Ach!

The Giant Dwarfs

by Gisela Elsner
Grove, 309 pp., $5.95

Soul of Wood

by Jakov Lind
Grove, 190 pp., $3.95

Obstacles

by Reinhard Lettau
Pantheon, 183 pp., $3.95

Lothar Leinlein, a precocious boy whose feet ache, is perhaps the all-too-fitting narrator of The Giant Dwarfs, a stylish concoction as inflated as its title. “It’s not enough for my feet to be strikingly ugly in their shape, in their color, but on top of that they’re of different sizes.” No one mentions his feet. His mother keeps buying him the wrong shoes. His father snaps: “Little idler!” They are repaid in full.

All eyes and ears, Lothar, the unacknowledged conscience of a corrupt world, listens, watches, and records. Middle-class German respectability is his subject, his indictment. He might well be composing it somewhere in the Arctic: no warmth in these meticulous pages, only a strenuous glare. Lothar practices detachment, the budding dehumanist. He observes his father: after dinner, deposited on the sofa, a snoring balloon; at table, Henry VIII. Pitching in for the nth time, the father announces flatly: “At meals we don’t talk.” And the dust jacket menacingly: He means it; at meals, we eat.

Gisela Elsner, the author, means it too. One has only to gaze at her photo. A moon faced, raven haired beauty, a bohemian debutante with slightly puzzled Cleopatra eyes, she recalls Juliette Greco moaning twenty years ago, “We are all existentialists,” then later confessing she did not know what an existentialist was. However, Miss Elsner knows, and more’s the pity. For The Giant Dwarfs, valiantly sub-titled “a contribution,” is another of those bossy, bravura performances in fashionable techniques, a grueling iconographic cartoon of the commonplace, of inauthenticity, of “das Man.” Sarraute, Ionesco, Robbe-Grillet, Grass—they are all here; and ritualistically twanging in the shadows, symbolic distortions of the Third Reich.

No plot, just events. A visit to Doctor Trautbert, squat and pink, like the Pope. He calls to his hounds snarling behind a door. “My little babies! Let your master in!…A bowl for each one of you! Now how about it, you little sillies!” More yaps. The Doctor examines Lothar; speaking a mile a minute, he goes off on an aria: “The tapeworm’s body consists of a head and a chain of segments…No mouth, no anal region, no breathing organ. He can afford that. He can make do with that. Because it’s a parasite…”

In one way or another, everyone and everything in The Giant Dwarfs is parasitic. Human endeavor, or what passes for it, is merely a series of squirmy proliferations. “The same thing every morning!” the father croaks every morning. The father’s a frustrated little Fuchrer, a school teacher. In the classroom, he has his revenge. “If you get dressed in the morning, if you button your clothes, if you’ve got to the last, the uppermost shirt button…if this button won’t go into the buttonhole, if you pull it, then pull it off…and if this button is torn off, Jaul, what do you do then, Jaul?” Eventually all the students are chanting, “sewing.”

Little Lothar in bed: he …

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