Uncanny Tales).

In his introduction to the new Atlas volume The Living Are Few, The Dead Many, translator Malcolm R. Green speculates on use of this word:

The word “geheuer” (uncanny) had a particular meaning for Jahnn, who observed that “the normal person’s instinctive censorship battles with the autonomous goal of all poetry, because everything to which he is not accustomed is uncanny”.

This new collection of Jahnn’s uncanny tales has the sense of being a gathering of fables or parables, each like a tapestry with patterns woven over into the other pieces. Two of the stories rely upon sumptuous exaggeration and descriptive extravagance, somehow pared down to succinct reportage, as if to defy the author’s own obsession with issues of mortality and also earthly transgression. In “Sassanid King,” we meet a monarch who struggles against corruption and the sense of feeling like a fraud, or of being nothing more than a fine administrator:

He assumed the certainty of eternal youth and eternal strength.

He selected three thousand women who would accommodate the immeasurable abundance of his loins. There were eight thousand girls for the momentary stilling of his sensuous manifestations. He resembled a luxuriant golden meadow that filled the heavens with the perfumed vapours of their couplings.

In the more engaging and more horrific “Kebad Kenya,” a wealthy insupportable entity must make arrangements among his neighbours for his own imminent demise, struggling to quell his fierce and indomitable desire to live:

Someone pulled the purse out from under his head, and a few coins rolled across the floor. Kebad Kenya wanted to leap up and punish the servants’ dishonesty. But he forced himself to judge no more, for he had already judged himself. Finally he decided to die without the assistance of death. The effort of becoming motionless and growing cold demanded all his inner concentration and strength.

I am not always held rapt by the personal life of an author, which may or may not have immense bearing on his or her work, but Jahnn’s life was so interesting and complex, and pertained to what are recurring themes in much of his writing. The introduction to this Atlas volume recounts a bizarre fixation that Jahnn had about the grave of his brother (Gustav Robert Jahn) who had died at the age of two, giving him his own name with the double ‘n’, and treating the matter as if his more beautiful or perfect self had departed, leaving him like a phantom upon the earth. This is at the core of the other two stories in the collection, although more generally, all four stories deal with the idea of facing death in the company of an excellent companion, whether friend or animal or even shadow self.

There is a breath of relief in the still lugubrious “A Master Selects his Servant,” in which an employer interviews candidates to look after him, although it soon becomes apparent that perhaps he is seeking a way to handle a double tragedy that occurred in the past by finding another person who must have experience with an issue of mortality. Amid Jahnn’s characteristically weird dialogue, the master’s reaction is described:

I listened on tenterhooks like a schoolboy to this man who wanted to be my servant. Perhaps taking a deep breath. I sensed a slight, almost imperceptible waft of perfume and simultaneously a slightly scorched smell as if from a tawny skin. I turned my face to the window in order to avert my attention –

(The original release of Night of Lead by Atlas Press)

Jahnn’s re-released novella “The Night of Lead” (originally published in 1962), the last story in the collection, holds similar concerns, but with the marked stamp of the author’s own sense of being surrounded by indifference and persecution in his pre-WWII German homeland. However, the community in this moribund outing may be thought of as society surrounding the eccentricities of the independent artist. This brooding allegory includes an intriguing erotic escapade with both a young man and woman who appear to be brother and sister:

Matthieu turned from this world he could never enter, walked to the alcove – the real one, not its mirror image – a recess in the wall, quite broad and deep. The bed inside it was covered in a bright red, one might even say dark pink velvet with shiny silken pillows and blankets of the same colour. Matthieu did not, however, see Elvira, as he had expected, but merely a swelling of the covers which indicated a prostrate person beneath.

Jahnn does not let the reader off the hook so easily and there is soon another encounter with the author’s shadow self, followed by more existential musings that tend graveward, in this shadowy ersatz world that harbours a hidden threat at every turn.

When I say that Jahnn’s life was complex, I specifically mean that in two ways. He was the descendant of shipbuilders, and made his living restoring the great organs of the baroque period, crediting his helper and himself with a discovery that has proved to be of revolutionary significance for organ specifications across the whole of Europe. Also, he founded the Ugrino Fellowship to reflect his chief interests, and it was concerned with the restoration of baroque organs, the playing of baroque music, and naturally(!), the building of the proper graveyards for the admirers of Bach’s precursors. Now, whether it was part of his bisexuality or self-professed “omnisexuality” is beyond this reader, but Jahnn’s attachment to (and presumably affable ménage à trois with) friend Gottlieb Harms and wife-to-be Ellinor Philips, along with their stalwart belief in all things baroque, along with other aforementioned themes, has significant bearing on his partially sunken treasure known as The Ship* (at present only available as a print-on-demand version in English through Peter Owen Publishers in the UK).

The Ship is the first volume in Jahnn’s four-part work called Fluß ohne Ufer (Shoreless River or River Without Banks). It first appeared in 1949 and in spite of extensive reviews, did not sell well. There is quite a tonal range to this book, with the reader fumbling in the dark for railings amid Kafkaesque logic, before being plunged into extensive fantasy well in keeping with the French Surrealists. It may help to consider that Jahnn’s novel has common characteristics found in baroque music—the rational control coolly seizing on wildly expressive outbursts. The description of the ship and even its tardiness in disembarking can be drawn in parallel with the state of the novel itself, and from what I understand, with Jahnn’s entire opus. On a more basis level, the delay for this fantastic ship is likely to create a sense of impatience and apprehension in the reader.

As for the homoerotic tendencies in Jahnn’s writings, including The Living Are Few, The Dead Many, they could be contrasted sharply with Jean Genet’s mythopoetic sailors in the excellent Querelle of Brest, between whom tenderness and brutality are exchanged in equal sexualized measure. Jahnn’s sailors, even when forced to strip naked for inspection, are reduced to being company inventory in point form:

And on the strength of his anatomy the supercargo constructed the characteristics of the man, so to say extraneously. His potentialities. The complications in his future. Waldemar Strunck could not control his astonishment. A group of young men were being reduced to so many cadavers. And they seemed to consist only of deficiencies, were maimed in body and soul. Scarcely a ray of light fell into the darkness of their flesh. Stupid men, that was the best predicate the supercargo could give them, simple, thoughtless, duty-ridden.

Tension increases on the enigmatic voyage, as Gustave enters into a ‘quadrangle’ with his fiancée Ellena, his admirers among the all-male crew, and also the mysterious man known only for a long time as “the supercargo.” When he considers that Ellena may have strayed, even in her feelings, during his own absence, Gustave resorts to objective (and perhaps foreboding) philosophical speculations, tinged with Jahnn’s common sense of self-mortification:

Gustave recalled having seen, on the beach, how the he-crabs hurled themselves with a particular lust on the immature females and did not let up in their voluptuous ecstasy, even when the weaker creatures had expired. And he, as a boy, had picked up a stone and hurled it so that the shell had burst wide open across the living animal. And a liquid had run out of it. The shattered creature was trying to escape. The instinct of preservation was still in effect even after the fatal blow had fallen. The misguided animal chose a slow, torturous ebbing of life rather than the blows of a swift deliverance.

The idea of such a physical or even metaphysical wound that interferes with one’s enjoyment of existence is repeated in his stories as well as in The Ship. At one point, in a chapter that bears comparison with a novella by French Surrealist Robert Desnos, the sailors entertain themselves by telling lurid tales, including the delicious one about “Kebad Kenya,” which Jahnn had no qualms about recycling in this novel. To add to suspicion about their destination, this leads to speculation about the contents of the ship’s hold, in keeping with their grotesque stories:

Paul Raffzahn took it upon himself to draw a conclusion in one and the same breath – corpses or human beings were in those crates. Embalmed flesh or more voluptuous freight. That was why the freight cars had been so mysteriously sealed. That was why the customs officers had stood around on the quay, apparently with nothing to do. That was why the supercargo had to keep up such ironclad supervision, had had to beat up the men and dismiss them. Perhaps a sound had come out of one of the boxes. One could surmise all sorts of things.

Could a book be a floating tomb for more traditional literature, a baroque construction setting off, full of constructions that could also be tombs or containers for living beings? Jahnn’s first volume provides more questions than answers but for readers of English at least, those answers may rely on a daring publisher to take up the gauntlet and do a translation and re-release of the four book work called Shoreless River, what we must presume is the German masterpiece of Hans Henny Jahnn (excluding organ work of course).

* I owe a great debt to Sandra J. Huber, chief baroque architect of Dear Sir, and a talented writer in her own right, who first drew my attention to the works of Hans Henny Jahnn and did me the splendid courtesy of mailing me a copy of The Ship.