Hans Erich Nossack

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Nossack, Hans Erich

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2,212 words.)