The Birdsong Papers, which appeared in 1896 as Die Akten des Vogelsangs, was Wilhelm Raabe's next-to-last completed narrative. What might be called an anti-Bildungsroman, it is widely considered to be the work that secures Raabe's place as a precursor of German modernist fiction writers.
Its tone is critical of late-nineteenth-century society, both German and American, with its industrial expansion, urbanization, pursuit of wealth, and erosion of conventional values; but this critical tone also produces an uneasy tension for its narrator, Karl Krumhardt, a high-ranking bureaucrat with a stake in the stability of that society.
It is against that social-critical background that Krumhardt's Papers record a coming to terms with a subject - his longtime friend Velten Andres - whose life both fascinates and profoundly unsettles him. Velten is intelligent, imaginative, idealistic, and full of promise; but he cares nothing about his gifts, chooses self-imposed seclusion over conformity, and carries his individualism to what Jeffrey L. Sammons calls 'a kind of spectacular irrelevance in the conduct of life'.
With this translation of Die Akten des Vogelsangs, the first into English, a major work by one of the most respected German writers of the nineteenth century is made accessible to a new, international readership
Michael Ritterson is Professor of German Emeritus at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Ritchie Robertson is Taylor Professor of German at the University of Oxford.