Special Subjects

Letter to Lord Liszt

by Martin Walser, translated by Leila Vennewitz
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 149 pp., $13.95

Across

by Peter Handke, translated by Ralph Manheim
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 138 pp., $14.95

And my lament / Is cries countless,” goes one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sonnets, “cries like dead letters sent / To dearest him that lives alas! away.” This would serve as a handy description of Martin Walser’s new novel, except for the word “dearest.” Franz Horn is a middle-echelon executive, a sales manager, with Chemnitz Dentures. He has been on the skids for some time, with one attempt at suicide behind him, and Letter to Lord Liszt consists largely of an epistle with nineteen postscripts, a mixture of confession and arraignment, which he is writing to his colleague and rival, Dr. Liszt, sardonically addressed as “Lord Liszt.” Fifteen years younger, Liszt is—or so Horn believes—beginning his own descent down the slippery slope, having been supplanted by a younger man just as earlier he had supplanted Horn.

As a study of office hierarchy, of favor and disfavor, with all the little signs that show whether one is rising or falling in the boss’s esteem, the novel is so successful in its twitchy way that the reader wonders how the firm’s employees find time to do any actual work. Thiele, the boss, who hates funerals, still sends Horn to represent the company at gravesides. But there was a time when Thiele used to phone Horn exactly at midnight on New Year’s Eve to wish him the compliments of the season, whereas now he rings early, before six o’clock, and earlier on each occasion. Not that Horn, however wounded, holds his professional reversals against the boss: there is too little success in the world to go around, and somebody has to take on the job of apportioning it.

Horn believes he has something discreditable on Liszt when the latter boasts of having had breakfast alone with Thiele’s wife, Annemarie, fourteen days running—there is no suggestion of impropriety, they were merely discussing the lady’s progress in what is called “metaphysical painting”—since he knows that Annemarie was away in Corfu at the time. But Liszt gets in first, by telling the boss how he had invented the breakfast story—outright nonsense, of course!—as a joke, and their gullible colleague had fallen for it. Another instance of oneupmanship occurred at their first meeting, when Horn tried to show off mildly in front of Thiele by mentioning a book of Heinrich Böll’s that his wife had given him for his birthday, and Liszt chipped in to say that he had been given the same book, by his sister-in-law, and after dipping into it he had passed it on to his cleaning woman.

All these affronts, intrigues, and misdeeds—and not only those relating to Liszt—are recorded in Horn’s notebooks, in what he terms his “Revenge Calendars.” The notebooks are a source of comfort to him, but also of anxiety. He doesn’t want to expend his store of ammunition prematurely—like poor Lear in Shakespeare, he will have such revenges on them all …

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