Stangl, Thomas (2009), Was Kommt, Literaturverlag Droschl
In Thomas Bernhard’s searing, bitter, but magnificent play Heldenplatz, an aging Jewish professor who survived the Third Reich, and his family meet in a hotel room because his brother has just killed himself. In their discussion the wounds of the past open, the wounds of the trauma of Austria’s Jews. Near the end, Robert Schuster, the professor, exclaims:
They would really like to,
if they were honest
gas us today just like 50 years ago.
His brother’s daughter Anna concurs:
In Austria you have to be either Catholic
or National Socialist
anything else isn’t accepted,
anything else is exterminated.
The play ends with his brother’s widow hearing again the sounds of the 60.000 Austrians who, in 1938, had assembled on the Heldenplatz in Vienna, to cheer Adolf Hitler. Their noise drowns out everything else on stage until the curtain drops. In this play we see an oddly un-chronological view of history. History is what stays, what’s written into culture, language and people’s behavior. Bernhard’s play was written against the background of Kurt Waldheim’s presidency, who was an officer in the Second World War and while not participating in any war crimes in person, lied about his war record and had, as a commission’s report showed, had knowledge of war crimes at the time. Additionally, as Alexander Pollak and Ruth Wodak have shown in their studies, the Austrian press during that time engaged in untruthful as well as openly antisemitic attacks against Waldheim’s detractors, producing a heated and troubling atmosphere that may well have reminded careful observers of the 1930s.
The kind of thinking that informed Bernhard’s work, especially Heldenplatz, can also be found in Austrian writer Thomas Stangl’s new novel Was Kommt, published by Droschl and longlisted for the German Book Award. Thomas Stangl, born in 1966, is less well known than he should be. Was Kommt is a very good and exciting book although it’s not great; the reader keeps waiting for the novel to step up its game just a little, which never happens, which can be a tad frustrating in a novel this good. Stangl’s published by a small literary publisher, and despite winning a prize now and then, isn’t very well known nor as successful as his literary achievements should make him. Most disappointingly for me, he hasn’t been translated into French or English yet, so I can’t really share my enjoyment of his work with most of those who will read this article. And it really is an excellent book, so good, in fact, that I read it twice cover to cover without reading another book in the meantime. Stangl is a virtuoso, both the writing and the construction of the book are amazingly successful. Was Kommt is both (seemingly) simple and dauntingly complex at the same time, which is a result of Stangl’s reduced vocabulary and his use of short main clauses. There is none of Bernhard’s complex page-long constructions. Stangl’s sentences can be long, but when they are, all he offers, in terms of syntax, are paratactic constructions which are easy to parse. These parataxes are often used to create a strong sense of repetition, with words and even whole phrases recurring again and again.
Structurally, however, Stangl’s use of parataxis, as a way of arranging bits and pieces of his narrative, makes for a difficult reading at times. Was Kommt is not a book to be read on noisy trains or while cooking or being distracted in other ways. It demands the reader’s full attention. Stangl builds his text from two different persons’ stories, which take place at different times, but he blurs chronological distinctions and hierarchies, as he cuts the stories apart and offers us the resulting pieces by turns. One of the stories, set in Austria ca. 1978 is about the 15 year-old Andreas Bichler, an overweight boy who loves books, but who is beset by fears. He appears shy, but that’s because his fears have made him afraid of opening his mouth and speaking his mind. When he talks, he feels betrayed by his mouth, by the words he uses. Words, in general, tend to mystify him. An avid reader, he can still be thrown by words as they are used in public discourses. He will save up words he hears from neighbors or his grandmother and repeat them in public in lieu of uttering his own words. It’s like he records language and then plays and replays it again. This defense mechanism, this fear, subsequently results in creating a distance between himself and his memories of himself; memories which are filtered through a language-based system, as he well recognizes. He lives in the present, and Stangl endows him with a language that operates only in the present and the future tenses. Although he is an orphan, there isn’t, to our knowledge, any past trauma that might explain his emotional imbalance or his peculiar linguistic restriction. In fact, Stangl has constructed the two protagonists of his book as sensitive personalities who are assaulted by the society of their time. Andreas is physically abused by his classmates and emotionally stressed by the tensions of his time, which he appears to experience as attacks upon his own person.
Emilia Degen, the other protagonist of the novel, is 17 years old, and is also an orphan, living with her grandmother. Her story largely takes place in Austria in 1937, which is an interesting choice of time. The society had not yet been fully taken over by the Austrian National Socialists who would be one of the driving forces behind Austria’s acceptance of Germany’s annexation of the country in 1938. It had ceased to be democracy since 1933, when then-chancellor Dollfuß abolished parties and the parliament and inaugurated a dictatorship which is known today as “Austro-fascism”. Although Dollfuß, an enemy of National Socialism and a stout Catholic, was assassinated in 1934, the Austro-fascist regime stayed in power until the country’s takeover by Nazi Germany. This is, of course, what Anna in Bernhard’s play refers to: “Catholic” probably refers to the Catholic dictatorship of Dollfuß and to the fact that ‘non-National Socialist’ doesn’t have to mean ‘democratic’ or ’emancipating’. Both were hostile to Jews (as Catholicism itself, in various forms and guises has also consistently been, a tradition that the present pope, in however an underhanded manner, apparently aims to resurrect and continue) and shortly after the takeover, within a very brief period of time, all hell broke loose for Austrian Jews. The atmosphere in Emilia’s environment, even before these decisive events, is distinctly antisemitic. Students in Austria’s Clerical Fascism rise at the beginning of the class yelling “Österreich!” and a teacher of German rebukes a professor’s analysis of Schiller’s plays as flawed because the professor isn’t able to read those plays with a ‘German voice’ which is the only way they’ll come alive, according to the teacher, who, later, will rejoice in the expulsion of Jews from schools and public life in general, exclaiming that “we are now amongst ourselves.”
Emilia Degen isn’t Jewish and Stangl’s aim isn’t a discussion of the usual victims. His goal is the depiction of an atmosphere, aggressively antisemitic and generally contemptuous of human dignity and rights. Like Andreas, Emilia is both physically and emotionally bruised by the events of the book. Unlike Andreas, she falls in love and her love is reciprocated. The man of her dreams is called Georg and her dreams of him, her pining for him are described in some of the most tender and beautiful prose I have had the pleasure of reading in weeks. Georg is a communist and although sex with him (as sex generally appears to be in the book) is a dirty and hurtful affair, their time together saves Emilia from Andreas’ kind of despair, although she isn’t any stronger than he is. Emilia and Andreas both are intellectually impotent and both are either unsuccessful or dissatisfied with sex or matters that concern their bodies in general. Her story, just like his, is mostly told in the present tense, but while his story makes only infrequent use of the future tense, her story contains several significant chapters written in the future tense. History, in Stangl’s book, isn’t that which was, but it’s “Was Kommt”, which can be translated as “that which comes”. And what comes is the darkest period in European history, and much more. Andreas’ present, for example, lies in Emilia’s future and the book makes ample use of this fact by brilliantly opposing one and the other.
In Emilia’s present, Antisemitism is rampant, and fear hovers like a thick cloud over Vienna. It is in the same Vienna, several decades later and in a very similar atmosphere that we encounter Andreas. In his present, the chancellor of Austria is Bruno Kreisky, a Jew who survived the Third Reich by fleeing the Nazis. Isn’t that a significant change? But, as a discussion with Andreas’ grandmother demonstrates, Antisemitism is still rampant, and traces of the 1930s are still in the air. Four ministers of Kreisky’s cabinet had a Nazi past and Kreisky’s actions, whether attacking, without a shred of proof, Simon Wiesenthal as a Gestapo collaborator, or, indeed, Thomas Bernhard for the aforementioned play Heldenplatz, carry more than a strong whiff of the past. This continuity that any look in the history books suggests, is expanded upon by Stangl, who uses the city of Vienna as a canvas whereon he projects his ideas. The extensive use of concrete and well known locations in Vienna suggests an understanding of places in Guy Debord’s sense of a psychogeography. The increasingly dreamlike and confused meanderings of the protagonists near the end reminded me, personally, of Debord’s concept of the “Dérive”. The resulting drift appears to bring Emilia and Andreas closer together, as objects of history rather than its subjects.
Just as he uses Vienna’s rough surface, Stangl also makes use of Emilia’s and Andreas’ bodies. Vienna reflects the past and its presence in that which happens and will happen. The two protagonists’ bodies reflect how these events happen, how small acts, words, fisticuffs, impact upon larger, more abstract issues like language and culture. This is the exact opposite of Bernhard’s late work. Stangl’s repetitive, circling writing is intent not to get abstract ideas like history and language slip away. He pins them down to concrete surfaces and at the same time, by blurring the distinctions between past and present, cause and effect, loosens up the tightly wound system of historical narratives. The plot isn’t really that important, because the two protagonists tell the story as it takes place on and through them. If this sounds weird, it is. And it is a sign of Stangl’s power as a writer that he is able to pull this off, that he dazzles the reader not primarily with words or phrases but with the whole structure and sequence of the book. In fact, the language sometimes seemed almost flat to me. The effect is cumulative. If you give the book the attention it deserves, it will amaze and stun you.
And it’s not that fatalistic, actually. Unless I’m mistaken about what happens at the end, Stangl tells us how we can escape history: “Oder brauchst du das Leben nicht; nur diesen einen Punkt, an dem du Nein sagst, zu allem, was noch kommt; und Nein; und Nein -” Saying no, which, maybe, means dying? Extracting your body from the train of history, stepping aside. It’s not quite clear, the book demands multiple rereads (or more attention than I gave it), but the circular nature of life and history means that if history is that which comes, it is also that which was, spun around. Was Kommt is a marvel and it deserves to be translated and praised and to win as many prizes as possible.
[special thanks to Liam]