The Nightwatches of Bonaventura

Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt soliloquies in miasmic graveyards, a pregnant nun is entombed alive for her sins of the flesh. These events, and a cornucopia more like them, are all delivered to us through the eyes of the watchman Kruezgang as he makes his rounds in a nineteenth-century German town. The sixteen chapters, each comprising a separate nightwatch, and labeled as such (i.e., “Nightwatch 1. The Freethinker,” etc.), were originally published in 1804, to little public fanfare.

The Nightwatches is more gothic than Robert Smith at a Hot Topic. It’s more gothic than The Sisters of Mercy playing at Bela Lugosi’s funeral in an underground crypt. One can easily imagine these stories being read aloud by teenagers who’ve dyed their hair black and call themselves things like Lady Amaranth and Byron von Ravenwing, after downing a bottle of absinthe someone stole from their dad’s liquor cabinet but before anyone breaks out the Ouija board. The dead mingle with the living, the hypocrisy of the powerful is exposed by the fool, and even Satan Himself makes a cameo appearance, all against a backdrop of eternal night. The translator, Gerald Gillespie, invents a new term to refer to the book’s style: tantric romanticism. He claims it “a special label for the kind of anguish Bonaventura experiences in making the transition from the bright hopes of the Enlightenment into a perplexing new world of subjectivism, and in undertaking a journey into the interiority of the self that finally becomes unfathomable.”

The author of the Nightwatches, “Bonaventura”, as he is known, is a bit of a mystery. In his afterward, Gillespie talks about various theories of authorship: Friedrich Schelling, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Gotthilf Heinrich Schubert, Clemens Brentano, and August Klingemann have all been posited at one time or another as the writer of this strange collection of tales. Even Big Goethe himself is accused by one scholar, though that particular theory has a bit too much of a conspiratorial element to it for our banal reality, unfortunately.

Gillespie’s translation is pretty cool. He manages to keep the super-baroque tone running without ever lapsing into parody, which is sometimes an issue when translating across eras. That said, Gillespie makes it quite clear that he is an academic, first and foremost. The text is laden with endnotes, the first appearing on the first line of the first Nightwatch to defend the translator’s choice of the word “quixotic” (the original German, apparently, is abenteurlich, which “acquired ironic connotations with the advent of the modern novel”). Thankfully, these are endnotes and not footnotes, and many of the annotations do provide helpful historical and literary context for the Year-of-Our-Lord-2015 reader. Besides, a book that includes lines such as “she crept over skulls and dead men’s bones toward the charnel house, returned with shovel and pick, and dug calmly and mysteriously in the earth” might occasionally need some grounding to keep us from being completely overwhelmed by the tide of grinning corpses and odes to the moon.

I really enjoyed reading the Nightwatches. Bonaventura’s prose sometimes lapses into the ridiculous, but that’s part of the fun of the novel. So long as you embrace the grotesque and absurd and everything else the book has to offer, preferably while wearing a silk black cape, you’ll find the novel to be an enchanting piece of work, transporting you to a brilliantly dark world of gargoyles and grave-robbers.

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