Case Histories, Alexander Kluge

The style of this book of stories is conspicuous, consisting of interrogatories, short passages under descriptive headers, and lists: lists of debts, of personality traits, of neuroses. The use of this sort of style as a way towards detachment goes back to Tristram Shandy, where it’s ironic, and you can see it in the flat descriptions of the contents of drawers in Dashiell Hammett. But Kluge’s use of it is most similar to the penultimate chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses. In Joyce, it served partly as a pathos-generating device, racking up details that etched Bloom and Stephen in momentary bliss and eventual sadness. Kluge uses it in a historical sense, using an inappropriately objective voice to create dissociation and dissonance between the material and the narration.

The forced (and, like in Joyce, there are intimations of its dishonesty and bias) neutrality turns it into the voice of history more than of fiction; damning moral judgments come out in its generalizations, but seem detached from any moral judgment of the person discussed. They are mostly apolitical; many are ineffective. So the historical treatment of people who are mostly incidental is jarring. When it’s deployed against the Eichmann-like Rudolf Boulanger, who helped “measure” the brains of Jewish scientists during the war and now lives freely in Cologne, the effect is numbing. Hannah Arendt made it seem as though the war criminals she treated were mindful administrators; Kluge goes further by giving him doubts and stumbling blocks absurdly inappropriate for the historical context.

Most of the stories are subtler. The prodigal Mandorf lives an uneasy existence on Crete under German occupation and wants to “let his personality unfold,” but can’t. After some of the local residents are executed by the Germans during an evacuation, Mandorf tries to save some of the others, but fails. In the process, under the title “An appalling discovery,” he realizes “he was indifferent to everything that had happened or was happening…Mandorf’s personality lay unfolded: it contained nothing.” He is one of the more moral of Kluge’s characters, but he is unable to cope with his impotence, and his better side is relegated to footnotes. The objective narration breaks more explicitly:

Mandorf the expert
Actually Mandorf was not an expert in anything.

Kluge is very respectful of the ambiguity between Mandorf’s inherent drive towards action, which he can never fulfill, and the horrible circumstances that drive him into resignation and isolation. Mandorf is doomed in his small way, but the extent of the exacerbating impact of what happens on Crete is unknowable, Kluge implies. Mandorf himself does become numb and regrets not gaining his professorship in 1939 more than anything afterwards, but the historical facts paint him as a nearly sympathetic person, even if this is, as Kluge indicates, totally, completely irrelevant to his emotional state.

Mandorf is much more respectable than Eberhard Schincke, an intellectual and researcher who turns vehemently anti-Nazi after several years of embracing it. But his reversal only stems from a cold day sitting on a horse in the reserves, which he spins into an argument against it. His academic nature and “aversion to topicality” lead him to reject Nazism on abstruse and meaningless ideological grounds, and his career is ruined not out of any real resistance but only a deep narcissism.

It’s difficult to work arbitrariness deep into the determining factors of stories’ characters, especially without some bias informing the direction. For Celine, it was contempt that underpinned his random horrors; for Christina Stead, it was an architectural drive to classify a certain personality type’s behavior across any situation.

But Kluge is remarkably equivocal, and the lack of a definitive orientation is often in danger of deflating the collection. These figures would not stand up to novel-length treatment; even over a dozen pages each one becomes dreary, because they are either rote and predictable or subject to drastic, unpredictable changes in direction. The style saves it, because Kluge manages to produce a different result in each story by contrasting the flat, historical reportage with brief implications of how the characters see themselves. Sometimes the result is irony, sometimes horror, sometimes forgiveness, sometimes disgust. That he produces so much without varying the style at all is the core achievement of the collection.

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