The Nightwatches of Bonaventura

The Nightwatches of Bonaventura

by Gerald Bonaventura, Gerald Gillespie

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First published in German in 1804, under the nom de plume “Bonaventura,” The Nightwatches of Bonaventura is a dark, twisted, and comic novel, one part Poe and one part Beckett. The narrator and antihero is not Bonaventura but a night watchman named Kreuzgang, a failed poet, actor, and puppeteer who claims to be the spawn of the devil himself. As a night watchman, Kreuzgang takes voyeuristic pleasure in spying on the follies of his fellow citizens, and every night he makes his rounds and stops to peer into a window or door, where he observes framed scenes of murder, despair, theft, romance, and other private activities. In his reactions, Kreuzgang is cynical and pessimistic, yet not without humor. For him, life is a grotesque, macabre, and base joke played by a mechanical and heartless force.

Since its publication, fans have speculated on the novel’s authorship, and it is now believed to be by theater director August Klingemann, who first staged Goethe’s Faust. Organized into sixteen separate nightwatches, the sordid scenes glimpsed through parted curtains, framed by door chinks, and lit by candles and shadows anticipate the cinematic. A cross between the gothic and the romantic, The Nightwatches of Bonaventura is brilliant in its perverse intensity, presenting an inventory of human despair and disgust through the eyes of a bitter, sardonic watcher who draws laughter from tragedy.

Translated by Gerald Gillespie, who supplies a fresh introduction, The Nightwatches of Bonaventura will be welcomed by a new generation of English-language fans eager to sample the night’s dark offerings.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226177533
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/24/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 216
File size: 766 KB

About the Author

Gerald Gillespie is professor emeritus at Stanford University and a former president of the International Comparative Literature Association.

Read an Excerpt

The Nightwatches of Bonaventura

By Gerald Gillespie

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2014 Gerald Gillespie
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-17753-3


First Nightwatch

The night hour struck; I wrapped myself in my quixotic disguise, took in hand the pike and horn, went out into the gloom, and called out the hour, after I had protected myself against the evil spirits with a sign of the cross.

It was one of those uncanny nights when light and gloom alternate quickly and strangely. In the sky the clouds, driven by the wind, flew by like eccentric colossal figures, and the moon appeared and vanished in the swift change. Dead silence reigned below in the streets. Only high above in the air did the storm dwell like an invisible spirit.

That was all right by me, and I took pleasure in my lonely reverberating footsteps, for among the many sleepers I seemed to myself like the prince in the fairytale, in the enchanted city where an evil power had transformed every living being into stone, or like a lone survivor after a universal plague or deluge.

The last comparison made me shudder, and I was cheered to see a single faint lamp still burning high up over the city in a free garret.

I well knew who ruled there so high in the airways. It was an unfortunate poet who was awake only in the night, because his creditors slept then, and the muses alone did not belong among the latter.

I could not refrain from delivering the following harangue to him:

"Oh you who are knocking about up there, I understand you well, for I was once of your kind! But I gave up this occupation for an honorable trade that nourishes its man and that is really in no way devoid of poetry for the person who knows how to discover this in it. I am placed in your pathway as if as a satirical Stentor, and here below on earth regularly interrupt, with a reminder of time and transitoriness, your dreams of immortality that you dream up there in the air. We are truly both night watchmen; only it's too bad that your vigils bring in nothing in these coldly prosaic times, whereas mine always yield something extra. When I was still poetizing in the night like you, I had to go hungry like you and sang to deaf ears; the latter I still do now, to be sure, but people pay me for it. Oh friend poet, he who intends to live nowadays should not make verses. If, however, singing is inborn in you and you absolutely cannot forbear, well then, become a night watchman like me. That is still the only solid post for which you're paid and where people don't let you starve.—Good night, brother poet."

I looked up once more and became aware of his shadow on the wall. He had struck a tragic pose, his one hand in his hair, his other holding the page from which he was apparently reciting to himself his immortality.

I blasted on my horn, called the time to him loudly, and went on my way ...

Hold! There a sick man is awake—also in dreams like the poet, in true fever dreams.

All along the man was a freethinker, and, like Voltaire, he is holding firm in his last hour. Then I see him through the peephole in the shutters. He gazes palely and calmly into empty nothingness, into which he intends to penetrate after an hour, in order to sleep forever the dreamless sleep. The roses of life have fallen from his cheeks but they blossom round about him on the faces of three gracious boys. Childishly innocent, the youngest frets before his pale, motionless visage, because it will no longer smile as it used to. The others stand observing soberly; they cannot yet imagine death in their fresh life.

In contrast, the young wife, with flowing hair and open, fair breast, looks despairing into the black grave and only now and again, as if mechanically, wipes the sweat from the dying man's cold forehead.

Beside him the priest, glowing with anger, stands with raised crucifix to convert the freethinker. His speech swells mightily as a stream, and he paints the beyond in audacious pictures—not, however, the beautiful aurora of the new day and the budding arbors and angels, but, like a wild hellish Brueghel, the flames and abysses and the whole ghastly underworld of Dante.

In vain! The sick man remains mute and stubborn. With a frightful calm, he sees one leaf after another falling and feels how the icy crust of death draws closer and closer to his heart.

The night wind whistled through my hair and rattled the decayed shutters like an invisible, approaching spirit of death. I shuddered. The sick man looked about with sudden strength, as if through a miracle he were speedily recovering and felt a new, higher life. This quick, bright flaring up of the already extinguishing flame, certain herald of imminent death, simultaneously casts a brilliant light into the night-piece set up before the dying man and shines, swiftly and for a moment, into the vernal world of faith and poetry. It is the double illumination in the Correggio night and fuses the earthly and heavenly ray into one marvelous splendor.

Firm and resolute, the sick man rejected the higher hope and thereby brought about a great moment. The priest thundered angrily into his soul and, like a desperate man, was now painting with tongues of fire and conjuring up all Tartarus into the final hour of the dying. The latter only smiled and shook his head.

I was in this moment certain of his endurance; for only the finite being cannot think the thought of annihilation, while the immortal spirit does not tremble before it, who—a free being—can freely offer himself to it, as Indian women boldly hurl themselves into the flames and dedicate themselves to annihilation.

A wild madness seemed to grip the priest at this sight, and true to his character, he now spoke—since descriptions appeared too feeble to him—in the person of the devil himself, which suited him perfectly. He expressed himself as a master in this role, genuinely diabolical in the boldest style and far from the weak manner of the modern devil.

It became too much for the sick man. He turned away gloomily and looked at the three spring roses that bloomed around his bed. Then the whole hot love flared up for the last time in his heart, and a light redness rushed over his pale visage like a memory. He had the boys held up for him and he kissed them with effort; then he laid his heavy head on the woman's agitated breast, uttered a gentle "Oh!" that seemed more bliss than pain, and fell asleep lovingly in the arms of love.

The priest, true to his devil's role, thundered into his ears—in accordance with the observation that in the case of deceased persons the hearing faculty still remains sensitive a rather long time—and promised him firmly and bindingly that the devil would claim not only his soul but also his body.

With this he burst forth onto the street. I had become confused, in the deception held him truly to be the devil, and set the pike at his breast as he wished to pass by me. "Go to the devil!" he said, snorting. Then I gathered my wits and said, "Pardon, reverend sir. In a kind of possession I held you to be Himself, and for that reason set the pike at your heart, as a 'God-be-with-us.' Excuse me for this once!"

He rushed on.

Oh! There in the room the scene had become more lovely. The fair wife held the pale beloved quietly in her arms like a slumberer; in fair ignorance she did not yet suspect death and believed that sleep would strengthen him for new life—a sweet belief, which did not deceive her in the higher sense. The children kneeled earnestly at the bed, and only the youngest endeavored to wake their father, while their mother, beckoning to him silently with her eyes, laid her hand on his curly head.

The scene was too beautiful; I turned away in order not to see the moment in which the illusion vanished.

With muted voice I sang a dirge under the window in order, through gentle tones, to supplant in the still hearing ear the monk's cry of fire. Music is kindred to the dying; it is the first sweet sound of the distant beyond, and the muse of song is the mystical sister who points the way to heaven. So Jacob Boehme passed away, while listening to the distant music that none but the dying hear.


Second Nightwatch

The hour called me once more to my nocturnal business; the desolate streets lay before me as if shrouded, and only a sheet of lightning now and then flew through them vaporously and swiftly, and far, far in the distance there was intermittent mumbling as of an incomprehensible incantation.

My poet had extinguished his lamp, because heaven was giving light and he considered this latter kind to be at the same time cheaper and more poetic. He gazed up into the flashes on high, reclining in his window, his white nightshirt open at the chest and his black hair shaggy and disordered about his head. I remembered similar super-poetic hours when there is a storm inside, when the mouth would speak in thunder and the hand grasp the lightning bolt instead of the pen to write fiery words with it. Then the spirit flies from pole to pole, believes it is winging over the entire universe, and when at last it arrives at speech—there is only the childish word, and the hand impetuously tears up the paper.

I banished this poetic devil in me, who in the end had the habit of always laughing sadistically over my weakness, usually through the spellbinding medium of music; now I am accustomed to just blasting shrilly a couple of times on the horn and then everything is soon past.

I can recommend the tone of my night watchman's horn as a genuine antipoeticum for anyone anywhere who shies away from similar poetic surprises as from a fever. This remedy is cheap and of the greatest importance as well, since people in the present day follow Plato in considering poetry to be a rage, with the sole difference that he derived this rage from heaven and not from the booby hatch.

But be that as it may, poetizing nowadays is everywhere still in a critical state, because there are so few deranged people anymore and such a surplus of rational ones is on hand that they can, out of their own means, occupy all specialties, even poetry. A sheer madman like me finds no employment under such circumstances, and therefore I'm merely skirting poetry now; that is, I have become a humorist, for which, as night watchman, I have the greatest leisure ...

First, no doubt, I should probably demonstrate in advance my vocation as a humorist; only I'm not going to bother with that, because in general people themselves are not now so strict about vocation but to the contraryare content with position alone. For there are even poets without vocation, through mere position—and herewith I withdraw from the market.

A lightning flash was just flaming through the air; three figures were creeping like carnival masks along the churchyard wall. I called to them, but night had already resumed round about, and I saw nothing but a glowing tail and a couple of fiery eyes, and a voice close by murmured to the far thunder, as if in an accompaniment to Don Juan's, "Do what your job is, night owl; but don't meddle in ghostly work!"

That was just a little too much for me, and I threw my pike in the direction from which the voice came; just then there was another flash—the three had dissolved into the air like Macbeth's witches.

"You don't recognize me as a spirit!"—I called after them, still angry, in the hope that they would hear it—"and yet I was a poet, street minstrel, marionette director, and everything of the like ingenious spirit in turn. I would really like to have known your spirits in life, if you indeed really are already out of it! and to have seen whether mine could not have matched them; or have you acquired an addition of spirit after your death, as we experienced in the case of a number of great men who became famous only after their deaths and whose writings gained in spirit by long lying, like wine, which with increasing age grows more spirited." ...

I had approached to within a few feet of the excommunicated freethinker's dwelling. From the open door a muted glow projected into the night and often strangely commingled with the storm light. A more perceptible mumbling also crossed from the far mountains, as if the spirit realm were seriously thinking of meddling in the game.

The dead man, according to the usual custom, was on open display in the hallway; a few unblessed candles were burning around him, because the priest of devilish memory had denied the blessing. The deceased smiled over this in his fast sleep or over his own foolish delusion which the beyond had controverted, and his smile shone like a distant reflection of life on the rigid death-set features.

Through a long, scarcely lit hall, one looked into a black-draped niche; there the three boys and their pale mother knelt motionless before an altar—the group of Niobe with her children—immersed in mute anxious prayer in order to snatch the deceased's body and soul from the devil, to whom they had been assigned by the priest.

Only the brother of the departed, a soldier, kept watch by the coffin with a firm, sure belief in heaven and in his own courage which would dare to tangle with the devil himself. His glance was calm and expectant, and he looked alternately into the rigid face of the dead man and the storm light that often quivered inimically through the dull glow of the candles; his saber lay drawn on the corpse and, its pommel shaped like a cross, resembled both a spiritual and worldly weapon.

Moreover, deathly stillness reigned round about, and besides the distant growling of the storm and the sputtering of the candles, one perceived nothing.

So things remained until in single solemn strokes the clock announced midnight;—then suddenly the storm wind drove a thunder cloud across like a nocturnal phantom high above in the sky roads, and soon it had spread its grave cloth over the whole sky. The candles around the coffin were extinguished, the thunder roared down angrily like a tumultuous power and summoned those who were fast asleep, and the cloud spewed out flame upon flame, by which alone the dead man's rigid pale countenance was harshly and periodically illuminated.

I saw now that the soldier's saber was glinting through the night and that he was bravely girding himself for battle.

And that came soon enough—the air cast up bubbles, and the three Macbeth ghosts were suddenly visible again, as if the storm wind had whirled them there by their pates. The lightning illuminated twisted devil's masks and snaky hair and the whole hellish contrivance.

At that moment the devil caught me by a hair, and as the ghosts were going up the alley I impetuously mixed in with them. They were stunned over the fourth, unbidden party who ran into them as if they were walking on evil pathways. "What, the devil! Can the devil too walk on the paths of goodness!" I cried out, laughing wildly. "Then don't be confused that I meet you on evil ones. I am of your ilk, brothers, I'll make common cause with you!" ...

That really made them disconcerted. The one blurted out, "God be with us!" and crossed himself, which surprised me, and on this account I exclaimed: "Brother devil, don't fall so crudely out of character; I might otherwise almost despair of you and take you for a saint, at least for ordained.—If, however, I reflect on the matter more maturely, then I must rather congratulate you on finally also having digested the cross and, though by origin a devil incarnate, having developed, at least in appearance, into a saint!"

By my talk they probably finally hit on the fact that I was not one of their kind, and they all three went at me and now spoke in a genuinely clerical tone of excommunication and the like if I should disturb them in their business.

"Don't worry," I replied; "up to now I really haven't believed in the devil, but since I've seen you, he's become transparent to me, and I am certain that you will qualify for his gang. Settle your affairs, for no poor night watchman can tangle with hell and the church."

And they went that way, into the house. I followed cautiously after.

It was a frightening spectacle. Stroke by stroke, lightning and night alternated. Now it was bright and one saw the three scuffling over the coffin and the flashing of the saber in the iron-nerved warrior's hand, in between which the dead man gazed as motionless as a mask from his pale rigid face. Then it was deep night again and, far off, a dull shimmer in the recesses of the niche, and with her three children the kneeling mother wrestling in desperate prayer.

Everything occurred quietly and without words; however, now there was a sudden loud crumpling noise as if the devil had gained the upper hand. The lightning flashes became sparser, and it remained night for a longer time. After a little while, nonetheless, two emerged quickly at the door, and then I saw through the darkness by the shining of their eyes—that they actually were carrying a dead man off with them.

There I stood at the door cursing at myself; it was quite gloomy in the hall, no soul stirred, and I believed the valiant warrior too had at least had his neck broken.


Excerpted from The Nightwatches of Bonaventura by Gerald Gillespie. Copyright © 2014 Gerald Gillespie. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Nightwatch 1. The dying freethinker
Nightwatch 2. The devil’s apparition
Nightwatch 3. Stony Crispin’s discourse on the chapter de adulteriis
Nightwatch 4. Woodcuts; along with the life of a madman as a marionette play
Nightwatch 5. The brothers
Nightwatch 6. Doomsday
Nightwatch 7. Self-portraiture—Funeral oration on a child’s birthday—The itinerant minstrel—Suit for slander
Nightwatch 8. The poet’s apotheosis—Farewell letter to life—Hanswurst’s prologue to the tragedy Man
Nightwatch 9. The madhouse—Monologue of the insane creator of the world—The reasonable fool
Nightwatch 10. The winter’s night—Love’s dream—The white and the crimson bride—The nun’s burial—Run through the musical scale
Nightwatch 11. Premonitions of one born blind—The vow—The first sunrise
Nightwatch 12. The solar eagle—The immortal wig—The false pigtail—Apology of life—The comedian
Nightwatch 13. Dithyramb on spring—The title without book—The invalid home of the gods—The backside of Venus
Nightwatch 14. The love of two fools
Nightwatch 15. The marionette theater
Nightwatch 16. The Bohemian woman—The man with second sight—The father’s grave
Afterword: Authorship and Reception
Select Bibliography

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