We hope you enjoy today’s unique blog post, which was derived from a recent FaceTime call between editors Peter Höyng and Chauncey J. Mellor, whose new English translation of Marylin by Arthur Rundt is now available from our Camden House imprint. Marylin offers a European view of racial attitudes in the US during the era of the Harlem Renaissance and Jim Crow, with relevance to today’s Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements.
Peter: What was your first reaction after I approached you about whether you were ready for another translation project after we had completed Hugo Bettauer’s The Blue Stain?
Jeff: I was intrigued. I knew you had a gift for uncovering fascinating nuggets and opening unsuspected vistas on American life from a German point of view. After you forwarded the text to me, I started reading, and, by the end of the first page, I was hooked. Having lived in Chicago, the vivid ambiance in the sentence “Every morning she took the same L train to her office from her northwestern neighborhood in the city to the station at the corner of Wabash and Madison” immediately captured my attention. I knew the Loop area, even the unnamed northwestern neighborhood, and I was eager for more. So, I jumped in and started translating.
Jeff: But then I have to ask back, how did you discover Marylin? Neither the book nor the author springs to mind when thinking of German language books on America.
Peter: After we finished translating Bettauer’s Blue Stain I was sensitized to issues that book had raised and was on the lookout for additional similar material. Then at a conference in Vienna, I met Primus-Heinz Kucher and learned of his impending publication of Marylin that seemed to fill the bill.
Jeff: And then?
Peter: Kucher informed me that Marylin would be out within the year. So, I bided my time, but sat down with it at the first opportunity and started reading. And, like you, just kept reading on. All the while, I kept asking myself what was it about the book that compelled me to continue. To be sure, various themes in American society arose—relationships between the sexes, architecture, stocking manufacture, sales, outdated gender roles—but what kept me reading?
Jeff: About how long did that go on?
Peter: I was about 2/3 of the way through the book and then it struck me.
Jeff: What did?
Peter: Just about then two incongruous characters popped up, both black, one a boxer and one a classically trained vocalist, a strange pair and obviously good friends. That opened up the topic of race, both in the book and regarding American society. Another point that aroused my suspicions was when Marylin prominently displayed her father’s portrait but hid her mother’s photo in her trunk. Up to that point, I had been focused on the literary aspects of the writing. To be sure, Rundt was an excellent writer and his writing displayed the then emergent New Objectivity, but now this critical topic signaled everything I had been looking for since The Blue Stain as a central theme so cleverly concealed up to now. This was the strategically delayed aha moment. All the previous pedestrian events suddenly gained new meaning. At this point, I gained tremendous respect for Rundt’s technique and the artfulness of his presentation. I couldn’t stop reading. In short, the form of the text echoes its actual topic.
Jeff: So, our response to the text came from quite different directions?
Peter: Absolutely, but those directions complemented each other so well and energized our respective approaches.
Jeff: So, for me, it was the stark realism of the setting and for you, it was the narrative technique.
Peter: The effect of Rundt’s delaying this critical topic until very late compelled me to review all of the previous seemingly humdrum events. I began re-evaluating everything that had gone before in a new light. Rundt’s presentation in the sober style of New Objectivity, studiously anti-psychological and anti-plot driven, emphasized the pedestrian feel at the beginning and heightened the emotional impact of what followed. Can you follow me here?
Peter: Do you remember when we were translating how I kept urging you to avoid more vivid renderings of Rundt’s words? How I wanted you to emphasize bland wordings?
Jeff: Ah. “Play it down. Play it down,” you said. “Keep the text sober and uneventful.” I was just translating along, as I said before, and was still unaware of what was to come.
Jeff: We’ve got to continue this conversation, but for now, let’s pause.
This guest post was written by PETER HÖYNG, Professor of German at Emory University and CHAUNCEY J. MELLOR is Professor Emeritus of German at the University of Tennessee.