• Email
  • Print

New European Fiction

The Thirtieth Year

by Ingeborg Bachmann
Knopf, 187 pp., $4.95

Every Man a Murderer

by Heimito Von Doderer
Knopf, 373 pp., $5.95

Auto-da-fe

by Elias Canetti
Stein and Day, 464 pp., $5.95

The Long Voyage

by Jorge Semprun
Grove, 236 pp., $4.50

Three of the four works of fiction considered here are of Austrian origin. (It is curious that, in the spate of books, articles, whole issues of magazines, dealing with change or non-change in Germany, so little attention goes to Austria, which, in this century, is second only to Germany as West European agent of disruption.) Pre-eminent is a collection of seven stories by Ingeborg Bachmann, two of which examine the aftermath of the Second War, one of them in the particular muted voice of those who were children during the early Forties, who came later to realization of what it was they had lived through in those days of hugger-mugger above their heads and behind doors.

The first matter on which to congratulate Miss Bachmann is one usually given slight reference: her good luck in her translator. Michael Bullock has provided English of a delicacy and music that indicates gifts in himself and is a tribute to the effect of these stories on him. We respond with his response. Already known as a poet, Miss Bachmann has the vision in her stories to see hell in a wild flower, eternity in ten or twenty pages; has an instinct for freighted ellipsis, an eye to select the small, telling detail of environment or agony. Much that her Austrian contemporary Ilse Aichinger attempted honestly and earnestly in her book Herod’s Children is accomplished in Miss Bachmann’s brief opening story, “Youth in an Austrian Town.” The discoveries, stubbornness, private kingdoms that are universal in childhood are brushed in swiftly, reticently; then the universals narrow to specifics with the coming of war, its duration, its finish.

And one day nobody gives the children report cards any more, and they can go. They are called upon to step into life. Spring descends with clear, raging waters and gives birth to a blade of grass. There is no need to tell the children it is peace. They go away with their hands in their ragged pockets and a whistle that is meant as a warning to themselves.

The other story about the consequences of war, “Among Murderers and Madmen,” is a close-packed inquest of responsibility, of desire to understand and shoulder guilt, with a final act that dramatizes the futility of fixing and finishing it.

The title story, which is the longest, deals with what is now such a trite subject that it raises apprehension: a crisis of spiritual malaise à la Camus, in a man turning thirty. Indeed Miss Bachmann has nothing intrinsically new to say on the subject, but she treats it with such immediacy, she crystallizes it in such continuously taking metaphor,that the story strikes home. “Everything” also deals with a man of thirty, a father, before the birth of his child and through the son’s short life, during which the father sees everything differently, expects much, learns to straiten his hopes.’ (“He was taking after us. But not only after Hanna and me, no, after mankind in general.”) The son’s early death is like a reproof from the gods, to teach him to expect more humbly if he has more children.

A Wildermuth” is the story of a judge by that name, trying a murderer who is no relation but who has the same name. The judge’s family credo has been “A Wildermuth always chooses the truth,” and as he watches the prisoner and the witnesses struggle toward the complexities of truth under the facts of the crime, the judge is driven to face the egotism, the aridity, the hopelessness of his own credo. At last it sends him mad.

And this too is bad, this high opinion I had of truth and that I now no longer have any opinion of it any more since it has come to an end for me—

It is noteworthy that four of these seven stories are written from a man’s viewpoint and never seem impersonated or strained. Of the others, one (the least interesting in the book) is a declaration by a latter-day Undine who renounces the world and returns to the waters because of the baseness of men. “A Step Towards Gomorrah” is an account of Lesbian seduction which, in subtlety and frankness of mind (not of detail), is on the level of the superb “feminine” writing of Doris Lessing.

In a recent issue of Encounter devoted to Germany, D. J. Enright wittily suggested ten reasons for English prejudice against German literature. (He—and he is not alone—makes no distinction between German and Austrian literature.) One minor triumph of Miss Bachmann’s book is that she transcends or avoids all Enright’s prejudices that apply to fiction. She does not write until she has perceived; then her perception is rendered in language and form that traffic in quintessences, that condense experience and imagination into the smallest illuminatingly painful compass. Her book, in these days when mere talent is often an excuse for publication, gives us a genuine artist to cherish.

Along with this slender book come two pre-war Austrian tomes to endorse, by their windiness and posturings of authorship, that Enright’s cartoon of German literature has substance. Heimito Von Doderer made his delayed American debut in 1961 with a two-volume, 1,334-page novel called The Demons which dealt with contrasted strata of Viennese society in 1927 moving toward and around a central event—the riot in which the Supreme Court Building was burned. Its chief fault was its largescale concept; it would have made a quite acceptable novel of conventional length—not by cutting but by a more modest original scheme. Now we have an earlier noved of Doderer’s, Every Man A Murderer, which is a mere 373 pages but which, too, should have been shorter. It would have done better, though not well, as a novella. On evidence so far, Von Doderer’s primal fault is this one of basic concept. It is as if he had a sign tacked over his desk: “You Are Viennese. Be Leisurely.”

This novel concerns a young man who becomes fascinated with the story of his sister-in-law who was murdered on a train eight years before he met and married his wife; it tells how he eventually learns that he, as a young teen-ager, was on the same train and, through a prank, was responsible for the girl’s death. The first third, which deals with the hero’s childhood, schooling, sexual initiation, and so on, is completely irrelevant; the other two-thirds are unconvincing and, in a different sense, equally irrelevant. Most of the hero’s motivations are in the vein of George du Maurier’s spiritual linkages. With a ludicrously inappropriate metaphysical aroma, the book boils down to a thin soup from scraps of Hesse and Conrad with enough attempt at a flavor of Mann to make it all the more distasteful. Throughout there are little dumplings of doughy wisdom. (“The man who lay beside the pile of lumber was no longer sick. He was, in a manner of speaking, far healthier than anyone else, for he was dead.” Or: “If anyone says, ‘Nonsense!’ in regard to something, it generally shows that he has not dealt inwardly with the matter.”)

The English by Richard and Clara Winston is as deplorable as Bullock’s is fine.

For his gassiness Elias Canetti does not even have the excuse of being Austro-German. He is Bulgarian-born, but he writes in German and obviously admires Germanic models. His socio-historical study Crowds and Power found some partisans when it appeared here two years ago. His novel Auto-dafé was first published in Vienna in 1935 as Die Blendung (The Deception), was published in England under the present title in 1946, and in this country in 1947 as Tower of Babel. (None of these facts is included in the present edition.) This huge novel, too, has its partisans, including Iris Murdoch. My own view accords more with that of J. D. Beresford who wrote eighteen years ago: “The title of this translation should have been Insanity Fair, for with the exception of the brother there is not a single character in the whole immense story that speaks or acts as a reasonable human being.”

Be generous and assume that their being, as humans, was not the author’s first intent; the book remains a giant, gigantically detailed pyramid of patent symbolism, in which brick is piled upon dull brick to reach a tiny point. The protagonist is a scholar, a sinologist, so enamored of his library that he cannot even go for a walk without a briefcase full of books. He is persuaded to marry his housekeeper because, from a lesser view, she too loves books. This marriage breaches the fortress of his seclusion, and lets in the world and mishaps with a rush. Grotesque adventures follow, including an episode in the underworld in the company of a Hoffmannesque dwarf. Despite the intervention of his physician-brother, from whom he has long been separated, the book ends with the hero’s self-cremation in the midst of his library.

Life, you see, insists: and over-whelms those who would exclude it. Aesop would have given this moral a page, La Fontaine a dozen verses. But evidently if one wants to gain a name for serious authorship in Middle Europe, the easiest road is the long one. Canetti pursues every thought and action, every exchange, past its reasonable limits, not for the sake of richness but to wring out mileage. He gloats admiringly over detailed baroque scenes which, we feel sure he is sure, are memorable. He indulges frequently in dreams and fantasies, unfruitful for us and, as usual, an index that the author has exhausted his material but is afraid to stop. C. V. Wedgwood’s translation puts one word after another in what begins as a neat, catlike tread but which by sheer longevity becomes a trudge.

Devotees of Canetti, who certainly exist, will find in the last section some passages that presage some of the themes of Crowds and Power. Others are unlikely to plow so far in the book and will soon be left wondering why it had to be re-published. (If they penetrate the present publisher’s secrecy on this matter.) For me, its only interest is extrinsic, symptomatic. It represents, with Doderer, an attitude toward the literary life rather than to literature. Both of these men opt for size. Doderer chooses the note of wry continental sagacity; he is the erudite conversationalist who has seen the world and can sigh with a twinkle; who wears his learning with conscious lightness; who uses every cliché of the congenial café writer except to call his hero “our young friend.” Canetti, less at ease, is more anxious to stuff his text with references set in a counterpoint of false simplicity. He adds up characters by an arithmetic of characteristics, rather than creating them, and manipulates the puppets like a very minor deity with very large ambitions. These two authors, professionals in some of the worst senses, are at the other end of the scale from Miss Bachmann, who is not concerned with being a writer, only with writing.

None of the above is to argue that the expansive and inclusive novel is finished. Günter Grass, among others, has disproved that. But it is to argue that the long novel and the large method have to justify themselves especially stringently today in a world that has plentiful experience of good art through understatement. The least tolerable long novel is the one that seems merely the legacy of fusty attitudes toward writing and reading.

Jorge Semprun is a European of quite a different color, born in Spain and, because of Franco, brought up and educated in France. There he fought in the resistance, was arrested, was sent to Buchenwald. It is Semprun’s adaptation of Hochhuth’s The Deputy that is currently playing in Paris. His novel, The Long Voyage, has won the Formentor Prize, an annual international award given jointly by publishers in thirteen countries, and is the best of the three prize-winning novels so far. This is faint praise, indeed, but I do not mean entirely to damn Semprun with it.

His novel, which evidently deals with autobiographical material about the resistance, the camps, the crematoria, would be valuable if it were the only one on its subject that had ever been written, or even if it were only the first. It is an honorable and humane work, served passably by Richard Seaver’s English. The framework is the trip in a jammed box-car from France to Germany. The hero’s thoughts and memories take us back and forward in time to complete the entire experience, from the beginning of the war to his ironic liberation from the camp.

The book’s principal and decisive defect is insufficient artistic ability. Semprun’s insight is not deep enough, his emotional power not strong enough, to make us forget that we have seen all these matters more movingly treated before. The book gets its only warmth from its sincerity; but, cruel though it be to say so, that sincerity is naked and inadequate.

However, with Miss Bachmann, Semprun helps to mark the recent arrival of a generation of European writers in their late thirties and early forties who have been hoarding their experience under Hitlerism until fiction about it became possible for them. These two, Grass, Piotr Rawicz, André Schwarz-Bart, Michel del Castillo, are members of a truly post-war generation whose minds are shaped principally by that fact. At their least, they represent a view of life and literature (and I am not speaking of bulk) that is on a different planet, let alone in a different era, from the professional Europeans like Doderer and Canetti.

  • Email
  • Print