“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, what sort of revenges he doesn’t know yet, but…. At the same time he fears that he may put off the moment of retribution too long and either become reconciled with his enemies or grow too decrepit to care anymore.
Though no bleeding heart, Martin Walser is known for his social awareness and concern, and it might seem curious tht he should invite us to feel sorry for a businessman, for an executive in a denture manufacturing company, rather than for the toothless poor and disadvantaged. But perhaps in a prosperous country like Germany compassion must find what objects it can. And true enough, the businessman is faced with trying tasks and tricky problems: for example, he must take care not to present a diabetic customer with a box of chocolates or ask a homosexual client to convey his regards to his wife—not to mention choosing the right moment and the most discreet way to negotiate for a job in another outfit. No wonder that ulcers are so common among executives, as common as rotting stumps used to be in the mouths of the undernourished.
What Horn professes to resent in Liszt is the man’s “moral beauty” or, rather, “moral narcissism,” along with his apparent failure to acknowledge that he too is on the way down and the two of them share a common fate. But “Lord Liszt” is chiefly a peg for Horn to hang his paranoia and self-doubt on. Horn displays the inexorable persistence and the ingenious ratiocination of the obsessed and half-crazy. He is akin to the soldier who insists that everybody in the column is marching out of step but him. He cannot lose his arguments: his summer suits are more unprepossessing than his winter ones, he says, and his winter suits are more unprepossessing than his summer ones. The only two people who could have been his friends can’t possibly be—because one of them is his boss and the other his rival. “My lack of success is a known quantity,” he writes to Liszt. “Your failure is still to be demonstrated. Your failure will be my success. Which brings us to the sixth and final law of our six laws of physics: the failure of his rival is the success of the unsuccessful.”
I doubt that the title of the novel carries any reference to Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s famous confessional essay, the Letter of 1902 purportedly written by Lord Chandos to Lord Bacon and concerning the split between language and reality. If it does, the significance eludes me. The book jacket—and as an old blurb-writer I know better than to scorn such editorial artifacts—speaks of “a modern man’s clash with the hollow, corrupt values society often forces on people,” but modern man is always clashing with something or other in society, and there is no hint among the characters here of shining values to be set up in place of those hollow and corrupt ones. Perhaps that is the pity of it.
Letter to Lord Liszt is evidently a companion to Walser’s previous novels, The Inner Man (reviewed in The New York Review, March 28, 1985) and The Swan Villa. Just as the distressed and rueful hero of The Inner Man, chauffeur to a big industrialist, was related to the harassed estate agent of The Swan Villa, so Horn has a cousin who used to be the boss’s chauffeur and was demoted to operating a forklift in the warehouse. Walser is going through the professions one by one, like some equivocal careers adviser. But Letter to Lord Liszt lacks the substance and the feeling of life of the earlier novels. While, as ever, there is nothing pretentious or ingratiating about the writing, Horn’s prolonged quarrel with Liszt, the needling on one side and the wild reacting on the other, is too petty, too airless, to seize and hold the imagination. What is done here is done very well, but the result is narrow in scope, low on variety, and thin in appeal: a case of overspecialization.
“Writing is now my substitute for everything,” writes Horn. In the event the letter isn’t dispatched, but the composing of it has cheered him up. The reader may feel slightly aggrieved that this therapy has been effected at his cost.
Gert Hofmann’s novel, The Parable of the Blind, is another triumph of technique over matter, insofar as there can truly be any such triumph. It is an account, at close quarters, of a day in the life, or half-life, of six blind beggars. Awoken from their dreams in a barn, in the unspecified but presumably Flemish village of Pède-Sainte-Anne, they are given a substantial meal, and in due course—having been led and misled on the way—they reach the house of a painter. The latter, who provided their breakfast, is going to paint them—not sitting, but walking and stumbling and falling, and also screaming.
We learn next to nothing about the blind men. They talk repeatedly of birds, and of their having been blinded one hot evening, while sitting under a cherry tree, when the crows or ravens came down and pecked out their eyes. This serves as a cover story for them all, in the form of a nursery-rhyme legend. Each of them has his own name, and they have a nominal leader, called Ripolus, not because he is of any use but simply because someone has to walk in front. But they are not individuals so much as one ill-controlled body, lurching along hand in hand like “a deep-sea monster, a general, noiseless, dark, laboriously shifted thing.” The narrator, one of the six, refers to himself in the ambiguous plural: “ourself,” thus avoiding the distinguishing “my” and ironically favoring the royal “we.”
Cut off from external reality, and with little memory of that reality left in their heads, their thoughts revolve in a narrow circle, as for much of the time their bodies do, too. They are conscious of the sun on their faces or the rain on their heads, and of people who help them, or distrust them (there have been thieves in the village, pretending to be blind men), or play tricks on them. They are certainly conscious of a dog who attacks them and bites their legs. “You dog! we scream and kick our legs about and probably swing the dog around in the air, but he doesn’t give up. O Lord, we call, why don’t You hear us, why don’t You call for Your dogs?” They share a modicum of inner life, like some primitive or rudimentary organism, as they speculate on trivial matters: how many ponds are there in the village? Does the painter have a beard? Is there such a word as “drizzle”?
As they remark, they have their dignity. They are the Lord’s elect, if only because those whom He loves He punishes. “Even if His Love goes a bit too far, sometimes, we’re thinking.” Their complaints are more routine than anguished. They are hardened to indignities—the villagers stand around and giggle while they relieve themselves—and admirably resilient. They do not solicit sympathy. And they show signs of shrewdness, as when they comment collectively that people don’t like to see them even when they are unpainted, so why would they want to perpetuate them by painting, “make us double by painting us”?
We see no more than they do of the painter himself, and hear only what they hear as he talks to his friend. He declines to look at them until he’s ready to paint, for he might put himself in their place, and he doesn’t wish to be moved except in his art. His ambition is to portray convincingly the human scream: this would be a “concluding and ultimate picture,” containing everything he had to say about the world. “So that they (we), who are always being ignored,” the narrator remarks, “will finally be seen for once, and people will know what a human being is, what being human is about.”
Jesus’s brief parable, related in Matthew 15: 11–20, is plain and precise: an answer to the accusations of the Pharisees that his followers failed to wash their hands before eating. Whatever goes into the mouth comes out elsewhere in due course, Jesus says, and it is what comes out of the mouth and out of the heart that matters—evil words and evil actions. In their pedantic insistence on ritual the Pharisees were “blind leaders of the blind: and if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.” Bruegel’s painting of 1568, The Blind Leading the Blind, part of which is reproduced on the jacket of the novel, shows a church in the background; and, while the biblical parable was then a commonplace emblem for human folly in general, it is possible that Bruegel also had in mind contemporary controversies over the forms and observances of religion.
We are virtually bound to surmise a parable or allegory of some kind in Gert Hofmann’s novel, and not only because of its title in English. (The original is neutral, translating as “The Fall of the Blind.”) Since we are not told how the men actually came by their blindness, whether through accident or as punishment for wrongdoing, the parable cannot well pertain to human folly, though the story answers as a somewhat conventional illustration of human misfortune. Another conceivable interpretation relates to art and the coldbloodedness, more politely impersonality, of the artist. Here the painter admits that it is probably more important to live than to capture life, yet “in his case, painting, even just the thought of it, kills all thought of anything else in the world.” The blind men are repeatedly lined up and sent through the routine of walking, stumbling, and falling as slowly as possible into a stream. Never mind that they are bruised and bleeding, or that the day grows hot and they start to sweat: the painter won’t allow them to unbutton their smocks or take off their bonnets. He is determined to get it right. What occupies him is not their fate but the fate of man, and when he has finished, “Stop now, he shouts, take them away.” The callousness, not to say unscrupulousness, of the artist in action is another wellworn theme.
The Parable of the Blind possesses a number of negative virtues: absence of corn, and of porn, no striving for effect, no trite or portentous pleas for the underprivileged, and none of the longwindedness often taken for profundity. And it conveys, all the more persuasively for its matter-of-factness, a sense of what it is to be sightless—a prey to flood and fire and precipice; at the mercy of malicious jokers, and likewise of the well-disposed who almost choke you by pouring milk down your throat; and afflicted by the consciousness of having forgotten what the most ordinary things are like. Perhaps we should be content with that.
It is more than we are likely to receive, unless we are avid for academic excitements, from Peter Handke’s Across. The title alludes to the novel’s leitmotif, and the subject of several expert mini-essays: the threshold. “Discovering and describing thresholds became a passion with me,” albeit the Austrian narrator, by name Andreas Loser, does nothing so crude as to cross, in any discernible manner, any discernible boundary.
Possibly the narrator of Handke’s earlier and more animated novel, Short Letter, Long Farewell, offers the tip when he explains that, in his view, to reduce a thing to a concept is to do away with it through the act of formulation, so that one doesn’t have to experience it again; to characterize is to degrade. Thereby hangs an avant-garde theory of fiction or anti-fiction, no doubt—one which disregards the fact that man is a conceptualizing and, more important, an interpreting animal. We are impelled to make connections, we yearn for meaning.
In the person of his narrator, Handke comes as near as anyone well can to presenting pure, unexamined experience: an intense state of dissociated consciousness verging on the autistic. However weakened by its fashionable use, “alienation” is too strong or positive a word. There are no effects here—or, rather, there are only effects without affect—and there are no causes.
The sole action lies in Loser’s killing, in a strange fit of passion and by a singularly well-aimed pebble, a man who has sprayed a swastika on a tree trunk. In ancient art—Loser is an amateur archaeologist—the swastika has an innocent significance, even a benign one, but “this sign, this negative image, symbolized the cause of all my melancholy—of all melancholy, ill humor, and false laughter in this country.” Despite the reference to “cause,” we hear no more about the purport of the swastika (Handke isn’t going to be betrayed into banalities!), and no more of the dead man. The incident sounds suspiciously like one of those old actes gratuits.
But what we do have is a string of perceptions or sensations…animal, vegetable, or mineral, all is grist to Loser’s receptive though passive consciousness. Among poker-faced minutenesses of observation, and several vapidly enigmatic reflections (“The canal, the light, the willows, the planks of the bridge—they prevail“), we meet some fine impressions or evocations, of mountains, rocks, and trees, a concert of sounds at night, a hedgehog and an owl, a helicopter pad in the grounds of a hospital. The most striking is this passage:
A colony of daddy longlegs adhered to the walls, clinging to the grainy limestone with their spindly legs, which suggested clock hands. Unceasingly, they swung to and fro, giving the whole kitchen the air of a clock-maker’s workshop, filled with pendulums and silent ticking. From time to time the clocks shifted their position, or else one would stand longlegged over another, the two of them swinging together.
We seem to be on the brink of a true epiphany when Loser muses, “Daddy longlegs, patron of threshold seekers.” Such precision and such authority contrast oddly with his vagueness on other points: why he left his family (“Was I sent away? Was it my idea to desert the three of them? Was there any reason for the separation…?”), and why he hasn’t been teaching of late (“Have I been dismissed or given a vacation or granted sick leave, or temporarily suspended?”). Loser is continually asking questions which he alone can answer.
Mysteries, mysteries…. Asked whether his poems had hidden meanings, John Ashbery replied that no, they hadn’t because if they did have, somebody might find out what the meanings were and then the poems would no longer be mysterious. With Handke’s novel, it appears to be a case of mysteries void of meanings.
August 14, 1986