Schlemihls and Water Sprites


Out of Print


We’re all probably familiar with Muggles and mugwumps, and happy to point out a Catch-22, knowing very well which books these come from. We’ll casually talk of utopia or pandemonium or describe something as gargantuan while only distantly remembering that More, Milton, and Rabelais coined the terms. The geekier among us will never miss a chance to point out that robot and cyberspace were the inventions of science-fiction writers. Chortle has passed so easily into English that not many know it was actually one of Lewis Carroll’s portmanteaus (and yes, Carroll invented portmanteau as well). And that’s not even getting on to Shakespeare’s legendary level of coinage. Writers’ imaginary words slip easily into reality.

I first came across the word schlemihl on the first page of Thomas Pynchon’s V: “In which Benny Profane, a schlemihl and human yo-yo, gets to an apocheir.” While I’m still not quite sure what an “apocheir” is, “schlemihl” seemed perfectly clear—at the time I read V, the concept of the slacker was much in vogue, and one with which I readily identified. While I didn’t for a minute think that Pynchon had coined the word, (correctly) assuming it to be one of the many Yiddish words that have made it into common U.S. usage, schlemihl probably moved from an oral culture into a wider written one due to a once hugely popular book, now almost entirely forgotten. Perhaps the verbally voracious Pynchon had read it. 


Peter Schlemihl, by Adelbert von Chamisso, was first published in Germany in 1813. The titular Peter is indeed a hapless lad, tempted into making a bargain with a strange “man in grey … who looks like a bit of thread blown from a tailor’s needle.” He offers Peter endless gold in exchange for—what? Merely his shadow.

Of course, it doesn’t work out well. Peter soon finds that despite his bottomless wealth, without a shadow he is shunned from all kinds of society, polite and otherwise.

Chamisso acknowledges no source for his protagonist’s name, and while it certainly is Yiddish (though more commonly spelled schlemiel), its origins are debated—some claim it’s from the Hebrew term shelo mo’il, meaning “useless,” and others that it’s derived from the name Shelumiel, an Israeli chieftain. One thing is clear: the word hardly appears in print until the year Chamisso published his book. Thereafter it became extremely common, almost certainly spread by the novel’s success.

Chamisso was born in France in 1781, yet his family, threatened by the Revolution, was soon after forced to flee. They eventually settled in Berlin, where the young Adelbert grew up among an artistic set. He later joined the Prussian army and found himself going to war against his native France. He was taken prisoner and remained in France, working his way into Madame de Staël’s literary circle. He spent much of his life like this, neither here nor there, without a real home or nation, a yo-yo, a Schemihl. In the second part of the novel, Peter travels the world with the help of magical seven-league boots, much as Chamisso later joined a Russian scientific expedition, circumnavigating the globe. Peter never finds a home, as he has no shadow. While the Yiddish schlemiel is irredeemably unlucky, pursued by misfortune yet also responsible for his own chumpishness, Chamisso’s Schlemihl is a permanent exile.

It is in this way that the book, though now little known, has left its trace: in its depiction of the split self. It is a kind of doppelgänger story. (The word doppelgänger, of course, was coined by the novelist Jean Paul in 1796.) Peter’s separation from his shadow leaves him diminished, yet he gains the almost constant companionship of the “grey man.” But this strange figure is more than a Mephistophelian trickster; he is an aspect of Peter’s soul, his other or inner self. “I just act the way you are thinking,” the grey man says. He’s a subconscious, a (reasonably polite) id. Peter Schlemihl prefigures The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Portrait of Dorian Grey, Dostoyevsky’s The Double, and Poe’s “William Wilson.” Kafka possessed an annotated copy; this figure—deprived of his shadow, battling against forces he scarcely comprehends—must have appealed to the Czech writer.


With such subterranean influence, Peter Schlemihl is much like another even more successful book by Chamisso’s close friend, the splendidly named Friedrich Heinrich Karl de la Motte, Baron Fouqué. Friedrich (let’s call him that for convenience’s sake) was a writer, editor, publisher, and networker of the period (with a vast private income, which always helps with such enterprises). He was disturbingly prolific, and his most famous book brought another previously obscure term into wider use: undine.

Undine, which Merriam-Webster defines as “water nymph,” is an ancient word, first used by the Renaissance alchemist and physician Paracelsus in the fifteenth century, but its concept is widespread: no culture is without its nereids, naiads, and nixies, its selkies, sprites, sylphs, and sirens. Whatever they are called or wherever they are found, they usually spell trouble.

Friedrich pulled on a passage from Paracelsus’s work Liber de Nymphis, in which he relates how the undine, the invisible elemental spirit of water, can take human form and acquire a soul by marrying a human. In Friedrich’s novel, the noble Germanic knight Huldbrand is entranced by the playful yet wayward Undine and eventually forced to choose between her and a genuine human, the honest Bertalda. For those of you planning to have a go at the book, I’ll avoid spoilers, but suffice to say it doesn’t end well.

Undine’s success can partly be traced in its range of influence. In the nineteenth century, undine became the go-to word to describe a water spirit. The novel inspired several operas (by E. T. A. Hoffmann, Tchaikovsky, and Dvořák), piano suites by Ravel and Debussy, and a host of Romantic paintings, and it fed back into retold tales by Hans Christian Anderson and the Grimm Brothers. Melodramatic stage adaptations proliferated. It is estimated that there were more than a hundred versions of the book in circulation in English by the end of the nineteenth century, translated by luminaries such as Edmund Gosse and lusciously illustrated by Arthur Rackham. The book is cited on the first page of Little Women, when Jo announces her intention to buy it as soon as she can (along with another of Friedrich’s novels, Sintram).

While undine may now be only one name among many for aqueous female spirits, it persists. Being bookishly weird, I first came across the word in the title of a Seamus Heaney poem, though I was also distantly aware of Robert Olivo, the decidedly more corporeal star of Andy Warhol’s films, who went by the stage name Ondine. I suspect it is not the word that has been the most lasting influence of Friedrich’s novel, however, but the character type he created. The dazzling beauty but untouchability, the playfulness mixed with danger surely figure not only in the trope of the femme fatale but also the more recent manic pixie dream girl.


So despite their reach, why are both books largely forgotten now? Peter Schlemihl starts out with clarity and directness. The odd events unfold in a matter-of-fact manner. It has a great formal construct (written as letters from Peter to Chamisso himself), but after its striking incipit (the separation from the shadow), it loses its way somewhat and ends up rambling (much like Peter and Chamisso themselves). There is also the fact that its progeny, whether Gogol or Poe or Kafka, are quite simply much better. Undine was a more challenging read for this modern reader, not only because of its length and its rather weary diction but due to the ironic fact that it reads as being rather derivative. Its solid narrative blocks today feel well-worn and melodramatic; being the first to do something doesn’t necessarily mean you’re the best. Undine never escapes the clichés that it helped to propagate.

And yet in any story where a manic pixie dream girl meets a likable slacker or a misfit meets a mystery, we are in the presence of schlemihls and undines. Chamisso certainly didn’t invent either the word schlemihl or its concept, nor Fouqué the undine, but there is a back and forth between the oral tradition and print culture that can establish not only words but also characters and narrative archetypes in a collective consciousness. Authors read, then write, and others then reread, rewrite, review, and retell their stories, sometimes using the original author’s words or freely adapting when necessary, often scarcely aware of exactly quite what they’re drawing on. What is original or even authentic dissipates, lingering like a ghostly presence. We forget that the words and stories that help compose us have lived many other lives before they found their way into ours.


C. D. Rose is the author of Who’s Who When Everyone Is Someone Else and the editor of The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure (both out now from Melville House).