Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: austria (page 1 of 5)

Am I a Redundant Human Being?

The Austrian writer and painter Mela Hartwig wrote Am I a Redundant Human Being circa 1931. It was not published until 2001 in German, and in English in 2010.

Our narrator, Luise, suffers from two afflictions of personality: first, a near-total lack of inspiration in how to live her life; and second, a painful awareness that leads her to self-immolating criticism. Neither of those alone would make for such a sad story, but Luise is also socially offputting, and she inspires little in others beyond bemusement and irritation. I think that one of the reasons this book hasn’t received much notice is that the novel will alienate someone not in sympathy with Luise’s peculiar afflictions. Hartwig does not make it easy to have sympathy for her; she doesn’t want to make it easy. That’s the point of the novel.

A Mela Hartwig painting from 1964.

A Mela Hartwig painting from 1964.

The opening is explanation enough:

I’m a secretary. I have nearly twelve years of experience. My shorthand is first rate and I’m an excellent typist. I don’t mention it to brag. I just want to show that I amount to something. I’m ambitious.

I repeat: I’m ambitious. I’m hopelessly ambitious. Even though I certainly have reason to be humble. Reason enough to use modesty to avoid making the deficit between my talent and my ambition too obvious.

Luise is hard on herself, but not morally. Her wish is not to be a good person. She is not measuring herself against an ethical ideal or a societal model of what a woman should be (she confidently asserts that she is not unattractive, just nondescript), but against an aggressive inner conception she has for herself, whose origin is unclear. She wants to be something. It’s a very vague idea, and that’s her problem: she finds herself unable to fill it in, to flesh it out. She wants to be more passionate, more absorbed, more adventurous, but she has no preference for how these traits should express themselves.

Hartwig’s real achievement in this book is to keep the language at once abstract yet piercingly clear. It’s done quietly enough that it’s only by comparison with other mediocre novels of this sort that Am I a Redundant Human Being? appears superior. Hartwig is very sharp in expressing half-formed emotions and generalized frustrations in vivid language. (And credit to translator Kerri A. Pierce for rendering it well in English.) Hartwig sets up small loops of thought like these:

I didn’t use my ambition to demand more of myself than I was capable of giving–I simply used it to expect more of myself than I was capable of giving. (48)

My lack of diligence is even more inexplicable since I actually had a good example in my colleague that it would have been worth emulating. Of course, I had the desire to perform at her level, to become as capable as she was, to learn the art of standing out, of making myself indispensable–but at the same time, I was convinced that it was futile for me to want anything. (49)

Such thoughts are difficult to phrase so well.

So Luise looks to others for models, even while half-realizing that she is being stupid in doing so. She is “pathetically attracted” to her supremely confident schoolmate Johanna, then later experiences the rush of being in a political rally, melting into “The Mob,” and feeling passionate about something, only to lose all interest when she is once more alone.

She falls in with a couple men. There is Emil, whose love she pathologically doubts (for who could love her?) until he leaves her. But she is detached about the end of the relationship:

It hurt me to have lost him, but it hurt me even more to have lost his love…Dismayed, I realized that what I missed most about Emil K. was seeing myself through his eyes. Therefore, I reached an appalling conclusion: I could trust my pride, but not my heart. (61)

There’s Anton, whose love she doesn’t doubt, but whose love signifies his worthlessness:

However, I couldn’t overlook the fact that he was impressed by what I wanted to be, and couldn’t see me for what I really was. He respected me for my struggling to make something of myself without realizing that this struggle was futile. As they say, the proof was in the pudding: I came to see that my low opinion of him was perfectly justified. (67)

The ruthless logic of Luise’s self-criticism provides something of a shield for her against the world. After being seduced by a lying lothario, she feels tremendously betrayed, but also strangely liberated, for now she doubts others as well: “turning my doubt outward made it far easier to bear.” She doesn’t act like a victim should act–this makes her offputting.

This is not to say that Luise’s self-assessment is justified. That’s really beside the point. Several reviews complained that there was no seeming reason for her level of self-loathing, as though the lack of a clear cause makes her unconvincing. The point is that for every Johanna, there is a Luise, and we should understand that regardless of causes. Citing causes would excuse Luise as well as us from responsibility, and neither Hartwig nor Luise want that. The reader doesn’t get to be on the side of the angels while reading this novel.

The latter half of the book concerns her relationships with lovers Elizabeth and Egon. She first idolizes Elizabeth, who is described in terms eerily similar to that evoked by the description of Borderline Personality Disorder:

She was whoever she wanted to be at a given moment: the heroine of the novel she was reading, the protagonist of the tragedy or comedy she was rehearsing. Simply being herself wasn’t enough for her…Her will was strong. But it seems to me that she primarily used her will to deceive herself, to enable herself to believe wholeheartedly in the woman she was pretending to be, to feel completely at home in whatever character she’d just slipped into. (81)

Luise looks up to Elizabeth but because she wants to mimic Elizabeth and not enable her, Elizabeth doesn’t take to her too strongly. Luise has nothing to offer the borderline. No folie a deux results: Luise sees Elizabeth too clearly, envying her while exposing her. But after Elizabeth commits suicide as a result of her lover Egon leaving her, Luise sees her real chance, to take Elizabeth’s place. She pursues Egon.

It obviously doesn’t work out. While Egon is contemptuous and indifferent, unwilling to deign even to take advantage of Luise, Luise herself can’t commit fully to playing the role of Elizabeth. She makes a good go of it, but she can’t convince herself, nor can she convince Egon.

The book is not quite a tragedy. There’s something to Luise’s self-awareness that, if not liberating, possesses survival value. Luise does figure out what she’s doing, and she reconfigures her life so that she does not end up a passionate suicide like her erstwhile idol Elizabeth. It is an unsatisfying, limited life, especially relative to her insistent ambition. Perhaps part of her would actually prefer to be a passionate suicide, but there is also a stubborn pride to Luise’s attitude, an arrogance that makes her certain that she has seen the world aright. Perhaps if she had questioned that certainty….

The character of Luise reminds me most of Melanie in Maren Ade’s amazing film Forest for the Trees. Melanie absolutely fails to fit into her a new village as a schoolteacher, socializing with such clumsiness that her neediness is far too apparent. The lack of sympathy given her is at once understandable yet devastating. Eva Löbau gives a performance that apparently irritated a lot of reviewers, but which I found both astonishingly focused and painful. (The movies of Lodge Kerrigan have this quality as well.)

foresttrees1

 

I imagine that Luise too projected this air, at once desperate yet harshly insistent.

There’s little in the book that pins it to its era. The austere narrative doesn’t seem representative of typical German-language writers at the time, male or female, though I’m just not familiar with enough of the latter to be certain. Hartwig was Jewish, but that also does not make itself explicitly felt in the novel. Hartwig has very little in common with her contemporary Anna Seghers and pretty much nothing in common with Margarete Böhme. If anything, her style is more reminiscent of postwar writers who adopted more stripped-down tactics, such as Max Frisch and Adelheid Duvanel.

But this only underscores the immense absence of women’s voices throughout the history of literature, and how difficult it is to assess to what extent Hartwig portrays a female voice versus an unheard voice, for the two categories overlap but do not coincide. Certainly the early modern lineage of German woman writers like Elsbeth von Oye, Rachel Akerman, Margarethe von Kuntsch, Sophie von La Roche, Karoline von Günderrode, and Bettina von Arnim charts out a very different path than the corresponding pathways in English. I’m unsure of where on the line Hartwig falls, but if I had to guess, it’s rather far off the middle. All the better.

Two other reviews that capture the distinctive nature of the novel and of Luise herself are those of Daniela Hurezanu and Matthew Jakubowski.

Christian Hawkey: Ventrakl

I wrote a review of this book, a sort of postmodern engagement with Austrian poet Georg Trakl, for the Poetry Project Newsletter. The issue hasn’t been posted online, and since it can be a bit difficult to get ahold of outside of the city, I figured I would post it here in the meantime. But first, Trakl’s most famous poem, “Grodek,” about his terrible experiences on the front in World War I:

Grodek

Am Abend tönen die herbstlichen Wälder
Von tödlichen Waffen, die goldnen Ebenen
Und blauen Seen, darüber die Sonne
Düstrer hinrollt; umfängt die Nacht
Sterbende Krieger, die wilde Klage
Ihrer zerbrochenen Münder.
Doch stille sammelt im Weidengrund
Rotes Gewölk, darin ein zürnender Gott wohnt
Das vergoßne Blut sich, mondne Kühle;
Alle Straßen münden in schwarze Verwesung.
Unter goldnem Gezweig der Nacht und Sternen
Es schwankt der Schwester Schatten durch den schweigenden Hain,
Zu grüßen die Geister der Helden, die blutenden Häupter;
Und leise tönen im Rohr die dunklen Flöten des Herbstes.
O stolzere Trauer! ihr ehernen Altäre,
Die heiße Flamme des Geistes nährt heute ein gewaltiger Schmerz,
Die ungebornen Enkel.

At nightfall the autumn woods cry out
With deadly weapons, and the golden plains
The deep blue lakes, above which more darkly
Rolls the sun; the night embraces
Dying warriors, the wild lament
Of their broken mouths.
But quietly there in the pastureland
Red clouds in which an angry god resides,
The shed blood gathers, lunar coolness.
All the roads lead to the blackest carrion.
Under golden twigs of the night and stars
The sister’s shade now sways through the silent copse
To greet the ghosts of the heroes, the bleeding heads;
And softly the dark flutes of autumn sound in the reeds.
O prouder grief! You brazen altars,
Today a great pain feeds the hot flame of the spirit,
The grandsons yet unborn.

(tr. Michael Hamburger)

It is apparently ambiguous whether Weidengrund is to mean “pastureland” or “willow-ground.” This poem was one of the last two that Trakl wrote before his suicide, and while there are signature stylistic tics (the colors, for one), it is far from representative.

On to the review:

______________

Georg Trakl was an Austrian poet who killed himself at 27. Born in 1887, he trained as a pharmacist and became a medical officer in the war. His ghastly experiences on the front lines while treating wounded soldiers caused a psychotic break in his already unstable personality, which led to his suicide not long after in 1914. Trakl’s experimentation with forms and his feverish imagery mark him as a modernist and expressionist, but the absence of psychology and his Dionysian mysticism mark him as a late Romantic, closer to Hölderlin than Rilke. His obsessive use of color, blue and purple especially, is a marker of a poetic language whose meanings can only be grasped obliquely. This aloofness, this immersion in 19th century poetics, challenges anyone to invade his mind.
Christian Hawkey intends to do just this. Ventrakl is a “scrapbook” of “collaborations” with Trakl. Its investigations into Trakl–Hawkey’s personal reflections, imagined interviews with Trakl, manipulated photographs, a biography of Trakl’s sister, and formal and aleatoric manipulations and translations of Trakl’s poems–confront Trakl’s work from multiple angles, usually indirectly rather than head-on. Such a potpourri is bound to be messy, something Hawkey advertises by terming Ventrakl a scrapbook. Yet the humility of that term is contradicted by the deliberate presumption of also calling the work “a collaboration,” underscoring Hawkey’s own ambivalence about engaging with such an elusive figure. Ambivalence and messiness, rather than an elegant falsity, is what is called for.

Hawkey rightly plays up the difficulties rather than obscuring them. The title page of each section in Ventrakl is marked with an obelus, the division symbol. Two individuals–two dots–separated by a literal line of division. There are many such figurative lines in Ventrakl: English/German, present/past, prose/poetry, reader/writer. The book stakes its success on the extent to which the identification of these lines reveals more than merely the failure to cross them. As Hawkey says of Trakl’s great war poem “Grodek”: “the words erasing the line between two worlds.”

Hawkey reveals some of his translation and transformation techniques in the introduction, but is cagey about how and where they have been applied. One of the clearest processes produces some of the most striking joins of past and present, a series of color poems (“Whitetrakl,” “Yellowtrakl,” etc.) that translate and assemble Trakl’s lines containing that color. The color is made to seem arbitrary, and yet the result is a bas-relief map of the color’s tenor in Trakl’s mind, presented in time-lapse.

black angel, who quietly slipped from a tree’s heart,

the black flight of birds always touches

the black dew, dripping from your temples, all roads flow into black decay . . .

Other poems are constructed via homophonic manipulation of the German texts, a technique memorably used by Louis and Celia Zukofsky in their translations of Catullus and David Melnick in his reappropriation of the Iliad. In Hawkey’s appropriation of “Nachtlied,” “Erstaart vor Bläue, ihrer Heiligkeit” becomes “For the blue of error-stars, heaven’s klieg light,” loosely but effectively evoking the efflorescence of the original. Later in the same poem, “nächtlichen” becomes “night-lichen” and “Spiegel der Wahrheit [mirror of truth]” becomes “speech’s warfare.”  It is some work to track down the originals, as Hawkey does not always give clear pointers to his sources, but a good many of his treatments become more evocative when viewed with the originals at hand. As I participated by delving through Trakl, I came to identify further with Hawkey’s position.

Other words and phrases recur throughout the poems, again pointing to a hidden web of connections behind the veil of a different language. “Reasons Why Orphans Wear Stillness-Mittens” picks up on that final word, already used in earlier poems in the book, and gives an ordered list of those reasons. It is strongly affecting, drawing on Hawkey’s ability to take these strange homophones and draw out their emotional juice. It is here he perhaps comes closest to achieving something of Trakl’s own foreboding presence, by way of creating distance from both Trakl and himself through the space between languages. The recurrent use of such words across poems reinforces the effect. A number of poems use the word “sternum,” linking the heart and chest to the stars (the German stern), a link that is a fitting metaphor for the book itself.

There is an inherent element of risk, however. In Hawkey’s idiolect, “Durch Wolken fährt ein goldner Karren” becomes “A duck fart woke the golden Karen,” in a coarse excursion into sub-Silliman space that even apologizes for itself: “how completely your mirror-language / Has failed.” It seems we must take the good with the bad, but it sits uneasily next to the talk of war and insanity elsewhere in the pages.

The prose excursions are more tentative, lacking the focused incandescence of the best poems in the book. The “interviews” with Trakl, in particular, strive for a self-consciously awkward engagement, but sometimes slide into a stilted preciousness. Yet there are still such gems as Hawkey’s thoughts on gazing at Trakl’s manically intense expression: “Your physician in the Krakow asylum reported that you often saw a man with a drawn knife standing behind your back. Even though your head faces forward, your gaze seems directed there, behind you.”

Taken as a whole, these problematic points still contribute to the book’s acutely Midrashian quality. Appropriation becomes a motif, with Hawkey noting his lifts from Spicer, David Cameron, the Zukofskys, and others. Nothing prevented him from adopting more novel techniques, as K. Silem Mohammad has done, for example, in his treatments of Shakespeare. But Hawkey chooses to emphasize Ventrakl’s lack of autonomy. The translations/deformations are littered with contemporary references both serious and trivial. The strangely po-faced introduction drops Bachelard, Heidegger, Agamben, Stein, and Benjamin in its first three pages, encasing the book in a theoretical carapace that stresses its dependency on contemporary poetic discourse. Trakl, in contrast, comes to seem increasingly universal in refusing to provide anything but the barest specifiers of time and place.

Weighed down by its declared lack of autonomy, the book appeals to Trakl as a source of unimpeachable authenticity, only to be overwhelmed by the concept of that authenticity and the inability to contain it across language, time, and place. It throws up beautiful but uncanny images, only to be unable to claim them as its own. (Here the word “collaboration” starts to seem more sinister.) When it now seems depressingly obligatory to cite Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” in any meditation on translation, as Hawkey indeed does, how can a writer and reader escape the theoretical baggage and speak of poetry and war? Ventrakl does not give an answer, but tenaciously refuses to admit success or surrender. It is an ouroboros looking to let go of its tail.

________________

One last note: I really would endorse an embargo on the use of Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of a Translator” when discussing translation. It has become too ubiquitous and its Romantic notion of translation as a gnostic, transcendent impossibility doesn’t strike me as helpful. His idea of “pure language” simply seems wrong-headed. I had real problems with Adam Thirlwell’s book on translation, The Delighted States, but I think he had the right idea in going with Borges’ more elastic and pragmatic conceptions of translation.

The perfect page, the page in which no word can be altered without harm, is the most precarious of all. Changes in language erase shades of meaning, and the “perfect” page is precisely the one that consists of those delicate fringes that are so easily worn away. On the contrary, the page that becomes immortal can traverse the fire of typographical errors, approximate translations, and inattentive or erroneous readings without losing its soul in the process. One cannot with impunity alter any line fabricated by Góngora (according to those who restore his texts), but Don Quixote wins posthumous battles against his translators and survives each and every careless version.

Borges, “The Superstitious Ethics of the Reader”

Michael Hofmann on Thomas Bernhard: Missing the Point

I was disappointed in Hofmann’s article on Bernhard, Reger Said, in the LRB, not only because it neglects the most important aspects of Bernhard’s work, but also because it seems to confirm so many preconceptions of him: the angry Austrian endlessly railing at everything, hating the country and its people and life and books and culture and everything. Yes, there is a lot of ranting in some of his books, particularly the one Hofmann is discussing, Old Masters, as well as the contemporaneous Woodcutters, but it is only one side of Bernhard’s work, and it is always contextualized.  It is never ranting for its own sake, and the rants are never to be taken completely at face-value, no matter how appealing or justified the target. (And since Hofmann translated Bernhard’s rather rantless early novel Frost, for which I give thanks, he knows there is more.) But if Bernhard were the grumpy caricature Hofmann paints him as, his books would be nowhere near as affecting. So I will interrogate the article to draw out the depths.

Hofmann:

They are sculptures of opinion, rather than contraptions assembled from character interactions. Each book is a curved, seamless rant.

I would say that the seams show, constantly. For all Hofmann makes of how the voices in a Bernhard book merge together into a unity, the constant lurch into the histrionic and the lack of proportion, the way in which a Bernhard narrator will go from attacking Nazis to, say, attacking cheese, makes his rants somewhat less than focused bursts of fury. He is not Karl Kraus and nor is he trying to be. (He’s better.) Extinction is where this agonized self-undermining is most on display. It’s his deepest rant, as the narrator constantly defers dealing with the real monstrousness at hand, a monstrousness for which he feels intensely responsible, by focusing on smaller topics and frivolous insults:

Without the art of exaggeration, I told him, we’d be condemned to an awfully tedious life, a life not worth living. And I’ve developed this art to an incredible pitch, I said. To explain anything properly we have to exaggerate. Only exaggeration can make things clear.

We’re often led to exaggerate, I said later, to such an extent that we take our exaggeration to be the only logical fact, with the result that we don’t perceive the real facts at all, only the monstrous exaggeration. With some, of course, the art of exaggeration consists in understating everything, in which case we have to say that they exaggerate understatement, that exaggerated understatement is their particular version of the art of exaggeration, Gambetti. The art of exaggeration is in fact the secret of all mental endeavor. I now left the Huntsman’s Lodge without pursuing this undoubtedly absurd idea, which would assuredly have proved correct had I developed it.

Extinction

This is not a focused rant, nor even a curved one, but a looping spiral collapsing inward on itself. Opinion gives way to the very hatred of one’s self for expressing an opinion. To express an opinion is to lower yourself to the level of what you’re attacking, as the narrator of Woodcutters realizes over and over again, not that he can stop. But what can you do?

Hofmann:

Something is being clobbered so hard that we laugh – quite possibly mistakenly, and out of the goodness of our hearts. We’re nervous, we don’t think anyone could say all this and mean it. He means it, all right.

The indefinite antecedents here–“all this,” “it”–are precisely the crux of the issue. He means what? All the exaggerations, the name-callings, the generalizations, the hate? These are not things that one quite means. They are flourishes. The flourishes (here is where the “musicality” of Bernhard’s prose is apt) are all there are, as Bernhard is hellbent on avoiding such meaningful content as argument, logic, evidence, and proof.

And I think all this is fairly evident from Bernhard’s middle period, which isn’t all that rant-filled at all. Correction, which I consider to be his absolute masterpiece, is nothing but the turning-inward that falls on Bernhard’s ranters when they run out of venom. It’s about a man, or several men, who have nowhere to go, and yet are running at full throttle. I don’t think that the hermetic approach that culminated to Correction could possibly have gone any further, so Bernhard was forced to find a new direction, one dealing with the attempted evasions from the hermetic nightmare that consumes the men of Correction.

But the nightmare remains paramount. Odd that Hofmann should mention Nietzsche, one pole of Bernhard’s rhetorical world-view, without mentioning the other: Beckett. Nietzsche was determined to be anything but a nihilist, to be the very greatest non-nihilist there could be, to say “Yes” to life. Though Bernhard grasped Nietzsche’s subversive tricks in his rhetoric and his staged exaggerations, Bernhard would never give that Yes. Hell, Bernhard wrote a book called Yes in which the titular “Yes” is the dubious answer to the question “Will you kill yourself some day?” Hofmann seems to have missed the other pole. Ranting is an affirmation of an opinion. The narrators are in no condition to make affirmations. Their affirmations are empty. They are evading.

The rant is a dodge. If the narrator shuts up for a second, the real wretchedness, the void and the evil and the pain, will come crashing down. And it always does. Philosophically, Bernhard is Schopenhauer, whom Nietzsche exhaustingly rejected for his endless NO.

Hofmann:

The book ends with a cautious stab at a little more of the world: Reger has, ill-advisedly in view of much that has gone before, purchased a couple of theatre tickets, and invites Atzbacher to take in a show with him. It is Kleist’s comedy The Broken Pitcher at the Burgtheater. ‘The performance was terrible,’ Atzbacher notes in the book’s last put-down. It is a real ending, slight but real, no mean feat.

In fact, this is only the denouement, the final punchline. Considered apart from what has gone just before, it is only another insult. But that last put-down comes, crucially, after the veil has briefly fallen and the narrator’s energy has failed him.

A person today is at everyone’s mercy, unprotected, we are dealing today with a totally unprotected person, totally at everyone’s mercy, a mere decade ago people felt more or less protected but today they are exposed to total unprotectedness, Reger said at the Ambassador. They can no longer hide, there is no hiding place left, that is what is so terrible, Reger said, everything has become transparent and thereby unprotected; in other words there is no hope of escape left today, people, no matter where they are, are everywhere hustled and incited and flee and escape and no longer find a refuge to escape to, unless of course they choose death, that is a fact, Reger said, that is the sinister aspect, because the world today is no longer mysterious but only sinister….

The death of my wife has not only been my greatest misfortune, it has also set me free. With the death of my wife I have become free, he said, and when I say free I mean entirely free, wholly free, completely free, if you know, or if at least you surmise, what I mean. I am no longer waiting for death, it will come by itself, it will come without my thinking of it, it does not matter to me when. The death of a beloved person is also an enormous liberation of our whole system, Reger now said.

Old Masters

This is serious stuff. This is not a rant. What follows–the return to the rant, a few more tossed-off insults–is just the evasive engine turning over a few more times, the continuation of the futile effort to will one’s self out of the pain of living. It only further offsets Reger’s prior naked moment. And yet Hofmann ignores that moment. How could he miss it? It’s the wrenched heart of the book. Hofmann only disparages the wife, as though she meant nothing to Reger, when in fact she quite obviously meant everything, a fact Reger tries furiously to ignore, only to finally give up, at least for a moment. It’s as if Bernhard were writing a character named Michael Hofmann but forgot to insert all the self-doubt and self-hatred and sorrow. All the meaning, as it were.

Leo Perutz: The Master of the Day of Judgment

Perutz was an Prague-born, Jewish Austrian writer who wrote a number of short books. He emigrated to Palestine in 1938 and lived there until his death in 1957. His background only shows up indirectly in this novel, which falls under the “metaphysical mystery” category. It shows in the foreign background of our narrator and protagonist, the Baron, who has had an affair with the wife of a famous actor named Bischoff. Bischoff commits suicide under mysterious circumstances shortly after the book begins, after telling the Baron and a few other guests of the mysterious suicides of a soldier and his cousin. The Baron is accused; he is innocent, but the suicide does not seem to have been of Bischoff’s own volition either. The Baron then accompanies an engineer (another outsider) in his investigations into the murder.

This all plays out rather glacially, and the Baron contributes a cryptic introduction that reveals that the engineer too will die in his pursuit of the solution to these (induced) suicides. Before long we are in the realm of gnostic doings and a frightening, long-dead painter who claimed to have been able to bring people to their final judgment. The solution is not supernatural, though it is a bit untenable, but Perutz then undercuts that explanation itself with a coda that places an entirely different interpretation on what has gone before. I won’t give too much away if I say it jumps from gnosticism to Freud.

The asymmetry of these two accounts, and how each is incommensurate with the other, is the most unique point of the book. It does not leave a sense of satisfaction, but it did leave me impressed with what Perutz had managed, as well as wondering exactly what his intent had been. The two accounts really don’t mesh; they could come from different centuries.

The book reads like an antecedent to Borges, especially “Death and the Compass” (with a little of “The Aleph” thrown in), and also to Adolfo Bioy Casares’ early novels like The Invention of Morel. Borges praised Perutz, so I gather he and his friend Bioy Casares must have read this book and appreciated its attempt to mix the gothic, the gnostic, and crime. The admixture is compelling precisely because it is so awkward. The crime aspect, in particular, always seems to jut out. I’m not at all a reader of mysteries, and when the heavy stuff is introduced in Master, it makes the crime seem rather trivial in comparison.

The tradition continued with Carlo Emilio Gadda’s works, where the crime really does get smothered by Gadda’s own philosophical obsessions. Stanislaw Lem took it up from Borges (his admitted idol) in his mystery novel The Chain of Chance, which, bizarrely enough, features a solution quite similar to one of Perutz’s two resolutions in The Master of the Day of Judgment. Lem’s thematic, metaphysical concerns (science, probability, technology) are completely different from Perutz’s eschatological ones, yet the forms of the two novels are the same: the concerns are piggybacked onto the narrative until they overshadow it.

Umberto Eco also took the blueprint for his entire career in fiction from this tradition. The latest exercise of this sort that I can think of is Peter Greenaway’s Nightwatching, in which Rembrandt places the solution to a covered-up murder in the details of a painting. The difficulty, to me, still seems to be keeping the elements in balance without the whole work turning trivial.

Stefan Zweig

Paul Raymont reacted to Michael Hofmann’s incredibly nasty attack on Stefan Zweig by resolving to read more Zweig. I don’t particularly want to defend Zweig, but going after his suicide note was really a bit much:

Zweig left a suicide note which, like most of what he wrote, is so smooth and mannerly and somehow machined – actually more like an Oscar acceptance speech than a suicide note – that one feels the irritable rise of boredom halfway through it, and the sense that he doesn’t mean it, his heart isn’t in it (not even in his suicide).

It makes my attack on Michael Haneke look like a paean to his work. But I don’t think Hofmann’s assessment is too far off. I was easier on Zweig five years ago, but now I’m inclined to dismiss most of his work. What gets me is not his writing style or pretensions, but the shallow psychologizing that infects his fiction, a crude caricature of what Broch, Mann, and especially Musil were trying to achieve concurrently (and with only partial success; Musil is the only one who I would rate on that front, and even he runs into deep trouble at spots). But even among the second-rate writers, I rank him below Werfel and Schnitzler because of his lack of originality. The more from that period (or elsewhere) that I read, the less Zweig seems to offer. And what I said before still holds true: the best book I’ve read by him is his autobiography, The World of Yesterday, which is the work of a man surrounded by his literary superiors and quite aware of it. Contra Hofmann, who finds it smug and obnoxious, I think the autobiography does have a fair chunk of humility to it, with the smugness being a defensive posture.

So while Hofmann is busy thrashing Zweig for a multitude of sins personal and literary, the real problems get buried. Where Hofmann sees him as fake and commercial, I just see him as bland and conventional. Successful milquetoast writers do tend to annoy those with more fiery dispositions, but I think Zweig is too inoffensive to get to me. I feel the same way, though, about Hofmann’s beloved Joseph Roth (who, incidentally, had the poor taste to be friends with Zweig), the least innovative of the Germanic modernist writers. Still, the Zweig revival baffles me, though I’m less baffled when I see that Clive James is a Zweig fan. (Actually, it sounds like James wants to be Zweig.)

I notice, however, that Zweig has already had his posthumous revenge: Anthea Bell’s translation of Zweig’s Burning Secret has won the Schlegel-Tieck translation prize. The runner-up is Hofmann’s translation of Fred Wander.

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