Children Are Civilians Too
Bodies and Shadows
Rosshalde is Hesse’s fourth novel, published in 1914, and while it doesn’t offer the peculiar excitations of Steppenwolf or the metaphysical incitements of Magister Ludi, it is a good example of what I would have thought the slightly faded charm of early Hesse: an essentially gemütlich mixture of idyl and anguish, of talk about life and talk about art, with some talk about the exotic East thrown in.
Johann Veraguth is a famous artist who hardly exists at all as a man. He lives on a beautiful estate, Rosshalde, coolly estranged from his wife and elder son, and the family is held together by Pierre, the seven-year-old son, loved by both mother and father and uneasily shared by them. Rosshalde is divided into two parts: the husband is master of his studio, the lake shore, and the former game preserve, while the wife is mistress of the house, the lawn, and the groves. Little Pierre moves freely between the two territories: “in the eyes of his mother’s visitors and guests he was the son of the lady of the house, and in the eyes of the gentlemen who sometimes came to Papa’s studio and spoke French, he was the painter’s son.”
Those dualities so prominent in Hesse’s work (see NYR, September 12, 1968) have already reared their not especially instructive heads. The chief duality here seems to be the old one of life and art which Thomas Mann treated so much more comprehensively, pointedly, and professionally.
The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work…
Veraguth’s perfection can only be of the work:
He, who never sent a bungled drawing or painting out into the world, suffered deeply under the dark weight of innumerable bungled days and years, bungled attempts at love and life…. With grim tenacity, he had almost succeeded in giving his art the richness, depth, and warmth that his life had lost. And now, girded in loneliness, he was as one enchanted, enmeshed in his artistic purpose and uncompromising industry, too healthy and resolute to see or recognize the poverty of such an existence.
“Healthy and resolute…” It is a little difficult to feel much anxiety over Veraguth’s condition; much easier to feel sorry for his wife, who has no work to be perfect or even less than perfect in. But the painter’s friend, Burkhardt, turns up and urges Veraguth to abandon his non-life and return with him to India (actually, according to internal evidence, Malaya):
Look, you’ve forgotten what the outside world is like. You sit here buried, engrossed in your work and your unhappy marriage. Take the step, break away from all that; you’ll open your eyes and see that the world has thousands of wonderful things to offer you. You’ve been living with dead things too long, you’ve lost your contact with life.
It is clear that Pierre is all that keeps Veraguth at Rosshalde—whether to leave Rosshalde is necessarily to embrace life is a question left unexplored but expecting the answer “yes”—and it is clear from the beginning that Pierre is one of those beautiful, over-sensitive, precocious children who are too good to live. It is therefore fairly obvious that Pierre is going to die, and we are only surprised that so large a part of a shortish novel is given to his fatal illness. At the end, having packed off wife and surviving son, Veraguth is on the point of leaving for the East. “What remained to him was his art, of which he had never felt as sure as he did now”—and a vague but schwärmerisch anticipation of “the new life, which, he was resolved, would no longer be a groping or dim-sighted wandering, but rather a bold, steep climb.”
The idea of dismissing the past (and one’s family) wholesale, and then setting off for foreign parts, may have been quite revolutionary once, distinctly appealing to the young and perhaps more so to the middle-aged—Veraguth’s elder son remarks that he has read about a French painter “who was somewhere in the tropics, on some island in the South Seas, I think…it must be wonderful”—but it is surely old hat or old topee nowadays. Due respect paid to the pastoral-poetic descriptions, one feels finally that what is best done here, harrowing as it is, is the sickness and death of the little boy, an event merely incidental to what is presumably the novel’s central concern. I continue to find it difficult to see exactly what there is in Hesse that other writers of his time have not achieved with more conciseness, sharper bite, and greater authority.
Much of what the present reviewer said of Heinrich Böll’s 18 Stories (NYR, December 29, 1966) could be repeated of this new collection. The writing is almost always to the point, and the point is invariably decent: the result is that the reader wants more, in fact he wants a novel. These stories are appetizers for a solid meal which doesn’t materialize. This said, we have to qualify, because as we read on, short and slight-seeming though each story is, we become aware of a growing substantiality and force as (with a few exceptions) each story contributes to its predecessors, so that the final effect is that of a splintered novel. Or a work of documentation in which, more legitimately, the artist’s hand has intervened but slightly.
Böll’s subject is war or the aftermath of war, war continued into peacetime: dugouts, hospitals, cripples, trains and railroad stations, insufficient food, bad wine, thin clothes, the black market. One of the most poignant of the stories tells of a young soldier carried into an emergency casualty station and gradually deducing from the classical busts, the pictures on the wall, and finally his own handwriting on the blackboard (“Stranger, bear word to the Spartans we…”) that he is back in his old high school, and that the exhausted old fireman who gives him water is the school janitor from whom he used to get glasses of milk. As the soldier realizes he has lost both arms and a leg, so he recognizes the janitor and whispers for milk.
There is nothing quite so clever as “Murke’s Collected Silences” in this volume, but most of the stories are clearly products of the same mind, a mind in which the anger that impels to satire is always being softened by compassion, a sense of common hardship and of shared guilt. Even the ex-black market operator who is so much harder-hearted now he has become a legitimate trader in candy and cigarettes is left to go his way: “now of course he has a proper business, and business is business.” The tale of the cripple who finds a job he can do sitting down—keeping a count of the people crossing a new bridge—reminds us of some of the 18 Stories about characters engaged in odd vocations, like the professional laugher. The cripple has fallen in love with a young girl who crosses the bridge twice a day, and while she is in sight he stops counting. Fortunately he is tipped off one day that the chief statistician will be checking his figures, and his accuracy is found to be such that he is promoted to horse-drawn vehicles, of which there are only a couple of dozen a day, and since they are not allowed at all between the hours of four and eight, “I could walk to the ice-cream parlor, feast my eyes on her or maybe walk her part-way home, my little uncounted sweetheart…”
Some of the wartime stories, concerned with the maimed and the shell-shocked, are reminiscent of First World War writing: now and again I found myself thinking of Wilfred Owen’s poems on the pity and the waste of war. The postwar stories are generally bleak in mood—“Now men will go content with what we spoiled”—yet untainted by the cultivated and categorical hopelessness of some recent writers:
Once upon a time I would have been glad to have a profession, I wanted very much to go into business. But once upon a time—what’s the use of talking about it; now I don’t even feel like going into business any more. What I like to do best is lie on my bed and daydream. I figure out how many hundreds of thousands of man-hours they need to build a bridge or a big house and then I think that in a single minute they can smash both the bridge and the house. So what’s the point of working?
Elsewhere Böll evokes the preternatural fleetingly, which is disconcerting in a writer so predominantly “realistic.” And yet the preternatural grows out of natural needs, out of loneliness and fear and pain. The presence of a ghostly friend or lover comes as a last small mercy toward the dying which we cannot decently begrudge. We find ourselves hoping that this too is realistic, that it does happen.
Exceptions to the rule are a sentimental piece about candles and altars (Böll’s occasional decline into sentimentality blurs slightly the clear-cut contours of that fine novel of his, The Clown) and a pleasing anecdote about how God sometimes tempers the wind to the black sheep.
If Böll’s stories, at least individually, are to be thought of as slight, then what epithet of minimality can we find for Peter Weiss’s two short non-novels? The Shadow of the Coachman’s Body aptly exemplifies the non-art of insignificant detail:
The captain too reaches into a pocket, his vest pocket, takes out a silver case, knocks on the lid, snaps the lid open, leans over the back of the armchair, hands the case over Schnee’s shoulder; Schnee turns toward him, thrusts his hand with a wide curve into the case, lifts a cigarette out of it whereupon the captain takes the case back, takes a cigarette out of the case himself, snaps the case shut and puts it back into his vest pocket. Then the captain reaches into his pants pocket and makes his hand come out with a lighter; the hand with the lighter swings over the back of the armchair…
This is only a part of a whole page devoted to a blow-by-blow account of two non-characters lighting their very real cigarettes. Mostly, and rightly, these non-characters have no names and are referred to as “the father,” “the mother,” “the son,” “the doctor,” “the housekeeper,” “the hired man.” The narrator is intelligent enough to suspect that “what I’ve heard and seen is too insignificant to be preserved, and that I’m wasting in this manner my hours, half my night, perhaps all my day to no purpose”—but not considerate enough to give it up. “I counter this with the question: what else shall I do; and from this question grows the insight that my other activities also remain without result or purpose.” That’s small consolation for the reader, who may conceivably have something else to do, even if only something else to read. The obsession with detail for detail’s sake persists till the final scene, “in which a shadow copulates with a shadow on the shadow of a kitchen table,” as the blurb tells us, adding quite absurdly that this “is a masterpiece of surrealism.”
The second work, Conversation of the Three Wayfarers, looks at times as if it might succumb to sense and develop into a connected story, but succeeds in resisting the temptation. The three wayfarers—“they were men who did nothing but walk walk walk. They were big, they were bearded, they wore leather caps and long raincoats”—call themselves Abel, Babel, and Cabel, while the ferryman who features prominently if mysteriously in their observations is said to have six sons called Jam, Jem, Jim, Jom, Jum, and Jym. Abel, Babel, and Cabel—“are they really three individuals? Why do their lives blend in such a puzzling manner?” asks the blurb, which then promises to continue on the back flap but fails to come up with any answers. Who knows? Who is going to care? One is not puzzled for long by that which sets out solely to puzzle.
These two novels are described as “early works,” and much can be forgiven youth and much excused on the grounds of evil influences, but the dates of their first publication in Germany are given as 1960 and 1963, when Peter Weiss was already into his fifth decade. The book’s publication is merely further testimony to the waning role of good sense in our time.