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 …

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