Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 774
Franz Horn, a middle-aged business executive in the Chemnitz Denture corporation. An ineffectual but highly conscientious bureaucrat, he is in charge of the company’s personnel, taxes, and properties. He possesses a photographic memory, in which he documents the alcoholic shortcomings of his most serious rival, Liszt. Most of the novel consists of a letter—with nineteen postscripts—to Liszt, in which he reveals his authentic feelings of disgust toward him. A lonely and suicidal but highly sensitive man, Horn had planned to abandon the company and join its primary rival, Stierle Dentures, but Stierle’s suicide and subsequent events stopped him. Horn is pathologically suspicious of Liszt and is torn between admiration for his great talents and repulsion at his crass manipulation of his underlings. He decides at the novel’s conclusion not to send the letter and departs, after downing three bottles of wine, for his mother’s name-day celebration.
Arthur Thiele (TEE-leh), the middle-aged head of the Chemnitz Denture and Fin Star corporation. Wealthy, self-reliant, and handsome, Thiele is the envy of both Horn and Liszt. He is completely relaxed in the world and enjoys all the privileges his wealth offers him. He saves Horn’s life after Horn’s suicide attempt yet keeps him employed. He is an inveterate womanizer and performs every action with an ease and assurance that drives Horn to despair. Wherever he goes, he is at center stage because of his charisma.
Dr. Horst Liszt
Dr. Horst Liszt (lihst), a tall, attractive, brilliant alcoholic whose fall within the company is inevitable. Liszt is the major rival of Horn, yet he is also his closest friend. He is well dressed and highly articulate but at heart a manipulative seeker of power and privilege. Liszt possesses all the qualities that Horn lacks. In a letter that initially had been intended as a note of apology for a drunken argument on the feast of the Ascension, Horn declares him the most accomplished monster he has ever encountered.
Dr. Rudolf Ryynänen
Dr. Rudolf Ryynänen (ree-NAY-nehn), an up-and-coming young business executive. Ryynänen is an Austro-Finn who was discovered in Helsinki by Thiele. He has brought into the company his major area of expertise, the surfboard business, and has increased the profits of the company enormously. His innovative business practices have put both Horn and Liszt out of any serious running for executive advancement within the company, and he is highly resented by both men.
Benedikt Stierle (SHTEER-leh), the middle-aged president of Chemnitz’s chief rival in the denture business. The novel opens with the announcement of his suicide and the burning of his company’s plant on the eve of Horn’s decision to leave his job and join Stierle. Those events eradicate Horn’s plan to improve his professional status.
Klothilde Horn (kloh-TIHL-deh), Horn’s seventy-six-year-old mother. She is a highly controlling matriarchal figure who is very much in charge of Horn and his family. A former waitress, she is so secretive that she refuses to tell him the identity of his real father, permitting him to believe that Vater Willi is his father. At the end of the novel, Horn leaves for the celebration of her name day.
Hilde Horn, Franz Horn’s attractive wife. She is an excellent wife and mother of two daughters, as well as being an amateur singer who teaches singing to talented local students. She, too, has an excellent memory. She quarrels with Franz over his pathological hoarding instinct. Their marriage has been resuscitated since Franz’s suicide attempt, but they never talk about it.
Vater Willi (FAH-tehr VIHL-lee), ostensibly Franz Horn’s father but actually his stepfather. He is dead before the novel begins. Horn recalls him as a down-to-earth, dyspeptic bricklayer, a kind man who spent his weekends smoking, drinking, and playing cards.
Mrs. Brass, Horn’s secretary, who has been a member of the staff of Chemnitz Denture from its inception. She is an attractive middle-aged woman who wears her blond hair pulled back into a severe bun. She spends most of her time either sighing or complaining but is overly solicitous of Horn’s well-being. The major gossip of the office, she treats all subordinates with a withering frostiness.
Erna Zentgraf (TSEHNT-grahf), Liszt’s secretary, a highly loyal woman who takes great pains to cover up her boss’s progressive alcoholism. She is an excellent amateur singer and a student of Hilde Horn. She sings wherever she is and enthusiastically expresses her gratitude for the gifts that life has given her.
Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 545
As an isolated work, Letter to Lord Liszt will perplex most readers, for its main, in effect its only, character is briefly sketched here. In Walser’s earlier work Beyond All Love, Franz Horn’s personality was solidly established, his life and increasing difficulties thoroughly portrayed, including the unsuccessful suicide attempt. For a reader without benefit of the earlier novel, Horn’s present dilemma will require attention to detail and nuance; even then, its meaning may escape the reader’s comprehension, for the work is short and the narrative perspective enigmatic.
Franz Horn is a complex character, competent yet full of self-hate. As the product of an unsophisticated, petty bourgeois family, he inherited all the motivation for success but none of the requisite confidence in his abilities. His self-esteem is therefore nonexistent and must be created or substantiated through his work. That this approach has not been successful can be seen in his suicide attempt; on that fateful evening, he was, unfortunately, saved by his boss, Arthur Thiele, and thus is further in Thiele’s debt and in his shadow. In the intervening years since the suicide attempt, Horn seems to have mellowed somewhat, though he can no longer create a positive self-image through achievement. He is pushed aside in the firm, first by Liszt and then by the merger and impending reorganization of the firm; also, with Stierle’s death, a comparable and desirable position has disappeared.
Horn rationalizes that it is not ability but attitude and personality that determine success in business. One must willingly defer to one’s superior so that the individual’s successes are primarily attributed to the boss. One must also have a personality in harmony with the expectations of those with whom one works. Horn has long been troubled by the disparity between his own sense of himself and the image that his fellow workers have constructed of him; his strongest desire is to cultivate a personality that reflects his innate attitudes while simultaneously mirroring those traits perceived by his colleagues.
Yet self-realization and economic competition do not lend themselves to a harmonious resolution. Horn can find no way out of his dilemma; in fact, he is paralyzed by its growing intensity. He is no longer capable of suicide, yet he can find no viable alternative. Instinctively, he grasps for paper and pen, initially to grovel once again at Liszt’s feet. With each succeeding page, however, he gains perspective and courage, while describing his problems more accurately. He is, moreover, not alone, for Liszt will soon be in the same predicament within the firm.
Finally, Horn arrives at the letter’s conclusion, or at least at the final postscript. With each addendum, he has more clearly defined his life. He gradually gains the strength to curse, to revolt, and to hate as well as to love—and eventually to accept his existence, come what may. His letter to Liszt serves several purposes: It is an apology and an explanation of what has occurred and what is about to occur within their professional lives; consequently, it is Horn’s personal enlightenment and, perhaps, salvation; and, ultimately, it is an attempt to reach out, as an equal, to his longstanding rival, so that they can brave the storm together.
Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 79
Doane, Heike A. “Martin Walsers Ironiebegriff,” in Monatshefte. LXXVII (1985), pp. 195-212.
Kaes, Anton. “Portrat Martin Walser,” in The German Quarterly. LVII (1984), pp. 432-449.
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