A Masterpiece, Neglected No More

The Island of Second Sight (1953), by Albert Vigoleis Thelen, translated by Donald O. White, professor emeritus of German (Galileo Publishers)

Reviewed by Allen Guttmann


[Translation] Most of us who teach literature have some favorite “neglected masterpiece” that we urge our friends and colleagues to read. Mine is Kasimir Edschmid’s Sport um Gagaly (1928). Donald White’s is Thelen’s Die Insel des Zweiten Gesichts, a thousand-page modernist novel. Sport um Gagaly remains untranslated and unread, but White—more stubborn, more industrious, more linguistically gifted than I—has successfully translated Thelen’s huge novel (in a mere 816 pages).

Thomas Mann praised The Island of Second Sight as “One of the greatest books of the 20th century.” Indeed it is. The novel is comparable in profundity as well as in complexity to Mann’s own Magic Mountain. It is in a class with two other massive German masterpieces more often acclaimed than read: Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil and Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities.

The plot of Thelen’s novel, which takes place on the island of Mallorca during the run-up to the Spanish Civil War, is maddeningly complicated, and I am not reckless enough to risk a summary based on the notes I wrote when I first read the book, some 25 or 30 years ago. (Those lengthy notes conclude candidly: “I’d have to read the whole book again to get it all straight—if then.”)

The safer course is to quote White’s authoritative summary: “Pursued by both the Nazis and Spanish Francoists, Vigoleis (the author’s alter ego) and his wife Beatrice embark on a series of the most unpredictable and surreal adventures in order to survive. The story is picaresque, the style ironic, the detail often hilarious; the writing is rich, intense and entirely original.” (White does not stress the fact, which impressed me, that there is an enormous number of wonderfully individualized characters embodying the spectrum of ideological coloration of that intensely politicized period.)

Translating Thelen’s German was, unquestionably, a daunting challenge. His language varies from colloquial, even slangy, to philosophical and allusively arcane. Although I’m not really qualified to assess the accuracy of the translation, my inexpert opinion is that it’s quite faithful, as one would expect from what is truly a labor of love. I can say with whatever authority adheres to Amherst College faculty status that White’s own English is so accomplished that an uninstructed reader would never guess that Thelen wrote the book in German.

Guttmann is the Emily C. Jordan Folger Professor of English and American Studies at Amherst.