Friday, January 10, 2014

"Life is impossible"

Zundel's Exit by Markus Werner

"It is in the literature of small countries that one learns that life is impossible."  Michael Hofmann

What an intriguing notion.  How counter-intuitive. I would have said that life is impossible in large countries, in the United States for example, or Brazil, or, heaven knows, in Russia, and that I would move to a cozy nation like Switzerland or Ireland or Portugal tomorrow if only I were able to do so. But Markus Werner's translator, the distinguished German scholar Michael Hofmann, thinks otherwise.  Life is impossible--in Switzerland?  I spent a happy month in Geneva, Bern, Interlaken, and Hunibach many years ago; "impossible" didn't come up.  I wasn't bored with Swiss politeness and civility, with the crystal-clear lakes or mountain vistas, and I wasn't appalled by the homogeneity of the people, many of whom spoke four languages and all of whom treated me like a distinguished guest (I would guess things are different now, post War-on-Terror).  The family who took me in, who drove me around the country, gave me the keys to their mountain chalet and car without knowing a thing about me--how could I have guessed at their true feelings?  What did I know of this small, peaceful nation's ennui?  Max Frisch, Robert Walser, Paul Nizon, and Peter Stamm are the only Swiss writers I've read, and none of them exudes the sort of cold, bright airiness that one associates with Bern or Geneva or glorious Interlaken. Perhaps it is the comfort of Swiss bourgeois life that is soul-crushing, or the relentless sublimity of the Alps, or the wealth, or the accuracy of the time-pieces.  In any any case, Zundel's Exit is a cheerless book, funny-sad in parts, but mostly mad and quirky and reflective of the sort of impossible life Hofmann cites in his introduction. 

There's a little of Aspen in Interlaken, but, having been to both the petit bourgeoise resort in Colorado and the haute bourgeoise resort in Switzerland, there can be no comparison.  No, life is far more impossible in large countries than small.  But then consider the sad case of the gymnasium teacher Konrad Zundel, who believes his wife to have been unfaithful, who has a morbid fascination with Italy (in just the way Thomas Mann obsessed over the malarial canals and back streets, the prostitutes and hustlers of Venice, so does Konrad spend much of the novel slumming in Genoa), and who pushes himself with breathtaking rapidity (the novel is a mere 124 pages) into madness.

Though Zundel's breakdown feels underdetermined--could he really believe his wife is unfaithful on the basis of a slanderous comment by his landlord?--he takes the path of many contemporary European malcontents, from Bernhard to to Frisch:

"I want my feeling raw, not spoon-sized, I want action, not the book, I hereby declare--until further notice--that unfiltered reality is my aim, and I mean it.  The mind--and I say it with all respect, and I have proof--the mind chokes off pleasure in living.  The fact that the female praying mantis (mantis religiosa) bites the head off the male at the onset of copulation and thereby heightens his sexual prowess (the head contains inhibitor nerve centers) can surely come as no surprise. The spontaneous life is--headless."

It's thinking that undoes us--we need to take on the world in all of its raw, unmediated terror to be sane.  I ask myself, "What sense does this make?"  I have little patience, at least in my literary life, with those who push themselves into madness in the name of enhanced experience. This deliberate flirtation with craziness is among the most unattractive legacies of romanticism, this equating of madness with insight.  Last year, rereading Celine's Journey to the End of Night I was close to thowing the book against the wall in frustration.  I feel the same way about the Beats (except William Burroughs, who was at least funny); the whole Rimbaudian "systematic derangement of the senses" leaves me cold.  Then again, one can see a kinship between Rimbaud and Zundel, for in both cases it is "Woman" (Rimbaud's scare-caps) who must be overthrown.  Zundel's wife Magda has many annoying habits, mostly having to do with her shallow feminism and the way she drops her hair clips carelessly about the flat--and this is more than Konrad can take.  When his malacious landlord suggests that Magda has been hosting gentlemen callers while Zundel was lurking in Italian train stations, Konrad Z. falls off the deep end, or rather, he falls into what passes for his own depths, which are, unlike Rimbaud's, not so much frightening as incoherent.  Zundel enjoys falling down, peeping through keyholes, sponteneously travelling to foreign places, and writing down his fragmentary thoughts. 

Rimbaud, who gave up literature at nineteen, wrote, in "Sensation":

"Je ne parlerai pas, je ne penserai rein:
Mais l'amour infini me montera dans l'ame, 
Et j'irai loin, bien loin, comme un bohemien, 
Par la nature--heureux comme avec une femme."
["I won't speak, I will have no thoughts:
But infinite love will grow in my soul,
And I will go far, far off like a bohemien--a gypsy,
Through nature--as joyous as a woman."]

And these sentiments come close to describing much of the story of Zundel's Exit.  A chaotic wandering through Genoa in search of something (a gun, a prostitute, the owner of a missing finger, a bit of lost dignity)--and then a breakdown.  I didn't much care if Zundel's woes were real or imagined, but I persist in thinking that perhaps he should have taken Magda on vacation in lovely Interlaken, eaten a bit of Swiss cuisine, gone for a hike, enjoyed a bit of carnality, and sought to discover if life, in the shadow of the Jungfrau, might not be possible after all.  I didn't dislike this book, but I found it, well, a little bit impossible.

Zundel's Exit, translated by Michael Hofmann, is published by the Dalkey Archive, which also publishes other Swiss writers like Paul Nizon and Gerhard Meier. 

George Ovitt (1/10/14)

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