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.

Comments are disabled for this article.


The Nightwatches of Bonaventura
By Bonaventura
Translated by Gerald Gillespie
Reviewed by J. T. Mahany
216 pages, paperback
ISBN: 978-0226141565
I Remember Nightfall
I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio
Reviewed by Talia Franks

I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio (trans. From the Spanish by Jeannine Marie Pitas) is a bilingual poetry volume in four parts, consisting of the poems “The History of Violets,” “Magnolia,” “The War of the Orchards,” and “The Native. . .

Read More >

Joyce y las gallinas
Joyce y las gallinas by Anna Ballbona
Reviewed by Brendan Riley

This review was originally published as a report on the book at New Spanish Books, and has been reprinted here with permission of the reviewer. The book was originally published in the Catalan by Anagrama as Joyce i les. . .

Read More >

Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World
Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders
Reviewed by Kaija Straumanis

Hello and greetings in the 2017 holiday season!

For those of you still looking for something to gift a friend or family member this winter season, or if you’re on the lookout for something to gift in the. . .

Read More >

The Size of the World
The Size of the World by Branko Anđić
Reviewed by Jaimie Lau

Three generations of men—a storyteller, his father and his son—encompass this book’s world. . . . it is a world of historical confusion, illusion, and hope of three generations of Belgraders.

The first and last sentences of the first. . .

Read More >

Island of Point Nemo
Island of Point Nemo by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès
Reviewed by Katherine Rucker

The Island of Point Nemo is a novel tour by plane, train, automobile, blimp, horse, and submarine through a world that I can only hope is what Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès’s psyche looks like, giant squids and all.

What. . .

Read More >

The Truce
The Truce by Mario Benedetti
Reviewed by Adrianne Aron

Mario Benedetti (1920-2009), Uruguay’s most beloved writer, was a man who loved to bend the rules. He gave his haikus as many syllables as fit his mood, and wrote a play divided into sections instead of acts. In his country,. . .

Read More >

I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World
I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World by Kim Kyung Ju
Reviewed by Jacob Rogers

Kim Kyung Ju’s I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World, translated from the Korean by Jake Levine, is a wonderful absurdist poetry collection. It’s a mix of verse and prose poems, or even poems in the. . .

Read More >