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Shaken Men

The Impossible Proof

by Hans Erich Nossack, translated by Michael Lebeck
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 218 pp., $5.95

The D’Arthez Case

by Hans Erich Nossack, translated by Michael Lebeck
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 313 pp., $7.95

To the Unknown Hero

by Hans Erich Nossack, translated by Ralph Manheim
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 154 pp., $6.95

Tact is not usually thought of as a major literary virtue. In American writing, when it appears at all, it comes off as a failure of nerve or an attempt at gentility; in English writing, where it appears all the time, it is clearly a major vice, a crippling, unnecessary limitation, a form of fear. In postwar German writing, on the other hand, tact is often the ruling condition of discourse, the only passage through which words are going to find their way on to the page. To put it far too neatly, if German writers do not wish to howl, they must whisper, there is no reliable middle range for their voices. And if they howl, Hans Erich Nossack suggests, they will be taken over by all those people who like to hear animals in pain:

They don’t even dare scream, since that scream would be marketed immediately. Therefore, one doesn’t scream simply to avoid being marketed. Poor beast!

We need transmitters of information,” Nossack has a character write in the novel from which those words come, “who know how to hold their tongues.” It is a prescription for tact, and an invitation to irony.

An anonymous critic, quoted in the blurb of the translation of To the Unknown Hero, calls Nossack “one of the secret masters of European prose,” and the description is useful, in spite of all the loose ends it leaves hanging. (Who are the others? Is it prose that Nossack is a master of? And how secret can a man be when he wins prizes in Germany and receives a decoration in France; when he is a member of three German academies and has held the chair of Poetics at the Goethe University in Frankfurt?) Nossack is a secret master not because the British and American public appears hardly to have heard of him—I confess I had never heard of him until a few weeks ago—but because his work seems an injunction to secrecy, the quiet password of a discreet modernist brotherhood, of a sect composed of all those who suspect that the world is not as steady as it looks.

In The Impossible Proof a man puts himself on trial because his wife has disappeared. He himself plays judge, lawyers, and defendant, and we have only to focus on a few moments of his interrogation in order to see how one qualifies for membership in Nossack’s frightened, lucid freemasonry. If his case were dismissed, the defendant says, that would be the worst possible result, because it would “give legal existence to uncertainty.” The worst for you? the judge asks. For everyone, the defendant says. The defendant took out insurance on his life, but not, apparently, because he felt his life was especially in danger? No, his life is always, every minute, in the same danger. This insurance was meant to pacify his wife, but it didn’t succeed, did it? No, “it never succeeds for more than seconds at a time.”

Grave dangers lurk at the turn of every casual phrase, the possible is no longer a possibility but a permanent, looming threat. The defendant describes himself and his wife as persons who were “as careful as hemophiliacs, who don’t dare bump into anything, not even into each other.” In a later novel the narrator experiences “shame at this insecurity that other people do not seem to feel.” Insomnia is a major metaphor in Nossack, and sleep doesn’t seem to be much of an option, since it is a zone of dizzying nightmares: wind, fog, lakes, and “carnivorous flowers.”

Nossack was born in Hamburg in 1901, which makes him a couple of years younger than Nabokov and Borges, and a couple of years older than Beckett—names which suggest themselves anyway, independently of the dates. He has written poems, stories, plays, novels. Of the three of his works which have been translated into English (all three are novels), The Impossible Proof is the earliest—it was first published in German in 1956. It is a tour de force of great brilliance, it is both funny and disturbing, but it remains strongly marked by Kafka and Camus, and it is strictly metaphysical, preoccupied, that is, by problems of guilt and anxiety which are offered to us as universal, or at least as international, stripped of all local psychological and historical resonances. “Man only begins,” the defendant says, “when psychiatry leaves off.” The time and place of the novel are the twentieth century and an anonymous suburb.

The two later books—The D’Arthez Case (1968) and To the Unknown Hero (1969)—take the same guilt and anxiety, and even several of the same strategies for coping with them, and locate them very precisely in German history. The D’Arthez Case is an ambitious and very successful work, and only its obliquity and the diffidence in which it entangles its own ambitions make one hesitate to call it a masterpiece. Indeed one hesitates to call this novel anything, since any denomination at all would look like a clumsy act of appropriation, almost an insult, a transgression of the silence from which the text emerges so shyly. To the Unknown Hero is slighter, looks very much like the work of a man keeping his hand in while he rests from his recent, extensive labors.

All three novels are governed by indirection. The Impossible Proof is presented as the product of a single brain during a sleepless night; the narrator of To the Unknown Hero is telling a friend about a book he has written, and about a long conversation he has had with his father about that book—the father’s re-created speech forms the body of the novel. The D’Arthez case, in the novel of that name, is reconstructed from tapes, films, archives, interviews, books, and private conversations—the narrator has never talked to D’Arthez. D’Arthez himself, for good measure, is a famous mime, a satirical comedian who dramatizes, in silence, the ironies and paradoxes of his compatriots’ complicities with history, so that his acts come to us through a cloud of translations, the most brutal of which is the translation of sober, stylized gestures into garrulous, overly meaningful words. D’Arthez is doubly silent, that is: he is a mime who appears only across other people’s versions of him.

Nossack is glancing here, I think, not so much at the philosophical notion of the difficulty of getting at the truth as at the moral and political idea of falsification, a temptation even to honest men and a widespread habit with others. The father in To the Unknown Hero, reading his son’s book—which recounts, although the son is late in understanding this, the father’s own adventures in the German uprising of 1919—wonders how it is that there is so much missing:

I read it and read it again, and I asked myself, Isn’t there some gap here? Of course there’s a gap, and it’s not your fault, because when something happens and you haven’t any documents to help you, there’s bound to be a gap. All you can do is wait for another document to turn up, and then you go on writing.

Historians falsify through ignorance, because of the ordinary losses inflicted by time, but this thought takes on an edge because the son’s book was undertaken as a rectification of some of the history the Nazis had falsified. Even the rectification, then, needs rectification, and receives it, since the father fills in all the gaps in the son’s narrative. But the son, a respected teacher, cannot at this stage rewrite his book and put his father in the middle of the stage. He has no evidence, only his father’s story, offered in the manner of a joke, and told in an entirely unserious Plattdeutsch. The truth is known, but the truth can’t be told. For the willful and vicious falsifications created by the Nazis, we substitute the half-hearted falsifications inflicted on us by our helplessness, and the attraction of D’Arthez’s pantomimes is that they constitute a language which cannot be tampered with.

D’Arthez’s style as a mime is one of extreme decorum. Normally he wears a morning suit and a small false moustache, and looks like a celebrated diplomat or a British prime minister, or at least, as Nossack’s narrator quickly adds, “the sort of man one imagines to be a British prime minister, since in reality the type has long since vanished.” In this outfit he kills a fly and buries it with great respect, jewels and a cross by its coffin, funeral march and all. He attends a reading of his own will and, indignant at the greed of his heir, decides not to die. He hangs on a clothes stand a suit identical with the one he is wearing, adjusts lapels, cuffs, and buttonhole, and leaves the suit facing its reflection in a mirror, uniforms in infinite confrontation. In another costume, and in an earlier pantomime, he enters a polling booth during an election under the Nazis, and thinks carefully about voting for the single candidate, worries conscientiously before he makes his cross in the only space available.

In yet another costume, that of the inmate of a concentration camp, he enters a wax museum full of figures of famous murderers, and meets an image of himself there, the diplomat or prime minister, with a party emblem tucked behind his lapel. The two versions of D’Arthez exchange clothes, and the ex-inmate kills the ex-Nazi. Offstage too, there are a number of D’Arthez pantomimes, in which he irritates his family and plays tricks on the security police—he has been interrogated because a man who is also called D’Arthez has been killed in Paris. The narrator’s description of D’Arthez’s method seems perfect: “He merely frayed the nerve ends of his audience ever so slightly and tried to make them feel unsure of themselves by exaggerating their conventions.”

D’Arthez takes his name from a character in Balzac, who represents “the ideal of the patient, clandestine, intellectual opposition,” and in his pantomimes, in and out of the theater, he himself embodies precisely that: a courteous, distant, thoughtful refusal to share the life and opinions of the dominant majority. It is clear, I think, that this is an elegantly aggressive version of the condition which is simply suffered by the defendant in The Impossible Proof. In both cases there is a sense of irreducible difference, a sense of being radically unlike other people, and in both cases there is a great emphasis on the idea of acting as at least a partial protection against danger and distress. The defendant has lived a life that has been “irreproachable, irreproachable to the point of tedium,” but this is only a front, not for any hidden vices but for his own awareness of his separation from others. D’Arthez takes the offensive in such matters, and advises his daughter to conform scrupulously to conventions, because conventions keep others away. You send them a birthday card, and they can be nasty about your taste, and they are thus safely occupied. “We must provide them with subjects. Otherwise, we won’t know what they are saying.”

D’Arthez is a model of private dignity upheld by a perfect correctness on all occasions, he is Nossack’s secret society of shaken men turned inside out and converted into an emblem of mocking poise. There is probably an element of wishfulness in such a model—D’Arthez is so adored by his severe daughter, hobbles his enemies with such delicate skill, that this remarkable novel about unpleasant realities seems occasionally to slip off into an all too agreeable unreality. Certainly a considerable loneliness speaks in such a figure, and great tact too, of course, and it is in this, perhaps, that Nossack as a writer most closely resembles D’Arthez as a mime. He doesn’t throw stones, he merely frays the nerves slightly, and we have to read him very carefully in order to pick up the wonderfully aimed irony of these texts.

D’Arthez, for example, spent the war in a concentration camp, and then after wandering around for a few months, had been picked up by the Americans. Great joy in the family at the recovery of this long lost child and sibling, and D’Arthez’s brother, head of a firm which did very well for itself before, during, and after the war, makes a speech. He speaks of happiness and suffering and endurance—at another point in the book, he indicates that it was only his firm’s good relations with the Nazis that prevented D’Arthez from being killed—but makes no mention of the concentration camp. This is because it would not be in the interests of the firm to speak of “matters of so personal a nature.” “One’s private life was no business of the public’s….” The brother and the firm are broad enough historical targets, but the inclusion of a concentration camp under the heading of private life is an amazing touch of grim wit, a strange, comic penetration of the mind of a man smartly getting ready for renewed respectability and the galloping Wirtschaftswunder.

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