Clemens J. Setz: Soehne und Planeten

Setz, Clemens J. (2007), Söhne und Planeten, btb
ISBN 978-3-442-73902-8

This is why I read books, this is why I follow contemporary literature. Söhne und Planeten, Clemens J. Setz’ debut novel is stunning in its accomplishments, announcing the presence of a writer whom we will not hesitate to call ‘great’ one day. In 2009, Setz published his sophomore novel Die Frequenzen, a quirky, smart, engrossing read of a book, some 700 pages of writing that was both accessible and assuredly literary; it was also a long book overflowing with stuff that was maybe a tad less disciplined than one could have wished it to be, continuing an intriguing trend in contemporary German-language literature. If his second novel was indulgent and effusive, his debut novel is strict and dark. Although, as a whole, it merits being called a “novel”, it consists of four shorter novellas, each of which is taut and cunningly crafted. The novel is emotionally moving, yet almost blindingly clever in its structure and slyly original. It has not been translated, so far, despite what Conversational Reading‘s Scott Esposito sees as a good time for translation, and despite a series of mediocre German writers already translated. This is one of the best debuts published in German in the past decade, and Setz is shaping up to be the finest novelist of his generation, and one of the best novelists of these past years in German in general, with fellow Austrian genius Thomas Stangl (also untranslated into English, so far, see here my review of Stangl’s shockingly great third novel) and the German prose wizards Hartmut Lange and Marcel Beyer (Beyer at least has been, partly, translated. Don’t miss out on his work). Although Clemens J. Setz’ second novel is flashier and maybe even livelier, his first novel is a much better candidate for translation and maybe the better novel, as well.

Steeped in German and American literature, Söhne und Planeten is a largely realist chamber play, set in the reasonably well off middle class, and is based on the tensions inherent in many father-son relationships, something that connects Setz to readers everywhere, regardless of language and culture. The book’s basic references are to writers like Kafka, Ashbery, Bernhard, Delillo, Stifter, Turgenev and Handke, i.e. American writers and those well known and translated in the US. Few of its strengths are specific to its original language; Setz’ characters’ ruminations on writing and literature, their fears and neuroses, their difficulties as fathers, as sons, with each other; their failings as writers, as persons, all these would make immediate, powerful sense in any skillful translation, well, as far as anything in the book makes ‘immediate’ sense. Reading Söhne und Planeten, which literally means ‘Sons and Planets’, means reading attentively, re-reading even, yet the book is not difficult, obscure or forbidding in any way. Like the aforementioned Hartmut Lange, Setz combines cleverness and craft with an accessible, fresh and clean language. In Söhne und Planeten (though somewhat less so in his second novel), Setz writes with an amazing literary sophistication, slipping in and out of various literary voices and modes; at the same time, he never loses sight of the simple basic story he’s got to tell, of men and their fears. This simple basic story is conveyed with simple enough words, and the closer the novel moves to its emotionally bruising finish, the clearer the language becomes. This book would be just as impressive in translation; what’s more, unlike writers like Thomas Bernhard or Andreas Meier, this book could almost be viewed as bestseller material, despite its author’s obvious literary finesse. It’s an excellent book, and one that should be translated.

I already mentioned the fact that Söhne und Planeten is composed of four sections that could be seen as separate novellas. As a novel, the book is devastatingly coherent, revealing its overall concerns and ideas only slowly, yet each of the four novellas is extraordinarily well crafted, and each of the four novellas is vastly different in the way it’s made, from each of the others. There’s no repetition, no sentimental whimsy, each of the novellas’ means are perfectly chosen, each novella is perfectly placed. The first and the last novella are relatively straight narratives of young men, the first focusing on the up-and-coming young novelist René Templ, the last focusing on Victor Senegger, whose suicide prior to the events of the book cast a shadow over everything that happens within the novel. The two middle novellas are composed of several points of view, providing more complex narratives, none of which, however, lacks the tautness and discipline characteristic of the German novella (think of Zweig, Storm or Lange). Like a finely composed piece of music, Setz aligns all of his characters, their thoughts and actions in a music that rises, in the end, to a moving crescendo. The last novella, a coda of sorts, the most sentimental, the most unvarnished piece of the whole novel, turns out to be a perfectly fitting capstone to a book where everything really is in its right place. In the middle novellas, in many ways, Setz pays homage to the vast canon of modern and postmodern American literature, somewhere between early-ish Don Delillo and Philip Roth, but it’s really the first section/novella that shows us the way, although it turns out to have been the least characteristic part of the whole book.

That first novella, called “Kubische Raumaufteilung” (~ Cubic Room Layout), and presented with a prefatory quote by a “V.S.”, presumably Victor Senegger, is basically an exercise in angst-ridden soliloquy massively influenced by Franz Kafka, although the book doesn’t restrict itself to obvious influences or homages. It also contains both pastiches and long, extended quotes, sometimes from surprising sources. “Kubische Raumaufteilung”, for example, borrows from Kafka more than the surreal manifestations of its protagonist’s neurotic fears; it also borrows, inconsistently, his exquisitely simple yet literary language, sometimes offering almost a direct likeness of Kafka’s tone and his turns of phrase. All this is coupled with a narrator who is often coarse, desperately coarse, even. René Templ is a fearful individual, a young father, an aspiring writer, a husband who cheats on his wife with another woman to feel better about himself, yet whenever he feels pressured or afraid, he shrinks to the size of a child, or at least he thinks he does. Fear, another character says, later in the novel, is just another way to deal with one’s own body, just as Celine maintained (quoted by Setz) that philosophy is just another way to deal with one’s fear. Templ is obsessed with his own body and its inadequacies. He masturbates thoroughly, and his obsession with his genitalia and bodily fluids isn’t just communicated plainly to the reader, it’s also part of why he appears to be failing as a father and husband. Templ attempts to locate himself in his own body but he can only find decay, piss and blood. A writer, his mind is only as strong as the weakest part of his body, and as a result, his writing, at least the one small bit of Templ’s work we’re offered near the end of the second novella, is a gleaming but useless prosthesis, bereft of any muscle or genuine substance.

It’s only slowly that we comprehend that Victor is really the book’s central character, his absence an important part of three of the four novellas. In some ways, the first novella centers on René, the one character that, in a skewed way, has taken Victor’s place with his father, old Mr. Senegger; at the same time, René’s about to enact a relationship with his son that has an uncanny similarity to the one, we gather, Victor and his father had. The second novella, then, moves closer to Victor by focusing centrally on death and loss. The setting of that novella is a dinner party at the house of Ernst Mauser, a friend of Senegger’s and Templ’s, who’s recently lost his wife. Present are a handful of writers, including both Senegger and Templ. It’s the most complicated and elaborate of the novellas; each of its chapters offers, Rashomon-like, a different account of the events at Mauser’s house, in different genres, from a chapter written as an essay, to one entirely composed of letters. Not that really a whole lot happens, per se; instead, the novella, called “Fuge zu Ehren des Sonnensystems” (~ Fugue in Honor of the Solar System), examines the shape of loss in a writer’s life, and the impact this can have on the way he deals with his art, and with other people. It also helps us to better understand each of the other characters, especially Templ and Senegger, both of which emerge from this novella as somewhat farcical, tentatively ridiculous characters, both laughably self-centered and devoid of self-criticism. Additionally, the novella continues Setz’ interrogation of fear and masculinity. All this, while tragedy -and victor’s story- is waiting in the wings. But there is no pressure within the careful pages of Setz’ novel, no urgency in the narrative, nothing that really tells to reader what to look for, what’s to come; instead, we often seem to be led into a pointless exercise in cleverness.

Upon rereading, the dense novel yields its complexities in a way that might not be obvious to the first time reader. The relatively autonomous nature of the novellas, their self-contained arcs and structure can seduce us into reading them on their own terms, without the larger connecting context (although that does eventually become rather difficult as the novel progresses). The impression of largely pointless cleverness is exacerbated by the way that Setz uses quotes, paraphrases and pastiches of other writers, from various literary contexts. We catch a phrase from Pound’s Cantos here, a lilting note from Musil, a whole page from Defoe and much, much more. I’m certain I haven’t caught the half of it, but the fact of the matter is that the book crawls with these. And lists, of course. The best poets to read in the spring (answer, by the way: “Jaroslav Seifert, Vicente Aleixandre und Ezra Pound”), favorite novelists, etc. As it turns out, the novel uses devices like that in order to mirror the poetical principles of Victor Senegger himself, and towards the end of the novel, Victor Senegger, lover, friend, and suicidal son, bleeds into and merges with Victor the writer, and ways to write and ways to live become comparable and interchangeable, even. In all of this, if we disregard the odd Kafkaesque interlude, Setz’ book is solidly conventional realism. The characters and their neuroses are often derived from or references to stock characters developed in a century of psychoanalytically influenced fiction. In its long quotes and giddy pastiches, Söhne und Planeten is almost contemptuous of the idea of producing something original, in the Romanticist sense of the word. But contempt is too strong a word.

The fact is, Setz often doesn’t seem to care where, within the gay mirror cabinet of literary genres and traditions, his novel can or should be placed. It’s overt simplicity does allow for easy pigeonholing, yet it seems to me that any closer look, any deeper analysis (and I haven’t even mentioned in how many ways Setz takes up the novel’s titular planetary metaphor and what use he makes of it) makes any honest attempt to do so impossible. The most remarkable thing however, and the last issue I’ll mention here, is the place it has within the corpus of Austrian literature. When Handke, Bernhard, Innerhofer and the other great post-war Austrian novelists and playwrights emerged and became a viable literary phenomenon in the 1960s, quite a few studies and essays pointed out how their kind of writing was a kind of anti-Stifter literature, a new tradition opposed to the massive influence of that titan of Austrian letters, Adalbert Stifter. And indeed, one can place a great deal of literary Austrian fiction in relationship to Stifter, yet some younger writers, especially Setz, don’t seem to fit that mold any more. In passing, Setz demolishes Bernhard just as calmly as he rejects Stifter’s ideas of order. Söhne und Planeten is a marvelous novel, one that’s worth reading and re-reading. It’s not perfect, but for a debut novel, it’s absolutely dazzling. Clemens J. Setz proves himself to be a master craftsman, even though, when he published the book he was no older than 25. The novel’s scope is small, its focus turned inward rather than outward, its basic story swaddled in several layers like an onion. If Setz keeps up his craft, care and attention, and adds vision and scope, he will become one of the best Austrian writers of our time. His second novel, however, much I love it, is not exactly encouraging, and his third one is even worse. Success may not help young writers keep up craft and care. But he is young and has endless potential.

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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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Thomas Bernhard: My Prizes

Bernhard, Thomas (2009), Meine Preise, Suhrkamp
ISBN 978-3-518-42055-3

Thomas Bernhard is among the most compelling writers of the 20th century, in prose and drama, and among the most compelling of Bernhard’s books are his five autobiographical volumes, the first of which, Die Ursache: Eine Entziehung, was published in 1975, and the last of which, Ein Kind, followed in 1982. In Bernhard’s work, an oeuvre that is intricate and dense, they stand out, if anything, because they are even more dense. They draw words, ideas and structures from the pavements, walls and the hollow skulls of the landscapes, houses and institutions of Bernhard’s childhood. In his novels he sets many things in motion, puts worlds of ideas into play, but in his five autobiographical books, they are anchored to something else, which is hard to describe, something in the air, one might say. The same ineffable quality is one of the biggest strengths of Meine Preise, Bernhard’s posthumously published book about some of the prizes he won. Although it’s a barrel of laughs, it’s also a serious book about what drove Bernhard to become the writer he eventually turned out to be. Most of these prizes are won early in his career, for his dazzling debut novel Frost, which is one of my favorite Austrian novels in the latter half of the last century and for his first play Ein Fest Für Boris, a stunning attack on clinical hierachies of speech.

And the succor they provide is not just moral. Actually, to hear Bernhard tell the story, it isn’t moral at all: accepting prizes is a humiliation of sorts, something that he needs to justify to himself. The basic justification here is poverty. Early in his career, Bernhard was piss-poor, and writing professionally, living off his creative work, was out of the question. The book shows him driving a beer truck through Vienna, among other things, it tells us of his debts and problems, and how the prizes suggested a way out. Out of the narrow systems of coercion and control that renting an apartment in the city had become to him, by allowing him to purchase a house of his own, in the country. A farmstead, actually, his famous Vierkanthof, long since immortalized in biographical writing of all stripes. And out of the country, by allowing him to purchase a car. With that car, he went on a trip abroad (which is symbolic of the freedom that the purchase afforded him) and wrote his second novel, the gorgeously odd Amras, there. These sections of the book demonstrate to us that growing into his own as a writer was connected, for Bernhard, with the need for a material autonomy, an ability (though not a need!) to walk away from people and things. The fierceness of his early work was driven by urges and needs, that the prizes, suddenly, surprisingly, allowed him to assuage. But these positive effects just enhanced the humiliation, the shame for accepting prizes that he knew to be problematic.

Accepting a prize, for him, means becoming part of an institution, accepting its structures and strictures, and Bernhard was understandably uneasy about that; in the speeches he gave, some of which are appended to the main text, there is a lot of distance to his environment. None of them sound like typical acceptance speeches, but the speech he gave upon accepting the Österreichischer Staatspreis (a national Austrian award, which comes in two sizes) takes the cake. The fact that the one he won was the smaller of the two, which he had to explain to everyone who congratulated him on winning, and that he was about to accept a prize given out by an institution that is part of the Austrian state appears to have galvanized him into writing a brief, harsh, but great little troll of a speech, broadly insulting Austrians and those who govern them. This caused the education secretary, who hadn’t expected anything like this (and clearly he hadn’t read Frost, the novel that the prize had been awarded for), to jump up, red in the face, point a finger at Bernhard and then storm out of the room. That same year, Bernhard was supposed to be awarded yet another prize, but when the same secretary, who was supposed to be the guest of honor at the ceremony, heard who would win the prize (and presumably give a speech), he boycotted the event, which was subsequently canceled.

This scandalous speech is the best of the bunch, it reads like an unpublished page from Frost, and, as such, was oddly fitting. The whole event itself foreshadowed the rest of Bernhard’s public life, the attacks that he had to undergo both by prominent Austrian politicians and a large portion of Austrian broadsheets. And this is not the only award or speech that seems strangely fitting, like an allegory, a complex symbolic arrangement rather than a retelling of actual events. It’s Bernhard’s skills that create this impression, and this book, that seemed simple, and only light and funny at a first glance, turns out to be, in addition, quite cunningly crafted. The first thing that’s apparent is that the sequence of awards in the book, and the actual chronological sequence in which he received them are not the same. In fact, there’s a narrative to the book that the factual nature of the stories, and the often dry and matter-of-fact voice that Bernhard uses here, manage to hide. The editorial afterword gives no indication of how finished Bernhard considered this book, there are hints, such as his announcements of the existence of the manuscript, his oft-stated intentions to have it published etc., but they provide no real evidence given the fact that writers are prone to talk about and announce books that are nowhere near finished. Nabokov’s The Original of Laura is perhaps the most recent example of this.

It makes sense, nevertheless, to treat Meine Preise as if it was meant to be published that way. And in this light, as a coherent whole, it makes far more sense, and it’s a far better book than a loose collection of anecdotes and gossip ever could be. Bernhard’s tone varies, as does his scope. The first episode, the Grillparzer award, is an enjoyable little tale of Bernhard’s last-minute attempts to buy a suit, and his nasty stubbornness at the ceremony itself. Miffed at not having been properly greeted, he decides to just quietly sit in the audience, waiting for people to come looking for him, to seek him out. In a stunning display of obstinacy, he insists that to be asked by the head of proceedings “personally”. It’s hilarious, especially after we watched him pick a suit, arrive, quietly, with his aunt in tow. In the actual sequence of events, the Grillparzer award was one of the last ones he won. He won it after the upheavals and scandals, after having been the subject of scathing ridicule in the Austrian press, after having had to see his books being stupidly praised and even more stupidly panned by the press, both in Austria and in Germany. As a writer of prose and drama, Bernhard seemed to be complete right from the start, but the German language reading public had to adjust to him, a process that took Austria a longer time than he had to live.

Arranging the book so that this award comes first robs it of all this context, highlighting a more personal reading, which has a twofold effect: it’s hilarious, and in the uncanny qualities that his behavior exhibits, also sinister. The arrangement works on more levels than one. There’s, for example, the fact that the prize is only awarded to plays that have not been given a prize before, and the initial placing of the episode in the book implicitly extends that quality to Bernhard’s whole work. Bernhard’s indignation and obstinacy is, in a historical context, an understandable reaction to an establishment that denied him the attention and tributes that he felt he deserved. In fact, throughout the book, there are recurring figures who introduce him, in order to hand him an award, without having the fgacts straight: from switched around names, to completely made-up biographies and sloppy summaries, Bernhard presents those who give him his prizes as not worthy of awarding someone of his stature. Again, this is about humiliation, to an extent. but the central point of the Grillparzer episode, effected by the arrangement of the book, is about dignity, its opposite. Instead of allowing the reader to see his behavior in the light of the decade that passed between the award and the publication of Frost, he implies that the dignity he demands is implicit in his person, that he is due respect not because of what he had written and published, but because of who he is.

And this narrative is continued in other guises and other episodes in the book, in an attempt to wrench power, dignity and strength from parts of his life that he felt a certain amount of shame for. He castigates a friend who’s also a juror for one of those prizes for having been part of “dastardly behavior”, and pities him for being “inconsequential, deplorable, miserable”, only to mention his friend’s suicide in the very next sentence. The narrative is brought to a close in the final episode, which is about the Büchnerpreis, probably the most respected literary prize in German language literature. It’s only partly about the prize he won, and more about his announcement to leave the academy which awards the prize. The letter to the academy in which he announces his departure is appended. This is not an editorial decision by Raimund Fellinger, who compiled the book, it’s part of Bernhard’s own plans for the book, as is apparent from a facsimile that Fellinger provides. There is no melodrama in the episode, cushioning the exit, it is recounted plainly, in measured and simple words. As a reader, I was surprised how well-rounded, closed, finished an affair this book, published posthumously, from an abandoned typoscript, is. The first and the last episode are especially significant, in more ways than one. Among those I haven’t mentioned yet, the cultural, literary, context, looms large.

Prizes and literature are connected (in this book) in three significant ways. One is personal, the effect that winning a prize has on the writer. The other two are more cultural. There are the writers who the prizes are named for, and there are the writers who win with you, won before you, or after you. Grillparzer and Büchner came from roughly the same period, and both were oddballs who didn’t really fit into their time. Grillparzer’s aestheticist conservativism, and Büchner’s firebrand anger are two poles that are highly important in Bernhard’s work, as well, and framing his book with these two writer’s names seems not without significance, it implies a statement about the literary work that was emerging in that decade that is covered by Meine Preise. Especially since he took pains to suppress another writer who lent his name to a prize, the poet Rudolf Alexander Schröder. In the whole chapter about the Literaturpreis der Freien Hansestadt Bremen there is no mention of Schröder at all, although it is the Rudolf Alexander Schröder foundation that awards the prize on the poet’s birthday. This is a complicated and mined field, and very interesting with regard to Bernhard’s relationship to a literary movement called the Conservative Revolution, of which writers as famous as Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Rudolf Borchard (and Rudolf Alexander Schröder) were a part, but this is not the place to elaborate on the topic.

Suffice to say that as any work by the great Austrian writer, this is a complex, accomplished work of art. It is, however, much lighter. It’s like small doses of Bernhard, like Bernhard sampling his own work, writing a pastiche of different aspects of it. Meine Preise is a funny book, a very quick read, with none of Bernhard’s idiosyncratic difficulties in evidence. He makes use of typical aspects of his style to create great comic moments, shining a bright light on his other books, and upon his role as jokester and trickster that he plays even in his very serious books. In dazzling plays like Die Macht der Gewohnheit, he showed how much darkness, brutality and obsessiveness can be part of a truly comical work. In this book, he does the opposite. Revisiting the idea of writing about his life, he calls up serious and important topics, yet offers them to us in an infinitely lighter mood. Also, in many places, the writing lacks the concision and precision that distinguishes his best work. So, no, this isn’t a major new work by Thomas Bernhard. It is a great introduction to his work though, and a thoroughly enjoyable romp, as well. If you like Bernhard, you cannot not read it, and if you’re thinking of starting on Bernhard, this is the book to pick up. In connection with his five older autobiographical books, a fuller picture of Bernhard the writer emerges, of the exigencies and pressures and delights that made him who he was.

Thomas Stangl: Was Kommt

Stangl, Thomas (2009), Was Kommt, Literaturverlag Droschl
ISBN 978-13-85420-752-8

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]

Wolf Haas: Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren

Haas, Wolf (2008), Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren, dtv
ISBN 978-3-423-13685-3

There is a German TV show called “Wetten dass“, which is one of the most successful shows in Europe, I think. The principle is quite simple. Ordinary people come on and propose outrageous bets, do strange things like drag a car through the room while balancing an egg. Oddities like this. A celebrity then bets on the outcome (will the contestant manage to do what he proposes to do?), and agrees to do something silly in case of losing that bet. In Wolf Haas’ latest novel, published in 2006, Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren (The Weather 15 Years Ago) a man appears on the show who bets he can remember the weather in a remote mountain village in Austria during the last fifteen years; that is: he bets he can remember how on every single day during those fifteen years the weather was. The host, Thomas Gottschalk, then picks five random days and the contestant really comes through, guessing all five correctly.

That miraculous contestant is called Vittorio Kowalski. The delicious incongruity of that name may not be immediately apparent to someone who doesn’t speak the language, but in German, the name Kowalski, though it is of Polish origin, connotes a grimily working-class background, someone who comes from a very particular area in Germany, the so-called Ruhrpott, one of Germany’s most active and traditional coal mining regions. The contrast to the Italian scent that is exuded from “Vittorio” couldn’t be stronger. It is from this character and his odd bet, that this book’s involving plot is spun. An engaging story about love and death, thwarted desire and crime unfolds in its pages. Ah, but wait. You don’t yet know the strangest thing about the novel. It’s an interview.

No, really, it is. The whole book is written as an interview: an anonymous critic, known only by the term Literaturbeilage (which basically means “Book Supplement”) and Wolf Haas discuss his latest book, “Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren,” not to be confused with Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren, the book that I actually read. It looks exactly like an interview (or a play, for that matter), and the fictionality of it all is the only difference to an actual, journalistic interview. It’s a mammoth, in-depth interview that takes place over several days. The book they discuss doesn’t really exist, but in their discussions of minutiae from the non-existing novel, they recreate it for the reader (as much as you can “recreate” something that doesn’t exist), or a simulation of it. The critic takes it slowly, discussing the fictitious book bit by bit, not summing up events, not fast-forwarding. Thus, as far as pace and structure of the plot is concerned, the interview behaves like a novel, but through a dark and strange looking-glass.

We happen upon ‘quotes’, complete with a discussion of word choice and implication, we are told why Wolf Haas (or should that come with quotation marks, “Wolf Haas”? I think it should) chose to tell the story as he did, what his intention was in using certain symbols and allusions, and so on. The light banter between the critic and “Wolf Haas” is great fun to read, as is the whole book. If you have ever read another book by Haas, that should not come as a surprise. Wolf Haas is an Austrian writer, who became famous as a writer of crime novels centered around an inspector called Brenner. These books are smart, funny and very readable; what’s more, he got started as a writer of humorous radio dialogues, in a way, he returns to his literary origins. What did surprise me, however, was that the whole construct actually works. As we read on, we are really getting caught up in the story, in the tumultuous final events and may even be moved by its conclusion.

Although we are told right at the beginning that the story will end with the kiss that Kowalski waited 15 years for, the end does affect (and may even delight) you. I called this surprising, and it is, because the book seems so clever, so self-involved with its gadgets and tricks, but the story, that’s scattered all over that lively interview, is a good yarn, a truly entertaining tale of passion. And to Wolf Haas’ credit, although his fictitious alter ego and the critic do reflect upon the story a lot, and joke about many parts of it, he does not caricature the genre, I think. He does not take cheap potshots, or not very often. That story is affecting and it’s framed as being affecting as well, and the author may poke fun at many things, but the story isn’t one of them. Both the general method of the book and the very genre that the fictitious novel is written in (a genre which borders on caricature anyway) invite a certain danger of satirizing the book.

Haas has evaded this by imbuing the fictitious novel with an air of authenticity. Within the confines of Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren, “Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren” is based on an actual contestant, it’s the fictional nonfiction account of Kowalski’s exploits, and “Haas” himself has been part of these events, as an observer. Haas has himself a great time with the whole idea of authenticity, throughout the book. Additionally to what has already been mentioned, Haas presents “Haas” as a writer who’s open to others’ interpretations, who would not want to claim sole ownership of a book’s meaning. “Haas” may have a personal reading of the novel, but he does not necessarily accord it a special status. But in the actual book, Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren, we only get “Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren” as read by the critic and “Haas”, we only, so to say, get his side of the story.

It’s a neat reversal: early in the novel we learn that “Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren” had been written from Kowalski’s perspective, so that many aspects that concern only him are not raised. As Wittgenstein said, you can’t see your own eyeballs. Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren, in contrast, is written from Haas’ perspective so we only get his reading of the story. The aspects he selects to make the fictitious novel palpable, are those that his individual critical mind would consider relevant. The discussion of the limitations of Kowalski’s point of view are allusions to this. Thus, the book becomes a Chinese box of poetological reflections. All kinds of sections refer to all other kinds of sections, and any aspect must be read with reference to the particular filter you’re using. Are we talking about the real events that “Haas” witnessed, the childhood events that “Haas” can only guess at, the fictitious novel or the actual novel that you can read in the actual world. The ease with which Haas handles these levels puts many other, more serious writers to shame. And this despite the fact that the whole business of levels is but a background issue.

The two most important themes of the book are the story on the one hand, and the ongoing discussion about the limits of authorial control over their material which may be the most dominant part of the interview. “Haas” is frequently confronted with lewd readings of passages that he considered proper and not sexual at all, he is struggling both with those parts of “Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren” that are fiction, and with those that are nonfiction. “Haas” bases much that he has not observed himself on interviews with Kowalski (see, different levels, iterations again) that he himself had conducted. All this is, as I said, great fun, moving, smart and much more. The only downside to this is the actual writing. Having written an interview, Haas has had to use a language that sounds colloquial, that recreates the authenticity of an actual interview. But a whole book of artificially blanded language can be taxing, and does reduce the enjoyment of this book to an extent. It’s a good thing then that it’s so clever, even on the level of language. Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren may be somewhat bland, but it also contains the occasional pun and intriguing observations about characteristics of the Austrian variety of German. If anyone who reads this has any pull with translators: do translate it. I cannot imagine Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren to be less than terrific in French or English. It’s simply a good book, one of the few books I know that is a complex, genuinely experimental novel, and at the same time a quick, fun, light read. That’s why it both became a bestseller and won a prestigious literary prize. Highly recommended.

*

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Elias Canetti: The Voices of Marrakesh

Canetti, Elias (2005), Die Stimmen von Marrakesch, Fischer
ISBN 978-3-596-22103-5

In the decade after the second world war, Elias Canetti,winner of the Nobel prize for Literature in 1981, was then a somewhat unknown expatriate writer living in London, a man born in Bulgaria, who was raised in Switzerland and Austria and became a writer in the 1930s, just before the Nazis bundled existing forces and convictions in Germany and Austria and took power. In 1938, he left Austria and went to live in England, where he met many people; two of his friends, about to shoot a film in Morocco, invited him to come along. So, in 1954, Canetti joined a film crew and traveled to Marrakesh in Morocco. Over a decade later, in 1967 he published Die Stimmen von Marrakesch: Aufzeichnungen nach einer Reise, (translated into English by J.A. Underwood as The Voices of Marrakesch (Marion Boyars Publishers)) his travel account of that journey. The book, which describes an immersion into a palpably alien culture, is remarkably short at about a hundred pages. It consists of fourteen short chapters, several as short as three pages, each of which seems independent of the others, creating the impression of loosely connected stories, interlinked by a general sense of chronology and build, but these links are not necessary to understand and interpret each, let’s call them: vignette. These are short, concise description of a certain aspect of Marrakesh, of a certain event, smell or sound, of a certain person or group that the narrator met.

I admit, I have not always been the greatest of fan of Mr. Canetti’s work. When I first read it, I have found his autobiography, published in three volumes from 1977 to 1985, somewhat overlong, rambling and self-indulgent, although fascinating and full of arresting episodes and images. I have come round to it in the meantime, appreciating it for the masterpiece it is. I am still not convinced by much in his major philosophical non-fiction work, the massive (and certainly brilliant) Masse und Macht, published in 1960. I cannot, however, find fault with Die Stimmen von Marrakesch. Each of its chapters is written with a precision and economy of means that makes them less like reportage than like prose poems. In the few pages over which Canetti has spread his account, there is enough material to fuel books twice as long. At the same time, reading it, one doesn’t feel the economy, the book has a sumptuous, easy feeling to it, evoking the Suks and mosques of Marrakesh, its merchants, mendiants and its mad people. All of this is structured by an emotional and spiritual hunger, an openness to shock, to violence, to the Other, that is directly transmitted to the reader, who cannot put down this slim book until he has devoured every last page and then puts it away, deeply moved and in deep thought. At least that’s what happened to me.

There are many concerns in Die Stimmen von Marrakesch, but the most central one, as in all travel accounts, is the yearning to understand this alien country, to read it in a way so it makes sense to you. Canetti differs from many writers in that he doesn’t want to understand it, he doesn’t learn the language or get a translator whom he drags around with him on his tours through the narrow and dusty streets of Marrakesh. At one point he outright declares his preference to hear speeches, prayers and entreaties with his bare ear, so to say, to hear the sounds, the raw emotions as they are rasped through the vocal chords of the natives. That said, Canetti speaks French and English perfectly, and most natives can understand and speak French, so his communication with the natives, inasmuch as food and similarly important issues are concerned, is not impeded in a significant manner. His decision not to learn Arabic only concerns his observations, his scrutiny of his environment. He may not be driven by a wish to understand, but his eye is that of a classic ethnologist, and Marrakesh is his village. Nothing enters or leaves this village except him and others like him.

This immobility is encapsulated in his account of a destitute and clearly desperate woman at a bar, who is being pimped out to rich and ugly men by her lover. The men need to be ugly so his jealousy is not awakened. She gets beaten if she recoils from sex and she gets beaten if she takes pleasure in it. Meanwhile, her lover has his own income as the gay lover of the son of a local potentate. This son has had to leave the country at the behest of his father and the strange couple is thus left to their own devices, which mostly means a live in poverty. He won’t leave, and she can’t. Canetti’s village is in a state of stasis and even though foreigners pass through and can even become part of it all, the city has an internal logic all its own: everything points back to Marrakesh. Canetti, in passing, mentions money, touches upon issues of wealth and poverty, implies exploitative mechanisms, hints at problems brewing beneath the surface, but hints they remain. Canetti’s book isn’t a journalistic account of a country and it neither possesses nor aspires to possession of a journalistic or even scientific precision.

In these accounts there is always a danger, to an extent inescapably, of colonizing the alien, the strange country, to read it in terms of your anatomy tables and take heed not of the country as it meets you, but to read it only in terms of difference, to remark upon that which is strange, with reference to one’s own everyday givens. Many of these accounts go even further than that: by not reflecting one’s own situation, situatedness, they colonize everything off the self-established norm as deviant. One luminous, problematic example of such a writing is Goethe’s massive, brilliant account of his travel to Italy, which implicitly treats women, effeminate men and similar ‘deviants’ as symptoms of the foreign country. In Die Stimmen von Marrakesch Canetti shows himself quite aware of this problem, quite aware, too, of the alterity of that other country. Aware of the anatomical function of language, of the interpretative and defining power of translation, Canetti decides to skip language. With an enormous spiritual appetite, he opens himself up to the sounds of Marrakesh.

There are the noises of begging children, chiding, playing, laughing, begging, even instructing him how to perform a religious ritual. There is a madwoman on a balcony, who whispers to him, words in different shades the tone of which he fails to read in a consistent manner. The chapter that is about her shows a progression from bare listening to an effort to understand, which makes him, in the end, read her as a madwoman. The interconnectedness of some processes of thinking and the establishment of certain categories is demonstrated by chapters like this, where we see Canetti’s thoughts move from gentle questing, questioning, to a full interrogation. Whenever he enters this last state, he either starts to categorize people in a way that he, quite obviously, is himself uneasy to do, but which may be, to an extent, inevitable, or, as in a later chapter, he is moved to disgust by what he readily recognizes as his own morals (and there is quite a bit of patronizing inherent in the explicit stating of this, too).

None of these are flaws of this, really, flawless book. These are flaws inherent in the process, and it’s one of the book’s main strengths that it provides a structure and a context for these flaws that it makes them part of its rhetorical thrust and construction. The titular voices appear and reappear in different contexts (a screaming camel in the powerful first chapter that is dragged to be slaughtered is another memorable one), but as the book progresses, we find that they gravitate around two centers. One is belief, the other is fear. Belief is always present in that country, which wears its convictions on its sleeve. There is the belief in God, transmitted through public prayers and through numerous beggars who repeat the word Allah, all day, chanting themselves into a trance. All this, Canetti feels, is powered by a general belief in the power of the word. When he discovers a corner of the town where the story tellers gather a large following around them, and the writers sit stoically, waiting for people to service with their pen, he is profoundly humbled. His mistrust in language, in words, well-funded though it may be, appears to make him a coward, compared to these people who throw their words into the air, or rather: their voices. His emigrant’s voice, filtered through several layers of language, is hidden, artificial, his tongue divulges its truths only with care, bit by bit, as evidenced by the temporal distance between the journey and the publication of this highly artificial book, which, as the title also tells us, is an account after a journey. Not of, not during, no, after. As if he needed the time to render the unspoken, unspeakable, into literature.

Fear certainly plays a role in this. The two central chapters are not about Marrakesh proper, they are about the Jewish community in the city, in the mellah. Canetti is astonished by the fact that Marrakesh is a Jewish melting pot, where Jews from all nations live, peacefully, side by side. The mellah, the Jewish quarter, is a colorful, rich island of Jewishness in a Muslim country. One of the most powerful descriptions in the book is in the first of the two chapters handling the mellah. Canetti describes the Jews he sees sitting by the road and describes how they all watch foreigners, unobtrusively, carefully. The merchants among them possibly in the hope of finding customers, but that is not the main reason, Canetti decides. These people are afraid, their whole existence is governed by the need to be careful, to live in a way that doesn’t challenge the natives and keeps them safe. This story is one that we have heard many times over, by Jews from all over the world. Fear is all over the map, in Die Stimmen von Marrakesh, Canetti’s account of that town at a certain, pivotal point in its history, but it is a way of life in the mellah. Is the publication, in 1967, at an important point in the history of modern Israel, when its Arabic neighbors attacked the young Jewish state for the second time in a few years, accidental? Canetti describes the pride and happiness of Marrakesh’s jews not for being respected and/or equals but for not being persecuted. The fear, the care, that the Jews along the street in the mellah manifest, is something that marked Jews all around the world.

In the end, their fear and their beliefs (well-known to Canetti as they are) and the other citizens’ beliefs, alien and beguiling, full of a confidence that Canetti can only envy them, all these are equally important to the construction of this marvelous book. It turns out that the hunger and appetite behind it, and the unspeakable things Canetti found, were in need of the precision and poetical prowess that Canetti brought to his travel accounts. Although I did not want this book to end, it appears to be in such a perfect equilibrium, that I could not wish it to be any longer. It’s perfect. Read it.

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Adalbert Stifter: Indian Summer

Stifter, Adalbert (2005), Der Nachsommer, insel
ISBN 3-458-34819-0
[Originally published in 1857, translated by Wendell Frye as Indian Summer]

Adalbert Stifter is the towering giant of Austrian literature, who helped shape the modern literature of his country. He has written both in the long and the short form, producing very long novels, shorter novellas and short stories alike. In 1857 he published Der Nachsommer, translated by Wendell Frye as Indian Summer, which is his best known and most celebrated work. It is an exemplar Bildungsroman (some even claim, the only perfect Bildungsroman), a meditation upon art, life and love. However, In German-language literary criticism this book as been an object of hot debate. Famous writers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Arno Schmidt, Friedrich Hebbel, Ludwig Harig have raised their voices in praise or derision ever since the book’s publication. Today it’s generally regarded as one of the most important (if not the most important) novels in Austrian literature, it’s taught in schools, at university; a monument of German-language literature. There is no sex, nor violence in this book, it’s not written in a difficult or abrasive style. So how has this book become so contested? What is it that provokes people to passionately comment upon it?

Many people, especially Arno Schmidt, who, in two of his entertaining and brilliant radio essays, completely destroyed Stifter’s two major novels, Der Nachsommer and the historical novel Witiko, criticize Stifter as being complacent and earth-shatteringly boring. Its fans, like Harig, point out how warm and immersible the book is. I daresay, if you share the novels complacent attitude towards the world and connect to its young, questing protagonist Heinrich, you may enjoy it. Personally, I found the book extraordinarily boring, easily one of the most boring “good” books I’ve ever read. This does not mean, however, that I do not recommend the Nachsommer. Without a doubt, this is a very rich book, dense with detail, thought and reference; I even maintain that much that is boring in the novel is actually intentional or at least functional. With less boredom the book would certainly be more fun to read but would it be as good a book? I would not vouch for this. The boredom is derived both from the overflowing wealth of described objects as well as from the deliberate writing that processes any information in careful order, piece by piece.

The fact that this huge (in my edition 791 pp) book contains only a thin plot and spends the rest of its time rambling, doesn’t help either. The protagonist, Heinrich, son of a merchant, has educated himself for the better part of his adolescence (one thinks of Faust’s lament “Habe nun, ach! Philosophie, / Juristerei und Medizin, / Und leider auch Theologie! / Durchaus studiert, mit heißem Bemühn. / Da steh ich nun, ich armer Tor! / Und bin so klug als wie zuvor.“) and decides, at the onset of the book, to delve into geology, for which endeavor he takes it upon himself to wander around his country, looking at nature and observing it until he comes to a house that belongs to a well-off noble called Freiherr von Risach. All this is stretched over a good many pages; in contrast to some boring books which start to sag after a few dozen interesting pages, Stifter elevates boredom to an art form. There is nothing interesting to turn boring, the very second page had me yawning. It’s because Stifter develops everything carefully, and if an action contains seven steps you can be sure he’ll show us each one of them. Of course, he jumps ahead and sums things up now and then, but when he slows down and lets us take a look, he pulls no punches, boredom-wise.

Here’s an example: when he comes to von Risach’s house, he knocks and asks to be let in because he thinks it will rain soon. Von Risach disagrees. The following discussion extends over several pages, incredibly redundant, and frighteningly dull. At times they appear to discuss the reasoning for their different estimation of the probability of rain, at other times they talk about the area, telling each other what wood is near what river. There is no disagreement there, they are basically finishing each others’ sentences, but it drags on and on and on, so when they decide to step inside to let the weather decide the winner of the rain debate, the reader breathes a sigh of relief. This kind of discussion comes up all the time and I was exasperated. At first I found all this very artificial, very tiresome, but actually, it’s a dull kind of realism. Reading this dialogue aloud, one finds that, minus the elevated language, everyday discussions, small talk, especially, really are this repetitive, this dull and irritating. People do tell each other things that they both know and they do discuss completely useless facts in minute detail, just to be the one who’s right.

At the same time, all this ‘unfiltered realism’ really is artificial: it’s utterly constructed, arranged to form a larger pattern. The sequence of events and the details are all significant, as when Stifter, on the second page, describes bookshelves in his home, and how his father sometimes opens them and how he sometimes takes out a book and puts it in again. The how of this description is far more important that what it describes. The slowness of his father’s actions, the care with which he looks at a book and with which he returns it to is rightful place on the shelf is what’s important, and Stifter needs every word he uses to impress these things on the reader. Stifter knows what he wants, in the same chapter he describes it as “stern exactitude” (“strenge Genauigkeit”). Order. It’s about order, about the system of things. Not in an abstract way, though. It’s the small details of life, the interactions of the individual elements where we see order, or where Stifter shows us its existence; not only that, he also shows us how it should be. “Every thing and every human being, [Heinrich’s father] used to say, can be only one thing, that one thing, however, it needs to be completely.” (“Jedes Ding und jeder Mensch, pflegte er zu sagen, könne nur eins sein, dieses aber muß er ganz sein.” (crappy translations are my own)). And how is it determined what that one thing is? By function. Your identity is that one which best fits the order.

This point is elaborated upon as Heinrich steps into von Risach’s house and strikes up a friendship with him. He doesn’t ask for his host’s name and von Risach does not volunteer to tell him. So he refers to his house as the rose house, because on the walls of the house, roses grow plentiful.  They indicate an important fact: Von Risach has a ‘green thumb’.  As we are about to find out, in excruciating detail, he has a large garden, which is rich and full of healthy, beautiful plants and trees. There are various pests about in the country, birds, vermin and others, which are harmful to gardens and crops everywhere, as Heinrich witnessed on his peregrinations. Astonished, he inquires about the secret of the garden and von Risach explains to him (in far too many pages) that the garden is constructed in a way that restores perfect balance. He grew plants that would attract birds that specialize in eating the vermin that is so common and harmful; he attracts bees to crowd out other insects and so on. There is another long and dire conversation that reveals this order that von Risach created in his back yard. He explains that he utilizes each plant and animal in the best possible way, the only way that would create this completely functional balance in the garden. Everything needs to be used in the best way possible, which, as Heinrich’s father’s sentence and other passages in the book suggest, applies to human beings as well. This is what some would call complacent. Stifter has no interest in stirring the pot, in allowing his realism to depict social unrest or anything that could incite it. No, Der Nachsommer tells us that things are fine as they are, or they would be if people would behave as they should.

So, yes, the book is very dull and very complacent, but it’s also really well constructed. Actually, it provides a complete image of the ideology its pushing and all its pictures and analogies are so apt, so like examples for a philophical thesis, rigorously arranged, that, at times, I wondered whether somewhere in his work a counterpart novel, an antithesis, existed. All the details fit.  The garden, for instance, and the application of its model structure to the human sphere. Von Risach didn’t impose a natural order, the garden functions perfectly for humans. Had he left the garden alone for a year and it would likely be balanced all on its own, but it would look disorderly. See, when Stifter talks about an order, he doesn’t necessarily mean biological order. It’s a cultural order, an aesthetic order (this is one of many echoes of Stifter that resonate through Bernhard’s work, in this case Frost) The plants do not profit from looking pretty and growing in rows, it’s the human eye that finds this pleasing. In the analogy, it’s both God’s order that we should not disturb and a more abstract human order, relevant and applicable to the real world. Women, for example. As Stifter tells us in a throwaway phrase,women  can be educated, but only if it does not come at the expense of the only education that matters to them: how to be a wife. The book does not contain any poor people but their place, it’s implied several times, is to be poor; that’s just how things work. The proper order of things is Nachsommer‘s major concern.

Reading Der Nachsommer, one slowly grows accustomed to its rhythms, one starts following the unspectacular winding paths of its narrative with a certain kind of joy. Also, there’s a love story in the book, which becomes more prominent as the book progresses. As a true Bildungsroman, the novel charters Heinrich’s entering society as a full, mature member; ideally, this also means he should be married, or at least have love affairs. As the love affair picks up speed and von Risach steps up his lessons to Heinrich, we witness a man being shoehorned into society, learning his trade, picking up a wife, growing up (there’s a whole Bildungsroman discussion, about the Turmgesellschaft in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister and similar things, attached here). Stifter is an extraordinary writer, his writing is always elegant, as I said, always controlled, and it creates a feeling of intense warmth, if you lean back and let the book string you along. But you, or I, anyway, never stop being vaguely bored; additionally, you can’t help but notice how cold, au fond, this book really is. There are several degrees of power, nature (and women) very low on the ladder, human beings, especially men, somewhat higher, art and craft (there’s a huge section dealing with these two terms and their differences alone) somewhere in between. But at the top, there’s no-one.

Stifter asks us to abdicate responsibility, compassion and commitment to a structure, or possibly to God, because the structure has the last word. If everything works as it should, everything is fine. It’s this book’s mantra and it’s repeated time and again. This is annoying, and, ultimately, deeply unsettling and unpleasant. I’ve said it before and repeat it: Der Nachsommer is both a very good and a very bad book. On account of the intense boredom I suffered, I cannot possibly recommend it, despite the excellency of the writing, thinking and composition involved. If you are interested in modern Austrian literature at all, moreover, you cannot pass this book by. It’s importance and stature is enough to warrant reading it, if one has the time. It is a rich book, frequently beautiful and meditative, written by an aesthete and a master of his craft. And it’s boring, annoying and complacent. It’s your choice. Hey, I’ve read it. Would I read it again? Not sure. And Stifter’s writing is instrumental here. I have not seen Frye’s translation, I have no idea if it delivers as it should.

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