Hans Erich Nossack Essay - Critical Essays

Nossack, Hans Erich

Nossack, Hans Erich 1901–

Nossack is a German novelist, dramatist, poet, and short story writer. Although he is an important and award-winning author in Europe, few of his works appear in English translation.

[Die gestohlene Melodie] features, once again, the protagonist who has become typical of [Nossack's] fiction: the spiritual émigré who has turned his back on the everyday reality of our world. In this case the outsider is a former schoolteacher. Some years earlier, disenchanted with the futility of his life, he had attempted to hang himself; when he failed, his wife left him. Now, pensioned off by the government, he lives out his days jotting down occasional thoughts in a journal of his "other self" that he calls the "Ephemerides of Mister Ich," in which he tries to preserve some of the insights from his privileged position beyond death.

Nossack makes a novel out of this subtle and rather insubstantial material by having it narrated by a man totally incapable of understanding it. According to the involved framework, the story is being put together by a literary editor from notes jotted down several years earlier, when he heard the story from another patient at a spa. This man, the owner of a successful advertising agency, tells the story in his own characteristic idiom. Totally unaware of its implications, he tells the story of the spiritual émigré merely as an adjunct to the plot that interests him: a melody "stolen" from a spiritual émigré and promoted into a hit song. Since this narrator does not realize that the story of the "stolen melody" is really peripheral to and symbolic of the more significant story that he fails to understand, he repeatedly distorts it: the temporal sequences are jumbled; cause and effect become dissociated; and the whole story is trivialized by the narrator's crass attempt to present it as the scenario for a motion picture.

The result of all these confusions is a strangely diffuse and highly ironic narrative that permits the real story to emerge only indirectly while it dwells, almost infuriatingly, on irrelevancies. This tension produces the weird dimension of irreality that characterizes Nossack's fictional world—a world in which everyday reality is reduced so that we catch occasional glimpses of another, better "reality" that echoes faintly in such communications as the "stolen melody". (p. 556)

Theodore Ziolkowski, in Books Abroad (copyright 1972 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 47, No. 3, Summer, 1973.

To the Unknown Hero seriously challenges the manipulation of historical events into fictions, particularly by historians—who ought to be the custodians of truth, but frequently opt for composing consolingly complete but inaccurate accounts of the past.

An academic historian, known to his pupils as 'Professor Precise', has made his name by publishing his thesis about the key role of an anonymous citizen in the Bavarian revolution of 1919. Only by discovering an old suit of his late father's, bearing a tell-tale label, does the historian realise that his father was this unknown hero. He's built a professional career and a historical myth, but ignored clues to the truth. The novel is tellingly and absorbingly put together, and its theme becomes more than captivating by the links made between its immediate subject and more recent German events. Nossack's book is one more example of the vigorous inventiveness with which the great contemporary truth-tellers of the German novel—and Nossack is clearly to be reckoned a giant among them—bring home to their readers that the Hitlerian past has to be protected from the glozing effect of time and historians. (p. 413)

Valentine Cunningham, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of Valentine Cunningham), March 28, 1974.

All of [Nossack's] novels are instances of a revolt against seeing men as cogs in the social machine. His characters tend to cross the border into what cannot be labelled, what can hardly even be talked about. (p. 566)

Nossack is able to treat mass death [in Bereitschaftsdienst: Bericht über die Epidemie] without getting mired in gory details, without sensationalism. And while he only seems to be asking a philosophical question he gives us in passing a society, a "world"—though not a very pleasant one.

It is time that Nossack be recognized as a major novelist outside Germany. The lack of English translations is scandalous. (p. 567)

Rosmarie Waldrop, in Books Abroad (copyright 1974 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 48, No. 3, Summer, 1974.

In 1948 Jean-Paul Sartre called [Nossack] "the most interesting contemporary German writer," yet To the Unknown Hero is only his third novel to appear in English translation. Why this neglect of a writer with such a distinguished European reputation? Well, I'm not sure, but I suspect we had an overdose of Camus. Nossack is very much an "existential" novelist, mining a by-now familiar vein of metaphysical bewilderment in a world without sense. And perhaps this attitude seems outmoded, just another dated product of postwar Europe. Whatever the reason, this neglect of Nossack is regrettable, for he is an artist of disconcerting power, offering us a series of unsettling reports from the abyss….

Germany tried to forget its past in the intoxication of its postwar economic miracle, but Nossack forgot nothing; his purgatorial nonexistence under the Nazis became a central metaphor in his postwar fiction. Many of his novels are written as quasi-documentary reports, usually with a first-person narrator. In those communiqués from no man's land the narrator is attempting to understand a past event, to determine precisely what happened and why it happened. But the answer is beyond discovery. The reports resemble metaphysical detective stories; more and more evidence is adduced, the narrator sifts and winnows, but at the heart of the mystery is a gap, a place where logical rules don't apply.

It is difficult to pinpoint precisely this Nossackian gap, this area of human action that defies analysis. It is a metaphor like Gide's "gratuitous act," referring to undetermined behavior that we can neither predict nor explain. In Nossack the gap often occurs in periods of social turmoil, when the rules and regulations of bourgeois society are null and void. (p. 538)

Hans Erich Nossack may appear to represent a kind of atavism, as a postwar existentialist still running changes on familiar themes of despair and ambiguity. But his novels aren't simply fictionalized essays on the human predicament. To the Unknown Hero is a parable about the limitations of historical understanding, but it is also a very clever, often very funny story of adventure and detection…. Nossack's vision of a gap in the center of things is no mere literary conceit; it's a truth he's lived to learn. Like his other unnerving novels, To the Unknown Hero will never be old-fashioned. (pp. 538-39)

Sheldon Frank, "What Was Father up to Then?," in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), May 3, 1975, pp. 538-39.

An anonymous critic … calls Nossack "one of the secret masters of European prose," and the description is useful, in spite of all the loose ends it leaves hanging. (Who are the others? Is it prose that Nossack is a master of? And how secret can a man be when he wins prizes in Germany and receives a decoration in France; when he is a member of three German academies and has held the chair of Poetics at the Goethe University in Frankfurt?) Nossack is a secret master not because the British and American public appears hardly to have heard of him—I confess I had never heard of him until a few weeks ago—but because his work seems an injunction to secrecy, the quiet password of a discreet modernist brotherhood, of a sect composed of all those who suspect that the world is not as steady as it looks. (p. 56)

[Nossack is close in age to Nabokov, Borges, and] Beckett—names which suggest themselves anyway, independently of the dates. He has written poems, stories, plays, novels. Of the three of his works which have been translated into English (all three are novels), The Impossible Proof is the earliest—it was first published in German in 1956. It is a tour de force of great brilliance, it is both funny and disturbing, but it remains strongly marked by Kafka and Camus, and it is strictly metaphysical, preoccupied, that is, by problems of guilt and anxiety which are offered to us as universal, or at least as international, stripped of all local psychological and historical resonances. "Man only begins," the defendant says, "when psychiatry leaves off." The time and place of the novel are the twentieth century and an anonymous suburb.

The two later books—The D'Arthez Case (1968) and To the Unknown Hero (1969)—take the same guilt and anxiety, and even several of the same strategies for coping with them, and locate them very precisely in German history. The D'Arthez Case is an ambitious and very successful work, and only its obliquity and the diffidence in which it entangles its own ambitions make one hesitate to call it a masterpiece. Indeed one hesitates to call this novel anything, since any denomination at all would look like a clumsy act of appropriation, almost an insult, a transgression of the silence from which the text emerges so shyly. To the Unknown Hero is slighter, looks very much like the work of a man keeping his hand in while he rests from his recent, extensive labors.

All three novels are governed by indirection. The Impossible Proof is presented as the product of a single brain during a sleepless night; the narrator of To the Unknown Hero is telling a friend about a book he has written, and about a long conversation he has had with his father about that book—the father's re-created speech forms the body of the novel. The D'Arthez case, in the novel of that name, is reconstructed from tapes, films, archives, interviews, books, and private conversations—the narrator has never talked to D'Arthez. D'Arthez himself, for good measure, is a famous mime, a satirical comedian who dramatizes, in silence, the ironies and paradoxes of his compatriot's complicities with history, so that his acts come to us through a cloud of translations, the most brutal of which is the translation of sober, stylized gestures into garrulous, overly meaningful words. D'Arthez is doubly silent, that is: he is a mime who appears only across other people's versions of him.

Nossack is glancing here, I think, not so much at the philosophical notion of the difficulty of getting at the truth as at the moral and political idea of falsification, a temptation even to honest men and a widespread habit with others…. Historians falsify through ignorance, because of the ordinary losses inflicted by time;… [furthermore, at times the] truth is known, but the truth can't be told. For the willful and vicious falsifications created by the Nazis, we substitute the half-hearted falsifications inflicted on us by our helplessness, and the attraction of D'Arthez's pantomimes is that they constitute a language which cannot be tampered with. (pp. 56-7)

[There] are a number of D'Arthez pantomimes, in which he irritates his family and plays tricks on the [Nazi] security police…. The narrator's description of D'Arthez's method seems perfect: "He merely frayed the nerve ends of his audience ever so slightly and tried to make them feel unsure of themselves by exaggerating their conventions."

D'Arthez takes his name from a character in Balzac, who represents "the ideal of the patient, clandestine, intellectual opposition," and in his pantomimes, in and out of the theater, he himself embodies precisely that: a courteous, distant, thoughtful refusal to share the life and opinions of the dominant majority. It is clear, I think, that this is an elegantly aggressive version of the condition which is simply suffered by the defendant in The Impossible Proof. In both cases there is a sense of irreducible difference, a sense of being radically unlike other people, and in both cases there is a great emphasis on the idea of acting as at least a partial protection against danger and distress. The defendant has lived a life that has been "irreproachable, irreproachable to the point of tedium," but this is only a front, not for any hidden vices but for his own awareness of his separation from others. D'Arthez takes the offensive in such matters, and advises his daughter to conform scrupulously to conventions, because conventions keep others away. You send them a birthday card, and they can be nasty about your taste, and they are thus safely occupied. "We must provide them with subjects. Otherwise, we won't know what they are saying."

D'Arthez is a model of private dignity upheld by a perfect correctness on all occasions, he is Nossack's secret society of shaken men turned inside out and converted into an emblem of mocking poise…. Certainly a considerable loneliness speaks in such a figure, and great tact too, of course, and it is in this, perhaps, that Nossack as a writer most closely resembles D'Arthez as a mime. He doesn't throw stones, he merely frays the nerves slightly, and we have to read him very carefully in order to pick up the wonderfully aimed irony of these texts. (p. 57)

Michael Wood, "Shaken Men," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 by NYREV, Inc.), September 18, 1975, pp. 56-7.