Peter Spielberg Essay - Critical Essays

Spielberg, Peter

Spielberg, Peter 1929–

An Austrian-born American critic, short story writer, poet, and novelist, Spielberg has published a catalogue of James Joyce's letters and manuscripts as well as a novel, Twiddledum Twaddledum. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Peter Spielberg's "Twiddledum Twaddledum" [contains numerous] clunkers and clichés….

Yet slack language isn't alone in doing damage to "Twiddledum Twaddledum." According to the flap copy, it's "a half serious, half joking take-off on the traditional developmental novel." One has trouble, however, distinguishing the jokes from the serious sections, since Spielberg can't decide whether to be realistic of surrealistic, whether to write a picaresque or a Bildungsroman as he follows the misfortunes of Pankraz (later renamed Paul) who suffers farcical cruelty in fascist Austria and more of the same in America.

This novel might still have survived had the author possessed the style or technical virtuosity to compensate for the absence of conventional narrative, consistency in point of view and structural coherence, but Spielberg loses control of the material and lets it-slip into sloughs of sophomoric humor, pointless anecdotes and passages that sound more self-parodic than satirical. (pp. 26-7)

Michael Mewshaw, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 13, 1974.

Twiddledum Twaddledum deals, as the title indicates, with the dualities of life. It begins with a chapter entitled: "A Mighty Trauma is our Beginning." It ends with one entitled "Upper Berth." The novel is about beginnings and ends, but as the last chapter title implies, ends are merely other beginnings. It is loosely plotted, although we follow the adventures of Pankraz, the hero, as he grows up in Europe and America (becoming Paul and finally Peter Sun), we soon recognize that the plot is simply another fiction, another set of inventions, duplicities and reflections. The novel is, in a way, a comedy directed against "progress"; it attacks the notion that anything—even a straight line marching toward some ultimate end—is stable, fixed, sane….

Peter Spielberg … attacks psychological axioms by demonstrating their ultimate silliness. His hero is a casebook text, but at the same time he is the opposite, refusing to go along with the "character" given to him.

The novel veers from nightmare to daydream to fiction about nightmare and dream. There is no one center, no "final solution" (to use another chapter title). And it is this shrewd flexibility that makes it hard to resist. (p. 25)

Irving Malin, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; (© 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), October 19, 1974.

Twiddledum Twaddledum … is a brilliant, a marvelous novel. Mystifying and haunting, the book, like all great art, creates a world—in this case one of a mind with less and less connection to the world. Pankraz, born into a well-to-do Viennese Jewish family, starves out his twin brother at his nurse's breast, as a child cannot eat, falls in love, and is later seduced by his governess or perhaps her sister, witnesses Nazi humiliation of Jews at public urinals, is packed away into an inhumanly crowded train bringing other Jewish youth to a concentration camp. But the train changes direction, becomes a "Le Havre-Amerika Non-Stop Express," and Pankraz, renamed Paul, is next seen in Part II of the novel riding a subway in the Bronx. He is living with a new set of parents (named as the last "the mother," "the father"), whom he leaves with as much indifference as the discovery that his first set had been removed by Nazi authorities.

Paul is obsessed with sex, and most of Part II of the novel is about his sexual fantasies, gropings and inexplicable conquests and rejections. Sex is easily offered—on the subways, where everyone is expected to chew gum, in movie theatres, in bars—but suddenly, confusingly, arbitrarily withheld. Paul finally re-loses his virginity (he had lost it in Part I with Lotte, his governess: the contradiction is Paul's discontinuity, not the novel's), and although sex, he discovers, is crushingly disappointing, he decides to continue to pursue it because his sullen character needs something to live for…. At the end he is rejected by his mistress Lola (shades of Lotte), who with her new lover sends Paul off in another packed train with another new name to re-start another life.

The book is a mockery of the traditional Bildungsroman it resembles: it starts off in the spirit of Thomas Mann, but charged with something else—puzzling, changing, disquieting—and goes through further phases that recall Kafka, Beckett and, especially, Gabriel García Márquez. Lack of connection and connectedness are this novel's peculiar illogic. Pankraz-Paul, almost totally passive, has few memories, little consistency, no character. The narrative continually switches from first to third person, with no discernible narrative purpose except possible to underscore the tenuousness of the fading connection between self and others. The book takes place in a world where whole families gather at their windows to stare all day at the people chewing gum in the elevated trains of the subway, where sex is a compromise with life, where despair is too strong a feeling to be felt, where love is not even in question.

Almost great. Something goes out of the novel in Part II: the book simply cannot sustain its initial energy and interest as Paul's character narrows to include only sexual hunger as his sole motivating force and feeling. In fact, this beautifully spirited and compelling book becomes finally thin and tedious. (pp. 602-03)

Beverly Gross, in The Nation (copyright 1974 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), December 7, 1974.

Peter Spielberg's first novel [Twiddledum Twaddledum] has its high-spirited moments, but they come to nothing…. [It] relies heavily on unexplained shifts of point of view and character…. Structured as a fanciful variation on the old-fashioned novel of development, it offers instead a record of nondevelopment (which, the note on the author coyly hints, has autobiographical aspects)….

The absence of ultimate meaning, implied by this novel's technique as well as its material, is, of course, the message of many fictions of depression. Twiddledum Twaddledum, less expertly composed than Amis's [Ending Up] or Heller's [Something Happened] makes one conscious how easy a message this is. To assert that events contain no meaning is infinitely simpler than to discover what meaning they offer. Not that Spielberg's book lacks discipline: its careful pattern of self-mirroring happenings manifests intricate planning. But the patterning is verbal rather than substantial, and so are the satisfactions the book supplies…. Like Amis and Heller, though his manifest tone and technique differ sharply from theirs, Spielberg implies that linguistic manipulation provides life's most significant fulfillments. His central character defines himself for a time as writer, but despairs of the activity because of its lack of connection with reality. Flushing his partial novel down the toilet, he preserves its chapter headings: words for their own sake. He, too, has little connection with reality: "He had no reason to get up, no plans, no direction, no ambition, no obligations, no commitments, no involvements … he could not find a cure for the weariness and dejection which had overtaken him. He was not sure of the cause nor whom to put the blame on, although he felt that it was not his fault alone." Although this dismal account would not directly characterize the protagonists of all these novels, the mood it expresses drifts through much current fiction. Spielberg at his best vividly evokes the mood and the limited possible alternatives to it. But he accomplishes little more, except in his patches of verbal play. (pp. 587-88)

Patricia Meyer Spacks, in The Yale Review (© 1975 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Summer, 1975.