The Island of Second Sight

Overview

Available for the first time in English, The Island of Second Sight is a masterpiece of world literature, first published in Germany in 1953 and hailed by Thomas Mann as "one of the greatest books of the twentieth century." Set on Mallorca in the 1930s in the years leading up to World War II, it is the fictionalized account of the time spent there by author?writing as Vigoleis, his alter-ego?and his wife, Beatrice, lured to the island by Beatrice?s dying brother, who, as it turns out not dying at all but broke ...

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The Island of Second Sight

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Overview

Available for the first time in English, The Island of Second Sight is a masterpiece of world literature, first published in Germany in 1953 and hailed by Thomas Mann as "one of the greatest books of the twentieth century." Set on Mallorca in the 1930s in the years leading up to World War II, it is the fictionalized account of the time spent there by author—writing as Vigoleis, his alter-ego—and his wife, Beatrice, lured to the island by Beatrice’s dying brother, who, as it turns out not dying at all but broke and ensnared by the local prostitute.

Pursued by both the Nazis and Spanish Francoists, Vigoleis and Beatrice embark on a series of the most unpredictable and surreal adventures in order to survive. Low on money, the couple seeks shelter in a brothel for the military, serves as tour guides to groups of German tourists, and befriends such literary figures Robert Graves and Harry Kessler, as well as the local community of smugglers, aristocrats, and exiled German Jews. Vigoleis with his inventor hat on even creates a self-inflating brassiere. Then the Spanish Civil War erupts, presenting new challenges to their escape plan. Throughout, Vigoleis is an irresistibly engaging narrator; by turns amusing, erudite, naughty, and always utterly entertaining.

Drawing comparisons to Don Quixote and The Man Without Qualities, The Island of Second Sight is a novel of astonishing and singular richness of language and purpose; the story is picaresque, the voice ironic, the detail often hilarious, yet it is a work of profound seriousness, with an anti-war, anti-fascist, humanistic attitude at its core. With a style ranging from the philosophical to the grotesque, the colloquial to the arcane, The Island of Second Sight is a literary tour de force.

Winner of the 2013 PEN Translation Prize

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review
…this is one of the most unusual and entertaining books I have ever read…[with] a narrative style that is variously farcical, byzantine and philosophical, and a sense of humor that makes light of countless catastrophes.
—Alan Riding
Publishers Weekly
First published in Germany in 1953, this epic, autobiographical tale of prewar Germans living abroad is a charming if exhausting blend of cultural self-examination and picaresque adventure. Thelen takes meta-fiction to extremes, mixing first-person confession and third-person narrative, beginning when Vigoleis (the author, thinly disguised) and Beatrice (Thelen’s undisguised Swiss companion) travel from Amsterdam to Mallorca in 1931 to care for Beatrice’s brother, Zwingli, who suffers not from some fatal disease but from his connection with the seductive, mercurial María del Pilar. Vigoleis and Beatrice soon find themselves hopelessly entangled in Zwingli’s debt-riddled, filth-ridden downward spiral, eventually taking up residence in a brothel frequented by bullfighters. They support themselves by writing, translating, and serving as tour guides for the wealthy until even this hard-won existence is threatened by the Spanish Civil War and Hitler’s expansion. What keeps such an anthology of misfortunes noteworthy after sixty years is its unique combination of comedy and meditation on everything from the pleasures of a tertulia to the horror of Nazi atrocities. Even when the author-narrator’s observations prove overwhelming, his cultural insights, historical laments, literary references, and abundant wit make this first English translation (by Amherst professor White) and the book itself a literary achievement. (Oct.)
Times Literary Supplement
"A masterpiece."
Booklist
"[A] brilliant novel…Readers will thank a gifted translator for finally making this masterpiece—acclaimed by Thomas Mann—available to English-speakers."
Paul Celan

"A genuine work of art."
Time Magazines Literary Supplement
"A masterpiece."
starred review Booklist
"[A] brilliant novel…Readers will thank a gifted translator for finally making this masterpiece—acclaimed by Thomas Mann—available to English-speakers."
- Paul Celan
"A genuine work of art."
- Times Literary Supplement
"A masterpiece."
Times Literary Supplement

"A masterpiece."

Library Journal
Thomas Mann called this novel "one of the best books of the 20th century." The Times Literary Supplement called it "a masterpiece." American readers will at last have the opportunity to read this celebrated novel, first published in Germany in 1953 and now translated into English for the first time, and judge for themselves. Set in the early 1930s in Mallorca, this is a witty, exuberant book, perhaps best described as a modern picaresque novel following in the tradition of Don Quixote, a work Thelen mentions quite often in these pages. The story follows two bohemian intellectuals, Vigoleis and Beatrice, who initially come to Mallorca to comfort Beatrice's ailing mother but soon find themselves embroiled in a series of wild and colorful misadventures in the Mallorcan demimonde. Thelen narrates these adventures with charm and self-effacing humor while also exploring deeper thematic elements, including the pathologies that enabled the rise of Hitler and national socialism in Europe. VERDICT This unique and appealing novel is enthusiastically recommended for fans of world literature.—Patrick Sullivan, Manchester Community Coll., CT
Kirkus Reviews
A vast novel--if novel it is--of the tangled lives of anti-Nazi Germans on the Spanish island of Majorca in the years leading up to World War II. Some of those Germans were communists, others Jews; all were destined to be denounced, and many killed, when Franco's soldiers finished their fascist revolution with the help of the Third Reich. That's a grim matter of history, but Thelen (1903–1989) is anything but grim for much of this book, which was published in Germany in 1953 and has enjoyed a somewhat uneasy stance as a classic ever since--somewhat uneasy, that is, because it deals with matters that many Germans of the time would have just as soon forgotten. Even on dark matters, though, Thelen squeezes in unlikely jokes "A Spaniard who is ready to shoot today instead of tomorrow--how very odd!" he exclaims. Or rather, his alter ego, named Vigoleis and married, as was Thelen, to a woman named Beatrice, exclaims. To call this a roman à clef is to risk making too much of the connection between the author's life and that of his protagonist, though one wonders whether this book is fictional in the same sense that Kenneth Rexroth's An Autobiographical Novel is fiction--that is to say, not much at all. Whatever the case, Vigoleis is a sharp-eyed observer of his fellow Germans, both those on the island and those left far back home in the untender hands of Herr Hitler. Vigoleis may wish for detachment--he describes early on his "congenital aversion to contact with the external world"--but he becomes the unlikely center of a wheel whose spokes are both Spanish and German, and he is expected to perform miracles on behalf of all concerned. Of one clergy-hating Majorcan who asks him to invent a gallows that could humanely kill a priest "in a single stroke," he notes, "I referred him to my fellow countrymen in the Third Reich, who were now the experts in mass executions." Fortunately, Vigoleis--like Thelen in real life--manages to get away before he himself is the subject of an execution, leaving behind his beloved island, not quite a paradise but not quite a slaughterhouse, foreboding imagery notwithstanding. Worthy of a place alongside On the Marble Cliffs, Berlin Alexanderplatz, The Death of Virgil and other modernist German masterworks; a superb, sometimes troubling work of postwar fiction, deserving the widest possible audience.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781468301168
  • Publisher: Overlook Hardcover
  • Publication date: 9/13/2012
  • Pages: 816
  • Product dimensions: 6.26 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.81 (d)

Meet the Author

Albert Vigoleis Thelen (1903-1989) was a German writer and translator. During the rise of the Nazi regime, he lived on Mallorca with Beatrice Bruckner, whom he married in 1934. The Island of Second Sight was awarded the Fontane Prize upon its first publication.

Donald O. White is a Professor of German at Amherst College.

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