Paul Scheerbart was a German writer and artist who lived around the turn of the twentieth century. He was perpetually broke, even though he was constantly writing books, newspaper articles, and plays. Even when he was alive he was not generally well known or successful, despite the influence his book Glass Architecture would soon garner, or the praise he would receive from eminent intellectual Walter Benjamin.

The Perpetual Motion Machine: The Story of an Invention, recently published by Wakefield Press and translated by Andrew Joron, chronicles the two and a half years Scheerbart spent trying to creating a “perpetual motion machine,” a device considered impossible to create due to its violation of the laws of thermodynamics. However, The Perpetual Motion Machine is not just a memoir. In fact, it’s pretty hard to describe what it is at all. Part-fiction, part-memoir, part-blueprints, and part-philosophical-treatise, The Perpetual Motion Machine is the intersection of art and science, presented in the form of a narrative.

The defining characteristic of the text is Scheerbert’s joyful exuberance and his almost unyielding optimism. He truly believes, despite all logic, reason, and evidence, that building a perpetual motion machine is possible, even after countless failures. He has no discernible background in science, and he has to hire a plumber to build his contraptions for him. At times he doubts himself and his work; he even gives up from time to time, but he always goes back to believing. The book even ends with Scheerbart bragging that he “succeeded in flawlessly solving the problem” . . . though he can’t tell the reader how he solved it for fear of “invalidating its registration at the patent offices.”

However, what makes The Perpetual Motion Machine occasionally transcendent are the moments when Scheerbert contemplates the ramifications, both good and bad, of his “perpet.” That is when the text bleeds from non-fiction to eerily prescient fiction—or one might say fantasy, or science fiction:

In the year 2050 A.D. there lived in the nation of Germania a general who was more malicious than all the other generals of his time put together.

At that time the Europeans were waging a great war using bombers against the Americans. Many bombing victories were achieved, thanks to the ultramodern science of war. In spite of this, the Americans continued imperturbably to survive.

Naturally this aggravated the most malicious general of his time, who held the highest power of command in Germania.

What did this monstrous person, who went by the name of Kulhmann, do as a result?

Kuhlmann worked out a plan that was supposed to inundate all of America.

He wanted to surround all of Europe with gigantic walls and then inject the waters of the Mediterranean and the Baltic into the Atlantic Ocean with the aid of two billion perpets.

The response to this barbaric plan was a single cry of horror; a peace agreement was immediately reached with America.

Through these hypothetical musings, Scheerbart effectively illustrates what I see as the joy of science: the possibility, the hope, and the expectations that come with the potential applications of a newly developed scientific theory or model. Thus, the question becomes almost more important than the answer, which when unsolved remains unknown, and therefore infinite.

This is how I understand the drive for the individual to pursue science, and The Perpetual Motion Machine is the kind of book, a very specific category to which I would also add Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, which renders the beauty of science in a way the artist can experience it. Translator Andrew Joron deserves recognition for his superb rendering of Scheerbart’s humor, joy, ego, and despair, in a language that is extremely readable but somehow still feels like it comes from a bygone age. Though the story drags when Scheerbart explains the insignificant changes he makes to his model, as the reader knows full well the project is doomed to fail, Scheerbart’s flights of fancy—and tailspins into fear—elevate The Perpetual Motion Machine into something that will likely appeal to anyone who dreams of the coming future.


Comments are disabled for this article.

....

The Perpetual Motion Machine: The Story of an Invention
By Paul Scheerbart
Translated by Andrew Joron
Reviewed by Will Eells
82 pages, Paperback
ISBN: 9780984115549
$12.95
The Hatred of Music
The Hatred of Music by Pascal Quignard
Reviewed by Jeanne Bonner

Pascal Quignard’s __The Hatred of Music_ is the densest, most arcane, most complex book I’ve read in ages. It’s also a book that covers a topic so basic, so universal—almost primordial—that just about any reader will be perversely thrilled by. . .

Read More >

Fragile Travelers
Fragile Travelers by Jovanka Živanović
Reviewed by Damian Kelleher

In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Flaubert attempted to highlight the ordinary, tired, and often crass nature of common expressions by italicising them within the text. When Charles, Emma Bovary’s mediocre husband, expresses himself in a manner akin to that of. . .

Read More >

Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei
Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei by Eliot Weinberger
Reviewed by Russell Guilbault

Eliot Weinberger takes big strides across literary history in his genuinely breathtaking short work, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, tracking translations of a short ancient Chinese poem from the publication of Ezra Pound’s Cathay in 1915 to Gary. . .

Read More >

Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages
Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages by Kyn Taniya
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .

Read More >

The Subsidiary
The Subsidiary by Matías Celedón
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .

Read More >

Thus Bad Begins
Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías
Reviewed by Kristel Thornell

Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .

Read More >

Death by Water
Death by Water by Kenzaburo Oe
Reviewed by Will Eells

Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .

Read More >