Destiny Review

By | Monday, June 03, 2024 Leave a Comment
A couple weeks ago, I reviewed Madman's Drum by Lynd Ward. I noted at the time that it helped to inspire Otto Nückel create his only wordless novel, Destiny. Apparently, I had that entirely backwards. It was, in fact, Nückel who produced his book first, which is what inspired Ward who didn't even see the book until a few years after its publication. (Both of which were preceeded by Frans Masereel anyway.)

Destiny is the story of a woman whose parents both died when she was still a child. She's later raped (maybe? Whether or not it's consenual isn't entirely clear) and she's arrested when after drowning the newborn because she's unable to care for it. Upon her release, she's forced into prostituion to survive and endures a series of beatings and general abuse before she eventually loses it and murders one of the drunken louts trying to take advantage of her. There's an extended chase scene as she runs from the police, who eventually corner her in an attic. As they burst through the door shooting at her, she dives out the window to her death. (Although it's also unclear if it was the fall that killed her or one of the policemen's bullets.)

I suppose the "desinty" of the title is that if you have a crappy upbringing, you're going to have a crappy life. I'm not sure that I 100% agree with that, but it certainly wasn't an uncommon notion in 1926 when Destiny was first published.

Although Destiny is usually (and justifiably, in many respects) put in the same category as Masreel's and Ward's works, it is notably different in two important ways. First, unlike Masreel and Ward who found success in publishing a series of wordless novels, Destiny is the only book Nückel produced. He did a fair amount of work illustrating others' works, but this is the only one he himself wrote. Second, while the term "wordless novel" is often used more or less interchangeably with "woodcut novel" after the woodcut process, Nückel technically was using leadcuts. Wood was evidently hard to come by in Germany at the time, and so Nückel worked in lead, which allowed him to melt down any mistakes in order to start over, whereas errors made in wood were often discarded as kindling. Creating an engraving in either is a similar process, to be sure, but the differences in materials mean some techniques don't translate from one to the other.

The storytelling in Destiny is excellent. Better and smoother than Ward's, in my opinion. The couple points I noted in the plot synposis about something being unclear seem very intentional. It's left to the reader to determine whether she ultimately killed herself because she felt her life was so tragic, or if the police were dispensing justice for the murder she committed. Was she destined to take her own life or was she destined to die regardless of her attempts to escape death? As near as I can tell, the book was a commerical success so I'm not sure why it's the only one Nückel produced. Did he not have other stories he wanted to tell? Did he find the writing process unsatisfying? Or was he merely preoccupied with work that paid the bills in a more immediate fashion? He continued illustrating for another couple decades, with some of his work being pubished posthumously, so he certainly didn't stop because of any physical limitations.

The book has been republished several times over the past century. My copy is a paperback 2007 edition from Dover, which has a cover price of $10.95 US though I had to pay not quite double that. It's been published in France more recently (2021) and -- since it is wordless -- would be just as easily read if you happen across that version. Or, hey, maybe you like to collect old books and you want the original 1926 version from Germany -- it's not my place to judge how you spend your money! There have been other versions as well; I'm just saying there are copies out there and it doesn't really matter where they come from in terms of how you read/enjoy the story. Regardless, it's worth tracking down. By virtue of the volume of wordless novels he produced, Ward tends to get more attention but it was Nückel who gave him the idea to even do that in the first place so he's worth checking out if you've got any interest in comics history.
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