1973 Goethe Prize Winner:
Born in Hamburg, son of a police constable, Schmidt moved, in 1928, after the death of his father, with his mother to her hometown of Lauban (in Lusatia, then Lower Silesia, now Poland) and attended secondary school in Görlitz as well as a trade school there. After finishing school he was unemployed for some months and then, in 1934, began a commercial apprenticeship at a textile company in Greiffenberg. After finishing his apprenticeship he was hired by the same company as a stock accountant. Around this time, at his company, he met his future wife, Alice Murawski. The couple married on 21 August 1937; they had no children. At the outset of World War II, in 1939, Schmidt was drafted into the Wehrmacht, where his mathematical skills led him to be assigned to the artillery corps. He first served in Alsace and after 1941 in fairly quiet Norway. In 1945, Schmidt volunteered for active front duty in Northern Germany, in order to be granted a brief home visit. As the war was obviously lost, he used this visit to organise his wife's and his own escape to the west of Germany, in order to evade capture by the Red Army, which was known for its much harsher treatment of prisoners of war and German civilians. Schmidt gave himself up to British forces in Lower Saxony. As refugees, Schmidt and his wife lost almost all of their possessions, including their cherished book collection.
After an interlude as an English POW and later as an interpreter at a police school, Schmidt began his career as a freelance writer in 1946. Since Schmidt's pre-war home in Lauban was now under Polish administration, Schmidt and his wife were part of the millions of refugees moved by the authorities to numerous places in what was to become West Germany. During this time of uncertainty and extreme poverty the Schmidt's were sustained by CARE Packages his sister sent them from the US (his sister Lucie had emigrated to the US in 1939, together with her husband Rudy Kiesler, a Jewish German communist). Temporary accomodactions led the Schmidt's to Cordingen (near Bomlitz), Gau-Bickelheim, and Kastel (the latter two in the newly formed state of Rhineland-Palatinate). In Kastel, he was accused in court of blasphemy and moral subversion, then still considered a crime in some of the Catholic regions of Germany. As a result, Schmidt and his wife moved to the Protestant city of Darmstadt in Hesse, where the suit against him was dismissed. In 1958, the Schmidts moved to the small village of Bargfeld, where they were to stay for the rest of their lives, Schmidt dying in 1979, his wife Alice in 1983.
Writing style and personal philosophy
Schmidt was a strict individualist, almost a solipsist. Disaffected by his experience of the Third Reich, he had an extremely pessimistic world view. In Schwarze Spiegel, he describes his utopia as an empty world after an anthropogenic apocalypse. Although he was not a deist in the conventional sense, he maintained that the world was created by a monster called Leviathan, whose predatory nature was passed on to humans. Still, he thought this monster could not be too powerful to be attacked, if it behooved humanity.
His writing style is characterized by a unique and witty style of adapting colloquial language, which won him quite a few fervent admirers. Moreover, he developed an orthography by which he thought to reveal the true meaning of words and their connections amongst each other. One of the most cited examples is the use of “Roh=Mann=Tick" instead of "Romantik" (revealing romanticism as the craze of unsubtle men). The atoms of words holding the nuclei of original meaning he called Etyme (etyms).
His theory of etyms is developed in his magnum opus, Zettels Traum, in which an elderly writer comments on Edgar Allan Poe's works in a stream of consciousness, while discussing a Poe translation with a couple of translators and flirting with their teenage daughter. Schmidt also accomplished a translation of Edgar Allan Poe's works himself (1966–73, together with Hans Wollschläger). Some critics even dismissed Zettel's Traum as non-art, or sheer nonsense, and Schmidt himself as a "psychopath." but Schmidt's reputation as esoteric, and that of his work as non-art, has faded and he is now seen as an important, if highly eccentric, German writer of the 20th century.
Other, minor works
In the 1960s, he authored a series of plays for German radio stations presenting forgotten or little known and - in his opinion - vastly underrated authors, as e.g. Johann Gottfried Schnabel, Karl Philipp Moritz, Leopold Schefer, Karl Ferdinand Gutzkow, et al. These "plays" are basically talks about literature with two or three participants plus voices for quotations (Schmidt lent his voice for his translations of Finnegans Wake quoted in Der Triton mit dem Sonnenschirm ). 11 of these so-called "Radio-Essays" were republished on 12 audio CDs in the year 2003.
The final years
As none of his works sold more than a few thousand copies (Schmidt openly admitted that he only wrote for the small handful of people who could appreciate his work), he lived in extreme poverty. During the last few years of his life, Arno Schmidt was financially supported by the philologist and writer Jan Philipp Reemtsma, the heir of the German cigarette manufacturer Philipp F. Reemtsma. Schmidt's final completed novel was Abend mit Goldrand (1975) which was praised by some critics for its verbal inventiveness, although many had a difficult time digesting the erotic themes of the book. He died in a hospital in Celle on 3 June 1979 after suffering a stroke.
Dalkey Archive Press reissued their four-volume series of Schmidt's work translated by John E. Woods in April 2011. The series includes Collected Novellas, Collected Stories, Nobodaddy's Children, and Two Novels. The reissues were scheduled to coincide with "Rediscovering Arno Schmidt events in the US, UK, and continental Europe." The Arno Schmidt Foundation (Arno Schmidt Stiftung) in Bargfeld, sponsored by Jan Philipp Reemtsma, is publishing his complete works.