Konrad Bayer: The Head of Vitus Bering

Bayer, Konrad (1970), Der Kopf des Vitus Bering, Suhrkamp
ISBN 3-518-01258-4

Bayer, Konrad (1994), The Head of Vitus Bering, Atlas Press
translated by Walter Billeter.
ISBN 0 947757 83 X

I haven’t been unsettled by a book in quite some time. Experimentalist novels or cheap effects designed to shock the reader, whether through outrageous sexual elements or blunt violence, after a while, they elicit barely a shrug. However, upon reading Der Kopf des Vitus Bering, Konrad Bayer’s only finished novel, I was stunned and unsettled. This is an extraordinary achievement, a rich, brilliant, devastating experimental novel that is as ambitious an undertaking as I have ever seen yet it succeeds on every count. Der Kopf des Vitus Bering is great literature as well as a singular work of art. You can see the traditions that Bayer is writing in, you can smell Joyce, Döblin, Ball, Schwitters, Faulkner in these pages, yet the result is staggeringly original. Lucky for you, it’s been translated into English as The Head of Vitus Bering (by Walter Billeter, published by Atlas Press and Serpent’s Tail), so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t read it. This is a great, great text, one that may not have the same effect on you that it had on me, but it will affect you, one way or another.

Konrad Bayer, an Austrian writer born in 1932, wrote this book in the 1950s, although it wasn’t published until after his suicide in 1964. Bayer was part of a highly influential Viennese literary group which established the literary parameters for the budding literary scene in Austria. Up until then, Austrian post-war literature was dominated by a conservatism and a general determination to ignore what had happened in the war. This phenomenon has, as linguistic studies in the 1990s have shown, continued up until the 1980s, and it had produced a cloistered and narrow climate where oppositional literature flourished. Without Austrian restrictiveness, genii like Thomas Bernhard and Elfriede Jelinek would have been unthinkable.

And it was never as bad as in the 1950s, where writers like Heimito von Doderer became famous for their elaborate, traditional novels, which were mild on innovation but strong on local color. Returned exiles, like Friedrich Torberg (incidentally an extraordinary writer in his own right), became figures of authority who shaped the public discourse in Austria by instilling highly conservative guidelines. Torberg became notorious for his intense hatred of Communists, adopting the appellation “fellow travelers” in the pejorative McCarthyite sense for any and all of those he suspected of being too far left. These early Austrian attempts to define and determine all aspects of the cultural discourse peaked when, between 1952 and 1963, a de-facto boycott of Brecht’s work was declared in Austria, during which time no notable theater dared to stage Brecht’s work, due to the intense pressure from people like Torberg and a variety of political figures.

This, in the decade after the war, seemed to stunt Austrian literature, while in Germany a lot of fresh and unconventional work was published to great acclaim, much of it channeled through the Gruppe 47, a loose association of writers and critics (founded in 1947) who met once a year to read works in progress to one another. Whatever effects that association had in later decades, in the time after the war the Gruppe 47 had a galvanizing impact on young German literature, creating support, context and attention for writers who might not have been noticed by the literary public otherwise. Inspired by them, somewhat older writers like H.C. Artmann and younger ones like Konrad Bayer, Oswald Wiener (whose incredible masterpiece die verbesserung von mitteleuropa was published in 1969) and especially Gerhard Rühm, without whose influence a writer like Gert Jonke (who is currently experiencing a revival in English translation) would be unthinkable, formed a Viennese equivalent to the Gruppe 47, simply called Wiener Gruppe.

It’s really impossible to overestimate the importance of these writers for Austrian literature. The debates and discussions they engaged in, their conflicts with Austrian society, these were extremely formative and most of innovative and powerful post-war fiction in Austria followed in the wake of the Wiener Gruppe, in the trails they blazed into the blasé facade of Austrian culture. Their radical poetics were modeled upon Dada writers like Hugo Ball and Kurt Schwitters, but in their concerns and their acidic power they carried the weight of the atrocities of the last war on their shoulders. Their critique of literature, art and culture went beyond games with form. In their work the desperation and the naked fear that was bred by tanks, guns and camps, by bombs and gas and the hatred of so many of their fellow citizens was plainly visible and contributed to the intensity of that work.

Of all these writers, it might just be Konrad Bayer who produced the most potent cocktail from these ingredients. Bayer, like the Dada writers and like the fellow writers of the Wiener Gruppe was an artist first and a writer second. His work was made to be read aloud, his plays and poetry mostly intense monologues, in their radical absurdity prefiguring the early work of playwrights like Peter Handke and Thomas Bernhard (who were both, though Anglophone readers may not be aware of it, as good writers of drama as of prose, although their fame abroad rests almost exclusively upon their epic work). He wrote in short bursts, assembling fragments rather than working on long drafts. Contradictions fueled his writing, and the traditional, reasoned, elaborate work of art, the Doderer kind of novel, with its carefully worked out (almost Jamesian) psychologies, buying into a realist consensus, these books were, so to say, the enemy.

Bayer’s work was intent upon resurrecting the power of art, by rescuing it from the cold clutches of consensus, even if that meant attacking it. This had already been the project of the Dada poets, but in Bayer’s work, the idea of ‘Anti-art’ returns with a vengeance, accompanied by a disturbing vision of humanity. Bayer’s mode of writing meant that his legacy consisted largely in unfinished prose works and an uneven body of poetry. Der Kopf des Vitus Bering is his only finished work of prose of any length and it is truly stunning. In less than 70 pages, Bayer writes what could be called a historical novel, and attaches copious endnotes in an ‘index’ that, on the contrary, doesn’t work like an index but like an extension of the fictional part of the book, supplying additional meanings, sending the reader back to the beginning to reread the whole book, which is one of the most re-readable books I have ever read, because it keeps unfolding and expanding in your brain the more time you spend with it. It is like the eponymous house in Danielewski’s novel: there are dark and unchartered depths inside this book that appears to be much smaller and more modest from the outside.

What is it about? Well, on the most simple level, it is a story about the life and death of Vitus Bering (1681 – 1741), a navigator in the employ of the Russian navy of Peter the Great. Bering is one of the most famous explorers in Western history, his impressive exploits leading to being the first European to discover Alaska and the Aleutian islands as well as (indirectly) the Bering strait and thus proving that Russia and America were not connected. He died, possibly from scurvy, on an island near the Kamchatka peninsula. His life could (and has) filled many thick and engaging volumes, but he gets less than 60 pages in Bayer’s book. As it turns out, Bayer isn’t interested in telling a straight story, or writing a portrait of Bering. Instead, he uses two techniques throughout the book to challenge, mislead and intrigue the reader.

One is simple symbolism. The title refers to a game (a game of dice I think) that is mentioned in the opening pages, where the “head” is a certain part of the game. Another game mentioned in the same paragraphs is chess. Chess has often been used to symbolize power games or to talk about politics. Bayer engages this same usage, but, as the reader soon notices, in Bayer’s work divisions are dissolved and symbol, meaning and history are quickly enmeshed in a way that does not allow the reader to look for correspondences between reality and the symbol. Instead he is asked, well, it is demanded, expected, really, of him, to make sense of the complex as a whole. The only help Bayer offers his bewildered reader is the old usage, but it’s clear that it means more here. Strongly, insistently, Bayer inserts the body (of the protagonist, of the reader, of the author) into the equation, and developing a kind of mystic meditation from these beginnings.

The whole book consists of small fragments that often seem to be in an accidental, haphazard order. This impression is amplified by small semantic disruptions. Almost all deictic expressions lose meaning, because they point into nothing: Bayer renders these words and phrases, which usually organize a sentence and paragraph, which dominate and constitute much of the internal logic of a text, completely useless in any conventional reading. If we the readers want to make sense of the text we have to fill in the gaps, the empty spaces that the grammar of Bayer’s novel points us to, on our own. But we are not completely helpless. Here is where Bayer’s second technique, which I earlier alluded to, enters the fray: Bayer makes ample, almost obsessive use of the apokoinu.

The apokoinu is a very traditional stylistic device, common in Greek and Roman poetry, as well as in poetry of the Middle Ages, where the beginning and the end of a sentence are connected by a koinu, a middle section that is used twice, so that, grammatically, the clause at the beginning and the koinu make sense, and the clause at the end and the koinu make sense, but the sentence as a whole appears ungrammatical. This device slows down the reading because it conflicts with the usual way that sentences are parsed. It’s use in poetry is understandable, but in prose, it’s quite the stumbling block for readers, and Bayer has built most of his book around it, and not just in the way it’s usually used. In Bayer’s book time jumps back and forth, sometimes within the same sentence, and with some of his paragraphs, which make grammatical sense, Bayer uses a disorienting apokoinu by switching around people and places so that at the end of a sentence or a paragraph, the reader ends up somewhere else, and is sent back to the sentence he has just read to see where Bayer changed horses from under him.

This change is not always subtle, and since it’s impossible not to read the book slowly and carefully, we can see the switches while we read, but the disorientation remains a part of the overall effect that the book has on its readers. This disorientation, interestingly, mirrors, in part, maybe, Bering’s neurological defects: Vitus Bering was (probably) an epileptic, he suffered from morbus sacer, the holy sickness, and Bayer draws from different sources about shamanism, especially Siberian shamanism, to connect the mystic element of the sickness with the corporeal effects and defects of it, in his depiction of Bering, who, as an explorer legitimized by the czar, symbolizes a very clear and potent myth of masculinity. Bayer, in this book as in many parts of his other works, is very critical of masculinity and its use as myth and foil to create societal standards. The weakness and ambiguousness that stems from Bering’s illness and the spiritual implications and connotations destabilize that myth. But the heavy lifting of all this is not done by the novel itself.

It is only when we arrive at the “Index”, an enumeration of quotes and sources, sometimes a whole paragraph, sometimes just a phrase or a sentence, that we fully realize the possibilities of Bayer’s extremely elliptical fiction, and we return to it, to make more sense of some of the dead ends and false trails that he scattered throughout the book. Ultimately, it is us who do that heavy lifting, because the book relies on us to make it work. Many books depend upon the reader to unfold their full potential. However, Der Kopf des Vitus Bering makes precious little sense at all unless we try to make sense of it, actively. And as we connect the modern history of geographical discovery, with European history, with the despair that envelops Bering in his weakest moments, and with the cannibalism that Bayer (in another instance of apokoinu) fuses with eating animals and exerting political power, we get a complex, devastating impression of the dirty underbelly of civilization and humanity

Der Kopf des Vitus Bering is a liberating, an empowering book that declines to engage in exploitative narratives. It merely suggests, intimates, implies. It allows us to draw our conclusions. But we shouldn’t undersell the enormous strength that was needed to arrive at this point, to achieve this. Bayer and his colleagues ripped open the fabric of culture, literature and language, a rupture that was never to close again, one which writers like Bernhard, Okopenko and Handke used to craft one of the most incredible bodies of work that the 20th century has seen.

As a person, Konrad Bayer was apparently (if we believe the critic Hans Meyer) a very congenial and impressively enthusiastic writer, whose appearances and readings made a huge impact on his audiences. His fame during the 1950s and 1960s was derived almost exclusively from his performances, and yet, when he read from Der Kopf des Vitus Bering at a meeting of the Gruppe 47, he didn’t win the prize that the group handed out almost every meeting, although many of those present were overcome with admiration. This is, I think, because this book really works best in writing. Its complexities become far more tantalizing and interesting when we scan the text on the page, leaf back and forward, follow the peculiar music of the words as well as its trail on the page of paper. In trying to create anti-art and anti-literature, Konrad Bayer created a work of art that makes use of the oddities and beauties of literature, that feeds upon and enriches literary tradition. Der Kopf des Vitus Bering is a truly experimental novel, the best experimental novel I read in a very long time, and it is beautiful, moving and challenging. If you have any interest in experimental literature, you must read this book.

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