Monday, September 29, 2014

Peter Schlemihl by Adelbert von Chamisso

The man who sold his shadow
Peter Schlemihl is an 1814 novella written by Adelbert von Chamisso. Though born in France, von Chamisso lived most of his life in Germany after his aristocratic parents fled the French Revolution. Peter Schlemihl has been translated into English under a variety of titles, such as The Man Who Sold His Shadow or The Marvellous History of the Shadowless Man, either of which gives a more precise indication of the story’s contents. The narrative opens with Peter disembarking a boat in an unnamed country. He arrives with letter of recommendation in hand at the home of a Mr. Jones, who at that moment happens to be entertaining some guests. Among them is a mysterious thin man in a gray coat who offers to buy Peter’s shadow in exchange for a bottomless purse that dispenses gold coins. Peter jumps at this seemingly fortuitous offer and accepts the bargain. The stranger takes possession of his shadow, folds it up, tucks it in his coat, and departs. Peter soon finds however that life without a shadow isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, despite his limitless wealth. Everywhere he goes he is persecuted and reviled for his lack of umbrage.

Traditional in its prose but surprisingly modernist in its unconventionality, Peter Schlemihl resembles what Balzac might have come up with if he wrote scripts for The Twilight Zone. The shadow is obviously a metaphor for something, but what exactly that may be remains unclear. Von Chamisso clarifies later in the book that it doesn’t represent Peter’s soul. Could the sold shadow be analogous to lost innocence, lost youth, lost integrity? The author never gives you enough clues to grab and hold onto in order to decipher the puzzle. Peter’s shame at his shadowlessness, and the lengths he goes to in an effort to conceal it, make one consider the skeletons we all have in our closets, those shortcomings that we do our best to conceal from others as we interact with the world.

The story rambles on in unexpected directions, as if von Chamisso just improvised the whole thing. It goes on far too long, unfortunately. The first chapter is fascinating, but by the time you get to the end the story has become tiresome. The final chapter is truly bizarre, baring little relation to what came before. It calls to mind some of the more absurd writings of Voltaire, like Candide or Micromegas. Absurdity is welcome in literature, of course, but there has to be some kind of consistency to that absurdity—some method to the madness—otherwise it just seems pointless. The idea of a man selling his shadow is an indelible image, but it’s not enough to make the reading of this story worthwhile. Von Chamisso’s vision was incredibly innovative for a writer of two centuries past, but sometimes innovation just isn’t enough.

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