Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The story can be read literally for what it purports to tell: the tale of two middle-aged men suffering from change of life, the one (Klaus) gladly reliving his past because it represents happier times, and the other (Helmut) reluctant to recall painful childhood memories and equally reluctant to cope with his present inadequacies as a teacher and a husband. The storm incident will allow Helmut to realize his positive qualities, see the shortcomings of his envied friend, and finally, purging himself of his frustrations and uncertainties, achieve a measure of happiness.

Others eschew such a simplistic explication. They know that Walser is a Socialist sympathetic with East German Communism, an author who refuses to accept the benefits of the vaunted Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) that turned West Germany, a nation virtually destroyed in World War II, into a world leader in industry, admired for its high standard of living and its freedom from unemployment and inflation. Instead, like several other postwar German writers, he sees West Germany as a nation of soulless capitalists and disaffected losers. The characters in this novella are comparable to Xaver Zurn, the frustrated chauffeur of Seelenarbeit (1979; The Inner Man, 1984) or the protagonist of Die Gallistl’sche Krankheit (1972; Gallistl’s ailment), who suffers from a mysterious malady characterized by unhappiness about himself, his family, and Germany in general. He blames his country for his symptoms, which are relieved only when he turns Socialist. Thus interpreted, Helmut’s story illustrates the folly of refusing to acknowledge Germany’s past. Helmut and Klaus both, along with their wives, are also guilty of selfishly living for themselves alone, heedless of the truth that salvation must lie in social commitment.

Finally, what of the curious name Buch (German for “book”)? Some scholars would see it as a symbol for the book of German history in which Helmut must read the nation’s truth. This might appear to be a farfetched interpretation if it were not for the fact that, although Helmut’s last name is almost never mentioned, Klaus is called “Klaus Buch” constantly, almost obsessively, often several times per page. Walser would seem to be laying special emphasis on the importance of this surname.