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July 1st, 2013

From Sunday, 14 April to Sunday, 23 June, I read Hanns Heinz Ewers's Alraune, translated by Joe E. Bandel, and illustrated by Mahlon Blaine; book-ended by short tone pieces ("Arsis" and "Finale") by Wilfried Kugel (originally published in German in 1911; Bandel's translation published in 2009; Kindle edition published 24 April 2010; self-published via Lulu; 350 pps.).
cover to Alraune by Hanns Heinz Ewers trans by Joe Bandel

Hanns Heinz Ewers (1871 - 1943; his last name should be pronounced "AY-vers," BTW) was a strange man: a philo-Semitic homosexual who was an ardent German nationalist (he was interned in the U.S. as an enemy alien for trying to drum up support in American cities with large German populations for Wilhelmine Germany's side in what would become known as the First World War -- he also may have encouraged Pancho Villa in his border raids on the U.S. -- until 1921), and briefly a Nazi supporter (from 1931 to 1934), he was a comedian and satirist who became a noted literary critic who helped increase interest in Edgar Allan Poe in Germany, and was one of the first German intellectuals to recognize and accept the importance of film as an art form (indeed, he would write screenplays for two versions of The Student of Prague; also interesting is the fact that both movies used the basic premise of Poe's "William Wilson," which would later be borrowed by Stephen King for his novel The Dark Half), an actor and librettist, a noted German translator, editor, and author of tales of horror and the fantastic, apparently the first biographer of the Nazi martyr Horst Wessel (Hitler himself asked Ewers to write Wessel's biography), pen-pal and buddy of the "Great Beast" himself, Aleister Crowley, Ewers is something of a footnote today due to his Nazi associations, although the anarchist writer Joe E. Bandel is endeavoring to revive interest in Ewers in the English-speaking world.

Ewers's writing has supposedly been likened to Poe's, but I can't imagine that anyone who has actually read anything at all by both authors has made this comparison; based on the evidence here, Ewers had far more in common with the Decadent movement than he did with Poe's gothic-tinged Romantic sensibilities. Certainly the "Arsis" and "Finale" of Wilfried Kugel, a physicist and psychologist who worked on the restoration of the 1913 version of The Student of Prague and authored a biography of the stage clairvoyant and confidence man Erik Jan Hanussen (Ewers was acquainted with Hanussen for the last three years of Hanussen's life), Hanussen: The True Story of Hermann Steinschneider (1998), which Bandel translates here to book-end Ewers's novel, exemplify the worst traits of the Decadents: overwrought, bathetic prose that delights in declaiming how "sinful" something is without actually describing it or explaining why it's "sinful."

Ewers authored a few seminal horror stories, notably "The Spider," as well as the Frank Braun Trilogy, whose titular character was partly modeled on himself; the books of the trilogy consist of The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1910; first English translation published in 1927), Alraune (1911; first English translation, by Guy Endore -- who is primarily remembered for authoring the 1933 novel The Werewolf of Paris, which was memorably, if loosely, adapted as the 1961 Hammer horror movie The Curse of the Werewolf, starring Oliver Reed -- published in 1929); and Vampyr (1921; apparently this has yet to be translated into English; it has no relation to the seminal 1932 silent horror movie Vampyr, directed by Carl Dreyer). Alraune, which is the German word for "mandrake," has been filmed five times; the earliest surviving version is the 1928 one with Brigitte Helm (best remembered for playing Maria and her robotic double in the 1927 Fritz Lang movie Metropolis) and Paul Wegener (director and actor of the 1920 movie The Golem: How He Came Into the World). There seems to be a consensus that this version is the best one, even if Brigitte Helm bears little resemblance to Alraune as described in Ewers's novel; it's apparently available in its entirety on YouTube. (Longstanding Marvel Zombie that I am, I'm embarrassed to admit that I'd forgotten that the main squeeze of Moon Knight -- a.k.a. Marc Spector / Steven Grant / Jake Lockley, depending on which personality is dominant -- is surnamed "Alraune." Not sure if any writer parleyed her unusual family name into a link to the legend that Ewers adapted for his novel, or to elements from his novel.)

Alraune, then, is an early 20th century updating of a medieval German legend concerning die Alraune, or the mandrake root: the common belief was that the vaguely humanoid shape of the mandrake root was caused by the ejaculate of hanged men, produced by the breaking of their necks (hence the tendency of "flash" men convicted to the gallows in 18th and 19th century Britain to scrape together their life savings for a "wedding suit" to wear when they went to their deaths); alchemists held that the earth "absorbed their final 'strengths,'" and the root thus fashioned was a desideratum for love potions, while "Witches who 'made love' to the [m]andrake root were said to produce offspring which had no feelings of real love and had no soul."

As related in Ewers's novel, the Rhineland Gontram family -- the current head is Legal Councilor Sebastian Gontram -- has had a manikin of mandrake in their family for over two hundred years, which has given them fiduciary luck, but also bad ends; Attorney Manasse relates, in Chapter Two, further particulars of the legend to the Gontrams' guests, among them Privy Councilor Jakob ten Brinken (who is also a medical doctor experimenting with artificial insemination in frogs, monkeys, guinea pigs and rats; he twits one of the Gontrams' family friends, the morbidly obese Hungarian Princess Olga Wolkonski -- she has a teenaged daughter, also named Olga, who is friends with one of the Gontram daughters, Frieda -- with louche descriptions of his work, sexually arousing her) and his nephew, a wastrel law student and dabbler in the occult named Frank Braun:

"'After it is dug up and carried back home you keep it healthy by bringing it a little to eat at every meal and bathing it in wine on the Sabbath. It brings luck in peace and war, is a protection against witchcraft and brings lots of money into the house. It is good for prophecy and makes the owner lovable. It brings women love magick, fertility and easy childbirth. It makes people fall madly and wildly in love with them.

"'Yet it also brings sorrow and pain wherever [misspelled with an extra "e" in Bandel] it is. The house where it stays will be pursued by bad luck and it will drive its owner to greed, fornication and other crimes before leading him at last to death and then to hell. Nevertheless, the alraune is very beloved, much sought after and brings a high price when it can be found.'"


Upon hearing this bit of legendry, Braun urges his uncle to follow the path suggested by it: take the semen of a hanged man, inseminate a woman with it, and have her deliver a living, human alraune. After a bit of pleading by Frank and the perverse Princess Wolkonski, the coldly efficient ten Brinken agrees to embark on the experiment: a suitable condemned man, named Peter Weinland Noerissen, is found; a red-haired prostitute named Alma (Latin for "kind," "nourishing"; Spanish for "soul") is engaged via chicanery and held to her commitment by force; and, in nine months' time, a girl, christened Alraune (partly due to the legend, partly because her underage mother wrote her name on the contract for her services with Dr. ten Brinken as "Al Raune": her family name proved to be Raune), is born: at birth, she screamed like the mandrake root was thought to scream when it was unearthed, and the top part of her legs were bound together by a fold of skin -- "artesia Vaginalis" -- that reached to her knees. The skin was later cut away, but Alraune retained pronounced scars on her inner thighs. Alma, the mother, died soon after giving birth, due to hemorrhage.

What follows is the least interesting part of the novel, as Alraune proves to have an affinity for knowing of all things connected to, or buried within, the earth, and a preternatural ability to beguile most people (save for superstitious and uneducated peasants, who are presumed to be far more in touch with the earth than the bourgeois main characters) to do her will, no matter how foolish or fatal it proves to themselves. (She eventually also proves to have vampiric tendencies, which further muddies the issue as to just exactly what sort of being she is.) Frank Braun is offstage for much of the middle section of the novel, returning only in the last quarter or so, for his final encounter with his ward (his uncle had maliciously named him Alraune's guardian in the event of his demise). There is quite a bit of gender confusion along the way, with Alraune frequently described as a slender, prepubescent boy; indeed, in Bandel's rendering, Alraune is often referred to by the masculine pronoun, sometimes even when she's not affecting a boy's costume.

Bandel's translation includes the illustrations that Mahlon Blaine made for the 1929 John Day English translation by Guy Endore; below is a picture of Alraune provoking the pederastic tendencies of Dr. ten Brinken:
Mahlon Blaine illo for 1929 Eng ed of Alraune -- 1879682628_d72d2390db_o

Obviously Ewers was making an oblique reference to the homosexual panic that gripped Wilhelmine Germany in the years prior to the outbreak of World War I: namely, the Eulenburg Affair of 1907 - 1909. Unfortunately, whether through artistic timidity or German censorship laws, Ewers didn't dig deeper into the homosexual ferment of the time, which expressed itself partially in conflicts between the macho, or masculine groups, and the effeminate groups. (It might've been interesting had Ewers shown Alraune passing for a boy, luring some highly-placed civilian or military personage into an affair, and then revealing her true sex to him, much to his horror and fury.) While some of the familial scenes at the Gontrams' in the first two chapters were social satires worthy of the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the scenes of Alraune and the younger Gontram son Wölfchen cross-dressing, of Alraune suborning and dominating both Frieda Gontram and the young Princess Olga (to say nothing of all of her classmates at her convent school), or of Alraune presenting herself to her adoptive father, Dr. ten Brinken, as a boy to excite his passion and cloud his reason, have far less bite and spark than one suspects that Ewers could've given them.

The problem with having a femme fatale character (which, setting aside the supernatural and pseudo-scientific trappings, Alraune ten Brinken is) is that, while you don't necessarily have to work blue, you do have to convince the reader of her fatal allure. I was never convinced of Alraune's glamour (or, come to that, of Frank Braun's peculiar charms when he and Alraune are locked in their Liebestod tango in the book's final act); I felt that I was asked by Ewers (and Bandel) to accept Alraune's siren-like powers on faith, without my belief (or, more precisely, my suspension of disbelief) being earned. This makes the events following on her caprices (and the selfish, antagonistic schemings of ten Brinken and Braun) drawn-out, lustreless, unconvincing and, ultimately, dull.

Another missed opportunity was Ewers's failure to link up the legend of Die Alraune with the countervailing legend of the undine, so memorably (if a trifle blandly) rendered by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué in his 1811 novella of the same name; since Ewers's Alraune and Fouqué's Undine are both set in the Rhineland, and since the appeal, the powers, and the temperaments of the two women in question are congruent, such an acknowledgment seems only natural. If Ewers was writing for today's supernatural-saturated popular fiction market, he probably would've written a smack-down between Alraune and an undine; that wouldn't be my first preference, but it would probably have been a more entertaining read than what we have here.

For all my reservations about Ewers's style (another dissimilarity between him and Poe: where Poe suggested his more louche story elements, Ewers damn near shouts 'em from the rooftops; possibly this is due to his being a German author: Germans tend to be more accepting of scatological, if not sexual, humor), I have far more reservations about Bandel's abilities as a translator. Bandel's translation of Alraune seems to epitomize the perils of self-publishing: there were a plethora of grammatical, punctuation, and spelling errors which irritated me to the extent that I seriously considered abandoning the book; only my stubbornness and my annoyance at having paid close to $12 for something this sloppily edited, and having already read a little more than half of it (62%, according to my Kindle), ultimately caused me to grit my teeth and press on. Bandel was so cavalier about basic rules of punctuation -- omitting commas when characters are addressing each other ("Yes Uncle" instead of "Yes, Uncle," etc.) and between a passage of dialogue and a "he said"; omitting quotation marks (as in the passage about the legend of die Alraune cited above; the quotation marks denoting that this was a dialogue were added by me); English rules as to which nouns are actually proper nouns that should be capitalized (all German nouns are capitalized, whether proper or not) -- that I began to suspect that English wasn't his first language.

I was persuaded to purchase Bandel's translation of Alraune from Amazon after reading his introduction on Amazon's site, and being persuaded by his argument that Endore omitted much important, if salacious, details in his 1929 translation, as well as his argument that Endore's translation was unnecessarily ornate, to the point of being esoteric and tortured; however, after struggling through Bandel's rendition, I have to wonder just how felicitous his rendering of Ewers's prose into English really is. I can't help but be irritated by this Microsoft model of publishing: I'm obliged to pay good money for the "privilege" of being a beta tester. If this was a free copy, or if I was asked to edit it as a favor, out of friendship, fine; as it is, my inclination to buy more of Bandel's translations of Ewers's work has dropped to nil.

Ewers is doubtless of some importance to horror and supernatural literature (although I would dispute Brian Stableford's overly enthusiastic contention, in David Pringle's St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost and Gothic Writers, that "Alraune 'deserves recognition as the most extreme of all "femme fatale" stories'"); given Ewers's obvious affinity for, if not place of honor within, the Decadence movement, I can only hopefully await future, better, English translations of his work -- possibly from Dedalus Books, which one would think would have a dog in this fight.

Since Endore's translation of Alraune is available for the Kindle for $3, I may very well bite the bullet and read it, just to satisfy myself that it's as inferior and as infelicitous as Bandel claims.



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