Letter to Lord Liszt Essay - Critical Essays

Martin Walser

Critical Context

Martin Walser has admitted that all of his fictional works are located in his native region (approximately the triangle between Stuttgart, Zurich, and Munich) and therefore could justifiably be considered “regional literature.” Among the most notable are several novel cycles, each revolving arounda recurring main character, such as the so-called Kristlein trilogy, which features Anselm Kristlein and comprises Halbzeit (1960; half-time), Das Einhorn (1966; The Unicorn, 1971), and Der Sturz (1973; the crash). The work at hand belongs to yet another cycle, which portrays three male relatives as they grapple with their respective mid-life crises: Gottlieb Zurn of Das Schwanenhaus (1980; The Swan Villa, 1982), Xavier Zurn in Seelenarbeit (1979; The Inner Man, 1984), and Franz Horn of Beyond All Love and Letter to Lord Liszt. Since Walser frequently describes aspects of his own life in his fiction, the reader should be alert to—and may possibly be amused by—autobiographical details.

While both Xavier and Gottlieb Zurn struggle successfully to overcome their insecurities, constipation, and inertia, Franz Horn must deal with an existential crisis of great magnitude, as evidenced by his suicide attempt. Because his self-hate is so extensive and his attitude so pessimistic, the two works in which he is the main character have not received as much popular or critical acclaim as the others. These two works are so extreme that they preclude most readers’ identification with Horn’s fate. Because of their unremitting seriousness, Walser’s immensely successful use of irony, his optimism, and his light sense of humor are absent here.

Not politically active like his contemporaries Heinrich Boll and Gunter Grass, Martin Walser has, in fact, subdued his early social criticism; as a result, several critics have declared that Walser does not want to risk his popularity as a writer of politically harmless best-sellers. In spite of these attacks, Walser is arguably one of the most widely known contemporary German writers, especially for his recent depictions of middle-aged males and their inner lives. Since the mid-1970’s, Walser’s fiction has grown increasingly popular, while spawning a growing body of critical literature as well. His insights into human nature have produced many unforgettable characters, and his almost casual narrative style has attracted an international audience. Several of his works have been adapted for the screen, and his novella Ein fliehendes Pferd (1978; Runaway Horse, 1980) is already considered a classic of the genre.