John Wray: The Right Hand of Sleep

Wray, John (2001), The Right Hand of Sleep, Knopf
ISBN 0-375-40651-4

There are so many books around that most of the time we barely manage to read what we really feel we should read or have to read, and reading a book for a second or third time is often just too much. At least that is my stance, and the reason why I rarely re-read books. In some rare cases, a second reason enters the picture: if I’m afraid a book won’t hold up, won’t be as good or interesting the second time around. This was the fear that I had upon re-reading John Wray’s debut novel The Right Hand of Sleep after reading and reviewing his excellent most recent book, Lowboy (my review here). Now, I was right about one thing at least. It really is not as good a novel as Lowboy, but I was wrong about everything else: it’s a very good book, a very smart and clever one, too, and a moving work of art. The Right Hand of Sleep is a very, very good novel and an astonishing debut. It radiates assurance, and displays a rare comfort and agility with the tools of fiction, but even this description feels inadequate. In his debut, Wray introduces here many topics that will resurface in later books, but they have a disturbing, haunting quality here that they don’t have elsewhere. Haunting is maybe the best word to describe this book, which occupies an odd place between memory and history, between an emotionally wrought tale of a village in decline, and a clever play with history and narrative. Its chief fault is a certain lack of decisiveness. In his debut, Wray is too often content with sketching something, hinting at it, instead of developing it in a more satisfactory fashion.

This is in part, certainly, because the topic and the setting is infinitely rich; in The Right Hand of Sleep, Wray is basically trying to tell us three to five stories at once, but at the same time he’s writing a very tight, controlled, technically impressive novel. These two aspects of it, the sprawling, wide, sumptuous fabric on the one hand, and the well-ordered, scintillating strictness of literary craftsmanship on the other, clash and struggle to cohere. Ultimately, craftsmanship wins the day in The Right Hand of Sleep, but the final result is too magnificent, too well made a novel to complain. I understand why some readers have criticized the book for being boring, too conventional, uninteresting, even, because it is really a very conservative book, written under the banner of traditional narrative. In those parts of the story that are set in a nostalgic, sentimental version of a rural Austrian valley, there is no parody, no irony or other postmodern devices to break up or challenge traditional notions. But Wray is a subtle writer and adds other kinds of layers that move beneath the surface of the narrative, tectonic plates beneath a seemingly placid ocean. The Right Hand of Sleep is a book that only seems easy to categorize, easy to assign and confine to a place on the shelves of genre. I am under the impression that the book withdraws as soon as you scrutinize it, that in place of clear and unambiguous stories, it leaves our hands full of paradoxes and tricky situations.

However, it’s hard to imagine any novel written by a competent writer that would be set in the period and place Wray chose and not be full of tricky situations. This comes with the topic. The Right Hand of Sleep is the story of a man called Oskar Voxlauer, who returns home to his village in Austria after decades of exile. The year of his return, 1938, is a year of changes for Austria: its fascist leader, Dollfuss, had been murdered four years earlier and the current dictatorial chancellor, Kurt Schuschnigg, under threat of violence, basically agreed to a takeover of Austria by Nazi Germany on March 11th . The next day, when German troops marched into Austria, they were greeted by joyous Austrians, who, the day before, had celebrated the announcement of the takeover in a tumultuous fashion, which led Carl Zuckmayer, a major German playwright, to refer to the public displays of national socialist hate and rage as a veritable “Witches’ Sabbath of the mob.” On March 15th, tens of thousands cheered Hitler as he gave a speech on the Heldenplatz in Vienna. That day and the horrendous public reaction to what happened have been re-told and recounted multiple times, most famously by Thomas Bernhard in his play Heldenplatz. Its a curious fact about Austrian post-war history that Austria, a fascist state long before Hitler´s takeover, has always seen itself as an innocent victim of German aggression, on a par with France and Poland. It took writers like Bernhard or Innerhofer in the 1970s to destabilize that national narrative.

Both Bernhard and Innerhofer are important references here because, even though occurrences such as the one described by Zuckmayer and the Heldenplatz speech took place in Vienna and other large cities, these two writers were fascinated by and obsessed with the rural life, the ugliness in would-be bucolic landscapes. Bernhard’s first published novel and many shorter pieces that followed examine the cold, the heartlessness, the violence and mob-mentality of the rural population. Innerhofer’s disturbing debut, Beautiful Days (1974), does something similar. A book about a boy raised on a brutal farm it coined the expression “Bauern-KZ” (~ Peasant Concentration Camp). There is opportunistic behavior, emotional apathy and unthinking and vicious brutality and neglect and this is just a small sample of the issues with which Innerhofer confronts the myth of a bucolic rural Austria. In Wray’s invented village, Niessen (possibly modeled on Friesach, where his mother is from), we find a similar mob mentality and similarly ugly thing happen or are hinted at, but Wray doesn’t develop any of these in detail. However, he clearly relies on our reading of Niessen as a hateful small backwater village, where a crowd of citizens stands by or takes part, as enraged Nazis demolish a restaurant owned by a Jew, but he also mentions and makes use of other, more interesting nuances. Voxlauer is returning home, but he isn’t the only one to do so. Nazis are returning, too, and I’m not talking about the German troops.

In his brief dictatorial reign, Engelbert Dollfuss (and his successor Schuschnigg) strove to destroy any left-wing opposition by means of raids, incarcerations and murder, they encouraged and tacitly supported Antisemitic violence, but they also tried to eradicate any National Socialist movements in Austria. Austrian fascism was modeled on Francoist Spain more than anything, and a revulsion of Hitler’s mobs fueled not just Dollfuss’ opposition to the Nazis, but also that of other famous antisemitic fascists like Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg. With some justification, the Dollfuss regime saw the Austrian Nazis as subversive and dangerous elements in their state, a danger that needed to be curbed as quickly and thoroughly as possible. When a group of Austrian Nazis tried to overthrow the government in the so-called “Juliputsch” in 1934, this fear was vindicated, but too late for Dollfuss, who was murdered. Many Nazis were banished or had to flee in these years of upheaval only to return triumphantly after March 11th,, 1938. In The Right Hand of Sleep Wray makes use of the fact that these individuals are a mixture between being victims and being perpetrators, of being persecuted by a dictator, but originators of a different, worse dictatorship. As we see them return to the village and its environs, we see how estranged they are to what used to be their home, as well. Simple inside/outside dichotomies, useful to describe the narrative behind antisemitic rallies and hate in Germany, don’t work here.

The Jewish inn-keeper, at the receiving end of discrimination and violence, is a native, he is from the village and part of the village in a way that neither Voxlauer, nor the Nazi who develops into a kind of antagonist of Voxlauer’s, Kurt Bauer, are. Questions of blood and heredity, so central to the National Socialist narrative, are subtly subverted by an association with inbreeding on Bauer’s part, and a sterile sexuality on Voxlauer’s, just as social hierarchies, “the architecture of things” are upset by similar associations. And in the midst of this, Wray places the local landscapes. His powerful evocations of nature, the use of amazingly precise metaphors, they establish nature as something independent from humans and their stories. Voxlauer, who., upon returning, is offered the job as a gamekeeper, never really does what he is paid for. He’s an awful hunter and a perennial drunk, stumbling through the wildness like a harmless, vaguely vegetarian animal. Fittingly, the only thing he does shoot is himself, by accident, halfway through the book. And when some riled up villagers rough him up, break his ribs and try to kick his head in, he’s as helpless as the animals he’s paid to hunt. This helplessness, though, isn’t new to him. As a young soldier in the Kaiser’s army in WWI, he was just as help- and hapless and when he, almost accidentally, deserts after being forced to murder another deserter, he drifts through Eastern Europe like a leaf in the wind, or a lost animal. This we learn in the frequent flashbacks.

Structurally, the book consists of the main story, which follows Voxlauer’s experiences in Neißen between March, 4th, 1938 and October the same year, with flashbacks added. First flashbacks of Voxlauer’s own experiences as a deserter, and then flashbacks of Kurt Bauer’s past. These back stories are not written like historical accounts; they read like feverish visions of two person’s troubled past. Both are guilty of something and both feel the guilt weigh heavily upon them, I’d say, although Bauer appears to be somewhat sociopathic. What’s more, these visions or accounts are shot through with dreams and hallucinations. Not all of them visible and clear as such, but historical truth or accuracy is certainly not the aim of these sections. What they are meant to accomplish is twofold. On the one hand, they need to place the story of Voxlauer and Bauer in a broader historical context, and on the other hand they do the same for Neißen as landscape and lieu de mémoire. Taking a different tactic than Nora, Wray focuses less upon buildings and other man-made monuments to shared memories. Instead, he has Voxlauer stumble through a European wildness, over fields, through woods and end up at a Ukrainian farm. Subsequently, he falls in love with the farmer’s widow, is denounced as a kulak and lands himself in a Soviet camp. At this point he is a Communist or shares at least the basic emancipatory ideals with them. Fear, disappointments and the harsh daily life leads him to drop his “belief in things”.

The Voxlauer who returns to Neißen is an empty shell of a man, hollowed out by guilt, loss and sadness. The landscape is the only (or last) reliable thing for him, it doesn’t require his belief, it is content with the fact of his body. In Neißen, an odd love story develops, but it draws heavily upon clichés and seems, within the fabric of the book, less important than Voxlauer’s education. Yes, education, because Voxlauer, returning, re-learns the world. Lowboy‘s protagonist is haunted by his body and his problems with reading the world, which makes the most sense to him when he’s confined in the well-ordered world of the underground tunnels of the subway. Voxlauer’s predicament is similar, not just in this respect. Like Lowboy‘s Will, Voxlauer isn’t mentally completely sound, and as in Will’s case, this runs in the family. The oddities of memory, and the vicissitudes of violence create, here and there, an interesting discourse about the limitations of the body and of the mind. Voxlauer’s body and mind don’t work as he wants them to, they work in starts and fits, and they capitulate not only before the onslaught of fascism and nature, they are also inferior to the limbs and brains of people of comparable strength. Voxlauer’s main limitation is his unwillingness to take action, not even to run away. He bides his time, while the world as he knew it, crumbles around him. His last action was the murder of an innocent man, as sick of the war as himself, and this crime he cannot forgive himself, and it blinds him to the ethical and political necessities of the present.

The development of Wray’s protagonists, from the apathetic and guilt-ridden drunk Voxlauer to the idealistic, driven, resourceful Will is fascinating, especially in light of the fact that Voxlauer’s crime (desertion) has consigned him to the margins, while he was actually born in privilege. Will’s situation, of course, couldn’t be more different. Kurt Bauer’s memories, meanwhile, place him at the center of world history. I’m loath to divulge more but Wray has used one of the less well known parts of history, and adapted it to his purpose, exchanging names and characters, swamping the scene with references en masse. For a book set where it is, many of these references, in this scene or in others, intended or not, are pretty obvious, like Joseph Roth or Thomas Bernhard. Others are more sly but important ones, such as Camus’ famous novel L’Étranger. The connection of Voxlauer’s inaction with that bible of secular existentialism adds one more layer to an already rather complex book. If anything, this is its main fault. The book, while technically taut and controlled, is philosophically indulgent, it’s filled with ideas and it points in many directions at once, without allowing the plot to reciprocate. That we don’t feel this failing as readers, that we still enjoy this book, is due, most of all, to Wray’s fantastic writing. More elaborate than in Lowboy, Wray completely dazzles his reader.

In an almost arrogant display of skill, Wray shows us that he can do anything. He slips into German and out again, slows down and speeds up his syntax at will, makes it bulky in one place and sleekly efficient in others. The way he can retard meaning in a paragraph by using a sluggish, slow syntax, mirroring German constructions, is extraordinary. There’s nothing in here that doesn’t work, and so the evocation of a country at the abyss, of a continent about to plunge into one of its darkest periods, is pitch-perfect. The plot and the characters are not yet as fleshed-out, believable and palpable as in his two other books, but The Right Hand of Sleep gets so much right, that it’s hard to dwell on the things it doesn’t. Highly recommended.


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