Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Since the novella is basically a monologue (comprising Horn’s long letter, the postscripts, and a minimum of narrative text), the reader has primarily one point of reference: Franz Horn. Horn recalls incidents and conversations, presumes individuals’ reactions, and even fictionalizes certain events (the two floating saints and the fantasy of Gerhild and Viktor, for example). It is uncertain whether his perceptions are accurate, whether Horn is telling the truth. The reader is forced to accept basic events as given and must interpolate the rest. The question is constantly present: How self-serving and how objective are Horn’s statements?

The irony of this letter lies partly in the fact that it is neither sent nor destroyed; it exists, therefore, only for Horn, its author, the only person who is aware of it. The letter seems to serve the function of literature as therapy, a concept Walser himself has repeatedly proclaimed as his own motivation for writing. In this regard, the act of expressing one’s troubles, of writing them down, can be therapeutic; once verbalized, the problems have been distanced from their author, and the author is less vulnerable to them. Conversely, to digest such a confession can also be cathartic for the reader, for through such an experience the reader, too, gains greater objectivity in his own, similar problems. Hence, one must be curious about this letter’s possible benefits for Liszt, if he is indeed experiencing the stress that Horn posits.

A further irony, however, lies in the characters’ relationships to one another. Just as Horn had replaced a Mr. Bull in the firm by making him a laughingstock, so Liszt displaced Horn several years before this novel begins. The reader is led to suspect that Liszt is experiencing the same fate in the presence of the Austro-Finn Rynannen, Thiele’s latest prodigy. Thus a letter such as Horn’s could have been written by any number of people under like conditions in this firm. Indeed, Walser presents a strong case that similar stress may occur at any time and on a widespread basis; he has established a cycle that appears to be endless in the booming European business climate, and its consequences may prove destructive to sensitive souls such as Franz Horn.