The hard fate of a romantic brigand
The new season of Game of Thrones caused quite some stir here in the barren North. In our provincial town it even was possible to take a seat on the much desired throne for the sake of getting a nice selfie. Typical for our thrill seeking generation?
Maybe, but it is not singular to our modern generation. In 1799, two novels telling the adventures of the brigand Rinaldo Rinaldini caused worldwide enthusiasm. My first encounter with this notorious criminal was in Nikolay Gogol’s masterpiece The Dead Souls. In chapter nine of the first part, two ladies that Gogol ironically describes as “The Lady pleasant in all respects” and the “Merely pleasant Lady” are in a lively conversation with each other. One of them exclaims: “Imagine someone coming dressed like Rinaldo Rinaldini and demanding: sell me your dead souls!”1 This makes clear that Rinaldo was known in nineteenth century Russia. And that is quite a success for a librarian from the German provincial town of Weimar.
The novels were written by Christian August Vulpius, till then a mediocre civil servant in the German provincial town of Weimar. Although the man spent most of his life as a librarian, the most cultured thing about him seems to be the fact that his sister was married to the German ‘prince of poets’ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The close family relationship did not make the giant of German literature impartial. He described his brother in law as: “a beast, but among the hundreds of thousands of beasts that call themselves men, this beast is still a man”.2 Let’s have a closer look at this manbeast then.
Christian August Vulpius was born in poor circumstances. His father was a clerk at the princely court of Weimar, but financially that was not sufficient to support a family with seven children. In these dire circumstances, Christian August was the eldest son of the family and that at least earned him the privilege of getting an education. The boy was sent to the University of Jena to study law. The young man was more interested in the historical sciences than in jurisprudence and poetry, but that didn’t matter anyway. The father of Christian August died in 1786 and our protagonist was forced to leave the University and search for a position to support the extended family that remained.
From then on the life of Vulpius consisted of a series of small jobs at local law courts that never made ends meet. The search for a middle class existence made him write a letter asking for support to Goethe, who was residing in Weimar at the time. Christian August’s sister Christiane delivered the letter in person. Goethe was not very impressed by the merits of the young man with poetical ambitions, but he was very impressed by the looks of Christiane and started an affair with her. Christiane inspired Goethe to write erotic poems and eventually she even married him.3
Goethe provided his future brother in law with some money, and his intermediation resulted in a job at a small publishing house in Leipzig. The job was not very appealing to Vulpius and he arrived in Leipzig “in a melancholy state, contemplating his fate”.4 Although his sister’s liaison with Goethe would prove very profitable in the near future, for now the job of making corrections to texts was not in accordance with the ambitions of Vulpius. The job left him with enough leisure to write a screenplay though. His play called Liebesproben (‘Tests of Love’) premiered in 1789. The play had some success and that provided Vulpius with some financial means and the expansion of his literary network.
And it only got better for Vulpius: when Goethe took the job of director at the court theatre in Weimar, Vulpius got the job of chief dramaturg. Shortly after that, Goethe switched to the position of director of the court library in the same town and again Vulpius followed in his wake. Vulpius became a zealous librarian. Goethe wrote to his renowned friend and colleague in poetry Friedrich Schiller: “in thirteen days he wrote 2134 notes, it means he has written titles of books on individual cards”.5 His correspondence in this period was no less exciting. One of the few letters Vulpius wrote to Goethe is a reprimand to substitute a book that was borrowed from the library but never returned.6
In between the bureaucracies of a librarian, Vulpius found other opportunities to occupy his mind. He scavenged the library collection for ghost stories which he then published under enchanting titles like Hexenfahrten und Teufelskünste (‘Witches’ Journeys and Devilish Arts’). The ghost stories, which according to the front page were published in Baghdad by Beelzebub, met with some success.7
And then, in 1799, this librarian met with the biggest success of his life when he published Rinaldo Rinaldini. This novel got translated into several languages and gets literary mentions in the works of the earlier mentioned Nikolay Gogol and the renowned Thomas Mann.8 So what is this story about? The opening lines set a trend immediately:
The whole of Italy is talking about him. The Apennines and the valleys of Sicily all echo his name: Rinaldo Rinaldini!9
I must say I found this quite evocative. But it gets worse. In the first scene we get an insight in the psychology of Rinaldo. Sitting by the campfire during a stormy night, we meet our hero in a melancholy conversation with his fellow brigand Altaverde:
Rinaldo: Once I was an innocent boy and now…
Altaverde: You are in love
Rinaldo: I am a Brigand. (…) Oh Altaverde what kind of death will we die? Oh if I only had stayed at home herding my goats.10
After this scene Rinaldo grabs a guitar and bursts into a song:
Happy innocence, you once was merry to me. And now I sit here surrounded by crime!11
Well, does that sound cheesy enough to you? And then we have another three hundred pages to go… We learn that Altaverde was right: Rinaldo has fallen in love. The sight of a beautiful girl has awakened a desire in him. A desire for a peaceful life in the company of a wife and children. But we learn that it’s easier to become a brigand than to return from there to normal life again. The story follows the same pattern from now on: Rinaldo, on his journeys of crime, meets a woman and settles with her in the hope of finally becoming a good citizen. But somehow his criminal past gets to him again and nothing else can be done than to leave the woman and go on another crime-spree.
But the story takes a turn at the end of the first volume: Rinaldo’s hard fate was planned by a secret society! A figure called the old man of Frontejo, who appeared out of nothing on earlier occasions, reveals that it was all part of a scheme to get Rinaldo to become a rebel leader to liberate Corsica from the French. In the ensuing battle at Corsica, Rinaldo gets shot and dies in the hands of his last beloved woman.12
And that was the end of that? No it was not. When the Rinaldo story proved to be so successful, it became very inconvenient that Rinaldo had died at the end of the last book. So in the next book, that appeared in 1802, Vulpius declares that Rinaldo was in suspended animation and is ready to continue his adventures!
Rinaldo Rinaldini was a huge success. At the end of the eighteenth century, increasing literacy amongst the middle classes and innovations in printing techniques made it possible to write a bestseller. But most critics did not take this kind of literature very seriously. When the house of the Vulpius family was ransacked by Napoleonic troops in 1806, this news was met with cheerful joy in the literary section of the newspapers: “It is sad to have to experience something like this but it is a joy to hear this famous novel producer tell what happened.”13
That is a very harsh way to utter literary criticism. In fact it would take another one and a half century for German critics to take a milder stance against what they call trivial or lighter literature in general. In 1859, the criticist Johann Wilhelm Appell stated that all works of literature that have robbers, knights, and horrors as its main theme “numb the taste for things better and abhors people from the blessings that classical poetry tries to create.”14 Almost a century later, Hermann Broch stated that the relationship between the lighter literature and real literature is comparable to that of the Anti-Christ and the Saviour.15 Although literary criticism became more anti-elitist from the 1960´s onward, Marxist criticists continued to denounce lighter literature because, in their opinion, it was meant to keep the oppressed happy and by that abstaining from revolution.16 They adhered to the statement of (the non–Marxist but very influential) Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno that to be amused is to conform.17 Of course it seems logical to extrapolate this statement to all kinds of literature, including the most intellectual and complex examples, but that was not the sign of the times. It has been only in recent years that so called lighter literature gets a more gracious reception.
Now books are marketed as being `literary thrillers´, and no academic is ashamed to admit that he or she is an addict to some adventurous storyline of a television series. And what remains of Rinaldo Rinaldini? After an adaptation for the German public television in the late 1960’s not a lot is heard of our romantic brigand anymore. The book is not read widely and we might have an inkling about the causes of that. But we can be consoled by the fact that there is at least one Italian restaurant in Germany named after this melancholy criminal.18
P.S.: Although I couldn’t find any actual footage of the television series, I did come across this delightful song by Renate Kern, who has her own way of telling you about Rinaldo Rinaldini. Enjoy!
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You may also like:
N.Gogol, The Dead Souls (1842, London 2004) 207 ↩
A.Meier (red.), Christian August Vulpius. Eine Korrespondenz zur Kulturgeschichte der Goethezeit. Band 1: Brieftexte (Berlin 2003) XI ↩
R.Friedenthal, Goethe. Sein Leben und seine Zeit (München 1963) 325. A very fine book if you want to learn more about the sex-life of Goethe. ↩
A.Meier (red.), Christian August Vulpius, XXV ↩
A.Meier (red.), Christian August Vulpius, XXIX ↩
Ibidem, XXXVI ↩
Ibidem, XXXIII ↩
Rinaldo gets a mention in his novel Lotte in Weimar from 1939 ↩
C.A Vulpius, Rinaldo Rinaldini . Eine romantische Geschichte unseres Jahrhunderts. Erstes bis drittes Buch (Leipzig 1799) 1, translation by the author ↩
Ibidem, 5 ↩
C.A Vulpius, Rinaldo Rinaldini . Eine romantische Geschichte unseres Jahrhunderts. Drittes bis Sechstes Buch (Leipzig 1799) ↩
A.Meier (red.), Christian August Vulpius, XXXIX, the remark appeared in the Allgemeine Zeitung. ↩
J.W. Appell, Die Ritter-,Räuber- und Schauerromantik (Leipzig 1859) 5 ↩
R.Simanowski, Die Verwaltung des Abenteuers. Massenkultur um 1800 am Beispiel Christian August Vulpius ( Göttingen 1988 )20 ↩
Ibidem, 19 ↩
T. W. Adorno and M. Horkheimer, Dialektik der Aufklärung (Frankfurt 1971) 130 ↩
Ristorante Rinaldo Rinaldini at the Treserstraβe 7 in Frankfurt am Main, if you really want to know! ↩