Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 989
During the night of December 24, an eccentric scientist named Konrad murdered his crippled wife at their residence, an abandoned decaying lime works in Upper Austria. He used a carbine that she kept strapped to her wheelchair. After dragging the body around, searching for a way to dispose of it, he propped her up in her wheelchair again and left the house. A few days later, the police found him cowering half-frozen under the rotting planks of the lime works’s manure pit, his shoes “bloated with liquid manure”; he was arrested and brought to the Wels district prison to await his trial.
The greater part of the novel, of which 230 pages are written in one continuous paragraph, tries to shed light on the circumstances of the monstrous crime and the bizarre personal lives of the Konrads. A faceless narrator, an insurance salesman who frequents the local taverns to peddle his policies, gathers information in order to piece together the Konrads’ story. Since the narrator’s “evidence,” however, consists of little more than a mass of hearsay and gossip gathered at the taverns, the reader is presented with conflicting versions. It is second-and third-hand information at best, gained principally from two estate managers, Fro and Wieser, who frequently report statements attributed to Konrad himself.
The picture that emerges is one of a man on the brink of madness. He is totally obsessed with his life’s work, The Sense of Hearing, which is to become a definitive study. After decades of unremitting brain work, he claims to have the entire book in his head but is unable to commit it to paper. He has awaited the auspicious moment when everything would come together just once so that he could write it in one continuous flow. At propitious moments, however, he is invariably disturbed by something, as though everything and everyone were in conspiracy against his writing.
After years of continuous and torturous worldwide travels with his crippled wife, he became convinced that the abandoned lime works, which had been in the family for centuries, was the only place where he could possibly live and do his scientific work. Hence, he moved heaven and earth to possess it, paying an exorbitant price to his nephew, who for decades had taken a sadistic delight in Konrad’s desperate efforts to acquire the property.
It was accessible only from the east. To the north, it was surrounded by water, on the south by ramparts of rock. By planting the tallest-growing thickets he could find, Konrad succeeded in hiding the estate from view. By installing countless bars and locks, he turned it into a heavily barricaded fortress to protect himself and his wife against burglars and, in general, against what he called outsiders. He was intent on severing all ties to the outside world, a world which in his view was merely marking time anyway. In particular, he sought to flee the destructive consumer society “with its chronically irritating and ultimately ruinous effect on everything in the nature of intellectual effort.” So it came about that for five years Konrad and his wife lived in almost total self-imposed isolation in what resembled a dungeon or a prison.
At the lime works, which his wife detested, Konrad continued to conduct hearing experiments to fill up the time until the moment arrived, as he confidently and unwaveringly believed it would, when he would finally write his book. He subjected his wife to an excruciating series of hearing experiments, sometimes for seven to eight hours a day. He produced copious notes on his experiments but usually destroyed them immediately so that no one could deduce his methods from his notes. His wife started to suffer from pains in her ears which gradually spread to her whole head as he intensified the experiments. When they were not busy with the exercises, they tormented each other in many different ways. For example, when she wanted him to read aloud from Novalis, her favorite Romantic poet, he deliberately read to her from his favorite, the Russian anarchist Pyotr Alekseyevich Kropotkin, whom she detested. She, on the other hand, took a malicious pleasure in sending him down from her second floor room to the basement every few minutes for a glass of cider, insisting that he bring her each time only one glass, which she then proceeded to pour out.
For decades they had lived off a sizable inheritance, but in time the capital dwindled and Konrad, behind his wife’s back, sold off nearly all of their possessions and incurred enormous debts. Shortly before the murder, he owed at least two million to the bank, and a forced auction of the lime works was imminent. He lived in constant fear that the man from the bank might come knocking on the door, so he no longer opened the door and no longer left his room. After months of neglect, he came to look like a derelict, filthy from top to bottom.
Initially, Konrad had thought that if he could just get a few sentences down on paper, then the rest of the book would gradually write itself, but at the peak of concentration it always fell apart. The more obsessed he became, the more impossible it became for him to write his book. Toward the end, he welcomed any distraction at all; nothing was too trivial or too insignificant to take him away from his task. He wore himself out brooding over the most absurd notions, all pretexts for not writing, for not facing the fact that he was simply unable to write his book. Just before the murder, he must have realized that there was no ideal moment or place to write the book, that he had fallen victim to a mad dream like thousands before him. He would never write the book, not at the lime works, in prison at Stein, or in the mental institution at Niederhardt.
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