The Executor: A Comedy of Letters
by Michael Krüger, translated from the German by John Hargraves
Harcourt, 180 pp., $23.00
The question of literary borrowing is a vexed one, to the point that academe had to invent a fancier name and call it intertextuality. Walter Benjamin famously longed to write a book consisting entirely of quotations from the works of others, and almost achieved that ambition in The Arcades Project, his gigantic study of Paris in the nineteenth century, though the thing is probably too much of a ragbag to be considered a book in any proper sense. But at what point does petty pilfering become indictable plagiarism? As lofty an arbiter as T.S. Eliot was blithely tolerant in the matter, remarking that “immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”
Michael Krüger is a highly experienced man of letters, being a publisher and editor, a novelist, and a renowned poet. He is the head of the distinguished German publishing house Carl Hanser Verlag, edits the literary magazine Akzente, and has published three novels and a collection of poems in English translation. If one is to judge by The Executor, first published in 2006 under the title Die Turiner Komödie, the rigors of his day job have soured him somewhat on the business of writing in general and of fiction writing in particular:
I have never quite been able to imagine what might induce a person to become a professional writer. I can understand someone writing the occasional poem…. But when someone early in life, after dropping out of, or, in rare cases, actually completing, a university course in literature or business then makes the decision to spend his or her adult life making up cops-and-robbers tales, or stories that are cannibalizations of the author’s own life, that, it seems to me, is an act of sheer recklessness.
In the wittily titled novel The End of the Novel his protagonist goes even further, declaring that “too many books existed in this world,” and bitterly observing that “writing a novel was in any case a business for dubious minds which had to fit their few ideas into a framework since otherwise they would be lost in the night of history.” In The Cello Player (Die Cellospielerin), the composer-narrator, who is not exactly a rock of dependability himself, sardonically remarks of his friend Günter that he “suffered from the illness, apparently common to many writers, of being unreliable.” With a publisher like this, who needs critics?
The narrator of The Executor, whom we know only by the initial “M.,” is a German in his sixties, a printer by trade and an unsuccessful writer, who has come to Turin after the death by suicide there of his best friend, the world-famous expatriate novelist Rudolf:
In the last few years of his life, Rudolf had written four short novels that earned him literary prizes, honors, and a great deal of money. He was translated into every conceivable language: he even received author’s copies from Korea. Yet with every award his general frame of mind worsened and his hypochondria and pessimism bloomed.