Abyss: Hans Henny Jahnn’s “Perrudja”

Jahnn, Hans Henny (1985), Perrudja, Hoffman und Campe
ISBN 3-455-03630-9
[Originally published 1929]
[Traduit par Reinhold Werner et Jean-Claude Marcadé, aux Éditions José Corti]

This is novel crawling with sex and violence. It’s about modernity, myth and masculinity. Can you believe no-one wanted to buy this huge and brilliant novel when it came out originally? I can’t, but here’s the deal. I’m biased, I guess. I love, cherish and admire Hans Henny Jahnn like few other writers. I think that he is, along with Döblin and Feuchtwanger, the greatest German novelist of the first half of the 20th century. He was also an accomplished playwright (see this blog next week for more news on that). When he wrote and published Perrudja, he was known as the infamous author of two scandalous plays. Perrudja took a long while to gestate, and almost as long to get published. And when it was published, few people bought it. This and other minor issues, such as the Third Reich, stopped him from finishing a sequel.

After the war he then published the first installment of what turned out to be his masterpiece, the three-volume Fluß Ohne Ufer, which is in many ways a continuation of Perrudja, only with the weight of Germany’s darkest decade behind it. Thinking and writing about that heinous period is, for a German, as it should be, always tinged with guilt. It is our grandparents and their neighbors who committed these atrocities or failed to stop them. Shame is also an important part of Perrudja, but Jahnn is ashamed of his fellow human beings, not just (but especially) of his compatriots. And, to a large extent, it is about fear: this book throbs with violence, but it is theirs, it is always a violence experienced by the main character, not a violence acted out, and the shame that the protagonist feels towards his fellow human beings, is but fear of that part of himself that is like them, it’s a fear of his own abyss.

Perrudja is a Bildungsroman-ish novel about a character called Perrudja. Perrudja is an anti-hero, or as his wife says at the end: a “not-hero”. The book does not chronicle his exploits, it shows him making sense of the world, and at the same time, the novel itself uses him to make sense of its own world. The way it does that is by using all the means that precocious, makin’-it-new modernism had to offer. Perrudja is a novel of many voices and traditions. Unexpectedly, for a playwright, these voices do not include an array of different human voices, no demotic speech ‘a la Joyce et al. Instead, Jahnn digs deep into the coffers of literature and culture and constructs a mosaic of language. There are mythical passages, modern short stories, folk tales, Jahnn is equally adept at levity and gravitas, he can write a chapter about a Babylonian king in almost Lutherian style and shine, and a small Kafkaesque story about a lost boy and dazzle. All these are interwoven with the main story, they both comment upon the story and are commented upon again by the main story.

And throning above it all is Jahnn’s authorial voice, which is both visceral & direct and aloof & heavy. Jahnn can lead you through a Norwegian wood, making you afraid of the cold and the animals therein; he can make your spine tingle upon hearing the screams of hungry horses in a stable; he can make you feel the pain of illicit sexual desire and the mortification at being not merely turned down, but being violated and humiliated by the man you want. Reading this novel you feel that nothing is out of reach of Jahnn. This is, of course, one reason why people did not take to it: it can be overpowering, this is a novel about everything, it contains at least five different books, among them a treatise about economics and one about myth. Oh, and sheet music. In many ways, this is a ‘typical’ modernist novel, a project along the lines of the Cantos, Pound’s attempt to “write paradise”; even its fragmented nature, due to the aborted second part, fits the pattern. Much of the appeal of works such as the Cantos will also appeal to the reader of Perrudja, but this novel is far more than just a grandstanding attempt to capture mankind in a fictional maze.

The difference is its protagonist: Perrudja is a weak character, a broken, despairing man, who cannot manage the modern world. At the beginning of the novel we meet him in the woods of Norway where he buys a horse to go with a piece of land and a farm that he just bought. He is, as far as he knows, without parents. At this point we have no idea about his financial situation: we don’t know where he had the money from to buy animals and property, and we don’t care. Perrudja’s youth and other events that have led up to him settling in the remote Norway mountains are later told us in a few inserted stories. That first chapter, “The Horse”, introduces us not only to Perrudja’s horse, but also to the emblematic nature of many of the book’s natural references. Elements such as the horse are shown to be a constant in cultural history. The retreat into the woods is not a retreat from civilization, it is rather a return to what Jahnn considers essential about modern man. Perrudja is not exceptional, as a character, but in the end, he turns out to transcend mere mortals, by encapsulating not just the conditio humana, but also the general build of our society, as the book moves from an almost abstract deluge of concerns to real-world particulars, such as the intricacies of modern capitalism.

The beginning can be taxing since Jahnn throws everything at us that he has: the topoi of animals, violence and history are touched and elaborated upon, even before we get a chance to get to know this Perrudja better. Also, to reread these passages is, also, to see, how much of the novel is seeded there, how nothing is wasted, although the book seems, especially in the early stages, excessive and indulgent. Plowing through the beginning is like a deal struck with the writer, who demands of the reader to understand the parameter of the story that is about to follow before he hands over that story. However, if I have made reading the beginning sound like a chore, I can assure you, it’s not. It may be difficult but it’s not forbidding. In fact, the first two chapters are deeply intriguing and they have, some years ago, sold me on the man’s work. The best section of the book, however, is a story from Perrudja’s youth that is inserted roughly halfway through the novel; many early fans of the novel, such as Klaus Mann, remarked upon the emotional power and brilliance of that episode.

Perrudja is 14 years old when his sexuality awakens. He lives with his aunts in the country and he is a spoiled boy, who makes friends with a 16 year old farm hand, Haakon. We see immediately that there is a power imbalance between the two and it’s not just the difference in age that creates this imbalance. As Haakon starts to make Perrudja pay him small sums of money, he is also involving the boy in the nitty-gritty reality of farm life. There are two events that are particularly significant to Perrudja’s awakening. The first is Perrudja’s confrontation with violence in the daily slaughter of swine and cows on farms. Having to slaughter a pig himself opens his eyes to the darkness in his culture. This marked difference between knowing that atrocities happen and becoming a part of the system that produces them is repeated near the end of the novel, where Perrudja finds out that he is the richest man on earth and complicit in many modern atrocities. Perrudja is aghast to find out he’s the master of over “a hundred million slaves”. No matter how much we may retreat, we are always, to an extent, complicit in the things we don’t try to stop. Running away does not absolve you of these things.

The other event is even more significant: to accompany Haakon across the country, Perrudja saddles up behind him, clinging to his back while feeling the wild rhythms of the horse below him. Perrudja falls for Haakon, although he doesn’t know it. Haakon does, however, and tempts his young acolyte time and again, stripping him naked, daring Perrudja to move on him. Perrudja, however, is completely confused and helpless. He’s a typical teenager, he has no idea how to translate his confused desire into action. Thus, all he does is trail Haakon on his exploits until events come to a head when he witnesses Haakon rape a maid. Upon seeing Perrudja’s fear and befuddlement, Haakon threatens him into silence, beats him and humiliates him by urinating on him. This event forms Perrudja’s adult sex life. Perrudja turns into a man who has many desires but is afraid of acting on them. Being attracted to men is something he is never able to own up to, although he does have homosexual affairs now and then. He literally transforms his farm into a fortress against the society around him that is intolerant of his urges.

He is his own worst enemy, however, internalizing the prejudice. There is violence in his relationships with men, but it’s triggered by his fear and his way of coping (or not) with that fear. He’s also riving away people that love him, engaging in self-destructive behavior and giving himself, simply, up. Critics in Jahnn’s time have attacked Perrudja for being a novel of “flesh and death”, and it is between these two poles that Perrudja is caught, opting for retreat, quietude, until he cannot retreat any more because, as mentioned, he practically owns the world. He marries but his wife, Signe (pun intended, clearly), leaves him, reproaching him for “not having changed her world”. Critics, among them the editor of his collected works (see bibliographic reference above), have pointed to the way that she makes her short appearance in the novel and drops out again quickly enough. What they don’t understand is that the normative relationship within the novel is homosexual. They are violent, but because of Perrudja’s failings, not because of an inherent fault. The relationship to Signe is different: the patriarchal assumptions behind many heterosexual relationships are exposed in the rituals of courtship that are expected of Perrudja. The relationship is less important than its beginnings and its end.

Near the end, his former wife Signe runs in with a circus and it is this circus who encapsulates much of the world’s depravities and brutality, turning into another of Jahnn’s emblematic images. Jahnn’s novel charts the pessimism of a sensitive soul up against the world. There are two key phrases that people utter when discussing Perrudja’s humanity. Signe points out the fact that he is a “not-hero” (not anti-hero), defining a hero as someone who acts upon his desires and makes them come true. She closes with a direct address, telling Perrudja: “You are the human one.” In contrast, Haakon, when he dresses Perrudja down, tells the crying bundle of misery that 14 year-old Perrudja was: “You are a useless human being if you cry.”

Being a useless human being is not a bad thing in Jahnn’s book. Jahnn, similar to Hawthorne, has been founder of a spiritual community, which did not survive for long. This bitterness towards utopia, combined with such world-shaking events such as the Great War, which had taken place all of ten years ago and rising Nationalism, Antisemitism etc. among the Germans, clearly inform the abyss that opens up beyond Perrudja’s fortress and the abyss in his own heart. Reading the book one cannot help but think of the “uses” that a few years later his compatriots made of human beings. Perrudja is a harrowing novel that leads us deep not into the darkness behind civilization, but the darkness civilization is made of. Joyce, whose influence on Perrudja is palpable, might have been a paragon in this, as well. Jahnn, together with geniuses like Döblin, was clearly engaged in trying to create the conscience of his race. He did not forge it. Instead, as Perrudja testifies, he violently tried to break it from the stone quarry of Western culture.

A short personal note (January 2013). As I am trying to finish two manuscripts and getting back into reviewing books, I have a hospital bill to pay off, which means all kinds of issues for me. If you have a buck or two to spare, I would be more than thankful. There is a paypal button on the right hand side of this page. That’s just in case you feel charitable. As it is, I am happy enough about every single one of my readers. There are more of you than I ever expected, even through the dry months in the past year, and I am thoroughly humbled. Thank you all.

14 thoughts on “Abyss: Hans Henny Jahnn’s “Perrudja”

  1. Pingback: Hans Henny Jahnn: Perrudja - World Literature Forum

  2. An impressive review of what sounds like a mesmerizing book. I am intrigued by the fact that Jahnn explores the darkness that civilization is made of as opposed to the
    darkness behind civilization. If _Perrudja_ happened to be available in an English translation, I would be adding it to my list of
    must-reads immediately.

    ~Alexis

  3. You’re absolutely right! I did expect it, that’s why i asked you about him, I knew you’d come up with something! And you already had. (In my first comment, I was joking, man!)

  4. Pingback: Authors or Novels No One But You Has Read - World Literature Forum

  5. Wow, dude, Perudja strikes me like a lot of other modernist work does, with a truly terrifying combination of, on the one hand, great technique — your descriptions of the technical complexities of the work excite me and make me want to read it — and, on the other hand, absolute dullness: a) uninteresting characters (what is so interesting about the sexual travails of a not-hero?), b) preoccupation with the sordid (yeah, he peed on me!), and, most puzzling of all, c) total absence of interest in art and culture. This last is really puzzling to me: weren’t these men (e.g. Jahns — or Joyce) — themselves cultured? Why do they not write novels about the lives of cultured men, then? (Perhaps they weren’t cultured. Certainly their novels don’t create an impression of being cultured). Further — your blog presents you as eminently cultured… with varied interests pursued in depth… Your range of knowledge of the world is far broader than that of Perudja (and possibly of Jahnn’s himself). So — I wonder — what can possibly interest you in the life of an uncultured character like Perudja? I don’t mean it meanly or in a confrontational way. I am just puzzled. Finally, a lot of these writers do stuff like this — include theoretical bits in their books — treatises on mythology or economics (actually, usually they are some sort of well-meaning social utopias) — the problem with that is that these bits are often just plain wrong. How’s Jahnn’s economics, for instance? Does it seem like he has any knowledge of economic theory, I wonder?

  6. where do you read the total absence of interest ina rt and culture? If I suggested this here, I need to correct it, it couldn’t be more wrong. Jahnn as a writer and most of his protagonists are obsessed with art, architecture, literature, music. some are composers, some are writers, some are forgers. I reread this review and don’t see where I suggested anything else. No protagonist of Jahnn’s is uncultured.

    As for the theories, these books are non-fiction. They don’t aspire to the exigencies of non-fiction, and their theory makes a whole lotta sense in artistic terms. That said, Jahnn’s musical theory is very sound (Jahnn himself was a composer and a constructor of organs) and his mythology astonishing. His economics is odd, but it completely fits the structure of this book, and that’s all its supposed to do.

    As for the sordidness. Jahnn is overwhelmingly concerned with complex and extreme psychological states, and he manages to capture, through them, larger societal concerns and violences, as w/ regard to homosexuality. His use of ‘sordid’ elements is more than cute or token, he uses it to generate an insight from material that is so conventionalized that its usually read only one way. His extremely violent early plays are a case in point. He manages to grasp the bubbling Dionysian underground of myths and societal concerns and convey it convincingly.

  7. Hi

    I am relieved to hear from you that Jahnns is a cultured man; and that so are his heroes. I certainly don’t know that your review suggested otherwise, far be it from me to suggest so; it simply did not suggest it. A minor is omission, probably. Perhaps you were carried away by the peeing bit. 🙂 Forgive me, if I am too sensitive to the issue.

    But here is my great beef in the sky: in my personal experience, cultured men live lives filled with the excitement of… well, culture — things like the technical breakthroughs of fencai porcelain, say, or perspective rendition, or serialism. Or, indeed, a fancy book like Perudja, perhaps. (Though I do not at present see Perudja in my future, certainly the first 10 chapters of My Name In Red made me sleepless for about a week; and I can never have enough of Mann’s Faustus’ Chapter Three).

    Now, what I wish to say is this: though I have never been urinated upon (thank goodness), i have come through a refugee camp and the immigrant experience – pretty powerful stuff, I assure you, by some lights; yet, I have felt more strongly about my cultural encounters than any of the “ordinary life” stuff; and I have felt them to be more relevant, more interesting, and more — well, universal… So I do wonder why so many great modernist writers do not write about their cultural experiences more; honestly, who cares about being urinated upon? How comes it, for instance, that the great Joyce can write a beautifully written Ulysses about entirely uninteresting average Joes, for example, whose entire problem appears to be that the wife likes to throw the leg over? (Which makes it for me, I am afraid, a great yawn? I mean: whose wife doesn’t?) And how comes it that the portrait of the artist as a young man paints its hero as no different from the heroes, of say, Fast Times at Ridgemont High?

    So, perhaps the great Jahnns was a cultured man; and perhaps so was Perudja — perhaps he was a philosopher or a painter? — so, I wonder, is the book about any of this at all? Or is it all about rapes and being peed on?

    warm regards

  8. Pingback: Enigma: Reinhard Jirgl’s “Abschied von den Feinden” « shigekuni.

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