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What is it about Nietzsche that has attracted novelists from 1922 to 2014? Not so much the thought as the man! Apart from an early fictional counterpart to Ecce Homo, two novels, reflecting the prominence of psychiatry in modern culture, present the philosopher through the eyes of his psychotherapists. Two others portray his interaction with a variety of figures in Sils Maria and Nice, and one depicts him through his memories at the hour of his death. The six works thus constitute a cultural seismograph of the continuing yet shifting fascination with Nietzsche.


The Weimar Nietzsche-Bibliographie, which is available online along with an exhaustive index, contains hundreds of entries, ranging from "absolute Musik" to "Zynismus." But despite references to his treatment in film and to the names of several (but by no means all) novelists, it provides no rubric for Friedrich Nietzsche in novels or otherwise as a fictional figure.

Yet the twenty-first century alone has already produced at least four such works, in addition to two others over the preceding eighty years—not to mention films in Italian and French. Liliana Cavani's controversial 1977 Italian film Al di là del bene e del male (Beyond good and evil) was widely criticized for its focus on violent sex, including homosexual rape, in the relationship between Nietzsche, Lou Salomé, and Paul Rée. A still-unscreened scenario by the French philosopher Michel Onfray sketches Nietzsche's life from birth to death in seventy-nine consecutive scenes.1 [End Page 323] Meanwhile Onfray, together with artist Maximilien Le Roy, produced in 2009 a biography of Nietzsche in the form of a widely translated graphic novel.2 What do these fictions tell us about Nietzsche?

The earliest Nietzsche novel is not so much a novel as a serious travesty of Ecce Homo, published during the years of the philosopher's growing popularity immediately following World War I—and in the same year that saw the appearance of the most influential scholarly study entre deux guerres: Ernst Bertram's Nietzsche: Versuch einer Mythologie (Nietzsche: Toward a mythology) (1922).3 Im Siegeswagen des Dionysos (In Dionysos's victory chariot) was written by Walter Heinrich von Hauff, a writer and philosopher of religion who knew his Nietzsche extremely well. Born near Stuttgart, he studied philosophy at Odessa before moving to Bonn, where he took his PhD in modern philology. Following a year teaching at the Germaniaschule in Buenos Aires, he held a succession of posts at secondary schools in Germany until 1925, when he requested his retirement from the gymnasium in Berlin and spent the remainder of his life as an independent writer and columnist for the Hamburger Fremdenblatt. Over the years he wrote and edited a number of monographs on religion and, more relevant, on Nietzsche: Die Einheitlichkeit der Gedankenwelt Nietzsches (1921), Friedrich Nietzsche: Worte für werdende Menschen (1924), Das Dionysische bei Nietzsche (1925), Nietzsche: Auswahl aus sämtlichen Werken (1933), Friedrich Nietzsche als Soldat (1934), and Friedrich Nietzsche: Ein Lebensbild (1935).

Although Hauff's works are listed in the Nietzsche-Bibliographie, they are hardly known or ever cited in the standard works on Nietzsche. The same holds true for his "Nietzsche-Roman," allegedly a first-person account of his life that the philosopher undertook on his forty-fourth birthday, October 15, 1888, in Turin. Written as a fictional analogy to Ecce Homo, it consists similarly of fifteen chapters plus an "Auftakt" (preface) with similar headings: "Wie ich wurde, der ich bin" (How I became who I am), "Der falsche Dionysos" (The false Dionysos), and so forth. It amounts in one sense to a pastiche of quotations from Nietzsche's letters, writings, and poems. His account of his arrival at the university in Leipzig and his encounter with his professor, Ritschl,4 is taken directly from Nietzsche's own autobiographical writings.5 Later (ISD, pp. 56–57, 66) we find lines or paraphrases from the Dionysos-Dithyramben (WDB, 2.1241, 1258). And throughout we recognize familiar quotations: "Der Wagnerianer war Herr über Wagner geworden" (The Wagnerian had become master of Wagner, p. 52) (from Menschliches, Allzumenschliches, 2.1119); or "Inmitten des Ozeans des Werdens wachen wir auf einem [End Page 324] Inselchen, das nicht größer als ein Nachen ist" (Within the ocean of becoming we wake up on an island that is no larger than a small boat, p. 111) (from Morgenröte, WDB, 1.1193).

Allegedly written in the weeks immediately preceding his final emotional breakdown, the novel displays, even more than Ecce Homo, the megalomaniacal euphoria that signaled Nietzsche's psychiatric disintegration—a euphoria communicated in a language that is consistently more hymnic, more rhapsodic than even Nietzsche's late prose. The first two chapters, to be sure, amount to reasonably coherent narratives based extensively on Nietzsche's own accounts: first (ISD, pp. 5–25) from his birth and childhood in Röcken and Naumburg by way of his studies at Schulpforta, Bonn, and Leipzig to his Antrittsrede (inaugural lecture) in Basel and focusing on his initial commitments to philology, Arthur Schopenhauer, and music; and then (pp. 27–57) his loss of Christian faith, which left a gap filled by Richard Wagner.

The remaining chapters, in contrast, almost wholly lacking in narrative coherence, portray subjectively his intellectual and emotional development from volume to volume of his writings. Following his disenchantment with Wagner and his departure from Basel, his spirit of "Wisdom" urges him not to regress: "'Menschliches, Allzumenschliches' liegt vor dir, ehe dir deine 'Morgenröte' leuchten kann" ("Human, all too human" lies before you before your "dawn" can shine forth for you) (ISD, p. 63). First he must overcome the "Galiläer," who introduced the notions of sin and guilt into human existence. That leads to his recognition that God is dead and to the awareness that "In mir lebt Dionysos!" (Dionysos lives in me!) (p. 129). A brief period of regression comes with Lou von Salomé, who is not mentioned by name (pp. 135–48). But that phase is followed by his acquaintance with Zarathustra, who is introduced as a real figure. "Da war es vorbei mit der zögernden Trübsal meines Frühlings, Sommer wurde ich ganz und Sommer-Mittag. Dionysos stieg nieder zur Erde, und Zarathustra wurde wieder Mensch" (Then the hesitant grief of my spring was past; I became all summer and summer noon. Dionysos came back down to earth, and Zarathustra again became human) (p. 158).

With Zarathustra's departure Nietzsche is left alone in his cave, where he is again threatened by the "Geist der Schwere" (spirit of gravity or heaviness), a figure familiar from Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, part 3). Following Nietzsche's brief survey of his earlier works, Zarathustra returns and reports on the death of the "Seiltänzer" (tightrope walker) and his failure to make any converts, leaving Nietzsche [End Page 325] to wonder: "War ich wirklich eine neue Kraft, die auch Welten zwingen konnte, sich um mich zu drehen?" (Was I really a new power that could compel worlds to revolve around me?) (ISD, p. 192). When Zarathustra confesses that he felt sympathy for the man falling from the wire that leads toward a loftier existence, Nietzsche berates him for such compassion: "Das Mitleid ist immer noch stärker als du. Am Mitleid ging der Galiläer zugrunde. Noch bist du mein nicht wert" (Compassion is still stronger than you. The Galilean perished from compassion. You are still not worthy of me) (p. 199). After he sends Zarathustra back down for his second mission, the Übermensch appears to him in a dream. He acknowledges the utter failure of Also sprach Zarathustra as a book that no one bought or understood. But now, as he turns in his dithyrambs to Dionysos and Ariadne, he dreams of the day when others will hear his message: kings, popes, even the Galilean!

He looks back two millennia to the time when Jesus, "Der erste und letzte Christ" (the first and last Christian) (ISD, p. 228), lived and died in vain because no one was willing out of love to drain the same cup he did. Paul of Tarsus, "der schlimmste aller jüdischen Priester" (the worst of all Jewish priests) (p. 229), capitalized on and corrupted Jesus's message and brought about the first "Umwertung aller Werte"(transvaluation of all values)—the rule of the slaves (pp. 228–29)—and did away with Dionysos, leaving the mob of slaves in charge: "Soll das Gesindel Herr der Erde sein?" (Shall the rabble become lord of the earth?) (p. 231). Now Nietzsche proclaims a new world. The "Weltverdüsterer" (world-darkeners) have robbed the world of all its strength and left behind nothing but a sick herd animal (p. 235). But Nietzsche has arrived as "der wiedererstandene Dionysos" (the resurrected Dionysos) (p. 236), who is eternally dismembered and eternally reborn. He intends to reveal himself to humanity as no "God" has done before him. "Ich bin der Wille zur Macht und nichts außerdem" (I am the will to power and nothing else) (p. 237). Dionysos has been resurrected: "ich, der gekreuzigte Dionysos" (I, the crucified Dionysos) (p. 238). At this point the novel ends with the brief note that, in the final days of December 1888, Nietzsche fell to the ground near his residence in Turin and, after lying speechless for two days, awoke to a mental derangement that left him incapacitated until his death eleven years later.

Presumably the author's theological background and his continuing interest in the philosophy of religion motivated him to emphasize his Nietzsche's lifelong strife with "the Galilean." Otherwise, what we find in his novel—after the first two chapters—is essentially a psychological [End Page 326] portrait of Nietzsche from within: Nietzsche's own view of his works and their progression with substantial paraphrases, written throughout in the rhapsodic style that characterized Nietzsche's later writings.

Whether owing to its lack of narrative action, or because readers preferred to turn directly to Nietzsche's own Ecce Homo for the philosopher's ideas, or because the interest in Nietzsche shifted dramatically from his critique of civilization during the Expressionist years to the Aryan nationalism of the Nazi period, Hauff's novel received little attention at the time and was rapidly forgotten. In contrast, a Nietzsche novel written seventy years later in English—Irvin D. Yalom's When Nietzsche Wept—was widely reviewed, translated into French, German, Italian, and Spanish, and turned into a film in 2007. Yalom, an American psychotherapist, has written several novels in addition to professional studies, including two others inspired by philosophers: The Schopenhauer Cure (2005) and The Spinoza Problem (2012).

Yalom's novel, combining his dual interests in psychotherapy and philosophy, depicts a few weeks in late November and December 1882 when Nietzsche, according to the fiction, underwent psychiatric treatment at the hands of the eminent Viennese physician and physiologist Josef Breuer. (In fact, the two men never met.) The action takes place during the period when both men were actually recovering from the effects of relationships with younger women. Nietzsche had just broken off the proposed ménage à trois with his friend Paul Rée and the defiant Russian beauty Lou Salomé. Breuer, in turn, had recently canceled his doctor-patient relationship with the lovely Bertha Pappenheim, whose symptoms of acute hysteria he had seemingly dispelled through his new "talking cure," the description of which (the famous case of "Anna O.") in the 1895 volume composed with his protégé Sigmund Freud—Studien über Hysterie (Studies in Hysteria)—constituted the basis of the new science of psychiatry. Her hysterical and false claim that she was pregnant by Breuer forced him to send her away to another physician for further treatment.

According to the novel it is none other than Salomé who persuades Breuer—without Nietzsche's knowledge—to take on the case of the philosopher, who is threatening suicide. The reluctant Nietzsche agrees to the treatment on one condition. "I propose a professional exchange," Breuer tells him in order to win Nietzsche's concurrence. "That is, I propose that for the next month I act as physician to your body. I will concentrate only on your physical symptoms and medications. And you, in return, will act as physician to my mind, my spirit"6—allegedly [End Page 327] in order to heal Breuer of his despair at the loss of his patient Bertha. Accordingly they meet daily at the (fictitious) Lauzon Clinic in Vienna, where Breuer's therapeutic examination of Nietzsche is followed by Nietzsche's philosophical exploration of Breuer's psyche. Eventually the tables are turned: Nietzsche's condition improves while Breuer becomes the patient in desperate need of Nietzsche's advice.

The novel, almost wholly lacking in plot or action, provides the perfect vehicle for the author's abilities as a psychotherapist: during the long medical/psychiatric discussions we often feel that we are eavesdropping on Yalom's consultations with his own patients. Many passages disclose the knowledge and experience of the trained physician, as when Breuer describes the condition of "glove anesthesia," in which the patient has no sensation below the wrist. "The hand is supplied by three different nerves—radial, ulnar, and median—each of which has a different origin in the brain. In fact, half of some fingers are supplied by one nerve, and the other half by another. But the patient doesn't know this" (WNW, p. 158). Indeed, the whole novel is narrated from Breuer's standpoint; Nietzsche does not even enter the scene until chapter 4, almost fifty pages into the narrative.

Their interesting and lively consultations—usually summarized by the notes that Breuer and Nietzsche make individually about the day's work and sometimes recapitulated in Breuer's conversations with "Sigi" Freud—constitute most of the novel. During their final conversation, which takes place during a walk in the cemetery, Nietzsche persuades Breuer that, in order to erase his despair and become himself, he must be willing to give up his marriage, which for months has been deteriorating. Breuer does so, but in an imaginative way. He has Freud put him into a hypnotic trance in which he dreams that he leaves his home, his family, and his professional activity. He travels to see Bertha Pappenheim but is cured of his illusory infatuation with her when he observes her manipulating her new doctor with precisely the same seductive tricks she used on him. Journeying to Venice, where he first encountered Salomé, he attempts to rejuvenate himself by shaving off his beard and buying youthful clothes, but all he sees is an aging, graying man. At that point Freud brings him out of his two-hour trance, and Breuer realizes that his dreamed experiences have in fact freed him from his obsession with Pappenheim and from his despair, enabling him once again to appreciate his life and work.

At their final encounter both Breuer and Nietzsche confess their separate deceptions: Nietzsche explains how he suppressed any mention [End Page 328] of his infatuation with Salomé—a despair that precisely parallels that of Breuer and Pappenheim. And when Breuer, in turn, admits that his whole treatment of Nietzsche was undertaken in response to a request by Salomé, Nietzsche undergoes a similarly liberating disillusionment, hearing that her seductive measures with Breuer were identical to those she perpetrated on him. In the final pages, that realization causes the tears of the novel's title: tears liberated for the first time in forty years, tears that exposed and freed him from his loneliness and enabled him fully to embrace his destiny: his amor fati (WNW, pp. 300–1). Now that the two men have become true friends—a new experience for Nietzsche—Breuer returns to his wife, his home, and his professional life, while Nietzsche boards a train for the journey south to Italy and to his rendezvous with the Persian prophet named Zarathustra.

The novel begins and ends with Breuer and deals far more extensively with his emotions and concerns than with Nietzsche's. We see Breuer in various situations—at home with his wife, at work with his receptionist and patients, and in meetings with Freud and Salomé—but we encounter Nietzsche exclusively when he is with Breuer, and through Breuer's eyes. Nietzsche is portrayed as we know him from the pre-1882 works, notably Menschliches, Allzumenschliches (Human, All Too Human) and Morgenröte (Daybreak). (The theme of the Apollonian and Dionysian from Die Geburt der Tragödie [The Birth of Tragedy] plays no role whatsoever.) Apart from occasional letters we find few direct quotations, but we recognize many of Nietzsche's more familiar statements: Nietzsche doesn't like women with whips (as both Salomé and Pappenheim are portrayed in well-known photographs); Breuer copies such phrases as "We are more in love with desire than with the desired" and "Living safely is dangerous" (WNW, p. 231); and he rephrases arguments familiar from books by Nietzsche that he has just read: "The other day you described your belief that the specter of nihilism was stalking Europe. You argued that Darwin has made God obsolete, that just as we once created God, we have all now killed him. And that we no longer know how to live without our religious mythologies" (p. 140). But the book makes no attempt to depict or develop Nietzsche's thought systematically. The phrases are introduced conversationally in the flow of their discussions. In the final analysis Nietzsche's tears are less persuasive than Breuer's emotional liberation.

The year 2000 witnessed the publication of two novels during the centennial of Nietzsche's death, which was otherwise commemorated by a German postage stamp bearing his image, a reissue of Basic [End Page 329] Writings edited by Peter Gay and translated by Walter Kaufmann, and a special issue of the journal Aufklärung und Kritik: Friedrich Nietzsche zum 100. Todestag. One of these novels—Joachim Köhler's Nietzsches letzter Traum (Nietzsche's last dream)—begins appropriately on August 25, 1900, the day of his death. The Vorspiel (prelude) communicates the thoughts of the dying philosopher as his sister downstairs entertains friends and celebrities invited to celebrate the publication of his final work. Upstairs, meanwhile, the artist Hans Olde—creator of the well-known, late engraving of Nietzsche—tries to capture the dying man's features in a drawing. Nietzsche commits suicide by draining a vial in which he has secretly stored up his pain medications (opium). The novel proper then turns to the two weeks between Nietzsche's breakdown in Turin and, after a few days in the clinic in Basel, his transfer to the psychiatric clinic in Jena.

Köhler knows his subject intimately: he took his degree with a dissertation on Nietzsche and then published three critically acclaimed and widely translated works on the subject: Zarathustras Geheimnis (Zarathustra's Secret) (1989), Friedrich Nietzsche and Cosima Wagner (1996), and Nietzsche (2001). The first chapter of the novel begins with the episode in Turin at the turn of the year 1888–89, when Nietzsche, after wandering around the city, draws attention to himself and his mental derangement by embracing a horse being whipped by a coach driver. The narrative then shifts abruptly to Basel, and several ensuing chapters take place without Nietzsche.

We are introduced to Ludwig Wille, director of the Friedmatt Clinic for the Insane, as he admires Arnold Böcklin's painting Die Toteninsel (Isle of the Dead), which has been lent to him by the artist. Wille is approached by an anonymous visitor—it turns out to be Fritz Overbeck, a theologian and professor of church history at the university. Overbeck wants to consult him about an unnamed friend (Nietzsche), who has been displaying strange signs since the preceding autumn, signing his letters "Dionysos" and "the Crucified One." He shows Wille the letter that Nietzsche recently (January 6, 1889) wrote to his friend and mentor in Basel, Jacob Burckhardt, announcing that he would rather be a professor in Basel than God, but that he did not dare to push his private egoism so far as to omit the creation of the world.7 Wille is intrigued by the case and, in an effort to learn the details that Overbeck conceals, is just beginning to put Overbeck into a hypnotic trance when the door to his study bursts open and a strikingly beautiful woman appears: Baroness Helene von Druskowitz, a patient of Wille's and a doctor of [End Page 330] philosophy—the second woman ever to earn a PhD—who is known to Overbeck under her pseudonym as a writer of protofeminist articles and music criticism, Rosalie Nielsen. Overbeck leaves in a huff.

The following chapter offers a counterpoint of scenes accompanied by sexual overtones. In one set of passages, as von Druskowitz seduces Wille, she confesses to him that her first sexual experience was lesbian, motivated by the Nietzschean theory that the Dionysian cancels out all boundaries, notably those between men and women. In the other set, which also culminates in a sexual embrace, Overbeck informs his wife, Ida, that he intends to travel to Turin to rescue Nietzsche, who entrusted him with all his financial arrangements. Overbeck recounts his encounter with von Druskowitz, who years before under her pseudonym had written to Nietzsche as a disciple, but concealed her female identity. When she appeared in Basel and Nietzsche realized she was a woman, he became infuriated and rejected her—a rejection that turned her into one of Nietzsche's fiercest critics.

The scene now switches back to Turin, where Nietzsche, wholly identifying himself as Dionysos, is led back to his attic room by his landlord, the kindhearted newspaper dealer Fino. When Nietzsche/Dionysos in his fury tears two gold-framed oil paintings of Jesus from the wall, Fino retreats in confusion. His wife, who has seen the mad German dancing naked in his room, is convinced that he is the very Devil, but their daughters, whom he has befriended, are captivated by him. As they dine, Nietzsche/Dionysos comes down to their apartment and plays the piano with one of the daughters. As his mad exultation increases, he sings a song to Ariadne. The wife seizes her Bible and tries to exorcize the evil spirit, but Nietzsche simply tears off his clothes and begins a Dionysian dance. They hear a knock at the door, and Overbeck appears.

The following chapter returns to Basel. In Wille's office waiting room, the antifeminist psychologist Paul Möbius and von Druskowitz argue about Nietzsche. Wille arrives and announces, with a telegram from Overbeck, that Nietzsche himself is about to become a patient in the clinic. The arrival of "Dionysos" is depicted first through his own eyes (he expected to be taken to Rome for coronation); then through the account of the doctor (actually a dentist) who accompanied him from Turin and fed his illusions; and finally through Overbeck's report to Wille about the episode in Turin. As Overbeck and Möbius walk into Basel from the clinic, their conversation reflects the attitudes of a friend aware of Nietzsche's illness and a disciple wholly absorbed by his teachings. Meanwhile, back in Wille's chambers, the doctor and patient first [End Page 331] discuss Böcklin's Toteninsel, which Nietzsche admires. Throughout their lengthy conversation Wille is impressed by the lucidity and incisiveness with which his seemingly insane patient analyzes matters, including his own psychological condition. Finally, the physical examination reveals the cause of his condition: a progressive paralysis initiated by syphilis and a softening of the brain, with no hope of healing.

A sleepless night follows for all: Nietzsche disturbs the other patients with a fit of rage; his disciple Möbius and his physician Wille spend hours thinking about their initial encounter with him. The next day Wille leads a group of students into Nietzsche's private room, where he lets Nietzsche lecture the puzzled students and then has him walk haltingly across the room, pointing out that, despite his bodily deficiencies, his mind remains lucid (NLT, p. 207). After they leave, Möbius sneaks in, introduces himself as a disciple, presents Nietzsche with a copy of his Nietzsche-inspired book, and, when Nietzsche falls asleep, removes the wooden cross from above the bed of the Antichrist. Later Nietzsche is taken by his male attendant for a bath and "tub therapy" (which amounts to masturbation), after which he engages in another of his Dionysian dances and tries to explain his ideas to the uncomprehending attendant. At the end of the chapter Möbius appears again in his room, telling the "großer Zarathustra" that he has come to liberate him from his imprisonment (p. 237).

At noon that day Wille visits his friend Böcklin to return his painting and to admire a new one that Böcklin has just completed on commission: Die Jünger des Dionysos (The disciple of Dionysos). Inspired by the painting, Wille arranges a conclave of all those connected with Nietzsche: himself, Böcklin, von Druskowitz, Franz and Ida Overbeck, Möbius, and Ludwig von Scheffler, a former student of Nietzsche's who commissioned the painting. In the course of the evening, while almost all become drunk, they give their varied and conflicting impressions of Nietzsche. Finally Ida Overbeck tries to summarize, saying that "nur Mitleid bleibt mit diesem edlen Geist, der hier zerstört wird. Der Rest ist Schweigen" (Only compassion remains for this noble spirit that is here being destroyed. The rest is silence) (NLT, p. 267)—an opinion that Wille emotionally seconds. But Scheffler objects indignantly: "Nietzsche braucht Ihr Mitleid nicht. Er ist, verzeihen Sie die Direktheit, nicht klein genug für Ihr Mitleid" (Nietzsche doesn't need your sympathy. He is—pardon my directness—not small enough for your sympathy). Suddenly the male attendant rushes in to report that Nietzsche has disappeared from the clinic. As the guests depart—all but von Druskowitz, whom Böcklin leads [End Page 332] into a side room for sex—Möbius confides to Scheffler that he rescued Nietzsche and left him sleeping blissfully in his own apartment.

The next day, as Wille conducts a frantic search, it turns out that Nietzsche has been secretly conducted to Scheffler's quarters, which are decorated with Böcklin's paintings. The two men review their acquaintance, which Nietzsche gradually recollects, citing it as an example of "ewige Wiederkehr" (eternal return). Their conversation about Dionysos and Ariadne, with sexual innuendos, is interrupted by a telegram from Möbius, warning them that Wille has discovered where Nietzsche is hiding. Scheffler quickly shaves Nietzsche's mustache and eyebrows; as a result, Wille does not recognize him when he shows up with the male nurse. Shortly afterwards Nietzsche and Scheffler board a train bound for Italy. The episode—and the narrative—ends as Nietzsche dreams that he is standing, dressed in a white gown, in a boat headed toward an island covered with cypress trees (as in Die Toteninsel). As he steps ashore with feelings of rapture, he hears the rhythmic beats of a tambourine.

The Nachspiel (postlude) takes place in Weimar on that same August 25, 1900, on which the Vorspiel began. The figures familiar from Basel, along with several new faces—Henry van de Velde, director of the Weimar School of Applied Art; Meta von Salis, patroness of the Nietzsche-Archiv; and composer Peter Gast—have arrived to take part in a celebration: the publication of Der Wille zur Macht (The Will to Power), which Elisabeth Nietzsche has compiled, she assures her guests, in strict compliance with her brother's instructions. Following speeches, toasts, and music, the guests go upstairs to greet the philosopher in his bedroom, where Olde has just finished his drawing. When Nietzsche does not wake up to accept their greetings, they suddenly realize that he is dead.

In his afterword the author assures readers that his novel is based on Nietzsche's writings, notes, and letters as well as documents concerning his collapse and years of illness, and that the thoughts of the various persons are often literal quotations. Frequently we recognize familiar phrases reworked as dialogue. Nietzsche says, for instance: "Man nennt mich den Wanderer und seinen Schatten. Wobei die Übergänge, zumal am Abend, wenn der Geist der Schwermut mich überfällt, fließen können" (They call me the wanderer and his shadow. Whereby the transitions—especially in the evening when the spirit of melancholy descends upon me—can be very fluid) (NLT, p. 189). The style, while based reliably on facts, is characterized by humor and irony, notably in the disputes among the various figures who regard Nietzsche from utterly different viewpoints—for example, Möbius's worshipful reverence as opposed to [End Page 333] von Druskowitz's feminist contempt, Wille's professional diagnosis, and Scheffler's student-like admiration. The author's humorous approach to his material makes his novel a delight to read, as when Nietzsche, "the Crucified One," is returned to Basel with none of the extraordinary signs that accompanied the biblical crucifixion: "Kein Vorhang zerriß im Münster, die Erde verharrte in Froststarre und auch die Gräber vergaßen, sich zu öffnen" (No curtain was rent in the cathedral; the earth remained in its frosty rigidity, and even the graves forgot to open) (p. 147). In the last analysis, however, we learn little about Nietzsche, who is characterized mostly by familiar phrases and themes, because the main focus of the narrative is on his impact upon a representative group of others and on the symptoms of his madness.

Bernhard Setzwein's Nicht kalt genug (Not cold enough) neatly fills the temporal space between the novels of Yalom and Köhler.8 Setzwein, neither a psychotherapist nor a PhD in philosophy, is a prolific professional writer who, in addition to his many novels and plays, has contributed texts to photo volumes on places and landscapes as well as the volume In dieser duftenden Waldstille. Friedrich Nietzsches Reise durch den Bayerwald (In this fragrant forest-quiet: Friedrich Nietzsche's journey through the Bavarian forest) (1995). His novel depicts the seven summers that Nietzsche spent between the psychological investigations of Yalom's Breuer and Köhler's Wille. Nothing could differ more from the sophisticated societies of Breuer's Vienna and Wille's Basel than the mountain isolation of Sils Maria, where the philosopher assiduously avoids the guests at the two elegant hotels and restricts his company essentially to the grocer's family from whom he rents his dark little room and the peasants with whom he chats on his daily walks. Here we find almost no philosophical ruminations; the narrative concerns itself essentially with Nietzsche's exploration of the landscape around Sils Maria, the symptoms of his steadily worsening psychological state, and the reactions of those he encounters.

The first chapter sets the stage: Nietzsche's arrival in Sils Maria in the summer of 1881 and his interaction with the Durisch family, which owns the dry goods shop on the ground floor of the building at the edge of town. The local boys play tricks on the weird new tenant, but Adrienne, the six-year-old daughter of the family, is attracted to the gentle stranger and often accompanies him on his walks. Although satisfied with that first visit, Nietzsche skips the following summer. Then he returns for each of the six following summers (1883–88). During the first return visit he is almost totally consumed by anger at his sister, [End Page 334] mother, and former friends Paul Rée and Lou Salomé, with whom he has broken. The following summer (1884) is devoted to speculations about Nietzsche among such local dignitaries as the doctor, the teacher, and the preacher, and to Nietzsche's brief interaction with the Wagnerian disciple Heinrich von Stein. When Nietzsche returns in 1885, he is distressed to learn that Adrienne is suffering from a fever—which summons up memories regarding his time as a medical orderly during the Franco-Prussian War and prompts other dreams triggered by the chloral hydrate that he takes to relieve his constant headaches. By the summer of 1886 he is almost totally blind but enjoys unusually sensitive hearing, which alerts him to the sounds of the mountains. A newspaper article critiquing Jenseits von Gut und Böse (Beyond Good and Evil) as "a dangerous book" and "dynamite" leads the locals to suspect the summer guest of anarchism. Otherwise Nietzsche jokes that his current company is restricted to "Voninnen" (an artificial feminine plural of "von," the prefix of nobility): von Salis, Malvida von Meysenburg, von Druskowitz, and other young noblewomen attracted by his personality and message. When he returns in 1887 he has grown so sensitive to others that he arranges at the Hotel Alpenrose to have his midday meal alone before the main seating. Meanwhile Adrienne's mother is troubled that her maturing daughter spends time alone with the tenant who dances naked in his room. He goes rowing on the lake with von Salis as a storm approaches, tells her of his visions, and wonders about the lives of the fish in the absolute darkness of the frozen lake in winter. When he begins to joke about drowning, she insists that they return to shore. The final summer (1888) finds Nietzsche totally absorbed by habit: same food, same clothes, same reading—all to save time for his frantic writing. He commissions Durisch to mail the many letters that he addresses to the heads of European governments, threatening them with revolution, and hate-filled letters to his sister, all of which Durisch wisely puts aside. Nietzsche's days and nights are interrupted by frequent crying fits. When he walks down to the station for his departure, with a lightly packed suitcase, he leaves behind his books and papers, promising to return as usual the following summer.

A brief epilogue reports that his imperious sister Elisabeth arrives in 1891 to collect all of her brother's belongings—including every scrap of paper that she suspects Durisch of hiding. She accuses him of supplying her brother with the chloral hydrate that has ruined him. He turns over everything except Nietzsche's red umbrella, which he hides away in memory of his gentle tenant. In Naumburg with his mother and [End Page 335] then in Weimar with his sister, Nietzsche leads a seemingly meaningless life, with occasional walks and listening to music. But no one has the slightest idea about his thoughts, which presumably dwell on his favorite places around Sils Maria, where he had walked with Adrienne. In the concluding paragraphs we learn that Adrienne, weakened since childhood by fever attacks, dies in 1897 at age twenty-two. "In Weimar saß in diesen Tagen einer in seinem Lehnstuhl, die Beine eingewickelt in Decken, und wünschte nur mehr eins. Nicht mehr zu sein. Aber das gelang ihm nicht. Dazu war er noch nicht kalt genug" (In those days in Weimar someone was sitting in his armchair, his legs wrapped in blankets, and wished for only one thing. To be no more. But he did not succeed in that. He was not yet cold enough) (NKG, p. 157).

Setzwein's novel offers none of the direct quotations or hidden allusions that decorated the earlier novels, nor do the seven summers in Sils Maria reflect the development of his thought, as had Hauff's early work. Instead we find a Nietzsche seen almost entirely from without, largely by unsophisticated observers who care little about his ideas but who are shrewd enough to note the progressive stages of his mental breakdown.

Like Köhler's Nietzsches letzter Traum, Lance Olsen's Nietzsche's Kisses is framed by Nietzsche's final hours before his death. But unlike the earlier novel, which depicted in fictional detail a specific period in the philosopher's life, Olsen's postmodern pastiche notes many episodes from his life in dozens of brief segments that occur in no chronological order—a disorder, rather, that is intended to reflect the random associations in Nietzsche's mind in the hours leading to his death.9

Beginning at 5 p.m., when the nurse removes his bedpan and serves his supper, the narrative jumps to Nietzsche's recollections of rowing on the lake while visiting Richard Wagner at Tribschen, then to his mother's home in Naumburg in 1890 and back again to Rome in 1882, when he first met Lou Salomé, and back and forth between the two periods. At 6 p.m. he remembers his discovery of Schopenhauer's Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (The World as Will and Representation) in a Leipzig bookstore in 1865 and his train trip in 1882 with Salomé and Rée from Rome to Leipzig. Seven p.m. brings the memory of his duel as a student in Bonn (1865), of Salomé's rejection of his marriage offer (1882), and of his desertion by Salomé and Rée, who go off to Paris. At 8 p.m. he recalls his first visit to Wagner, whom he conflates with his own father, and then snapshots: from Schulpforta in 1859 back to Wagner at Tribschen in 1872. At 9 p.m. someone is reading to him from "one of my favorite novels" (NK, p. 104)—though unnamed, it is [End Page 336] clearly Huckleberry Finn—then he recalls lecturing before three students in Leipzig before serving in the Franco-Prussian War.

Through description of such episodes, which continues until his death after 1 a.m., many key events of Nietzsche's life appear, including the 1865 visit to a bordello in Cologne, where he contracted the syphilis that caused his physical and mental deterioration. Beyond such memories, inconsistently, are flashes forward to Hitler's visit to the Nietzsche-Archiv in 1934 and to Salomé in 1912, when she is unable to remember whether or not she ever kissed Nietzsche. Following his death, a brief section relates the hour of Nietzsche's birth on October 15, 1844, where everyone watches the newborn child "making small soundless sucking movements with his lips. Look at little Fritz, says the midwife. He is kissing the future. Again" (NK, p. 244).

Olsen, relying principally (he tells us in his acknowledgments) on the biographies by R. J. Hollingdale and Rüdiger Safranski, has his facts largely right, although occasional errors slip in. (For instance, he has Rée and Salomé in Leipzig in 1882, visiting "Bach's tomb under the apse in Thomaskirche" [NK, p. 117], though the composer's coffin was not placed there until 1950.) But he has almost nothing to say about Nietzsche's ideas, apart from the occasional familiar quotation: "I would much rather be a Basel professor than God" (p. 17); or "what doesn't kill me makes me stranger" (sic!) (p. 22). Rather than being unified by ideas, the narrative is held together by the body parts and functions that are indicated by numerous subheadings: teeth, tongue, stomach, bowels, hands, nervous system, liver, and eyes. In the sections under "Bowels," for instance, we learn that Nietzsche's "bowels loosen slightly" (p. 109) at the realization that he is lecturing to only three incompetent students. On the battlefield, after the discovery of a dead French soldier, "he excused himself and withdrew behind a stand of burned lindens where he attended to his unfriendly bowels" (p. 115). Following tea with Salomé in Leipzig, "His bowels are not feeling well at all. He holds his breath, releases it, rises, walks around the table, and stiffly helps Lou with her chair, surreptitiously locating his cramping guts with his palm" (p. 121). And so forth with the various body parts.

Similarly the narrative style changes from scene to scene. The opening section constitutes a series of Nietzsche-like aphoristic sentences:

Every sentence is a kiss and every paragraph an embrace.The skin sensing it.Unless, of course, history's chatter happens to be mistaken.There's always that possibility.There's always that possibility among others.

(NK, pp. 15–16) [End Page 337]

This section is followed immediately by one that consists of a single, sustained, two-page paragraph with few sentence breaks. The pages leading immediately to Nietzsche's death (NK, pp. 226–36) consist of a single sentence broken up into mostly five- or six-word phrases spaced widely apart (sometimes only one per page) and ending with the broken words:

yes good yes now we're finally getting somewh (p. 235)

Olsen's self-consciously experimental novel offers a stylistic analogy to the processes of Nietzsche's diseased mind. But only readers who come to the novel with at least a general familiarity with his biography will be able to reassemble his disintegrated account with any understanding.10

Christian Schärf's Ein Winter in Nizza (A winter in Nice) provides the perfect counterpoint to Setzwein's Nicht kalt genug because it deals with the winter months (1883–84 to 1887–88) that Nietzsche spent mostly in Nice between his summers in Sils Maria. Schärf, a literary scholar and professor, came to his topic by chance, he states in an interview, when during several stays in Nice he stumbled onto ever more references to and materials about Nietzsche's sojourns in that Mediterranean city.11 It only gradually occurred to him to present the material he assembled in the form of a novel (his first). Accordingly, the novel is based almost wholly on factual evidence and actual figures. The straightforward narrative style itself could hardly differ more from the experimental prose of Olsen's postmodern work.

Unlike Setzwein, who depicts views of the weird professor mainly from the standpoint of various outsiders, both local denizens and wealthy tourists in Sils Maria, Schärf approaches his subject in a sense perhaps best expressed by Nietzsche's thought in the novel about thinkers like himself: "der sein Bestes niemals in den Büchern sondern immer nur in ausgesuchten Seelen niederlegen müsse" (who must never set down his best in books but always only in selected souls).12 Each of the four parts is dominated by one or more of the several figures with whom Nietzsche shares his thoughts and whom he regards as potential disciples. The one person present throughout is Cécile, the granddaughter of his first landlady, who supports herself and her grandmother as a "tourist companion"—actually a high-class call girl. Although she never regards herself as a disciple, she is genuinely fond of the strange, gentle philosopher, whom she accompanies on walks through the town and nearby countryside, where he tells her about his dreams, about Zarathustra (which he is currently writing), about the anti-Semitism of his sister, and whatever else occurs to him. [End Page 338]

The primary disciple of part 1 is the physiologist Joseph Paneth, who is spending several months (November 1883–April 1884) at the zoological station in nearby Villefranche. Nietzsche lectures Paneth about the pre-Socratics and confesses to him his experience in the Cologne bordello. Paneth corresponds with Overbeck, sharing his concerns about Nietzsche. That same winter Sofi Schwab arrives with her governess Eleonore, who interferes in the budding romance between Sofi and Paneth. Nietzsche walks with her and shares his thoughts about the gods, Stendhal, and other topics, and Sofi—despite Eleonore's warnings about Nietzsche's destructive ideas—is wholly captivated when she reads the first two books of Zarathustra.

Part 2 is dominated by poet Paul Lanzky, to whom Nietzsche confides his plan to establish a colony of like-minded followers and transform churches into temples for a Zarathustra cult. On one of their walks they meet Cécile, to whom he shows a letter from Malwida von Meysenbug, who in 1882 invited him to Rome to meet a fascinating young woman—Lou Salomé—and relates how he first encountered Salomé in a confessional at the Vatican. During a walk with Lanzky in a cemetery Nietzsche tells him about actress Sarah Bernhardt, who had the habit of sleeping in a coffin, and about his relationship with Richard and Cosima Wagner. These experiences lead Lanzky and Cécile to discuss Nietzsche's relationship with women. Increasingly Lanzky feels that Nietzsche has become withdrawn, and Nietzsche heaves a sigh of relief when Lanzky finally leaves Nice in March. When Lanzky later sends him a copy of his book of poems Auf Dionysospfaden (On Dionysian paths), Nietzsche is so dismayed that he forbids Lanzky ever to approach him again.

In April 1884 Nietzsche confesses to Cécile that 1882 was horrible for him: the year when he found and lost Salomé. He tells her of his dependence on chloral hydrate, and she offers to provide him with the opium that she sometimes takes. A few days later Nietzsche meets the doctoral candidate Resa von Schirmhofer, an admirer who had written him a fan letter. Together they explore the ancient ruins near Nice, and she confesses that she became intrigued when her friend Lou showed her the photograph of herself with a whip, dominating Nietzsche and Rée. While sitting at a café in Nice, they see Cécile with a large, blond Dutchman, maestro of an Indonesian variété. A few days later they go to a Spanish bullfight, which turns out—because of French laws—to be a bloodless affair, more like a dance. Von Schirmhofer departs with a heavy heart, as she writes to Meysenbug, reporting Nietzsche's fears that he will die in madness, like his father. Nietzsche has the fourth book [End Page 339] of Zarathustra privately printed in a small edition and sends copies to several people he regards as disciples—among them Lanzky and von Druskowitz—but almost immediately, disappointed in his "disciples," demands that the copies be returned.

In the winter of 1886–87, by the same sort of chance that introduced him years before to Schopenhauer, he comes across a copy of Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground, which Cécile reads to her nearly blind friend and which impresses him profoundly. Inspired by his acquaintance with Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche is consumed by the idea of doppelgänger (doubles). Cécile recalls a man she saw in the bookstore who bore an uncanny resemblance to Nietzsche. In turn, Nietzsche tells her about a weird experience in Sils Maria, when he shared a coach to St. Moritz with a man whom he took for his double. It turned out to be the man whom Nietzsche termed the Kaiser of Brazil, who was greeted at the station by his entourage.

Later that year Lanzky returns to report that he has been unable to find a locale more suitable for Nietzsche's projected colony for the revaluation of all values than Nice. Cécile meets and falls in love with Jean-Marie Guyau, a handsome young philosopher who became known as the French Nietzsche. During Mardi Gras festivities Cécile takes Nietzsche for a quiet walk outside the city. The philosopher is depressed by a performance of Parsifal that he recently attended in Monte Carlo and that stirred him to a reconsideration of his views regarding Wagner. Nietzsche realizes that he has failed in his mission to replace the decadence of Europe with the ideals of his Zarathustra. He tells Cécile that contradiction, failure, even ridicule constitute the true element of the philosopher and the substance from which he creates (EWN, p. 245). Cécile wants to tell Nietzsche about Guyau, who reminds her so greatly of him; but she feels that this is not the appropriate moment.

As she escorts Nietzsche back to his pension, they are stealthily shadowed by Lanzky in Mardi Gras costume. He then follows Cécile and sees her, now costumed herself, with Guyau. Realizing that he has lost everything—Cécile as well as Nietzsche—he takes the first train back to Italy. That night a tremendous earthquake shakes the Mediterranean coast. Nietzsche works right through it, even though his landlady is killed by a collapsing staircase. When he goes out to view the destruction, he learns from her grandmother that Cécile has disappeared and is presumed dead. Guyau survives with severe wounds; he dies a year later.

Nietzsche returns to Nice for the last time in the winter of 1887–88. By now all his former friends and disciples are gone, but he learns that [End Page 340] in Denmark a prominent philosopher, Georg Brandes, is delivering a series of lectures on his work before an audience of three hundred—the first hint of Nietzsche's future success. In the final chapter Lanzky returns to Nice when his letters to Cécile remain unanswered, and buys from her grandmother the journal that Cécile has kept as a record of her friendship with Nietzsche. But when Lanzky dies decades later, the journal is missing from his effects.

Schärf's novel provides a lively account of Nietzsche's months in Nice and his interactions with the various persons whom he hoped to educate as disciples or, in chance encounters, to expose at least briefly to his ideas. Although well informed, the author makes no attempt to present Nietzsche's philosophy in any systematic manner. His thoughts are prompted by chance—a walk in a cemetery, a reading of Dostoyevsky, a performance of Parsifal. But the scenes provide a plausible image of Nietzsche the man.


What prompted this conspicuous upswing in international interest in Nietzsche? It was obviously based on the revival of scholarly interest characterized by such works as Walter Kaufmann's Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist; R. J. Hollingdale's Nietzsche: The Man and His Philosophy; Curt Paul Janz's three-volume biography, Friedrich Nietzsche; and Safranski's Nietzsche: Biographie seines Denkens (Nietzsche: Biography of his thought), all of which reached wide popular audiences. At the same time, his influence was felt and acknowledged by prominent thinkers of deconstruction and postmodernism. That the interest has only grown stronger since the centennial of his death is evident in such projects as the series Nietzsche Heute/Nietzsche Today, published since 2011 by De Gruyter.

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, a notable literary trend has taken hold: fictional treatments of famous historical figures whose lives arouse a curiosity that extends beyond their achievements. This international interest is not restricted to philosophers, whose lives (Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger, for example) have produced numerous novels in German, English, and French.13 It can also be seen in the lives of such composers as J. S. Bach or the world-renowned explorer and polymath Alexander von Humboldt.14 Listeners devoted to Bach but without the patience or knowledge to appreciate the musicological studies are grateful for fictional works that present [End Page 341] his life and thoughts on music in an easily accessible form. Readers who enjoy travel—in the world or in their imaginations—may not wish to plow through the many volumes of Humboldt's accounts of his epoch-making voyages, which are filled with such details as water and atmospheric temperatures, barometric pressures, zoological-botanical-geological descriptions, and so forth; but they eagerly read novelistic depictions of those travels up the Orinoco or through the Andes.

Much the same applies to the novels about Nietzsche. With the exception of Walter von Hauff's early work, little effort is made to trace the development of Nietzsche's thought. Instead, the works by Irvin Yalom and Joachim Köhler deal with the man as seen through the eyes of psychotherapists in Vienna and Basel—a function no doubt of the prominence of psychiatry in contemporary culture. Setzwein and Schärf, in contrast, portray the man as he emerges through his interaction with a variety of figures in scenic locales: largely uncomprehending villagers and tourists in Sils Maria and a coterie of worshipful disciples in Nice. Finally, unlike the others, Olsen seeks to convey a sense of Nietzsche's gradual disintegration through a stylistic analogy.

All of these novels, to be sure, allude to Nietzsche's thought through familiar quotations and well-known aspects of his philosophy: the Dionysian, the Will to Power, Zarathustra, the Eternal Return, and so forth. But none of the authors attempt to deal systematically with the development of his ideas. Instead, they focus on crucial biographical events: the encounter with the works of Schopenhauer or Dostoyevsky, the disenchanted friendship with Wagner, the affair with Salomé, and others. Much of Nietzsche's life is recounted only in flashbacks while the narrative focuses on the later periods, notably the eight years between the shattering breakup of his affair with Salomé and his final collapse in the streets of Turin. Focusing as they all do on specific episodes, the novels do not aspire to compete with the more systematic, scholarly biographies. But, given artistic license, they are also free to explore aspects of the life that cannot be documented and to lend a psychological plausibility to situations or relationships that we know only factually and through mention in correspondences. Given the fact that most of the novelists are well acquainted with Nietzsche's works—several, as we saw, were trained in philosophy—these novels, differing greatly among themselves, can be read with considerable confidence and enjoyment. They provide yet another indication of Nietzsche's continuing fascination, as he himself predicted, in future ages. [End Page 342]

Theodore Ziolkowski
Princeton University


1. Michel Onfray, L'Innocence du devinir: La vie de Frédéric Nietzsche (Paris: Galilée, 2008).

2. Michel Onfray and Maximilien Le Roy, Nietzsche: se créer liberté (Brussels: Le Lombard, 2010).

3. For a survey of Nietzsche's reputation during the century following his death see Rüdiger Safranski, Nietzsche: Biographie seines Denkens (Munich: Hanser, 2000), pp. 331–65 (345–46).

4. Walter von Hauff, Im Siegeswagen des Dionysos: Ein Nietzsche-Roman (Berlin: Wir Verlag, 1922), pp. 10–11; hereafter abbreviated ISD.

5. Friedrich Nietzsche, Werke in drei Bänden, ed. Karl Schlechta (Munich: Hanser, 1956); vol. 3, pp. 130–31; hereafter abbreviated WDB and cited by volume and page number.

6. Irvin D. Yalom, When Nietzsche Wept (New York: BasicBooks, 1992), p. 138; hereafter abbreviated WNW.

7. Joachim Köhler, Nietzsches letzter Traum (Munich: Karl Blessing, 2000), p. 66; hereafter abbreviated NLT.

8. Bernhard Setzwein, Nicht kalt genug (Innsbruck: Haymon, 2000); hereafter abbreviated NKG.

9. Lance Olsen, Nietzsche's Kisses (Normal: Fiction Collective 2, 2006); hereafter abbreviated NK.

10. For a discussion of Olsen's novel see Michael Lackey, The American Biographical Novel (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), pp. 89–103. Lackey, who is interested primarily in efforts by Nietzsche's sister to "Försterize" his ideas—that is, to make them acceptable to the Nazis by imposing on them the racist notions of her husband—appears to be unaware of the earlier fictional biographies.

11. The 2014 interview may be found on the publisher's website ( by inserting the author's name under "Suchen."

12. Christian Schärf, Ein Winter in Nizza (Cologne: Eichborn, 2014), p. 160; hereafter abbreviated EWN.

13. Theodore Ziolkowski, "Philosophers into Fiction," Philosophy and Literature 39 (2015): 271–84.

14. Theodore Ziolkowski, "Die Musik als Botschaft Gottes: Bach im Roman des 21. Jahrhunderts," Weimarer Beiträge 61 (2015): 531–56; Theodore Ziolkowski, "Alexander von Humboldt im Roman des 21. Jahrhunderts," Weimarer Beiträge 62 (2016): 417–41.

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