Banner credit: Rixdorf Editions

Translated from German by James J Conway

Just look at those reviews! What do you think would happen to sales if such were to be written of a contemporary work? Would it fly straight to the top of the bestseller lists? I’ve no idea if such things existed in 1889 when Papa Hamlet was first released on the world, but the authors were a trifle … is worried the right word? At the time Henrik Ibsen was the golden boy of realism, and so the authors assumed a Norwegian nom-de-plume, Bjarne P Holmsen, and invented a fictitous translator, Dr Bruno Franzius, to capitalise on Ibsen’s cachet. Well, the novella became a sensation, and remained so even when the ruse was discovered. More than that, it became a seminal work with Gerhart Hauptmann, the novel-prize winning exponent of German Naturalism, acknowledging a certain Bjarne P Holmsen on the front page of his drama, Before Sunrise.

Let’s dive in.

The out-of-work actor, Niels Thienwiebel, is barely managing to survive in an ice-cold Berlin garret, where he lives with his wife and his baby son. Thienwiebel is referred to throughout as the Great Thienwiebel in reference to his glory days performing Hamlet, a play he loves to quote from. Hence the moniker Papa Hamlet. His wife, Amelia, is often referred to as Ophelia and the child as Fortinbras. He is not a sympathetic character. Forced to work as a life model to earn a mere pittance, he blames his wife for the pitiful meals at home, and resents his son, whom he sees only as a lobster or a wriggling grub. He objects when Amelia wants to earn some money by taking in sewing, and he beats his six-month old offspring for his continual screaming, failing to understand that that’s what babies do when they are hungry. Amelia can do nothing to stop him. She is weakened by a serious illness – probably TB.

Yes, it is a veritable picture of misery, the sordidness of which is made manifest not in lengthy descriptive passages, but in the sharpness of detail: the state of Thienwebel’s dressing gown, Amelia’s filthy nightshirt, the only thing she wears and which always seems to to be open at the front, their room which at times resembles a “a tragic tableau of a child’s dirty pinafore which lay on the floor … next to a broken box of Swedish matches”. The conversation between characters is natural, their hesitations and pauses all accounted for.

Thienwiebel’s neighbour, Ole Nissen, is similarly afflicted with poverty. A mediocre artist at best, he is reduced to painting shop signage to recover his liver-wurst coloured trousers from the pawnbrokers: the toings and froings of his apparel providing some light comic relief. What little human kindness there is comes from Thienwiebel’s landlady, but even then it’s not without irony.

For Frau Rosine Wachtel was in possession of a good heart. And that must have been true, because she said it herself, and shed tears each time she did so.

At least she provides milk for the child … but eviction is inevitable. After all, there’s only so much non-payment of rent even the most kindhearted landlady can take. However, the eviction is not the most tragic of events here …

Papa Hamlet is only 50 pages long, but it is such an intense read. Rixdorf Editions has supplemented it with more stories, jointly penned by Holz and Schlaf, plus Schlaf’s original tale, A Garret Idyll, which was reworked into Papa Hamlet. That makes for an interesting compare and contrast exercise. There is also an extensive afterword by James J Conway about Naturalism in Germany, the role Holz and Schlaf had in developing it, and in-depth analysis of Papa Hamlet in particular. No one knows a text as well as its translator. Conway is both translator and publisher. Watch him speak about Papa Hamlet in the video below, and learn more about his personal mission to “bring unfairly neglected texts of the German Empire to a contemporary English-language readership” in my interview with him here.