On the jacket of his new novel, the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard is likened to Kafka and Beckett, while reviewers are quoted as linking him with Broch, Strindberg, and Musil. Whether these constitute sure-fire recommendations is a matter of opinion. Are we certain we need another Kafka? Or that we want another Beckett or Strindberg (or even Broch)? We could never hope for (what is he doing here?) a second Musil. In the event it is Beckett, though a more loquacious Beckett than we have met of late, whom Bernhard comes nearest to.
Not that the reader should worry too much about this cloud of elevated comparison: all he will need is an overflowing and impregnable stock of compassion, or else a very odd and insatiable sense of humor. Or, one had better add (though this supposes a rather less than common reader), a taste for sheer technical skill, in this case evinced in brio, a vivacious passivity, or a kind of confident dash that doesn’t actually go anywhere but wriggles a lot.
Rudolf, the narrator of Concrete, has for ten years been planning “a major work of impeccable scholarship” on the composer Mendelssohn. He is, by his own account, gravely ill, but resolved to begin writing at last. “We must be alone and free from all human contact if we wish to embark upon an intellectual task!” He cannot start until his sister, a domineering and destructive force, has left him to return to Vienna. She is “anti-intellectual” and has already put a stop to projects of his on Jenufa, on Moses and Aaron, on Rubinstein, and on “Les Six.” “People exist for the sole purpose of tracking down the intellect and annihilating it.” (Mind you, Rudolf believed he needed to have his sister with him; he did ask her to come.) Why, his sister married her husband only in order to drive him away to Peru—and (which appears to be worse) when she travels by sleeper she takes her own sheets, on principle.
Now she has gone, but Rudolf still cannot write that opening sentence. “We need someone for our work, and we also need no one”: unhappily, at any given time we never know which. He couldn’t eat breakfast when his sister was present, and now he can’t stand eating breakfast alone. His large house, out in the countryside, is like a morgue. He can’t sit at his desk, he hasn’t the strength, the postman will knock at the door, a neighbor will come by; perhaps he has overdone his research into Mendelssohn, publishing anything anyway is “folly and evidence of a certain defect of character,” though he intends to publish his work notwithstanding, it will be his most successful or his least unsuccessful; but before he publishes it he has to write it.
This state of animated paralysis, sustained through 153 chapterless and unparagraphed pages of print as though to oblige the reader to swallow it all down at one go, is enacted (if that’s the right word) again and again, in differing situations. Since he has no friends—he used to have friends in Vienna but they have died of madness or by their own hand—his sister has advised him to keep a dog for company. She herself doesn’t need one because she has lovers, counts and barons who are useful to her in her real-estate business. But he has always hated dogs, and what sort of dog ought it to be, and who would look after it? And look at Schopenhauer, who was ruled not by his head but by his dog. People are ruined by their dogs, “they would rather save their dog from the guillotine than Voltaire,” indeed wars are caused by dogs because of their influence over politicians and dictators, the biggest and most expensive tombstone ever seen (not in America, as you might expect, but in London) was erected to the memory of a dog…. It seems Rudolf doesn’t much fancy dogs.
His sister has also suggested that he should take a holiday—clearly the one thing Rudolf isn’t short of is money—and so round we go in rings once more. It would be good to get out of Austria—Austria comes in for several pages of tirade, not particularly interesting, or convincing, since anyone in a bad mood could say much the same about whatever country he was living in—and if he went anywhere it would have to be Palma. But how can he think of setting out for Palma when his physical condition doesn’t allow him to walk two hundred yards from his house?
To drive the notion out of his head, he contrives to walk to his nearest neighbor, a cavalry officer from World War I. In what, after the canine indictment, is the book’s most plainly amusing passage, the old man reveals the arrangements he has made to bequeath his property. He has no intention of leaving anything to the Church or the state welfare service, both of which stink, or (how could he?) to any person he knows. So he sends for a London telephone directory and picks a name out of it at random: “Sarah Slother,” whoever she may be, shall inherit.
The visit has the contrary effect, it inspires Rudolf; and he finds himself dusting off his suitcases, packing them, and unpacking them to make sure he has included the right medicines as well as the Mendelssohn material. He will go to Palma, for two or three or four months. “I have all my life, as I know, been a man of quick decisions.” (Either this novel is innocent of irony or it consists of nothing else.) Having come to this decision, he starts to feel that his house isn’t as bad as he has been making out, in fact it’s a marvelous, comfortable house, not in the least like a morgue, so it’s hardly worth making the tremendous effort to leave it. “Habe nun, ach, Philosophie, Juristerei und Medicin durchaus studiert.” In the succeeding bout of introspection Rudolf presents himself as a sort of sickbed Faust:
I talked myself into studying mathematics, then philosophy, but it wasn’t long before I conceived a distaste for mathematics and philosophy, at least for the mathematics taught at the university, as well as for the philosophy that is taught there but in fact can’t be taught at all.
He has studied at Innsbruck and Graz as well as Vienna (does he hate Vienna because his sister lives there? Is he unjust toward his sister because she lives in Vienna?), and he would have gone to Oxford or Cambridge except that he couldn’t endure the English climate.
Suddenly something promises to happen. Rudolf has reached Palma, to be laid low by the sharp rise in temperature. But he will start on his book, “if not today, then tomorrow; if not tomorrow, then the day after, and so on.” Hope springs eternal in this despairing breast. In the meanwhile he remembers a young woman, Anna Härdti, whom he had met on his previous visit to Palma, two years earlier. Anna’s story is truly tragic. She had persuaded her husband to start an electrical business in a suburb of Munich; the rash enterprise flopped, and they fled to Majorca for a short, cheap holiday. On the fifth day her husband either fell or threw himself from the hotel balcony and was found dead on the concrete below. He was buried huggermugger in a concrete tomb which bore only the name of an old woman, a complete stranger. There was nothing to be done about Anna, Rudolf tells himself; she was one of those millions of “luckless creatures who can’t be rescued from their misfortune.”
Is this the significance of the book’s title, we wonder? That whereas Rudolf suffers in the abstract, Anna’s sufferings are concrete? Rudolf observes that when we meet someone like her, we tell ourselves that we are not as badly off as we had believed. “The fact is that we immediately use someone who is still more unfortunate than we are in order to get ourselves back on our feet.” And you see, he may not be writing on Mendelssohn, but at any rate he is writing the notes that comprise Concrete. But no, we suspect we were being sentimental and simpleminded. Looking for a message, for a moral! Isn’t the relentless and ingenious portrayal of neurosis, paranoia, multi-monomania, enough for us? Rudolf walks out to look again at the tomb in which the young husband was laid and finds that the old woman’s name has disappeared and the plaque now bears Anna’s name as well as that of her husband. It must be that she has killed herself. He goes back to his hotel, takes several sleeping tablets, and—in the closing sentence—wakes up twenty-six hours later “in a state of extreme anxiety,” the state in which, fearing his sister might suddenly return to the house, he began. A stiff peg of whiskey should suffice for most readers.
At the outset it looks as though the raison d’être of Martin Walser’s novel, The Inner Man, is the uplifting effect of contemplating other people’s misery. The hero is a chauffeur suffering from indigestion—the inner man is not at peace—and when we meet him he is driving his boss, a big industrialist, from Tettnang-Oberhof on the German side of Lake Constance to Düsseldorf, and in extreme discomfort owing to the laxative he has taken. “To throttle his bowels back entirely would be too painful. To yield by even a fraction would mean losing control over them.” Xaver doesn’t like to stop the car and disappear into the forest. He gets little satisfaction from his doctor, who thinks—correctly, it appears—that his complaints are a way of gaining his wife’s attention.
This dutiful stomachache, Doctor, I’ll pass on your regards to it, Doctor. The tireless stomachache, Doctor…. The glorious stomachache. The lonely stomachache. The eternal stomachache. The dear stomachache. The painful stomachache, Doctor.
The Inner Man is a companion book to Walser’s last novel to appear in English, The Swan Villa; the main characters, seemingly related, bear the same surname, Zürn, perhaps from zürnen, to be angry, feel irritated. Gottlieb Zürn had a preoccupied wife and four difficult daughters, one of them pregnant, another mysteriously sick. Xaver has a preoccupied wife and two difficult daughters, both at high school, one a pot-smoking trollop, the other a dreadful prig. As in The Swan Villa gentle amusement arises from the professional antics of estate agents (“The broker presents you with the rainbow palette of his offers,” an ad claims), so too in the new novel quiet entertainment derives from the uncertain relationship between the driver and the driven (should he join in the conversation going on in the back or not?). Just as the desirable property Gottlieb hopes to handle falls to the bulldozers, so Xaver is finally demoted to a forklift in Number 2 Warehouse and loses the prestige attached to being the boss’s chauffeur. In neither case is the blow fatal; life goes on, and indeed each husband regains the attention of his wife. Xaver can tell himself, as Gottlieb does, that he isn’t wholly unloved.
Walser is preeminently good at conveying the feel of a job without overloading us with technical documentation or sounding like an adviser on careers. The countryside Xaver drives through and the modest pensions at which he puts up (the boss stays at luxury hotels) are finely or deftly evoked. And so is his glum sufferance of the ice cream which the boss treats him to, supposing that he likes it, supposing also—something Xaver tries to live up to—that he is a teetotaler and non-smoker. The boss also believes him to have been the Reich small-bore rifle champion of 1941, though in truth it was Xaver’s brother Jakob, later reported missing in Karelia, who was not exactly champion but runner-up. Xaver would dearly like to tell his boss, Dr. Gleitze, who comes from Königsberg, about his other brother, Johann, who was killed defending that city against the Russians in 1945, but he never manages to find an opportunity.
Xaver’s thoroughgoing examination in a private clinic is grimly comic. He observes his “fantastically tense” bowel on a screen, “at first black. And constantly twitching. Like something noble, sensitive, persecuted. Then light, transparent, three-dimensional, a precious drawing.” The kindly Gleitzes have arranged all this with a famous specialist, a friend of theirs—and all for a mere chauffeur. (The thought occurs to Xaver that they might be thinking of their own safety.) When the doctors tell him there is nothing wrong, he feels like an utter failure.
True, Xaver can at times be something of a small bore, as in recounting the lengthy story of the sixteenth-century Peasants’ War. This may well be intended ironically in that the class war, as far as he is concerned, belongs largely to the past. Walser has a reputation as a socialist critic of society and satirist of authority, yet Xaver is remarkably meek in his dealings with his boss, running errands for the boss’s wife, painting their garden fence, displaying diligence, zeal, and loyalty, swearing off drink and cigarettes. At one point he fantasizes stabbing Dr. Gleitze to death—it would relieve that tension, and moreover, “No one would be able to claim that he was trying to ingratiate himself with the Gleitzes”—and at another he reflects that whereas a neighbor of his who loses a leg because of the wrong radiation treatment gets 40,000 Deutschemarks as compensation, upper-class people are paid a million in damages when their fifth marriage is wrongly reported as their sixth. But admiration and artless envy are mixed with his sporadic indignation, and there is little danger that this book will inflame chauffeurs to the point of tearing up their driving licenses and burning their uniforms.
Xaver’s ambition is simply that the Zürns should “move up a modest step in the world,” and in this he isn’t helped by his daughter flunking her exams and making off to Venice or, for all he knows, Australia on the pillion of a motorbike. And far from being “recognized” by his employer, being understood as what he is even if he never was a smallbore champion or a hundred-percent abstainer—he recalls with pleasure the time when the boss stopped the car and actually walked up and down with him, his arm around his shoulder, reminiscing about his childhood in Königsberg—he has now lost the job he was so proud of. It’s not enough to dwell on past and small (and ambiguous) glories, such as a grandfather who hanged himself in the hayloft because a good fruit crop meant miserable prices, or the brother who died in the defense of Königsberg (now alas Kaliningrad), or his skill in controlling a skidding car, or his hard-earned knowledge of French and English (which cuts no ice with forklifts), or the one-night affair under a full moon with that floozy Aloisia (much needed though it was), or knocking down the TV repairman in a fit of temper.
Xaver is certainly no revolutionary; and we gather that neither as chauffeur nor as forklift driver is he notably underpaid. Why are there still masters? he asks himself, thinking of how “his people” allowed themselves to be cheated in the Peasants’ War: “Because everyone hopes to become one himself.” Xaver wants to be liked, to be detectably loved by his wife, to be accorded a fair share of respect, to do a little better in life than he has been doing and, if possible, than the neighbors are doing. “He knew no one, not a soul, who thought of him the way he thought of himself”—though he isn’t altogether sure how exactly he does think of himself. Another of Walser’s ordinary, undistinguished, likable mortals, Xaver is intimately present here—both he and Bernhard’s Rudolf are lucky in their English translators—with all his anxieties, confusions, contradictions, and inconsequences, his feeblenesses and his decencies. Whereas Rudolf is a gratuitous concoction of his author, a simulated “case,” twitching to order (unlike Xaver’s bowel), and capable of provoking little more than a few shallow groans and self-flattering giggles, Xaver is wholly, or as much as anyone ever is, comprehensible and—what he wants to be—recognizable.
March 28, 1985