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Peter Härtling: Niembsch oder Der Stillstand. Eine Suite [Niembsch or The Deadlock]

Niembsch was Härtling’s second novel – much of his early work was poetry and his first novel was less than successful – and was the first in his series of novels about German poets. Niembsch – his real name was Nikolaus Franz Niembsch, Edler von Strehlenau but he is better known under his pen name of Nikolaus Lenau – is not very well-known in Austria (he was Austrian) or Germany, and hardly at all in the English-speaking world. His father was a dissolute Austrian cavalry officer and his mother a Hungarian woman of good family. His father died when he was five and he was pulled between his impoverished mother and his father’s parents. He studied various subjects at various universities but never qualified. After receiving a generous inheritance, he moved to Stuttgart and then went to the United States, which he did not like, and returned after a year. He fell in love with Baroness Sophie von Löwenthal, with whom he contracted a dual correspondence – formal literary letters on the one hand and passionate private ones on the other (they were published by Härtling in 1968) and then became engaged first to the actress Caroline Unger and then to Marie Behrends, the daughter of a well-to-do Frankfurt citizen. The stress was too much for him and he had a nervous breakdown and spent the rest of his life in an asylum near Vienna, dying in 1850.

Härtling’s novel takes as its starting point his return from the United States and uses as its theme Kierkegaard’s famous dictum – Repetition and recollection are the same movement, except in opposite directions, for what is recollected has been, is repeated backward, whereas genuine repetition is recollected forward. Niembsch – his mind going – struggles with the memory and repeating his actions in what is a seemingly accurate biographical recounting. However, Härtling, though the third person narrator, gets into Niembsch’s mind and his struggles to deal with others, particularly, of course, his lovers and his rivals. Gradually, we can see how Niembsch – unable to cope – ends up at what Härtling calls Stillstand, which can be translated as deadlock, stasis, inertia or various other ways, with repetition and recollection leaving him totally at a loss.

Publishing history

First published 1964 by Goverts, Stuttgart
No English translation
Published in French as Niembsch ou L’immobilité: suite musicale by Editions du Seuil in 1985
Translated by Bernard Lortholary