Alien Minutia

Peter Weiss’s novella, The Shadow of the Coachman’s Body, begins in an outhouse – the narrator notes the ‘lava-like mound’ of excrement beneath him – and ends amidst copulating shadows. It is a plotless fiction in which the body’s functions exert grotesque forces on an inert world. We follow the nameless narrator through a series of enervated, dreamlike scenes set in a dreary rural boardinghouse. His encounters with the other boarders – the captain, the housekeeper, the father, the boy, the eponymous coachman and so on – offer brief and reticent dramas ruthlessly mined for their black comedy. The narrator, a failed writer and consummate voyeur, is an immaterial figure. He doesn’t live his life so much as passively perceive it. The confines of his sight, in particular – colour, space, shape, motion – continuously calibrate the text. While lying in bed, he applies grains of salt to his eyes in order to induce the blurred images that stimulate his memory. These recollections are neither fantastic nor interesting in themselves: work, rest, meals, accidents, arrivals and departures. But in Weiss’s austerely hypnotic prose they achieve a strange and painterly texture. It is a vision of reality stripped for component parts, as in this scene of the nightly supper:

Hands holding spoons are now lifted toward the pots from all sides; the housekeeper’s hand red, swollen, dishwaterlogged; the captain’s hand with polished, grooved fingernails; the doctor’s hand with bandage slings between all fingers; the hired man’s hand spotty with dung and mud; the tailor’s hand trembling, skinny, like parchment; my own hand, my own hand; and then no hand, in an empty space waiting for a hand.

In Weiss’s bleak, materially contiguous world, social life is reduced to image or tautology, alienating in its utter apartness or else estranged by repetitive action. Reading the work, I was constantly in mind of its cubist effect, as of a piling of limbs. Multiple hands hold the same vibrating cup; mouths talk, chew, and laugh simultaneously. Weiss offers a banality eviscerated by its own secret excesses and perversities. Reality cracks audibly, like warming ice.

Born in Berlin, in 1916, to a Hungarian Jewish father and a Christian mother, Peter Weiss knew something of persistent estrangement. His family moved often – first to Bremen, then Chiselhurst, near London, then Prague – before settling in the permanent exile of Stockholm following Hitler’s invasion of the Czech Sudetenland in 1938. Weiss was a painter and experimental filmmaker before trying his hand at fiction. He wrote his first novels and plays in Swedish. Like Paul Celan, he wrestled with the language of his birth in the wake of the Holocaust. In the autobiographical novel Exile (1968), he describes his eventual revelation: ‘This language was present whenever I wanted it…And if it was hard to find the right words and images this was not because I did not belong anywhere…but only because many words and pictures lay so deep down that they had to be long sought for.’ Despite the range of his work, he is mostly remembered outside Germany as a politically engaged dramatist. The play-within-a-play Marat/Sade (1963) gained him an international audience, though later prose works like the three-volume novel The Aesthetics of Resistance (1975, 1978, 1981), a complex meditation on the concordance between revolution and imagination, solidified him as a titan of the cultural Left. He died of a heart attack, in Stockholm, in 1980.

New Directions has recently published two of Weiss’s self-described ‘micro-novels’, Coachman – notably his first work written in German – and Conversation of the Three Wayfarers. Originally published in 1960 and 1963, they are cryptic experiments written before Weiss’s name-making plays. Neither autobiographical nor explicitly political in nature, they are transitional texts in which elements of his past life – painting, film-making – emerge through a sometimes severe, often compelling formalism. Together they suggest the latent surrealism of his formidable oeuvre, an animating fluid within the granite eminence.

They are works that seem to reach us from a great distance. The dream logic of Kafka is present here, though it is further complicated by a slivering of the basic units of narrative. The Shadow of the Coachman’s Body, lucidly translated by the poet Rosmarie Waldrop, unfolds in small, concrete observations, stacking one piece of visual or auditory information upon the next. Little in the way of purpose or motivation is offered. There is only the ingress of what is seen and heard, as reported by the blurred and blurring narrator. Neither desire, nor ambition, nor envy drive him forward. He is largely unrecognizable in terms of human capacities. He exists only to perceive and thereby recall the splinters of a cramped and puzzling life. When he sits in the outhouse among stacks of old newspapers, he writes of their curious lure: ‘one gets absorbed in small, mixed-up fragments of time, in events without beginning or end’. This is a succinct precis for the novella itself. Reading it is like sifting through an alien minutia.

Speech, too, is reduced to particulate matter. There are no quotation marks and no conversations, only words and syllables the narrator hears or mishears, what he calls ‘breath and…tongue motions’:

From the conversation into which the son is drawn I get the following: words of the father’s like early, usefulness, Mr. Schnee’s activity, looked on long enough, show for once, barrow, shovel, sand, seven, eight, nine stones, cart away, clean, lineup; words said by Mr. Schnee like of course, be cautious, careful, understand what about, three thousand seven hundred seventy-two stones to date, learn from the beginning, count on remuneration too.

This is not communication, but a baffled accounting of voice, like a sociologist’s report from a foreign colony. So abstracted is the narrator that speech bears only partial intelligibility, even if the act itself remains compelling, a kind of ritual in which he may have once participated. It is perhaps a way of navigating the anxiety of meaning, this making of language into a debris out of which things are suggested, if not expressed. For a writer whose work has ‘never yet gone beyond always new, short, broken-off beginnings’, this is a recognizably compensatory measure. The narrator’s meticulous observations can be taken as a desperate response to his own stifled art.

Augmenting this sense of fragmentation are the visual collages Weiss includes throughout the novella. These cryptic juxtapositions – anatomical figures, suns, insects, geometric abstractions, broken limbs, horses, playing cards – obliquely rhyme with various aspects of the text. They present a kind of topographic unconscious, highly affecting in their grotesque mystery, often striking with the force of troubling dreams. Weiss’s technique prefigures W. G. Sebald’s use of inscrutable photographs by almost forty years. The Rings of Saturn or The Emigrants, seem, to me, unimaginable without his example.

The novella offers little in the way of climax or closure. The coachman, conspicuously missing throughout, finally arrives towards evening, an event that happens three days before its telling. (The narrator admits he has been unable to sleep or write ever since.) That night he sees the shadow of the coachmen having sex with the shadow of the housekeeper, which plunges him into a curious sort of despair. The coachman’s life, rounded by routine, appetite and action, throws into relief the inertness of the narrator’s own existence. Such immediacy can only ever be imagined by the failed writer. At best, he is a shaper of shadows.

Conversation of the Three Wayfarers is the more raucous of the pair. In some ways more traditional than Coachman, its vaulting, absurdist momentum carries the novella into a strange kind of sense-making. Its three narrators – Abel, Babel, and Cabel – share an indiscriminate first-person narrative in which various scenes and stories jostle for position. Often incongruous, they center on various comic-mythic creations: a rowboatman, his seven sons, Jam, Jem, Jim, Jom, Jum, and Jym, an unplaceable, oneiric metropolis, etc. The capering energies and sudden abysses of these mini-narratives offer no sense of plot, threaded or otherwise. They are rather a bundle of velocities, or a loose affiliation of vigorous oddities. Here is story as a floating circus.

As the book’s translator, John Keene, notes in his introduction, we find ourselves moving away from the modernism of Coachman into an anticipation of the postmodern, a smashing together of tones and registers. In Conversation’s cumulative structure, the contours of a complex perspective emerge, one that looks askance at a Germany (and a continent) in flux. Ultramodern technologies exist in timeless, illusive atmospheres; cinematic cuts and fadeouts offer appealing caesuras to Chaplinesque pratfalls; high and low cultures blend into myths embossed with the cheap language of advertising and adventure. This is a jagged, funny and largely hopeless vision of Europe after the upheaval of the great wars, a book of non-sequitur feats and winking despair.

Like John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror or Renata Adler’s Speedboat, the book is nearly unquotable, its fragments robbed of their potency in isolation. I underlined almost at random, taking in the bits of persiflage and Steinian repetition, offhand exemplars of a beautiful and batty poetics: ‘My fear lay spread about in the grasses’; ‘the city outside already again was as it always was, as it always was’; ‘for the first time I saw what leaves are’. The first-person construction, shared by the three narrators, makes for a chorus of possibility. It describes an entropic world nonetheless coalescing in pockets of chance, risk, or providence. As the men aimlessly walk and talk, they seem to be striving for something the world has left behind, an antiquated notion half-glimpsed amongst the rubble: something like legibility.

Read on: Peter Weiss, ‘The Necessary Decision’, NLR I/47.