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Pierre Senges: Fragments de Lichtenberg (Fragments of Lichtenberg)

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg was an eighteenth century German scientist, little known outside his known country (at least till the publication of this book). He is particularly remembered for his work in the field of electricity. He also left a collection of what he called Sudelbücher in German, which translates as, approximately, scrap books in English, though the English publication of them by the New York Review of Books, is called Waste Books. (Waste book in English is the term used, in older accounting systems, for a chronological register of every transaction.) Penguin publish a collection of his aphorisms in their Classics series.

Lichtenberg’s Sudelbücher (I shall use the German term) consist of a collection of aphorisms. They were only found after his death and some of them have subsequently gone missing. Senges’ book is a rambling, spirited book about Lichtenberg’s life, about the contents of the Sudelbücher and about matters that arise from his life, about how various (fictitious) experts have interpreted the Sudelbücher as being part of a Great Novel and about Lichtenberg’s sayings that Senges deems fit to comment on. It is definitely not (and not intended to be) a conventional biography, not least because Senges goes off on tangents and speculations which may or may not be historically accurate.

We see this from the very beginning, where the scene is Goethe’s deathbed. It is well-known that Goethe’s dying words were Mehr Licht (i.e. more light). However, according to Senges, what Goethe really meant to say, and did not not because he had not got enough breath left to speak, was Mehr Lichtenberg. This entirely tongue-in-cheek comment is par for the course for Senges both in this and other books he wrote. Lichtenberg, he points out, was definitely one up on Goethe as, before his death, he wrote seventy-two separate last words to say sublimely on my death-bed when I see my end approaching. (Note all English translations are mine, from the original French and not necessarily what appears in the published English translation.) Senges will mock Goethe some more later in the book. Indeed, he has an an imaginary meeting between Goethe and Lichtenberg.

Senges gives us a potted biography of Lichtenberg – he was a hunchback, got a scholarship to the University of Göttingen, where he became a professor of mathematics. He rarely left Göttingen, except to make a couple of journeys to England and what Senges calls a hypothetical journey to Vienna.

While this is going on, Senges tells us about what he calls the Lichtenbergians. These are various (presumably fictitious) people who have studied Lichtenberg’s work, particularly taking the view that the various fragments that we have left in fact are part of a a Great Novel that he had written. Their task is to put these fragments back into the coherent whole, thereby revealing this Great Novel.

We first learn about Hermann Sax, who first had the theory that the fragments of Lichtenberg’s works were in fact the remains of what once was a single, coherent novel. Sax devoted his life to proving it, dying at the age of ninety without having done so. Others have since taken up the mantle including a group of Swedes under Alfred Nobel. Senges, in another witty, aside, even shows how Lichtenberg deliberately fragmented his work. We next move onto a couple of Irish eccentrics, Stephen Stewart and Mary Mulligan, who follow the same path.

Sax, the Swedes and the Irish are not just trying to recompile the Great Novel but they have specific ideas what this novel may have been about. Indeed, they think it might be a variation of a famous work or famous subject. These include (but are certainly not limited to) Don Quixote, Nasreddin Hodja, Baron Munchausen, Robin Hood and others. The Irish go for Pulcinella and Pulcinella’s English variation Mr Punch of Punch magazine. When the French get involved, they are looking for a criminal character who is a long way from home and, after considering various candidates, opt for Ovid. We move to other variation, including the Hungarians and Robinson Crusoe (a Robinson Crusoe that Defoe would not have recognised) and Snow white’s eighth dwarf.

Meanwhile, we are learning about Lichtenberg. While Senges gives us something of a conventional biography, he also plunges into fantasy (Lichtenberg was brought into the world by Dr. Slop, the doctor of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy). He then goes into examining different aspects of Lichtenberg – Lichtenberg the hypochondriac, the encyclyopedist, the misanthrope, the sedentary (being sedentary he had to go to England, the home of the sedentary) and many more.

Quotations from Lichtenberg’s work pepper this book, inserted into the margins. Some of them are straightforward, some cryptic and some very funny. I particularly liked his comment Heaven forfend that I should write a book on other books and The instinct for propagating the species has also led to the propagation of a host of other things. One quotation, perhaps by accident or perhaps not, is repeated for no obvious reason. It concerns the fine chest of a young woman. Lichtenberg was not not averse to the charms of the opposite sex.

This novel is a brilliant pastiche of both literary researchers and of Lichtenberg himself. It is is thoroughly original, incredibly inventive, very learned and very funny. Even though Senges was completely over the top, I really enjoyed this work, all 600+ pages of it, and can highly recommend it if you enjoy this sort of work.

Publishing history

First published 2008 by Verticales
First English publication by Dalkey Archive Press in 2016