Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Atlantis by Gerhart Hauptmann

No pleasure cruise
German playwright and novelist Gerhart Hauptmann won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1912. His novel Atlantis was published that same year. Despite the title, the book has nothing to do with the mythical lost continent. The word “Atlantis” is only mentioned a few times, in reference to a dream sequence. Perhaps a more fitting title would have been “Atlantic,” as in the ocean of the same name. Upon this body of water is where the story mostly takes place, and the book deals largely with the cultural relationship between the two lands on both sides of this great sea, the Old World and the New.

Dr. Frederick von Kammacher has reached rock bottom. His best friend has recently died, his wife has gone insane, and with the publication of an embarrassingly erroneous work of research he has jeopardized his reputation as a noted physician and bacteriologist. With nothing left to lose, he takes up passage on the steamship Roland, bound for America, for the sole purpose of stalking a 16-year-old dancer with whom he has become obsessed. From this depressing introduction, it’s obvious this transatlantic journey will be no pleasure cruise. Rough weather contributes to the pessimistic outlook. Despite being large enough to carry hundreds of passengers, the Roland is tossed about on the waves as if it were a wee tugboat.

It’s difficult to summarize this novel without giving away one major plot point. Suffice it to say that a monumental event takes place halfway through the book. This occurrence is the most interesting and exciting part of the story, but it’s dealt with far too briefly. What takes place before and after is boring and dreary by comparison. The story focuses mainly on Frederick’s relationship to the dancer and his attempt to free himself from his infatuation with her. She is truly a shallow, self-centered, and unlikable human being. The fact that Frederick loves her makes him despise himself and the reader despise him as well. With no one to root for, this book is a long haul. My Kindle tells me it’s 400 pages long, but it feels more like 600. To its credit, the story improves towards its conclusion and moves in some unpredictable directions. The ending is totally not what one would expect given all that’s preceded it.

The book is written primarily in a naturalistic style. The people and places are described in a vividly realistic manner, often from a critical perspective that focuses on their faults. Regrettably, however, this realism is counteracted by how much importance is placed upon dreams, hallucinations, and premonitions. Too often the book feels like a throwback to the needlessly angst-ridden glory days of the 19th century German novel. Characters contemplate the pointlessness of their lives and their helplessness in the face of a natural universe that’s mercilessly indifferent to human concerns. Another recurring theme is the idea of America. The German characters look at the United States in a negative light, as a shallow nation that worships the almighty dollar. They see themselves as the inheritors of the rich cultural heritage of Germany, yet they are forced to come to terms with the decline of their own culture as America gains prominence.

There are portions and passages of Atlantis that indicate Hauptmann could be a Nobel-calibre author, capable of deep thoughts and profound expression, but the book is too disjointed and meandering as a whole. It ultimately leaves the reader with a feeling of ambivalence and fatigue.

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