Die letzte Welt ; The Last World

[This page by Dora Osborne]

Die letzte Welt ; The Last World (1988)

Ransmayr’s second novel was a huge success and has been translated into many languages. Ransmayr playfully reworks Ovid’s Metamorphoses within a story which recounts Ovid’s exile from Rome and the futile attempts of his friend and supporter, Cotta, to find the missing author. Once again, Ransmayr has his protagonist take up the detective work of finding traces, but this time, there can be no securing them, since the principle of metamorphosis underlies the novel. The appeal of Die letzte Welt is found in its tantalising transformations of form and character, as well as its striking images and its return to myth. With these familiar tales of nature and human nature, Ransmayr tells us stories which speak to us on a fundamental level. Indeed, as the Austrian scholar, Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler notes (see below), Ransmayr’s achievement was unique because it seemed unburdened by the local historical, cultural and political concerns which have weighed down heavily on Austrian literature for much of the twentieth century, and certainly since 1945. But in another sense, part of Ransmayr’s reworking includes precisely the troubled history which has unravelled in the last hundred years. For instance, Thies, a German war veteran, has a recurring nightmare about a mass of bodies trapped in a gas chamber. The author also explained that the characters for his novel were a product of his encounter with real people who displayed likenesses with Ovid’s mythical figures. Thus, the Last World is a realm beyond either the real or purely fictional. Although Ransmayr’s version is clearly not set in the ancient world (there are microphones, a cinema and a rusty bus), it is not set in any real world of modern times; rather, Ransmayr uses other, remote times and spaces to project a world which is not immediately identifiable, but which shows aspects, traits and behaviours which are, on some level, familiar to us.

In Die letzte Welt, Ovid’s Metamorphoses are not published; rather, the author burns the manuscript before his banishment to safeguard his intellectual property. (Here, Ransmayr calls Ovid Naso, referring not only to his full title Publius Ovidius Naso, but also making a joke about his large nose.) The man as citizen cannot assert himself against the authorities, but as creator, he can ensure the survival of his work, paradoxically, by destroying it (in its present form). Once again, Ransmayr experiments with narrative as an act, a gesture of inscription which can both make and obliterate something. Cotta travels to Tomi, the eiserne Stadt (the town of iron), in search of Naso. He does not find the author in any immediate sense, but he does discover variously transformed versions of his last work though his encounters with the citizens of Tomi who remember their encounters with Naso and his stories. Thus, Cotta’s work is one of transposition as he listens to, watches and even feels Naso’s tales as they have come to be understood by others. He gathers up the flickering images from Cyparis’s mobile cinema, the whispered tales told by Echo and the threads of Arachne’s woven images, and from these scraps must reconstruct the manuscript which now lies in ashes.

In Die letzte Welt, Ransmayr focuses on the work itself, showing how the original reflections on nature and human nature can never be completely erased, but, in order to preserve them over millennia, their form must change. As we might expect, this idea is not restricted to the work itself, rather it extends to, and in fact implicates, the world of narrative (a world which, if it describes nature and human nature, must include these things). Thus, the re-workings of the transformations described by Ransmayr are experienced by Cotta as effects in and on the narrative world. By having the topography and its history change with each transformation, Cotta sees himself cast and recast in each of these gestures. However, although Ransmayr seems to show the survival and endurance of Naso’s text through its transformation, he reverses the progression towards enlightenment traced in Ovid’s work; as Cotta comes closer to knowing the content of the manuscript, the further Tomi falls into decline. By describing a series of transformations of nature, the text manipulates the natural world, but without the author, who remains missing, the power of the work diminishes, and the world over which it temporarily exerted narrative control also disappears.

Christoph Ransmayr, Die letzte Welt (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1988)

English Translation

Christoph Ransmayr, The Last World, trans. by John E. Woods (New York: Grove Press, 1996)

Further Reading in English

Clayton Koelb, Legendary Figures: Ancient History in Modern Novels (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), p. 151

Robin MacKenzie, ‘Centre and Periphery in Laurence Norfolk’s The Pope’s Rhinoceros and Christoph Ransmayr’s Die letzte Welt’, Orbis Litterarum 67:5 (2012), 416-36

David L. Smith, ‘The Importance of the Visual in Christoph Ransmayr’s Die letzte Welt’, Modern Austrian Literature 43:4 (2010), 61-76

Further Reading in German

Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler, '"Keinem bleibt seine Gestalt": Christoph Ransmayrs Roman Die letzte Welt', in Die Erfindung der Welt: Zum Werk von Christoph Ransmayr, ed. by Uwe Wittstock (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 2004), pp. 100-112

Levan Tsagareli, ‘Besonderheiten des eschatologischen Chronotopos in Christoph Ransmayrs Die letzte Welt’, Modern Austrian Literature 43:3 (2010), 55-76