German & Austrian literature

THE PLEDGE BY FRIEDRICH DÜRRENMATT

For years I approached people as though I was a detective trying to solve a case. I thought logic could be applied to them; I thought that no matter how confusing, how irrational and out of character, any of their behaviour seemed, explanations and answers would be forthcoming if you kept a professional distance and were intelligent and perceptive enough; and that, furthermore, you could, in fact, accurately predict behaviour with a small amount of information. I saw the chaos around me, which so troubled my peers, as being simply a ball of string to untangle. I prided myself on understanding people, even if I only rarely liked them. Then, eighteen months ago I made the decision to climb down from my comfortable vantage point, to engage fully with the world, and found, at closer quarters, that it is surreal and nightmarish, and that any attempt to make sense of it, to impose order upon it, is futile and likely to lead to madness.

I had read Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Pledge once before, around five years ago. At that time, I found it, like many other police procedural novels, fun, easy-going, immediately satisfying, yet ultimately inconsequential. Perhaps I read it too quickly, but more likely my judgement was a result of an overriding complacency. I was happy then. It was not until I picked it up again this week, as a different man, as someone who is not at ease with the world or himself, that I came to appreciate how complex and moving it is. It begins with a chance meeting between a writer of detective novels – who is narrating the action – and a police chief. Not long after they are introduced, the author is offered a ride, during which the chief criticises the detective genre. These novels are, he says, a ‘waste of time,’ not because the culprit is always brought to justice – this he considers to be ‘morally necessary’ – but because they proceed logically. You can’t, he advises the narrator, and me too, albeit too late in my case, ‘come to grips with reality by logic alone.’

As a way of illustrating his point he starts to tell a story about one of his officers, Matthäi, which then dominates the rest of the book. These postmodern, meta-fictional aspects of The Pledge are often praised, yet are, for me, one of its few, but not fatal, flaws. The framing narrative, the meeting between the author and the chief, including his criticisms, are too contrived, are gracelessly executed, and, worse still, unnecessary. It is clear that Dürrenmatt himself is speaking through the policeman when he objects to convenient, predictable plotting, and how at odds it is with reality, but these points could, and are, made far more powerfully in the rest of the novel. The reader does not need them to be spelt out quite so clinically. In fact, these elements have the potential to compromise the intensity of what follows, because one always has in mind that one is listening to a story being recounted; it comes close to taking one out of the action, it weakens, if not breaks, the spell.

The reason that these things do not too negatively impact one’s experience of the book is due, in large part, to the author’s ability to create and maintain a foreboding atmosphere. Even before the main storyline is introduced Dürrenmatt writes about the ‘inhuman silence’ of the Swiss canton, of unnaturally dark days, and of mountains that resemble an ‘immense grave.’ One is given the impression that this is a menacing, strange place. The houses are wretched; the sun, when it actually comes out, is malevolent. The writer of detective novels is spooked. He mentions his fear of ‘not waking again’, of feeling as though he is trapped inside an ‘endless, meaningless dream.’ Later, there is the repeated red symbolism, which of course reminds one of blood, but most eerie and unsettling is the role of the hedgehog giant, whose significance will become clear upon reading the book.

“You’re choosing madness as a method, and it takes courage to do that, no question; extreme positions impress people generally these days; but if this method does not lead to its goal, I’m afraid that in the end, all you’ll be left with is the madness.”

The first glimpse one has of Matthäi is as an ‘old man on a stone bench.’ He is ‘unshaven, unwashed’; his clothes are ‘smeared and stained; his eyes are ‘staring, stupefied’; and there is a strong smell of absinthe. His current unfortunate state means that one is eager to find out how a former police officer came to be this way, especially when it is told that he was once a ‘most capable man’, even a ‘genius.’ The crime at the centre of the book is the murder of a child, a girl, perhaps the most emotive kind of crime, and, in the early stages of the investigation, the impression that one gets of Matthäi is of someone who is strong and dispassionate. For example, he is the only one present when the body is found who is able to look directly at the corpse; and the only one willing to shoulder the burden of informing the parents [during which he makes the pledge of the title]. Indeed, in one of my favourite lines, he says to a doctor that he didn’t want to suffer with the world, he wanted to be superior to it.

However, none of this lends any weight to the chief’s description of Matthäi as a genius. The earliest indication of his special ability is when he offers to release the primary suspect to a crowd who have gathered in order to seek vengeance. He says he will turn the man over to them if they can guarantee justice, then proceeds to convince them that this would be impossible, because they cannot prove his guilt. It is a daring move, and evidence not only of his talent, but his arrogance too. Matthäi believes that he can read people, and that reason, his reason, will triumph over disorder. One sees further evidence of this in his unwillingness to accept that the primary suspect is actually guilty, despite him having motive, opportunity, a previous conviction, and the girl’s blood on his clothing. On one level it seems like a kind of a superiority complex, such as when I was at University and would argue the most extreme positions, because I felt as though I could do so better, more logically and consistently, than anyone else could argue their more mainstream opinions.

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As a study of arrogance, The Pledge would be fine, but not quite the masterpiece that it is. What elevates it even further is that one can also interpret Matthäi’s stance as a great, obsessive, and ultimately insane, dedication to his work and, more importantly, to the truth [as he sees it]. The easiest thing would be, of course, to be satisfied with the most probable culprit and close the case. Certainly, the chief, the townsfolk, and his colleagues, are happy to do so. For Matthäi personally, who has landed a excellent job opportunity in Jordan, and is due to leave the country imminently, it is the best, the most sensible thing to do. However, he refuses to, or he can’t, and his behaviour becomes increasingly irrational, his methods and theories more monstrous, as he vows to catch the real perpetrator of the crime. As he pieces together his case, everything that he argues is plausible, but the point made by Dürrenmatt is that logic is so powerful that one can create, and justify, appalling narratives, that in a world of chaos one can find links between an infinite number of unrelated, insignificant things, and thereby imbue them with false significance. It is to his immense credit as an author that he has one rooting for his madman, has one believing in him, even when he ruthlessly uses a small child as bait in order to catch a killer who may not even exist.

THE SHIP BY HANS HENNY JAHNN

It had been fifteen minutes since I ordered the taxi. According to the tracker on my phone it had spent that time down a dead-end street, turning slowly in circles. I considered cancelling, but with the instinctive human yearning for a reasonable explanation I convinced myself that my phone was faulty, that I was overreacting, that the fear I felt was unwarranted. When eventually the car pulled up I got in and asked the driver if he had been having mechanical problems. He told that he had been stuck at traffic lights. The lie unnerved me further. When the vehicle moved, it did so at great speed. I felt for my seatbelt, pulled it across my chest. It would not click into place. It was obstructed by something. ‘It doesn’t work,’ the driver said. I asked him to stop the car. He seemed agitated. ‘It’s fine,’ he said. ‘Stay there.’

It crossed my mind at this point that he meant me harm, and, further, that in harmful situations the victim usually waits for the terrible moment, the blow, before reacting. I was ready to act, to preempt. The driver offered me the backseat, then changed his mind. ‘Stay there, it’s fine,’ he repeated. We sped on. I wondered, with that futile human need for clarification, why he was so insistent on me being in the front of the car. A robbery? A sexual assault? I contemplated jumping, but, in compromise with myself, persuaded him to let me in the back instead. It’s either that or I get out, I stated firmly. What an absurd agreement. A few moments later we pulled up at some traffic lights. ‘My eyes,’ he said. ‘They feel itchy, I can’t see.’ He wants me to get in the front again, I thought. To check his eyes. I didn’t. I asked to be let out, and to my surprise he stopped the car.

I’ve told this story numerous times. Most think that it was nothing, that the danger was a figment of my imagination, that it was no more than dust dirtying the mirror of my mind. Sometimes I think so too. Is it not I who am mad, and not the world? I’ve asked myself that question before. Isn’t it possible, likely even, that I am viewing the world through the prism of my own insanity, and that this is the reason why everything I experience seems so peculiar, offbeat, and frightening? Is that the reasonable explanation for which I yearn? There are no demons in dark corners, they are all in my head. Yes, that is certainly a more straightforward way of looking at things. There was no maniacal taxi driver intent on hurting me, simply a taxi driver who was bad at his job; there are no trapdoors, simply doors upon which my diseased mind has imposed a sinister significance.

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The Ship was written by Hans Henny Jahnn and published in 1949. Information about the author is scarce, but the German was, I’ve read, the son of a ship’s carpenter and the grandson of a builder of ships. This, and the title of course, might lead one to expect from his work something like an ode to sailing and the sea, or even the less thrilling chapters in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, but the reality is far removed from that. The ship itself, which at the beginning of the novel is moored, and doesn’t give hint of being ready to go anywhere, is described as being of ‘unparalleled artistry.’ It was, we’re told, ‘built by a genius.’ The red sails, however, are troubling. More so is that fact of it being stationary, and of it being utilised as something of a party boat; for a ship that doesn’t drive through the water is a ‘useless enterprise,’ is, indeed, ‘an offence to society.’

These are early examples of a strangeness and unease that intensifies as the novel progresses. Some of this is due to the construction of the ship itself. The vessel is, it is revealed, equipped with microphones that allow the supercargo, a government official, to listen in to all conversations. This man is also in contact, in a way that isn’t particularly clear, with another ship that is sailing close behind and which is ready to move in on his say. Even more alarming is that the original ship appears to have secret walls and certain doors can be opened from outside even when locked. All of which gives the impression that the passengers are trapped in what is effectively a surrealist painting or on a floating fairground house of horrors. These people are further spooked by the uncertainties regarding the mission and the cargo. In short, none of them know where they are going, or why, or what is being carried.

In this way, The Ship is a a kind of mystery thriller, albeit a slow-paced one, especially when one factors in the disappearance of a young woman, and her possible murder. Indeed, it has much in common with the ‘locked room’ subgenre, as there are witnesses that see her enter the supercargo’s cabin, but none that see her leave; and yet there is no evidence of foul play when the room is searched. There is not, however, a highly trained detective on hand to unravel the mystery, only the passengers, the greater number of whom – the regular crew – are rapidly losing their minds. Of the others on board, there are three who are of particular interest. There is a captain, who is affable and competent, as long as he is dealing only with traditional captain’s business, but who would, if he were allowed, turn a blind eye to anything he couldn’t easily explain. Secondly, there is the aforementioned supercargo, who seems initially set up to be the villain. He is the only one with knowledge of the cargo and destination of the ship, and he is described as ‘devious’, ‘repulsive’, and ‘exceptional.’ Most telling, however, is his nickname as the ‘grey man’, for his character is vague, changeable. One is never sure what to make of him. Is he victim, loser, pawn or puppet-master?

The third character of note is Gustave, the missing young woman’s lover. He is the person on board who goes through the most significant changes. In the beginning, he stows away on the ship, and one can see in this a shedding of his previous identity, or a means of mentally and emotionally reinventing himself. Indeed, his relationship with Ellena, which had been so solid, falters; he ignores her, first for his new-found love of adventure and comradeship with the crew, and then in his obsession with understanding and explaining the odd nature of, and happenings on board, the ship. Yet far from arriving at any form of enlightenment, he becomes increasingly ‘befuddled.’ It is through Gustave in particular, but also notable members of the crew, that Jahnn illustrates his principle theme.

When faced with the strange or confusing, man will endeavour to look for a reasonable or logical explanation, almost as a kind of comfort blanket. However, it can happen that in searching for a simple, rational explanation one actually creates lavish fantasies, and these, in turn, can push one towards insanity. Moreover, is it also the case that a mind already in the grip of madness, when searching for the rational, will in fact create something monstrous, yet still plausible. Take, for example, the construction of the ship. Gustave refuses to accept, or may not even acknowledge the possibility, that its design is eccentric, but harmless. He sees something sinister in it, a motive. Likewise, the cargo could be anything. It is a secret, yes, but that does not mean that it is something horrifying or supernatural. Perhaps it is guns. Drugs. Or something even more banal. Yet Gustave and the crew concoct ever wilder theories, culminating in a belief that in each coffin-shaped box lies a woman, dead or alive.

THE GLASS BEES BY ERNST JÜNGER

If you have been following my reviews you will know that I have spent a significant number of weeks in Prague this year. I have already shared many stories pertaining to my time in that city, but there is one that I have been keeping in reserve. One Saturday night I lost my friend in the classy [it isn’t classy] Lucerna nightclub. Upon exiting the building at 4am I realised that not only had my phone died, but that I also did not know my way back to the hotel, nor even, in my inebriated state, remember its name. I tried, first of all, to enlist the help of a taxi driver, but with his little English and my little Czech, we amicably agreed to drop the matter. Next, I approached the locals, and for the first time in my life I understood what it meant to be a foreigner in need, rather than simply a tourist, for they all treated me with either suspicion or disdain.

At this point, I began to pray; not to God, of course, but to my phone. I made promises, extravagant promises, to it in return for a little juice, a few moments of illumination, one bar, anything, so that I could call or text or, and this thought was almost too much to bear, use google maps to navigate a route back to the hotel. But it wasn’t to be; the phone had forsaken me; and so I set off. To where? To nowhere, to anywhere. I walked. Head up. Feet dancing to a peculiar rhythm. After a while I spotted two people, or, to be precise, I heard them. Their voices were familiar. English voices. Northern English voices. The two girls were from Wigan, a place I had staunchly avoided throughout my life, but which now seemed glorious to me, and, no, they did not mind if I walked with them, for they were lost too.

Of course, eventually I found my way to my back to the Residence Leon D’Oro, sometime around 6am, but that is not important, not relative to this review anyway. What has stayed with me in terms of this experience is the experience. Had my phone not died I would never have trawled the streets of Prague in the early hours of the morning in the company of two girls; the friendship we shared for a short period of time, which was precious to me then, and remains precious to me now, would have been denied me. Indeed, isn’t it the case that many of the forms of technological progress that have found their way into our everyday lives, while claiming to bring people together, often, and for prolonged periods of time, in reality keep us apart? Are these machines improving our lives or destroying them? Obviously, I am not alone in my concerns; the science fiction community has engaged with them on more than one occasion. Yet it was something of a surprise to find similar ideas present in the novel under review here, The Glass Bees by Ernst Jünger, which was published in 1957.

“Human perfection and technical perfection are incompatible. If we strive for one, we must sacrifice the other.”

In terms of plot, of which there isn’t a great deal, the focus is on Richard, a former cavalryman who narrates the book. He is in a dire financial predicament, which has put a strain on his marriage and led to him having to sell most of his possessions; in turn, he has approached an old colleague, Twinnings, who appears to be some kind of employment broker or agent. It is this man who puts Richard in contact with Zapparoni, whose [very successful] business is in robotics. Richard is, therefore, at a low ebb; in fact, I have come across few characters who are as relentlessly disappointed, and self-critical, as he is. Indeed, he points out that a chief of staff once called him an ‘outsider with defeatist inclinations,’ an assessment he goes to great lengths to validate. He is ‘suspicious’ and ‘quickly hurt’; he is ‘a man of failure’ who is ‘not suited to deal with money or earn it’; he has ‘experienced much but accomplished little’, and so on.

However, what is fascinating about Richard is not that he is dissatisfied with the way that his life has unfolded, in terms of material gain, but rather that he is a ‘man out of time.’ Consider, first of all, his former occupation: the army. This is significant because it brings to mind values such as honour, bravery, discipline, comradeship, integrity, and so on. These values, he finds, are not compatible with civilian life, but specifically with the modern, capitalist way of life. Indeed, he states himself that he is ‘old fashioned’, that he is ‘one of those people who still wasted their time with scruples, while all the others, who pocketed whatever profit was offered, looked down on me.’ A significant proportion of The Glass Bees is devoted to Richard’s army anecdotes, to his wistful reminiscences about what life, or his life, used to be like, when he felt more at home in the world.

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In this way, The Glass Bees is something of a lament, or a requiem; it is one man looking at the world and concluding that it has, irrevocably, gone to shit. And that, moreover, technology has played a prominent role in this. Horses, for example, are, according to Richard, ‘doomed’; these ‘magnificent creatures’ have ‘disappeared from the fields and streets, from the villages and towns.’ ‘Everywhere,’ he continues ‘they have been replaced by automatons.’ Being a former cavalryman, he focusses specifically on war, of course, which is now waged with machines; it is a robot war, involving tanks and guns, not horses and swords; and these machines are levellers, they can make a titan of ‘a pimply lad from the suburbs.’ Technology has meant that war is no longer reserved for skilled, brave and noble men [although this may never have actually been the case] and, perhaps more significantly, made it so that it is no longer a fight, but murder instead. One can apply this idea to other areas of life too, for hasn’t technology made it so that some things are too easy? Skill, experience, all kinds of human qualities have been made redundant by machines.

If Richard is a man out of time, it would be tempting to say of Zapparoni that he is the new man, the man time of the times, or even of a time to come. He is said to have ‘money to burn’, having achieved a monopoly in his field; and one cannot, we’re told, open a paper or magazine or sit in front of a screen without seeing his name. All of which sounds familiar, but not necessarily prescient. His work is in robotics, as previously stated, but I’m not particularly interested in these designs, and so will not linger over them. What I do want to touch upon is the idea that ‘in his opinion, nature was inadequate, both in its beauty and logic, and should be surpassed.’ Does Zapparoni consider himself to be a God? Or is it rather that he believes that he can improve upon God’s work? Certainly this is an attitude that we do encounter much these days, not solely in the field of robotics, but also in cosmetic surgery,  genetic engineering, etc.

The Glass Bees is barely 200 pages long, and I have only scratched the surface of what it contains, but this review, I hope, goes some way to showcasing how complex, how intelligent, imaginative and challenging it is. It may also, and this is maybe more important to me personally, have given some idea of how moving it is. This is, make no mistake, a very sad book. It would be easy to dismiss it as the reactionary, curmudgeonly grumblings of a miserable old man, especially when you consider that Jünger was himself a former soldier, and a passionate advocate of that way of life; but that would be missing the point entirely. For me, the German exposes our arrogance, our irresponsibility, and our negligence towards the world and towards each other; and he gives powerful voice to his, and to my, dismay. ‘The beauty of the forests was past,’ he writes, which is to say that it exists but we no longer notice or appreciate it. Well, not until one night your phone dies.

THE MAIMED BY HERMANN UNGAR

‘I’m starting to believe in God,’ I said to someone the other day. Not in a positive way. No. More and more I am convinced that a higher power exists, and that He is fucking with me. What other explanation could there be, I ask myself with despicable arrogance, for the relentless misfortune that has befallen me in recent times? Twelve months ago, things were not perfect, of course, but I was happy, carefree; my life had meaning, direction. And now? Disaster and misery, that twin-headed dog, has pinned me to the ground and is slobbering on my face. Yet on occasions I find myself laughing. Sitting in my room or walking down the street. It’s funny, because it’s absurd. Something else? Another one? Whatever next? Chaos dominates my existence; it is standing on my bollocks in high-heels and calling me a dirty bitch.

So, right now I feel especially drawn to, and sympathetic towards, Franz Polzer – poor Franz Polzer – whose life unravels over the course of just over two-hundred pages. However, as one would expect, The Maimed begins in an unassuming manner, as Ungar sketches the ‘monotonous routine’ that constitutes Franz’s existence prior to the unpleasantness that makes up most of the action. Polzer works in a bank, we are told, and has held the same position for seventeen years. He leaves the house at the same time every day, ‘never a minute earlier or later.’ He is a capable man, who is not fulfilling his potential, principally because he is desperate to maintain the status quo. He wishes to remain unnoticed; he prizes order and habit; he finds solace in the monotony; so much so, in fact, that when later in the novel he is offered a promotion he turns it down.

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[Staircase of Old Prague, 1924, Jaromír Funke]

At this early stage one might believe that one has stumbled upon something like a Bohemian version of The Book of Disquiet. Yet Polzer’s primary emotion is not disappointment, or a resigned acceptance of his dreary fate, but fear. He is afraid of thieves and murderers, of the unknown or unseen something that is ‘standing in the dark, waiting’; he fixates upon creaks and noises during the night. He sees disapproving looks, or outright threat, in every glance. He worries about his conversations being overheard; he worries about being forced out of his room, and of being thrown out of the apartment altogether. He even frets about the shabbiness of his clothes, spending an entire evening hiding a hole in his trousers with his hat. In short, everything frightens Polzer, including, or especially, children.

It is interesting in this respect to compare him to Karl Fanta, his childhood friend. While Karl is certainly more outspoken than Polzer, more handsome, more rich and successful, he too is almost constantly afraid. Indeed, he believes his wife to be not only unfaithful, but intent on killing him off and taking his money. This is not, however, the only, nor most interesting, similarity between the two men. Both are, or consider themselves to be, persecuted, and taken advantage of, by others, particularly the women in their lives. Moreover, both could be said to be enfeebled, one mentally and the other physically. This, I believe, goes some way to explaining the title of the novel. Karl is maimed externally, by virtue of the loss of his legs and his arm, by the illness that will take his life; Polzer, on the other hand, is maimed internally, psychologically.

“What Polzer feared had begun. The door had been opened. Once order had been disrupted, ever increasing chaos was bound to follow. The breach had been made through which the unforeseen could pour in, spreading fear.”

As with many socially awkward people, a number of Franz’s problems arise because he is incapable of successfully articulating his desires. He cannot, or will not, stand up for himself or put his foot down with any authority. This means that even when he says ‘no’ to something he isn’t taken seriously, or is, in a sense, overruled by someone who is more confident and aggressive. [This also happens when someone wishes to do him a kindness, such as the doctor who ‘loans’ him money for a new suit]. Therefore, Klara Porges, his nemesis and landlady, does not have to force or outright threaten him into taking her for a walk, and ultimately taking her as a lover, she merely has to apply a small amount of mental or emotional pressure and Polzer will crumble.

There is, however, one incident that takes place between the couple that one would describe as actual physical intimidation. This is when Porges whips Polzer with the buckle-end of a belt in order to make him strip. I was, at this point, put in mind of Thomas Mann’s description of The Maimed as ‘a sexual hell.’ In the most literal way this phrase strikes one as odd, as there is very little actual sex in the book, certainly nothing graphic. Yet it is apt when one considers the sadistic [and masochistic – although this is less pronounced] impulses of many of the characters. Early in the narrative, for example, it is revealed that Polzer was often held down by his father and beaten by his aunt. This, I would argue, goes beyond mere punishment and, as with Frau Porges and the belt, enters into the realm of sexual punishment; it is about getting off on power and the helplessness of others [especially when bearing in mind that it is suggested that the man and his sister were engaged in a incestuous relationship]. Moreover, Karl Fanta enjoys berating his wife Dora, making her strip for him; and it is her unhappiness, discomfort, and possible disgust, that is the source of this enjoyment.

Probably the most noteworthy [or controversial depending upon your religious stance] exploration of sadistic and masochistic impulses is in relation to Christianity. When Karl Fanta insists on a male nurse, he is given Sonntag, a former butcher. Initially, he seems reserved and dutiful, but after a while it is revealed that he is a born again Christian, who has peculiar, albeit not unique, ideas about sin and atonement. For Sonntag it seems that one atones for ones sins through submission and humiliation, and, to this end, he pays particular attention to the ‘haughty’ Dora. So once again one sees the powerful glorying in their ability to make the weak do their bidding, in their capacity for making these people suffer. Likewise, the weak are not only accepting of their punishment, but are willingly submitting to it.

Before I conclude I want to acknowledge the author, and, specifically, emphasise the quality of his prose. At first it struck me as artless – with its short sentences and the repetition of banal words and phrases – but before long I understood its purpose. It is unexciting, pedestrian, sometimes a chore to read; it is, therefore, perfectly in tune with its protagonist. Furthermore, in many novels of this sort – The Tenant by Roland Topor, for example – there is a lack of character depth, a necessary human dimension that is missing. The everyman; the average man; the boring man…how does one make it seem as though he is alive? Well, Hermann Ungar managed it; he gave life to the dead, to Franz Polzer, poor Franz Polzer, and that is ultimately what makes The Maimed a masterpiece.

THE ROBBER BY ROBERT WALSER

I plod through life in a disgraceful manner, it is true. I approach every day as though it were a Sunday afternoon in midsummer. Even in relation to my writing, which I would like to one day make my career. So many times I have been encouraged to grab the tiger by the tail, and I agree that it would be in my best interests, and yet I never do. Instead, I gently rub its nose and admire its whiskers. In this way, many opportunities have passed me by, and I have watched them, sleepy-eyed, as though I was sitting on a warm and pleasant riverbank, and they were slow-moving sailing boats. For this reason, I have always related to Robert Walser’s protagonists, but especially the ‘layabout’, ‘good-for-nothing’, ‘hopelessly indolent’, but amiable Robber.

The Robber is a young man who, we’re told, is exceedingly poor and only able to live by virtue of the charity others bestow upon him, such as the money given to him by the Batavian uncle, and the attentions of a number of well-meaning women. In this way, he is very much like Simon, from The Tanners, who, early in that novel, is allowed to stay in an apartment beyond his means by a landlady who takes a particular shine to him. It would be tempting, in light of this, to see both men as ‘users’, as the sort who will gladly take advantage of others, and while that might be literally true, there is certainly no sense that they do so with conscious deliberation or, if you like, malice aforethought. Simon and the Robber are dreamers and drifters, rather than arch manipulators; there is something naïve, soft and kittenish about them, and so it is no surprise that people often take it upon themselves to look after them, to indulge them, in the way that one would a stray but friendly little animal.

For me, the Robber’s dominant character trait is a kind of gentle frivolity, lightheartedness or lack of seriousness. For example, when he finds out that Rathenau, a German statesman, has been assassinated he claps his hands;  he is, moreover, enchanted by unkind looks and delights at not being able to gain the esteem of gentlemen. From my experience, readers tend to find this precious otherworldly-ness, these quirks, either aggravating or charming. I cannot, of course, influence how any particular person will react, but I would argue that there is more to the Robber than mere whimsy, or silliness, although I suspect he would value both of those things. He is, without question, an genuine eccentric, someone who is not entirely sane, and, as such, he is rather vulnerable – Walser points out that he does not have any friends, for example – and this makes the flightiest of his flights of fancy touching.

“He resembled the leaf that a little boy strikes down from its branch with a stick, because its singularity makes it conspicuous.”

In this regard, his name is obviously significant, for a robber, like an eccentric,  is someone who has, in a sense, stepped outside of polite, conventional society by virtue of his behaviour. This outsiderness is further emphasised by the lack of steady occupation and also by his interactions with the middle classes. Indeed, class plays a subtly important role in the novel. For example, the respectable Stalder sisters want him to respond to their coquetry, to behave in certain predictable ways, to marry them, but of course he does not, for the Robber is disinterested in, or not familiar with, middle class duties, values, institutions, etc. Furthermore, there are a number of references throughout to narrowmindedness, where Walser, or the Robber, lament that those who are different, or behave differently, are not accepted or are bullied and criticised. Take the teacher with the ‘odd nature,’ who was told she knew nothing of her profession. Only with time and support is she able to become a productive member of society. The idea is, then, not that it is a good thing to be outside of conventional society, but that it is incumbent upon society to make everyone feel included and worthy. Which is, of course, a lovely sentiment.

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[One of Walser’s microscripts]

The Robber was Robert Walser’s last novel, and although it was written in 1925, it wasn’t published until the 1970’s. There was, I am sure, more than one reason for this, but it is worth noting, first of all, that The Robber is one of Walser’s microscripts, which means that it was written in pencil in tiny, almost indecipherable letters. I can just imagine how a publisher would react to being presented with such a manuscript. Moreover, the style of the novel is especially unusual. There is, for example, absolutely no plot, and precious little character depth and no development. Indeed, although it isn’t set out on the page in the same way, one might compare it to David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which is composed of a series of declarative statements.

Yet perhaps the most trying, or amusing, aspect of the novel, depending on your tolerance level for this sort of thing, is its digressiveness. The first line is ‘Edith loves him,’ and in a conventional narrative one would expect that it would then be explained just who exactly Edith is, who the ‘he’ is, and that there would follow from that some discussion as to the nature of their relationship. But Walser promises ‘more on that later’ and throws in a random reference to a ‘famous’ hundred francs, which, of course, one has no prior knowledge of. And this is not, as noted, a one-off; he does it frequently, relentlessly, so that the story is constantly running down dead-ends [‘that hundred francs will come to nothing at all,’ he later writes]. The effect upon the reader is that it keeps one from ever finding a firm-footing; it is disorientating. As a writer, Robert Walser snatches away the tablecloth and sends all the plates and cutlery flying [but, ah, how beautifully he approached the table].

In 1929 Walser admitted himself to a sanatorium, upon his sister’s urging, and, I think I am right in saying, remained there until his death. With this in mind, there is a tendency to view The Robber as a manifestation of madness, but I think this would be simplistic, not to mention unfair to the author, because it, in a sense, deprives him of credit or complete responsibility for it, it is akin to saying that he wrote it despite himself or that he had no option but to write it the way that he did. I don’t believe that. One must remember that none of Walser’s novels have a strong plot, and they are all erratic, episodic and digressive, to a lesser or greater degree. That was his style. It is, for me, simply the case that The Robber is the most complete, the most sophisticated example of that style; it is what he had been working towards all along. It, in my opinion, expertly, deliberately, captures the stop-startingness, the circularity, the charming meaninglessness of everyday life.

THE OTHER SIDE BY ALFRED KUBIN

For years I had been toying with a story about a social experiment, in which a scientist, or psychologist, sets up a dream community. The idea was that a group of volunteers would be given the opportunity to live, for a time, in an environment resembling the world of dreams, where, to be specific, the normal, or comprehensible, coexists with the strange and inexplicable. Initially, this environment would be strongly regulated and controlled, with the help of dream-actors. However, the philosophical heart of the story was that the inhabitants would, after a period of acclimatisation, act out themselves, which means that they would, once they realised that they essentially have the freedom, without consequences, to do as they please [because their world is a dream], turn the dream community into a nightmare.

I thought this story of mine was really quite clever, until, as is often the way with one’s best ideas, I found out that someone had already written something very similar, which is to say that my enthusiasm was considerably dampened by the discovery of Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side, a novel, published in 1908, in which a man establishes a Dream Realm. The man in question is the mysterious, and exceedingly rich, Claus Patera, who was once the childhood friend of the narrator. The novel’s action is set in motion when a representative of Patera’s arrives at the narrator’s residence with a near-unbelievable tale and an invitation.

The invitation is, of course, to join Pearl, a place described as catering for those who are unhappy with modern civilisation, and where the aim is to give life ‘the deepest possible spiritual dimension.’ It is, therefore, a kind of sanctuary; but more intriguing than that is the suggestion that it is for those with an aversion to progress or with a passion for the past. Indeed, we are told that physically the place is made up of imported old buildings, various antiquities, classic artworks, even such things as ‘a broken old chair.’ There is, moreover, a large wall surrounding the community, in order to keep the outside [modern] world away. At this stage one is not sure how exactly this situation, this way of life, relates to the concept of dreams. Does it mean simply that Pearl is ideal for its inhabitants or is there actually something dream-like about it?

This question is soon answered when the narrator and his wife arrive in the Dream Realm, and the novel veers away from popular adventure story dynamics and becomes strange and sinister. Immediately, the narrator notes how ‘conditions there were most bizarre.’ One way of understanding this is in relation to the inhabitants. The community was recruited from ‘creatures of excessive sensibility’, those whose manias had ‘not yet got out of hand,’ and numerous hysterics, drunkards, criminals, spiritualists, and so on. They are all, then, not only what you might call abnormal, but also clearly vulnerable in some way.

In any case, the point is that if you gather together thousands of people with various manias, people who are socially or mentally abnormal, or unstable, what you are likely to find is that living among them will be something like being in a dream, in that their behaviour will be unpredictable. One instance of this is when a man addresses an audience that is not there. Furthermore, you will likely find that ordinary social arrangements, such as buying and selling, will break down or change in character; and this is what happens, so that, for example, the narrator sometimes pays a lot for very little, or nothing for an item that would, in the outside world, have been expensive. I thought that all this was fascinating.

Yet there are also elements of the inexplicable or [potentially] supernatural. The sky, we are told, was permanently dull, ‘the sun never shone,’ and the moon and stars could not be seen at night. This, of course, has nothing to do with the mental aberrations of the community’s inhabitants. However, one might argue that the narrator and his wife are themselves mad or go mad, in a kind of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest confrontation with the madness of others. Indeed, it is worth pointing that the narrator, towards the beginning of the book, describes himself as someone who is emotionally unstable, who is prone to ‘abrupt changes of mood.’ Therefore, even some of the more alarming aspects of life in Pearl – such as the housekeeper who appears to change into different people, the blind white horse, and so on – could be explained in this way.

Regardless, there is a large, gripping section of the novel that is simply great, pure horror writing. The narrator’s wife, for example, makes a pronouncement about how she feels, as they approach the Dream Realm, that they will never leave. There is also the constant wailing and moaning; and the hissing and knocking coming from the well; there are numerous references to hauntings and ghosts; there are doppelgängers and horrific deaths; there is a relentless atmosphere of terror, paranoia, and unease. It is wonderful, creepy stuff, and was perhaps influenced by the work of Edgar Allen Poe, which Kubin had previously illustrated.

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As we reach this point in this very long review you are perhaps wondering what exactly the book’s themes are, especially in view of its reputation as an allegory or sophisticated satire. Well, part of me is reluctant to get into all that. I have written before about my dissatisfaction with readers and critics who insist on there being, in certain kinds of novels, a single, consistent idea behind the surface action that explains the work, that magically transforms what you are reading into something else entirely. Take The Plague by Albert Camus, which, for me, is not only more impressive when taken on face value, but is frequently subject to interpretations of a tenuous nature. Kafka, of course, suffers the same fate. Indeed, it seems as though the stranger the work is, the more we, perhaps understandably, strive to find the normal, which is to say the comprehensible, in it.

I am not, of course, suggesting that allegory does not exist, or that it isn’t a genuine literary technique, but that it is important, first of all, to ensure that the work itself supports the theory. Secondly, some books can, maybe should, be enjoyed as they are; confusion is ok, weird is ok; there does not always have to be an explanation, a broader significance, a single underlying target. Bearing this in mind, it is my advice to read The Other Side without worrying too much about figuring out what the real story is. Some would tell you it is about German idealism, or religion, or capitalism, or anarchy, or numerous other things, all of which certainly play a part in the text, but really none of these interpretations stand up to scrutiny if one is looking for a coherent and unifying authorial statement.

There is, for example, no doubt that Kubin sets up Patera, who is frequently called ‘Lord’, as a God figure, and Hercules Bell, an American who creates The Lucifer Club, as Satan. One could see the Dream Realm, which is created by Patera, as representative of the earth, or even the Garden of Eden, over which these two figures fight; or at least one might say that Bell, as the Devil, attempts to wrest control of it. Indeed, at one point the narrator references that famous argument for the fallibility, or even non-existence, of God when he asks why, as Bell brings anarchy to the realm, Patera does not seek to intervene; he must not, he muses, be powerful enough. However, Pearl is, prior to Bell’s arrival, far too odd, damaging and unstable to be an Eden, and it seems rather pointless to create a surreal dream realm as a stand in for earth, when one could simply have set the novel in an ordinary community, if one’s intention was to write a religious allegory about the battle between good and evil.

As for capitalism, Bell is certainly a capitalist, a millionaire who believes in the power of money. But he doesn’t stride into Pearl and ruin it, for it wasn’t a utopia to begin with. In terms of German idealism, I don’t know enough about the subject, but, once again, wouldn’t it be a more powerful statement to begin with a utopia before showing it being destroyed? Perhaps the point was to argue that a utopia is impossible? Well, yes, but then what is the purpose of Bell? Isn’t his role, his impact, diluted by the fact that Pearl was never a competently functioning society?

“His eyes were like two empty mirrors reflecting infinity. The thought crossed my mind that Patera was not alive at all. If the dead could look, that is what their gaze would be like.”

If there is anything in all this it is as a warning against the dangers of Demi-Gods or false Gods. Both Patera and Bell are powerful figures, who attract followers; they are authority figures, to whom the general population of Pearl look for guidance, or by whom they are influenced. Indeed, the narrator spends much of the novel in pursuit of Patera, in the belief that he will help him or at least be able to provide answers to his questions. Yet the great man is always out of reach, he, although he extended the invitation to live in Pearl, provides no support. So, one has two main players, one who does nothing, who is absent, and one who is all-action, but brings chaos in his wake, and neither is worthy of faith. If The Other Side deserves to be called prescient, which it sometimes is, it would be in relation to this, to characters such as Hitler or Stalin, who wanted to be viewed as God-like, and who appeared to promise new worlds or new, better ways of living, but who ultimately turned out to be psychopaths, human and dangerously flawed.

One final thing before I finish. For me, the key to Kubin’s novel, to understanding it, or appreciating it, is not in relation to allegory or satire; its strength is not in politics or social science but in imagination. One must remember that the narrator is an artist, as is the author, and it is partly what motivates him to go to Pearl. The artist, one might argue, strives for new experiences, is drawn to the unusual, but it is more than that. The realm of dreams, isn’t that the artist’s realm? The world of the imagination, where anything is possible…this is where the narrator goes to live, and this is where Alfred Kubin himself lived. Now, if you will excuse me, I am off to work on my new story idea about a man who wakes up one day to find himself arrested for a crime he hasn’t committed. I’m thinking of calling it The Trial.

THE LORD CHANDOS LETTER BY HUGO VON HOFMANNSTHAL

Dear Lord Chandos

This is not a review, of course; nor is it a letter, for what is the point of writing a letter to someone who cannot reply, who would not reply even if he were a real man, and not a fictional character? No, it is more a confession masquerading as a game. [How tedious these games are, the games I have so often played in order to distract myself from myself]. On Friday night I was in a pub with two friends. I had invited them there in order to seek their advice, and I had confessed to them too, which is to say that I talked about myself with the same lack of enthusiasm I bring to almost all human spoken interaction. And, rather absurdly, I tried to explain this, this state of mind, this near-constant feeling of being behind glass, such that having a chat in a pub with two friends strikes me as a chore and my confession more like a duty.

In your letter to Francis Bacon you state that you want to open yourself up entirely, or words to that effect, which seems like rather futile effort, in light of your issues and problems. Perhaps you feel as though you owe Bacon something, in return for his concern regarding your mental paralysis? [Go to the doctor’s, I was told, and tell him everything. I can’t help but chuckle at the irony]. You write about your previous achievements, and how you now feel distant from them, and from any future work. The phrase you use is an unbridgeable gulf. You cannot write; you will not write. How I envy you this [voluntary or involuntary] renunciation. I do not believe in words, I do not understand them either; they are, to me, like an oppressive frame, a border, a barrier; they are a large sheet of glass upon which I unenthusiastically claw for appearance’s sake.

‘And there were other projects I toyed with. Your kind letter brings these back too. They dance before me like miserable mosquitoes on a dim wall no longer illuminated by the bright sun of a happy time, each of them engorged with a drop of my blood.’

You once lived in continuous inebriation. Drunk on intellectual stimulation, you might say. Yet there was, for you, no difference, at that time, between the spiritual, or intellectual, and physical worlds. The pleasures were equal. Therefore, your admission is that there has been a kind of breaking down, that something within you has given way. [Which is a sign of mental illness, of course]. Indeed, you write about how it came to be that words ‘disintegrated’ in your mouth ‘like rotten mushrooms.[Which is a lovely image, even to me, a man who does not believe in words]. In this way, your letter could be interpreted as something like a cry of anguish, a requiem for something precious that you have lost. It need not, as such, be directly, or solely, applied to language, but to any important object or thing that inexplicably loses its lustre or meaning. One of the most unfathomable, truly distressing aspects of human experience is the death, or extinguishing, of a passion.

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[Ludwig Wittgenstein]

Isn’t it this passion that highlights the inadequacy of language? You do a very good job throughout your letter of giving voice, of applying words, to your feelings, and yet to what extent do they capture your inner life? Isn’t that the issue? Poor exhausted words; let them sleep, for they are over-taxed. Words, like time, is a cage we have voluntarily built around ourselves. I hate. I love. I want. I need. What nonsense. ‘If a lion could talk, we should not be able to understand him’, Wittgenstein argued. I would argue we don’t, and can’t, understand each other; we stand, each at opposing ends of an unbridgeable gulf, shouting absurdities into the wind. We are a Spaniard and an Italian, who believe that they are conversing, that they are coming together, because certain of their sounds are vaguely familiar. Games again; always games.

Yes, the passion is important, to you and to me. Or let us say the feeling, the moment of transcendence, as experienced when in the presence of ‘a watering can, a harrow left in a field, a dog in the sun, a shabby churchyard,’ these ordinary things that take on ‘a sublime and moving aura.’ How hippyish, your vast empathy, your harmony! And yet I too feel – although it is impossible to say that what we feel is the same thing, of course – the tremors of the supernatural. I was once, one early evening, sitting on a bench, in Rotherham bus-station, and within me there was a sense, an overwhelming, indescribable, sense of well-being. The irony, of course, is that this hippyish empathy, this melting butter oneness, does not lead necessarily to peace, but, just as likely, to frustration or bitterness or despair. These experiences are, alas, fleeting, and, once gone, one is left in the unenviable position of being completely unable to express, to others, and even to yourself, what exactly you have experienced.

So, what is the point of writing, the purpose of which is communication, when it will inevitably end in failure? Why did you write? Why am I writing now? I wanted to end this piece [for it is not, as stated, a letter, nor a review] with an expression of gratitude, for I was, prior to this, myself close to the point of abandoning for good this so often unpleasant activity. And yet this has reminded me that there is something in the grasping, if not for me then hopefully for someone else, someone who may read this and find some level of pleasure in it, as I did in your work.

February 2016

[P]