Monday, October 6, 2014


Simplicissimus is a 15th century German novel that is often called the first bestseller. Personally, I'm not so sure that's even possible. The book that came before this one that sold the most copies would be the previous bestseller, even if the copies sold amounted to 12. Perhaps what is meant by this is that this is the first book that sold in large quantities, very quickly. That, I can understand.

This book is funny, baudy, crude, and very entertaining. It's written in first person, so Simplicius gets to tell his own story, and because he's so vulgar the first person allows the author to separate himself from this character, and because Simplicius is so simple, he can get away with much more than any polite member of society would be allowed, simply because he doesn't know any better. Quite a trick. It may also help explain why this book became so popular; well heeled folks could laugh at it because the protagonist is so simple. And make no mistake, given the literacy profile of the population  in the 15th century, it's definitely the upper classes who are buying and reading this book.

Simplicius Simplicissimus follows the life story of this young man from his ignorant peasant upbringing through his various trials in all the walks of life, driven by the engine of the ongoing 30 Years War. As this simple boy is tossed by the war raging around him, each place he falls places him in a different situation, which then allows the author to commentate on each of these stations from the point of view of a simple young man who is surprised by almost everything he sees, thus allowing him to point out what he sees at the outrages that swirl around us without our focusing on them.

The author is listed on the title page as Johann Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, but it seems that he is known as Hans rather than Johann, in English, I also saw one reference to Jacob vs. Jakob. While we're at it, the original title in German is "Der Abenteuerliche Simplicissimus Teutsch." In English, that's translated as The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus.

The translation is marvelous and I think it his work that allows this story to resonate so powerfully today. The ideas themselves deserve credit however, and observations made then could in many cases by made much the same today. Human nature is indeed immutable. Mike Mitchell did this translation in 1999. Mitchell is described in the frontmatter as "one of Dedalus's editorial directors as is responsible for the Dedalus translation programme."

Who knew 1668 was so much fun in Germany! Read this book!

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