Paolo Febbraro On Writing The Diary of Kaspar Hauser

Author Paolo Febbraro

Author Paolo Febbraro

There’s a lot I could say about The Diary of Kaspar Hauser. I know the book came into the world after a dear friend of mine, perhaps in 1993, persuaded me to watch a famous Werner Herzog movie, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. I also know that I started to pen the first idea of my work two years later, in June 1995. I recall how the movie’s sequence of events replayed in my mind, and I began to write, in verse, lines which in fantasy I attributed to the main character in the film. When I started to write, I chose not to study the actual Kaspar Hauser; indeed, I wanted to ignore his real existence and the several literary works about him. I chose to let the memory of the film run free inside of me, without disturbing it or overly seeking to clarify things. In this way, I was able to recreate the character, as my mind conceived him. But why had Herzog’s Kaspar struck me so much?

From the outset, I was clear that Kaspar’s poems would comprise a “diary” which I would pretend to have found in an old volume, and translated into Italian for the first time: a classical literary stratagem. In the years that the followed, every now and then I would regain an optimal psychological state, and would again start to write other short compositions. As they came together, so did the narrative structure of the book, which ended up being composed of the fictional preamble and the tragic epilogue.

Translator Anthony Molino

Translator Anthony Molino

In the year 2000 I decided the book was complete and offered it to a small but very distinguished printer in Northern Italy, Giorgio Bertelli. He replied that he liked the work, but as he had a long list of projects waiting to be printed, my Kaspar would have to wait until the spring of 2003. I agreed. However, during that waiting period, in September of 2001, one early morning, I started to conceive – in something of a dreamlike state – what turned out to be another part of the book, a “letter” sent to me (the author of the translation) by a new character, who would state his doubts apropos that very translation and expound upon the timeless literary tradition of the “Idiot” or the “Fool”: of the unaware and despised man of wisdom, of the sublime saint, heedless of all common sense.

I then added that letter to the book, which took the form of an Appendix. Thus the work was finished. Shortly thereafter I realized that – even though the book was so short – it was able to gather in itself a wide range of literary genres: the prose of the Requisite Preamble and Epilogue; the poetry in the proper Diary’s 40 compositions; the essay of the closing letter; and even the theatre, as several of the Diary’s poems are in fact short dialogues, micro-scripts of a sort. This, ultimately, is what I know about the book, which was published in Italian in April 2003 to positive reviews. It also won a few prizes.

Still, even though I know quite a bit about The Diary of Kaspar Hauser, the book remains a mystery to me. Thanks to the Spanish translation of 2015 and the new English one by Anthony Molino just published by Negative Capability Press, I got to read the book again, check the translations, edit the proofs. As a result, every time I have experienced a new a strange emotion. Maybe Kaspar is my childhood, so withdrawn, remote, reserved; when I’d absorb and take everything in. The wild meekness of Kaspar, his stand against common sense, his wayward categories of judgment, his immense loneliness all strike me. His very life suggests that poetry is, at one and the same time, a natural language and a psychiatric case study; it suggests that in our world poetry succumbs and dies, yet still, somehow, manages to endure.

Maybe The Diary of Kaspar Hauser is a novel, the only novel I’ve ever written, and maybe it tells the history of poetry itself. Maybe, with the bizarre accuracy of its literary architecture, this book has permitted to me to be a writer, during these difficult times, when many people think literature is dying. Though Kaspar is in part a humorous character, he has revealed to me the urgency and the responsibility required to not accept the world as it is imposed upon us, and to regain a sense of our origins.

For all these reasons, I am grateful to this little book, which I now propose to readers of English, in Anthony Molino’s faithful yet inventive translation, with confidence and curiosity.

–Paolo Febbraro

The Diary of Kaspar Hauser is now available from Negative Capability Press in Hardcover! 

This intriguing gem of a book is a direct, germinal expression of the authorIs longstanding fascination with the figure of the Idiot in Western literature. Part notebook, part ethical treatise, part fantasized autobiography, The Diary of Kaspar Hauser is a striking collection of forty or so haiku-like compositions, diary entries imagined to have been penned by the "idiot" Kaspar Hauser and discovered, by chance, after his death by brutal murder, among the papers of his patron, Franz Paul Webern. (Franz is KasparIs interlocutor throughout the poems.) This hyperpoetic component of the book - inspired by Werner HerzogIs masterful film - is sandwiched between two essays: the first, an Introduction recounting the remarkable discovery and history of the fabled manuscript; the second, comprising a one-page Epilogue (which details the death of Kaspar) along with a letter in the form of an Appendix by a fictional, highly cultured, Borges-like literary critic who converses with the eponymous "Febbraro" about his startling, dreamlike find.

The book has all the characteristics - concision of language, fanciful flights of fiction and criticism in concentrated poetic form, sparse elements of theatrical dialogue, a fierce philosophical underpinning - to make for an "ancient novelty" of sorts: a daring book that surprises and forces us to rethink what we think we already know.