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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 hears his grandmother and her three sisters rummaging. “Who are You, Lord?” cries the grandmother. “We’re going to show You who You are and where You belong!” In a scene of preposterous irreverence, one sister spikes the right hand of the crucifix, another the left, the third whacks the crossed feet. Granny, of course, slams the vertical beam. A tenant bellows: “God almighty, this constant hammering!” Piously sing the four relies: “What must be must be!”

Constant hammering, eavesdropping in corridors, abject gentility, rumbling stomachs, downpours of disgust, the butcher butchering, the rowers rowing: each everyday occurrence the author ghoulishly repeats; and the everlasting de rigeur minutiae must be manipulated even further: chairs, buttons, worms, needles, chairs. “I can’t run miles!” “I always said so!” “You never said so! A desolate gabble. Conversations pile up like stones; no one listens, no one understands. Naturally, the concluding sequence is a wedding:

So that’s that,” says someone. And it is not at all sure what he means when he says, “So that’s that”: the photographing, this banquet, this wedding, the photographing nowadays at banquets like this wedding nowadays, and it is not at all sure that he means something when he says, “So that’s that…”

Finally, Lothar asks the question he’s been asking to impressive silence at impressive intervals since page two. What number, he asks a waiter, comes after ten? Eleven, says the waiter.

The horror of the humdrum, the “banality of evil,” the fascist-in-us-all—these are the over-worked themes of Miss Elsner’s satiric sketches. But she brings to them nothing of resonance or earnest indignation, nor (aside from a taxi driver’s ferocious monologic sick joke) anything resembling humor. The Giant Dwarfs was awarded the $10,000 Formentor Prize, and a military citation from Newsweek: “…it scathes and scorches as it lays waste the objects of its merciless assault…it strikes with shattering force.”

Jakov Lind has a splendid theatrical talent, sardonic and Pinteresque, gruff and Brechtian, with some old master, some Gogol, as his Ariadne as he skillfully steps through the literary labyrinth. The vocabulary of his seven excruciatingly inventive tales is almost always nihilistic, metallic, absurd. I’ve got to eat you, confesses one creep to another in the sealed compartment of a train. “I can’t eat you as you are. Sawing’s the only way. First the legs, then the arms, then the head. Everything in its proper order.” “What do you do with the eyes?” “Suck ‘em.” Somehow one must placate the mad, especially on the Goon-Way Express.

Lind’s world is Central Europe, wartorn and post-war blighted within and without, a “representative” landscape. No limits to the irrational there, and no illusions: “When her behind left him cold he knew it was all up with love. Brasil took the blankets into the living room, he would have taken them even if she had woken up, and lay down behind the television set.” Later he meets a stranger, they go to a bar. “What are breasts compared with God?” asks the stranger. “You’ve got to hold on to breasts and then you fall asleep. But God, my friend, holds you and doesn’t let you sleep.” The stranger turns out to be the Redeemer, the devil. He produces Brasil’s deepest wish: a woman without a behind. The fulfillment is so terrifying “Brasil took a run and, winged with new passion, flew over the night roofs of the city the shortest way home.” The humor in these cruel charades is like the chuckle of a skull.

In “Hurrah for Freedom,” a clownish allegory on the Cold War, a group of Lithuanian expendables gobble the children they incestuously breed. A visiting medical student is appalled. One of the women meechingly explains: We’re just poor refugees. “All these things you see here, washing machine and all, were given us by rich relatives in America, they gave us the car too…They gave us everything. Except something to eat.” The insane household prayerfully awaits the next conflagration, the redemptive return to the homeland.

The title story, really a novella, quite rightly the pièce de résistance of the collection, is an extraordinarily ironic, pitiless chronicle of anti-Semitism in Austria from the early deportations to the Allied advance—lupus est homo homini with all the stops pulled out. How can anybody feel sorry! shouts Wohlbrecht, its Chaplinesque figure of doom, a male nurse with a wooden leg, craven, whiney, put-upon, determined to save his skin. “It’s disgusting. It’s intolerable. Then they make me a present of the apartment, on one condition. Naturally. Does a Jew ever give you anything for nothing? Take care of our child and the apartment is yours.” Wohlbrecht dumps the paralyzed boy on a mountain top. Miraculously, the boy survives. Later, the world collapsing around him, Wohlbrecht returns for his “clearance,” his “victim of racial persecution,” the Jew he “saved” from the Gestapo. Alas, four others have the same idea. Wohlbrecht is shot and left sans “sacraments and unburied, alone and forgotten,” his torn-off leg, his soul of wood, propped innocently against a tree. Intricate, black, bestial, the novella astonishingly evokes all of Lind’s most persistent themes: victimization, depersonalization, historical angst. The effect is like a benumbing nightmare, like looking fixedly at someone’s tic.

Do we have moments of relief with Reinhard Lettau’s Obstacles? Somewhat. Antiphonal fragments, anecdotes, paradoxes—these are the emblematic forms his tales take. A cunning stylist, the Kafkaesque Lettau has a genial doomsday air. One pictures him, however, not like Kafka giggling in the gloom; rather, on hearing the sound of approaching bombers, Lettau checks his watch, smiles sluggishly, squints thoughtfully from behind horn-rimmed glasses, then cooly enters a new phrase, a new sentence, or blots an old one. Lettau’s language appears to have crossed excessive distances, so that only the essentials remain. Everything is left unstressed, or tentative, like virginity.

Usually the tales commence with a buzz of parabolic expectation: “Every summer the widow Saatmantel, whose youth belongs to legend, sends out invitations to thunderstorms.” Some of the tales are of the past, most of an unqualified present, full of shrewd omissions, as if playfully evading a censor. The settings are more or less austere, but now and then quite lush, now and then all that’s missing is Sarah Bernhardt and her five pumas. The plots seem marvelously irrelevant, or at the very least, inconclusive. A finicky dictator, for instance, tours the countryside, passing from one musical event to another. On hearing “a sequence of sounds that smacked vaguely of Hindemith,” the dictator goes off his nut, gives up the ghost, and is “buried in an oversize violin.” In “A Pause Between Battles,” contemporary history is viewed as a cheat, a burlesque: “Come on out. A new war has started, against completely new enemies. This time we are our own enemies. That way no one gets defeated.” With “The New is Unknown,” the title tells the tale. It opens as if Buckminster Fuller were addressing a ladies club:

In one sentence, the device I am offering might be described as a cube of glass inside which it is snowing. To comparisons with ordinary snow-cubes, which are also on the market in the shape of halfballs housing small fragments of landscape, I oppose two arguments: first the size of my machine—it almost fills a medium-size living room—and second the fact that I myself am sitting in it.

Really, Lettau’s as dry as a sackful of ashes. He represents, let us say, the “open city” of anti-fiction. In the most characteristic of his tales, a miserly, martial jangling might be going on at the outer edges; a sparkling emptiness inhabits the center, or some silken nerve-wracking ceremoniousness.

That is particularly apparent with “Enter Manig,” the second half of the volume. It comprises a set of fifty-odd, paragraph-long improvisations: each exquisitely phrased, each stupefyingly pointless. Droll, quaintly horrific, Manig, a phenomenologically observed schnook, descends from Valéry’s M. Teste, Michaux’s M. Plume, Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos, the embodiment of canonical despair. For Lord Chandos everything fell to pieces, and the pieces into more pieces, until “no longer would anything let itself be encompassed by one idea.” Nothing encompasses Manig. Manig enters rooms, he leaves rooms; he goes to town, he paces outside the gates of the town, he waits in the park. Manig removes cumbersome objects, he endures incredible conversations. “Do you like this spoon?” a gentleman asks. “You really don’t…Not in the tunnel either?” No, not in the tunnel either. They stand on a mountain plateau; they sit in a tree. “What if I add a little ball?” “Not either,” says Manig. “Not in any case.” Manig is a study in continual diminution, a carnival of futility. He performs extravagantly inconsequential actions, poetic pantomimes. He becomes more and more distant. After he has shrunk to the size of a comma, Manig goes kaput. And the reader passes out.

Ach! Man returns eternally, The little men eternally return!…Ach! Sickening, sickening, sickening! Thus spoke Zarathustra, who sighed and shuddered.” It seems to me that is the common text which Miss Elsner, Lind, and Lettau, and indeed a whole new school of German writers, so mockingly expound, with such finality, so much harrowing laughter. Clearly, in devious ways, they are obsessed with guilt, with atonement, with The Past. Under such circumstances, how can one esthetically evaluate the “art” they produce? Of the three writers discussed, Lind is the only one whom I would willingly re-read. One thing is certain. God returned Nietzsche’s compliment: the Ubermensch died at Auschwitz.

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