Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Douglas Messerli | Falling Trees (on Thomas Bernhard's Woodcutters)

falling trees
by Douglas Messerli

Thomas Bernhard Holzfällen (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag. 1984), translated from the German by David McLintock as Woodcutters (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987)

 American writers (and artists), particularly poets, often complain that their communities are viciously divided, and decry the fact that at the center of their art is great deal of vicious commentary, particularly between different literary sensibilities. My reaction to the various attacks from one front or another has always been a simple acceptance of the fact—although I have seldom willfully contributed to these assaults. Why shouldn’t a poet or fiction writer, if she or he is truly committed to art and his perception of what art consists of, feel a sense of affront by those who do not have that same commitment? If art matters, so does the territory; all writing (or art) is necessarily not equal, unless one doesn’t truly care about that art.

      In Thomas Bernhard’s 1984 fiction, Holzfällen, moreover, we perceive that the feeling of disgust by some writers for others is not just an American phenomenon, but if we are to take the voice of Bernhard’s narrator as an example, perhaps even more virulently experienced in Austria. And, unless we are somehow involved in that scene, the petty hatreds and disgust (amounting almost to nausea) felt by the central character makes for great fun, as he cattily attacks his fellow dinner partners gathered together in Vienna’s Gentgasse for what the hosts, the detested Auersbergers, have described as “an artistic dinner.” For Bernhard’s Viennese counterparts, some of whom recognized themselves in his satiric attacks, the presentation of their failures, however, was not at all “fun,” one going so far to sue the author and preventing his book from sale.

     There is certainly no question that Bernhard, bearing a close relationship to the narrator, presents a devastating portrait of his fellow artists—writers, musicians, tapestry weavers, dancers, actors, and just plain hangers-on. The drubbing they receive and the recounting of the narrator’s intimate relationships with many of these figures is almost maniacal as he recounts over and over how he came to know each figure, what role they played in his life, and how they ultimately came to be the truly “hated” figures he regurgitates up before us. Bernhard’s book, in short, is precisely as its title suggests—at least in the German—a wood-cutting exercise, Holzfällen suggesting in the original not just the noun “woodcutters,” but the verbal construction of a critical denunciation.

     Bernhard’s narrator, having himself suffered an emotional breakdown and, consequently, spending a period in a mental hospital, has a great deal in common with the author, and the major event of the day of the “artistic dinner” is a graveside ceremony for the narrator’s friend, Joana, upon her having committed suicide at her childhood home in Kilb, is similar in some ways to Bernhard’s own reported suicide in Upper Austria only five years after publishing this fiction. The reader, accordingly, recognizes the narrator’s attacks as highly personal and, at times, nearly hysterical, as the character admits that for years he has gone out of his way to steer clear of his old friends from the 1950s and early 1960s upon his return to Vienna from years abroad. But even if the narrator did not admit to these personal vendettas—which, in fact, lay at the heart of this fiction—the reader would be forced to recognize the subjectivity of the narrator simply by the grammatical structures and intense repetition of his sentences. Each attack on his hosts and their guests, particularly the Austrian Virginia Woolf, Jeannie Billroth, and the Austrian Marianne Moore and Gertrude Stein (in my mind, two diametrically opposed figures), Anna Schreker, is repeated over and again in detail, with each foray the narrator adding a bit of new information, that we soon recognize the separated figure sitting, as he tells us dozens and dozens of times in the narrative, in a wing-tip chair, is clearly obsessed with these beings.

     As well he might be, given the fact that as a young man he was pulled into artistic and sexual relationships with nearly all the central players, including his hostess—a woman from a wealthy bourgeois family who uses her money to help buy her and her husband’s way into the cultural scene—he, a composer “in the Webern tradition”—along with the Austrian Virginia Woolf, the Austrian Marianne Moore and Gertrude Stein, and the talentless Joana who spent her life transforming her tapestry-maker husband into a world-renown artist who bolts to Mexico just as he reaches the pinnacle of his profession.

     While the narrator may seem utterly ruthless in his attacks, quite viciously recounting the demise of each of these figures, now unable to even tolerate them for their abandonment of whatever they might have had of any talent, he somewhat redeems himself by being as brutally honest about himself, admitting how they each helped mold him into the artist he is today while also attempting, in a Tennessee Williams-like metaphor, to emotionally and spiritually “devour” him, equating it to the way all of Austrian culture grinds down its most talented young artists. The Auersbergers have used him sexually to “help save their marriage,” Jeannie has taken him in as a kind of devotee of her artistic endeavors, Joana has created a relationship with him to help her develop her failed career as a dancer/actress. In order to survive, he proclaims, he has had to abandon them, while they have vilified him to all their acquaintances for that very abandonment, Joana perhaps even through her death expressing her sorrow in her loss of her once dear friend. So while the narrator may seem to be selfishly satisfied with his tale of his friend’s immense failings, he is equally brutal about his own hypocrisies, and praises the talents they once possessed—including Herr Auersberger’s musical abilities, his wife’s singing talents, and even Jeannie’s early devotion to literature before she sold out to the State officials who award stipends and literary prizes, one of which the Austrian Marianne Moore and Gertrude Stein has just been recipient.

     At the center of the “artistic dinner” is a third-rate actor playing Eckdal in the Burgtheater’s production of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck., who, when he finally arrives well after midnight, shifts the narrative to a comic realization of just the boorish “artistic” conversations against which the narrator has been railing. Most of his commentaries are ridiculous statements of the difficulty of the actor’s life, criticizing nearly everyone—directors, writers, fellow actors and the theater itself, while exalting his own innumerable talents. When Jeannie Billbroth attempts to turn the conversation upon herself, however, at first vaguely, but, as the actor himself puts it, later “tastelessly” posing provocative questions, the actor turns from performing as a simple ham, endlessly recounting tales he has told dozens of times, to a kind of outraged philosopher, lambasting “the Austrian Virginia Woolf” for rude impertinence, lashing out against her obvious attempts to put down anything of value. In short, he voices just the criticisms that the narrator has privately held yet, hypocritically, failed to publically express. For the aging actor, his desires are for a kind of return to nature—what anyone who has read Austrian fiction realizes is at the very center of that country’s romantic ties to a kind of peasant simplicity—a world of “the forest, the virgin forest, the life of a woodcutter,” perhaps Bernhard’s ironic condemnation of the culture’s (as well as the narrator’s) own self-destructive desires.

     Indeed, Bernhard’s narrator, ultimately, does not come off much better than the devouring dead folk of his memories, as he waits until everyone has left, kissing the forehead of his hostess, and murmuring wishes that he might have heard her sing, while promising another visit—all of his actions and words representing more hypocritical mendacity. Or perhaps they do represent a kind of truth, as he goes racing down the stairs like he were still in his 20s, running away from his current home toward the city, determined to write down everything he has just suffered “at once…now—at once, at once, before it’s too late,” while at the same time admitting that as much as he hates these people and Vienna, he, just like the Burgtheater actor, loves them and the city:

                      This is my city and always will be my city, these are my people and
                      Always will be my people….,

an admission that almost instructively contradicts his deep hatred of all he has just recounted to us.

     In this sense, finally, Bernhard’s Woodcutters is not just a critical attack; while it is that, it is also an intense dialogue with the narrator’s self over his and his society’s failures, a public airing of his and his compatriot’s laundry, so to speak. And so the fiction is transformed into a kind of loving portrait of a failed world, the world which, after all, all artists are forced to encounter, endure, and write about: never an easy task.

New York City, May 4, 2012

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Douglas Messerli | Pomp and Circumstance (on Joseph Roth's The Radetzky March)

pomp and circumstance
by Douglas Messerli

Joseph Roth Radetzkymarsch (Berlin: Gustave Kiepenheuer Velag, 1932), translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel as The Radetzky March (New York: The Overlook Press, 1995)

One is immediately struck when reading Joseph Roth’s masterwork, The Radetzky March, at just how amazing is the author’s ability to transform rather unlikeable figures into characters who emotionally involve his readers. Perhaps it even begins with the title: when I answered my companion, who asked me what I was reading, with "The Radetzky March," he turned up his nose in disgust: “I hate that piece. I think it is my least favorite of all march music.” “Mine too,” I replied, “but I love this novel.”

     One might be tempted to say similar things about the novel’s characters: the three generations of the Trottas, beginning with the infantry lieutenant, Joseph, who saved Franz Joseph, the Supreme Commander in Chief’s life by pushing him down at the very moment, at the battle of Solferino, when the emperor had put binoculars to his eyes. Joseph suffered a shattered clavicle and bullet lodged in his left shoulder blade, but both he and the emperor survived. In appreciation for his brave deed, Trotta is decorated with the Order of Maria Theresa and knighthood, now called Captain Joseph Trotta von Sipolje, in honor of his native town. Neither a great military man nor, for that matter, particularly gifted in any specific profession, Joseph Trotta, however, is a thoroughly honest man, outraged when he reads in a children’s history of his alleged salvation of Franz Joseph:

             An enemy lance bored through the young hero’s chest, but most of the
             foes were already slain. Gripping his naked sword in his hand, our un-
             daunted monarch could easily fend off the ever-weakening attacks. The
             entire enemy cavalry was taken prisoner. And the young lieutenant—Sir
             Joseph von Trotta was his name—was awarded the highest distinction
             that our Fatherland has to bestow on its heroic sons, the Order of Maria

Against the advice of all his friends and authorities, Captain Joseph Trotta petitions the government for changes in the text, but is unsuccessful. Youth needs heroes, the authorities and the emperor proclaim. In response, Joseph retires to a country house, puttering around the place for the rest of his life, his only bequeaths to his son amounting to the family title and a painting by his son’s friend, Moser, during one of his visits home.

      The son, a central character of Roth’s novel, grows to be the District Captain, Franz, Baron von Trotta und Sipolje, a man of no great imagination, but of superior character and obedience to the demands of the society. Sending his son to military school, he dutifully relays the laws of the Habsburg Empire to his local populace. But his greatest achievements are the absolute regularity of the Sunday concerts by the famed conductor Nechwal—concerts beginning always with the renowned “Radetzsky March”—his morning constitutionals, and his afternoon visits to a local bar where he plays chess with the garrison medic, Dr. Showronnek. Franz’s life, in short, is a regularized life of a dying generation, a world of moderated pomp and circumstance, played out upon the backdrop of the small town of W in Moravia.

     His son, Carl Joseph, in turn, is raised as a military man, serving first as a member of the cavalry, later as in infantryman. He too is unimaginative, a nonreader, who basically obeys authority. But Carl Joseph, the hero of Roth’s epic tale, has none of the backbone of his father and grandfather, but rather is a weak man, who as the tale moves forward, finds love with two motherly, older women, Frau Slama and, later, a wealthy married Frau von Taussig, becomes an alcoholic, and assumes others' gambling debts—all of which result in scandals and in the deaths of some of his only friends. In the end, like nearly all the figures of this fiction, he dies in battle in the prelude of World War I, a death that is so banal that it reminds one of the children's nursery rhyme, "Jack and Jill" ("Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water"), an act Carl Joseph undertakes from the embankment in which he and his men are holed up in order to slake the thirst of his soldiers.

      In short, the Trottas are representative of just those figures in the great Austria-Hungary empire who outlived their era, contributing to the fall of the empire, a world of Romantic ideals without any substance. As my friend Marjorie Perloff, mused, “How does Roth, then, make us care so much about these people, people whom you might detest in real life? Yet we do care intensely about the Trottas, and we are moved by the events in their lives.”

     One might simply attribute this ability to feel for Roth’s insignificant characters by pointing to the author’s narrative capabilities. Yet, on the surface at least, Roth’s fiction is simply a realist work, with no great flourishes of narrative technique to explain why as late as 1932, long after the great narrative experiments of Proust, Woolf, Kafka, and numerous others—to say nothing of Stein, and in the very same period as Faulkner’s greatest works, The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), and Absalom, Absalom! (1936), Roth’s more traditional-seeming fiction still holds its own, seeming even to be part of that modernist sensibility.

     In part, it is Roth’s ability to present his numerous figures within a cinematic-like structure, interconnecting them with all the art of a great cinematographer moving through time and space. The entire fiction is brilliantly played out between two crucial events in Habsburg history: the salvation of Franz Joseph in Solferino—which permits him to reign longer almost than any European monarch—and the assassination of the heir apparent, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, an event which would soon end the Austrian empire. These two points in time—1859 and 1914—eleven years after Franz Joseph’s coronation and two years before his death, link the Trottas to the emperor through fifty-five years of his reign, more than a half-century.

     Within this matrix, Roth moves freely back and forth in space, from Solferino to the small town of W, from Vienna to the small borderlands town where Carl Joseph is stationed. There are many examples of Roth’s abilities to cut and intercut with great exactitude, but none so startling as the series of events that begin with Carl Joseph’s involvement with the killing of local factory workers on strike. Presenting Trotta in bed with encephalitis and other injuries, Roth cuts to  the Kaiser in his castle at Schönbrunn vaguely recalling the Trotta name and associating it with the name Solferino, before writing on Carl Joseph’s dossier the words settle favorably. A brilliant chapter about the aging Franz Joseph follows, presenting his isolated life in which the wise monarch is forced to play the simpleton and fool. Despite having a cold, Franz Joseph is determined to attend war-games and maneuvers in the distant borderlands, at which point the author moves him forward in space so that by the end of that chapter, he meets up with Carl Joseph himself, associating the young lieutenant with his grandfather, and mistaking him his father, the District Captain. It is as if history itself has intervened in the Trotta family’s life, all accomplished with a few splices of narrative ingenuity.

     A similar event occurs when the ever-troublesome Carl Joseph is forced to pay up on loans and gambling debts (debts he has taken on for others), writing to his father for help. The father, we are surprised to discover, has no money—like his son, he is incapable of balancing accounts. Here also, Roth suddenly moves his small-town figure—often described as a near look-alike of the Emperor—into the royal court as the dashing elderly man, dressed in his white military attire, seeks out and is finally permitted an audience with the Emperor in order to plead his son’s case. When the two finally do meet it is not only that they look like brothers but appear to be looking into a mirror, forcing the reader to recognize that they are not only similar in appearance but that the District Captain, son to the man who has saved Franz Joseph, and the Emperor are mirror images of one another in their beliefs, their demeanors, and their lives—reiterating the fact that the son of the “hero of Solferino” has remade his life in the image of Franz Joseph. By bringing the two face-to-face, Roth has cinematically demonstrated that time and space have become one, over time the elder man has seemingly spawned his double in the surrounding societal space, which is, of course, the desire of any despot, beloved or not.

     Another device Roth uses to develop his characters is to imbue them with special eccentricities or endow them with sudden perceptions which link them to us. Once he has established the Trottas as types—as blustery remnants of a romantic past—the author suddenly recasts them against type as they are faced with special perceptions and exceptional circumstances. Most of these scenes are also laden with irony, not only with our realization that they are not usually like this, but through the exceptionalness of their emotions and situation they are not so very different from ordinary folk, confused and very human beings. One of the most notable of numerous such occasions is when Carl Joseph returns home to be told that the woman, Frau Slama, with whom he has had a long affair, beginning in his youth, has died in childbirth. Carl Joseph is stunned by the news, and even more troubled by his father’s insistence that he visit and present his condolences to Slama himself. Carl Joseph puts off the event as long as possible, but ultimately encounters Sergeant Slama in his now-empty house. The two uncomfortably share bits of conversation, the young Lieutenant having to pretend a near ignorance to the objects in a room in which he has spent long hours. Offered a raspberry drink, Carl Joseph must almost unendurably sit through Slama’s attempts to find where the liqueur is kept, looking in all the wrong places, Carl Joseph knowing of its exact location in the kitchen. The pain and frustration of this scene is almost unbearable, as we feel the deep tension between the two men. But Slama turns the tables, so to speak, as Carl Joseph attempts to make a hasty retreat, calling him back to hand his wife’s love letters over to the young lieutenant. Although Carl Joseph has saved Frau Slama’s letters he clearly has never imagined that she might save his, and that not only has Sergeant Slama known of their affair but so too has his own father. Such situations, in short, intrigue the reader and involve him, as we first feel for the figures involved and then delight in the ironic humor of the situation.

     At numerous times throughout his work, Roth creates similar situations: each time father and son come together in what begins as a formal and rather distant relationship, the two increasingly reveal and even display their love for one another, Carl Joseph, on his final visit, for the first time not only taking his aging father’s arm, but holding it, walking home arm in arm. At other times Roth attributes to these two figures with sudden flashes of perception, Carl Joseph, for example, coming to realize his great love and compassion for his friend Max Demant; the District Captain, upon his trip to visit his son in the borderlands, discovering through the pessimistic observations of Chojnicki, that the empire is indeed about to collapse. Similarly, the emotional complexity of both mens' deep relationships with the most worldly and least-traditional thinking figures in the book—Moser, Demant, Chojinicki, and Skowronnek—gives dimension to the obedient and unquestioning Trottas.

     In the end we begin to see that, despite their simplicity, their obvious weaknesses, even their stupidity, the generations of the Trottas are no so very different from anyone else. Indeed, had they been left to their origins as simple peasants they might, like Carl Joseph’s orderly, Onufrij, have survived very nicely. Certainly Carl Joseph seems to be at his happiest in the few days when he lives in natural solitude in Chojinick’s woods, keeping out of sight of his former infantry friends and greeting the local peasants.

     Finally, in a book with all the hoopla of military parades, rattling sabers, and heel-clicking (one of the most painfully revealing scenes in the book is when the District Captain’s loyal servant Jacques is ill in bed, he attempting to click his heels under the covers when visited by his employer), and, yes, the blaring trumpets of “The Radetzky March,” the dominant images and sounds are strangely those of the natural world: from the canary’s beautiful songs that accompany both Jacques’ and the District Captain’s deaths, to the croaking frogs of the borderland swamps, the strange honking early migrations of the geese, the constant murmur of crickets, and the eerie silence of the ravens signifying to the locals the end of their world, it is nature that has the final say in Roth’s noisy dissonance of Austrian society. And, in the end, it is not the marches, the clashing swords, the explosion of rifles, or plod of feet that defines this dying world, but silence, the mouthing of words that cannot be heard as the Kaiser lies dying, the empty silence that settles over a son’s death.

      Roth’s great fiction may seem almost artless, a simple—if epic—tale of the death of the Austria-Hungry empire, but it is, finally, a domestic drama most carefully crafted in his vast cinematic movements, its delicate shadings of characters, and its skillful juxtaposition of human and natural voices. And by fiction’s end, the blare and bluff of “The Radetzky March” is drowned out by the rich and various cadences of living and dying men.

Los Angeles, May 1, 2012