It’s always intriguing when reading a translated book to imagine what the original language looks and sounds like. How did we get from here to there, from—in this instance—early twentieth-century German to contemporary English? What was lost and what was, if not gained, then at least redeemed? In her translation of Flametti, Or the Dandyism of the Poor (1918) by Hugo Ball, Catherine Schelbert uses a curious mix of verbs, such as “harrumphed,” “galumping,” and “carbuncled.” One wonders how Ball originally put this. It is difficult to imagine the Germans of 1918 doing much harrumphing or galumping, even if they lived in Switzerland at the time, but then Ball was no ordinary fellow. He, along with Emmy Hennings, was the creator of the Cabaret Voltaire. He wrote a “Dada Manifesto.”
Before Ball became world-renowned for his antics, theatrics, and sound poetry, he worked in vaudeville. All artists must get their start somewhere and here he learned the tricks of the trade. At first merely a pianist, Ball was soon writing scripts, composing scores, and designing elaborate costumes for Maxim, a theater troupe led by Ernst Alexander Michel, aka “Flamingo.” Such skills would later serve Ball well at the Cabaret Voltaire, where the nights were orchestras of lively bombast and great fun was had by the poets, dancers, and artists of all stripes and persuasions. This extraordinary fellow Bell kept busy. As beautiful mayhem commenced around him, he was also at work on a novel.
Flametti is the story of an adventurous, impoverished theater troupe led by the eponymous hero Max Flametti. Flametti is a grand man, self-important, wild-eyed, hugely charismatic, and delusionally optimistic. His chief belief is this: that “[i]t had to sparkle” and to hell with the cost! Of course, running a theater troupe is an expensive affair so Flametti spends most of his time trying to escape penury as though it were an onstage contraption and he were an escape artist of, if not fantastic prowess, at least notable diligence. He evades the police, lawyers, and even his own wife. Like most of us, Flametti is too preoccupied dreaming up the next big thing to worry about such pedestrian financial miseries.
“The people who go about in daytime with their eyes closed,” Ball once wrote in his diary, “keep the dreambook on their night table.” This novel is a dreambook of sorts. Flametti is if nothing else a dreamer whose sheer existence is testament to the power of what could be if only. And for a moment he succeeds. Flametti has come up with his wildest production yet! It’s called The Indians (aka The Last Tribe of the Delaware), which is about “[r]evenge and transfiguration,” where Flametti, starring in the role of Chief Fireglow, leads his tribe into battle. The fräuleins are his warriors, singing songs composed by Herr Rotter and wearing costumes of fearsome verisimilitude. On opening night, the audience is wowed beyond belief and Flametti has dashed his competition. Ferrero’s Ladies’ Choral and Comedy Company and Pfäffer’s Sparrows have nothing on this grandiose dreamer.
Throughout the novel, Bell explores the relationship between poverty and artistry. We see a commendable purity to poverty—the virtue of penny-less-ness. Although Flametti and his troupe might be poor, irascible fools, their lives are certainly more exciting than those of the “[g]oading boors” and “drones of society.” Art, for Flametti, means astonishment. Arts means razzmatazz, “[t]hunderous, fulgurating music,” and applause. And if poverty is the cost of pursuing one’s art, then so be it. To hell with all else! And don’t forget: “A proper artiste sleeps until around eleven.”
The second half of the book is weaker than the first. Once Flametti takes the show on the road to Basle, troubles set in. Flametti’s flagrant ways catch up with him and the adventure gets a bit bogged down in interpersonal melodrama—these are theater folk after all. The narrative crescendo that carries us up to opening night crests and the inevitable decline begins. The new audiences fail even to appreciate Flametti’s fire act, when “the petroleum dripping from his mouth, his bugling lips would glisten in a bluish putrescence, which, mixed with mourning and melancholy, typified those harbingers of hell who are in actual fact zealots of noble consciousness and the damned of the heavenly bourgeoisie.”
Schelbert dazzles us with sentences that dance and shimmy across the page. At times, there’s a gaudiness to the language. “Miss Ranovalla de Singapore,” we’re told, is “a miracle of chubbiness.” Crematorium Freddy’s mind is “awash with scrumptiously bawdy thoughts.” One member of the audience possesses “pompadouresque grandeur.” Imagine! It’s clear Schelbert has spent days and weeks looking over each adjective and adverb, often selecting wild words one might not find in a usual thesaurus. No doubt it’s a challenge when reading a translation to truly judge the language, for one never knows if it’s Schelbert’s doing or Bell’s—and how to draw a line? What, one wonders, do all these onomatopoeias look like in German? Do they sound the same? “Mtata!” We must cherish Schelbert’s diligence and passion in bringing this novel into English so that we too can laugh with and scream at Flametti, that greatest of dreamers, jackasses, and artists.
The first image is a picture of Hugo Ball that has been digitally manipulated.