Martin Walser

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Donald F. Nelson (essay date March 1969)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4936

SOURCE: Nelson, Donald F. “The Depersonalized World of Martin Walser.” German Quarterly 41, no. 2 (March 1969): 204-16.

[In the following essay, Nelson analyzes the dominant themes and corresponding linguistic features of Die Ehen in Philippsburg and Halbzeit, exploring how Walser's experience and perception of compromised social communication in postwar Germany inform the novels.]

Martin Walser is a curious example of a contemporary novelist who, despite more than a decade of prolific writing, has failed to gain appreciable recognition from Germany's literary critics. Although the “Preis der Gruppe 47” (1955) and the “Hermann-Hesse-Preis” (1957) helped make him known to a larger audience, he has not gained the esteem comparable to that of other Gruppe 47 prizewinners (Eich, Böll, Ilse Aichinger, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Günter Grass). Typical of the criticisms of the author is the comment of Marcel Reich-Ranicki regarding Walser's chief work, Halbzeit (1960): “… vielleicht hat noch nie ein so schlechtes Buch so große Begabung bewiesen.”1 There are two aspects of Walser's work that appear to disturb critics most: his apparent lack of concern for plot and for integration of detail into a unified whole,2 and his failure to present anything like a constructive alternative to the hypercritical and devastating picture he paints of postwar German society.3 With regard to the latter, it is true that Walser has not arrived at a synthesis of satire and the vision of a positive moral philosophy which has contributed in large measure to Heinrich Böll's success. But a criticism leveled at the lack of architecture in Walser's works which, from the point of view of traditional poetic theory, is their most vulnerable aspect, fails to do justice to the author, inasmuch as it overlooks the real literary merit of the work: the unity of style and subject.

In the present study I should like to demonstrate that Walser shapes language into an apt idiom for his principal theme—the breakdown of social communication and the depersonalization of human behavior—and also for the undifferentiated character of the world he depicts. My focus is on the way language is used to express a particular quality of experience and perception. My observation are restricted to two prose works: Die Ehen in Philippsburg and Halbzeit.4 The breakdown of social communication, the depersonalization, leveling and stereotyping of human behavior, the increasing emphasis on the artifact—the most crucial aspects of our contemporary cultural crisis as Walser perceives it—are given symbolic representation in the details of his language use. An analysis of these aspects should reveal the functionality of Walser's language and show that recurrent stylistic traits are meaningful linguistic gestures which underscore dominant themes. Such an approach, I think, will lead to a better understanding and fairer evaluation of Walser's work. To reiterate and perpetuate the notion of the avant-garde formlessness of a disaffected and angry young man serves no purpose other than to close the door to investigation and thus bar access to the meaning of Walser's world. There is a dearth of secondary literature on the author; this study is conceived as an attempt to get at the center of Walser's work by concentrating on dominant themes and corresponding linguistic features.

The breakdown of genuine communication in society involves a crisis of language. In his attitude toward language Walser is an adamant realist. His views reflect to a very great extent the spirit prevalent in the Gruppe 47. All of his attacks on contemporary language stem from the conviction that language has degenerated into a vast repertoire of formulas: “Als Gebrauchsanweisung, als Wirtschaftsbericht, als öffentliche Formelsammlung, als Nachricht wird die Sprache täglich nichtssagender.”5 Walser is very alert to what he calls “die deutsche Lust an Wörtern, deren ‘Wirklichkeit ein Jenseits bleibt.’”6 In short, language no longer corresponds to reality or to truth. This iconoclastic attitude toward conventional language occasionally finds expression bordering on nihilism. Dr. Benrath, the gynecologist and adulterer in Die Ehen in Philippsburg, dismisses the word Glück as “ein Primanerwort … eine Blume des Irrtums im menschlichen Sprachgarten” (pp. 191-192). On another occasion Benrath condemns the words Glück and Liebe as confectionary or ready-made articles of emotion, ridiculous defenses against inexorable reality. These ideas are a direct reflection of Fritz J. Raddatz’ remarks in his introductory commentary to the selected texts of Richter's Almanach der Gruppe 47. Speaking of Wolfdietrich Schnurre's short story, Das Begräbnis, Raddatz passes from specific comments on Schnurre to a general characterization of the Gruppe 47 as a whole:

Das Wort genießt allerhöchstes Mißtrauen, wird nicht spielerisch, sondern gestreng eingesetzt—oder gar nicht. Wichtig nämlich ist, welche Worte nicht gebraucht werden; aus diesen nichtbenutzten Wörtern läßt sich ein Vokabular zusammenstellen—Glaube, Liebe, Pflicht, Vertrauen, Nation, Mensch, gut—man wird in diesen ersten Texten vergebens nach ihnen suchen. Erst 1961, bei Heinz von Cramer, werden sie, reflektiert, in ihrer ganzen Perversion ausgekostet. Das Tabu-Wort der Schnurre-Erzählung heißt Glaube.7

In Walser's first novel, Die Ehen in Philippsburg (1957), the neophyte hero pays for his acceptance and integration into society by forfeiting both his individuality and his freedom. The protagonist, Hans Beumann, is in many ways a twentieth-century Parzival who succeeds in his struggle to be accepted by carefully observing and appropriating, through mimicry, the social behavior of the cocktail party set. His reward is initiation into a key club, an exclusive bar and night club with trappings reminiscent of grail symbolism, of King Arthur's roundtable and of medieval orders of knights. The novel may aptly be called a parody of the traditional Entwicklungsroman, but it is much more than this. It is a satirical and scathing condemnation of postwar German society with its stereotyped language and behavior. Here the problems of communication and depersonalization are no longer treated on the abstract level of parable, as in the early collection of stories, Flugzeug über dem Haus (1955); they are presented as symptoms of a cultural crisis. Now the problem is not primarily a lack of communication with a mute or apathetic environment reminiscent of Kafka, but rather that communication has become impersonal and stereotyped, devitalized by the ready-made phrase, just as human behavior has become depersonalized, undifferentiated, and stereotyped by mimicry and by set forms of gesture in social intercourse. A general social and cultural leveling is the result.

This depersonalization and leveling finds expression in certain recurrent linguistic traits: 1) the frequent use of an inanimate or impersonal subject in place of an animate or personal one; very often this takes the form of a pars pro toto in which a part of the body stands for the person; 2) the use of anaphoric or repetitive constructions; and 3) the preponderance of indirect discourse over direct discourse. The recurrence of these traits underscores the impersonality of communication and the depersonalization of the individual in a society that is distinctly object-oriented, stressing the artifacts of its culture to the virtual exclusion of all human and personal values. A number of sample passages will illustrate how habitual these linguistic traits are and how they function.

At the beginning of the novel Hans Beumann, the aspiring young journalist and newcomer to the big city, armed with a letter of recommendation from his professor of journalism, unsuccessfully tries to gain access to the office of the editor-in-chief of the Philippsburg newspaper for a personal interview. The following extract from this episode describes his reception at the office and the result of his effort:

Im Vorzimmer von Herrn Büsgen tändelten zwei Mädchen mit Schreibmaschinen. … Zwei Gesichter drehten sich gleichzeitig ihm zu und lächelten das gleiche Lächeln. Eine fragte ihn und wies ihn dann in die Tür, die von diesem Vorzimmer in ein anderes Vorzimmer führte, in dem nur noch eine Frau saß. … Er gab ihr den Brief, den sein Professor an den Chefredakteur geschrieben hatte. Sie drückte auf einen Knopf, sagte vor sich hin, daß ein Herr Beumann da sei, empfohlen von Professor Beauvais vom Zeitungswissenschaftlichen Institut der Landesuniversität. Ein Lautsprecher antwortete, Herr Beumann möge seine Philippsburger Adresse dalassen, man gebe ihm Bescheid, jetzt im Augenblick könne er leider nicht empfangen werden. Beumann sagte, eine Philippsburger Adresse müsse er sich erst beschaffen.

(P. 10)

The description of the first two receptionists completely divests them of individual characteristics. The simultaneous, undifferentiated, and mechanical nature of their gestures reduces them to mere automata. With the next receptionist communication is not only transacted by machine, in itself not unusual, but the emphasis on the object, the machine, is carried to the point where it assumes the function of a personal subject: “Ein Lautsprecher antwortete. …”

Commensurate with the impersonal nature of communication is the absence of direct discourse. It is not insignificant that indirect discourse or the absence of dialogue prevails over long tracts of Walser's prose. To cite one statistic: the entire novel consists roughly of 11,000 lines, of which only 450 or somewhat less than five percent are dialogue. This is all the more conspicuous in a novel in which social gatherings have such a large share in the plot. It is as though indirect discourse were the ironic insinuation that in an object-oriented society what people actually say is of no importance. In a world in which, in addition to the stereotyping of gesture and external appearance, speech has become largely standardized jargon and a genuine dialogue of mutual exchange and edification is virtually nonexistent, the functionality of direct discourse becomes restricted. When direct discourse does occur, it takes on the nature of a tiny island of dialogue surrounded by a vast ocean of impersonal and undifferentiated communication. Rather than exploiting dialogue as a means of revealing human inanities and foibles, Walser concentrates on externals, on physiognomy and gesture, which he analyzes with extreme and merciless precision.

The treatment of communication in the above cited passage is subtly satirical, for it suggests that there is no personal communication between Hans Beuman and his environment. In a later episode Beumann is taken on a tour through the local radio station. Here the treatment of communication is more overtly satirical. The same stylistic traits of depersonalization by object emphasis are also in evidence:

Der Pressechef des Intendanten … war mit ihm durch die bunten Räume gegangen, in denen weiße Mäntel herumsaßen und auf kleine Metallkapseln einredeten. … In die Studios durften sie nur durch die Scheiben sehen; im ersten standen fünf, sechs erwachsene Männer und schrien heftig gestikulierend auf ein winziges Mikrophon ein. Im zweiten saß eine alte Frau ganz allein. Sie schien der Metallkapsel ihr Leid zu klagen, weinte gar, hob die Hände, ließ den Kopf nach vorne fallen, holte ein Taschentuch, klagte und klagte; aber die Metallkapsel hatte offensichtlich kein Erbarmen. … Im letzten Studio, das sie besucht hatten, saß gar ein geistlicher Herr vor dem Allerheiligsten dieses Hauses, vor der winzigen Kapsel. Sein Gesicht wogte in freundlichen Falten. Er schien der Kapsel Trost zuzusprechen. … Der geistliche Herr hob jetzt einen strengen Zeigefinger und schüttelte ihn heftig in der Luft, als habe er der Kapsel Vorwürfe zu machen, jawohl, nicht gar alles stehe zum Besten mit ihr, das dürfe sie sich nicht einbilden! Aber dann siegte anscheinend doch seine rundliche und hilfsbereite Natur, und er beschloß seine Rede an die Kapsel mit einem Lächeln, das er ihr so deutlich zeigen wollte, daß er sie fast mit den Lippen berührt hätte. Und, um Gottes willen, was tat er da, er faltete die Hände und betete die Kapsel jetzt auch noch an!

(Pp. 134 f.)

To the spectator, Hans Beumann, these wild gesticulations and urgent entreaties of the speakers present themselves as nothing more than mute expressions of despair occurring in a vacuum. They are like silent films without subtitles. The “message,” for example, of the inaudible clergyman remains hermetically sealed within the confines of a soundproof studio in which “weiße Mäntel herumsitzen” and is directed at the technological artifact: the microphone which devours the words. The repeated object-emphasis on the “Metallkapsel” insinuates that the communication is between the speaker and the artifact, not between the speaker and a human audience to which the message is getting through. It is interesting to compare the implication here with a related motif in Heinrich Böll's satire, Doktor Murkes gesammeltes Schweigen (1958), in which the title hero, after a tedious day of editing tapes for the cultural programs of a radio station, finds welcome respite, in his leisure hours, from the obnoxious “Wortklauberei” and clichés of speakers on topics of religion and art by listening to his private collections of recorded silences. He assembles these by pasting together small scraps containing long pauses made by the speakers during the recording sessions which he has snipped from the tapes. But in Böll's satires against “die Frömmigkeitsindustrie” a positive countervision is implicit, namely, a genuine Christianity devoid of the trappings of commercialism and casuistry, whereas Walser's satiric motif carries a strong suggestion of the utter ineffectualness of religion as a remedy for the present cultural crisis, for its message falls on deaf ears.

With his introduction to the affluent and influential parents of Anne Volkmann, a former collegemate, Hans Beumann gains access to the more prominent social circles of Philippsburg. Mr. Volkmann, the president of a firm which manufacturers radios, offers Hans a position as head of the company's news service, “eine als Pressedienst getarnte Industriewerbung,” as Beumann puts it. Frequenting the cocktail parties at the Volkmanns, the neophyte is exposed to the social behavior of the professional cliques associated with the communications industries and the mass media. A few passages from the episode of Beumann's first party provide more illustrations of object emphasis and depersonalization:

Anne steuerte auf die Bar in der Halle zu, da hing schon ein größerer Klumpen Gäste, Hans konnte kaum die Männer von den Frauen unterscheiden, sie lachten alle, sie sprachen alle, sie hielten alle kleine Gläser in der Hand, und in allen diesen Gläsern schwammen kleine runde Früchte; aber da begann auch schon die Vorstellung, er hatte gerade noch Zeit, seine Handfläche an der Hose abzuwischen, da mußte er sie schon in den Klumpen fröhlicher Gäste hineinreichen, wo sie einer dem anderen weiterreichte; Hans hatte lediglich bei jedem neuen Händedruck seinen Namen zu flüstern und ein “Angenehm” anzuhängen. …

(P. 85)

In this passage the depersonalization and leveling are underscored not only by the reference to the indistinguishableness of the participants and by the repetition of the word “alle” to emphasize the sameness of behavior, but also by the fact that all personal involvement in such communication is overshadowed by object emphasis, in this case the “Handfläche”: “da mußte er sie schon in den Klumpen fröhlicher Gäste hineinreichen, wo sie einer dem anderen weiterreichte. …” The guests; furthermore, are referred to as a “Klumpen,” an indistinguishable mass or cluster of anonymous beings. A few pages later we read:

Inzwischen hatte sich der Klumpen, dem er vorgestellt worden war, mit Anne von der Bar wegbewegt, er trieb jetzt frei in die Halle hinein, wo da und dort kleinere Klümpchen standen, Gläser in der Hand und das Lächeln im Gesicht, das er schon von der Bar her kannte.

(P. 87)

One more example from this same episode illustrates again how Walser uses the simple device of repetition to give expression to the standardized and undifferentiated character of society which Beumann observes at every turn:

Droben sah er den Intendanten auf einen Herrn zusteuern, sah ihn eine Rede halten, sie beenden, sah ihn auf den nächsten zusteuern, eine Rede halten, sie beenden. … Als Anne sich wieder um Hans kümmerte, bat er sie um die Namen der Leute, mit denen sich der Intendant jeweils beschäftigte. Das war Professor Mirkenreuth von der Technischen Hochschule, nebenbei Rundfunkrat, der nächste Helmut Maria Dieckow, ein Schriftsteller, nebenbei Rundfunkrat, dann Dr. Albert Alwin, Rechtsanwalt, nebenbei Rundfunkrat, dann Direktor Frantzke, Konservenfabrikant, nebenbei Rundfunkrat. …

(Pp. 90 f.)

In learning the ways of the society into which he is becoming initiated Hans Beumann's behavior becomes increasingly studied and artificial. He becomes adept in

1) the well-rehearsed phrase:

Hans war schon eine Stunde früher da und legte sich einen Vorrat brauchbarer Redensarten an.

(P. 44)

Hans suchte einen freundlichen Satz zusammen, probierte ihn einmal in Gedanken und sagte ihn.

(P. 131)

2) the studied mimicry of facial expression:

… er hatte ja zu Hause vor dem Spiegel ein Gesicht ausprobiert, das ihm passend schien für eine vornehm-gesellige Veranstaltung, er hatte es so lange geübt, bis er es ohne Spiegel, nur nach den Spannungsempfindungen in den einzelnen Gesichtspartien, zustande gebracht hatte; dieses Lächelgesicht stellte er jetzt her und sah den Herren entgegen.

(P. 88)

3) the deft employment of professional jargon:

… mit unsäglicher Mühe hatte er sich ein Vokabular zusammengekratzt, mit dessen Hilfe er seinen Funk- und Fernsehkritiken einen fachmännischen Anstrich zu geben hoffte.

(P. 103)

The rehearsed character of Hans Beumann's speech and gestures leads us into the area of mimicry which plays a central role in Walser's world. In the biological sense mimicry is the superficial resemblance which certain animals exhibit to other animals or to the natural objects of their environment, thereby securing concealment or protection. Applied to Walser's social world, mimicry means an expedient adjustment to the exigencies of the situation by wearing the prescribed face, by executing the prescribed gesture, and by saying the prescribed ready-made phrase. Mimicry is thus a most powerful force in causing a depersonalization and standardization of social communication and social behavior. In mimicry the individual simulates the form of his surroundings with the result that the world becomes undifferentiated in character. Hans Beumann, in his process of adaptation, develops into the adroit mimic and liar, deceiving his fiancée, Anne Volkmann, by pursuing extramural amorous adventures that brand him as a future adulterer. These acquired characteristics in a predominantly mimetic environment along with his forfeiture of individuality and freedom are the price he must pay for his ultimate acceptance into the social clique.

Halbzeit (1960) is the organic outgrowth of and sequel to Die Ehen in Philippsburg, both in plot and ideas. The hero, Anselm Kristlein, is an experienced and established Hans Beumann. He has become the inveterate mimic whose rise from traveling salesman to professional adman culminates in his becoming the “chosen one” to travel to New York, the Mecca of the admen. Here he is to learn the art of creating psychological obsolescence in commercial products for the purpose of creating new and artificial needs for the consumer. Kristlein is considered the ideal man for this job, endowed as he is with a keen awareness of the “Hinfälligkeit der Dinge.”

In Halbzeit the world of commercial advertising is the immense conditioning apparatus, manipulator, and leveler of human thought, language, and behavior. No other single force, Walser asserts, not even politics, has had such an impact on language as have business and public relations.8 This gigantic empire which holds such unprecedented sway over communication is the chief fashioner and dictator of the style of life in the postwar German society of the “economic miracle.” Germany, Walser insinuates, has merely passed from the totalitarian dictatorship of National Socialism to the dictatorship of public relations philosophy and tactics. In fact, in Halbzeit many former high-ranking Nazis are participants in a huge advertising campaign aimed at brainwashing and conquering the consumer and making the incredible credible by adroit propaganda. The deep ramifications and unhappy consequences of this new style of life, its impact on communication and social behavior—this is what Walser strives to portray in his mammoth epic.

In Halbzeit the world unrolls before us like a perpetual series of television commercials and magazine ads. For a better appreciation of this technique we might imagine ourselves, for example, viewing television and witnessing on the screen nothing more than one commercial after another without interruption, or glancing through a magazine and finding nothing but advertisements on every page. Two things would become strikingly obvious to the critical observer: first, the disconnected, fragmentary, and stereotyped nature of the world depicted and of the communication taking place in it, and second, the exaggerated emphasis on the object. Television commercials and magazine advertisements tend generally to stress the object, the artifact. Parts of the body assume exaggerated importance. Camera close-ups focus attention on a particular part of the body: the hair, eyes, teeth, hands, and legs. The ironic paradox of the advertisement is that while it pretends to endow the object (human or artifact) with individuality and distinction, it actually makes a stereotype of it. The subject is depersonalized and transformed into an object. This is often the perspective from which Kristlein perceives the human objects in his environment: “In der gleichen Sekunde sind schon zehn neue Mädchen mit Zähnen und Augen und Hälsen auf mich zumarschiert” (p. 380). In this sentence the parts of the body receive emphasis through the polysyndetic use of “und” rather than the comma. The “Mädchen” are in no way individualized by descriptive adjective modifiers for the parts of the body. Rather, their deindividualization is enhanced by the absence of such modification; they are reduced to undifferentiated stimuli. The best example of a phantasmagoria of object emphasis in Halbzeit is in the following passage in which Kristlein watches a television show:

Einsam saßen wir vor dem Schirm. Susanne sagte: Set. Aus dem dunklen Glas rappelten sich Schemen, denen Schenkel wuchsen, aus denen Beine wurden, auf denen Rümpfe wackelten, am Ende noch ein Flimmerfleck-Gesicht. Es wurde getanzt. Diese Propaganda hört nicht auf. … Alle Beine hatten ihre Rümpfe gefunden, die Rümpfe versuchten nun, die Beine und auch die Arme wieder loszuwerden, wegwerfende Bewegungen, hastiges Abschütteln, aber es gelang nicht, die Glieder waren zu fest angewachsen. Die noch weißeren Zahnschlitze im Flimmerfleck-Gesicht blieben trotzdem lächelnd offen.

(P. 655)

So far-reaching and all-pervasive are the effects of commercialism as the dictator of the contemporary style of life that in Halbzeit all naturalness and genuineness of emotion and gesture have vanished. To a far more radical degree than Hans Beumann, Anselm Kristlein is dependent on mimicry in adapting himself to society and to life. Mimicry has become second nature to him, having evolved to the stage where it is the expression of the instinct for self-preservation. In one reference after another to a facial expression or to a mood Walser stresses their artificial and rehearsed character, usually by means of a verb which either denotes or implies artifice:

Sozusagen tapfer, aber auch vorsichtig, schaufelte ich mich durch das Trottoir-Dickicht hindurch, Flintrops Nickelvollmund entgegen. Ich erzeugte9 Heroengefühle in mir, sang meine Ballade.

(P. 26)

Ich stand auf und seufzte. Das Seufzen gelang. Meine Übungen waren also nicht umsonst gewesen.

(P. 253)

In euren Blicken lese ich Geringschätzung, gemischt mit Hochachtung, das ergibt die Art Mitleid, die man jederzeit in einem Gesicht erzeugen kann, weil man sie hundertmal in einer Woche braucht.

(P. 295)

… ich bleibe hier und warte, aber wenn sie nicht kommt, ist es nicht so schlimm. Ich bastelte mir eine Stimmung, in die ich schlüpfen konnte wie in ein fertiges Kleid, für den Fall, daß ich Susanne wirklich verfehlte. Ich mußte doch nachher ein Auto in die Lichtenbergstraße lenken und, nach links und rechts grüßend, fröhlich heimkommen. Deshalb mußte die Enttäuschung jetzt gleich fix und fertig fabriziert werden.

(P. 384)

In addition to its psychological necessity, mimicry is also the result of social emphasis on role-playing. Role-playing and mimicry are integral parts of the world of advertising and public relations. The competitiveness of the struggle for survival in the economic jungle is transferred to the social plane in the episode in which Walser depicts a grand social reception at the sumptuous villa of Herr Frantzke, the advertising magnate. Kristlein fully realizes that here amidst the pomp, luxury, and outward civility the Darwinian theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest is operative. The social code prescribes an elaborate system of role-playing whereby the groups of participants are divided into those who have “speaking roles” and those who are assigned to the chorus. The speaking roles, as Kristlein observes, belong to those who have the gift of “fabricating” talk in such a way as to enthrall or shock the audience:

Weil aber doch in der Welt kaum mehr etwas passiert, was die Gemüter so erfahrener Leute hätte noch wirklich bewegen können, deshalb war es allein der Fähigkeit des Sprechenden aufgetragen, aus dem ewig gleichen Weltstoff10 etwas Komisches oder etwas Erschütterndes zu fabrizieren. Deshalb hatte sich wohl im Lauf der Jahre eine natürliche Auslese vollzogen: die, die formulieren konnten, hatten die Sprechrolle behalten, die anderen waren zum Chor geworden.

(P. 584)

Man, the rational and civilized animal, is still subject to the Darwinian laws of the jungle in a depersonalized, object-oriented, and mimetic, television-commercial world.

But apart from the division into main spokesman and chorus, the world Walser depicts is essentially devoid of both “Mit-teilung” and “Ein-teilung.” Conversation and discussion, for example, have become desultory, fragmentary, and meaningless, as illustrated in the following account of cocktail party conversation:

Diskussionsfetzen hängen noch im Raum herum wie zur Unsterblichkeit verdammte Rauchfahnen. … Hemingway ist das Schöne ist der Papst ist die Pointe des Ganzen ist der Kommunismus ist mein Anliegen ist der Tourismus ist Faulkner ist das Tragische heute ist der Kunststoff ist Berlin ist das Dumme ist das Ausland ist Schostakowitsch ist das Merkwürdige ist Kardinal Frings ist der Film möchte ich damit nur sagen was ich nicht gesagt haben möchte ich heute nicht mehr behaupten der Film ist Hemingway ist das Schöne ist der Papst ist heute nur noch der Film ist heute der Film ist heute der Film. …

(P. 184)

Passages like these, which run on for pages without so much as a comma to signify division, can be a formidable assault on the reader's patience. Yet, the style betokens the inarticulate, desultory, undifferentiated, and circular character of discourse. Another device Walser uses to signify this is tautology:

Wir sind der Ansicht, daß wir der Ansicht sind. Darum schließen wir uns unserer Meinung an.

(P. 160)

Wir sehen ein, daß wir einsehen.

(P. 161)

Walser is averse to all poetic embellishment in his description of the external world of inanimate objects. A final stylistic example is well suited to serve as a capsule illustration of this point:

Unter rotweißroten und grünweißgrünen frantzkefarben Sonnenblenden, Baldachinen, geeignet, die Generalstäbe von Wüstenkreuzzügen oder katholische Eisverkäufer zu beschirmen, unter so süßen Baldachinen standen uralte schwere Holztische und uralte schwere Holzbänke und uralte schwere Holzstühle. Über den Baldachinen und um die Baldachine gaukelten, als wären sie abgerichtet, Sommerfrieden verbürgende Schmetterlinge. Über den Schmetterlingen schürften Weltfrieden verbürgende Düsenjäger den Himmel auf.

(P. 564)

The repetitiveness and parallelism of syntactic construction signifies the basically undifferentiated character of the world. Walser has more stylistic finesse than this. The pedantic and clumsy meticulousness (über den Baldachinen und um die Baldachine”) is an example of a deliberately maladroit and insipid style to describe an insipid spectacle.

In terms of language use and syntax, Walser's style is the correlate of the world he portrays: a world devoid of articulation, individuality, and substance. But it is not merely description which perpetually remains arrested in surface detail. In his intensive and burrowing psychological analysis Walser probes the very depths of a mimetic world in which truth is never on the surface of things, but is inward and concealed.


  1. Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Deutsche Literatur in West und Ost (München, 1963), p. 214. Reich-Ranicki agrees essentially with the verdict of Günter Blöcker, Kritisches Lesebuch (Hamburg, 1962), p. 187, that Halbzeit is a failure. It is interesting that Blöcker, in his most recent book of critical essays, Literatur als Teilhabe (Berlin, 1966), finds no justification, on the basis of Walser's more recent works, for a revision of his earlier assessment. We find here a restatement of the earlier criticism to the effect that such works as Halbzeit and Eiche und Angora are incompatible with our notions of “Kunstwerk als ein ‘abgeschlossenes Gebilde'” (p. 47). Blöcker's comment (“… man weiß nur, daß er [Walser] Talent hat. Talent und wenig Erfolg. Aber—und auch das ist erstaunlich—der Mißerfolg ruiniert ihn nicht,” [p. 47]) has the same ring of ironic conciliatoriness as Reich-Ranicki's statements.

  2. To be sure, Walser himself attests to a preoccupation with language and detail over matters of form: “Ich sage, wenn jedes Detail den Platz ausfüllt, an dem es steht, d.h. wenn es Sprache geworden ist, dann soll es mir recht sein, es soll da stehenbleiben. Was sich aus der Summe aller Details ergibt, weiß ich nicht. Wahrscheinlich ein Ausschnitt.” (Horst Bienek, Werkstattsgespräche mit Schriftstellern [München, 1962], p. 198.)

  3. Ludwig Pesch, Die romantische Rebellion in der modernen Literatur und Kunst (München, 1962), p. 209.

  4. All quotations from these works are from the Suhrkamp editions, (Frankfurt a.M.), 1958 and 1962 respectively. Permission to reprint granted by the Suhrkamp Verlag.

  5. “Einheimische Kentauren oder: Was ist besonders deutsch an der deutschen Sprache?” in Erfahrungen und Leseerfahrungen (Frankfurt a.M., 1965), p. 50.

  6. Ibid., p. 49. The phraseology here is an allusion to a statement of Karl Marx in the latter's Kritik an der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosophie: “Dies abstrakte überschwengliche Denken des modernen Staats, dessen Wirklichkeit ein Jenseits bleibt. …” Walser frequently quotes Marx in this essay.

  7. Fritz J. Raddatz, “Die ausgehaltene Realität” in Almanach der Gruppe 47 (1947-1962), ed. Hans Werner Richter (Rowohlt Verlag, 1962), p. 52.

  8. Erfahrungen und Leseerfahrungen, p. 46.

  9. Italics are mine.

  10. Italics are mine.


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Martin Walser 1927-

German novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, critic, lecturer, and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Walser's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 27.

Renowned in his native Germany since the 1960s and a vocal advocate for German reunification in the 1990s, Walser is a prolific writer of diverse genres who has emerged to international acclaim as one of the leading German voices in contemporary world literature. In his novels ranging from Halbzeit (1960), Seelenarbeit (1979; The Inner Man), Brandung (1985; Breakers), Die Veriteidigung der Kindheit (1991), and Tod eines Kritikers (2002), Walser has exhibited a preoccupation with the individual's predicament of discerning truth from fiction, memory from reality, and language from experience. In many of his essays, plays, and novels, Walser has also engaged such larger socio-political topics as the character of the German national identity and petit-bourgeois after World War II, the fragmentation of people and society in the modern world, and the decline of civic and cultural order and unity. Marked by concise prose and masterly dialogue, Walser's works have been noted by literary scholars for their empathetic contributions to both critical realism in German literature and the debate on national identity in post-reunification German culture.

Biographical Information

Walser was born on March 24, 1927, in Wasserburg, Germany, to Martin Walser, an innkeeper and coal merchant, and Augusta Schmid. After his father died in 1938, Walser was forced to work in the family business while he attended the Lindau Gymnasium. When World War II erupted in 1939, Walser joined the student anti-aircraft artillery and was later drafted into the Reich Labor Service and eventually the Nazi army. Near the end of the war, Allied forces captured Walser and held him in a POW camp near Garmisch-Partenkirchen. While imprisoned, he worked at Radio Munich, the Third Reich's central broadcasting station for Bavaria. In 1946 Walser completed his high school studies and enrolled at the College of Theology and Philosophy at the University to Regensburg, where he participated in student theater and wrote his first dramatic sketches. In 1948 he transferred to the University of Tübingen where he joined the student theater and secured a freelance job at the South German Broadcasting System (SDR) in Stuttgart. In 1951 Walser received his doctorate degree with a dissertation on Franz Kafka's prose style. In the mid-1950s Walser wrote several radio plays for broadcast on SDR and was loosely associated with Gruppe 47, an influential literary group of critical realists who withheld its approval of Walser until 1955 when he won their annual prize for best new writing with the short story “Templones Ende.” In 1957 he published his first novel, Ehen in Philippsburg (Marriage in Phillipsburg), which won the Hermann Hesse Award. In 1958 he caught the notice of American diplomat Henry Kissinger, who invited him to the Harvard International Seminar, a trip that influenced his second novel, Halbzeit, the first volume of his Antslem Kristlien trilogy. In addition to his success as a novelist, Walser also established a reputation as one of West Germany's leading playwrights. During the 1960s, he wrote the critically acclaimed and hugely popular plays Der Abstecher (1961; The Detour), Eiche und Angora (1962; The Rabbit Race), Der schwarze Schwan (1964), and Die Zimmerschlacht (1967). Walser returned to writing novels in the late 1960s, publishing Das Einhorn (1966; The Unicorn) and Der Sturz (1973), completing the Kristlien trilogy. Throughout the 1970s, he visited the United States as a visiting scholar at a number of colleges and universities. As the 1981 recipient of the Georg-Büchner prize for his literary contributions to contemporary German culture, Walser expanded his international audience after several of his works became available in English translation during the early 1980s. During the same period, Walser renewed his contact with his other literary pursuits, publishing the lecture series Selbstbewußstein und Ironie (1981), the essay collections Liebeserklärungen (1983) and Geständnis auf Raten (1986), and the play In Goethes Hand (1982), which helped revive his dramatic reputation. During the 1980s, Walser continued to publish novels, including Brief an Lord Liszt (1982; Letter to Lord Liszt), Meßmers Gedanken (1985), Brandung, Dorle und Wolf (1987; No Man's Land), and Jagd (1988). An early and outspoken advocate for the reunification of Germany since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Walser primarily wrote novels during the 1990s, including Die Verteidigung der Kindheit, Ohne einander (1993), Finks Krieg (1996), and Ein springender Brunnen (1998). In 1997 Walser published Werke in Zwölf Bänden, a nine-volume set comprising the first comprehensive collection of Walser's literary works.

Major Works

Influenced by Kafka's and Marcel Proust's literary styles, Walser's novels typically concern the ill effects of postwar German consumer culture upon the individual, tracing how such societies depersonalize human behavior and interfere with interpersonal communications. In addition, Walser's early novels often incorporate commentary on such socio-political issues as the societal implications of German capitalism and the character of the German postwar national identity. However, Walser's focus always remains on an individual protagonist, often the same character reappearing in successive novels. Ehen in Philippsburg tells the story of Hans Beumann, a journalist seeking fame and fortune in the town of Philippsburg. Narrated from several third-person perspectives, Beumann gains social entrance and acceptance by mimicking local upper-class behavior only to sacrifice his own individuality. The first novel of the Antslem Kristlien trilogy, Halbzeit, relates a cautionary tale about the prevalence of commercial culture and its effect on society and language from the perspective of Kristlien, a socially adept advertising man who transfers from Germany to New York City. In the subsequent volumes of the trilogy, Das Einhorn and Der Sturz, Kristlein increasingly changes his personality to suit different social situations and eventually loses his identity due to unrelenting social pressures. In Jenseits der Liebe (1976; Beyond All Love), the protagonist, Franz Horn, is a mid-level manager whose career declines after the promotion of one of his younger subordinates, Horst Liszt. The novel recounts Horn's relationships at work, his attempts to defeat Liszt, his desire to leave his family, and his attempts at suicide, all of which prove unsuccessful. Set in a small Bavarian town, Das Schwanenhaus (1980; The Swan Villa) concerns Gottlieb Zürn, a realtor who leads a sedentary life because he is perpetually unable to make any decisions and prefers rather to fantasize about his female clients and business competitors. Equally ineffective as both a father and a husband, Zürn desires to obtain a contract to sell the Swan Villa, a large resort house which would add to his prestige and holdings, but the sale eludes him throughout the novel. An epistolary sequel to Jenseits der Liebe, Brief an Lord Liszt is comprised of letters from Horn to Liszt, largely concerned with office politics and the precarious existence of executives, particularly as Liszt begins his own descent down the corporate ladder after he is supplanted by a younger counterpart. Divided into three parts, Meßmers Gedanken presents the aphorisms and stylized thoughts of a man named Tassilo Herbert Meßmers, as recorded by Tassilo himself and an unidentified narrator. Set primarily on a California college campus, Brandung recounts the professional and personal decline of Helmut Halm, an older teacher at a Stuttgart gymnasium, who seizes the chance to spend a semester in California, the “Shangri-La of youth, sun and sensuality.”

Stylistically reminiscent of Heinrich Böll's novels, Dorle und Wolf tells the satirical story of a deeply divided German nationalist, Wolfe, an East German defector who spies for West Germany with the help of his married mistress, Dorle. In Jagd, a sequel to Das Schwanenhaus, Gottlieb Zürn and his wife, Anna, confront both their marital problems and the generation gap made apparent by their teenage daughters. Opening in 1930s Dresden, Die Verteidigung der Kindheit focuses on Alfred Dorn, who is widely considered to be an academic and musical prodigy. His family is devastated by the bombardment of Dresden, suffering both material and emotional losses, and Dorn eventually flees East Germany to study law in West Germany. Dorn leads an unexceptional life, obsessively tied to his mother and preoccupied with rescuing the memories of his childhood lost in the bombardment. A bestselling roman à clef, Ohne einander follows the sexual betrayals of a modern married couple, offering a cynical picture of contemporary intelligentsia. In Finks Krieg, Stefan Fink, a state-government official from Wiesbaden, engages in a lengthy legal fight to clear his name after his new boss lies about Fink's performance and tries to replace Fink with a friend. However, Fink becomes a nuisance to all in his pursuit of justice, and in the end, he no longer cares about the result. A highly autobiographical novel about growing up during Germany's Nazi era, Ein springender Brunnen centers around Johann—a boy who learns to love language at an early age—and his family as they struggle to save their hotel as Adolf Hitler rises to power. Hailed by some critics as Walser's masterpiece, Der Lebenslauf der Liebe (2001) tells the story of a middle-aged, lovelorn female protagonist, Susi Gern, who abandons her comfortable existence with her dying husband for an affair with a Muslim student, forty years her junior. Another roman à clef, Tod eines Kritikers recounts the murder of a leading literary critic, Andrè Enrel-König, allegedly by a disgruntled writer, Hans Lach, as narrated from the perspective of Lach's friend, Michael Landolf, who is determined to prove Lach's innocence.

Walser's most notable plays include Der Abstecher, a comical study of exploitation about a Hamburg businessman hoping to rendezvous with a now-married former mistress, and Eiche und Angora, a biting satire of recent German history as reflected through the ill-fated experiences of a town simpleton. A drama concerning post-World War II German guilt, Der schwarze Schwan dramatizes a son's discovery of his father's involvement in the war's atrocities. The son tries to trick his father into making a public confession, but he fails and eventually commits suicide. Die Zimmerschlacht depicts a series of arguments between a middle-aged married couple as they prepare to attend an engagement party. As they debate, the couple discovers that what they thought were private hopes and expectations are nothing more than internalized social expectations. Among Walser's later plays, In Goethes Hand traces the relationship between Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and his devotee Eckermann, portraying Goethe as an egomaniac who abuses those around him and Eckermann as a willing recipient of such abuse. Notable among Walser's essay collections are the five lectures comprising Selbstbewußstein und Ironie, which contrast Thomas Mann's modern definition of irony with Socrates's original formulation, and Vormittag eines Schriftstellers (1994), which contains assorted essays on political, cultural, and literary topics.

Critical Reception

Critics and audiences alike have acknowledged the significance of Walser's contributions to German letters and culture, often discussing the relevance of his form of critical realism within the context of German history and postwar society. Throughout his career, reviewers have noted the singularity of his themes and his use of a single protagonist across several stories. Because many of Walser's writings focus on the relationship between the individual and contemporary society, several commentators have observed parallels between Walser and American novelist and essayist John Updike, identifying a similar focus on literary diversity and shared concerns about their respective national identities after World War II. Although most critics have agreed that Walser has developed his own singular literary voice and style, some have continued to note the influence of Kafka, Heinrich Böll, and Frederich Nietzsche on Walser's works. Walser's detractors have repeatedly faulted the author for writing apparently plotless narratives with little unifying detail. Such commentators have found Walser's unrelenting cynical, pessimistic perspective on postwar German culture disturbing, arguing that Walser fails to present constructive alternatives. Conversely, some scholars have accounted for Walser's lack of plot action by examining his typically intimate representation of a character's inner life, observing the ways that Walser's prose prompts a sympathetic response to usually flawed characters. Later reviewers have also commented on the increasingly nationalist tone of his works since the German reunification, particularly in Walser's more autobiographical novels, essays, and lectures that address the Nazi era of German history.

Gertrud Bauer Pickar (essay date January 1971)

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SOURCE: Pickar, Gertrud Bauer. “Narrative Perspective in the Novels of Martin Walser.” German Quarterly 44, no. 1 (January 1971): 48-57.

[In the following essay, Pickar studies various literary devices related to the narrative perspective in Die Ehen in Philippsburg, Halbzeit, and Das Einhorn, evaluating the effects of each device's development upon the forms and themes of the novels.]

Walser's first novel, Ehen in Philippsburg, is often dismissed as the work of a novice and generally passed over in discussions of his other novels, Halbzeit and Das Einhorn.1 The reason for its exclusion is the apparent lack of similarity of this initial novel to his later works: it is narrated continually in the third person singular; there is no interplay of fictional levels which in subsequent novels is related to the use of the first person; the portrayal of character and plot lacks the complexity and ambiguity of the later works. Closer examination, however, reveals that features which are dominant in the other two novels are prefigured in Philippsburg.2 This work contains tentative indications of techniques which are to become characteristic of the following novels and incorporates devices which later reappear in variant forms.

This is true of the literary features related to narrative perspective to be discussed here: first, the use of fictional levels; second, the narration in first, second, and third person; third, the multiple personality, and fourth, the formularization of time. These features of Walser's three novels will be considered in this study, and an attempt will be made to evaluate the impact of their individual development upon the form and nature of the works.

Although Philippsburg, as noted above, lacks an interplay of fictional levels, it does exhibit narrative complexity. A changing perspective is created as each of the succeeding central figures becomes the focal point of the narrative. Parts one and four are told from Beumann's point of view, the second from Benrath's, the third from Alwin's. Each of these figures is observed, his exterior behavior is described, and his thoughts and feelings are revealed. However, despite the fact that the segments are narrated from the three different perspectives provided by the chief participants, continuity is maintained. The chronological sequence is preserved throughout and the stories of the different protagonists dovetail. Since no qualitative changes are induced by the shifting of focus, no discrepancies occur in the depiction of character and personality.

As in Philippsburg, the variation of narrative perspective in Halbzeit is related to the basic structure of the work. Here, however, it does not reflect a change in the lead person, as in the first novel, but stems rather from Anselm Kristlein's dual role. Anselm is both protagonist and ostensible narrator. His activities as protagonist provide the thematic content of the work. His account of the work's composition and his creative motivation is superimposed upon the narrative and furnishes the frame. Together they constitute a double perspective for viewing the events and experiences presented in the novel.

In the recollection of events of the past in Halbzeit, Anselm Kristlein as a fictional figure and Anselm as the presumptive narrator merge and function as one individual; in the presentation of the events of the fictional present, which comprises the narrative proper, the two Anselms often separate. This precipitates an alternation in narrative person and emphasizes the inherent duality of the novel's perspective.

The inclusion of Alissa's diary entries of the years preceding the opening of the novel provides a significant contrast to the detailed account of Anselm's day which it follows. It differs markedly in time span and in style and tone of formulation and places his day in a broadened context. More significantly, its depiction of the Anselm-Alissa relationship from her point of view echoes the multiperspective structural format of Philippsburg. The diary, however, offers the only variation of this kind in Halbzeit, and it marks the last appearance in Walser's novels of this device which was so extensively employed in his first one.

The use of hypothetical elements, on the other hand, has a quite different development. The often startling imagery which characterizes the presentation of Beumann's thoughts in Philippsburg prefigures the broader narrative breadth which the hypothetical is given in Halbzeit.

Anselm's flight of fancy, the frequent hypothetical incidents, and the projected scenes constitute a fictitious level, and one which is secondary to that of the main plot development. Besides providing stylistic variation, these products of the imagination, originating in the consciousness of the protagonist and revealed by the narrator, contrast with the fictional levels of the events of Anselm's life, related in the narrative. In one case, Anselm portrays a possible consequence of his confessed infidelity in the form of a melodramatic dialogue between himself and Alissa. This passage, which Anselm entitles a “Dialogue sublimé,” contrasts with the performance of simulated conjugal compatibility which the Kristleins consequently enact to meet the social demands of the evening. The scene differs not only in content and conclusion but also in the scriptlike form in which it is cast.

The complexity of the interdependence of these fictional planes is evident in the manifestations of the key relationship in Halbzeit—that of Anselm and Melitta. The image of a girl leaning against a chestnut tree, frozen in a childhood memory, enters as a dream fragment already on the second page of Halbzeit where Anselm is struggling with the process of awakening. A few pages later, Flintrop's seductive daughter, the hairdresser Melitta, is introduced as a figure, and Anselm's identification of Melitta with the girl of his childhood memory is promptly established. There is an inherent difference between the Melitta of Anselm's experiences depicted in the novel and the Melitta of Anselm's memories and dreams who plays so large a role in the consciousness of the narrating Anselm. As the novel progresses, these discrepancies become increasingly apparent and lend narrative tension to the work. The inevitable confrontation between the two images of Melitta terminates this tension and precipitates the speedy resolution of the narrative threads.

Until the closing chapters of Halbzeit, the divergence in nature between the imaginary, or literary, realities created by the consciousness of the narrating Anselm and the events and incidents in which he is depicted as protagonist subliminally accompany the development of the novel. In Einhorn, such disparities have become basic to theme, material, and structure. This work is formulated upon the interplay of three fictional levels—constituted by the present, the remembered past, and the fictitious, the last of which encompasses both the fantasies and those writings supposedly authored by the character Anselm.

The period of time which the narrator spends in bed and which he presumably utilizes for the composition of his novel constitutes the present time of the work. This established temporal perspective is maintained throughout. It furnishes a basis from which to view and appraise the other events and time experiences and serves as an anchorage point from which the narrator retreats into the past. It provides both a contrast for his memories and fantasies and a justification for his discourses on the nature of memory. The past, presented as it is recalled by the narrator, its events recorded in chronological order, constitutes the second level. It is used both to illuminate the present and to contrast with Anselm's endeavors at reconstituting both past and present in his writings. These writings and the fantasies of the narrating ego insert the fictitious into the novel and comprise the third fictional level of the work. The three levels, however, do not remain static in their relationship to one another, as the description of the summer party presented in the form of an opera sketch demonstrates. While recalling the variations in narrative form of Halbzeit, the impact of this passage is quite different. It serves to cancel the distinction between reminiscences and their fictionalized portrayal, which though artificial, was maintained in the earlier novels and in the first part of this one. The depiction of an event as a conscious literary exercise of Anselm's disrupts the established pattern of narration and indicates a new development, one which is continued as the novel progresses.

What is overt in the case of the summer party is covert in the Orli-story which unfolds in the second half of the book. In this story, the experiences of Anselm the protagonist, his memories, and his fantasies as narrator are often indistinguishable from one another. The Orli-story is both contrasted and blended with the elements of the frame and its depiction of Anselm's self-imposed confinement and marriage. At one point, Anselm as narrator playfully concludes the Orli-episodes with the confrontation of Orli and Birga, his wife, and then reveals this as a fantasy. The Orli-story is concluded several chapters later, precipitating the conclusion of the work, just as the resolution of the Melitta-Erlebnis brought Halbzeit to its end. The fact that the period of time encompassed by the narrated past begins to approach that of the fictional present tends to sustain the fusion of fictional levels accomplished during the resolution of the Orli-episode. The delineation of these levels is never clearly reestablished. Their realities have become relativized and ambiguous and the entire work takes on a highly subjective coloration.

A similar tendency is evident in the treatment of the narrative person. In Walser's first novel the angle of perspective remains the same, although the point of reference changes; in Halbzeit and Einhorn, the orientation remains that of Anselm, but the perspective is doubled. Thus the distinct segments of Philippsburg, each devoted to a lead figure and related consistently in the third person, have been replaced by a narrative in the first person singular which modulates into the third person.

The obvious basis for this structural feature rests in the dual role of Anselm Kristlein. As both the novel's protagonist and its ostensible narrator, he appears in both third and first person. His activities provide the thematic content of the novel, and his account of his creative endeavors and their motivation supplies its structural format. The alternation in narrative person is thus an integral element of the work. It is involved in the organizational basis for the novel and furnishes stylistic interest as well, occurring as it does at times even within a single sentence: “In meinem taubenblauen Anzug stieg er aus meinem Auto …” (p. 240) or “Als ich in der Lichtenbergstraße aus meinem Wagen stieg, hatte er die Krawatte schon gewechselt” (p. 319).3

In one passage in Philippsburg, Walser, depicting Hans Beumann's thoughts, slips into the use of the second person singular. Beumann, sitting in a café, addresses himself with the command, “Iß dein Eis, Hans Beumann, und such’ dir ein Zimmer, in dem du bleiben kannst” (p. 10). Set as it is in a passage of narrated monologue,4 the use of the second person seems to be an irregularity in style, rather than a consciously employed stylistic device. In Halbzeit, however, it appears as a clearly intentional aspect of the novel's alternating narrative person. The second person occurs in Anselm's exchanges with Galileo, an imaginary secondary ego, as well as in his other “inner” conversations. Preparing to meet Susanne, Anselm warns himself: “Merkst Du, daß Du Dir jetzt eine Falle stellst?” (p. 266). He criticizes himself: “… auf jeder öffentlichen Bank fängst Du wieder ganz klein und nüchtern und geduldig an und tust doch, als wartest Du” (p. 326); he gives himself instructions: “Du wartest jetzt, als wartest Du nicht” (p. 326); and even records his inner thoughts during conversations with others (p. 487 f.).

The casual shifting from first to third person and its association with the double function of Anselm are secondary features in Halbzeit. They become primary elements of Einhorn and contribute to the format of the work, supporting Anselm's roles as presumptive author and protagonist in the work and as fictional figure in the incorporated writings of Anselm and Melanie, his would-be publisher. Here, too, the trend toward increased fictionalization and toward a fusing of previously defined areas is evident. In the beginning of the novel, the use of person is clearly delineated: first person is employed in the portions depicting present time (Anselm's period in bed) and the immediate past; the third person is used in the writings of Anselm (although in turn often interrupted with asides and notes to the publisher Melanie which employ the first person). As the novel proceeds, the distinction in the use of person becomes blurred and is occasionally suspended. Switches in person are frequent. The first person slips into the third, the third into the first. At one point the narrator separates himself from the protagonist and, interrupting the first person narration and the time sense, comments: “Jetzt hol’ ich Verhalten nach, distanziere mich von jenem Anselm. Laut sage ich mir: das hätte ich getan …” (p. 263). He next addresses himself in the second person, and then continues the scene in the third person.

Though the basis for the change in person is provided by the identification of the narrator with the novel's protagonist, its use within the novel is closely allied to that of the multiple personality, a structural and thematic feature which is recurrent in Walser's works and discussed in his theoretical writings as well. In “Realismus X,” one of the essays included in Erfahrungen und Leseerfahrungen,5 Walser describes the individual as “eine spezielle Fügung von Möglichkeiten” (p. 92) and states: “Von jeweils neuer Gegenwart provoziert, entfaltet sich der widerspruchsvolle Reichtum unseres Charakters. Jeder erscheint als ein schwer überschaubares Ensemble von Eigenschaften, das niemals zusammen erklingt: Zeit und Welt rufen die Instrumente nacheinander ab” (p. 86).

The multiple personality first enters into the novel series tentatively through the imagery of Philippsburg. Hans Beumann speaks of setting up a translator within himself to express his opinions in socially acceptable forms (p. 28); he describes himself as having ten orchestras within his head which he, as sole conductor, must bring into harmony (p. 41). Similarly Benrath is compared to an entire theater: “Sein Theater spielte. Er agierte in allen Rollen” (p. 131).6

In Halbzeit the feature of the multipersonality is further expanded. Anselm as narrator frequently records his inner conversations with himself. He even provides one specific aspect of his personality with independent name and character and introduces this figment of his imagination into the story of Galileo Cleverlein. Anselm uses him to rationalize his behavior and invests him with more “realistic” or calculating thinking—or as Anselm prefers to view it, with more scientific vocabulary. Their relationship is clearly delineated in their verbal exchanges and furnishes a number of humorous interludes.

Anselm as narrator openly acknowledges his changes of personality, both as protagonist and “author.” Often he even displays a condescending air in describing himself as “handelnde Person.” Examples include: “Ich schlüpfe in meinen Wissenschaftler …” (p. 476), “Der Wissenschaftler hatte längst gemerkt, was Anselm hören wollte” (p. 494), and “Ich neige dazu, Anselm diesen Aufschwall des Gefühls zu verzeihen” (p. 478).

The multiple personality assumes major proportions in Einhorn. It is related both thematically to the various roles of Anselm and stylistically to the changing perspective. Its existential basis in Walser's view of the complexity of personality is revealed in numerous discussions and in imagery and phrases. It is expressed in Anselm's description of man as “pluralistische Gesellschaft m.b.H.,” and underlies comments such as “Ein Anselm schimpfte den andern Anselm” (p. 143); “Soviele Anselme, soviele Meinungen” (p. 193) or, “Sämtliche Anselme schwärmten im Sessel” (p. 257). The presentation of Anselm as a “Fürwortparlament” is reflected in the references to his “Vielstimmigkeit” and in passages such as: “Wir wollten mit uns zu Rate gehen. Aber das Parlament döste …” (p. 257), or “ich legte diese erschreckende Auskunft meinem Parlament vor. Dem dokumentensüchtigen Flügel” (p. 259).

The development here is internally related to the use of person and contributes to the progression in narrative complexity which marks the novels. Its effect supports their increasing subjectivity, a tendency also evident in the treatment of time.

Though the time span of the three works varies but little—all the novels cover less than a year—a clearly recognizable progression in the use of narrated time begins with Ehen in Philippsburg. A straightforward narrative in chronological sequence, it exhibits the least complex presentation of the time experience. The changes in perspective do not interfere with the chronology maintained throughout the entire novel as a single and continuous unit. Recollections of the past are few and rarely episodic in nature, and the future, where invoked in daydreams or voiced in expectations, is granted neither narrative breadth nor sanction. The only interruptions in the narrative flow are the excursuses into Klaff's writings and diary—a technique which Walser explores and exploits at length in Halbzeit and Einhorn.

In Halbzeit, the narration opens with Anselm's awakening and closes with his falling asleep. His release from the hospital at the outset and again at the end of the novel reenforces the previously evoked suggestion of the natural demarcation of birth and death. The events of the months, so encompassed, which are portrayed in the work, are presented in chronological sequence, as in Philippsburg. However, the progression of time is strikingly irregular. It is slowed into a depiction of the stream of consciousness and contains gaps, such as the weeks spent in America. Additional material drawn from beyond the temporal bounds of the narrative span is included. Alissa's diary entries predate the opening of the novel by ten months, the writings of Anselm's father by some thirty-odd years. The letters of his Uncle Paul cover in radically telescoped format the latter's years in America and his ill-advised return to Germany. The first day, including Anselm's reading of his wife's diary, fills the initial 262 pages of the paperback edition and forms Part One of the novel. A similar number of pages are devoted to the following summer months. A quickening pace brings the novel into mid-October. The remainder of the novel, spanning the period from December 5 until March, is narrated in a still further accelerated tempo and covers less than ninety pages. (When Anselm, waiting for the clock to strike New Year's Eve and ring out the Fifties, envisions the rest of his life, the major events of the twenty or more years he anticipates are recounted in telegraphic style in one page of text.) The frame frequently intrudes into the narration, interrupting the temporal representation of the narrative. References are made to Anselm's recording of his activities, his incentive for writing, the advice he seeks, and to the difficulties that he encounters. The time flow is also suspended by flights of fancy and slowed down for detailed presentation of supplementary material, such as the notes of Anselm's father, Susanne's “true confession” of her life and love, and Edmund's lengthy conversations. However, neither these digressions nor the numerous hypothetical incidents and projected scenes or conversations interfere with the continuity of the story nor affect the impression of a chronological presentation.

In the last novel, time is no longer construed as a gentle flow in which the present slips into the past and the future into the present in an uninterrupted continuum, as it was portrayed in Philippsburg and to a lesser extent in Halbzeit. The three months of Einhorn assume a static nature; the incidents of the novel are not primarily spaced in time, nor developed or contrasted in a chronology, but are separated and related by the fictional level they present. Although there is a chronology within each of these levels in Einhorn, the interaction between them is so extensive that the chronology loses its significance. The interplay of the time strata implicit in these levels—the immediate present of the narrator's confinement to bed, the past as he recalls it, and the extratemporal events of his imagination and writings—becomes secondary. As a consequence, time loses its dominance as a structural feature and becomes an aspect of the novel's conceptual scheme. It has been internalized.

In a sense, the development evident in each of the narrative aspects discussed above is one of internalization. The structural aspects of the novels have become increasingly complex, perhaps also increasingly artificial, or at least increasingly focused upon the literary aspects of the work rather than upon textual ones. Time, figures, and events have been internalized by the literary work, relativized by their depiction and reconstruction, and subjectivized by the personalized narration.

In summary, the novels present three stages in a distinct progression. In the first work, events are presented essentially as perceived and experienced by the protagonists, with the time sequence of past, present, and future necessarily remaining intact. Nothing is done to destroy the credibility of the reality depicted. The subsequent novels are marked by the intrusion of the narrator and a disparity between the protagonist's subjective perceiving of his environment and a narrative description of them. The fictional nature of figures and events alike is increasingly exploited.

At the conclusion of Einhorn, the narrator's consciousness of the world, of events, persons, and emotions has replaced those events or persons as the substance of the novel. The novel is concerned with the narrator's view of the world he presents. Its events and figures become mixed and ultimately fused with his own formulations. The final stage of this development occurs in the last chapter, where the narrator relinquishes his own claim to being “lebenswahr.” Renouncing the pretense of representing a flesh-and-blood reality, he accepts his existence as a Papierfigur: “Ich vermute, daß ich selber ein Schatten bin, der seinen Werfer verlor. Ich bin flach und dunkel, ich bin—weiter kann kein Geständnis mehr reichen—ich bin eine Figur. Sichtbar am besten schwarz auf weiß” (p. 483).

Most appropriately Walser's latest narrative work, published March 1970, is entitled Fiction.7 Although it is not the anticipated novel which was to conclude the Kristlein series, it does develop the tendency toward the abstract and emphasizes the fictional and even fictitious basis of a literary work. Viewing the direction established by the three novels and inherent in the development of those literary features related to narrative perspective discussed above, Anselm may well be speaking for Walser when he states in Einhorn: “Lebenswahr, zum Beispiel, ist ein Wort, das ich für mich nicht mehr in Anspruch nehmen darf” (p. 483 f.).


  1. A notable exception to this is Donald F. Nelson's article “The Depersonalized World of Martin Walser,” GQ XLII (1969), 204-216, which discusses “the breakdown of social communication and the depersonalization of human behavior” with which both Philippsburg and Halbzeit are concerned.

  2. Ehen in Philippsburg (Frankfurt a.M., 1957), Halbzeit (Frankfurt a.M., 1960), Das Einhorn, (Frankfurt a.M., 1966). Page citations in this paper are from Ehen in Philippsburg, Rororo 557 (1963), Halbzeit, Knaur 34 (1963), and the above noted Suhrkamp edition of Das Einhorn.

  3. See Ingrid Kreuzer, “Martin Walser,” in Deutsche Literatur seit 1945 (Stuttgart, 1968), pp. 435-454.

  4. See Dorrit Cohn, “Narrated monologue: definition of a fictional style,” CL XVIII (1966) 2, 97-112.

  5. Frankfurt a.M., 1965, pp. 83-93.

  6. The affinity of the multiple personality to role-playing, another major theme in Walser's writings, is clearly revealed here.

  7. Frankfurt a.M., 1970.

Principal Works

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Kantaten auf der Kellertreppe (play) 1953

Ein Flugzeug über dem Haus und andere Geschichten (short stories) 1955

Ehen in Philippsburg: Roman [The Gadarene Club] (novel) 1957; also published as Marriage in Philippsburg, 1961

Halbzeit (novel) 1960

Der Abstecher [The Detour] (play) 1961

Eiche und Angora: Eine deutsche Chronik [The Rabbit Race] (play) 1962

Überlebensgroß Herr Krott: Requiem fuer einen Unsterblichen (play) 1963

Lügengeschichten (short stories) 1964

Der schwarze Schwan: Ein Stück in zwei Akten (play) 1964

Erfahrungen und Leseerfahrungen (essays and criticism) 1965

Das Einhorn [The Unicorn] (novel) 1966

Die Zimmerschlact (play) 1967

Fiction (short stories) 1970

Die Gallistl'sche Krankheit (novel) 1972

Der Sturz (novel) 1973

Wie und wovon handelt Literatur (essays and criticism) 1973

Jenseits der Liebe [Beyond All Love] (novel) 1976

Was zu bezweifeln war: Aufsätze und Reden 1958-1975 [edited by Klaus Schuhmann] (novel) 1976

Ein fliehendes Pferd [Runaway Horse] (novel) 1978

Der Grund zur Freude: 99 Sprueche zur Erbauung des Bewusstseins (novel) 1978

Heimatlob: Ein Bodensee-Buch [with Andre Ficus] (novel) 1978

Wer ist ein Schriftsteller?: Aufsätze und Reden (novel) 1978

Seelenarbeit [The Inner Man] (novel) 1979

Das Schwanenhaus [The Swan Villa] (novel) 1980

*Die Anselm Kristlein Trilogie (novels) 1981

Selbstbewußstein und Ironie: Frankfurter Vorlesungen (lectures) 1981

Brief an Lord Liszt [Letter to Lord Liszt] (novel) 1982

In Goethes Hand: Szenen aus dem 19. Jahrhundert (play) 1982

Gesammelte Geschichten (short stories) 1983

Liebeserklärungen (essays and criticism) 1983

Brandung [Breakers] (novel) 1985

Ein fliehendes Pferd: Theaterstück (play) 1985

Meßmers Gedanken (novel) 1985

Geständnis auf Raten (essays and criticism) 1986

Die Ohrfeige (play) 1986

Dorle und Wolf: Novelle [No Man's Land] (novella) 1987

Jagd (novel) 1988

Armer Nanosh: Kriminalroman [with Asta Scheib] (novel) 1989

Nero läßt grüßen oder Selbstporträt des Kuenstlers als Kaiser (play) 1989

Auskunft: 22 Gespräche aus 28 Jahren (novel) 1991

Die Verteidigung der Kindheit (novel) 1991

Ohne einander (novel) 1993

Vormittag eines Schriftstellers (essays and criticism) 1994

Finks Krieg: Roman (novel) 1996

Werke in Zwölf Bänden. 9 vols. (novels, plays, essays, and criticism) 1997

Ein springender Brunnen: Roman (novel) 1998

Der Lebenslauf der Liebe (novel) 2001

Tod eines Kritikers (novel) 2002

Aus dem Wortschatz unserer Kämpfe: Prosa, Aufsätze, Gedichte (essays, poetry, and prose) 2003

*Includes Halbzeit, Das Einhorn, and Der Sturz.

†This nine-volume set collects all of Walser's novels from Ehen in Philippsburg to Finks Krieg along with several editions of Walser's plays, essays, and criticism.

Ulf Zimmermann (review date spring 1982)

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SOURCE: Zimmermann, Ulf. Review of Selbstbewußstein und Ironie: Frankfurter Vorlesungen, by Martin Walser. World Literature Today 56, no. 2 (spring 1982): 332-33.

[In the following review, Zimmermann highlights the political significance of Selbstbewußstein und Ironie: Frankfurter Vorlesungen, affirming Walser's contention that the prevailing modern notion of irony perverts Socrates's original definition of the concept.]

At the fulcrum of these five lectures [Selbstbewußstein und Ironie: Frankfurter Vorlesungen] is Martin Walser's contention that the prevailing conception of irony, as epitomized in Thomas Mann, is a perversion of the original Socratic irony, for which Friedrich Schlegel is responsible. That perversion, as Walser has it, has thwarted the basic twofold thrust of irony—to negate existing conditions and to engender individual consciousness—which is the whole Socratic purpose. Instead of this, Schlegelian irony merely elevates the individual self above these conditions, leaving them unquestioned and as they are. What we have here then is the familiar substitution of a supposed intellectual freedom for an actual political kind. This tradition of irony culminates in Thomas Mann's Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen and manifests itself in such “naturelbische Dichtergesinnungslosigkeit” as he attributes to Goethe.

In this sense of intellectual freedom the works in this tradition may indeed have ironic heroes—Tonio Kröger et alia—but they do not have the ironic style that is the true mark of the Socratic form of irony. This form of irony finds its philosophical protagonists, for Walser, in Fichte, Hegel and Kierkegaard, and he singles out Robert Walser and Kafka as the foremost practitioners of the ironic style. What this ironic style amounts to is a persistent undermining of prevailing conditions by a simultaneous hyperbolic affirmation of these conditions and a total denigration of self vis-à-vis them—the complete (ironic) subordination of self to society. Thus, instead of enjoying an education that gives the individual a well-formed self, Sein, as Mann's leisure-class heroes can afford to do, characters such as Robert Walser's Jakob von Gunten go to school to reduce their selves to perfect “zeroes” and to let themselves be judged purely in terms of Leistung. This means that the moment the modern petit-bourgeois working man no longer performs, he loses his humanity, as does Gregor Samsa, both in his own eyes and in those of the society that shaped him and that he represents. This process is one Martin Walser very adeptly demonstrates in his analysis of this story.

One of the chief recommendations of this volume must be that in presenting such reinterpretations it provokes rereading and reconsideration of the perhaps all-too-familiar, as in the case of Kafka's classic. Equally important, it promotes more serious consideration of the likes of Robert Walser, who certainly warrants it. Finally, the singling out of these two authors leads one back to Martin Walser's own oeuvre and consequently a redoubled appreciation of his work as well. But most importantly, it must be stressed that what is at the bottom of all these writings for Martin Walser and what he makes eminently clear to the readers of these essays is their fundamental political significance: that “ironic” detachment of the early Schlegel and Thomas Mann and their heroes yields nothing more than an affirmation of the status quo; negating that, changing conditions, requires the complete commitment, the Konsequenz, of a Socrates.

Harriet Waugh (review date 19 March 1983)

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SOURCE: Waugh, Harriet. “Cotton Wool.” Spectator 250, no. 8071 (19 March 1983): 24-5.

[In the following review, Waugh finds The Swan Villa unreadable and “simply boring,” faulting the novel's “muffled” style.]

Martin Walser is a German writer and his novel, The Swan Villa, has been translated by Leila Lennewitz. The quotations on the back of the jacket about one of his earlier novels indicate that he is highly thought of; and that ‘every paragraph, every incident seems to be exactly right in length, in placing, in mood and in detail’ (The Northern Echo). He is a ‘gimlet author boring into people's veneered exteriors’ (Daily Telegraph).

All this makes me feel peculiarly philistine and shallow because I have to admit that I had extraordinary difficulty in making myself persevere to the end of The Swan Villa. Reading it was an endurance test; where a mountain climber might tell himself that he will not rest until he has reached a certain rock or peak, I measured my need for a rest about every ten pages. Once, in desperation, I found myself reading it aloud in order to force my eyes and mind to continue along the lines of words. The publishers, as though in conspiracy with the writer to make the task harder, have chosen to print the book in ugly, black type that shows through from the following page. I suppose it is just possible that, realising that the reader might be tempted to allow his eye to wander, they decided on pitch black print in the hope of forcing the words on him. If this is the case it is an unscrupulous form of coercion. The task of reading is not made easier by the novelist who presents his prose in block formation without any indentations for speech. In consequence I moved from paragraph to paragraph as though gulping for air.

The story is concerned with an estate agent in a small Bavarian town. Gottlieb Zurn is a timid man given to convoluted circular thinking that leaves him stranded, unable to do anything about anything. He fantasises about his female clients while being terrified of seeming foolish either to them or to his business competitors.

The Swan Villa is a large house by the lake with murals of naked people and peacocks and elaborate ceilings. It has been abandoned to dust, cobwebs and swans and is to be sold. Gottlieb is desperate to get it for his agency. It is a fantasy house that will bring in a huge commission and increase Gottlieb's prestige among the fraternity if he can advertise it under his by-line. Usually he grovels about at the bottom end of the market. The town in which Gottlieb lives is viewed entirely as though it were populated by estate agents, buyers and their adjuncts. And in this scape the two barons of the town are Mr Schatz, and Mr Kaltammer, a property redeveloper. Gottlieb spends his days waging a futile jealous war against these giants. He meets friends in a café for bitter gossip and goes to a party where he is in constant anxiety about whether he is being ‘got at’. The villa continues dream-like just beyond his grasp. The prospect of humiliation is all around him, not least in his domestic life. His wife Anna, who treats him as one of the children, moves from one violent concern to another; her youngest child, a school girl, is erupting in boils and running a fever. It could be herpes but none of the doctors are really sure. The oldest daughter is pregnant by a megalomaniac hip cameraman and one of the middle daughters lolls apathetically on the sofa contemplating a pointless existence. Gottlieb is unable to help with any of these crises. Instead he is taken in by the megalomaniac cameraman and goes on a spending spree he cannot afford.

The domestic life of the family is considerably more interesting than the quest for the Swan Villa but everything is muffled in the thick, cotton wool-like substance of Gottlieb's mind. Although Mr Walser succeeds in showing the torture of being Gottlieb, he does so at the expense of the reader by enveloping him in the same ghastly muffled chamber. This certainly does not make the book very readable.

This ‘gimlet author boring into people's veneered exteriors’ is, alas, simply boring. In spite of the Northern Echo's enthusiasm, it is hard not to suspect that Martin Walser can be bought very cheaply when the parsimonious boss of Secker and Warburg goes shopping at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Further Reading

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Butler, Michael. “Negative Capabilities.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4933 (17 October 1997): 30.

Butler examines the vast collection of Walser's works in Werke in Zwölf Bänden, noting the literary, cultural, and social relevance of the nine-volume set for reunited Germany.

Feingold, Michael. Review of Letter to Lord Liszt, by Martin Walser. Voice Literary Supplement, no. 39 (October 1985): 3.

Feingold comments that Letter to Lord Liszt is primarily focused on middle-aged, middle-class angst.

McGee, Celia. Review of The Swan Villa, by Martin Walser. New York 20, no. 26 (29 June 1987): 142, 144.

McGee lauds Walser's use of humor in The Swan Villa.

Raksin, Alex. Review of The Swan Villa, by Martin Walser. Los Angeles Times Book Review (7 June 1987): 14.

Raksin evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of The Swan Villa.

Ruta, Suzanne. Review of No Man's Land, by Martin Walser. Voice Literary Supplement, no. 76 (July 1989): 5.

Ruta discusses the fairy-tale and fantastical elements in No Man's Land.

Sharp, Francis Michael. “Martin Walser and Unification: Thoughts Out of Season?” In The Berlin Wall: Representations and Perspectives, edited by Ernst Schürer, Manfred Keune, and Philip Jenkins, pp. 293-302. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.

Sharp traces Walser's literary forays into political discourse regarding the question of German reunification.

Steuer, Daniel. “Shared Ghosts.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5008 (26 March 1999): 24.

Steuer evaluates the themes and style of Ein springender Brunnen within the context of a speech Walser gave on German-Jewish relations.

Thomas, R. Hinton. “Martin Walser—The Nietzsche Connection.” German Life and Letters 35, no. 4 (July 1982): 319-28.

Thomas identifies parallels between some of Friedrich Nietzche's ideas and a number of Walser's novels ranging from Halbzeit to The Inner Man, despite the philosopher's notable absence from the novelist's body of literary criticism.

Waine, Anthony. “The Polycultural Nature of Walser's Protagonists in Seelenarbeit, Brandung, and Die Verteidigung der Kindheit.” In Leseerfahrungen mit Martin Walser: Neue Beiträge zu seinen Texten, edited by Heike Doane and Gertrud Bauer Pickar, pp. 72-87. München: Wilheim Fink Verlag, 1995.

Waine examines the cultural backgrounds of the protagonists in Seelenarbeit, Brandung, and Die Verteidingung der Kindheit, discussing the role cultural psychology plays in determining their moral and aesthetic choices.

Additional coverage of Walser's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 57-60; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 8, 46; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 27; Contemporary World Writers, Ed. 2; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 75, 124; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; and Literature Resource Center.

Ursula Mahlendorf (review date spring 1983)

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SOURCE: Mahlendorf, Ursula. Review of In Goethes Hand: Szenen aus dem 19. Jahrhundert, by Martin Walser. World Literature Today 57, no. 2 (spring 1983): 279.

[In the following review, Mahlendorf outlines scenes from In Goethes Hand, pronouncing the play's portrayal of the psychological and social dynamics of oppression successful.]

Martin Walser's recent play In Goethes Hand is a fascinating study of a great man and his human, all too human relationships. The title is a pun on “In Gottes Hand.” Walser's Goethe is indeed God, and Eckermann, in this drama's three parts, is his most devoted servant and priest. The play shows the continual and ambivalent fascination which the national literary idol has exercised over German writers. Like Peter Hacks in his Frau von Stein monologue (see WLT 57:1, p. 97), Walser does not focus on the great man himself but rather on his subordinates and dependents, on Eckermann, on Goethe's son and daughter-in-law and on the servants and retinue of his household. From their perspective the great man appears as gratuitously egocentric, obsessed with his role as national treasure, wholly out of touch with contemporary reality. Manipulated by his family, duped by his servants, Goethe abuses the only real devotee he has, Eckermann. To be sure, Eckermann came to Weimar as a young law student to seek Goethe's help. But the price he pays for doing so is phenomenal.

The first part of the play, entitled “Faith” (part headings are taken from 1 Corinthians 13) shows Goethe at the age of seventy-four and Eckermann at thirty; Eckermann appears as the true believer, ready and willing to sacrifice career, family, his own life's ambition as a writer and, most important, his integrity as a man to the interests of the great poet. In the second part, entitled “Hope,” Eckermann is at the high point of his priesthood. The services he renders to the great man include a paean in which he explains Goethe to himself and to his retinue. In this monologue Walser admirably summarizes Goethe's thought, parodies Eckermann's style and simultaneously produces a malicious portrait of a sycophant whose self-effacement grows ever more suspect in view of his abject submission to Goethe's exploitation of him.

The last part, “Love,” takes place in 1848, long after Goethe's death, and shows Eckermann's service and priesthood continuing. Cheated by Goethe's family of even the monetary reward for his Conversations, Eckermann nevertheless persists in his servitude. His is a love against all self-interest, against the interests of the class of his origin and against those who should be his true concern (his son and his wife). Only in the penultimate scene does Walser let us see why this “unselfish” love persists: Eckermann, asleep, dreams that Goethe is still berating him. The Goethe dream crowds out a counterdream in which his dead wife calls for his attention but is unable to get it. Waking up, Eckermann rejects an idea which his Goethe dream suggested—that his love for Goethe is really hatred—and he grieves because he cannot dream of his wife. His service to the great man therefore turns out to be the product of a servant's mentality. He is unable to take responsibility for his own life, to admit to his hatred for his idol, to liberate himself from the idol and live a life of his own.

The last scene of the play, in which Goethe's daughter-in-law visits Eckermann and abuses him as the family has always done, confirms this interpretation. As usual, Eckermann refuses to stand up for himself (this is shown as a refusal to stand up for his social class). In fact he ends up kissing Ottilie's hand and thanking her for the abuse with “Gern geschehen, gnädige Frau”—“Glad to do it, madam.”

Walser's portrait of Goethe is a cruel one. His analysis of Eckermann's motives and relationships is no less cruel. Some readers may not want to accept these portraits as accurate. Nevertheless, the psychology of oppression by idols and the victim's desire to be oppressed which Walser projects into the Goethe-Eckermann relationship is sound, and the play admirably succeeds in portraying the social and psychological dynamics of such oppression.

Ulf Zimmermann (review date summer 1984)

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SOURCE: Zimmermann, Ulf. Review of Liebeserklärungen, by Martin Walser. World Literature Today 58, no. 3 (summer 1984): 411-12.

[In the following review, Zimmermann focuses on the relationship between the language and literary values expressed in Liebeserklärungen, commending Walser's wit and phrasing.]

Except for the fact that the volume [Liebeserklärungen] consists exclusively of favorable reviews—being after all a collection of literary “declarations of love”—it doesn't really have any sort of unifying theme. The selections come from other volumes or from periodicals and were composed as “occasional” pieces, celebrating literary classics old and new, literary birthdays, anniversaries and prizes. They were written over the last quarter of a century (beginning with Walser's own rise to literary prominence around 1957) and reach back to recollections of his adolescent reading experiences. Fittingly, these adolescent loves are Schiller and Hölderlin, whose moral and political idealism he finds as sorely needed today as he found them passionately inspiring at first reading.

Perhaps what these essays do have in common can best be captured by enumerating the characteristically recurring words that come together in something of a set summing up Walser's values: accuracy, authenticity (though not for authenticity's sake), conscientiousness, exactitude, fidelity, honesty, inexorability, Konsequenz, sincerity. Thus he writes, for example, about the microscopic accuracy of Proust, which teaches one permanently to perceive everything more sharply and fully, and about the perpetual accuracy of Brecht—truth chiseled into stone. He writes of Kafka's “absolute modesty” and his “most conscientious exploration of his conscience,” and about the relentlessness of Robert Walser's style that inexorably reveals new truths.

While today, according to Walser, “more and more literature specializes in less and less,” we can look back at such all-encompassing efforts as Büchner's Lenz, which with terrifying power expresses directly the experience of absolute godlessness. And on the other hand we can look back on the grand old master, Goethe, who in his near divinity was able to create in his (later) work a harmony so absolute that it informs the oeuvre down through the structure of every sentence. Heine, meanwhile, for Walser seems caught somewhere in between—between cheerful laughter and painful tears. The Goethe piece is shot through with flippancy and irony—doubtless one of the few ways one can maintain oneself when confronting the Olympian. And while that essay can be relished for its sharpness, a mostly gentler wit pervades the remainder of these pieces. This wit, combined with a rare talent for pithy phrasing, makes all of Walser's other pieces a pleasure to read as well.

Richard Eder (review date 27 January 1985)

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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. Review of The Inner Man, by Martin Walser. Los Angeles Times Book Review (27 January 1985): 1, 7.

[In the following review, Eder summarizes the plot and themes of The Inner Man, noting the parallels between the protagonist and contemporary Germany.]

Chauffeur Xaver Zurn, driving his wealthy employer across southern Germany in a pale-green Mercedes, needs to relieve himself [in The Inner Man]. But it is more than that. There are global aspects, universal dimensions to his abdominal agony.

History furnishes a lesson for his retentive struggle. (“Xaver had read descriptions of battles during the Peasants’ War. Whenever, the horde of peasants yielded a mere fraction, [it] would be swept away in headlong flight.”) Religion is there. (“Think of Jesus Christ,” he reflects, speeding towards Stuttgart and its sanitary facilities. “This afternoon you will be granted deliverance.”)

And, of course, it is a state matter. (“It always infuriated Xaver when some industry-oriented group lashed out on TV against the deficit of the Federal Railway. If only because of its public and almost always spotless toilets, he was happy to concede however many billions of marks were required.”)

Xaver, compulsive and touchy, is a model of outward order and, inwardly, a raging hell. At one level, he is Martin Walser's comically inventive caricature of modern Germany. But he is more. He is imaginative and a yearner. If his little-man megalomania makes him alternatively absurd and sinister, sometimes verging on madness, there is humanity to him. Humanity reduced by out-of-scale circumstances; a Gulliver exiled from birth for life in Brobdingnag.

Xaver has floated modestly up on the tide of postwar German prosperity; he lives with his wife and two daughters in a house inherited from farmer parents. There is an orchard attached and a forest adjoining. He is well paid and well treated by Gleitze, a successful industrialist whose consuming avocation is traveling around to performances of Mozart operas; he plans to write a book about them. So far, so good. Xaver loves his wife, Agnes, and his daughters, and the farmhouse and the woods. He serves Gleitze with painful devotion and punctiliousness. He is pleased with everything. And everything torments him. Each tiny detail of his life pumps him up to fury. He goes into a restaurant and flies into an interior rage because of the way somebody looks or dresses or speaks to a waitress. A painting of a country scene infuriates him because of the angle at which the oxen are moving.

He swells alternately with euphoria and anger. Sitting in the front of the car, he imagines himself joining in the conversation of his employer and guests in back. He, too, has jokes to tell, ideas about Mozart, interesting anecdotes about his family and his experiences. The next moment, he is burning with resentment because he feels all but invisible to his passengers.

When Gleitze arranges for him to have a series of expensive medical tests for his nervous indigestion, he is at first gratified. He is being treated importantly, he thinks. Gradually he grows angrier and angrier. What business is it of Gleitze to have his, Xaver's, insides examined? Added to the indignity of proctoscopies and barium enemas is his conviction that it is a form of management espionage. Gleitze is not humanly concerned, he comes to believe, but is simply sending his chauffeur to be checked as he would his car.

When bitterness overcomes him, he goes out and buys a knife. He has six so far, and by the middle of the book, we feel that Xaver is a mass murder waiting to happen. But Walser's purposes are larger and more complex.

Xaver's flayed skin, his conviction that every bit of data he takes in is a signal, usually threatening, directed personally toward him, is a mark of monstrosity. The monstrosity is not his, though, but society's. It is like the dwarf condition of the protagonist in The Tin Drum. Walser's point is that the dehumanization of modern life, and particularly modern German life, distorts the individual.

An unremarkable point, perhaps, and Walser's portrait of the German variants on greed, bad taste and the depredations of authoritarian technology is not new, though it possesses a fresh and aching accuracy. What makes The Inner Man unforgettable is the depiction of Xaver and family. You denounce a society best by showing a good man turned desperate, and the better you show the goodness, the harsher the denunciation.

And, as we follow Xaver along the highways, in the hospital, at home with his family, we gradually realize that under the absurdity and the dangerousness, he is Walser's Everyman, possessing innocence and even nobility. But he is cut off from his natural bearings. Those things that he feels ought to have value—his job, his employer's apparent benevolence, the order and prosperity of German life, his family—all seem contaminated. Hence his manic pursuit of signals.

He dwells on the past: on a brother killed in the war, on the Peasant Revolt in the 16th Century, lost when the insurgents trusted the promises of the nobility and laid down their arms despite their own superiority.

He repeatedly recounts these things. But he tells them in a particular way; as if until the very end, the stories might end happily, as if defeat were not inevitable but an accident of war. “Without a war, a Zurn life turns out well today remember that” he dins into his daughters. “He was always afraid they would suddenly confront him with reproaches at having brought them into the world.”

Xaver is a derailed optimist, believing that what a person does makes a difference. So is his devoted wife, Agnes, who works industriously by day and dreams at night that disgraced public figures such as Nixon and Willy Brandt come creeping to her through the currant bushes to seek comfort and consolation. The Zurn faith is not absurd; the world makes it absurd. The recurring motif of the Peasant Rebellion is a key to Walser's intention in this ingenious, funny and finally very moving book. The docility of the modern German masses, he suggests, is also a capitulation for fraudulent promises and rewards. Xaver's perquisites as Gleitze's chauffeur—the splendid car, his expense account, his proximity to the rich and cultivated—are just such a fake. And he finally finds release from his rage when he is released from his mock glory. He is demoted, at the book's end, to an ordinary job working in Gleitze's warehouse. For the first time in years, he can make peaceable love to Agnes.

D. J. Enright (review date 28 March 1985)

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SOURCE: Enright, D. J. “Calling Dr. Angst.” New York Review of Books 32, no. 5 (28 March 1985): 31-2.

[In the following excerpt, Enright assesses the characterization of the protagonist of The Inner Man.]

At the outset it looks as though the raison d'être of Martin Walser's novel, The Inner Man, is the uplifting effect of contemplating other people's misery. The hero is a chauffeur suffering from indigestion—the inner man is not at peace—and when we meet him he is driving his boss, a big industrialist, from Tettnang-Oberhof on the German side of Lake Constance to Düsseldorf, and in extreme discomfort owing to the laxative he has taken. “To throttle his bowels back entirely would be too painful. To yield by even a fraction would mean losing control over them.” Xaver doesn't like to stop the car and disappear into the forest. He gets little satisfaction from his doctor, who thinks—correctly, it appears—that his complaints are a way of gaining his wife's attention.

This dutiful stomachache, Doctor, I'll pass on your regards to it, Doctor. The tireless stomachache, Doctor. … The glorious stomachache. The lonely stomachache. The eternal stomachache. The dear stomachache. The painful stomachache, Doctor.

The Inner Man is a companion book to Walser's last novel to appear in English, The Swan Villa; the main characters, seemingly related, bear the same surname, Zürn, perhaps from zürnen, to be angry, feel irritated. Gottlieb Zürn had a preoccupied wife and four difficult daughters, one of them pregnant, another mysteriously sick. Xaver has a preoccupied wife and two difficult daughters, both at high school, one a pot-smoking trollop, the other a dreadful prig. As in The Swan Villa, gentle amusement arises from the professional antics of estate agents (“The broker presents you with the rainbow palette of his offers,” an ad claims), so too in the new novel quiet entertainment derives from the uncertain relationship between the driver and the driven (should he join in the conversation going on in the back or not?). Just as the desirable property Gottlieb hopes to handle falls to the bulldozers, so Xaver is finally demoted to a forklift in Number 2 Warehouse and loses the prestige attached to being the boss's chauffeur. In neither case is the blow fatal; life goes on, and indeed each husband regains the attention of his wife. Xaver can tell himself, as Gottlieb does, that he isn't wholly unloved.

Walser is preeminently good at conveying the feel of a job without overloading us with technical documentation or sounding like an adviser on careers. The countryside Xaver drives through and the modest pensions at which he puts up (the boss stays at luxury hotels) are finely or deftly evoked. And so is his glum sufferance of the ice cream which the boss treats him to, supposing that he likes it, supposing also—something Xaver tries to live up to—that he is a teetotaler and non-smoker. The boss also believes him to have been the Reich small-bore rifle champion of 1941, though in truth it was Xaver's brother Jakob, later reported missing in Karelia, who was not exactly champion but runner-up. Xaver would dearly like to tell his boss, Dr. Gleitze, who comes from Königsberg, about his other brother, Johann, who was killed defending that city against the Russians in 1945, but he never manages to find an opportunity.

Xaver's thoroughgoing examination in a private clinic is grimly comic. He observes his “fantastically tense” bowel on a screen, “at first black. And constantly twitching. Like something noble, sensitive, persecuted. Then light, transparent, three-dimensional, a precious drawing.” The kindly Gleitzes have arranged all this with a famous specialist, a friend of theirs—and all for a mere chauffeur. (The thought occurs to Xaver that they might be thinking of their own safety.) When the doctors tell him there is nothing wrong, he feels like an utter failure.

True, Xaver can at times be something of a small bore, as in recounting the lengthy story of the sixteenth-century Peasants’ War. This may well be intended ironically in that the class war, as far as he is concerned, belongs largely to the past. Walser has a reputation as a socialist critic of society and satirist of authority, yet Xaver is remarkably meek in his dealings with his boss, running errands for the boss's wife, painting their garden fence, displaying diligence, zeal, and loyalty, swearing off drink and cigarettes. At one point he fantasizes stabbing Dr. Gleitze to death—it would relieve that tension, and moreover, “No one would be able to claim that he was trying to ingratiate himself with the Gleitzes”—and at another he reflects that whereas a neighbor of his who loses a leg because of the wrong radiation treatment gets 40,000 Deutschemarks as compensation, upper-class people are paid a million in damages when their fifth marriage is wrongly reported as their sixth. But admiration and artless envy are mixed with his sporadic indignation, and there is little danger that this book will inflame chauffeurs to the point of tearing up their driving licenses and burning their uniforms.

Xaver's ambition is simply that the Zürns should “move up a modest step in the world,” and in this he isn't helped by his daughter flunking her exams and making off to Venice or, for all he knows, Australia on the pillion of a motorbike. And far from being “recognized” by his employer, being understood as what he is even if he never was a smallbore champion or a hundred-percent abstainer—he recalls with pleasure the time when the boss stopped the car and actually walked up and down with him, his arm around his shoulder, reminiscing about his childhood in Königsberg—he has now lost the job he was so proud of. It's not enough to dwell on past and small (and ambiguous) glories, such as a grandfather who hanged himself in the hayloft because a good fruit crop meant miserable prices, or the brother who died in the defense of Königsberg (now alas Kaliningrad), or his skill in controlling a skidding car, or his hard-earned knowledge of French and English (which cuts no ice with forklifts), or the one-night affair under a full moon with that floozy Aloisia (much needed though it was), or knocking down the TV repairman in a fit of temper.

Xaver is certainly no revolutionary; and we gather that neither as chauffeur nor as forklift driver is he notably underpaid. Why are there still masters? he asks himself, thinking of how “his people” allowed themselves to be cheated in the Peasants’ War: “Because everyone hopes to become one himself.” Xaver wants to be liked, to be detectably loved by his wife, to be accorded a fair share of respect, to do a little better in life than he has been doing and, if possible, than the neighbors are doing. “He knew no one, not a soul, who thought of him the way he thought of himself”—though he isn't altogether sure how exactly he does think of himself. Another of Walser's ordinary, undistinguished, likable mortals, Xaver is intimately present here—both he and Bernhard's Rudolf are lucky in their English translators—with all his anxieties, confusions, contradictions, and inconsequences, his feeblenesses and his decencies. Whereas Rudolf is a gratuitous concoction of his author, a simulated “case,” twitching to order (unlike Xaver's bowel), and capable of provoking little more than a few shallow groans and self-flattering giggles, Xaver is wholly, or as much as anyone ever is, comprehensible and—what he wants to be—recognizable.

Peter Spycher (review date autumn 1985)

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SOURCE: Spycher, Peter. Review of Meßmers Gedanken, by Martin Walser. World Literature Today 59, no. 4 (autumn 1985): 587.

[In the following review, Spycher focuses on the identity of the narrator-protagonist of Meßmers Gedanken, noting the individual's relationship to the narrative.]

As the title [Meßmers Gedanken] indicates, we are offered a (three-part) collection of aphoristically and often poetically expressed thoughts by a man named Tassilo Herbert Meßmer. Meßmer himself and a “narrator” have taken irregular turns in noting them down. The narrator's identity remains totally unknown, Meßmer's almost totally. Their mutual relationship is not explained; the narrator may be the editor. Meßmer claims to be an “optician” but would prefer to be a carrier of far-reaching messages; he must be a real or a would-be poet. He is also a traveler (the USA, Ireland, West Germany, Switzerland are fleetingly mentioned). From his fifty-fourth to his sixty-third year, however, he sits still in his room and subsequently dies suddenly, without (this was his own desire) being missed by anybody.

Basically, it seems best to regard Meßmer's thoughts as disembodied emanations of a shadowy individual. Here are a few typical samples: “I yearn to be like a wish. I would like to stand on the threshold. A day before daybreak. I wish I had not yet existed”; “For lack of urgency, it has not been determined what he is supposed to do. He vacillates without moving. He is a tethered animal which acts as if it wanted to be free, while it relishes eating prisoners’ food”; “Not to agree to what goes on around you. But not to be recalcitrant either. Not very much, at any rate. You should appear to comply.” Meßmer suffers from an “unhappy consciousness” (cf. Kierkegaard). His “ideal” would be “equally extreme self-exposure and self-concealment. Hence a language of self-exposure-concealment.” He keeps anxiously waiting for a rich and beautiful life, yet “in conclusion, I can say that I am empty.” Indeed, Meßmer's thoughts are not very enlightening or even merely provocative; many of them are murky (“Meßmer's goal: the 4th level of autobiography”) or muddled, indecisive or self-contradictory (“At least he wants to be a bird on a heated branch, completely protected and free”), and occasionally pseudowitty (“When I put on my cap, I am, thinks Meßmer”).

Meßmer remotely resembles the protagonist Gallistl of the first part of Walser's novel Die Gallistl'sche Krankheit (1972), though Gallistl is a figure with far more “profile” and is far more articulate about his spiritually sick condition. (He also finally finds a solution to his problems, however unconvincing that solution may be.) Even structurally, the book is puzzling. Do the sequences of Meßmer's thoughts have any significance? Or in what respects are the three parts different from one another?

Ulf Zimmermann (review date summer 1986)

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SOURCE: Zimmermann, Ulf. Review of Brandung, by Martin Walser. World Literature Today 60, no. 3 (summer 1986): 465.

[In the following review, Zimmermann summarizes the plot of Brandung, observing the “bleakness” of its protagonist and the stylistic “excess” of its American-English syntax.]

The story of Helmut Halm, as Walser reveals it through Halm himself, [in Brandung], is one of aging, decline, failure, and finally of resignation to the routine continuation of the same. What brings this home to Halm, ironically, is the unexpected and exciting opportunity to get away from the almost intolerable tedium of his life as a teacher in a Stuttgart gymnasium and spend a semester at a college in California.

Here in this clichéd Shangri-la of youth, sun, and sensuality, Halm becomes sharply aware of the physical and mental failings of his years. The first of these failings is demonstrated to him most palpably by the novel's forceful “title” wave, which smashes him onto the beach and leaves his flaccid body painfully sore and stiff, almost immobilizing him. At the same time, he seems to be absolutely surrounded by older men who have sought to dip in the fountain of youth by marrying vastly younger women, and he himself becomes thoroughly infatuated with the very embodiment of the “California girl”—a tanned, athletic, long-legged blond who positively exudes cheerfulness and serenity (but not, alas, much intelligence, according to Halm's colleagues, who continually chide him about his “relationship” with the “dumb blond”). This relationship is in reality a simple one between a pleasantly avuncular and helpful teacher and an ordinary student seeking precisely that sort of familiar association with a professor, but of course on this teacher's side it is fueled by romantic fantasies (which he recognizes for what they are but allows himself to indulge in anyway).

Beyond the physical and sexual, Halm feels otherwise old and out of place, outpaced and outdated by his younger colleagues—products of the so-called sixties—with their newfangled teaching methods, their administrative innovations, and their up-to-the-minute research. One does get the impression that Halm is really a rather poor teacher, and his merit as a scholar is suggested by his secret preoccupation with the publisher's rejection of his Nietzsche book. The fact that Walser lets Halm present himself so negatively—friendless, flabby, failed, and fated to a future even worse—leaves me personally with too much of a sense of pervasive bleakness. Walser has always excelled at portraying “real” people, but even in their very ordinariness, they all had some quality which elicited sympathy or empathy or even just plain modest human interest. Perhaps Walser has outdone himself here, because Halm comes away with none of that.

Apart from tiring of Halm, one might also become plain frazzled by the excess of English words, phrases, and sentences, of Americanisms and acronyms. As Fontane knew, a dash of that sort of thing here and there gives just the right flavor, but too much can render the literary fare nearly unpalatable. Walser's saving grace is that he remains the unequaled master of dry wit and Kafkaesque casuistry, who opens our eyes to the actualities as well as the absurdities of life and, through a character like Halm, at least stimulates us to search for some significance in our own.

D. J. Enright (review date 14 August 1986)

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SOURCE: Enright, D. J. “Special Subjects.” New York Review of Books 33, no. 13 (14 August 1986): 37.

[In the following excerpt, Enright describes the plot, themes, and characters of Letter to Lord Liszt, assessing the novel's value within the context of Walser's previous efforts.]

“And my lament / Is cries countless,” goes one of Gerard Manley Hopkins's sonnets, “cries like dead letters sent / To dearest him that lives alas! away.” This would serve as a handy description of Martin Walser's new novel, except for the word “dearest.” Franz Horn is a middle-echelon executive, a sales manager, with Chemnitz Dentures. He has been on the skids for some time, with one attempt at suicide behind him, and Letter to Lord Liszt, consists largely of an epistle with nineteen postscripts, a mixture of confession and arraignment, which he is writing to his colleague and rival, Dr. Liszt, sardonically addressed as “Lord Liszt.” Fifteen years younger, Liszt is—or so Horn believes—beginning his own descent down the slippery slope, having been supplanted by a younger man just as earlier he had supplanted Horn.

As a study of office hierarchy, of favor and disfavor, with all the little signs that show whether one is rising or falling in the boss's esteem, the novel is so successful in its twitchy way that the reader wonders how the firm's employees find time to do any actual work. Thiele, the boss, who hates funerals, still sends Horn to represent the company at gravesides. But there was a time when Thiele used to phone Horn exactly at midnight on New Year's Eve to wish him the compliments of the season, whereas now he rings early, before six o'clock, and earlier on each occasion. Not that Horn, however wounded, holds his professional reversals against the boss: there is too little success in the world to go around, and somebody has to take on the job of apportioning it.

Horn believes he has something discreditable on Liszt when the latter boasts of having had breakfast alone with Thiele's wife, Annemarie, fourteen days running—there is no suggestion of impropriety, they were merely discussing the lady's progress in what is called “metaphysical painting”—since he knows that Annemarie was away in Corfu at the time. But Liszt gets in first, by telling the boss how he had invented the breakfast story—outright nonsense, of course!—as a joke, and their gullible colleague had fallen for it. Another instance of oneupmanship occurred at their first meeting, when Horn tried to show off mildly in front of Thiele by mentioning a book of Heinrich Böll's that his wife had given him for his birthday, and Liszt chipped in to say that he had been given the same book, by his sister-in-law, and after dipping into it he had passed it on to his cleaning woman.

All these affronts, intrigues, and misdeeds—and not only those relating to Liszt—are recorded in Horn's notebooks, in what he terms his “Revenge Calendars.” The notebooks are a source of comfort to him, but also of anxiety. He doesn't want to expend his store of ammunition prematurely—like poor Lear in Shakespeare, he will have such revenges on them all, what sort of revenges he doesn't know yet, but. … At the same time he fears that he may put off the moment of retribution too long and either become reconciled with his enemies or grow too decrepit to care anymore.

Though no bleeding heart, Martin Walser is known for his social awareness and concern, and it might seem curious that he should invite us to feel sorry for a businessman, for an executive in a denture manufacturing company, rather than for the toothless poor and disadvantaged. But perhaps in a prosperous country like Germany compassion must find what objects it can. And true enough, the businessman is faced with trying tasks and tricky problems: for example, he must take care not to present a diabetic customer with a box of chocolates or ask a homosexual client to convey his regards to his wife—not to mention choosing the right moment and the most discreet way to negotiate for a job in another outfit. No wonder that ulcers are so common among executives, as common as rotting stumps used to be in the mouths of the undernourished.

What Horn professes to resent in Liszt is the man's “moral beauty” or, rather, “moral narcissism,” along with his apparent failure to acknowledge that he too is on the way down and the two of them share a common fate. But “Lord Liszt” is chiefly a peg for Horn to hang his paranoia and self-doubt on. Horn displays the inexorable persistence and the ingenious ratiocination of the obsessed and half-crazy. He is akin to the soldier who insists that everybody in the column is marching out of step but him. He cannot lose his arguments: his summer suits are more unprepossessing than his winter ones, he says, and his winter suits are more unprepossessing than his summer ones. The only two people who could have been his friends can't possibly be—because one of them is his boss and the other his rival. “My lack of success is a known quantity,” he writes to Liszt. “Your failure is still to be demonstrated. Your failure will be my success. Which brings us to the sixth and final law of our six laws of physics: the failure of his rival is the success of the unsuccessful.”

I doubt that the title of the novel carries any reference to Hugo von Hofmannsthal's famous confessional essay, the Letter of 1902 purportedly written by Lord Chandos to Lord Bacon and concerning the split between language and reality. If it does, the significance eludes me. The book jacket—and as an old blurb-writer I know better than to scorn such editorial artifacts—speaks of a “a modern man's clash with the hollow, corrupt values society often forces on people,” but modern man is always clashing with something or other in society, and there is no hint among the characters here of shining values to be set up in place of those hollow and corrupt ones. Perhaps that is the pity of it.

Letter to Lord Liszt is evidently a companion to Walser's previous novels. The Inner Man (reviewed in The New York Review, March 28, 1985) and The Swan Villa. Just as the distressed and rueful hero of The Inner Man, chauffeur to a big industrialist, was related to the harassed estate agent of The Swan Villa, so Horn has a cousin who used to be the boss's chauffeur and was demoted to operating a forklift in the warehouse. Walser is going through the professions one by one, like some equivocal careers adviser. But Letter to Lord Liszt lacks the substance and the feeling of life of the earlier novels. While, as ever, there is nothing pretentious or ingratiating about the writing, Horn's prolonged quarrel with Liszt, the needing on one side and the wild reacting on the other, is too petty, too airless, to seize and hold the imagination. What is done here is done very well, but the result is narrow in scope, low on variety, and thin in appeal: a case of overspecialization.

“Writing is now my substitute for everything,” writes Horn. In the event the letter isn't dispatched, but the composing of it has cheered him up. The reader may feel slightly aggrieved that this therapy has been effected at his cost.

Peter Demetz (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: Demetz, Peter. “Martin Walser: Analyzing Everyman.” In After the Fires: Recent Writing in the Germanies, Austria, and Switzerland, pp. 349-61. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986.

[In the following excerpt, Demetz provides an overview of Walser's life and career through the publication of The Swan Villa and discusses his overall contributions to German letters and culture.]

There are many labels used in dealing with Martin Walser, who was once among the angry young men and is now approaching his early sixties. Critics speak about the radical, if occasionally loquacious, intellectual of the independent Left, the regional writer loyally attentive to the lives of simple people on the shores of his native Lake Constance, or the sharp-eyed analyst of the way in which industrial society deforms and paralyzes those drawn into competition for money and power. Other issues are perhaps less frequently considered, as for instance whether or not it was the early loss of his Catholic beliefs that turned Walser into a restless seeker of general truth. Also worth noting are his quick and curious shifts from one genre to the other, and the disturbing sequence, or rather coexistence, of successful and unsuccessful books, revealing a rather insecure judgment of his own literary possibilities.

Walser was born in 1927, the son of a rustic innkeeper (and coal merchant on the side) in the small town of Wasserburg on Lake Constance. His father died early and his mother, unaffected by the Nazis because of her strong Catholic upbringing, kept the family together. Martin was sent to the Lindau Gymnasium, and later in the war served in the student antiaircraft artillery (as did Günter Grass), the Reich Labor Service, and the army. After the Allies occupied southern Germany, he found himself in a POW camp in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where he spent his time working and reading in the library of Radio Munich, which had been moved to this Bavarian resort at the time of the air raids.

Walser's story is that of the highly gifted student who, after many years in the editorial offices of state-supported radio stations, resolved that the time had come to concentrate on his own plays and novels. Immediately after the war, Walser first studied German literature and history at the University of Regensburg, and later at Tübingen, where he wrote a first-rate dissertation on Kafka's narrative habits. By 1949 he had settled in Stuttgart, again working for the regional broadcasting corporation, together with his colleagues Helmut Heissenbüttel and Alfred Andersch. His first reading for Group 47 was not exactly a success, but in 1955 he received the group's literary award for one of his short stories, which, taken as a whole, demonstrate his difficulties in emancipating himself from Kafka's example. German critics, I suspect, somewhat underrate the importance of his first stay in the United States, in 1958. He was invited by Henry Kissinger to attend the Harvard International Seminar, lingered many hours on the steps of Widener Library, studied the structure of the American advertising industry, and, upon returning home, immediately wrote the first two volumes of his trilogy about corporate life. In the early 1960s Walser shifted to writing a spate of plays exploring the recent German past; their success made it possible for him to leave his small city apartment and move with his family to his own house at Nussdorf on Lake Constance, where he lives today. The political restlessness of the late sixties affected him deeply in a kind of ideological midlife crisis. For a brief time he nourished illusions about the German Communist Party as a viable alternative to the Social Democracy he had supported earlier. He turned against the traditional theater by insisting on abortive theatrical experiments and published cryptic texts about the function of the intellectual in contemporary society. Only in the mid-1970s did he complete his corporate trilogy and write a series of more relaxed narratives and novels confronting the pains and middling hopes of his fellow citizens caught in crippling jobs and subjected to demanding social hierarchies. Walser recently said that he was enjoying a new kind of success as a novelist, and it may be fair to say that he has become the favorite of the younger and not-so-young West German urban professionals, who all share his nostalgia for the late sixties and early seventies.

In his compact first novel, Ehen in Philippsburg (1957; Marriage in Philippsburg, 1961), which was little praised by American reviewers, Walser explored the attitudes of the new German professional classes. His trilogy, Halbzeit (1960; Halftime), Das Einhorn (1966; The Unicorn, 1971), and Der Sturz (1973; The Fall), consists, at least at first sight, of the rambling confessions, revelations, and disordered thoughts of one Anselm Kristlein, who pursues a picaresque career as a traveling salesman, an advertising expert in the rapidly expanding West German mass media, and a moderately successful second-rate writer who frequents fashionable parties and ends up as a corporation employee. The volumes of the trilogy are different in tone and yet intimately linked by a recurrent pattern of events. The earlier volume shows Kristlein (who as a philosophy student had married the daughter of his professor) trying to find a place in the sales and advertising jungle, drawing on the spiel of his business colleagues and his secondhand knowledge of Madison Avenue jargon. In the second volume Kristlein, who has moved from Stuttgart to Munich, operates on the higher level of sales campaigns and publishers’ advance contracts, and now offers his confessions in a more literary language, sustained by Joycean allusions and intricate pastiche.

Der Sturz (1973; The Fall), the long-delayed final volume of the trilogy, published nearly ten years after the second, marks Walser's turn to social and Marxist thought. The adventurous Kristlein, more tired, shabby, and vulnerable than ever, lacks much of his earlier verve; even in his ingenious ploy of separating his usual ramblings into three distinct sections (retrospective, concurrent, and anticipatory), he again reveals his compulsion for repeating his experiences. Once more, after losing the family savings in a dubious investment, he has left the family in order to escape, an inspired vagrant, to Bavarian and Allgäu landscapes; and once more—after going through assorted picaresque experiences in a factory, a nature commune, and the embraces of fat or anorexic damsels—he finds himself back home, confessing all his sins to his understanding wife Alissa. Again there is hope: husband and wife are employed as house parents in a vacation home for the employees of a small corporation, but Kristlein of course has trouble adjusting to the job, nor is it particularly helpful to his career that he invites a literary friend who drinks a good deal and plans to fabricate a Soviet samizdat manuscript, to be sold either to Helen Wolff of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich or to Mondadori Publishers. Unfortunately, the German corporation is bought by Nabisco and the house parents are immediately fired. In the final section, Kristlein plans to cross the Alps via the dangerous Splügen Pass with his old sailboat in tow, and clearly envisions how car and boat will go crashing down the mountainside, burying him and Alissa in the burning wreckage. But Kristlein speaks about his “happiness and his end” in the future tense and Walser, in an ironic coda published separately, assures us that Kristlein has visited him to say good-bye and to look, after so many loquacious volumes, for bliss in utter silence. While the author expresses doubts that Kristlein was ever a critic of society as some commentators assumed (he rather saw him as a tragicomic figure of total conformity), he consoles us with the news that Kristlein, when last seen, was sitting on a stone bench in a little village not far from the Grande Chartreuse, that old monastic refuge of those who have chosen silence as the ultimate good.

Throughout the trilogy, Walser depends exclusively on the expanding consciousness of the one character whom he knows as well as himself, yet he insists that he avoids narrative solipsism. He does not present the traditional lonely hero “held together by a skin,” but maintains that Anselm Kristlein has many existences and is right in considering himself a “parliament of personal pronouns” in which the first person represents the married, professional, eager salesman, while the second fondly and slavishly submits to the unicorn's sexual desires, and the third meanwhile is checking up on both and possibly on other selves emerging from Anselm's ego. Present experience and the language of the moment (in whose power Walser fervently believes) are closely related, but an immense abyss opens up between past life and present language; Anselm's recurrent elegy on the “pastness” of things reveals that all the exuberant richness of his language is but a desperate attempt to do the impossible and make the past a now. In the final conjuration of love, Kristlein combines his ultimate passion with the archetypical force of amorous words of all ages, yielding a finesse of verbal intelligence unparalleled among Walser's contemporaries.

As if wanting to convince himself of the range of his literary potentialities, Walser in the early and mid-1960s wrote a number of plays that were usually welcomed by warm applause and demonstrative whistling (the German way of protesting in the theater), while reviewers insisted with a certain regularity that the playwright showed considerable promise and that the best was yet to come. His first play, Der Abstecher [1961] (The Detour, 1963), in which two men band together against a woman, should be rediscovered by the feminists because it tells, in spite of its “absurd arabesques,” the story of a woman who learns how husband and lover resemble each other in their thoughtless brutality. Die Zimmerschlacht [1967] (Home Front) takes a long look at a middle-aged couple and articulates what the marriage partners have hidden from each other for so long. The only trouble with the living-room battle is that we look at a Hausfrau and a pedant who, in the long run, exhaust our interest; since the German professional classes abound in such people, it is not quite clear why the playwright insists on duplicating their problems on the stage.

In his more political plays of the sixties, Walser had a difficult time extricating himself from what the critic Clara Merck called his “exact eclecticism.” His use of Brecht, absurdist theater, and traditional farce did not necessarily strengthen his historical examination of moral failures past and present and his attempts to teach us something about ossifying capitalism. In Eiche und Angora [1962] (The Rabbit Race, 1963) theatrical method and polemical questions work at cross-purposes. Wanting to show us a panorama of German history since May 1945, Walser assembles a motley crew of average Nazis, a castrated and brainwashed concentration camp survivor who from time to time relapses into his radical ideas, schoolteachers still imbued with nationalist ideas, and numerous frustrated women; yet he fails to fuse the separate conventions of the literary and nonliterary theater. (It is symptomatic of the play that, in a printed version, the abstract figure of a Jew in search of his lost children had to be cut.) Walser's Der schwarze Schwan [1964] (The Black Swan) was the most ambitious and thoughtful of all his plays of the 1960s, but its opaque language and complex structure left some audiences and critics confused. For once, Walser moves away from inappropriate farce and thin allegory toward a renewed realism and sets against each other a Nazi father involved in the mass killings, and his son who discovers documentary evidence about his father's crimes and asks himself how he would have acted, had he been born earlier. Memory itself is being explored in all its recent German varieties, but the son who, like Hamlet, puts on a play to force the guilty to make a public confession, fails in his efforts and kills himself. Walser succeeds in holding up a scenic mirror to the fictions of remorse rampant in German contemporary life.

By inclination sympathetic to the aims of Social Democracy, in 1961 Walser was the spokesman of a group of younger writers eager to persuade their fellow citizens to vote Socialist. Later, appalled by what he considered the soft attitude of the SPD toward U.S. intervention in Vietnam, he moved closer to the Extraparliamentary Opposition and, after it had withered away, for two years (1972-74) expressed his active sympathy with the German Communist Party (DKP), which he hoped would offer an alternative home to restive Socialists. (He had sufficient common sense, however, to notice that the DKP was directed from the GDR, and that it did not protest against the persecution of writers and artists there.) Only in the mid-1970s did Walser feel new respect for the grand old SPD for upholding “democracy in practice” in an age of terrorists and blatant irrationalism to left and right. Many of his irritations, with both his fellow citizens and himself, show in his hostile plays of the time and in forbiddingly cryptic prose pieces exploring the chances of intellectuals in a post-1968 society. In Wir werden schon noch handeln [1968] (We are Going to Act, Just Wait) he tested the fictions of the theater in left-wing Pirandello imitations, and in Ein Kinderspiel [1971] (Children's Play), an arid work about young radicals and conformists, sorely strained the patience of his critics, even the friendly ones. Three years later he returned to German history in Sauspiel [1975] (Sow Game), though not necessarily to discuss the past. He suggested that he was concerned with present issues in the image of past events and, stubbornly undeterred by the dangers of historical analogies, presented, in a sequence of loosely related scenes, a view of the proud city of Nuremberg immediately after the defeat of the peasant (i.e., student) revolt of 1525 (i.e., 1968). Concentrating on a group of illustrious magistrates, artists, and intellectuals, he demonstrates that all they do is provide arguments to strengthen ossifying power, while murdered peasants rot in the fields and radical Anabaptists rot in prison; but the play is too diffuse to be of service to its own ideological intent.

The prose pieces of Walser's wintry discontent are no less questionable. In Fiction (1970) a somewhat disembodied voice offers an internal monologue in five parts, being paradoxically attracted and repulsed by experiences in the city streets and by any attempt to speak about them. In Die Gallistl'sche Krankheit (1972; Gallistl's Disease) Walser exorcises his devastating uncertainties in a hapless narrative in which, by way of self-therapy, a middle-aged citizen speaks of leaving his old circle of friends, in hopes that he might find more sympathy and perhaps a glimpse of the historical future among a group of friendly Communists. Gallistl's sincerity is not entirely balanced by acumen; he would be a perfect character in one of R. W. Fassbinder's minor movies about the dull Bavarian provinces.

Though Walser's final demise as writer and playwright has time and again been announced by his critics, he has his own way of recouping his losses. He passed through his ideological late-sixties crisis with undiminished courage to continue what he had begun twenty years before. If, in the beginning, the traditionalists usually disliked and the progressives adored whatever he did, there has been a recent shift in his critics’ responses, which now range from the complaints of aging experimentalists deploring what they call his flat language and new traditionalism, to unexpected praise from traditionalists who like his recent novellas and novels, which are closer to an acceptable diction and characterization. With renewed energy Walser confronts the question of narrative proportion, explores possibilities of disciplining his linguistic exuberance (which tempted some observers to quote Heidegger and say that language speaks Walser rather than the other way around), and alternates between a Balzacian solution of separate narratives sustained by recurring sets of characters, and the sharply delineated novella of classical tradition. In Jenseits der Liebe (1976; Beyond All Love) and Brief an Lord Liszt (1982; Letter to Lord Liszt) he again uses a middle-management character to show how competition and the power of corporate hierarchies deform and paralyze people born to realize their full potential of spontaneity. Taking on the burdens “of most people,” as he defined his intentions in an open letter to the Soviet writer Uri Trifonov, he also has to solve his recurrent problem of how not to bore us, the average readers, with stories about ourselves. In Beyond All Love he closely watches the growing frustrations of Franz Horn, a sales manager who has long marketed dentures produced by Chemnitzer Zähne, Inc., a firm originally located in the Soviet zone. He tells us about Horn's ambivalent relationship with his boss; his resolution to leave his wife and children; his inability to outsmart his colleague Horst Liszt, once his subordinate and more recently his superior; a sales trip to England that utterly fails; and Horn's unsuccessful attempt at suicide. The second part of the story, published six years later, turns into an epistolary novel consisting of a very long letter and nineteen postscripts in which Horn regurgitates his boss hate (which may be but love unreciprocated), his disappointments, and the entire history of his departmental degradations and office sufferings. The cathartic letter is not mailed, of course, and Horn returns from a holiday to his office, still loyal to the marketing department (now selling a line of surfboards) and with all his repressions intact. Walser often complains that his bourgeois critics do not sufficiently consider his political point of view. He prefers Brecht-trained readers—those who do not want to follow Horn's example and now, warned by his fate, more clearly recognize their own role in offices and factories and actively wish to help change social hierarchies.

Walser's novella Ein fliehendes Pferd (1978; Runaway Horse, 1980) was immediately welcomed by nearly everybody on the (moderate) left and the right as a witty, wise, and well-constructed story of deeper significance. It is a subdued comedy of seventies manners sustained by gentle melancholy rather than aggressive bitterness and, unusual for Walser, successfully explores the social attitudes of the professional classes without ranting about the vices of dying capitalism. Helmut Halm, a somewhat morose teacher in advancing middle age, and his rather passive wife Sabine spend their summer vacations, as they have for years, in a small town on the shores of Lake Constance, where by chance they encounter Klaus Buch, Helmut's high school buddy of twenty years before, with his much younger second wife Helga. Klaus immediately insists that they all go dining, walking, swimming, and sailing together. But the two couples have different ideas about how to spend their time. Helmut, an introvert, likes to take it easy, drink red wine, and read Kierkegaard's diaries (though he never proceeds beyond one sentence), whereas the trendy Klaus and Helga jog, talk of their successes on TV, demonstratively stick to their health diet of steaks and mineral water, and constantly irritate their more sedate friends by being beautifully sportif. On a walk through the countryside, Klaus shows his energy when he skillfully stops a runaway horse (knowing, to everybody's surprise, that you have to do it sideways), but when the two men go sailing and Klaus exhibits his virile daring in a sudden storm, Helmut unexpectedly pushes the tiller out of his hand and Klaus is immediately washed overboard. Believing him drowned, his wife reveals that his stories about his successes are untrue. Yet Klaus comes back, the couples part quietly, and we never hear how they are going to live in the future.

Working meticulously with details of gesture, funny idiomatic conversations, and minute irritations at the dinner table and during nature walks, the narrator avoids melodrama. The episode of the runaway horse cannot easily hide its symbolic function, but Helmut's sudden and murderous revolt against Klaus is perfectly plausible. Helmut, an introspective man who has come to terms with being a failure, refuses to indulge, as does Klaus, in memories of past hopes, adventures, and expectations. It is Klaus (reminding us of the loquacious Anselm Kristlein) who is in real trouble; in spite of all his talk about his TV appearances and the high print orders for his popular ecology books, he cannot afford the vacation. Walser certainly tells an interesting story for middle-aged professionals of a certain standard of living, and it sold nearly two hundred thousand copies within a few months in Germany.

Once Walser develops a character successfully, he does not let go easily. In Brandung (1985; Breakers, due 1987) he sends Helmut Halm (with his wife and one of their daughters) to California, where Halm teaches for a term at a large university easily recognized as Berkeley, the scene of many academic novels showing a European intellectual confronting an alien civilization. Walser compassionately watches how Halm, under the strong sun of San Francisco Bay, himself comes close to changing into a kind of Klaus Buch, or rather (to the enjoyment of the reader) an Anselm Kristlein. He buys a flashy new suit, begins to jog, and falls in love with a blonde student who regularly wants his advice about her literary essays for another course. The ritual of departmental parties, emotional confusions at the student cafeteria, and the plight of frustrated faculty wives may be more surprising to German than to American readers, yet Walser prefers his comedy of academic manners distinctly on the melancholy side. The middle-aged teacher, in spite of Anselm Kristlein's blessed self-irony, has a difficult time resisting his rising emotions, even if only expressed in office-hour conversations about Shakespeare, Rilke, and Faulkner. After he has returned to Stuttgart he receives a newspaper clipping saying that the young woman died in a landslide, trapped in a car parked on the edge of a cliff above the surging waves of the sea. For the rest of his life he will have to cope with his burden of guilt, because he knows that she was still on crutches after hurting her ankle at his farewell party, where he and she danced with abandon and crashed to the floor. Walser's Breakers differs from the American academic novel by virtue of its quiet sympathy for fallible people (including a departmental chairman) on the ironic scene of bittersweet romance. Perhaps without wanting to do so, Walser delivered to his readers a successful campus novel (or rather an example of its subgenre about the German visitor on an American campus)—a genre first attempted by the critic Hans Egon Holthusen in his novel Das Schiff (1965; The Ship), little appreciated in its time, which firmly established the essential characters of the charmed European intellectual and the financially independent femme fatale in the guise of an American undergraduate who drives an expensive car barefoot.

In Seelenarbeit (1979; The Inner Man, 1984) and Das Schwanenhaus (1980; The Swan Villa, 1982), Walser once more turns to his Lake Constance schlemiels, trapped by oppressive jobs, family pressures, and the burdens of industrial society. The protagonists of the two novels are both members of the Zürn clan (zürnen means “to be angry”), and while Xaver Zürn in the first novel works as a chauffeur for a local industrialist, his cousin Gottlieb in the other narrative earns his income as an independent real estate agent meeting cutthroat competition. In Walser's world the boss and the driver have always been contemporary versions of Hegel's Herr and Knecht; now, in The Inner Man, we witness the psychosomatic and other difficulties of the honest Xaver, who suffers silently whenever he chauffeurs his boss around. Walser always had his populist sympathies for truck drivers (Xaver reads books about the German peasant revolt, Christian mystics, and whodunits in English and French), but The Swan Villa, the novel about Gottfried Zürn, is far more interesting, since it involves the reader in the complexities of community politics and the real estate business. Far from being content with a diagnosis of psychosomatic gastritis, the narrative looks in moving, funny, and grotesque detail at the daily experience of a lawyer and real estate agent of romantic inclinations. Gottlieb finds himself imprisoned by the incessant necessity of making more money to fulfill the demands of his family (four daughters, like Walser), to keep up with the Joneses of provincial Stuttgart and Lake Constance, and to impress his inventive competitors, who have few if any scruples, with his energy and the number of wretched condos sold. He dreams of acquiring the exclusive listing for the Swan Villa, a neo-Gothic monster with stained-glass windows and Lohengrin frescoes, which he admired when he was a poor boy, but his competitors, allying themselves with local political interests, are far more successful. When he arrives at the villa to pursue negotiations, he comes just in time to see it blown up and the park trees cut down by a consortium of real estate operators who plan to build luxury apartments on the site. Again, as in many other Walser novels, it is the faithful wife, seemingly colorless and introverted, who has the quiet strength to save the protagonist from utter despair.

Walser likes to speak about a kind of contemporary life that sociologists, statisticians, and demographers would find interesting; in his own way, he continues the work of Siegfried Kracauer, who in the Weimar Republic was the first to describe how white-collar employees actually lived. Friedrich Schiller, in the age of the French Revolution, clearly anticipated the emergence of “people who are but copies of their business,” and Walser translates Schiller's idealist concepts into the idiom of market research, public relations, and corporate structures (via Marx and, recently, Kierkegaard). For a long time Walser has consistently avoided speaking in a language of his own making. In the early Kristlein trilogy, the archaic exuberance of the German language, in many dialects and historical idioms, asserted itself against events and individual characters. In the later narratives the author attaches himself, like a leech, to one of the central figures (usually professional, and frustrated or a failure), impersonally reporting his thoughts, sensations, and sayings without ever claiming the privilege of looking at him from a distance in order to judge whether he is right or wrong. Perhaps it is easier to hear Walser's own voice in the radio features and essays that he has gathered in many collections, including Erfahrungen und Leseerfahrungen (1965; Experiences and Reading Experiences), Heimatkunde (1968; Local History), Wie und wovon handelt Literatur (1973; Manners and Themes of Literature), and Liebeserklärungen (1983; Confessions of Love). Writing, he says, comes from the experience of dearth: the writer responds in his fictions to inimical realities, and the reader then responds to the writer's response by activating his own energies of protest, criticism, and desire. Walser freely confesses that he feels closest to Hölderlin, Kafka, and the Swiss author Robert Walser; writes with perception and particular insight about Proust, Swift, and Heine; and conducts a protracted argument for and against Goethe, the “department store” of literature, crammed full of dubious goods. He is at his best when he writes about German history and the German language, which, as he suggests, may have been affected by the Nazis on its periphery but must never be “disqualified” in its totality for that reason. Walser is a more engaging writer when he does not strain to be a dutiful intellectual. The second volume of the Kristlein trilogy, The Unicorn (with its marvelous language associations), his probing play The Black Swan, and the later narratives, including Runaway Horse and The Swan Villa, are first-rate achievements that reveal a fragile sensitivity and an ironic intelligence in a continuing search for self-realization, as elusive as ever.

John Espey (review date 27 September 1987)

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SOURCE: Espey, John. “Life and Lust in Academia.” Chicago Tribune (27 September 1987): section 14, p. 7.

[In the following review, Espey compares and contrasts the academic setting of Breakers with Coral Lansbury's Felicity.]

The academic novel has evolved into a number of subspecies. In its American aspect, probably the most popular of these has become the record of the visitor from abroad who examines with a slightly superior eye the institutions of the New World.

Felicity and Breakers represent the extremes of the form. The former is a splendidly impure farce, the latter, an ironically moody-exercise in introspection.

At first blush, Felicity would seem to be a home-grown product. Coral Lansbury, a Victorian specialist who has written on Elizabeth Gaskell and Anthony Trollope, is dean at Rutgers’ Camden College. But Felicity Norman herself is the very prototype of the sexually generous, slightly blowsy English girl that your legendary Oxford landlady was always urging you to bring to your digs for what Felicity would call either a “quick klorg,” if you were in a hurry, or a nightlong “scroom,” if you felt up to that.

When you add to this the knowledge that Felicity speaks faultless French and that the Long Island institution (Pequod College) she is visiting in her quest for Whistler's lost erotic etchings is reached by motors supported on “tyres” that use streets with “kerbs,” you realize that you are being conducted on a hilarious music-hall tour.

A little knowledge of feminist and post-modern critical theory adds to the pleasures of reading about minimalist poetry, the “vaginal vocabulary of Jane Eyre” and “clitoral comma usage,” but it is not a prerequisite.

It is certainly an apt name here. A killer rapist who mutilates his victims is rampant on the campus. As the president of Pequod solemnly observes, “Rape is not good for enrollment.” Or is it? The Pequod faculty has obviously been recruited to provide undergraduates with a full spectrum of sexual types.

Hot on the trail of Whistler's erotica, Felicity blunders into a drug sting after she has spotted her treasures in Switzerland and then has been spirited off to a Tunisian harem for disgraced women of the upper classes.

For a Californian, the laid-back Pequod style is easy to take. This, after all, is the way the rest of the country tells us we live. But the word has not, apparently, spread to post-war Germany.

Martin Walser's Breakers opens with two strikes against it. Professor Helmut Halm—first met in translation in Runaway Horse (1980)—is invited by his old friend Rainer Mersjohann to fill in a term at a Bay Area university. Through some disastrous sense of delicacy, Walser has felt it necessary to create an exact replica of Berkeley (the school), right down to creek, canyon and campanile, and, under the name of Washington University, erect it in, of all places, Oakland.

It's a little as if a Chicagoan were asked to believe that an exact duplicate of Northwestern is to be found just outside Evanston in Skokie. Even more unsettling, Walser has relocated the upper reaches of the San Andreas Fault.

With all the best will in the world, one cannot suspend disbelief.

After a brief digression into Nietzsche on Page 75, we are soon back in the familiar area of the insecure modern language department, with the all-knowing secretary and the chairman on the verge of a breakdown. Inevitably, the California Golden Girl makes her entrance to disturb Halm's middle-aged sensibilities. She is still a blood, still beautifully tanned. She is still wealthy and she still drives an imported sports car. How weary she must be of another incarnation. Her name is Fran this time, and when Halm's wife returns to Germany, his fantasizing becomes acute.

This is a patently crude summary of Breakers. Walser is a major voice in contemporary German letters, and he has brought all his skill and learning to this novel. I can only believe that the failure is mine in not responding to its carefully slow development and its display of Halm's flowering in the sunlight as he takes up jogging and revises his wardrobe.

The publishers characterize Breakers as “a rare find: a deeply perceptive social satire of American University and California life that will thrill and delight its readers.”

I guess I just live on the wrong side of the San Andreas Fault.

Sven Birkerts (review date 28 December 1987)

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SOURCE: Birkerts, Sven. “California Dreaming.” New Republic 197, no. 3806 (28 December 1987): 40-2.

[In the following review, Birkerts considers the relationship between the plot and style of Breakers within the context of Walser's previous works, comparing the literary attributes of “this emerging European master” with those of John Updike.]

Martin Walser—who is not to be confused with the pixilating Swiss stylist Robert Walser (1878-1956)—is the closest thing the West Germans have to John Updike. The comparison sounds facile, and it may not please either Updike or Walser (or it may), but it does help to locate some of the salient attributes of this emerging European master.

Near contemporaries—Walser was born in 1927, Updike in 1932—both writers are shrewd, bemused ironists presiding over the middle zone of the human spectrum. They are, on the whole, more interested in how society works, in how its members make their terms with existence, than in the ways it fails. In their attentiveness to the bright minutiae of the daily round—our social, financial, and sexual skirmishes—they could be called the anthropologists of postwar urban (and suburban) tribalism. While Walser is not quite as prolific as Updike, he needn't be ashamed of his output. In the last decade he has published Runaway Horse (1978), The Inner Man (1979), The Swan Villa (1980), Letter to Lord Liszt (1982), and the recently translated Breakers (1985). Leila Vennewitz, his gifted translator, has been matching him step for step.

Of course, the Updike comparison can only carry so far. It collapses entirely where style is concerned. Walser is quick and notational, his sentences twitching like the needle on a rotating seismograph cylinder. Updike's prose, by contrast, is brocaded and static. Thematically, too, there are differences. Updike likes to rehearse various scenes from what used to be called “the battle of the sexes.” Walser, though he does often write of husbands and wives, seems to reserve his best energies for capturing the myriad bonds and enmities that flourish between heterosexual males.

In Runaway Horse, Helmut and Sabrina Halm, who have gone to Lake Constance for Helmut's academic vacation, meet up with his boyhood friend, Klaus Buch, and his beautiful young wife, Helle. While transverse waves of sexual interest certainly pass between Helmut and Helle, the real propelling force of the narrative emerges from the subtly presented clash of wills between the two men. Similarly, in The Swan Villa, real estate agent Gottlieb Zürn goes through the most protracted Machiavellian exertions simply to get the better of his archcompetitor, Paul Schatz. And Letter to Lord Liszt is finally nothing more than Franz Horn's detailed epistolary accounting of his love-hate relationship with is business colleague, the man he has facetiously dubbed “Lord” Liszt.

At the beginning of Breakers, all indications are that another major hormonal duet will soon be sounding. Helmut Halm, who may yet turn out to be Walser's Harry Angstrom, is again the protagonist. A dyspeptic 46 in Runaway Horse, Halm is a few years older but otherwise unchanged. As the novel opens, he receives a phone call from his old and all-but-forgotten friend Rainer Mersjohann. Mersjohann is calling Stuttgart from California because he needs a favor. Can Helmut take a semester's leave from his gymnasium post to fill an unexpected vacancy at Washington University (read: Berkeley)? Helmut hesitates. Then, in spite of and because of Sabrina's objections, he agrees.

A few pages later, Helmut, Sabrina, and their grown-up daughter, Lena, are at the airport in San Francisco, waiting for their host to arrive. Helmut has been regaling the women with stories about the legendary Mersjohann: the giant, the poet, the man with the enormous, beautiful hands. When he finally arrives, Helmut nearly goes into shock:

No one could have a clearer mental image of Rainer than he did. He could have drawn or painted Rainer and reproduced him in any medium on earth; but this, he instantly saw, wasn't Rainer Mersjohann. … The man who now sat at the other end of the front seat was a stranger. Corpulent, with sagging bluish cheeks, and hanging from those cheeks a colorless curly beard that met under the double chin.

Helmut, as any reader of Runaway Horse will know, is a most agreeably disagreeable protagonist. He is cynical and self-involved. He is also a quivering bundle of anxieties and equilibrating vices; he cannot live without his cigars and his daily bottle of wine. But his first exposure to Mersjohann convinces him that he's a tyro—the man has downed five cans of beer before he's even taken his coat off. Tensions are already high. We brace ourselves for the bitter male imbroglio that's sure to follow.

It doesn't. Just this once, Walser decides to break pattern. Against our every expectation of idiosyncrasy, he does the shocking thing—he writes the conventional genre novel, at least most of one. The baffling Mersjohann will soon recede into the middle distance; our visiting professor will become desperately infatuated with … you guessed it, a beautiful student. And this, I think, is the time to say it: there is no more life in the professor-meets-student premise—none.

Walser makes the setup breathlessly episodic. Scarcely have the Halms settled themselves into their atmospheric hillside house before Helmut is off to his duties. Washington University is established with quick snapshots. A modernist collage of buildings. Interspersed redwoods and sequoias. American youth everywhere, healthy, tanned, lounging in the pretzel poses of dramatic leisure. Helmut instantly meets Mrs. Carol Elrod, the all-seeing department secretary. Just as quickly he is fumbling his way through his first German class. We get his distracted, peripheral observations. One student, for instance, wears a T-shirt that reads: “SMALL THINGS AMUSE GREAT MINDS.” Notes Helmut: “Between the line ending with THINGS and the one starting with AMUSE were the small things that weren't small.” This ground has been tilled for millennia.

It is after this first class that Helmut comes face to face with tall, blond, scantily clad Fran. She compliments his teaching, walks back toward the department offices with him. Her beauty and her assertiveness make Helmut nervous. A moment later he is chagrined—both Mersjohann and Carol Elrod have seen them walking together. And he hears about it soon after: “Carol said it was her fault: she should-have warned Halm of the typical California college girl—blond, Porsche, father a doctor in Pacific Heights, San Francisco, and sharper than a shark's tooth.” The warning is necessary; it is also, naturally, useless.

We could write the rest of the story on the back of a cocktail napkin—professor finds himself attracted to student, professor's wife has to leave to care for dying father, leaving professor free to … Walser does, to be fair, depart here and there from the clichés of the genre. Helmut never finds his way into bed with Fran, for one thing. But this may be more a problem than a saving grace. For if anything keeps Breakers from coming to life, it's the lack of the kinds of tensions that arise out of character development. The putative love interest is just too slight. Walser has not created a female character worthy of the consternation that she seems to inspire in her teacher. She really is the typical California college girl, and Helmut loses many points for not recognizing this. The goring need of the climacteric may be explanation enough in real-life situations, but fiction—at least in this sophisticated genre—demands a certain distillation and intensification of the quotidian. A good scene in the sack might have raised the temperature and the stakes—and forced a much-needed confrontation. As things stand, most of the plot centers on Helmut's conflicted and fragmented psyche. Which is finally not that interesting a place.

A predictable plot is one thing, an irritating stylistic mode is quite another. But reading Breakers, I had to wonder if in this instance the two were not causally related. Walser's normally quick-stepping prose has here become abrupt, almost curt. It is as if Walser himself could not bear to linger on the obvious and wanted to show his impatience. One offhand remark follows another; scenes are pruned back before they can grow into anything. Helmut is pushed through it all like a sedated extraterrestrial, a stranger in a strange land:

He was just about to invite Mrs. Elrod for lunch when he discovered that he had lost his wallet. A galvanizing shock. He simply could not afford to lose his wallet. It seemed best to behave as if he unfortunately already had a lunch engagement. “Aha,” said Mrs. Elrod. He pretended to have no idea of what she meant and said casually that his wife and friend were coming to lunch. Good God, where were these lies leading him? And why, he asked himself? See you this afternoon, then.

This shutter speed is fine for certain situations, but when it is used unremittingly—as it is in this novel—it becomes increasingly bothersome.

Walser was not, it appears, driven either by the imperatives of plot or style in composing Breakers. Perhaps he was aiming for satire. Dour German professor comes to swinging California, confronts American culture, academia, midlife urges, und so weiter. For some reason, though, Walser is just not able to draw blood. He hits at easy targets—American youth, faculty parties, departmental subterfuges, marital disaffection—but he hits them the easy way. Straight on. The reader would do much better to pick up David Lodge or Malcolm Bradbury—they order this sort of thing better in England.

It is unfortunate that this lesser work by Walser comes just when he has begun to earn a name for himself among serious readers. Potential fans and converts may turn away with a shrug. Still, when I referred to Walser at the outset as an emerging European master, I intended the compliment. Novels like The Swan Villa, Runaway Horse, and Letter to Lord Liszt are charged with satiric and serious (the terms are not always antonyms) life. Walser has a special handle on the German sensibility—he charts its erratic oscillations between unreserved bonhomie and the severest punctilio. His obsessive, self-loathing, aggressively obstinate males reflect some of the deeper formations of the national soul. If you changed the names and places in any of these books, in an effort to Americanize them, the result would be ludicrous—as ludicrous as trying to retell Huckleberry Finn in a Rhenish setting. Walser is German to the bone. I hope that the future finds him once again cultivating the home garden.

Donna L. Hoffmeister (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: Hoffmeister, Donna L. “Fantasies of Individualism: Work Reality in Seelenarbeit.” In Martin Walser: International Perspectives, edited by Jürgen E. Schlunk and Armand E. Singer, pp. 59-70. New York: Peter Lang, 1987.

[In the following essay, Hoffmeister examines the clash between occupational functionality and the service-oriented worker's personal investment as represented by the realties of Xaver Zürn's chauffeur job in Seelenarbeit.]

Martin Walser depicts in Seelenarbeit (1979) a feature of work reality which can be highly pernicious to human emotional and physical well-being. In sociological terms it is known as functional specificity.1 Most jobs within an occupational structure require conformity to defined roles for a smooth efficient coordination of activities. The more a job is classified in purely functional terms, the less it is attached to a particular individual. Achievement is defined by so-called objective criteria, such as reliability, punctuality, and technical competence and not by considerations which take into account the particular idiosyncrasies and wishes of a specific person. The job does not depend on who the person is but rather on how well he functions. Such depersonalization was depicted by Gogol in his tale The Overcoat (1842) and by Melville in Bartleby (1853) and was analyzed by Max Weber toward the end of the nineteenth century. If remains widespread today, especially in the middle to lower echelons of the work structure.

Walser accentuates the threat of functional specificity by choosing service-oriented work in which bland functionality and personal investment clash. Xaver Zürn's job as private chauffeur is geared to satisfying the often capricious interests of his boss, Dr. Gleitze. Although a person employed in service-oriented work may strive for satisfactions, such as recognition of status symbols, the service sector remains associated with self-sacrificing behavior in a potentially personal, individualistic work situation. The role distance required of Xaver, however, is difficult in a situation demanding close physical contact with his boss. A Mercedes 450 is a confined space which demands a kind of individual interaction during fairly long periods of time. The physical closeness and the emotional distance cause Walser's chauffeur problems which prove to be insoluble.

Xaver's boss plays his part well in this rationalized, functionalized game of domination by avoiding personal interaction with his chauffeur. His perception of Xaver appears reductive and his interest in him purely instrumental despite the gloss of friendliness which characterizes their dealings with one another: “Die Gleitzes wollten nichts dazulernen über ihn. Sie wollten, daß er gut und sicher fahre,” Xaver says to himself (SE [Seelenarbeit] 170). As long as Xaver remains in Dr. Gleitze's employment, he must see himself as a quantitatively exchangeable entity, whose identity is reduced to the formula of being loyal but not very bright. His wish for a holistic encounter with his boss taking into account fuller dimensions of his identity will always be frustrated. Their discourse is a game with rules, predetermined, faked, and never genuinely open. In order for Xaver to express himself, to come out of the cover of the pseudo-identity which Dr. Gleitze has established for him, Gleitze himself must be willing to commit some personal aspect of himself to the relationship with Xaver. He obviously sees no reason for doing so; it probably never even occurs to him. Walser depicts Xaver's feelings as he tries to deal with what he experiences as destructive depersonalization; he will never be recognized for the person he is but only for the services he renders. His first name, Xaver, the patron saint of travelers, establishes the restrictive hold his work role has on his personal identity and his last name, Zürn, one reaction to this work bind, namely anger.

Xaver's insomnia and his stomach pains signal how destructive to his own self-interest his adaptation to his obsequious, one-dimensional work role is. His playing the role according to the script laid out by his boss is brought at the cost of a hellish inner life, which vacillates between restless aggression and self-deprecation. It is the notorious double-bind situation of feeling both fondness and hatred for one's boss, an untenable situation, which leads Xaver into an exploration of his bodily interior. For he experiences his defense mechanisms, activated by his work situation, as a kind of impersonal process, which he can observe but not control or stop. His own body is a correlative to his work identity, a passive vehicle of depersonalization, and by getting into contact with his own bowels, Xaver begins the journey back to himself. It is a journey from within, from a stalemate to a new existence. Seelenarbeit ends with Xaver's demotion and his continued passivity, but Walser does not advocate the no-future ideology. To be sure, his readers had to wait three years to learn what became of Xaver Zürn. But in Brief an Lord Liszt (1982) we learn that Xaver, cousin after-the-fact of Franz Horn, quit his job two months after his demotion, bought a used truck on credit, and now makes deliveries for construction firms: “… er besitzt, womit er arbeitet. Er kann sich einbilden, er sei sein eigener Herr” (BL [Brief an Lord Liszt] 71). A deus ex machina? No, I think not. The psychological work needed for dissolving the double bind is narrated credibly in this novel. Precisely by consigning his hero to an apparently extreme escape route, namely the exploration of his intestinal functions, Walser brings home to the reader the elements of human existence so rigidly excluded by the rationalized discourse of Enlightenment, to borrow the terminology of Horkheimer and Adorno. The darkness experienced here may be a parody of Romantic darkness, but it vividly communicates the return of the repressed on both a psychological and a sociological level.

The social framework of the novel gives the reader the sense that Xaver is an everyday, average fellow, People suffering from anomie are considered to be sane when they act more or less like everyone else. In a world in which anomie is a normal condition people frequently conform as Xaver does, with his rationalizations, his repressions, his role playing, and his psychosomatic illnesses, and when normal people lose a sense of their own identity they frequently resort to killing themselves or others. By establishing the quotidian nature of Xaver's world, Walser lets us see the invisible yet rigid limits which shatter all seemingly real inner experiences into useless fragments: to be ambitious is to risk losing the only role permitted by the social structure; to dream of a fuller life is to be captured instantly by the pseudo-myths provided for just that purpose.

Walser's first of three chapters depicts a typical work week of his hero. Since Xaver is never informed of his boss's travel plans ahead of time, a day's trip to Düsseldorf turns out to be a week's trip to Cologne, Gießen, Heidelberg, and Munich with the daily frustration of Xaver's expectation that he could soon start for home: “Also bitte, Aber ja, Gern, Herr Doktor. Fahren wir noch nach München. Mit diesem Auto ist das ein Spiell” (57), Xaver thinks to himself, being careful to nod accommodatingly as he always does. But he cannot always disguise his disappointment: “Xaver erfuhr, daß man heute nicht mehr heimfahren werde. … Er konnte gar nichts sagen, Er merkte nur, daß er etwas zusammensackte in seinem Sitz” (73).

Driving itself seems to be the least of Xaver's worries, Sometimes he is anxious that he might not summon the decisiveness needed to steer the car around a sharp curve and is always a bit disappointed at his own skill in doing so. When he gets close to home he drives exceedingly fast, when he is angry he makes sure that the car is spattered full of mud, and when he likes the people he is chauffeuring he drives as if there were free-floating feathers on the car roof, not one of which he wants to lose. When resignation seizes hold of him, he plays with the idea of changing into the oncoming lane: “Er hoffte, er spiele nur mit diesem Gedanken” (80). There is no doubt that Xaver is a skillful driver, but that does not give him job satisfaction: “Du lebst ja auch nicht. Du fährst von da nach da, und wieder zurück” (46). His very attempts to adopt driving patterns to mood reveal the limits of functionality: mental games that seem to involve others are in fact played only with himself.

Xaver's activities when he is not driving his boss cause him some humiliation. He cannot stay overnight in the first-class hotels with Dr. Gleitze but rather in small musty rooms in third-rate boarding houses with beds shaped in the form of a “V.” He eats the lunches his wife packs for him while standing in a city park or frequents inexpensive train station restaurants. Whenever he happens to be waiting for his boss to finish a meal in a restaurant, he must eat the disgustingly sweet, sticky ice cream his boss orders for him. After a long drive home after a week on the road he remains at the back and call of the Gleitzes, whether to pick up a piano for his boss's fiftieth birthday or to deliver wine to Gleitze's acquaintances. On weekends he may be asked to paint the fence or to pick up truffles and cheese from a special shop in St. Gallen for Mrs. Gleitze. And Xaver is not able to enjoy a beer in public during his off-hours either, since he was chosen for this line of work under the false impression that he neither drinks nor smokes. The only reward for carrying out his duties in such a self-sacrificial manner is the pleasure of being able to drive a Mercedes 450 SEL, a faulty symbol of recognition, which is replaced after his demotion by a stacking cart in Dr. Gleitze's warehouse.

These aggravations are minor compared to the games Xaver is forced to play in interacting with Dr. Gleitze. “Das lernt man als erstes in diesem Beruf,” he says to himself, “daß man sein Gesicht unter Kontrolle hält. Wenn die Herrschaften einander Witze erzählen, lacht man nicht mit. Wenn die Probleme wälzen, schaut man nicht auch sorgenvoll drein” (16). When he picks up his boss he makes sure that he appears to be relatively content (76). He cannot help listening in on conversations in the backseat, but he has to keep his face inexpressive, being careful not to laugh at their jokes nor show concern for their problems. When Dr. Gleitze shouts at his wife, for instance, Xaver has to keep from nodding approval (29). All language and self-expression are conditioned for him by his work role.

The inappropriateness of his participation in conversations entails the greatest psychological conflict. For work is in many respects an attempt to communicate with one's environment and that Xaver is not permitted to do. It is again a double-bind situation. Most of all he would like to clarify a misunderstanding which led to his being hired in the first place. Dr. Gleitze had heard that Xaver neither smoked nor drank and once won a marksmanship medal in pistol shooting. Such traits imply others: “Das Gesunde, Natürliche, Offene, Unverdorbene. Xavers Ruhe. Seine Ausgeglichenheit. Seine wache, aber nie vorpreschende Art” (18, 125). The more Xaver tries to behave in accord with this preestablished pattern, the more he notices that he is not the person Dr. Gleitze wants him to be. The opportunity for clarification is never really favorable (19, 113-14). And when Xaver finally does drink a beer in public he is promptly demoted.

However, the limits and falsity of his situation, indeed his very inability to rectify obvious falsehoods, are masked for Xaver by his compensating ability to take refuge in the one sanctum authorized by the social structure: family and family history.2 The Zürns have always been reserved people (189) and Xaver is proud to identify himself with his family background. Furthermore, he fits so well the work role expected of him precisely because he is reticent. However, Xaver sometimes wonders whether he might not actually take after his mother's side of the family: “Offenbar hatte er doch soviel Ehrle-Erbe, daß er die Stummheit der Zürns ein bißchen bedauern konnte” (190). His specific work situation, which requires him to be in direct physical contact with Dr. Gleitze for long periods of time, nourishes expectations in him of establishing a personal footing with Dr. Gleitze by talking about his family background. For Dr. Gleitze, who grew up in Königsberg, is also strongly bound to his family background. The only occasion in fifteen years during which Dr. Gleitze spoke to Xaver in a personal fashion concerned fond memories of his youth in his home town. Again and again Xaver regrets having missed a golden opportunity for telling Dr. Gleitze that his brother Johann died as a soldier a few hours after the capitulation of Königsberg during the war (61, 72, 73, 87, 239, 244, 245). And when he is not bemoaning a missed opportunity, he weighs in his mind whether the present occasion might not finally be the appropriate one: “Er schwitzte vor Aufregung. Sollte er an der Einbiegung vom Hotel Gebhard in die Berliner Straße einen Unfall verursachen, dann bei der Vernehmung sagen, das Gespräch über Königsberg habe ihn so abgelenkt, weil nämlich sein Bruder … Dann wäre es heraus gewesen. Ein für alle Mal” (244). The combination of violent images in this fantasy—wartime death and traffic accidents—reminds the reader vividly of the myth-content, the longing for unique experiential moments, which Enlightenment discourse has banished or repressed. Dr. Gleitze subtly blocks such moments. To be sure, his voice has a confidential tone when he calls Xaver on the phone on Saturdays: “… man hörte direkt, daß der Chef keine Jacke anhatte” (117). Xaver's sense of humor can also be directed against others. But during work, whenever Gleitze is alone with Xaver in the car, when he might best bring up such a potentially personal topic, Gleitze has earphones on and is listening to a Mozart opera on his tape recorder. Uwe Johnson depicts a chauffeur in Jahrestage who makes a smooth transition from talking about himself and his family to the silence of bland functionality. Xaver is destined to remain silently functional and the prescription of silence draws attention to the mechanisms of repression, to the interstices through which genuine humanness might percolate.

Xaver experiences a wide spectrum of feelings toward his boss, from partiality, ambivalence, to half-repressed hatred. Even when he is furious at Dr. Gleitze for not stopping at the scene of an accident, he utters an inane excuse to himself: his boss could not have known how important it was to stop. The emotional fluctuation causes him inner turmoil. He could never say, as Dr. Gleitze's housekeeper does, that the Gleitzes are not good people: “So kann man das nicht sagen, so einfach ist das wirklich nicht” (14). When he tries to blame himself for having to eat the ice cream Dr. Gleitze orders for him, his inner dialogue with himself dwindles to “Nein. Ja. Nein. Ja. …” (78). He obviously would feel most comfortable being on confidential terms with Dr. Gleitze but that is not allowed. A sense of comradeship is inspired by the sight of Dr. Gleitze's dirty fingernails. In his fifteen years of chauffeuring Dr. Gleitze, only once does he have the pleasure of detecting this similarity between himself and his boss, but it is enough for him to exclaim: “Dieser Mann konnte unheimlich nett sein, also wirklich” (79). Xaver is quite wary of a competing chauffeur, who, he thinks, may reap greater appreciation from their boss with his ability to sing folk songs. He regrets that his daughter did not have the sense to play Schubert on the piano during an unexpected visit by his boss. For if Xaver cannot get his boss to like him because of his rather tenuous connection with Gleitze's beloved Königsberg, then the sympathy must be established on the basis of music. Since Dr. Gleitze, however, maintains his distance from Xaver, the latter resorts to sleeping in the bushes with Gleitze's housekeeper in order to find out what Gleitze says about him behind his back. Xaver would be content with the slightest sign of recognition, a mere nod of the head when he walks into a restaurant where Dr. Gleitze is conducting business negotiations, for instance: “Typisch, daß er gleich wieder erwartete, der Chef müsse die Verhandlung, um derentwillen man so lange gefahren war, unterbrechen, um ihn, den Fahrer, zu umarmen” (34). The closest Xaver gets to such an embrace occurs during a singular, unannounced visit by his boss to his home in order to ask him to fetch some people from the train station. The manner in which Dr. Gleitze focuses his attention on Xaver in order to describe these people is a paltry amenity Xaver takes for recognition. The one single occasion on which Dr. Gleitze permitted Xaver a glimpse into his private life has become a monumental milestone in Xaver's entire career: “Sein Leben würde also doch noch ganz gut verlaufen. Es war also doch nicht alles umsonst gewesen. Herr Dr. Gleitze hatte ihn bemerkt. Erkannt. Anerkannt. Aufgenommen” (61). The impetus for telling Xaver about a fond memory of his childhood is a mutual receptivity to the ambience of an evening in May: “Ein wahnsinniger Abend, das. Eine schwarzblaue senkrechte Wolkenwand. Häuser und Bäume sahen unheimlich schwer aus. Alles schien vor Wärme zu tropfen” (58). For Xaver is not only unusually sensitive to countryside surroundings, its smells and colors, but furthermore the vitality issuing from his home landscape is the very life force sustaining him within the ugly neglect and indifference of his working existence. Yet the intensity of these positive feelings is conditioned by the same discontinuity which characterized Xaver's glimpse of Gleitze as a sacrificial animal. A life sustained by these moments of enthusiasm or hostility is precarious indeed, because their nonfunctionality is a premise of their experiential availability.

The inhumanity of Xaver's work leads to the more prevalent feelings of aggression, hatred, and indignation. He lets off steam by shouting at his daughter, by pouring perfume over his wife, or by knocking down the record stand in a television repair shop. Because he diverts his anger from its real target he feels all the worse after such temper tantrums. Even getting Dr. Gleitze's car spattered with mud is an unsatisfactory outlet for his anger. One fetish, however, does result in deflecting open aggression against his boss. Ever since Dr. Gleitze would not permit Xaver to stop at the scene of a car accident, Xaver has cultivated the fetish of knife collecting one for the glove compartment of Dr. Gleitze's car, and five others, daggers, stilettos, and a jack knife. The purchase of knives is a temptation he must constantly resist. This activity is effective precisely because of the dangerous proximity of this fantasy to reality. Xaver is not totally aware of the implications of his knife fetish. He dreams of being knifed in the car, and when he defends himself by biting the villain he awakes to find he has bitten himself in the arm. If he does not upgrade his defenses, he will only harm himself. The stomach pain from which he suffers is Dr. Gleitze's means of knifing him. The compensating fantasy of killing a happy person gives him even greater pleasure, when he visualizes this person to be Dr. Gleitze. Having permitted this fantasy to surface into his consciousness is, in his words, “Seelenarbeit.” Walser uses this term as an analogy to “Trauerarbeit,” but the term has other associations essential to the book's critical impact: Xaver works in his soul, yet the needs both to change the definition of soul and to transform soul-work into action towards social change are never absent. Xaver must rein in his fantasies and thereby becomes himself the target of his own critical awareness. After a night's sleep he finds his fantasy seems silly: “Ein Witz. Ja, ein Witz. Mehr nicht” (238). Enjoying the fantasy and preventing its realization is the delicate balance Xaver must achieve in order to cope. He would have to be crazy to kill his boss, but one night on the drive back home he is so obsessed with this idea that he earnestly hopes to become crazy enough finally to actualize this vision, which has progressed from mere murder to mutilation (the cutting off of Gleitze's ear) and castration. He takes the knife into his hands and walks in the direction of the urinating Dr. Gleitze. But the latter's flatulence shocks him back to his senses.

That his fantasy culminates in castration is significant. For Xaver's relationship to his boss leads to a sense of impotence. The plating on the toilet flush lever in Gleitze's house has a magnifying effect. The reflection of Xaver's unusually large penis when he uses this toilet gives him a notion of the potency available to the upper classes. And when Xaver does not find his wife receptive to sex he blames Dr. Gleitze: “Das heißt, Herr Dr. Gleitze siegt hier in unserem Schlafzimmer ununterbrochen, Heilandzack” (293). Xaver himself averts his wife's sexual advances with a sentence: “Dieses Jahr glückte es nicht, lieber Larsen” (257), which is spoken by an upper class person to his gardener in Xaver's favorite fairy tale. A sense of impotence and resignation are alternatives to aggression and anger. Xaver is convinced everything will fail in his life (272): “Das Schlimmste ist immer. Das könnte man wissen” (265). Whenever he pulls a tick off his dog he cannot help feeling some kinship with this insect. The struggle of a beetle in his hotel bath tub correlates with Xaver's own life struggle: “Jedesmal wenn der bemerkt hatte, daß die Wanne für einen Aufstieg zu glatt war, verfiel er in ein wildes Gezappel; alle Beine schlugen gleichzeitig auf die Wannenglätte ein. Sogar die Antennen peitschten mit. Aber durch solche Anfälle rutschte er wieder zurück auf den Wannengrund. Dann arbeitete er sich wieder so weit hoch, als er überhaupt konnte” (270). Xaver dreams not only of being knifed in his car, but of being shot, attacked by giant spiders, or crushed by boulders. This sense of powerlessness is similar to taking hold of a railing on the platform of a high tower and having it come loose in one's own hand (253). The psychological categories at work are sadism and masochism, but Walser opens these private modalities towards a broader symptomatology of alienation. Freudian imagery is relevant, not just to problems of individual normality, but to the behavioral structures built into work-relationships. Xaver's body reacts to his humiliation with insomnia, constipation, and stomach pains (115). In fact, a great deal of the novel focuses on Xaver's bowels.3

Walser has always been a specialist of events in inner space and time, of thoughts, mental images, memories, dreams, visions and hallucinations. Xaver's inner space in the most concrete sense becomes the battleground not only for displacement of aggression, but also for self-denial, self-deception, and psychosomatic disturbances. An exploration of his bowels permits Xaver a fuller awareness of his own alienation from himself. Only what he experiences as a deplorable intrusion into his private parts allows him to drop the burden of proper behavior, brainwashing, and the need to ingratiate himself with his boss. Xaver quite rightly feels that Gleitze is prying into his private business by having him admitted to a clinic for an intestinal examination. The animal-like position in which the examination takes place and the various penetrations into his body destroy all remnants of his self-esteem. Only such an extreme experience can make him know how untenable his work situation is.4 Only here can consciousness of the normally private micro-details and the social macrocosm coincide.

The medicine practiced in Walser's clinic is dominated by causal mechanistic rationality: every sickness can be attributed to a specific cause within the person. A cause-and-effect kind of thinking, however, is inappropriate for the Xavers of this world, where physical illness develops from an interplay with the environment. Even Xaver knows, “… wenn er allein auf der Welt gewesen wäre, hätte er mit seinem Darm nicht die Spur eines Problems gehabt” (166). These central passages of Walser's novel describing Xaver's five days in a clinic are evocative in their exact correlation with his work situation. Xaver experiences himself as a patient treated by doctors in the same mechanistic, depersonalized fashion as he is by his boss. Being treated as a passive object by clinic personnel is similar to Dr. Gleitze's treatment: “Je mehr hineingepumpt wird, desto schwerer ist es, das Zeug drinzubehalten. Das tut ja fast wie auf der Fahrt nach Düsseldorf. Und wieder ist der Chef schuld, daß er das aushalten muß. … Am liebsten hätte er gebrüllt: Herr Dr. Gleitze, Schluß, aufhören, fertig!” (155). He suffers from a mechanical problem which can be detected with precision instruments and then repaired: “Der Chef hat ihn nach Tübingen geschickt zu den Maschinen, weil er einen Mann braucht, dessen Zuverlässigkeit von allen Untersuchungstechniken überprüft ist” (170). Such a perspective about an employee is reductive. To quote from Walter Benjamin: “Die Haltung des Magiers, der einen Kranken durch Auflegen der Hand heilt, ist verschieden von der des Chirurgen, der einen Eingriff in den Kranken vornimmt. … Mit einem Wort: zum Unterschied vom Magier … verzichtet der Chirurg im entscheidenden Augenblick darauf, seinem Kranken von Mensch zu Mensch sich gegenüber zu stellen; er dringt vielmehr operativ in ihn ein.”5 The apparent closeness of this symbolic surgical treatment expresses its opposite, the fundamental, manipulative distance of domination. But Walser also projects a dialectic of domination. Xaver is dominated to such an extent, on so many levels, that his mind is virtually impelled toward an antithesis, toward some form of liberation of his repressed identity.

Xaver's tentative identity, which he wants to defend, has nothing to do with the person he has become because of his work. His problem is like that of Gallistl in Walser's novel who claims: “Ich arbeite, um das Geld zu verdienen, das ich brauche, um Josef Georg Gallistl zu sein. Aber dadurch, daß ich soviel arbeiten muß, komme ich nie dazu, Josef Georg Gallistl zu sein. Bis jetzt bin ich immer nur der, der für Josef Georg Gallistl, den es noch nicht gibt, arbeitet. Ich bin also eine Hoffnung” (GK [Die Gallistl'sche Krankheit] 22-23). With Xaver it is not his social identity that gives him a residue of self-respect but rather his natural identity. His contacts with his surroundings, with the town of Wigratsweiler near the Bodensee, and with his home have always given him a respite from his demeaning work. For here the yards lie open and free on top of seven hills. “Es gibt nichts Schöneres als an einem frühen Maimorgen unterm Vogelgesang heimzukommen” (38), he says. Every barn door is unique and not one of them can be found in any other region. Whenever he stands among the red current bushes of his garden, contentment takes hold of him: “Er liebte Straßen, die sich so bogen, als wollten sie wieder heim” (152). The sun shining on the pine trees, the freshly mowed grass, the triangular ponds surrounded by alder trees, the narrow winding roads, and the tall May grass are pure delight to him. If Dr. Gleitze had such a hometown, for instance, he would not waste his time with Mozart opera performances. With his ear phones on he never notices the splendor of nature. Xaver is especially sorry for Turkish workers; it is a crime to lure people away from their home. It is significant that Xaver sinks the symbols of his humiliation, the six knives and the farewell present of chocolates, into his favorite pond. It is not by chance that he hurries out of the clinic to walk barefoot in the grass. Xaver's only hope of finding himself is in contact with nature, which he also associates with home, with his wife Agnes, with their love making, and the feeling of well-being he experiences in bed with his wife. The last image of the novel, describing Xaver and Agnes, lying next to one another in bed like two fields under the sun, contrasts all these alternatives with Xaver's work reality and its indignities. Such images do not explicitly solve the problem of work. Their function is twofold: to integrate the subtext of private genuineness and experiential directness already present in fragmentary form throughout the novel, and to remind the reader with almost ritual intensity of the elements indispensable for overcoming alienation in the work world. The tradition of social thought in Germany insists on the natural, the individual as the past and future essence of human community. Only through such images, which so readily appear utopian, can the rationalized, functionalized forces of domination be resisted. Walser's skill is to leave these forces in unchallenged control while allowing counter-myths to emerge into the open. The novel's end is thus neither defeat nor escape but a moment of possibility, a dialectical glimpse of a future which renews the past instead of crushing it into fragments.


  1. Talcott Parsons, “The Professions and Social Structure,” Essays in Sociological Theory (New York: The Free Press-Macmillan, 1949) 40.

  2. See Heike Doane, “Der Ausweg nach Innen: Zu Martin Walsers Roman Seelenarbeit,Seminar 18.3 (1982): 210; and Walter Seifert, “Seelenarbeit: Bewußtseinsanalyse und Gesellschaftskritik,” Deutsche Romane von Grimmelshausen bis Walser (Königstein/Ts: Scriptor, 1982): 548.

  3. Physical illness, death, and work are associated throughout the novel. Xaver's cousin, a salesman for Dr. Gleitze's firm, has heart trouble, a chauffeur whom Xaver meets in Osnabrück has had to acquire an artificial anus because of his occupation, and the chauffeur whose position Xaver took over died in a car accident, which was perhaps suicide. Bowels and death are associated by means of Johann's war injury and by means of a classmate's death through a school prank. In this regard Aurel Schmidt writes: “Nie zuvor ist die Lage des Untergebenen grotesker und zugleich, durch das Mittel des Grotesken, deutlicher dargestellt worden als hier” (“Martin Walsers neuer Roman: Zu Seelenarbeit verdammt,” Baseler Zeitung 17 Mar. 1979: 30).

  4. See Anthony Waine, “Productive Paradoxes and Parallels in Martin Walser's Seelenarbeit,GL&L 31 (1980): 299.

  5. Walter Benjamin, Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1963) 31-32.

Anthony Waine (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6899

SOURCE: Waine, Anthony. “Martin Walser.” In The Modern German Novel, edited by Keith Bullivant, pp. 259-75. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Waine discusses the social relevance of Walser's critical and comic realism within the context of postwar West German culture, tracing the evolution of narrative devices and techniques throughout Walser's novels.]

The integrity of post-war literary life in the Federal Republic can be accredited in no small measure to one particular generation of writers, whose years of birth fall approximately between 1925 and 1930. By the time they reached their late teens or early twenties they had witnessed, with growing consciousness, the collapse of no less than two political systems. Although not old enough to take responsibility for the fate of either system they were then, at the end of the war, mature enough to know they had an especial obligation in the building of a new order and, as their literary proclivities unfolded, they were adamant that literature should, amongst other things, also help to construct the invisible foundations of such a new society.

Unlike their colleagues in East Germany, however, their role was not perceived as a political one, at least initially. Their stance was more a moral one and their morality was derived largely from Christian traditions. For a further, though accidentally shared trait in the make-up of this special group of writers, who included Günter Grass (1927) and Hans Magnus Enzensberger (1929), Siegfried Lenz (1926) and Rolf Hochhuth (1931), as well as Walser, was that the majority had grown up exposed to religious influences. When, in the course of the 1950s, their identification with the new republican order became more and more strained, it was not necessarily due to a radicalisation of their political views. It was much more the result of a growing spiritual alienation from the obsessively materialistic mentality of their fellow citizens. Their disillusionment was compounded by the evident support given to the new order by the Church itself. Consequently the writers found themselves out on a limb, unintentionally playing the role apparently abandoned by the Church. As Heinrich Böll, so to speak an elder cousin of this generation, once put it: ‘Wie dieser Prozeß vor sich gegangen ist, der völligen Korrumpierung der sogenannten christlichen Werte beziehungsweise ihrer Reduzierung aufs rein Demonstrative, das haben ja sehr viele Literaten darzustellen versucht. Das ist ja der Gegenstand der Literatur gewesen’ (‘Very many writers have tried to portray how this process of the complete corruption of so-called Christian values, and their reduction to something purely for show, has happened. That was the major issue for literature’).1

Not only did writers feel estranged from the conformist and secularised ideology of the Church. They also felt deeply mistrustful towards the vying ideologies of American-style capitalism, imported directly into their country via the Allied occupation, and Soviet Communism in whose tenets their Eastern neighbours were being re-educated. After twelve years of incessant National Socialist propaganda during the crucial years of their personal development from childhood to adulthood, this generation of writers had had its fill of all attempts to impose one monolithic view of the world upon their minds, especially since neither of the particular world-views on offer, capitalism or Communism, appeared capable of meeting their moral expectations, let alone satisfying their spiritual needs. Their response was therefore a resolute non-conformism, whereby the individual search for personal integrity and self-realisation was championed against collectivised or institutionalised doctrines of salvation.

One further factor made these writers uncomfortable and even insecure in their early relationship to post-war society. Their class origins lay predominantly in the petite bourgeoisie, an amorphous conglomeration of professions and groupings which the homogeneous-sounding English term ‘middle classes’ covers only approximately. The German petite bourgeoisie lacked the political sense of its past or its future which the class struggles had forged for example in the working class. It especially lacked its organisational expression in trade unions and political parties. Beyond the petite bourgeoisie, or rather above it, stood the ruling elite with a coherent ideology and firm economic raison d'être. Whilst under no illusions about the past failures of their class or its present-day vices and shortcomings these writers have not sought to dissociate themselves from it; if anything they have helped to give it a stronger sense of identity and purpose. As Helmut Halm reflects in Ein fliehendes Pferd (Runaway Horse): ‘Wenn ich überhaupt etwas bin, dann ein Kleinbürger. Und wenn ich überhaupt auf etwas stolz bin, dann darauf’ (‘If I am anything at all, I'm a petit bourgeois. And if I am proud of anything at all, it's of that’).2

Helmut Halm's creator, Martin Walser, was born in 1927 in the village of Wasserburg on Lake Constance, seemingly light years away from the industrial heartlands and conurbations of Hessen and Nordrhein-Westfalen. No doubt mindful of this fact, and, more importantly still, of his devoutly Catholic mother, he once remarked in an interview with typical irony: ‘Ich weiß nur, daß ich eben durch meine Mutter in einem Bereich mittelalterlich gesicherter Religiosität aufgewachsen bin, daß meine ganze Jugend bis zu meinem sechzehnten Lebensjahr genausogut im Jahre 1220 hätte stattfinden können’ (‘I only know that it was very much due to my mother that I grew up in a sphere of medievally fortified religiosity and that my whole youth until I was sixteen could just as easily have taken place in the year 1220’).3 Nevertheless modern socio-economic pressures did intrude quite tangibly on the lives of the Walsers, for their principal source of income was the village inn, and his parents were so afraid of the competition threatened by the other local hostelries that they sent their seven-year-old son out to count the number of guests frequenting the rival institutions. Walser's involvement in the family's small-time commercial activities, which also included a coal distribution business, was deepened after the death of his father in 1938, when he was still only eleven years old. Walser attributes his father's physical decline throughout the 1920s and 1930s not only to ill-health (diabetes) but to his inadequate business acumen in times of chronic economic instability. It is therefore quite likely that such early stressful experiences of business, money and work have made Walser hypersensitive to this area of human existence, even though the environs of Wasserburg are starkly rural and almost pre-industrial. On the other hand this peculiar confluence of rustic beauty and pecuniary dictates helps to imbue particularly his later novels with a characteristically grotesque ambience.

In his earlier novels Ehen in Philippsburg, Halbzeit, Das Einhorn and Der Sturz which span approximately the first fifteen years of his career as a prose writer, Walser had explored the urban world with the help of a character, like himself, from a decidedly non-urban South German background. In Ehen in Philippsburg (1957) Hans Beumann hails from Kümmertshausen, whilst in the trilogy of works comprising Halbzeit (1960), Das Einhorn (1966) and Der Sturz (1973) Anselm Kristlein's roots are in Ramsegg. But these novels do not reveal Walser to be in the Romantic tradition of German writers who abhor man-made environments and seek more or less permanent refuge in the seclusion of nature. Beumann and Kristlein, at least initially, revel in the opportunities offered by big city life, be they in the form of social advancement, financial self-betterment or simply sexual escapades. They reveal themselves to be gregarious, adaptable and upwardly mobile. Thus Walser's first novel Ehen in Philippsburg opens with the greenhorn Hans Beumann on his first day in the big city rising in a crowded lift to the top floor of a Philippsburg skyscraper—symbolically foreshadowing his own smooth rise to the upper echelons of Philippsburg's establishment. Part of Beumann's success in reaching the room at the top is due to his naïve eagerness to learn and adapt to the rules of the social game and to allow himself to be educated by those who have already won their spurs in the contests and battles which Walser reveals social relationships to be mainly about. The imagery of game, competition and confrontation, of losers and victors, of inferiority and superiority is ubiquitous not only in the early works but also in those written after Der Sturz. Walser adopts an anthropological and even zoological perspective on social relationships in his first four novels and even introduces key concepts from such disciplines for chapter headings, such as the one entitled ‘Mimikry’ in Halbzeit. In other words, in the works of the 1950s and 1960s Walser's interpretation of the world takes its cue from the ostensibly ideology-free sciences such as anthropology, botany, physics and zoology and eschews the ideologically charged social and political sciences, as befits his particular generation of writer-intellectual. The rat-race atmosphere of 1950s’ Germany evidently evoked Darwinian associations in observer-participants like Walser, a fact which is reflected in the prevalence of animal imagery. Ehen in Philippsburg, having chartered the success of Hans Beumann, shortly before the novel ends compares him to ‘ein Pferd, das den Startschuß nicht mehr erwarten kann’ (a horse which cannot wait any longer for the starting gun’).4

The novel is not just about the social transition of Beumann. It explores states of psychological transition from one phase of life to the next and it is in the sensitive exploration of this theme that Walser was to excel in future works such as Das Einhorn and Ein fliehendes Pferd. It will not be lost on English readers that the hero's surname phonetically spells ‘boy’ and ‘man’; and the novel seeks to trace the ‘Verrat, der den Jüngling zum Mann macht’ (‘The betrayal which turns the boy into the man’).5 Walser does not view this ageing process as one of maturation, with its positive connotations, but as one of fragmentation and deformation. Towards the end of the novel Beumann is pictured sitting on his bed ‘in zwei Hälften zerrissen’ (‘torn in two halves’).6 He has acquired new values but the author leaves us in no doubt that they are false or corrupted ones: egoism, ambition, pride and success. Through the acquisition of such values his personality becomes deformed and in chronicling such a negative development Walser is tacitly rejecting the idealistic legacy of the Bildungsroman. If we interpret Bildung less in the figurative sense of ‘education’ and more in the literal meaning of ‘formation’ we can see how Ehen in Philippsburg represents a novel of deformation. But the novel is highly ironic, in that it parades a negative personality development as if it were the natural, socially sanctioned one.

Unfortunately the impact of this depiction is weakened somewhat by the technique of paralleling Beumann's story with that of three other male contemporaries. Though Beumann weaves in and out of their lives too, he is still frequently lost sight of and the overall picture is fragmented. This particular danger was overcome in the following three novels in which Walser chooses to narrate in the first person. The choice of first-person narrator is almost certainly connected with Walser's growing desire to obtain a maximum degree of subjective truth. That is to say, the so-called ‘I’ narrator enables Walser to project himself very directly into his hero, Anselm Kristlein. Hence realism for Walser was not the reproduction of the objective phenomena constituting one's daily existence, private and public, but their variegated refraction through every nook and cranny of one individual's mind, including dreams, fantasies and memories; reflections on existence and history but also on marriage and sexuality; musings on words, on languages, indigenous and foreign, real and invented (cf. Das Einhorn), and on dialects; Proustian inner monologues about the nature of time, and the disparity between experience and recollection (also found in Das Einhorn). The structure of the resultant works is therefore determined by the twists and turns of Anselm Kristlein's labyrinthine consciousness rather than by any linear chronology of events.

Yet the author's search for subjective authenticity should not be construed as a purely private exercise in soul-searching. Walser's self-awareness as a socially determined being is translated into his fiction by exposing his central figure to a plethora of changing social situations, from breakfast routines with the family to business discussions with customers, from hospital sojourns to New Year's parties with friends and associates. Furthermore he shows Anselm's changing professional status, from travelling salesman to advertising consultant, followed by his transformation to writer and itinerant intellectual (in Das Einhorn) and, completing the odyssey, the journey on foot in Der Sturz from Munich to Lake Constance, where he and his wife run a convalescent home and where he continues to write. The ever changing situations and locations enable Walser to demonstrate two basic images of modern man. The individual in modern society is not a free agent. Instead of acting, he reacts. He is not free, but dependent. Second, the modern individual possesses an almost inexhaustible repertoire of roles which he produces in order to conform to the changing dictates of the situation and which enable him not only to survive but also to change.

Regarding the first image of man being, so to speak, in bondage, the terms abhängig (‘dependent’) and Abhängigkeit (‘dependency’) are central ones in Walser's vocabulary. However, Walser is less concerned with states of economic or political dependency, more with states of mental and emotional bondage. These states of mind may well have deeper-lying economic and social causes but it is the non-material effect on the individual's consciousness which fascinates Walser. Furthermore, the sense of dependency may well have been conditioned by more private relationships too, such as those between child and parent, or between husband and wife. Equally one's sexual identity may also impinge on this area. Much of the ironic power of the Anselm Kristlein trilogy is derived from the discrepancy between the salesman-hero's insistence on independence, his frantic pursuit of this particular ‘commodity', and his blindness to the web of dependencies in which he is actually caught. Only towards the end of Der Sturz does Anselm begin to grasp the reality of his situation, but by then it is tragically and ironically too late. His only escape is an imagined suicidal journey with his wife across the Alps ending with their car sliding off the road and falling into a ravine.

The chronicle of Anselm's fate comprising Halbzeit, Das Einhorn and Der Sturz constitutes a unique achievement in contemporary German literature because if proffers an all-encompassing view of man's illusions, imperfections and inadequacies, which makes it read like some modern religious allegory—not least in view of Walser's pointed choice of surname for his pilgrim Kristlein (‘the little Christian’)! Indeed Richard Hinton Thomas, discussing the ending of the trilogy, summarised his thoughts thus: ‘Like one returned to Eden, he is at peace with himself and the world. If, then, one wants to hear suggestions of a theme of salvation, so be it. The title of Der Sturz will then gain in significance, likewise the detail from Michelangelo's “Fall of Man” on the dust-cover of the original edition—and Walser's trilogy will then look less narrowly sociological, less exclusively fixated on the material aspects of the affluent society, than tends sometimes to be assumed’.7

Hinton Thomas is of course not dismissing the sociological import of the chronicle because he is only too well aware, as he and Wilfried van der Will proved most convincingly, that this trilogy captures with uncanny accuracy the atmosphere of the West German rags-to-riches transformation.8 It represents a trenchant critique of the consumerist ethic which Walser sees at the heart of present-day capitalism. On his first day back in business after a protracted illness requiring surgery (an illness which Walser, as he so often does elsewhere, give us to understand as a reaction of the body to the stresses and strains of modern life) Anselm fantasies about how he would inculcate this modern ersatz-creed in a group of trainee salesmen: ‘Sie sollen endlich wissen, daß Verkaufen nichts anderes ist, als Leute zum Konsum zu zwingen’ (‘They will at last be made to understand that selling is nothing other than compelling people to consume’).9 In selecting a rep as the hero of his novel Walser has not only found an archetypal representative of the petite bourgeoisie but in associating selling with this class he has instinctively focused on their sine qua non in contrast to the class owning the means of production and the working class whose economic rationale is to produce the goods.

Furthermore, Walser tellingly reveals how this sell-and-consume mentality is all-embracing, extending even to the hero's erotic fantasies and view of the sexes. A good deal of the novel concentrates, as did Ehen in Philippsburg, on extra-marital activities. Anselm is shown to be dependent on the affections of a number of female friends, whom he treats less as people, more as products for his own consumption. When Anselm finally alights upon the Jewess Susanne the climax is a seduction scene in which he indulges in his own ‘male sale’10 and operates, using the appropriate English and German jargon, according to the commandments of his professional dogma: ‘How to sell myself to Susan? Führen Sie Ihre Ware glaubwürdig vor!’ (‘Present your product with conviction!’).11

Such cynicism on the part of the main male character bears witness to Walser's anti-heroic, anti-idealistic conception of Anselm and his sort. When we next encounter him five years on in Das Einhorn (1966) he has graduated to the ranks of the intelligentsia, where different value-systems may be expected to obtain. But, true to his nature, he is not motivated by moral or political convictions to air his opinions in public, but by money: ‘Zuerst reiste er mit Schuhwichse, Modeschmuck, Aussteuerwäsche, dann erfand er stationär Meinungen über Produkte, jetzt reist er mit vier Vorträgen und erfindet stationär Antworten auf Schicksalsfragen. Damals hieß es: die freie Marktwirtschaft, welche unserer Freiheit den Grund legt, braucht Dich. Anselm brauchte Geld … Anselm … braucht immer noch Geld’ (‘At first he travelled with shoe polish, jewellery, bottom drawer linen, then he invented on-the-spot opinions about products, now he travels with four lectures and invents on-the-spot answers to questions about our destiny. In those days the saying went: the free market economy, which is the foundation of our democracy, needs you. Anselm, however, needed money … Anselm … still does need money’).12

The frank and engaging cynicism with which Anselm, as rep or intellectual con man, tells his readers about his material dependency only thinly disguises the confessional undertone which is strongly audible in the first four works of this Catholic author. In an interview for a BBC radio programme in the late 1970s, Walser, speaking in English, explained frankly:

The main character of a novel, that's me. At the same time I can always say, that's not me. And I can confess things with the help of such characters which I never would like to mention under my own name, you know? I would be ashamed. In reality I have to defend myself. In fiction I can attack myself, you know? That means, there is freedom. There are operations possible which are not possible in a modern society, in which everybody has to play a certain role. He has to fulfil expectations and so I think in a novel I can live.13

Not only does Walser explicitly employ the term ‘confess’ but his statement also suggests how literature functions as a therapeutic outlet for emotions and thoughts which the author as an ordinary citizen is forced by his society to suppress.

The use of the novel as a therapeutic medium is evident throughout Die Gallistl'sche Krankheit, which bears many affinities to Das Einhorn, but also reflects significant changes in Walser's own political development since the appearance of Das Einhorn in 1966. If, as Beckermann maintains, ‘Das Einhorn ist gerade, weil davon nicht explizit die Rede ist, ein genauer Ausdruck der Situation bundesre-publikanischer Intellektueller vor der Zeit der außerparlamentarischen Opposition’ (‘The Unicorn, precisely because it is not explicitly stated, expresses exactly the situation of the intellectuals in the Federal Republic prior to the extra-parliamentary opposition’)14 then Die Gallistl'sche Krankheit written between 1969 and 1972 is tangible evidence of committed intellectuals like Walser discovering in the student-inspired protest movement of the late 1960s a cause for hope, a reason to believe. The inward-looking and escapist behaviour of Anselm and many other writer-intellectuals in Das Einhorn which, in the case of Anselm, culminated in the self-estrangement and self-exile of Der Sturz, is now reflected upon critically by Walser's new, more sceptical protagonist Josef Gallistl.

Gallistl's therapy begins with his meticulous and painful examination of his physical and psychological symptoms, many of which he shares with Kristlein, proceeding to an even more important step, namely, the search for their causes. In exemplary fashion Walser illustrates a new dimension to his understanding of the meaning of realism. The critical, realistic novel must not only depict the deformations in the psyche of the individual but must also show the social origins of these deformations. In the case of the sick, petit bourgeois intellectual Gallistl, one of the main reasons for his disintegrating personality lies in the petit bourgeois clique of friends, known simply as A, B, C, D, E and F (symbolising their lack of real, individual identity). Their interrelationships are clinically dissected by G(allistl) to reveal a core of rivalry, egoism and antagonism. Unlike Kristlein, who willingly subscribed to the post-war achiever and go-getter mentality only to discover at the end the anti-human nature of bourgeois individualism, Gallistl's ‘Fall’ is halted in time. The Fall of the individualist Gallistl is the precondition for his Rise as he finds in a group of Communist Party activists the fertile soil for a new socialist identity—the first time in his fiction that Walser has sought to espouse an ideology. But the final chapter, in which Gallistl's re-socialisation and re-education commence, is ironically entitled ‘Es wird einmal’ (‘Once there will be’), a deliberate allusion to the fairy-tale convention, informing the reader that this is more a utopian projection, fiction not fact.

As far as Walser was personally concerned, it did unfortunately remain fiction, partly for political reasons and partly for personal ones. Regarding the former the democratic advances made between 1965 and 1970 came under pressure throughout the 1970s as West Germany's reactionary forces exacerbated and exploited the hysteria over terrorist activities to legitimise their anti-democratic reforms. Intellectuals were frequent recipients of conservative vitriol, as the Böll-Bild confrontation tragi-comically evidenced. But the fairly rapid fragmentation of the extra-parliamentary opposition into warring factions was perhaps the single most disillusioning factor for the intellectuals of Walser's generation. Many, like Walser himself, had risked their literary reputation (and therefore their main source of income) by publicly committing themselves to unpopular causes such as the anti-Vietnam campaign, or, as Walser himself did during the first half of the 1970s, associating themselves with extreme political parties like the DKP (the German Communist Party).

His association with this party (which stopped short of actual membership) almost certainly explains the optimism radiating through the final chapter of Die Gallistl'sche Krankheit. Equally the rupturing of relations with the Party in 1974, which finally shattered any illusions held about finding a secular substitute for the Catholic faith which had sustained him throughout childhood and youth, can surely be cited as one personal factor behind the bleaker mood permeating Walser's next novel Jenseits der Liebe, published in 1976. The novel ends when the central figure Franz Horn, a middle manager with a South German firm manufacturing dentures, attempts, though unsuccessfully, to commit suicide. Horn's problems are a highly explosive mix of the personal, professional and the political. He holds a precarious position in the hierarchical structure of the firm, though he is by no means at the lower end of this hierarchy. Until recently he has been a successful manager, even enjoying a close personal relationship with the firm's boss, Arthur Thiele. This relationship (and hence Horn's own power and status) has changed following the arrival of a younger manager, Horst Liszt.

The arrival of the youthful Liszt has accelerated Horn's sense of ageing—a theme which now begins to come to the fore of Walser's fiction and is especially prominent in the next work Ein fliehendes Pferd. Horn has thus been effectively demoted, feels resentful, behaves childishly within the firm and violently in his home, precipitating his separation from the family. Though he feels sympathetically drawn to the Communist works’ council delegate Heinz Murg, he is critical towards the Communist Party itself. We learn of all these events and attitudes through Horn's neurotic dwelling upon the various unhappy relationships, private, professional and political, during a week long business trip he is sent on to Coventry, England. His being sent to Coventry is indeed an ironic expression of his alienation from all and sundry, of his being ‘Jenseits der Liebe’. Yet the England trip is a journey of self-discovery in the course of which Horn comes to see the literally unbearable truth about himself and about others, hence his suicide attempt.

The very fact that it has been at all possible to re-narrate the main elements of the story in one and a half paragraphs is itself indicative of a new stage in Walser's fiction, and one which continues through to Brandung (1985). Hitherto, even in Ehen in Philippsburg, which contains a number of strands of action, Walser had identified with the modernist novel's deliberate vaunting of its own fictitiousness, its artificiality, with its circular and static modes and with its playing with literary conventions and antecedents as well as with the reader's expectations and preconceptions. Walser's writing had also been modernist in its tendency to allow inner action to predominate over external action, inactivity to outweigh activity. Appropriately Halbzeit, Das Einhorn and Der Sturz all begin with Anselm Kristlein in a horizontal position! In the modernist tradition language itself was as much the subject of the novel as it was its mode of expression, and the verbal virtuoso Anselm Kristlein is a fitting heir to this tradition.

Having raided the modernist arsenal (and replenished it) Walser's approach changes, with remarkable results, in terms both of critical acclaim and of popularity with the West German reading public at large, who now buy his hardback novels in far greater numbers than was the case prior to Jenseits der Liebe. What then has changed? First, Walser injects a dramatic momentum and a psychological tension into the novel, at last exploiting his experiences of writing dramas such as Der Abstecher (1961), Eiche und Angora (1962), and Die Zimmerschlacht (1967). Second, he delineates clearly and sensitively male-male and male-female relationships so that the central figure is countered, challenged and even changed by an opposing figure possessing his or her own credibility. Third, genuine conflict ensues as a result of these credible relationships especially since the noticeably more vulnerable central figure is often undergoing some profound physiological-psychological transition or even crisis, or is placed under particular pressure by inhospitable social or economic conditions. Fourth, the figures chosen by Walser—Horn, Zürn, Halm—differ in their make-up from their predecessors, Beumann, Kristlein and Gallistl. The latter are more designed and loaded figures responsible for purveying the author's didactic intentions to a public perceived as requiring enlightenment and education—the 1925 to 1930 generation syndrome. In contrast, the new ‘monosyllabic’ heroes are typical yet also credible as individuals. Furthermore they are more likeable as individuals and evoke more easily our wish to identify with them, as though Walser has resolved to be more benevolent towards his own creations. Fifth, events are telescoped into a much shorter and a much more perceivable span of time—a week during the holiday of Helmut Halm, or three months in the working life of Franz Xaver Zürn—and each day or week brings a new twist or presents an unforeseen problem, sometimes trivial, sometimes momentous. Finally, the essayistic and discursive tendencies, manifest between Halbzeit and Die Gallistl'sche Krankheit which impeded narrative flow, have been almost eliminated with the advantage that the interaction of central figure and world flows more dynamically and dialectically. In short, Walser now has a tale to tell.

Without any doubt several of these crucial changes are closely bound up with one single factor: the change from a first-to a third-person narrator. Though the narrative perspective stays as close as possible to the consciousness of the central figure, the use of the impersonal voice enables the author to exercise far greater discipline over the content of what is told and, simultaneously, to maintain a distance to his main character. It is as if Walser's first five novels, critically dwelling, as they all do, on the ‘I-centricity’ of the male, have given birth to a more mature and less self-centred narrative consciousness, now reflected in the more self-detached he-standpoint. Neither Walser nor his protagonist claims to know the definitive solution to the problem, a fact which is axiomatically postulated in the Kierkegaard quotation preceding Ein fliehendes Pferd:

Man trifft zuweilen auf Novellen, in denen bestimmte Personen entgegengesetzte Lebensanschauungen vortragen. Das endet dann gerne damit, daß der eine den andern überzeugt. Anstatt daß also die Anschauung für sich sprechen muß, wird der Leser mit dem historischen Ergebnis bereichert, daß der andere überzeugt worden ist. Ich sehe es für ein Glück an, daß in solcher Hinsicht diese Papiere eine Aufklärung nicht gewähren.15

(Occasionally one comes across novellas in which specific individuals express opposite philosophies. These works invariably end with the one convincing the other. So instead of one point of view being allowed to speak for itself the reader is blessed with the historical revelation that the other has been convinced. I consider it fortunate that these pages do not provide such instruction.)

One might claim with some justification that the two male adversaries of this story (designated a Novelle but almost identical in form to the short dramatic novel Jenseits der Liebe) learn from one another in true dialectical fashion. Helmut Halm is portrayed at the outset as introverted, passive and repressed, whilst Klaus is the apparent opposite, loquacious, dynamic and crudely expressive. During the pivotal lake storm scene, involving just the two men, all their deepest instincts and emotions rise dramatically to the surface. Klaus challenges nature, Helmut cowers before it. Believing his life to be in jeopardy Helmut knocks the tiller from Klaus's hands; Klaus falls overboard and is feared drowned. Afterwards Helmut is physically revitalised, at least until Klaus's reappearance, and, on his departure from Lake Constance with his wife Sabine, resolves to tell her all that has happened, i.e. he has become more expressive, as if having learned from Klaus, in fact so much so that when we next meet him as a visiting professor at a Californian campus university in Brandung (1985) he bears at times more resemblance to Klaus Buch than he does to his former self. His partial metamorphosis is vividly illustrated when he hurls himself into the surf-capped breakers of the Pacific with the same bravado and passion associated with Klaus Buch in the earlier work. Equally, Buch's manic attempts to escape from his ageing and conform to an age fixated upon the cult of individualism, fitness and potency, are exposed in Ein fliehendes Pferd as being, precisely, escapist vis-à-vis Helmut's non-conformist philosophy of ironic detachment.

The new pluralism following Walser's change of narrative perspective has brought other advantages. Particularly in respect of the female figures a noticeable and positive shift of emphasis has occurred. In his early works, narrated in the first person, such figures were only superficially drawn. Only through resorting to artificial devices, such as Anselm's illicit reading of his wife's diaries in Halbzeit and Der Sturz did the reader acquire insights into the deeper levels of the woman's life. Since all his novels from the programmatically entitled first work Ehen in Philippsburg have purportedly addressed themselves to the issue of marriage the tenuousness of the female figures constituted a serious flaw. In Ein fliehendes Pferd the young wife of Klaus Buch, Helene, fearing he has been drowned is given the opportunity (by the author) to give her version of the marriage in one long uninterrupted monologue. What her account reveals is not her dependency on Klaus, but rather his dependency on her. And this message is broadcast implicitly and explicitly throughout the post-1976 phase, from Jenseits der Liebe in which Horn's separation from wife and family almost certainly intensifies his isolation and nihilism, to Brandung where Helmut confesses: ‘Sabine war ihm alles und alles war ihm Sabine und außer Sabine war nichts’16 (‘Sabine was everything to him and everything to him was Sabine and except Sabine there was nothing’).

The wife figure is thereby made synonymous with the well-spring of the man's identity. Even though Helmut's confession may be tinged with characteristic self-irony the essential accuracy cannot be questioned. It is essentially an admission of dependency—the very state of mind Walser's earlier egoists had tried so hard to baulk. But the dependency is a fair price to pay for the measure of security gained. Only within a relationship with a wife of one's own age—a crucial prerequisite as the age imbalance of Klaus and Helene Buch tragi-comically revealed—can friendship, a synonym for solidarity, prosper. Marriage in Walser's work seems to provide the only dependable and stable context in which communication can take place. Hence both Ein fliehendes Pferd and Brandung close with Helmut girding himself to tell Sabine every detail of the confession we, the readers, have been privy to.

The necessity for communication and the impediments, psychological and social, to this life-saving act are central to the epistolic sequel to Jenseits der Liebe, Brief an Lord Liszt (1982). Franz Horn, now recovered and reunited with his family, but still insecurely placed in his firm's hierarchy, especially in view of the imminent fusion of Thiele's firm with a multinational concern, feels compelled to write a letter to his former rival Liszt, whose own marital problems, alcoholism and effective demotion (following the arrival of a younger man) within the firm, have made him a potential ally for Horn. Walser demasks this paradox of capitalism, i.e. one's colleague as one's competitor, and demonstrates how (male) friendship is thwarted by rivalry, jealousy, misunderstandings and, above all, communication blockages. Similarly in Das Schwanenhaus (1980) Franz Horn's cousin Dr Gottlieb Zürn, a self-employed estate agent, is shown embroiled in the same socially produced paradox, as he is forced to compete with his likewise self-employed colleagues, Schatz and Kaltammer, for the right to sell the glittering prize of the art nouveau Swan House. Zürn's fetishistic fascination with this house, itself a symbol of a bygone capitalist era, brings his deeply engrained avarice and ambition to the surface of his consciousness. Only through admitting to his real motives (‘Ehrgeiz. Wahnsinniger Ehrgeiz. Sein altes Leiden’) (‘Ambition. Insane ambition. His old illness’)17 is he able to get his life into perspective and liberate himself, at least spiritually, from the draining obsession with his ‘Kollegen Konkurrenten’ (‘colleague competitors’).18

A spiritual liberation process is also thematised in Seelenarbeit (1979). In his portrayal of a master-servant relationship between a chauffeur, Franz Xaver Zürn, and his boss Gleitze, Walser is returning to his central preoccupation with dependency relationships, relationships which should not, but quite manifestly still do belong to modern, democratic societies. Economically, Zürn is relatively secure, even after his demotion to a fork-lift truck operator. But his psychological enslavement to Gleitze, the lack of communication between them even on long car journeys, renders Zürn more and more prone to psychosomatic disorders, especially in his intestinal regions. Furthermore, pressures from the sphere of work engage and entangle themselves with tensions and conflicts smouldering beneath the surface of domestic life—another leitmotif of the later works. And since, as the post-Gallistl characters all do, he had inherited a personality structure with a pronounced tendency both to repress emotion (be it anger or affection) and to crave attention and approval, especially from superiors, the resultant state of soul is one oscillating between destructive and self-destructive urges.

Thus Franz Xaver Zürn develops an uncontrollable urge to collect knives and almost succumbs to fantasies of murdering his boss Gleitze. Halm in Ein fliehendes Pferd actually causes his Mephistophelian tormentor Buch to fall overboard during the storm on the lake, whilst in Brandung he is sorely tempted to rape his fantasy-object Fran Webb, who has ensnared him so cruelly. But whereas the destinies of Beumann, Kristlein and for a long time Gallistl too, were left to chance, from Horn onwards Walser's protagonists gradually perceive more clearly who they really are through a combination of factors: exhaustive and painful soul-searching (‘Seelenarbeit’!); communication and solidarity within the private sphere; and fortuitous encounters with soul-mates and fellow-sufferers such as Keith Heath in Jenseits der Liebe, Klaus Buch in Ein fliehendes Pferd or Liszt in Brief an Lord Liszt. Even confrontations with one's own inner physical being as when Xaver in Seelenarbeit undergoes five days of intimate medical examinations in a Tübingen clinic can produce a similar catalytic effect. From Franz Horn to Helmut Halm Walser's suffering males do weather the storm to emerge with their identity a fraction more integrated, whilst so many of their contemporaries are seen disintegrating or dying, the victims of drink, broken marriages, societal pressures, incurable illnesses or just untimely accidents.

Furthermore their individual progress, modest as it may appear, has to be set against an era of economic progress, but political and social inertia. This era is characterised by the upper-middle-class owners of wealth and power (personified in these novels by Thiele, Gleitze, Schatz and Kaltammer) continuing to consolidate their positions whilst the petite bourgeoisie adapts to economic and social circumstances with mechanical dependability. In highlighting the petit bourgeois crises of the trio of cousins, Franz Horn, Gottlieb Zürn and Franz Xaver Zürn, or even of the more private petit bourgeois Helmut Halm, and the productive mental processes triggered off by these crises, Walser is implicitly rejecting a mechanistic and static view of history and proffering a dialectical one, as individuals grasp the contradictions of their social situation and age.

The underlying tendency of Walser's oeuvre since Die Gallistl'sche Krankheit (1972) can therefore, at least with reference to the central figures and their immediate family, be designated as positive. One could even describe these works as novels of (male) emancipation, the term emancipation referring less to a political or ideological process than to a socio-psychological one. His beleaguered and blocked individuals are not, however, released as was Gallistl through the advent of outside forces bearing a doctrinal panacea. Instead they learn, like Gallistl initially, to comprehend the subconscious mechanisms which block them and learn also to perceive the machinery of competition, power and achievement which beleaguers them: ‘Gottlieb sah plötzlich die ganze Welt vor sich; ein System, in dem jeder von einem andern zuviel verlangt, weil von ihm ein anderer zuviel verlangt’ (‘Gottlieb suddenly saw the whole world before him; a system in which each person demanded too much of another person, because another person demanded too much from him’).19 Statements such as this from Das Schwanenhaus abound in the works of the years 1976 to 1985. Phrases like ‘sah plötzlich’ (‘suddenly saw’), ‘jetzt sah er zum ersten Mal’ (‘now he saw for the first time’), and, ‘sein Fehler all die Jahre’ (‘his mistake during all these years’), recur frequently in these works and signal the occurrence of a key insight, marking a new phase in a process of becoming conscious or, alternatively, of becoming (self-)critical.

One can maintain, in conclusion, that this quest for individual integrity and individual enlightenment has been basic to all Walser's works from Ehen in Philippsburg to Brandung, even though his earlier characters were shown failing in their search. He has never succumbed to the apocalyptic visions of some of his contemporaries nor to the narcissistic subjectivism of a new generation of younger German-speaking novelists. Moreover, wherever he has indulged in more experimental fiction, it has not been at the expense of social relevance. In fact social relevance has been the keynote of his particular brand of prose writing. Yet the obligation to be socially relevant has not resulted in listless, abstract parables either. Two qualities have constantly coloured and animated all his social analyses. First, the dogged rootedness in the provincial, petit bourgeois reality of his native South Germany; and, second, the satirical, ironic and even grotesque transformation of that reality. These qualities, combined with the numerous ones already mentioned, make Walser the critical and comic realist par excellence of his generation.


  1. A. Eggebrecht (ed.), Die zornigen alten Männer (Reinbek, 1979), p. 120.

  2. M. Walser, Ein fliehendes Pferd (Frankfurt, 1978), p. 96.

  3. K. S. Parkes, ‘Society and the Individual in the Works of Martin Walser’ (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Bradford, 1971), p. 308.

  4. M. Walser, Ehen in Philippsburg (Reinbek, 1963), p. 226.

  5. Ibid., p. 42.

  6. Ibid., p. 222.

  7. R. H. Thomas, ‘Martin Walser—The Nietzsche Connection', German Life and Letters, XXXV (1982), p. 323.

  8. R. H. Thomas and W. van der Will, German Literature and the Affluent Society (Manchester, 1968).

  9. M. Walser, Halbzeit (Frankfurt, 1973), p. 93-4.

  10. Ibid., p. 707.

  11. Ibid., p. 698.

  12. M. Walser, Das Einhorn (Frankfurt, 1974), p. 79.

  13. Interview with R. Mayne in ‘Fire in the Phoenix: The Arts in West Germany since 1945’, BBC Radio 3, November 1979.

  14. T. Beckermann, ‘Epilog auf eine Romanform', K. Siblewski (ed.) Martin Walser (Frankfurt, 1981), p. 102.

  15. Ein fliehendes Pferd, p. 7.

  16. M. Walser, Brandung (Frankfurt, 1985), p. 251.

  17. M. Walser, Das Schwanenhaus (Frankfurt, 1980), p. 220.

  18. Ibid., p. 15.

  19. Ibid., p. 144.

Richard Eder (review date 1 January 1989)

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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Adultery in the Natural Interest.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (1 January 1989): 3.

[In the following review, Eder evaluates the German nationalist theme of No Man's Land, relating the political and corresponding personal implications in terms of its protagonist.]

Wolf is a German nationalist, but forget all the abominable meanings the term has picked up over the last century.

Think of Goethe, Schiller, Beethoven, pastoral nostalgia, sausages, comfortable bad taste, amiable pedantry, the Rhine and the touch of comedy that beguiled Mark Twain. Think neither of the soldier, the brownshirt nor the four-Mercedes industrialist, but of the romantic who lay in a meadow and thought cloudy thoughts.

Martin Walser, who writes mordant parables with comic tenderness, brings us Wolf, a peaceable nationalist. He fights in his own impractical way against the division of the Germanies.

Wolf is a one-man unifier. Years ago, he effected a small linkage westward by crossing over from the East. It wasn't because of politics, but because he had punched his piano teacher for making fun of his playing.

Ever since, he has conducted an eastward unification by spying for the German Democratic Republic. His wife and his mistress both hold “cosmic” clearances in a West German defense unit. The mistress supplies him with documents in exchange for love and money, though the money goes entirely to pay for her husband's psychoanalysis.

We get hints of Wolf's unusual reasoning as the book goes along. But No Man's Land one of Walser's best, lets it develop very gradually out of the comical and oddly moving predicaments that he finds himself in. Only at the end, when he has turned himself in and is standing trial, does he put his thoughts together.

Both Germanies “wanted to outdo the other in rejection,” he muses. “Each had developed hostility towards the other as the most vital ingredient of its self-awareness. And this was what Wolf wanted to remedy in a precarious field—that of armaments.” His remedy lies in “sabotaging the strength of each separateness.”

The paradox, of course, is that in order to conduct unification in this manner, your life becomes ludicrously divided. Wolf, of whom we become very fond, is a one-man schism.

We first see him hurrying home to give Dorle, his wife, a gold and turquoise necklace for her birthday. He has spent a month looking for just the right one. He loves Dorle dearly, despite his affair with Sylvia. Here, as elsewhere, he splits himself in his pursuit of one Germany.

They are having her boss, Meissner, over for dinner. First, though, Wolf has to tune his radio for instructions. The only message that night from his Soviet-East German handlers is warm birthday wishes for Dorle.

The dinner itself is withering social comedy. Wolf and Dorle—she knows about his spying and about Sylvia, and it makes her sad—are two innocents. Meissner, a high defense official, is the new vulgarian of a nation whose soul is out of order because of its division.

The belief that Germany's split has deprived her of her soul is a familiar one among post-war writers, notably, the late Heinrich Boll. But Walser's handling of the message is uniquely alluring and suggestive. His symbols are musical in their flow. One of the best, in fact, refers to the piano.

Trying not to draw attention to himself, Wolf, the former virtuoso, still plays, but using only one hand at a time. He has become extraordinarily adept, but the result, as with Germany itself, is not music.

A mathematician neighbor is puzzled by this one-handed playing; he sets to work on a mathematical model. Toward the end, he is able to inform Wolf that a man who plays the piano with one hand—assuming he has two—has to be a spy.

When Wolf is with Sylvia he draws away from her volubility and whole-hearted ardor. “He wishes there were sunglasses for the ears,” Walser writes.

Afterward, Wolf realizes his feelings for Sylvia are real, that he betrays these feelings by his reticence, and that by having such feelings be profoundly betrays Dorle, his real love.

“He wishes he could have feelings he could approve of,” the author writes.

Wolf's moral logjam begins to break up when he and Dorle go to the South of France to meet his Soviet and East German spy masters.

They are, in fact, no different than the West Germans he deplores. Above all, they are equally real. He decides to abandon spying and Sylvia, and turn himself in. During the trial that follows, he will give up his public reunifying and try for the personal kind—once he gets out of jail—with Dorle.

He has no great illusions about it. The necessary thing for his own sanity was to choose. How? “The country where one would rather face a court is the one to choose,” he reflects cautiously. But he adds: “Perhaps.”

The satire in No Man's Land is deadly and exact. The comedy is quietly outlandish. But Walser is something more than a satirist.

I have mentioned his tenderness, and it is hard to describe. But it attaches us oddly to Wolf, to Dorle, to Sylvia and to the mathematician neighbor.

Wolf's, and perhaps Walser's, romanticism has the freshness of a clandestine activity. Wolf ponders the Rhine, as German romantics have always done. The gesture is contained, but not entirely deflected by his wry thought:

“It gave him a good feeling to see the Rhine churning along there so powerfully, as if it were being paid by the ton for the mass transportation of water.”

His trickle of pastoral longing is purified by the hard rocks it passes through. Wolf's father was a concentration camp mate of the German Communist leader, Ernst Thaelmann. But it wasn't politics that put him there. He drove the milk wagon that served the camp: he was caught in the humane act of smuggling out letters.

Wolf thinks of this at dinner with Meissner, his wife's big shot boss. He thinks of the poky Prussian villages his own family came from, with their comic rural accents and comic names. “He thinks of providing Meissner rustic detail from Ottstedt, Berlstedt, Ballstedt and Buttelstedt.”

The names are a clownish, nostalgic specific for a lost Germany; a rural Germany remote from history, but neighbor to its own soul.

Anna Otten (review date summer 1989)

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SOURCE: Otten, Anna. Review of Jagd, by Martin Walser. World Literature Today 63, no. 3 (summer 1989): 480.

[In the following review, Otten summarizes the themes and characters of Jagd.]

Once more Martin Walser takes us into his favorite terrain, the shore of the Bodensee, and focuses on a Zuern family, as he did in Das Schwanenhaus (1980; see WLT 55:3, p. 463), where the main theme was competition. In Jagd, however, he deals primarily with eroticism, business, and politics; Gottlieb and Anna Zuern are richer, their four daughters more independent. Gottlieb, the antihero, experiences a midlife crisis over Anna's lack of interest in sexual relations, evident, for example, in a scene in which the amorous husband approaches her bed only to have her casually ask about his hemorrhoids. When Gottlieb hunts for erotic adventure in Frankfurt and Munich, however, it is no longer clear whether he is hunter or hunted, since two women, Gisi and Liliane, seduce him, Neither relationship is to his advantage, for Anna discovers that he is Gisi's lover and Gottlieb loses a business deal with Liliane.

Walser skillfully describes not only Zuern's relationships with Anna, Gisi, and Liliane, but also—and very meticulously—with his daughter Julia, who has escaped into a commune. Walser offers clear and honest analyses of marital problems and the difficulties between parents and children, yet he lovingly sketches the Zuerns, who are led to believe that, in the end, Gottlieb will find a way to solve his problems “when the time is right.”

Ian Brunskill (review date 4 October 1991)

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SOURCE: Brunskill, Ian. “On a Lonely Path.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4618 (4 October 1991): 33.

[In the following review, Brunskill assesses the merits of Die Verteidigung der Kindheit within the context of Walser's oeuvre.]

Martin Walser's new novel follows the unremarkable life of Alfred Dorn. As a child in Dresden, Alfred is regarded by friends and family as a prodigy, academically successful, musically gifted, a talented draughtsman who can caricature his teachers and forge his classmates’ parents’ signatures. His studies in Leipzig immediately after the war are hampered by his obvious lack of sympathy with the new political system of the GDR. He leaves, illegally but without difficulty, to study law in West Berlin, returning frequently to visit his family in the East. Eventually he passes his exams and takes up a position with a government department dealing in reparations. He leaves for another post in Wiesbaden and remains there until his death.

Die Verteidigung der Kindheit is an epic of the everyday, a vivid and often funny picture of lower middle-class life in divided Germany. Walser is particularly sensitive to linguistic trivia: he records with relish and precision the absurd and extraordinary things people say to each other showing a process of near-universal non-communication that is bleakly isolating and threatening as well as comic. But the real subject of the novel is the emotional life of its protagonist. Alfred Dorn's dominant concern is his obsessional love for his mother, the only person who has ever loved him uncritically. She represents his strongest link with the childhood he refuses to give up. Suspicious of the adult world, he remains alone and aloof, terrorized by its real and imagined demands, tormented by thoughts of what others might think of him.

In fact, Alfred is better able to cope with the world than he thinks he is. Other people's ideas of him, on the rare occasions that they can be verified, are not nearly as bad as he imagined; his work is generally competent and conscientious. The only cause for complaint from his superiors, the only thing other people think is rather strange, is the obsession in which he seeks refuge: only the energy he devotes to his mother, and to his quest for every surviving fragment of the childhood world destroyed by the bombing of Dresden, prevents Alfred from fitting in.

It may seem to some that Walser has written this novel before; indeed, it could be argued that, forays into documentary drama and flirtations with overt political commitment notwithstanding, he has been writing the same work for more than thirty years. From Halbzeit (1960) onwards, Walser has drawn his protagonists from the same section of society, and has charted their self-absorption and their uneasy attempts—sometimes almost successful, sometimes not—to reconcile personal happiness with social conformity. Die Verteidigung der Kindheit certainly repeats the formula, but it also manages to recapture something of the linguistic exuberance that characterized—and constantly threatened to overwhelm—the acute social observation in the best of the earlier works. In this novel, Walser manages effectively to tie his own extravagant verbal fluency to the maniacally obsessive nature of his protagonist. Thus, any oddities of perspective (fear of toothache or of being thought a homosexual are described more vividly than is the building of the Berlin Wall) reflect Alfred Dorn's bizarre view of the world rather than Walser's. The gradual weakening of the novel's social observation after the late 1960s—in contrast to the powerful evocation of German life in the 1950s—coincides with the death of Alfred's mother and his increasing concentration on her memory and the relics of their shared past.

What makes Die Verteidigung der Kindheit more than a repetition of past success is the way its narrative, with an absurdity that is not always comic and a pathos that is never quite tragic, mirrors Walser's own concerns as a writer. The writers Walser most admires—Hölderlin, Kafka, Proust, Robert Walser—all followed lonely, even eccentric, individual literary paths: to borrow` Walser's description of his Swiss namesake, they are all “alleinstehende Dichter”. Alfred Dorn offers a kind of bathetic equivalent of their endeavours: his obsessive attempts to recover the past or record the present are part of a bizarre project to elaborate and fix a vision—a version—of himself.

Frank Pilipp (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Pilipp, Frank. “Walser's Post-1973 Narrative Phase in Context.” In The Novels of Martin Walser: A Critical Introduction, pp. 19-46. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1991.

[In the following essay, Pilipp provides a thematic and stylistic overview of Walser's literary career since the early 1970s in terms of its relevance to German society and literary culture.]


In his early novels Walser portrays individuals whose spontaneous potential is curtailed by social reality. This theme of dependency and oppression is prevalent both in his novels and novellas after 1973. As Walser considers himself a chronicler of everyday life, the thematics of his texts originate in current socio-political issues. Walser never addresses these issues explicitly in his fictions, but rather draws the reader's attention to them by showing their pernicious effects on average citizens among whom he includes himself. In 1980 Walser summarized the theme in his most recent novels:

Ich habe 1976 Jenseits der Liebe gebracht, das ist … die Konkurrenz zweier Angestellten unter einem Chef. Dann kam 78 das Fliehendes Pferd das ist die Konkurrenz zweier Männer vor zwei Frauen. Dann Seelenarbeit, das ist Abhängigkeit eines Angestellten von diesem Chef. Und jetzt Schwanenhaus, die Konkurrenz nicht von Angestellten, sondern von mittelständischen Kleinunternehmern, Geschäftsleuten.1

[In 1976 I wrote Beyond All Love, which presents … two employees in competition before their boss. Then, in 1978, came Runaway Horse, which shows two men competing before two women. Then The Inner Man, which presents an employee's dependency on his boss. And now The Swan Villa, where competition occurs not among employees but rather among small-time, middle-class entrepreneurs and businessmen.]

Competition and dependency, experiences that obstruct the individual's efforts to achieve personal autonomy, move again into the foreground in Walser's prose texts since 1980, particularly in the sequel to Jenseits der Liebe, the 1982 novel Brief an Lord Liszt. Yet the roots for these thematics in Walser's work date back several decades. Upon returning from his first extended stay in the United States in 1959 Walser felt daunted by the

Erlebnis des Gefangenseins auf einem Kontinent, in einem Land, einer Familie, einer Sprache, dieses Abgegrenzt- und Abgekapselt- und Abgepacktsein in einer Biographie, aus der Ahnung, du bist der und der, und der hat wieder da und da unter der und der Adresse mit seinem Paß sich einzufinden. Das schien mir unerträglich.2

[feeling of being held prisoner on a continent, in a country, in a family, in a language; a feeling of being confined, isolated, and wrapped up in your biography through the notion that you are supposed to be a certain someone, and that someone has to report to that particular place and address with his passport. This seemed unbearable to me.]

On the one hand the experience of being controlled manifests itself for Walser not only through social forces but also, on a more existential level, through cognitive and linguistic faculties. On the other, it permeates the private sector and affects one's self-esteem and self-identity. Walser equates this feeling of captivity with an incomplete, deficient sense of self. At that time Walser reacted to his feelings of discontent by writing the novel he entitled Halbzeit, drawing up, as it were, the balance sheet of half a lifetime. Seelenarbeit also resulted from a personal experience of this kind, where it was presumably medical treatment that instilled in Walser the impression of being dependent on or dominated by external forces. Although in this case, the dependency experienced by the author had a medical rather than a societal origin, but its intensity led Walser to proclaim that the worst possible experience is “Abhängigkeit” [dependency].3

Between 1974 and 1978 Walser penned the essays compiled in the volume Wer ist ein Schriftsteller? (1979). Walser here elaborates on his concept of writing, a concept that he seems to have modified slightly in that the socio-political vocabulary of his earlier essays has yielded to a more socio-psychological line of argument. In the title piece of this collection (1974), Walser maintains that since the writer's identity is always subjected to social influences, it can never gain stability, but is bound to remain self-conscious, insecure, and questionable. Assuming that socially disadvantaged lower-class families do not possess the requisite self-esteem and confidence to endow their children with a rigorous and unyielding sense of self, Walser draws the inference that most writers emerge from the lower strata of society (WS [Wer ist ein Schriftsteller?] 37). This conclusion arises from his belief that writing serves as a therapeutic means for the writer to consolidate his unstable identity (WS 40). Writing, Walser posits, is a response to negative, oftentimes intolerable, involuntary experiences, and only in this capacity can writing question the validity and legitimacy of the extant social conditions. The writer, then, defuses the intolerability of his experiences by giving vent to an existential urge to write. Walser's understanding of realism is based on this causality. Realistic writing, he argues, requires a motive that cannot originate in literature but in reality.4

As the consequence of these postulates Walser advocates the critical transformation of reality into fiction. The literary product, however, is not simply a mirror of reality, but rather a critical Auseinandersetzung [coming to grips] with it and a salve to specific wounds inflicted on the individual by the given conditions. Thus author and reader alike are proffered new experiential and evaluative possibilities, consummating the author's ambition to empower his fictional creations with the ability to serve as an evocative test of reality (WS 16). In contrast to the ‘poet’ (Dichter) who seeks contentment in the literary licking of his wounds, the ‘realistic writer’ (Schreiber) attempts to discover the cause of these wounds. Hence Walser considers writing to be a battle against that which inflicts damage, in fact, no less than the dialectical movement from suffering to resistance (WS 41).

During the sixties, Walser regarded literature as one potential means to help clear the path to democracy and, quite apparently, assigned a concrete public function to literature. By the same token Walser always considered fiction the author's response to personal experiences—experiences, however, that are related to a broader social problem area. The necessity of social change remains the central issue in Walser's essays. In the title piece of the collection Wie und wovon handelt Literatur (1972), Walser demands of each author that he insure the social function of literature by means of a critical, by which he means realistic, portrayal of negative social conditions (WW [Wie und wovon handelt Literatur] 123). In a fervent declaration of 1968 Walser had insisted that the adequate tone of literary expression constitute itself as a “demokratische, mythenzerstörende, mutmachende Schreibe, in der sich der demokratische Befreiungsprozeß manifestiert” [democratic, encouraging, myth-shattering kind of writing that in itself expresses the process of democratic liberation].5 Such resolute statements yielded Walser the reputation of a leftist intellectual, despite the fact that this extreme leftist propensity does not speak through his novels. For Walser the function of a novel is undoubtedly not identical to that of a political manifesto. It is rather an artistic-compository enterprise and as such—for author and reader alike—an “Entdeckungsfahrt” [expedition] (WW 136) into the reality of fiction. In Walser's novels a leftist tendency manifests itself not explicitly in specific episodes, but implicitly through the totality of the (multi-volume) work.

The pronounced political activism documented in Walser's early essays parallels the turn toward the left in the literature of the sixties. This movement was heralded by such slogans as ‘emancipation’ and ‘self-determination,’ aiming at social change.6 When in the late sixties the leftist aspirations that culminated in the student movement of 1968 were subdued by the Radikalenerlaß, a decree that banned members of so-called radical organizations from occupying public positions, and the desired changes remained unrealized, Hans Magnus Enzensberger immediately denounced literature as useless, revolutionary gesticulation.7 It was the writer Dieter Wellershoff who then, in an immediate reaction to Enzensberger, advocated a more moderated and unassuming concept of literature. As early as 1969 he anticipated the literary trend from public to private life that was to dominate subsequent decades. When literature illustrates individual suffering as a consequence of social mechanisms, Wellershoff proclaimed, it fulfills its critical potential in that it reveals the price that is often extorted by given circumstances.8

This kind of poetics no longer insists on the public function of literature; rather, it stresses the communicative aspect in its personal appeal to the reader. When the reader discovers an affinity to the literary protagonists’ afflictions and is able to descry their social origin, he or she may develop a critical social consciousness. In the early seventies, Walser, who had always been an advocate of this literary concept, begins to stress the text's interaction with the reader even more forcibly. Although he still firmly believes that the literary product should reflect the historical conditions under which it was created, he now renounces the social or political function, the Indienstnahme of literature. In his view, literature achieves its social function through the writer's very motivation to produce it. Constituting the writer's response to personal experience caused by external factors, literature, Walser thinks, mirrors the underlying social conflicts of its very existence. Still, his pointing out that it is unreasonable to expect immediate social changes seems needless, and his statements as to a potential effect of literature are rather vague. Walser mentions the “organisierende Kraft” [activist momentum] imparted to the reader by the reader's own imitation of the author's dialectical change of perspective, yet the explicit significance of this momentum remains undefined, defying the attempt to categorize, and thus exploit it. The only concrete factor posited by Walser is his somewhat simplistic view that the act of reading is analogous to the act of writing (WW 135).9 He thus places his trust in the reader, perhaps to disengage himself from public expectations.

In hopes of inducing the reader into an identification with his fictionalized personal experiences, Walser attempts to open a new perspective, one that will question the average citizen's conformist attitudes. He is nevertheless aware that there is no concrete proof as to a potential impact on or change in the reader. Therefore Walser refuses to address the author-reader correlation further and limits his statements to the simple declaration that a writer is someone who undergoes change through his writing (WS 42). Although Walser's demonstration of insidious facets of the given social conditions is limited to the subjective perception of his protagonists, the nexus between personal affliction and social reality becomes apparent. Eventually, however, it is the reader's response which realizes the “Protestkraft, Kritikkraft, Wunschkraft” (WS 95) [potential of protest, critique, and desire] of fiction. Walser emphasizes this in a television interview of 1985:

Ich kann die gesellschaftliche Dimension, die sogenannte politische Brauchbarkeit oder überhaupt gesellschaftliche Brauchbarkeit, die kann ich nicht beabsichtigen. Aber ich kann auf meine Erfahrungen, auf meine negativen Erfahrungen nach meiner Art literarisch antworten und muß dann hoffen, daß in meine negativen Erfahrungen etwas eingegangen sei, was verallgemeinerungsfähig für den Leser, der ähnliche Erfahrungen hat, ist.10

[I cannot intend the societal dimension, the so-called political function, or societal function in general. What I can do, however, is to react to my negative experiences in my own literary fashion, and then I can only hope that my negative experiences contain something, which for the reader who has undergone similar experiences assumes a more general relevance.]

It is precisely these negative experiences that lead to the feeling of vulnerability, hence an incomplete and unsatisfactory self-identity. Walser is at pains to emphasize that this state of general discontent motivates him to write,11 explicitly stating that his literary protagonists are attempts to come to terms with an autobiographical lack.12 Although the conflicts Walser depicts in his novels are based on, or at least related to personal experience, the source of these conflicts is not subjective. The lack of self-confidence and self-identity perceived by his characters is always the consequence of external, that is, societal, manipulative influences. Since the author himself is a product of social forces, so, too, are his literary products.13 In this manner, the self-defensive strategies of his protagonists assert Walser's own rebellion against such negativity as constitutes his personal experience, in effect, a rebellion by literary proxy.14

Departing from a subjective vantage point, Walser's narrative approach seeks to invade extra-subjective territory.15 This literary concept, which seems to content itself with a rather modest objective, is characteristic of German literature of the seventies. It was not the declared goal of this literature to function as a vehicle for social change, but to challenge the perceptions of the individual. This tendency marks the transition from the global, socio-political criticism of the literature of the sixties to a less agitative literature of the subsequent decades. Notwithstanding the renunciation of its public function, this literature assumes its social dimension through the reader's participation. The fact that experiential knowledge has become essential for this sort of literary commitment should not be mistaken for self-sufficient escapism. Walser himself rigidly rejects the self-complacent and ahistorical narcissism of the works of the so-called New Subjectivists, although, notably with his later novels Brandung and Jagd in which the lack of societal relevance prevails, he clearly abandons this position.


The literary movement that began to develop in West Germany during the early seventies after the revolutionary spirit of the sixties had spent its force commonly bears the label New Subjectivity (Neue Subjektivitāt). The works it has brought forth evidence the gradual abdication of explicit political themes while displaying the simultaneous rediscovery of innermost human concerns. For this reason this literature became also known as New Sensibility. Some of the most prominent and widely read authors who emerged from that post-war generation include Peter Handke, often seen as epitomizing that movement, Botho Strauß, Nicolas Born, Peter Härtling, and Bernward Vesper. In addition various established authors, among them Elias Canetti, Max Frisch, or Thomas Bernhard, contributed with their autobiographical sketches to the rapidly revitalizing psychological concerns of literature.

Its hallmarks, generally considered Peter Schneider's narrative Lenz and Karin Struck's first novel Klassenliebe (Class Love), both appeared in 1973, marking the year of transition. In Lenz, the protagonist's search for a political stance is interwoven with his personal quest for self-identity, while the portrayal of his emotions is not subordinated to that of external reality. In Struck's novel the quasi-autobiographical, first-person narrator displays an unusually radical openness in revealing her most secret feelings. Thematically Klassenliebe illustrates socio-political reality, more precisely, the narrator's social dilemma as she is climbing the social ladder. The brash discussion of decidedly political themes is supercharged with emotionalism and is also tightly connected with the purpose of self-portrayal and self-denudation with the ultimate objective of individual self-definition. Writing becomes a means for the conjuration of self (209). Formally the novel which consists of diary-like entries is characteristic of New Subjective prose.

While in the literature of the sixties there prevailed a broad, panoramic view of society, the literary production of the following decades was determined by a rather narrow angle, focusing on the conflict between individuals and society. Schneider's protagonist is considered a key figure in the literary transition to personal themes, because his emotions are no longer subordinated to political issues. Yet while in Lenz a distinct coexistence of personal and political themes prevails, the societal perspective in most of the subsequent New Subjective works is at best implied. For Gregor Keuschnig, the protagonist in Peter Handke's Stunde der wahren Empfindung (1975; A Moment of True Feeling, 1977), for example, all social values becomes suddenly meaningless as he finds himself in an identity crisis. All substance in Handke's narrative is the inner world of the protagonist. On account of this exclusively subjective point of view, any potential reasons or motives for Keuschnig's alienation remain rather vague. There are, however, indications that job-related factors may serve as a explanation. His life is ruled by a feeling of isolation and disorientation. What Handke illustrates in Stunde der wahren Empfindung is the individual's experience of total estrangement from external reality, but also his eventual rediscovery of a new perception of reality. The same theme is central to Handke's novel Chinese des Schmerzes (Chinaman of Sorrow) of 1983. In this narrative the first-person narrator Andreas Loser (a pun on its English meaning may be intended) drops out of his bourgeois profession as teacher of ancient languages, finding himself in a state of passive isolation. Again it is this loss of social context that constitutes the precondition for his ultimate achievement of a new sense of perception.

In Nicolas Born's novel Die erdabgewandte Seite der Geschichte (1976; The Far Side of History) the narrator describes his own identity crisis. His awareness of an inimical world that resists all comprehension causes him to withdraw from history into his own, self-composed story. Like his counterpart Keuschnig, who suddenly finds himself face to face with a nonsensical and incoherent reality, Born's narrator turns his back on the system. But even in his private sphere there arise nothing but conflicts which overshadow his relationships with his wife, his girlfriend and his best friend. Looming above, however, is his loss of orientation, the loss of a healthy symbiosis with a peacefully progressing society (20). Similar to Handke, individual isolation and the feeling of disorientation form the central theme in Born's novel. Born's narrator is possessed by the notion that his life is sliding away from under him (21). Instead of history he experiences “bloß Geschichten” (20) [merely stories], stories that resist comprehension and closure. The realization of his own insignificance as a part of the system leads him to a “Flucht in die Innerlichkeit” [withdrawal into himself] as a reaction to his “Gefangenschaft in der Äußerlichkeit” (51) [imprisonment in external reality]. Analogous to Gregor Keuschnig, who craves a job that produces something definitive and irreversible (161), Born's narrator envisions his salvation from a meaningless existence through “eine Arbeit, die einfach getan werden muß” (16) [a job that simply has to be done]. Only on the basis of his individual usefulness could he develop a new sense of social values.

An all-embracing indictment of society appears to be the concern of Thomas Bernhard's short novels Die Ursache (1975; An Indication of the Cause, 1985), Der Keller (1976; The Cellar: An Escape, 1985), Der Atem (1978; Breath: A Decision, 1985), Die Kälte (1981; In the Cold, 1985), and Ein Kind (1982; A Child, 1985).16 These texts are conceived as quasi-autobiographical sequels through which the author-narrator relates fragments of his childhood and youth. Looking back in vengeful anger, his cold, self-distancing, and non-palliative report settles scores with the past. In Die Ursache Bernhard illustrates the experiences of a thirteen-year-old school boy during the war and post-war period. The narrator considers himself a victim of a brutal environment that kept him an unprotected and defenseless prisoner. A pronounced historical criticism becomes repeatedly audible in the narrator's remarks about the post-war Catholic regime that presumably superseded Nazi fascism. Both ideologies, he is convinced, represent the same “menschenfeindlichen Züchtigungsmechanismus” (108) [barbarous ritual of castigation]. Furthermore federal institutions, such as the school system, are stigmatized as a “katastrophale Verstümmelungsmaschinerie” (119) [disastrous apparatus for the mutilation of the mind].

In Der Keller Bernhard indicts the destructive mechanisms of a society that harshly suppresses the individual's search for personal fulfillment and instead leaves him with the feeling of desperate imprisonment. The narrator's crisis comes to a dramatic climax in the following two texts. In Der Atem the setting is a hospital where the narrator finds himself among scores of moribund patients. Yet, although the illness of the meanwhile eighteen-year-old has reached a life-threatening stage, he tells us in Die Kälte that he managed to escape from the “perversen medizinischen Unheilsmühle” (148) [perverted medical disaster mill] and rediscover his determination to live. He thus wins the struggle for self-assertion, a victory, however, of so modest an objective as the mere wish to survive. As the narrator already admits in Der Atem, the pursuit of that goal merely insures a prolongation of the “lebenslänglichen Sterbeprozeß” (81) [lifelong process of dying]. This bleak view invalidates even the last remaining ground for existential self-determination. Life itself is the penitentiary to which everyone is committed by birth. The “gesellschaftspolitische Perversität” (127) [socio-political perversity] of society's institutions leads the individual to the realization of his invariable existential captivity. Never does Bernhard's pessimistic portrayal of human existence attempt to address or investigate social issues, it simply condemns an abominable system.

The texts addressed display a trait typical of the New Subjective literature. While the social critical novels of the sixties, for example the novels of Böll, Grass, Lenz, or Walser, presented their protagonists as victims of the demands and promises made by society, they also pointed to the weaknesses and inadequacies of these characters. The New Subjective works, however, unquestionably acquit the individual summarily, while exclusive blame is put on an inhumane society.17 Bernhard's objective, then, is one of self-justification, which allows him at the same time to externalize his frustrations. For this purpose, as he states in Der Keller, writing becomes a “Lebensnotwendigkeit” (45) [existential necessity].

Bernhard's texts are characteristic of many works of the seventies that are considered quasi-autobiographies, because their authors display a highly subjective attitude:

[E]r begnügt sich mit einer splitterhaften Darstellung seines Lebens, er bleibt dort stehen, wo er psychisch nicht mehr weiter kann; liefert Momentaufnahmen und dokumentiert seine Ehrlichkeit, indem er bewußt oder unbewußt auf seine Ängste hinweist. Dabei rückt die Autobiographie in den Bereich der schöngeistigen Literatur, und die Fiktionalisierung wird oft genug zum integralen Element der Selbstdarstellung.18

[He contents himself with a fragmentary portrayal of his own life and stops where he cannot go any further mentally. He presents momentary glimpses and documents his honesty by consciously or unconsciously admitting to his fears. Autobiography here approaches the realm of belles lettres, and in many cases fictionalization becomes an integral element of self-portrayal.]

This verdict also applies to the autobiographical fictions of Max Frisch and Peter Härtling. In his diary-like novel Montauk (1975; 1976) Frisch identifies himself as the narrator, who is set on self-analysis. Deliberately ignoring social issues, Frisch hopes that his radical self-denudations will permit him a cool distance from his past and allow him to come to terms with personal problems. Mindful exclusively of his own feelings—“ich bin es, den ich darstelle” [“it is myself that I portray”] the motto reads—he seeks self-assurance both as a writer and his role as a man, downright rejecting the once respected public as a communicative partner.19

Peter Härtling, in his novel Nachgetragene Liebe (1980; In Retrospect, With Love), likewise undertakes a journey into the past by means of writing. The author-narrator recapitulates the crucial years of his childhood that determined his ambivalent relationship with his—meanwhile deceased—father, desperately trying to disclose the reasons for his father's painful lack of affection. At the same time the narrator seeks self-justification by shedding light on this unbeneficial relationship. Fully cognizant of the writing process, he resurrects the past and simultaneously assumes a more objective distance from himself. As in Frisch's case, the retrospective clarification of formative influences finally leads to self-analysis and self-definition.

Richard Schroubek, the first-person narrator in Botho Strauß's Die Widmung (1977; Devotion, 1979), is disgusted with society's blunt deceptions and withdraws into himself in order to engage in “Ich-Forschung” (41) [“self-analysis”; 32]. Like the narrator in Born's novel, Schroubek is unnerved and bedazzled by society, which has left him politically disoriented. The traceless disappearance of his girlfriend leaves him further emotionally unsettled. In an effort to come to a closer understanding of his emotions and gain a new sense of self he begins to compile the “Biografie seiner leeren Stunden” (127) [“biography of his empty hours”; Devotion 105].

All texts discussed here investigate troubled relationships between an individual and external reality, most allowing this individual to function as the narrator of his story. The emphasis clearly lies on the subjective-emotional equipoise of the narrator while external conditions are either excluded or—as in Bernhard's works—globally denounced. Disillusionment, anger, pessimism, and fear are the motives for these protagonists to retreat into subjective reality, accounting for the lack of a social critical perspective. It is the personal concern of these author-narrators to reveal the ontological causes for their vexing self-doubts and insecurities. This sort of self-reflection seeks to stabilize their shattered psychological make-up. In the New Subjective works the individual functions both as the means and the objective of narration.20 The individual describes, portrays, and analyzes himself because everything external to him resists depiction, portrayal, and analysis for want of a logical coherence. One could argue, then, that it is indeed the abstract system of society that is implicated and held responsible for the deformations of the individual. Since this system is no longer depictable and poses a monstrous threat to the individual, it necessitates his retreat into subjectivity. Walser too employs his protagonists as figural media eluding social reality by barricading themselves within their thoughts and emotions. Yet the goal of his novels is not a narcissistic self-presentation—neither of the author nor of the protagonist. It is Walser's intent to unveil the adverse social conditions and their effect on his protagonists, an intent that manifests itself in his narrative approach.


The introjection of the thematics in Walser's novels after 1975 has its formal basis in the modified narrative perspective. While Walser presents his narratives now in the third person, the narrative perspective is still centered in the character's consciousness. An outside narrator is not noticeable, yet the use of the third person and of the simple past point to a mediating narrative voice. Oftentimes the narratives are carried by narrated monologue, a form of figural narration that stands between direct and indirect speech and expresses the thoughts of the character—contrary to the interior monologue—in the third person.21 Thus narrated monologue casts “the language of a subjective mind into the grammar of objective narration.” While formally it points to the presence of an implied narrator, it is this narrator's “identification—but not his identity—with the character's mentality that is supremely enhanced by this technique.”22 This kind of narration renounces ex cathedra statements of an omniscient narrator and instead mediates external reality via the consciousness of the perceiving character. This creates the illusion of immediacy, the suspension in an instant present and makes possible a high degree of dramatic and mimetic representation of external as well as internal events, including the penetration of the subliminal zones of the mind.23 This, then, entails a process of identification between reader and character, and the reader is invited to meet the character with empathy and benevolence.

As it is the protagonist's consciousness that is mediated, albeit in the third person, it is often almost impossible for the reader to note the presence of a potential outside narrator. On the other hand a narrative voice implies itself through the use of the third person and the simple past. This co-existence of character and implied narrator (who share the same perspective, but speak in different voices)24 creates a tension between the two. Walser handles this tension skillfully and uses it for sudden and subtle changes of perspective. This is achieved through the shift from past tense to present tense discourse as for example in Brandung: “Unter diesem Himmel hatte man sich also den Pazifik zu denken. … Dieser Anblick sprengt ihm schier sein sogenanntes Fassungsvermögen” (B [Brandung] 29).25 This time shift immediately stops the flow of the narrated monologue and questions the subjective mediation through the figural medium, that is, the character. In this vein the point of view of an implied narrator often but almost imperceptibly disrupts or blends into the protagonist's perspective in order to subtly comment on, ironize, or simply objectify certain thoughts, statements or actions. It immediately takes the reader out of the temporal and spatial context experienced by the character and discontinues his or her identification with the character. Whereas the reader is encouraged by the narrated monologue to share the character's perspective, he or she is now invited or even forced to share the perspective of the implied narrator's commenting voice. The present tense clearly evokes a more ironic distance of the implied narrator from the character.26

Except for Brief an Lord Liszt, which as an epistolary novel is written in the first person, Walser usually avoids the use of the first person pronoun. Instead, the narration switches to second person discourse, which may be interpreted as the narrator addressing his character or the character addressing himself. In Jagd one reads: “Er hatte es satt, der zu sein, der er zu sein hatte. Geh hin und lang dem eine …” (J [Jagd] 96) [He was fed up with the idea of being the way he was expected to be. Go up to him and slap him …]. In the following example from Ein fliehendes Pferd personal pronouns change within the same sentence: “Wehe dir Sabine, wenn er nur vier Bände schafft” (FP [Ein fliehendes Pferd] 11) [“And may the Lord have mercy on you, Sabine, if he only gets through four” (volumes of Kierkegaard's diaries); RH [Runaway Horse] 2]. In such cases the narrating and the figural voice seem to fuse as the narrated monologue temporarily blends into interior monologue and the implied narrator disappears completely behind the character. Rarely does one encounter statements in the interior monologue, such as “Ja, ich suche ein Schlupfloch” (JL [Jenseits der Liebe] 155) [Yes, so I am looking for a retreat], a mental utterance by Franz Horn in Jenseits der Liebe. Gottlieb Zürn in Jagd seems to be the only protagonist whom Walser has granted frequent permission to voice his thoughts directly. More typical are passages of indirect style, reported speech or thought, where the mediation through an implied narrator on which the character is dependent is clearly visible. Yet, here too, the narrative voice invariably adopts the protagonist's angle of vision and yields to the figural thoughts, effacing once again the demarcation between the narrator's and the character's linguistic idiom, so that what is reported seems to be identical with the character's self-knowledge. Given the lack of evaluative judgments, the implied narrator does not appear to have a cognitive privilege over the character.27

Only very few statements seem to reflect an omniscient point of view, for example: “Xavers Vorstellungen begannen zu rasen” (SA [Seelenarbeit] 254) [“Xaver's fantasies began to race”; IM [The Inner Man] 237], although even in this sentence psycho-narration is still maintained in that the figural perspective is not transcended, but rather presented through the use of verbs and nouns of consciousness. At times one finds passages of direct speech by other characters which, by virtue of the absence of quotation marks, must be read as filtered through the protagonist's mind.28 The hidden, yet permanent presence of an outside narrator points to the limited perspective of the protagonist and prevents the reader from taking the character all too readily at his word. While the character's autonomy in his function as a figural medium is sustained, his subjective perspective is at the same time undermined by the presence of an implied narrator, whose true identity is veiled. This play with perspectives reflects an essential component of the texts’ thematic structure, namely the protagonists’ pathological urge to camouflage their true identities. In Brandung we read:

Man weiß nie, ob man sich wirklich durchschaut, wenn man sich ganz zu durchschauen glaubt. Vielleicht fällt man nur auf eine weitere Kulisse herein, die man vor den wirklichen Befund schiebt, weil der für das sogenannte Selbstgefühl unerträglich wäre.

(B 13)

[We never know whether we understand our real motive when we believe we do understand our real motive. Perhaps we are merely deceived by a different backdrop that we have shifted in front of the true scenario because the latter would be intolerable for our so-called self-perception.]

(Br [Breakers] 8)

Here, Helmut Halm (or rather the implied narrator who mediates his perspective) expresses doubts about the objectivity of self-knowledge and of human perception in general. The entire novel is carried by a nostalgic, almost bitter tone as the character finds himself in an existential crisis owing to his realization of the deceptions of life and the illusion of reality.

The dependency on a higher narrating authority entails the psychological weakening of Walser's characters—as opposed to Walser's earlier novels, where narrative perspective and narrative voice are identical, namely unified in the hero. This illustrates the thematic shift of accent denoting the shift from a more sociological view in Walser's early prose to a distinctly psychological approach in his later works. The characters must now react to a “Gegenwelt,” a counter-force that exerts a threatening pressure on them.29 This increasing external psychological pressure brings with it the protagonists’ progressive loss of self-esteem and disintegrating sense of identity. The protagonists withdraw into an introverted self-isolation in order to resist an inimical environment.

This narrative technique reflects the theme of the characters’ alienation and their struggle for self-assertion. The subjective perspective makes the depiction of reality as a trustworthy totality impossible. Helmut Halm explicitly addresses the problematic of a subjective world view when he deplores that “[w]hat a person sees reflects virtually nothing of what actually is” (RH 64). The outside world in these texts presents itself only as perceived by the protagonists. The story unfolds not at the initiative of these protagonists, but rather follows their reactions to external, i.e. society's manipulative influences. Their (social) behavior is confined to developing defensive strategies in order to secure themselves a minimal realm of unassailability by public expectations.


Aside from the modified narrative perspective, Walser undertakes a new artistic approach to the form of his post-1973 narratives. The formal structure of these narratives reflects compository discipline and linguistic density. Gone are the days of Anselm Kristlein's loquacious digressions, and consequently the plot unravels much more economically, proceeding in a linear and purposive fashion toward an eventual climax. Furthermore, compared to the earlier novels, the scope of narrated time, setting, and external events is drastically reduced, while the focus lies on the individual protagonist's internal suffering and the impossibility of gaining relief. Owing to this narrowed point of view, other characters remain pallid and faceless. The voices of bosses and friends alike fade away, and both setting and sound of events are introjected into the protagonist's mind.30

With the conclusion of the trilogy Walser bids farewell to Kristlein and his social upstart mentality of the fifties and sixties. The last sentence of Der Sturz seems to capture the cynicism of Kristlein's lasting disillusionment. Isolated and paralyzed he will vegetate in apathy: “Es fielen jetzt Glück und Ende zusammen wie beim Biß” (S [Der Sturz] 356) [Like the closing of jaws, his happiness and his end now clashed]. It is several years before a successor emerges to evaluate Kristlein's defeatist capitulation to society's immutability, a successor who awakens to once again subject societal foibles to the light of day. When Franz Horn opens his eyes at the beginning of Jenseits der Liebe his teeth are clenched. It is the beginning of a new chapter of suffering, although under slightly modified auspices. From the outset the new protagonists find themselves in a state of introversion, isolated from others, and fixated on themselves and their mental misery.

In his coda to Anselm Kristlein, Walser states that Kristlein had never been happy, let alone in control of or in harmony with himself.31 Being exposed to nothing but hostilities, the life of Kristlein, the would-be parvenu, was a continuous battle. Although in retrospect Walser denies his protagonist any self-confidence, he nonetheless considers him a hero, because he believed in survival. Kristlein, Walser continues, could not help but lead a life of conformity, never giving thought to the price of his life style. The debts continue to be paid by Walser's protagonists since 1976, who have long since forfeited their natural spontaneity to cope with their environment. The relationship between them and the outside world focuses on psychological ramifications and mirrors the deformations of their suffering consciousness. The protagonists of this era have internalized Kristlein's extroverted verbosity. Hence, in Seelenarbeit, the chauffeur Xaver Zürn engages in self-contained dialogues with his boss since he is unable to communicate through genuine conversation.

While the Kristlein novels centered on the protagonist's zealous struggle for self-realization via social ascent, the later works illustrate the characters’ resignation and their exhaustion from this struggle. Despite the fact that they have moved up the social ladder, they have failed to find their yearned-for happiness and are now preoccupied with developing strategies for survival in order to come to terms with their failures. These characters are individual examples of the changing phase from the social, political, and economic euphoria of the fifties to the stagnation and recession of the seventies.32 Undoubtedly, the protagonists of the seventies and eighties have attained higher living standards, a mechanism by which they seem to realize that throughout their laborious social ascent they “justified and absolved even the most destructive and oppressive features of th[is] enterprise.”33 Thus the recognition of their own passive contributions to social oppression renders them unwilling to participate any longer in the masquerade of seeking advancement through conformism. Aware that the system has claimed them as victims, they have become “Unterlegenheitsspezialisten” [experts of subordination]34 whose sole concern it is to withdraw from society.

The nature of the dependencies of Walser's everyday heroes is closely related to his modified narrative approach. It is no longer the material dependence of an Anselm Kristlein which limits their possibilities. Indeed, the immediate economic pressure to which Kristlein was once exposed has vanished into a psychological pressure, which, however, can be traced to economico-political conditions. These protagonists are ruled by the need to disguise and conceal themselves as they experience a sense of captivity generated by their rampant inferiority complex toward their environment. Although these feelings of inferiority are primarily evident in their intercourse with superiors, they also manifest themselves in public as well as private behavior patterns. This assertion is of particular significance in Ein fliehendes Pferd and Brandung, where the effects of social conditioning severely encroach on as private an enterprise as leisure activities.

Franz Horn in Jenseits der Liebe withdraws into a self-isolation of muted suffering in order to escape the influence of his competitor Liszt, who has ousted him from a leading position. In Ein fliehendes Pferd Helmut Halm is confronted with society's attacks personified by the manic conformist Klaus Buch. In this novella Walser warns the reader against the threat of an anonymous societal apparatus. Yet even after Ein fliehendes Pferd, Walser's most celebrated work to date,35 he felt motivated to bolster the degree to which society insinuates itself into the lives of his protagonists, altering and amplifying their sufferings.36 Additional evidence as to the obsolescence of the conventional forms of dependence—those under which Kristlein had been suffered—can be found in the novel Das Schwanenhaus, where Walser grants a senior Kristlein a brief appearance. Being one of those industrial pioneers, who single-handedly built up their own corporation, his entrance is dashing and exudes self-confidence. Meanwhile, however, aged and drained of all his vitality, but enormously wealthy, his death is reported only a little later. The later protagonists clearly belong to a new generation and reflect “das Leidensprofil der Familie Kristlein … anders” [the afflictions of the Kristlein family in a different manner].37


Walser's protagonists are typically drawn from the lower classes of society, more precisely, they are the descendents of blue-collar working class families. Although they have, by virtue of their personal aspirations and public education, long since attained a material and social middle-class status, they continue to cling to their inextricable emotional ties with their class of origin, which Walser loosely defines as the petty bourgeoisie, the German Kleinbürgertum. In his novels Walser tells “Kleinbürgergeschichte. Also die Geschichte der meisten Leute” (WS 25) [petty-bourgeois history, hence, the (hi)story of most people]. Basically Walser's petty bourgeoisie encompasses a class of average citizens who invariably derive from that segment of the social spectrum comprising the lower to lower middle class, which in his view includes not only the proletariat but also various sectors of white-collar working class, such as tenured public servants, the German Beamtenstand. Walser's early novels are particularly illustrative of the mania of social advancement, combined with the need for subordination and conformity which account for the discontent and psychological malaise of employees and public servants.38

As the lower-class individual is preoccupied with his social ascent, Walser's protagonists resemble that uniform type of employees characterized by Siegfried Kracauer as a natural selection bred under the pressure of social conditions and inevitably promoted by the economy and its appeal to the pertinent consumer needs.39 Since this social stratum lacks a concretely defined affiliation with a specific social class, it orients itself toward the bourgeoisie. Walser calls this upward orientation the “Rette-sich-wer-kann-Praxis” (WS 28) [every-man-for-himself attitude], declaring it the goal of every petty-bourgeois citizen to convert as quickly as possible to the ruling class so as to rid himself of his innate social inferiority complex. By contributing his own productivity the petty-bourgeois only ensures the efficacy of the system.

In 1964 Walser complained about the shortcomings of West German literature. Although the petty-bourgeoisie may be said to be the successor to the bourgeoisie, whose rise started during the eighteenth century (WS 96), Walser feels that the petty-bourgeois has been sorely neglected in German literature. Insisting that literature contain reference to socio-historical reality, Walser demands the abolishment of pseudo-realistic literature in favor of a critical debate of contemporary issues. His works from 1957 to 1973 place special emphasis on the social mobility of his petty-bourgeois protagonists. Walser's later texts, then, stand in stark contrast to his earlier ones, preferring to investigate the characters’ psychological deformations, the mechanisms to which they are exposed after having attained the desired bourgeois social status. Marcuse considers the social mobility of the petty-bourgeoisie the essential structural principle of an advanced industrial society. For “‘the people,’ previously the ferment of social change, have ‘moved up’ to become the ferment of social cohesion.”40 The stagnant social conditions in Walser's novels attest to that, because they show how society has replaced, in the words of Marcuse,

personal dependence (…) with dependence on the ‘objective order of things’ (on economic laws, the market, etc.). To be sure, the ‘objective order of things’ is itself the result of domination, but it is nevertheless true that domination now generates a higher rationality—that of society which sustains its hierarchic structure while exploiting ever more efficiently the natural and mental resources, and distributing the benefits of this exploitation on an ever-larger scale. The limits of this rationality, and its sinister force, appear in the progressive enslavement of man by a productive apparatus which perpetuates the struggle for existence. …41

Walser, who considers himself a petty-bourgeois citizen, regards petty-bourgeois life as a representative form of contemporary existence:

Für mich fließt alles, was ich mir vorstellen kann, im Kleinbürgerlichen zusammen. Das kommt halt daher, weil ich selber Kleinbürger bin, kleinbürgerlich geboren und aufgewachsen. Daher können andere Klassen bei mir eher nur Gastspiele geben. Meine Arbeitshaltung kann nie eine andere sein, als daß der Held Kleinbürger-Frequenz hat, und ich könnte keine andere anstreben.42

[For me everything I can imagine is a part of petty-bourgeois existence. This is simply a consequence of my own background, as I was born and grew up to be a petty-bourgeois. This is why other (social) classes can merely give guest performances in my books. When I work my heroes automatically have a petty-bourgeois wave-length, I could not design them in any other way.]

Elsewhere Walser has stated the reasons for his sympathies with the petty-bourgeois hero, who in his opinion is “eine ausgenutzte, ausgepowerte Figur … in der Geschichte” [an exploited, washed-up figure … in history], lacking a historical consciousness as well as collective self-esteem.43 Another reason for Walser's genuine devotion to the petty-bourgeois hero is the general social reputation of that class. Society, Walser elaborates, has created a negative image of the petty-bourgeois with regard to his cultural taste, his intellectual standards, his political, and perhaps even his erotic preferences.44 Walser's statements document his partisanship with the socially underprivileged, with those who are subjected to superior authorities.

Society's oppressive power mechanisms become one of the prevalent topics in Walser's most recent essays, the 1986 collection Geständnis auf Raten (Confession by Installments). Whoever exercises power, Walser writes, abuses it (GR [Geständnis auf Raten] 74). In most of the thirty-six short essays contained in this volume he criticizes the miscellaneous misuses of power that promote the oppression of the petty-bourgeois and hence are antagonistic to a democratic ideal.45 In each of his novels Walser presents an individual who embodies the effects of societal manipulation. An important aspect of his characters’ psychological make-up can be derived from Walser's concept of irony as defined in his Frankfurt lectures.


Walser's theoretical expositions on self-confidence and irony, which date back to 1973, display a distinct relation and relevance to the conflicts depicted in his fictions. Analogous to the theme of Walser's novels, his concept of irony derives from the “kleinbürgerliche Bedingung” (SI [Selbstbewußstein und Ironie] 167) [petty-bourgeois premise]. This origin remains visible as Walser undertakes the development of his own concept, contrasting two principal notions of irony. One pole is represented by the classic tradition of bourgeois irony, a tradition that commences with the romantic philosopher Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829) and his contemporary, the little known writer Adam Müller (1779-1829), and culminates in the twentieth century with Thomas Mann (1875-1955). The other pole is the petty-bourgeois variant of irony which Walser traces back to Socrates and he delineates its recurrences in Kierkegaard (1813-1855) and Hegel (1770-1831). By juxtaposing both traditions Walser decidedly distances himself from the bourgeois concept of irony. His fundamental objection is that bourgeois irony ostensibly originated in Schlegel's misinterpretation of Socrates’ and Johann Gottlieb Fichte's (1762-1814) writings.

Walser's concept of irony rests upon Socrates’ famous statement: I know that I know nothing, where the affirmative statement of the first clause is negated in the second. Therefore, Walser reasons, Socrates’ blunt revelation of a negative state of affairs in an affirmative manner, the affirmation of his own intellectual incompetence, must inadvertently appear ironical. Walser believes that irony must be involuntary by definition, and it is by virtue of being uncontrived that it gains the property of such grave seriousness (SI 28). The serious aspect of irony in literature, then, is the consistency with which it has the protagonist uncover and acquiesce to negative conditions (e.g. I know that I know nothing). The point of it all, as Walser explains, is that the reader will discover the lack and engender “die Entbindung des Schlechten, auf daß es erscheine und dadurch auf der Strecke bleibe …” (SI 41) [the localization of negative aspects, so that they may become visible and thus perish]. Granting unconditional legitimacy to the negative elements embedded in accepted mores allowed Socrates to identify flaws and deficiencies of external reality (SI 40).

Walser criticizes Schlegel for misinterpreting Socrates. He takes Schlegel to task for accusing Socrates of simulating a naïve exterior while concealing his true intelligence. Hence, it is Schlegel's conclusion that Socrates’ irony is at the same time overt and outspoken as well as unrecognizably veiled (SI 33). In Walser's view, Schlegel undervalues Socrates’ genuine concern, a concern that Walser believes to be unmistakably earnest and educational (SI 34). Schlegel, conversely, conceives of Socrates’ irony as a poetic license of sorts, which allows the poet to elevate himself above both his own prejudices and the world's. Since Schlegel categorizes irony simply as self-parody (SI 34), Walser disparages, one would—if one were to agree with Schlegel—have to classify Socratic irony as bourgeois irony—an irony that merely reflects the author's sublime self-consciousness and arrogance and must not be considered a literary phenomenon (SI 107).

Like the authors of the bourgeois irony, their fictional characters—Walser cites Thomas Mann's Tonio Kröger (1903; 1925) as the prime example—are endowed with the self-confidence of the ruling class and exude imperturbable self-complacency (SI 111, 118). Walser rejects this bourgeois irony outright, believing it to be merely a means of self-glorification. He sees in Schlegel, Adam Müller, and especially Thomas Mann typical representatives of this tradition as all of them descended from influential bourgeois families and were, by right of birth so to speak, furnished with a firm and sound self-esteem. In Müller's writings too, Walser detects a kind of irony that in his view is replete with conceit and a sublime self-complacency. Walser traces Schlegel's as well as Müller's use of irony to their assumed bourgeois elitism, a presumptuous attitude completely detached from a concern with social conflicts.

Walser conceives of irony as the manifestation, or rather the result of a certain social class consciousness. Just as he explains bourgeois irony as originating in the unshakable self-confidence of the bourgeois author, he considers the petty-bourgeois variant a mirror of socio-psychological conditions. Walser here resorts to Fichte's thesis according to which the self becomes aware of and experiences itself ex negativo, that is, to the extent by which it is defined and delimited by forces external to itself, to wit, the non-self. Hence, the self-identity of an individual is entirely determined by the outside world. The greater the influence exerted by the outside world, the more difficult the experience of a genuine sense of self for the individual. Thus self-confidence or self-identity must necessarily be experienced primarily in its limitation, insufficiency or lack. Fichte's low social background gives Walser a valid reason to sympathize with Fichte's dialectical method of deducing self-confidence from the interplay between self and outside world. He therefore extols Fichte's successful attempt to achieve an autonomous, solipsistic self, in admiration of this glorious self-liberation of a petty-bourgeois identity that had little opportunity of finding external recognition (SI 62).

If applied to the petty-bourgeois consciousness, Socrates’ sentence would have to read: I know that I am nothing. Since the given social conditions deny the lower-class individual the accessibility of a solid sense of self, he or she can only experience self-esteem by somehow achieving a sense of harmony with the outside world. Such a state of accordance, however, can only be gained if the individual endorses the external conditions regardless of their restrictive potential, and ignores or suppresses his or her genuine desires. The continual self-denial of a literary protagonist in order to experience harmony with the outside world creates what Walser describes as ironic style (SI 178). The identities of these protagonists are negative identities, originating in the negative self-confidence of the oppressed who sacrifice their personalities to the ruling conditions, which they accept, affirm, internalize, reproduce, and consolidate. Yet, since that negative potential is all these protagonists possess, they cherish it as their sole means to realize their personalities and find happiness. A petty-bourgeois identity, then, reveals itself essentially as a non-identity or an identity of alienation.

As for the literary archetypes of this petty-bourgeois irony of subordination and self-denial, Walser admires especially Robert Walser's Jakob von Gunten in the novel of the same title (1908) and Kafka's Gregor Samsa in Die Verwandlung (1915; The Metamorphosis, 1937). Through their conscious, yet compulsive attempts to affirm the restrictive social conditions with which they are confronted, these characters endeavor to compensate for their fundamental deficiency, namely the lack of a self-assertive impetus. By euphorically exercising a conformist ritual, the petty-bourgeois protagonist becomes oblivious to society's oppressive mechanisms and invariably secures for himself a sense of congruity with the system. Walser conceives of the petty-bourgeois irony as a response to historical conditions, more precisely, to the clash of social classes.46 Similar to the literary product, which is an outcome of the writer's reaction to onerous experiences, this irony is the consequence of the protagonist's compulsive acceptance and approval of society's demands. Yet, whereas the act of writing constitutes itself as a means to contradict social deficiencies, the subversive potential of Walser's irony is at best implied. The desperate struggle of the protagonist who suppresses himself automatically questions the legitimacy of the given conditions. Thus the reader is made aware of the oppressive potential of external reality and the lack of prospects for social change, an awareness that, so Walser hopes, will kindle the reader's desire for change.

On the one hand the ironic strategy of acquiescence and resignation to reality could be interpreted as the glorification of conformism, which, of course, would invalidate any subversive impulse of that irony. After all, Walser himself defined the petty-bourgeois as someone who is willing and proud to exploit himself and celebrate his own misery.47 Conversely, the positive potential of petty-bourgeois irony lies in the questions it poses, questions that challenge the given conditions to justify themselves, so that in the long run, extant forms of domination may be abolished—an admittedly utopian achievement of irony that even Walser formulates only as wishful thinking.

According to Walser, every novel gives an account of the ontogenesis of a self-identity (SI 155). As Walser's protagonists are conditioned by their petty-bourgeois background, his texts are to be understood as portrayals of petty-bourgeois consciousness. As to how this concept of irony manifests itself in Walser's novels, it will be sketched within the textual analyses. It should be noted that only Jenseits der Liebe represents an ironical novel in Walser's sense.48 The protagonists of Walser's other novels periodically exercise the irony of self-negation without succumbing to its inexorable consequentiality that ends with the irreversible acceptance of a negative identity.


  1. Roland Lang, “Wie tief sitzt der Tick, gegen die Bank zu spielen? Interview mit Martin Walser,” Martin Walser, ed. Klaus Siblewski (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1981) 56.

  2. Monika Totten, “Ein Gespräch mit Martin Walser in Neuengland,” Martin Walser, ed. Klaus Siblewski, (Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1981) 28.

  3. Totten, pp. 28-29; see also Martin Walser, “Über den Umgang mit Literatur,” Martin Walser: International Perspectives, ed. Jürgen E. Schlunk and Armand E. Singer, American University Studies, Series I, Germanic Languages and Literature 64 (New York: Lang, 1987) 206.

  4. Walser, “Über den Leser—soviel man in einem Festzelt darüber sagen soll” (WW 122); cf. also Ursula Reinhold, “Erfahrung und Realismus: Über Martin Walser,” Welmarer Beiträge 21.7 (1975): 99.

  5. “Mythen, Milch und Mut,” Christ und Welt 18 Oct. 1968: 17.

  6. Helmut Kreuzer, “Zur Literatur der siebziger Jahre in der Bundesrepublik,” Basis 8 (1978): 9.

  7. “Gemeinplätze, die Neueste Literatur betreffend,” Kursbuch 15 (1968): 195.

  8. Dieter Wellershoff, Literatur und Veränderung (Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1969) 43.

  9. This analogy marks the starting point of various reception theories. See especially George Poulet who writes at the outset of his phenomenological analysis of the act of reading: “This I who thinks in me when I read a book, is the I of the one who writes the book … As he makes us read it, he awakens in us the analogue of what he thought or felt”; “Phenomenology of Reading,” New Literary History 1 (1969): 57. Similarly, Wolfgang Iser states that the text is brought to life through the act of concretization; “Der Lesevorgang,” Rezeptionsästhetik, 1975, ed. Rainer Warning (Munich: Fink, 1979) 153.

  10. Martin Walser im Gespräch mit Günter Gaus, Television Interview with Martin Walser, ARD, NDR 2 Nov. 1985.

  11. See Martin Walser, Wer ist ein Schriftsteller?, p. 37; Wie und wovon handelt Literatur, p. 123; “Rascher Überblick über unser Vermögen,” Basis 5 (1975): 132-33; Anton Kaes, “Porträt Martin Walser. Ein Gespräch,” German Quarterly 57 (1984): 435; Irmela Schneider, “Ansprüche an die Romanform: Ein Gespräch mit Martin Walser,” Die Rolle des Autors: Analysen und Gespräche, ed. Irmela Schneider, Literaturwissenschaft-Gesellschaftswissenschaft 56 (Stuttgart: Klett, 1981) 103; Peter André Bloch, et. al., “Interview mit Martin Walser,” Gegenwartsliteratur: Mittel und Bedingungen ihrer Produktion, ed. P. A. Bloch (Bern and Munich: Francke, 1975) 262; Ulrike Hick, Interview mit Martin Walser, Martin Walsers Prosa: Möglichkeiten des zeitgenössischen Romans unter Berücksichtigung des Realismusanspruchs, Stuttgarter Arbeiten zur Germanistik 126, ed. Ulrich Müller, et. al. (Stuttgart: Akademischer Verlag Hans-Dieter Heinz, 1983) 292-94.

  12. Kaes, p. 435.

  13. Walser, “Ein Blick durchs umgekehrte Fernrohr,” Preface, Gesellschaftspolitische Aspekte in Martin Walsers Kristlein-Trilogie, by Heike Doane (Bonn: Bouvier, 1978) 1. See also Klaus Siblewski, “Martin Walser,” Kritisches Lexikon zur deutschsprachigen Gegenwartssliteratur, ed. Heinz Ludwig Arnold (Munich: Text + Kritik, 1980) 2.

    Heinz Ludwig Arnold (Munich: Text + Kritik, 1980) 2.

  14. Kaes, p. 436.

  15. Thomas Nolden, “Der Schriftsteller als Literaturkritiker: Ein Porträt Martin Walsers,” Martin Walser: International Perspectives, p. 181.

  16. Although Bernhard's narratives are available in translation in the volume Gathering Evidence. A Memoir, trans. David McLintock (New York: Knopf, 1985), the English renditions of quotations are my own.

  17. Helmut Koopmann, “Tendenzen des deutschen Romans der siebziger Jahre,” Handbuch des deutschen Romans, ed. Helmut Koopmann (Düsseldorf: Bagel, 1983) 580.

  18. David Bronsen, “Autobiographien der siebziger Jahre: Berühmte Schriftsteller befragen ihre Vergangenheit,” Deutsche Literatur der Bundesrepublik seit 1965, ed. Paul Michael Lützeler and Egon Schwarz (Königstein: Athenäum, 1980) 213.

  19. Cf. Frisch's 1958 essay “Öffentlichkeit als Partner,” Gesammelte Werke in zeitlicher Folge 7, ed. Hans Mayer (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1976) 244-52, where Frisch voices the opposite view, namely that he writes exclusively for his readers.

  20. Linda C. DeMeritt, New Subjectivity and Prose Forms of Alienation: Peter Handke and Botho Strauß, Studies in Modern German Literature 5 (New York: Lang, 1987) 8.

  21. For a most lucid explication of narrated monologue see Dorrit Cohn, Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978) 99-140.

  22. Cohn, pp. 117, 112.

  23. Stanzel, Theorie des Erzählens (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1979) 246; see also Cohn, p. 126.

  24. In certain instances, however, there occurs even a fusion of narrative voices, a so-called “stylistic contagion,” when the reporting syntax is maintained, but the diction seems to reflect the character's own thoughts or words; see Cohn, p. 33.

  25. This time shift is not accounted for in the English translation: “And under this sky was, one knew, the Pacific. … The sight seemed almost to burst the bounds of his emotional grasp” (Br 28).

  26. The narrative ambiguity resulting from the shift from narrated monologue to the present tense is discussed perceptively by Jean-Maurice Martin, Untersuchungen zum Problem der Erlebten Rede. Der ursächliche Kontext der Erlebten Rede, dargestellt an Romanen Robert Walsers, Europäische Hochschulschriften, Series I, Deutsche Sprache und Literatur 1009 (Bern: Lang, 1987) 125-26.

  27. Cohn has termed this the “consonant type of psycho-narration [that] displays disparity of values even less than disparity of knowledge [between narrator and character]” (32).

  28. Cohn uses the term “unsignaled quoted monologue” (111).

  29. See Anton Kaes, “Porträt Martin Walser. Ein Gespräch,” Interview with Martin Walser, German Quarterly 57 (1984): 437.

  30. See Thomas Beckermann, “‘Ich bin sehr klein geworden’: Versuch über Walsers Entblößungsverbergungssprache,” Martin Walser: International Perspectives, ed. Jürgen E. Schlunk and Armand E. Singer, American University Studies, Series 1, Germanic Languages and Literature 64 (New York: Lang, 1987) 22; also Ursula Reinhold, “Zu Walsers Romanen in den siebziger Jahren,” Tendenzen und Autoren: Zur Literatur der siebziger Jahre in der BRD (Berlin: Dietz, 1982) 298.

  31. “Nachruf auf einen Verstummten,” Martin Walser, ed. Klaus Siblewski (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1981) 54-57.

  32. Thomas Beckermann, “Entblößungsverbergungssprache,” p. 20.

  33. Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, p. 146.

  34. Sybille Brantl, “Martin Walser: Sein Leben spricht Bände,” Interview with Martin Walser, Cosmopolitan (German edition) Oct. 1986: 35.

  35. For details on its reception see Hans Erich Struck, Ein fliehendes Pferd, Oldenbourg Interpretationen 27 (Munich: Oldenbourg, 1988) 79-84.

  36. See Monika Totten, “Ein Gespräch mit Martin Walser in Neuengland,” Martin Walser, ed. Klaus Siblewski (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1981) 37.

  37. Roland Lang, “Wie tief sitzt der Tick, gegen die Bank zu spielen? Interview mit Martin Walser,” Martin Walser, ed. Klaus Siblewski (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1981) 53.

  38. Urs Jaeggi, “Zwischen den Mühlsteinen: Der Kleinbürger oder die Angst vor der Geschichte,” Kursbuch 45 (1976): 162.

  39. Die Angestellten: Aus dem neuesten Deutschland, 1930 (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1971) 25.

  40. Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, p. 256.

  41. Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, p. 144.

  42. Ursula Reinhold, “Gespräch,” Interview with Martin Walser, Tendenzen und Autoren: Zur Literatur der siebziger Jahre in der BRD (Berlin: Dietz, 1982) 290. As for details on Walser's own background, see Anthony Waine, Martin Walser, pp. 7-11; furthermore Michael Winkler, “Martin Walser,” Dictionary of Literary Biography 75: Contemporary German Fiction Writers Second Series, ed. Wolfgang D. Elfe and James Hardin, (Detroit: Gale, 1988) 243.

  43. Hans Magnus Enzensberger, “Von der Unaufhaltsamkeit des Kleinbürgertums: Eine soziologische Grille,” Kursbuch 45 (1976): 4, 6. Enzensberger also refers to the petty-bourgeois citizen's lack of self-confidence and political influence, as well as his enthusiastic conformism and unquestioning propensity to consumerism.

  44. See Totten, p. 34.

  45. See Geständnis auf Raten, pp. 26, 34, 80-81, 88, 94, 104.

  46. Cf. Walser's statements in an interview with Peter André Bloch, Gegenwartsliteratur: Mittel und Bedingungen ihrer Produktion, ed. P. A. Bloch (Bern and Munich: Francke, 1975) 265.

  47. Ursula Reinhold, “Gespräch,” Interview with Martin Walser, Tendenzen und Autoren: Zur Literatur der siebziger Jahre in der BRD (Berlin: Dietz, 1982) 290.

  48. Heike Doane has investigated the ironic style of that novel in her essay “Martin Walsers Ironiebegriff: Definition und Spiegelung in drei späten Prosawerken,” Monatshefte 77 (1985): 195-212.

Erich Wolfgang Skwara (review date spring 1992)

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SOURCE: Skwara, Erich Wolfgang. Review of Die Verteidigung der Kindheit, by Martin Walser. World Literature Today 66, no. 2 (spring 1992): 334-35.

[In the following review, Skwara hails Walser's achievement in Die Verteidigung der Kindheit as “a major literary event,” delineating its themes, protagonist, and plot within the context of “German-German” postwar history.]

Martin Walser's newest work, Die Verteidigung der Kindheit (The Defense of Childhood), truly a magnum opus, is a book of fiction—or is it rather a biography? If so, then we read a double biography: namely, the life of ill-fated Alfred Dorn, painful hero of the impossible, and that of East and West Germany in the fore- or background. The novel, then, might be read—and would be misread—as a historical or political text alone, but its author goes far beyond such worthwhile yet trivial intentions. Despite the rather traditional epic narrative likely to make the book a favorite with foreign audiences (translations into all major languages are under way), Walser has really created a work of painful poetic vision. While reading I could not free myself from the vague concept of a “reverse developmental novel,” a term to be defined.

Walser's novel is a study of belonging, love, and dissolution, a “sickness unto death” presented as progress. Alfred Dorn's life is described with the uttermost care, precision, and patience, until the reader reaches the conclusion that such an existence is quite impossible in our time and place. Since the time is the period from around 1950 until Dorn's death in 1987, and since the places are his native Dresden, then the city of his student days, Berlin, then Wiesbaden, the site of his professional career, this “impossible life” runs parallel to all present-day Germans and takes its eerie quality alone from this fact. The novel's hero is an antihero of the impossible, its theme that of a Parzival for our times; it is a novel of innocence, of its loss and of the quest to regain it. To place such a story into the context of the Cold War, to make such a tenderness of vision acutely political, precise to the smallest detail, verifiable in all aspects, yet retain its poetry (not just its prose)—who else among Walser's contemporaries could have achieved such a triumph?

Who exactly is Alfred Dorn? He is a German, born in Dresden in 1929 to a dentist and a mother filled with the grandest expectations for her son. Alfred attends the famous Kreuzgymnasium, and the major traumatic event of his young life is the bombardment of Dresden. In a way, the entire novel hinges on that event, one of human and material loss for the Dorn family, one that bonds mother and son in a love exceeding all limits. Alfred will henceforth—subconsciously at first, as a sole and conscious obsession later—try to reconstitute and preserve his world of childhood, i.e. the world as it existed for him before the night of the bombing. The newly emerging GDR, however, with its insistence on society and realism, proves to be a bad place for dreamers like Alfred. At Leipzig University he fails his examinations because he “does not understand the state's role.” Therefore he feels obligated to move to the West, to Berlin, in 1953 in order to complete his law studies there. Only when Dorn enters the West does Walser's novel begin in a proper sense, but the prehistory, unfolded in haunting passages, obviously forms the book's foundation.

To sum up a long story, every page of which makes for unforgettable reading and instruction in German-German history, Alfred never returns to the East except for short visits, which the political reality increasingly complicates. There are few texts in German literature that show in a more honest or effective way the frailty of the individual caught between power blocs, and there is surely no novel of such high quality and epic proportion on this major theme. Alfred's mother, upon falling ill, moves to West Berlin to be with her son. She dies there and is buried in the Zellendorfer Waldfriedhof. With her death, Alfred is truly alone in this world, where no one, certainly not his father, understands completely his obsession with childhood and the past. The only project he now considers worth living for is the rebuilding of his childhood: “Wenn man nach zweitausend Jahren den Pergamon-Altar wieder aufbauen konnte, kann man auch seine Kindheit wieder aufbauen!” Naturally, one cannot.

Alfred collects every item, letter, and photograph relating to his past. His endeavors collapse necessarily at every attempted crossing of the “border.” He remains a loner with a monotonous government job in Wiesbaden. Just as the progress of time makes his dream of reconstructing his childhood impossible, so the power blocs deny him access to the turf of his memories. During the final seven years of his life, Alfred the collector becomes a writer of diaries, tracking down every moment of his days and every thought crossing his mind. His human relationships remain unsatisfying, his goals move farther into the distance. His death is tragic; whether it is accidental or self-inflicted, the reader knows that Alfred is a victim.

One could extract a psychiatric case study from Die Verteidigung der Kindheit that encompasses absurdity, perversion, and madness exactly as represented by German-German postwar history. German critics have time and again hailed the “great contemporary German novel.” Martin Walser has called the collapse of the GDR and the reunification of the two Germanies “das ihm liebste Politische, seit er lebe.” The peacefulness of those developments has overwhelmed many, including the author himself. Peaceful, frail, doomed—such are the traits of poor Alfred Dorn, and the “great contemporary German novel” will have to consist of these very elements, whether critics like it or not. Walser's novel is a major literary event.

Alexander Mathäs (essay date spring 1994)

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SOURCE: Mathäs, Alexander. “Copying Kafka's Signature: Martin Walser's Die Verteidigung der Kindheit.Germanic Review 69, no. 2 (spring 1994): 79-91.

[In the following essay, Mathäs investigates the influence of Franz Kafka on Walser's Die Verteidigung der Kindheit, comparing the themes and protagonists of the novel with Kafka's literary works.]

In their initial reactions to Martin Walser's novel Die Verteidigung der Kindheit, many critics emphasized the continuity in Walser's works. Consequently, these critics stressed the psychological similarities of Walser's protagonists.1 Those critics who interpreted Walser's novel in terms of the author's position toward German unification were either disappointed or had to concede that historical events remained in the background.2 After Martin Walser had almost singlehandedly and vociferously promoted German unity, it seemed only natural for certain critics to focus on the novel's historical dimension and its significance for Germany's contemporary political situation (see for example Martin Lüdke). The fact that Die Verteidigung der Kindheit intimately portrays East-West relations during the Cold War period made such a reading even more plausible. There is, however, a danger of over-looking other thematic aspects if one concentrates exclusively on the socio-political dimension, as some of the reactions prove.3 Walser has always been interested in society's impact on the individual's psyche rather than a mere rendering of society itself. The deformed individuals at the center of his novels reflect society's condition. And in this respect they closely resemble the protagonists of Franz Kafka's fiction. For in Die Verteidigung der Kindheit Walser has imbued his protagonist Alfred Dorn with many Kafka allusions, knitting a tight net of thematic references that discloses the similar psycho-social framework for many Kafka- and Walser-figures.

When Martin Walser began his literary career in 1955, critics welcomed his debut—a collection of short stories entitled Ein Flugzeug über dem Haus und andere Geschichten—and described the twenty-eight-year-old author as a Kafka epigone.4 Subsequently, Walser heeded critics’ admonitions to free himself from Kafka's influence and find his own style. After thirty-five years of a prolific and illustrious career, however, Walser completed a novel of considerable magnitude in which he is not afraid to pay an open tribute to his literary mentor. Both thematically and structurally, Die Verteidigung der Kindheit resembles Walser's early work to such an extent that critics’ descriptive comments about Walser's early work are also applicable to his latest novel.

Kafka's influence on Walser's concept of irony has been well documented in the secondary literature on his novels from the 1970s and 80s. By that time the author, after his initial effort to distance himself from his literary mentor, had become more confident in utilizing Kafka for his own literary purposes.5 Yet never before in Walser's career has Kafka figured as prominently as in Die Verteidigung der Kindheit. Walser draws extensively on Kafka's works and on the author himself, his biography, and his relationship to art. It is certainly no coincidence when the narrator informs the reader in a crucial passage about the main character's fascination with Kafka's handwriting: “In der Buchhandlung hatte die auf dem Prospect faksimilierte Unterschrift Franz Kafkas angezogen. Zu Hause fing er an, diese Unterschrift zu üben. … Er füllte viele Seiten mit Unterschriftsübungen. Morgen würde er sehen, ob seine Hand ein einziges Mal in die Bewegung des Originals hineingefunden habe” (516). Thus Walser's openly stated tribute to Kafka reveals in nuce Walser's own literary impulses. In this paper I will examine the thematic, structural, and poetological analogies between Kafka and Walser within the context of their fictionalized psycho-social kinship to demonstrate their significance for Walser's own aesthetic point of view. To support my analysis, I will refer to Gilles Deleuze's and Felix Guattari's famous Kafka study entitled Toward a Minor Literature as well as to Walser's own theoretical statements on Kafka and Thomas Mann, from his essay collection Selbstbewußstein und Ironie: Frankfurter Vorlesungen.6

For Deleuze and Guattari, Kafka's texts are prime examples of a minor literature, that is, literature, “which a minority constructs within a major language.”7 Unlike Kafka, Walser's protagonist does not belong to a linguistic minority, but to a cultural minority, both as a homosexual and social underdog or parvenu. This minority status translates into an inferiority status and causes a certain pattern of neurotic reactions that Walser's and Kafka's protagonists share. The psycho-social kinship of both Kafka's and Walser's figures is also determined and intensified by the oedipal family constellation in which they are portrayed, and which produces their neurotic personalities. Deleuze's and Guattari's study is therefore applicable to Die Vertidigung der Kindheit:

In [the oedipal family constellation], the father appears as the man who had to renounce his own desire and his own faith, if only to leave the “rural ghetto” where he was born; he appears as the man who demands only that the son submit because he himself is in submission to a dominant order in a situation from which there is no way out.8

This particular constellation causes the main character's internal split that informs the structure of the entire novel. Because the fathers act as the unsuccessful representatives of the dominant order the sons attempt to do better and avoid their fathers’ mistakes. But when they are trying to surpass their fathers, they have to realize that in their attempt to succeed where their fathers failed they have to deny their own selves. They must submit to the very dominant order that victimized their fathers. The dilemma is insoluble because in avoiding their fathers’ fate, the sons act like their fathers, who had also renounced their desires and their own faiths in pursuit of a better life. In view of this scenario where the father is not only the perpetrator but also the victim of the dominant order, Deleuze and Guattari write “the hypothesis of a common innocence, of a distress shared by father and son, is thus the worst of all hypotheses” because the sons have to follow in their fathers’ footsteps no matter whether they rebel or conform.9 In their attempt to escape their fathers’ influence the protagonists vacillate between these two irreconcilable poles and invent increasingly neurotic strategies. What Deleuze and Guattari explain as Kafka's “oedipalization of the universe” in which the image “of the father, expanded beyond all bounds, will be projected onto the geographic, historical, and political map of the world” can be observed in Walser's case.10 Thus his protagonist views the world in terms of the mother-father dichotomy that reflects his own internal split, flight and conformity, between deterritorialization (escape) and reterritorialization (conformity/dissimulation), between art and life, between east and west, Romanticism and Enlightenment, etc. Like Kafka's father who is imbued with the “ambiguity of the Jews, who have left their rural Czech milieu,” Walser's protagonist provides his own father with all the cultural traits of the ambitious parvenu representing protestant virtues, the descendant of Luther and Kant torn between his inner desire for freedom and society's demands to conform and obey.11 According to Deleuze and Guattari this “triangle of transformation” is universal: “All children can understand this; they all have a political and geographic map with diffuse and moving contours if only because of their nursemaids, servants, employees of the father, and so on.” In my paper, I will explore a net of structural and thematic motifs that reveal Walser's protagonist's traces of escape on this map marked by vacillation between the mother's and the father's worlds. The parallels to Kafka are striking because Walser outlines the strategies of deterritorialization (escape) or reterritorialization (conformity/dissimulation) in a manner that betrays a conscious employment of Kafka's ambiguous imagery.12 Before I turn to my intertextual investigation of specific motifs, I will outline the biographical and psycho-social similarities that characterize both Walser's and Kafka's protagonists as comrades in suffering. I will demonstrate how Walser in Die Verteidigung der Kindheit establishes a psycho-social kinship between the biographies of his protagonist, Alfred Dorn, and Kafka in order to provide an example of Kleinbürger mentality within the historical context of postwar Germany. Thus Alfred Dorn's biography serves the author as a mouthpiece and link between fact and fiction, between a version of his own life and the life of his spiritual mentor Kafka.

Apart from the numerous thematic similarities, allusions in imagery, and narrative perspective, it is above all the protagonist, Alfred Dorn, who could be described as “der ganz durchschnittliche Mensch von subalterner, meist kleinbürgerlicher Herkunft, der Mensch in betont gesellschaftlich-beruflicher Bestimmung,”13 whose neurotic anxieties remind one of the typical Walser-protagonist from earlier novels. The protagonist's feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy result from the personal defeats and losses that he suffers in his daily struggle against what he perceives as an overwhelming, antagonistic conspiracy, an ubiquitous power over which he has no control. In his attempt to defend his personal identity and integrity against these inimical societal forces, he overcompensates and unknowingly succumbs to the all-permeating powers of social convention. Like Alfred Dorn, all of Walser's protagonists are socially inept recluses with little self-esteem. Their upstart mentality contributes to their inferiority feelings and results in neurotic behavior: “Sie gehorchen … der Dialektik des technischen Prozesses, dem sie begegnen wollen: sie beginnen ihrerseits zu sammeln, zu formieren, zu registrieren—und sterben an dem vermeintlich heilsamen Gegengift.”14 These descriptions of the typical Walser-protagonist, written by Hans-Egon Holthusen and Walter Geis in 1955, still accurately fit Walser's latest anti-hero.

Alfred Dorn shares with his predecessors a rather uneventful life. It is quickly told: Born in 1929 in Dresden as the only child of the dentist Gustav Dorn and his wife Martha, he completes the humanist Gymnasium in 1948 as the best student of his class. From 1948 to 1952 he studies law at Leipzig University but does not graduate because he fails his final exam twice for political reasons, as he explains in his curriculum vitae. He completes his university education in West Berlin in 1956. In 1958 Alfred decides to put up his sick mother in his one-bedroom apartment in West Berlin because deteriorating East-West relations have made GDR visits increasingly difficult. In 1960 he obtains a license to practice law, just a few days before his mother passes away. For the following seven years he works as an attorney at a state agency that decides on war reparations. In 1967 he moves to Wiesbaden, where he works as an attorney at a different state agency that preserves public landmarks until he dies at the age of fifty-eight from an overdose of sleeping pills. What distinguishes Alfred Dorn from his neurotic predecessors is that the story of his life is based on a real biography. Waiser explained in an interview in Die Zeit that he became interested in this rather inconspicuous life because he felt very close to his hero and recognized in him a comrade in suffering.15 In other words, he discovered a psycho-social kinship to him.

When Walser has Alfred Dorn copy Kafka's signature at the end of the novel, he emphasizes the biographical similarities that both he and Kafka share with their protagonists. Copying Kafka's signature means appropriating Kafka's biography into one's own, just as Walser himself appropriated Alfred's biography. The author of Die Verteidigung der Kindheit is making a poetological statement when he has Alfred's closest friend, the Vize-Oma, give her opinion on novels that are based on biographies of real people: “Also eine Art Übereinstimmung des Autors mit der wirklich gewesenen Person sei die Bedingung. Sei die nicht gegeben, triumphiere die Manier des Autors über die historische Sache. Dann soll er sie aber doch lieber gleich lassen, die historische Sache, und sich, wie gewohnt, selber in Szene setzen” (220). Just as Kafka transforms his own life into art, Walser can use both Kafka's and Alfred's biography to write about himself because he identifies with both of them. Consequently, Walser, in referring interchangeably to both the biographical Kafka and his fiction, does not distinguish between the author and his protagonist. Alfred Dorn's appropriation of Kafka's life is equated with and subsumed under Walser's appropriation of Dorn's life.

Walser carefully depicts the social background of his protagonist to show how it shapes Alfred Dorn's frame of mind. And Walser shares the experience of belonging to the Kleinbürgertum with both Kafka and his protagonist. As typical representatives of the petit bourgeoisie, Kafka's and Alfred's fathers are ambitious opportunists who compensate for their own inadequate social status by totally conforming to the demands of society.16 They also instill their fear of anomaly in their children. Both Kafka and Alfred succumb to their fathers’ influence by choosing a secure, practical profession, in which they have little interest. They cannot live up to their fathers’ expectations because they fail to establish a family, the bourgeois tool for gaining wealth and power. As a result they are plagued with feelings of guilt and shame for their identification with the patriarchal order and for their failure to succeed. Paralyzed by the overpowering patriarchy, the sons accept their inferiority. Documented in Kafka's Brief an den Vater and fictionalized in Die Verwandlung and Walser's Die Verteidigung der Kindheit, these psycho-social conditions lead either to a neurotic regression or artistic sublimation in defense of the last remnants of the protagonists’ infantile freedom. Their feelings of inferiority are not restricted to the personal relationship with the father but are transferred to all social relationships. Their wish to be socially accepted is in permanent conflict with the need to preserve the remainder of their regressive individuality. Once the patriarchal order has been internalized, the sons’ struggle for self-preservation becomes increasingly difficult because they act as their own executioners and punish themselves with guilt for any transgressions. The sons’ intensifying endeavor to conform is accompanied by an attempt to conceal any deviations from society's expectations. A growing fear of rejection induces in them a hypersensitivity that stifles social interaction and results in a paranoid distortion of perception. In order to escape society's relentless scrutiny they become increasingly reclusive. The dynamics of this process lead to a faltering personality and ultimately to the destruction of the self. In addition to a certain psychological disposition that distinguishes them as typical members of the Kleinbürgertum, the author and Alfred Dorn share a similar relationship to their parents, according to Walser: “Mein Vater hat sich zwar nicht wegen einer Geliebten von meiner Mutter getrennt. Aber er ist früh gestorben. Jedenfalls war er nicht da. So waren meine Mutter und ich ein ähnliches Paar wie Alfred und seine Mutter.”17

Both Kafka and Alfred Dorn lived in a typical oedipal family configuration, in which son and mother develop a love relationship and the father is regarded as the son's rival. Both in Kafka's literature and in Walser's latest novel the father represents the social, economic, and moral standards of society. The importance of the family configuration for Alfred Dorn's psychological development is laid out in the novel's very first sentence. When Alfred is leaving Dresden for West Berlin to complete his education there, the father admonishes his wife at the train station: “Halte mir den Jungen nicht von der Arbeit ab.”18 The father's concern about the son's professional future seems understandable in view of the fact that Alfred did not succeed in obtaining a law degree from the University of Leipzig. Yet Alfred's father implicitly blames the mother for the son's educational stagnation. The novel's first sentence, cited above, presents in a nutshell the oedipal configuration of the Dorn family: mother and son are allies in their attempt to undermine the father's expectations, which are tantamount to society's expectations. In talking to Alfred's mother as one talks to a child, the father not only acts as the head of the family but also as the representative of the adult world.

In portraying the demands of bourgeois society as a threat to Alfred's artistic self-fulfillment as a musician, the author refers to Thomas Mann's Bürger-Künstler dichotomy, which informs the construction of the entire novel.19 In analogy to Tonio Kroger's parents, who symbolize Tonio's conflict between the bourgeois and bohemian life style, Alfred Dorn's parents represent the two opposing sides of his internal division. Their separation not only signifies the conflict between east and west, but also, in analogy to Tonio Kröger, a conflict between north and south, the northern paternal Prussian capital and the maternal Elbflorenz, between reason and emotion, life and art, success and love, adulthood and childhood, future and past, Enlightenment and Romanticism, masculinity and femininity. Yet Walser uses this construct to distance himself from Thomas Mann's artistic position. Whereas the Kleinbürger Kafka serves Walser as a model, the Großbürger Mann serves the author as a contrasting figure. Mann's Tonio Kröger manages to escape bourgeois mediocrity because he belongs to a different class than Kleinbürger Alfred Dorn, who remains caught in a mundane struggle for survival.

What are the specific reasons that Walser presents for Alfred's confusion? What detains him from overcoming his petit bourgeois background and fulfilling his desire to become famous? To answer these questions I must return to the socio-psychological motivation for Alfred's stagnation. Alfred's father Gustav, an ambitious dentist without a doctorate, who “obwohl er geradezu legendär fleißig war, die Familie nie wie für immer aus den ererbten kleinen Verhältnissen herausführen konnte” (18), passes on his unfulfilled expectations to his son. Alfred readily adopts his father's ambitions and as a “Feind aller Gewöhnlichkeit” (18) tries to escape mediocrity by excelling in high school and becoming the best student in his class. It is only after his parents’ separation and the ensuing initial failure as a law student that Alfred begins to have doubts about his professional success in the future.

Before the parents’ separation “Vater UND Mutter” (103) were convinced that Alfred was an intellectually and artistically gifted child and therefore fostered his ambition. After the father leaves the mother for a younger woman, Alfred's internal split, the pain of which he sometimes kills by taking Spalt-Tabletten, comes to the surface (52). Although Alfred sides with his mother in the ensuing marital dispute, he cannot escape the influence of the patriarchal order that spurs his professional ambition and at the same time informs his sense of order and fear of standing out. Walser takes great care to motivate the father's opportunism and ambition as the result of his petit bourgeois social background. Success, money, order, and punctuality are the qualities that the father advocates. For example, the first present that he brings his son after he has left the GDR is a wristwatch. Gustav Dorn is portrayed as a degraded descendant of the bourgeois protestant tradition from Luther to Kant, who advocates the “freie innere Entscheidung” (25) only as long as it does not conflict with the dominant ideology. As a representative of the Enlightenment he capitalizes on intellectual maturity and personal independence, but for him this actually means submission to conformity.20

Although Alfred recognizes his father's constant admonitions to grow up as “Werde-ein-Mann-Propaganda” (70, 100) and does not fulfill his father's expectation that he marry, he shares many character traits with the older Dorn. Just as Kafka's literature, as explained in his Brief an den Vater, is about the son's attempt to escape the omnipresent patriarchal influence, it also describes the son's failure to escape his paternal persecutor: “In it, the father appears as the tormentor who had to renounce his own desire and his own faith … ; he appears as the man who demands only that the son submit, because he himself is in submission to a dominant order in a situation from which there is no way out. …”21 Beneath this impasse is the son's discovery that he is like his father, that he has the father in himself. According to Deleuze and Guattari, the son has to identify with the father “because in his childhood, the father already confronted some of the diabolical powers even if it meant being beaten by them.”22 The son must also learn to confront such powers. Nevertheless, when little Alfred's classmates make fun of his father because as a dentist he does not hold a doctorate, the young boy first notices the father's weakness, which accounts for his remaining ambivalent feelings toward the older Dorn (234). Alfred strives to obtain a doctorate for himself so that he can become more respected than his father. Yet-in order to achieve this goal, he has to agree with the opinion of his classmate-tormentors, which means that he must turn against his own father and thus against his own self. The fact that Alfred as an adult makes sure that his own dentist has an academic degree proves that he has accepted the position of his tormentors.23 It also shows that he has internalized the self-hatred that spurs his ambition to rise above his inherited social status. In his attempt to escape his father's fate, he nevertheless has to discover his father within himself, for he shares his father's ambition.

This impossibility to escape the father's influence and destiny, which is both inside and outside, the self and its tormentor, is captured in the Graf Brühl-allegory. Alfred is fascinated by this historical figure's biography, which—similar to both his father's and his own—exemplifies in the tradition of the Fürstenspiegel the fate of a man who became the victim of his ambition:

Über sich hinaus wollte er auch. Eben dazu, daß er über sich hinaus komme, sollte ihm das Brühl-Projekt dienen. Da er, wie jeder, der über sich hinaus will die traurigen und lächerlichen Abstürze seiner Vorgänger genau kannte, würde er nicht abstürzen. Natürlich hatte er Angst, daß er genau durch seine Art, den Absturz zu vermeiden, seine Art abzustürzen präpariere.


Brühl's own fall is preceded by the fall of his tailor, who is punished by the Graf for his presumptuous effort to rise above his social class. In the story of the tailor's punishment, Alfred finds himself in the same position as in the event of his classmates’ ridicule of his father. He recognizes himself in both the figures of the humiliated tailor and his tormentor (101). Alfred is particularly intrigued by the controversy surrounding Graf Brühl, “ob der Graf ein durch die Machtausübung im absolutistischen Staat verdorbener Zyniker oder doch ein Menschenfreund und ein guter, lediglich an preußischer Raffgier scheiternder Politiker gewesen sei” (212), but Alfred does not feel the necessity to take sides. For him the two positions are not mutually exclusive because he can identify with both victim and perpetrator. Yet as much as Alfred identifies with Graf Brühl, he has to distance himself from him in order to avoid his mistakes. This same impulse caused him to turn against his own father. Graf Brühl's humiliation induces him to turn away from his hero and seek new ways to escape punishment where the father figure has not found any.

When Alfred decides to embellish on the fall of Graf Brühl by adding Homer's story of the rise and decline of the Greek hero Bellerophon, “einen sozusagen ewigen Sturz aus der Antike” (214), he implicitly acknowledges what he would like to deny, namely, “… daß aufsteigen stürzen heißt” (216). In contrast to the Graf Brühl story that depicts the violator's transgression, the Greek story omits Bellerophon's frivolous attempt to conquer the heavens. Just as in Kafka's Prozeß, the readers are told only that the protagonist was guilty; they are not told why he was condemned. The story implies that it is not even necessary actually to commit a transgression. Even the desire to rise above one's destiny results in punishment. Thus the Brühl and Bellerophon episodes illustrate what Alfred has already demonstrated through his behavior: that upward mobility is inevitably connected to self-denial.

Alfred's dilemma is unsolvable because he is guilty both for his attempt to rise above his destiny as well as for his refusal to do so. Just like his son, Alfred's father has internalized society's expectations and shares with his son the need to fit in. Like Alfred, he holds on to the bourgeois belief that there is a way to escape the punishment of self-denial by only outwardly conforming to society's demands. When the older Dorn starts corresponding with Alfred after he has left the GDR, he signs his letter to his son with the code name “Bison,” because he fears the consequences that his son's illegal GDR emigration might have on his professional career. Like his father, Alfred has no problem with writing bogus letters to protect himself (and his mother) from prosecution for illegal emigration. This ability to dissimulate also manifests itself in Alfred's skill in forging the signatures of his classmates’ parents. He acquired the ability to deceive others as a child to protect himself from punishment. Just like his father, Alfred accepts the ability to pretend as a necessary prerequisite to mastering life when he assumes “es genüge, wenn man wisse, wie Erwachsene in der und der Situation handelten. Aber dazu mußte man nicht selber ein Erwachsener sein” (157).

Yet his belief that he can escape punishment by only outwardly fulfilling society's expectations is illusory. He already internalized these expectations in early childhood and automatically punishes himself for any violation. The narrator illustrates this process of internalization from an episode of Alfred's childhood in which he pretends to be asleep so that his parents will not notice that he has masturbated. Afterwards, he is plagued with guilt feelings and suspects that his parents may have noticed anyway. Alfred is aware of this self-surveillance of moral transgressions that has become innate since the time when God replaced his parents as the eternal judge: “Die Beobachtungsstelle war jetzt als Auge in einem selbst eingebaut. Damit war man geliefert. Ein für alle Male. Grausamer konnte nichts sein” (176). In spite of his psychological insight, he realizes that he cannot escape the “Unschuldstheater,” and during the final weeks before his law exams he decides to behave, “daß der allerhöchste Kindergärtner im Himmel ihm nichts vorzuwerfen hatte.” The internalized fear of punishment and rejection that causes Alfred to overcompensate and love his tormentors becomes obvious in his eagerness to emulate his teachers and to please his parents. Like Kafka's protagonists, Alfred still attempts to find new strategies to evade this mechanism, although he sometimes suspects that he cannot liberate himself from it. I would therefore maintain for Alfred what has been assumed for Kafka's protagonists, namely that “the problem isn't that of liberty, but of escape.”24

The wish to escape his father's destiny turns into open rebellion against the older Dorn. After his father has left his wife for a younger woman, Alfred becomes the father's rival, “der im Dornschen Ehekrieg an der Seite der Mutter focht” (18). However, it is only after the father has moved out and after Alfred becomes aware of the impossibility of reconciling his father's and his mother's expectations that he rebels, by refusing to imitate his father's political opportunism and conformity to socialism. From now on, the father functions as Kant's starry heaven above and the mother as the moral law within. Significantly, the father's logo is meistern, and the mother's favorite expression is: “Ich komme ja doch hinter alles” (13). By the time Alfred chooses the mother as a possible ally to help him escape the father's influence, it is already too late because whenever he fails to fulfill society's expectations, and whenever he fails to preserve his personal autonomy, he has to recognize his father in himself. His struggle to protect his self is also his father's struggle. The mother-father dichotomy is not only Walser's but also Alfred's construct, which he sustains to escape the father's influence. However, it proves deceptive because Alfred's mother functions as the internalized voice of the father, as the mother's favorite expression indicates. Alfred's intention to pursue his artistic career as a piano player is purely hypothetical. By postponing his artistic plans until after he has obtained a financially secure position, he in effect agrees with his father that economic success is more important than personal satisfaction. His artistic inclinations can achieve the status of hobby, at best.

The parallel to Kafka's Verwandlung is easy to draw. Gregor's plan to save enough money so that he can pay for his sister's education as a musician cannot come true because he has already turned into an insect and is unable to go back to work. But just as Gregor holds on to his plans and invents new strategies to escape his destiny, Alfred also looks for ways to avoid his predicament by regressing. In order to reverse the process of increasing alienation, both protagonists attempt to go back to a point that they presume lies before such a development began. Ironically, by regressing they affirm the very process of transformation that they would like to reverse. In their search for a sanctuary they retreat more and more, always spinning new strategies of escape. Yet they fail to acknowledge that all the exits have been staked out by the father. Alfred's love for his mother is above all just another attempt to evade the father's influence: “Alfred war in diesem Moment seiner Mutter wirklich treu, nicht nur aus Angst vor Entdeckung” (9). After the parents’ separation, the mother's home in Dresden becomes his refuge: “Nur bei ihr war eine Bleibe. Seine Bleibe. Sie war seine Bleibe” (166). As the father's adversary and victim she offers to Alfred the only sanctuary that appears to be off limits to the father. Alfred needs to identify with her because he too has considered himself a victim of the patriarchal (adult) world ever since his setbacks as a law student. Yet, like Georg Bendemann's Russian friend, Alfred's mother cannot protect him from the father's influence, for she also acts as his agent.

Whereas the father attempts to escape his tormentors by denying his past, Alfred identifies with the father's victims of the past. Consequently, it is easy for him to identify with the fate of the Jews, whom he recognizes as the victims of the father's cowardice. Yet he does not condemn his father for a lack of courage during the Nazi period because he remembers how easy it was to become a victim of Nazi propaganda. And he recalls an episode where he himself became a victim of such propaganda: “In dieser Sekunde war die Propaganda des Nationalsozialismus in ihm Herr geworden. In dieser Sekunde ist er ein Nazi gewesen” (308). What unites him with his father is guilt. What separates him from his father is his way of dealing with the guilt. Whereas his father, like most perpetrators, suppresses his guilt by denying his past, Alfred attempts to ignore the present. Yet by retreating into the past Alfred has to recognize that victim and perpetrator are both guilty and therefore identical. Alfred cannot completely reject his father because he knows that the father, like himself, is a victim of society's expectations. Again the experience of being both the victim and the perpetrator makes it impossible for him to escape his father's influence. The perpetrator attempts to deny his guilt by constantly changing, but the victim represses his feelings of culpability by attempting to evade responsibility and therefore remains infantile. As descendants of the Kleinbürgertum Alfred and his father are both victims and perpetrators, and as such they are “guilty by birth.” If they attempt to rise above their social class they are guilty of self-denial; if they attempt to stay the same, they are guilty of self-indulgence. This is the reason that even before the action sets in, the father has already spoken the verdict over his son: “Deine Verweichlichung wird dich immer um den Erfolg bringen” (10). Just like Georg Bendemann in Kafka's Das Urteil, Alfred cannot avert his father's predicament. “Alfred war schwach gegen Prophezeiungen. Prophezeiungen lähmten ihn” (11).

Alfred undergoes an aging process and develops callouses, warts, ulcers in his mouth, starts losing hair and has problems with his teeth and feet: “Knickplattspreizfuß hatte es der Arzt genannt” (207). Whenever he confronts his own aging process Alfred assumes a spectator's perspective:

Je heißer es wurde, desto heftiger erlebte er seine Hinfälligkeit. Man könnte fast meinen, er habe sie lusthaft erlebt. Aus der täglichen Summierung seiner Leiden und seiner Ängste wurde eine alles andere übertreffende Empfindung, ein so leidenschaftliches Gefühl, daß man als Zuschauer seines Daseins hofft, er habe diesen Zustand auch genießen können.


The discrepancy between outward objective appearance and subjective internal perception reflects a dualism between the real and the ideal and accounts for the novel's irony. In his unsuccessful attempt to reconcile the objective with the subjective, Alfred vacillates between these two poles. Thus Alfred's distanced observation of his own physical degeneration is counteracted by the illusion of remaining eternally young. As time goes on, the gap between the real and ideal widens, and to counteract the advance of reality, he retreats further into the illusions of past.

At the beginning of Die Verteidigung der Kindheit, Alfred's mother supports his regression because she herself is desperately holding on to the past, to the time before her husband left her. Alfred fails to acknowledge, however, that she also acts as the agent of the patriarchal world. She too expects Alfred to complete his law education quickly and to find himself a financially secure job, which then would enable mother and son to live happily ever after: “Jetzt also Endspurt. Jetzt liegtes nur noch an Alfred, ob das Glück endgültig einziehe bei ihnen” (50). By helping Alfred to maintain close ties to the past but simultaneously pushing his career, she contributes to Alfred's increasingly insoluble dilemma and assumes a similar position to that of Gregor's mother in the parallel story of Die Verwandlung. When the mother and sister remove Gregor's furniture from his room in order to make it easier for him to crawl around, they affirm his animal existence. The mother herself begins to wonder, “ob man dadurch nicht zeige, daß man ‘jede Hoffnung auf Besserung’ aufgebe, ob es nicht richtiger wäre, alles so zu erhalten, ‘damit Gregor, wenn er wieder zu uns zurückkommt, alles unverändert findet und um so leichter die Zwischenzeit vergessen kann.’”25 Gregor's alienation has already progressed considerably and cannot be reversed because “jede gut gemeinte Aktion der Familie [wird] zu einer Steigerung der Entfremdung.”26

Alfred views his mother's support, intended to clear the way for his professional future, as a sign of encouragement to assert his inner self by reverting to his childhood past. In his lecture on Kafka's use of irony, Walser himself refers to Gregor's unwillingness to have his furniture removed as an attempt to preserve his identity.27 Just as Gregor starts defending his furniture as the only proof of his human existence, Alfred is becoming more and more obsessed with his past, and he starts collecting memorabilia from his Dresden childhood. The memorabilia document his artistic and intellectual potential as a Wunderkind, which he still hopes to fulfill at a later point in life. The activity of collecting can be viewed as a regression into childhood, as Walter Benjamin described it:

Ich sage nicht zuviel: für den wahren Sammler ist die Erwerbung eines alten Buches dessen Wiedergeburt. Und eben darin liegt das Kindhafte, das im Sammler sich mit dem Greisenhaften durchdringt. … Dort, bei den Kindern, ist das Sammeln nur ein Verfahren der Erneuerung, ein anderes ist das Bemalen der Gegenstände, wieder eines das Ausschneiden, noch eines das Abziehen und so die ganze Skala kindlicher Aneignungsarten vom Anfassen bis hinauf zum Benennen.28

For Alfred, collecting promises renewal and therefore an escape from the unsatisfying present. Alfred's collection is rather indiscriminate. He accumulates everything from pictures, written documents, and old furniture to his mother's underwear: “[Alfred] kam es auf nichts als auf das Faktum an” (14). His obsession and concern with the past reveals both a desperate attempt to understand the outer world through recollection and a quest to preserve his identity by recovering and possessing all the things that are connected to his personal life. Thus Alfred's outwardly directed nature and his egocentricity are but two sides of the same coin. Vacillating between Dresden and Berlin, between the self and its tormentor, between mother and father, between the fulfillment of his personal and professional needs, Alfred becomes caught in a vicious circle. In the text this process of becoming bogged down is captured in a reference to Kafka's Landarzt. Just as the country doctor gets stuck in a wintry “desert”29 after following a false alarm, Alfred begins to sink while wandering aimlessly through the deep snow on a winter's night in Dresden just after his mother died.

His confusion is exacerbated when he finds out that his closest friend and the only witness of his Dresden past who is left after his mother's death, the Vize-Oma, has burnt all his personal letters. When she reveals that she destroyed the evidence of his private self in order to protect his privacy, Alfred has to realize that his only ally acts as an agent of the father by blocking off a possible retreat into the past. This strikes him as a death sentence: “Er suchte nach Tritten anderer, um nicht bei jedem Schritt im Tiefschnee zu versinken. Er weinte. Ziemlich heftig sogar. Es schüttelte ihn richtig. Er konnte gar nicht mehr durchatmen” (359). As the metaphor suggests, in order to save his life, he has to follow in his father's footsteps.

The protagonist's aimless wandering in the snow is connected to the Bellerophon-motif: “Bellerophon sei nach seinem Sturz nur noch trübsinnig auf dem Aleischen Feld umhergeirrt” (214). A closer look at the contextual references to Ein Landarzt provides further indication that this motif figures as a symbol for Alfred's failure to find himself. Just like Alfred, Kafka's country doctor is caught in the dilemma of pursuing either his domestic or professional responsibilities. While following his professional calling, he fails to protect his house-keeper [Rosa] from being molested by a horse groom. After having seen the patient, he realizes that he has embarked on an unsuccessful mission because the patient is incurable. Unable to return home because he is stuck in the snow, he regrets having answered a false alarm: “Betrogen, Betrogen! Einmal dem Fehlläuten der Nacht-glocke gefolgt—es ist niemals gutzumachen.”30 Walter Sokel's interpretation of Ein Landarzt, which regards the confrontation of doctor and patient as “Gegenüberstellung mit dem eigenen, kranken Kindheits-Ich,” is also applicable to Walser's text:

The two houses pictorialize the two poles of the doctor's existence. In his own house, the house of the self, the doctor abandoned the possibility of erotic fulfillment; in the other house, the house of the patient, he is to dedicate himself to his art, which is the confrontation with the congenital wound of mortality. The hero's ambivalence is such that he cannot be content at either pole. At home he sacrifices the girl to his mission; but at his destination he regrets the price he has paid and wants to return. His split existence, his inability to choose, becomes pure image in the doctor's final condition. He is shown riding aimlessly between the houses; the distance between them has become infinite, and he cannot stay a either place.31

Alfred shares with Kafka's country doctor the sacrifice of a sexual relationship in exchange for a regressive journey that takes him back to his childhood. For both Kafka's and Walser's protagonists such a sacrifice has been motivated by homoerotic inclinations.32

In both texts heterosexuality is represented by the image of fur. In the Kafka text the country doctor takes off his fur coat at the patient's home. When he leaves the patient's house in a hurry to make it safely home, he raps up his bundle of clothes and throws them on the horse cart. He flings his fur coat too far, so that on his trip back it remains hanging, dangling in the snow: “… der Pelz flog zu weit, nur mit einem Ärmel hielt er sich an einem Haken fest. Gut genug. Ich schwang mich aufs Pferd. Die Riemen lose schleifend, ein Pferd kaum mit dem anderen verbunden, der Wagen irrend hinterher, den Pelz als letzter im Schnee.”33

Fur is also a sexual motif in Kafka's Verwandlung. When Gregor Samsa, upon the removal of his furniture, starts to defend his personal belongings and “alles was ihm lieb war,” he clings to the picture of a woman in a fur that he once had cut out from a magazine and hung on the wall: “[Gregor] preßte sich an das Glas, das ihn festhielt und seinem heißen Bauch wohltat.”34 As soon as the mother sees Gregor in this position she faints. After Gregor manages to free his body from the glass to which it was glued, the door is shut upon him, and he has to realize: “… er war nun von der Mutter abgeschlossen.”35

When one first meets Alfred's father he is wearing a coat, “der in der Familie Paletot hieß und ehrwürdig war durch einen breiten Pelzkragen” (11). The description not only informs the reader that Alfred's father—just like son—pays attention to his outward appearance in a desire to rise above his social status, but it also promises to reveal some of the connotations with regard to the protagonist's sexual orientation. Therefore, the fur motif has to be considered within the contexts of the above-mentioned intertextual references. Alfred's father is described as a ladies’ man, who constantly puts pressure on his son to grow up and engage in sexual intercourse (25). The fur motif recurs later when Alfred has to write a report as a law student in West Berlin in which he has to solve his first court case, a significant and very detailed part in the narrative. In it a certain person named Ritter loaned his friend Fuß a fur coat. However, the fur is lost after Fuß leaves it in the cloakroom of the theater. Fuß is embarrassed that he cannot return the fur coat to Ritter and would like to keep the matter a secret. The combination of Ritter and Fuß is reminiscent of Gregor Samsa's animal physique—Ritter being the shield to protect him. Pursuing this line of interpretation, Ritter and Fuß can be identified as the two main traits of Alfred's character: dissimulation (through the protective shield) and flight. Alfred at the time is troubled by the same fear as Gregor Samsa, “von seiner Mutter abgeschnitten zu sein” (34). Evidence of sexual imagery is also provided by the narrator: “Es waren feuchtheiße Juni-Tage. … Und dann einem verlorenen Pelz die Rechtslage konstruieren!” (34) Alfred has a difficult time solving the case and can get to the bottom of the problem only after his fellow students provide him with the clue. “… daß das Wichtigste an diesem Fall die Ansprüche seien” (31).

In all three texts the fur is used as an erotic image that signifies the female sex. It refers to the protagonists’ relinquished potential to establish a heterosexual relationship. By equating Alfred's inability to fulfill the father's expectations [“Ansprüche”] to a lost property case in Die Verteidigung der Kindheit, Walser points to Alfred's guilt for his failure to grow up and begin a family. Thus the context in which the fur is used not only refers to Alfred's inability to fulfill his father's expectations in terms of engaging in a heterosexual relationship, but also to the financial and social gain in status that such a relationship promises. In view of his numerous affairs throughout his married life, the father has also failed to establish a lasting relationship. Thus his actual behavior disclaims the validity of his fervent assertion: “Alfred, Mädels sind keine Ware” (13), which he uses to admonish Alfred to grow up and establish a family. In Die Verwandlung and Die Verteidigung der Kindheit the fear of losing the mother is brought to the reader's attention as a factor that prevents the protagonists from establishing an adult relationship and simultaneously boosts the alternative process of regression. Alfred's obsessive relationship to his mother can be interpreted as an attempt to avoid the father's shortcomings. By wooing his own mother, Alfred is taking advantage of the opportunity to succeed where his father has failed. However, in loving the mother, Alfred cannot really escape the father because replacing the mother with other women is simply an attempt to do better than his father. Although Alfred is becoming aware of the absurdity of his “Mutter-Kult,” he is unaware that his mother could not provide an escape from the father. He is unaware that by being the link to the past she is also the link to the father. When at the end of his life he comes to the conclusion, “Gegen den Vater sein ist leicht. Gegen die Mutter kann man nicht sein. Das ist der Fluch” (511), he realizes that it is easy to antagonize the perpetrator but it is impossible to reject his victim. Yet he is still unable to notice that, by identifying with the father's victim, he also takes on his father's guilt. Nor does he understand that he thereby replaces the father with the mother. The fact that the mother-father dichotomy represents only two parts of the same personality becomes even more obvious if one examines Alfred's artistic inclinations.

Alfred's regression is accompanied by a set of motives that are directly related to the aforementioned Kafka texts. Alfred's obsession for collecting, although less prominent in Die Verwandlung, has its equivalent in Gregor's infantile activity of cutting out magazine covers and fretworking. Both Gregor's and Alfred's hobbies reflect the protagonists’ thwarted need for artistic self-expression. Yet at the same time these very same activities indicate how much the process of alienation has penetrated the protagonists’ individuality and therefore limited their artistic creativity. Alfred is not aware of the reasons that prevent him from being artistically creative. If one is to believe the narrator's words, his initial interest in the past is purely factual: “Was er dann mit dem Faktum anfing ist dem gesunden Menschenverstand nicht begreiflich zu machen” (14). Paradoxically enough, it is the same petit bourgeois need for security that caused Alfred as a young man to postpone artistic plans of becoming a concert pianist (until after he had obtained a secure position as a lawyer) that prevents him now from completing his Pergamon project. He realizes only a short time before his death that his preparatory work has taken up so much time and energy that his Pergamon project will possibly never materialize and hopes “die soviel Kraft beanspruchende Vorbereitung sei schon das, was sie vorbereiten sollte: die Verteidigung der Kindheit gegen das Leben” (511). Both Gregor Samsa's and Alfred's creativity are limited to the gathering and rearranging of prefabricated material. Imitation is the only artistic technique they have at their disposal because their bourgeois family philosophy is based on conformity, a goal reached by copying others. By the time Alfred has become a university student, his skill in imitating others has become second nature. Alfred's ingrained desire to conform is obvious in his eagerness to please both his parents and emulate his teachers, but it is also revealed through a compulsive habit of taking notes during lectures and writing indiscriminately everything down that his professors say. Although Alfred realizes a short time before his death that his attempt to defend his childhood was futile and self-deceptive, he also knows that it is too late to change this habit: “Sein briefeschreibende, paketversendende, Vergangenheit zuzammenkratzende Emsigkeit kam ihm lächerlich vor. Er betrog sich über seine Einsamkeit hinweg” (512).

Yet both Alfred's Graf-Brühl project and his collection of memorabilia betray an interest in history that is intensely personal and therefore potentially artistic. Whereas his obsession for collecting has to be attributed to the father's side, his need for subjective self-expression has been associated with his mother. Alfred's problem, however, is that he cannot combine the factual with the subjective. His Pergamon project fails because he gets bogged down in the preparatory task of collecting memorabilia, but his drawings fall short of being artistic because they are merely infantile self-representations. Alfred's habit of portraying himself in the shape of an animal can be compared to Gregor's metamorphosis into a vermin. For both Gregor and Alfred the animal body serves as a means of self-representation and self-protection. In contrast to Gregor, who is trapped in the body of a despicable looking insect, Alfred likes to portray himself in the shape of animals that are likely to evoke sympathy or even pity. Whereas Gregor's ugliness is a reflection of his guilt, Alfred stresses his innocence when he draws himself in the shape of a rabbit or a little mouse. Yet for both Gregor and Alfred, becoming an animal offers “the possibility of an escape, a line of escape.”36 It illustrates the protagonists’ wish to regress to a form of existence that cannot be held responsible for their character and is therefore safe from the “inhumaness of the ‘diabolical powers'” of self-doubt and guilt.37

Yet drawing must also be viewed as an attempt to find a form of self-expression that has not been occupied by the father. As Deleuze and Guattari point out, Kafka thought in terms of visual imagery rather than in linguistic terms, “the languages of masters” because “the making of his own language” again promises “a line of escape.”38 The figure Alfred illustrates such an interpretation of Kafka. Alfred's reluctance to express himself within the limits of conventional narrative discourse implies an attempt to avoid yielding to the very paternal forces that caused his alienation. He at first rejects psychoanalysis, not only because he feels threatened in his effort to deny his homosexual preference, but also because he has doubts about a rational explanation of the irrational:

Ihm kam diese Lehre [Psychoanalyse] vor wie eine Baukasten aus Wörtern. Man kann damit spielen. Aber innen in einem geht es weniger hell und viereckig zu. Er konnte auf jeden Fall nichts davon auf sich anwenden. Diese Hauptwörter gab es doch gar nicht. Nicht in seinem innern, wo, in andauernder Bewegung, alles in alles überging. Diese Vokabularisten glaubten an das Vorhandensein des Bezeichneten wie früher Menschen an das durchs Götterbild Gefaßte.


Alfred turns the tables when he argues that the rational itself has become a religion in its attempt to dominate the irrational. Although one should think that Alfred would be interested in psychoanalysis because of its concern with the individual's past, he cannot accept it because it would be an intrusion of the rational into the refuge of his childhood past. Consequently, psychoanalysis threatens to shatter his artistic illusions and means the possible erosion of his creative potential. His attempts to preserve the past in words remain sketchy for the same reasons. He cannot use language to express himself artistically because he faces the same problems that feminist and gay writers express today: as a homosexual he does not have his own language. Instead, he avoids the rational narrative discourse of the adult word and focuses on visual arts and music.

After his mother's death Alfred creates a monument that is supposed to testify to their mutual bond of love. Yet the monument involuntarily turns out to be a rather narcissistic self-portrait. Alfred chooses the image of a lamb as the center of the monument because in its symbolic nature and position, it serves an intention to eternalize his identity:

Das Lamm ist zwar nicht beim ersten Aufstehversuch dargestellt, aber alle vier Beine sind fast in munterer Bewegung; besonders das rechts vordere, das Alfred sofort an seinen angehobenen rechten Fuß vor der Pension Edelweiß erinnerte: die sixtinische Geste; bei diesem Lamm fällt dieses Abheben wollen besonders auf, weil die Bewegung umgeben ist von einem weiten Dornenkranz.


His sense of drama and self-stylization is well documented throughout the novel: “Er war immer auf der Suche nach Wörtern und Bildern, in denen er die Mutter und sich in komisch-pathetischem Überschwang feiern konnte” (21). On Alfred's monument, the wish to escape his life of suffering is emphasized by the elevated position of his right front leg, which in reminiscence of Alfred's favorite picture, the “Sixtinische Madonna,” serves to illustrate the otherworldliness of his love relationship to his mother. The irony that renders Alfred more than a tragi-comic figure is captured in an epitaph that he found on his search for the adequate monument: “Das Lamm, welches geopfert wurde, weil es selbst wollte” (382). In stylizing himself both as the sacrificial lamb and prodigal son, he exaggerates his role as the victim and involuntarily turns the expression of suffering into one of self-pity. The irony of Alfred's life is not only that he agrees to his own death sentence, but that he relishes in his execution with grand gesture. Yet the monument also captures Alfred's internal conflict. Alfred is both the innocent victim and the Christ figure who had to atone for the sins of the world by giving his life. Alfred has taken on his father's guilt by sympathizing with his victims, and in turn, by identifying with the father's victims, has become guilty of self-denial. This vicious circle is symbolized by the all-surrounding crown of thorns, which prevents Alfred from escaping his suffering as the innocent sacrificial lamb. In one of the rare instances where the narrator is permitted to distance himself, one cannot fail to notice the ironic description of “the almost lively legs,” which satirizes Alfred's half-hearted attempt to get his artistic projects off the ground.

The image is reminiscent of the leg motif in Die Verwandlung. There, the movement of the legs illustrates Gregor's ambivalent reaction to the metamorphosis. As in Die Verteidigung der Kindheit, the legs are indicative of the protagonist's vitality. When Gregor is beginning to adapt to his new animal existence, his personal satisfaction with his new life is expressed by the movement of his legs: “… die Beinchen hatten festen Boden unter sich, sie gehorchten vollkommen, wie er zu seiner Freude merkte; strebten sogar danach ihn fortzutragen, wohin er wollte; und schon glaubte er, die endgültige Besserung seines Leidens stehe unmittelbar bevor.”39 At this point, when Gregor is endorsing his metamorphosis by learning to move like an insect, he feels confident enough to get close to his mother. But the mother misunderstands his human plea for love and turns to the father to help her chase Gregor away and lock him up. When Gregor retreats quickly into his room, the position of his legs reflects his anxiety and confusion: “… bald steckte er fest und hätte sich allein nicht mehr rühren können, die Beinchen auf der einen Seite hingen zitternd oben in der Luft, die auf den anderen waren schmerzhaft zu Boden gedrückt. …”40 The imagery that illustrates Gregor's, the country doctor's, and Alfred's insoluble dilemma demonstrates their immobility. In Die Verwandlung Gregor is glued to the glass of his favorite picture, the country doctor cannot move because he has sunk in the deep snow, and in Die Verteidigung der Kindheit Alfred's favorite picture portrays him standing on only one leg, holding the other one in the air, as if he wanted to run away. Both in the Kafka stories and Walser's novel, the protagonists are confused because the very same powers that caused regression are suddenly punishing the protagonists for doing so. Just like Gregor, Alfred also turns to his mother, expecting that she would approve of his infantile attempt to preserve his artistic potential. But he is deeply disappointed and confused when he realizes that, instead of protecting him from the father, she conspires with the father.

Only after his mother's death does Alfred remember that both parents contributed to the formation of his identity as a Wunderkind and then prevented him from living by pressuring him to grow up and conform to the adult world: “Bei der Mutter hatte das tägliche Rasieren die Rolle gespielt, die beim Vater die Pünktlichkeit spielte. Und wie abhängig sind von einander Rasur und Pünktlichkeit. Bewundernswert die Einmütigkeit so getrennter Eltern” (346). Although Alfred begins to understand the deceptive role that his mother played, he refuses to admit to himself that she only used him in her post-marital fight against the father. Instead he nourishes an idealized picture of the past. In contrast to Gregor, who has to confront the ugliness of his present appearance, Alfred tends to ignore his aging process by reveling in an idealized self-image of the past. Whereas in Kafka's Verwandlung one of Gregor's legs “schleppte reglos nach” after it was damaged during the father's punishing attack, the idealized version of Alfred's regression presents one leg in an elevated position.41

The position of the lamb's leg resembles “zwei anderen Schwebeerscheinungen, die Sixtinische (Madonna), und die Schaukelnde,” which was a picture of his mother on a swing. “Schweben” in this context means the ideal possibility of Alfred's life, namely to hover above reality and its compromising alternatives. It is the position that Tonio Kröger was able to take on his trip to the far north, contemplating his bourgeois past from the elevated position as an artist. “Schweben” means “Ironie als eine feine Methode des Überallem-Stehens: as it occurs “bei Tonio Kröger, bei Thomas Mann.”42

The difference between Tonio's and Alfred's perspective becomes obvious in an open reference to Tonio Kröger. There Alfred expresses his bewilderment about Thomas Mann's ability, “der Gewöhnlichkeit Wonnen abzugewinnen” (19). Unlike his classmate, Detlev Krumpholz, “der in ihrer Freudschaft die Literatur vertrat wie Alfred die Musik [und] sich bei jeder Gelegenheit über die alte Akademikerfamilie, der er entstammte, lustig machte,” Alfred cannot make fun of his bourgeois past because he does not have enough of it [“er hatte zu wenig davon”] (19). In contrast to Thomas Mann's protagonist, who is able to maintain his individuality by becoming an artist and transcending the confining limits of the bourgeois life, Walser's protagonist is disoriented and unable to reconcile the opposing forces within himself and remains trapped in a bourgeois existence. Unlike Mann's upper middle-class protagonists, the Kleinbürger Alfred neither dares to abandon the pursuit of a bourgeois career, nor can he distance himself from his daily setbacks or defeats. By the time Krumpholz teaches Alfred, “daß das Gewöhnliche einen suchens- oder gar produzierenswerten Reiz habe (19),” it is, in the narrator's own words, too late. At this point Alfred has already absorbed the petit bourgeois desire to be special and become “ein Feind aller Gewöhnlichkeit” (18). He therefore never obtains the reflective vantage point that would permit him to analyze his own situation and become artistically productive: “Alfred Dorn wäre nie auf den Gedanken gekommen, daß Kunst da einspringen könne” (14).

In his essay on Selbstbewußstein und Ironie, Walser explains the difference between his own petit bourgeois protagonists such as Alfred and the representatives of the Großbürgertum in Thomas Mann's literature, who manage to transcend the limitations of their bourgeois existence by reflecting on it and transforming it into art. As mentioned above, Walser's and Kafka's protagonists define themselves according to society's oppressive standards. They become grotesque, perhaps even humorous, by endorsing their oppressor's point of view. In contrast to Mann's protagonists, however, they are not ironic themselves.43 Irony presupposes an independence of thought that Walser's and Kafka's heroes do not possess precisely because they cannot distance themselves from the alienating standards of society. The option of becoming an independent artist, which is possible for the Großbürger Tonio Kröger, remains illusory for the Kleinbürger Alfred Dorn. If the Großbürger à la Mann was still capable of expressing his inner struggle with grand gesture as a conflict between art and life, for the Kleinßürger Alfred Dorn such a quest to achieve individual autonomy appears grotesque, as the narrator suggests: “Alfred sah seiner Mutter gleich, hatte den Wuchs seines Vaters und, nach seinem eigenen Urteil, das Profil einer Daumierkarikatur” (39).44

By telling the story from the protagonist's perspective, Walser's narrator imitates Kafka's narrator. Walser argues in his collection of essays Selbstbewußstein und Ironie in favor of Kafka's irony, which cannot question, ridicule, or criticize reality, but has to agree or even praise the unbearable status quo.45 Unlike Mann's protagonists, Walser's protagonist Alfred cannot distance himself from society's expectations, for he has internalized them. Even when Alfred himself as a middle-aged man begins to realize that Thomas Mann's Künstlernovelle is nothing but a “Großbürgermär,” this knowledge does not help him because as a Kleinbürger he cannot develop an autonomous personality that would allow him to distance himself from those who judge him (221). Alfred instead takes the patriarchal order for granted and, as a victim of this order, begins to endorse it. For Walser, the victim's grotesque attempt to love the oppressor is ironic because it points to the insufficiencies of the actual conditions and negates the status quo.

In Selbstbewußstein und Ironie Walser distinguishes basically two forms of irony: the kleinbürgerliche irony of the Fichte-Hegel-Kierkegaard-Robert Walser-Kafka tradition and the großbürgerliche irony of the Friedrich Schlegel-Adam Müller-Thomas Mann tradition. How extensively the novel draws on Walser's concept of irony that he developed in the 1970s becomes obvious when one compares the examples that Walser uses to explain irony in the context of bourgeois emancipation at the turn of the nineteenth century. Walser uses Adam Müller's biography (1779-1829) just as he uses Alfred Dorn's biography in Die Verteidigung der Kindheit in order to illuminate the difference between Thomas Mann's concept of irony and Kafka's irony. Dorn's and Müller's biographies reveal striking similarities.46 Just as Kafka's and Walser's protagonists get caught in their oscillation between two mutually exclusive concepts of life, Müller's plan to reconcile these two opposing life-styles by transcending them also failed: “Er wurzelte ein … und starb nach vielen weiteren Balance-Illusionen.”47 By using actual biographies, Walser manages to locate his irony concept within a historical context. He explains the emergence of bourgeois irony in the late eighteenth century as “Emanzipationleistung des kleinbürgerlichen Ichs, das draußen nur zu wenig Anlaß und Möglichkeit zur Selbstbewußtseins-Gründung hatte.”48 Thus in Walser's view, the romantic idealization of life is the desperate attempt of a generation with no future to overcome socially stifling and discriminating conditions, both in the Metternich era and in the 1950s.49 Walser's achievement is to present his longstanding personal concern, the bourgeois struggle for self-determination, in the context of the last two hundred years of German intellectual and cultural history while reacting to recent political and social developments in German society. By presenting Dorn's biography within a concrete socio-historical context and constructing the analogy to the Metternich era, Walser points to the deceptiveness of the bourgeois notion of personal freedom and self-fulfillment. Dorn's and Müller's biographies are determined by the social and historical conditions of their day and age. The fact that Alfred's obsession for collecting is motivated by the loss of his home during the allied forces’ bombing of Dresden situates Alfred's biography in the postwar era. Germany's geographical and political division both reflects and exacerbates Alfred's ensuing internal split. The wounds on Alfred's corpse represent at the same time Germany's wound (“die Wunde Deutchlands”), which for Walser was unacceptable long before German unification.50

Walser historicizes Kafka by appropriating Kafka's own biography into his protagonist's biography. Consequently, Alfred's “wunde … Stellen in der Leiste,” through their position and contextual reference, also resemble the country doctor's wound:51 “In seiner rechten Seite, in der Hüftengegend hat sich eine handtellergroße Wunde aufgetan. … Würmer … winden sich, im Innern der Wunde festgehalten, mit weißen Köpfchen, mit vielen Beinchen ans Licht.”52 The leg movements of the little worms inside the lethal wound are reminiscent of the leg movements of the lamb. Both the worms’ and the lamb's fledgling attempts to escape their ill-fated destiny point to the protagonists’ grotesquely helpless efforts to preserve their self-determination. The repeated failure in a hypothetical quest for self-fulfillment, and a paralysis between two non-existent alternatives unite both Kafka's and Walser's heroes and distinguish them from the ironic superiority of Mann's figures. Walser's fictionalized version of Alfred Dorn's biography explains the author's personal interest in Kafka. Using Alfred Dorn as his mouthpiece, Walser is able to present the alienation of the Kleinbürger within the historical context of postwar Germany.


  1. Michael Braun, “Deutsch-deutsche Widersprüche,” Aachener Nachrichten (3 August 1991): “Der ‘neue Walser’ kehrt zu den ‘alten Anfängen’ zurück.” Joseph von Westphalen, “Ein deutsches Muttersöhnchen,” Der Spiegel (12 August 1991): 171: “Wieder einmal haben wir eine der vielen überempfindlichen Walser-Gestalten vor uns. …”

  2. Martin Lüdke, “Eine vom Leben zerriebene Geschichte,” Frankfurter Rundschau (10 August 1991): “… die Geschichtsschreibung des Alltags versickert mehr und mehr in der Psychopathologie des Allstagslebens.” Michael Braun, “Die Sucht nach Vergangenheit,” Nürnberger Nachrichten (10 August 1991): “Zeitgeschichtliche Ereignisse bleiben … eher im Hintergrund.”

  3. Joseph von Westphalen warns the reader “Die Verteidigung der Kindheit nicht ausschließlich als einen deutschen Roman [zu] lesen.” von Westphalen, Der Spiegel, 174.

  4. Hans Egon Holthusen, “Ein Kafka Schüler kämpft sich frei,” Süddeutsche Zeitung (31 December 1955); Paul Noack, “Ein Kafka Epigone,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (23 March 1956); Walter Geis, “Vögel ohne Flügel,” Stadtanzeiger für Baden-Württemberg (14 March 1956).

  5. Karlheinz Fingerhut, “Drei erwachsene Söhne Kafkas. Zur produktiven Kafka-Rezeption bei Martin Walser, Peter Weiss und Peter Handke,” Wirkendes Wort 3 (1980): 384-403; Heike Doane, “Martin Walsers Ironiebegriff: Definition und Spiegelung in drei späteren Prosawerken,” Monatshefte 2 (1985): 195-212; Dieter Liewerscheidt, “Die Anstrengung, ja zu sagen: Martin Walsers Ironie-Konzept und die Romane von Jenseits der Liebe bis Brief an Lord Liszt,Literatur für Leser (1986): 74-88; Frank Pilipp, “Zum letzten Mal Kafka? Martin Walsers Roman Das Schwanenhaus im ironischen Lichte der Verwandlung,Colloquia Germanica 22 (1989): 282-95.

  6. Martin Walser, Selbstbewußstein und Ironie: Frankfurter Vorlesungen (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1981).

  7. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Toward a Minor Literature (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986) 16.

  8. Deleuze and Guattari 10.

  9. Deleuze and Guattari 10.

  10. Deleuze and Guattari 10.

  11. Deleuze and Guattari 12.

  12. An example would be “acts of becoming-animal,” as in Die Verwandlung, which can be viewed as an attempt to flee human existence or deterritorialization when it is connected to the moving-leg-motif. As soon as this animal image becomes staged and imbued with meaning, it turns into an act of reterritorialization or a calculated attempt of dissimulation, which is aimed at the protection of these human qualities in the animal's body.

  13. Holthusen, Süddeutsche Zeitung.

  14. Geis, Stadtanzeiger für Baden-Württemberg.

  15. Martin Walser, “Kindheit nach dem Tode,” Die Zeit (9 August 1991): “Die Alfred-Dorn-Geschichte wurde mir von zwei Frauen gebracht, die ein paar hundert Kilometer gefahren waren, um mir eine Handvoll Briefe und Karten zu geben. Der Empfänger sei tot. Es seien noch ein paar Kartons voll mit Briefen, Zeitungsartikeln, Photos da. Man müsse das verbrennen, falls sich nicht ein Schriftsteller dafür interessiere.”

  16. See Peter U. Beicken, Franz Kafka. Eine kritische Einführung in die Forschung (Frankfurt/Main: Athenäum, 1974) 202-12.

  17. Walser, Die Zeit.

  18. Walser, Die Verteidigung der Kindheit (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1991) 9. All subsequent references to this novel will appear in parentheses in the text.

  19. In Selbstbewußtsein und Ironie Walser explicitly refers to Mann's Bürger-Künstler-dichotomy and draws up a list of opposites that fit these two categories, 83.

  20. The father is portrayed as the voice of reason who has always looked ahead, never dwelling on the past, and therefore, unlike Alfred, always knowing which way the wind is blowing. During the Third Reich he dismissed a Jewish employee and then became a member of the National Socialists “um sich besser wehren zu können” (152). After the war he immediately joined the SPD “und hatte 1946, als die SPD in der SED aufgeben mußte, nicht zu denen gehört, die durch ihren Austritt protestiert hatten” (10). He is a sycophant who uses political convictions only for his own personal gain and gladly takes advantage of the privilege of shopping in the West.

  21. Deleuze and Guattari 10.

  22. Deleuze and Guattari 12.

  23. Deleuze and Guattari 10. “The question of the father isn't how to become free with relation to him (an Oedipal question) but how to find a path there where he didn't find any.”

  24. Deleuze and Guattari 10.

  25. Walser, Selbstbewußtsein und Ironie. Frankfurter Vorlesungen 164.

  26. Walser, Selbstbewußtsein und Ironie. Frankfurter Vorlesungen 164.

  27. Walser, Selbstbewußtsein und Ironie. Frankfurter Vorlesungen 164-65: “Der Verlust seiner Möbel bedeutet für ihn jetzt auch ein schnelles, gänzliches «Vergessen seinermenschlichen Vergangenheit …» Er wehrt sich also ganz entschieden. Er ist ein Mensch. Platz zum Kriechen ist nicht das, was er braucht. «… wenn die Möbel ihn hinderten, das sinnlose Herumkriechen zu betreiben, so war das kein Schaden, sondern ein großer Vorteil.» Diese Möbel waren «alles was ihm lieb war.» An diesem Schreibtisch hatte er als Schüler seine Aufgaben gemacht. Das sind konstitutive Teile seiner Identität, die ihm da in bester Absicht weggenommen werden.”

  28. Walter Benjamin, “Ich packe meine Bibliothek aus,” Schriften 2 (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1955) 110.

  29. Beicken refers to Karl-Heinz Fingerhut's interpretation of Ein Landarzt when he explains the country doctor's “Scheitern in der Eiswüste” as the result of pursuing the wrong career: “Weil er einem ‘Fehlläuten', also einem falschen Ruf gefolgt ist, der seine bürgerliche Lebensbasis zerstört hat.” Beicken, Kafka 299.

  30. Franz Kafka, Erzählungen (Frankfurt/Main: Fischer, 1986) 117.

  31. Walter Sokel, Franz Kafka (New York: Columbia UP, 1971) 7-8.

  32. B. Busacca: “A Country Doctor,” Franz Kafka Today, eds. Angel Flores and Homer Swander (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1962) 52: “The so-called doctor is roused by homosexual desire.”

  33. Kafka, Erzählungen 116-17.

  34. Kafka 86.

  35. Kafka 87.

  36. Deleuze and Guattari 12.

  37. Deleuze and Guattari 12.

  38. Deleuze and Guattari 26.

  39. Kafka 71.

  40. Kafka 73.

  41. Kafka 73.

  42. Walser, Selbstbewußtsein und Ironie. Frankfurter Vorlesungen 82.

  43. Walser, Selbstbewußtsein und Ironie 178: “Diese Helden sagen Ja zu dem Nein, das die Verhältnisse zu ihnen sagen. Dieser Versuch der durchgeführten Seltstverneinung produziert den ironischen Stil, während die andere Literatur es zu ironischen Helden bringt, zu Ironikern, die diese Ironie benutzen zur Legitimierung ihres bürgerlichen Lebensprivilegs. Als Literatur kann das realistische Literatur sein, humoristische. Aber die Sprache, die Prosa, der Stil ist nicht ironisch.”

  44. The difference between Walser and Mann is also reflected in the narrative technique. In contrast to Mann's novels, Walser's narrator does not assume the role of the ironic commentator and is only occasionally permitted to distance himself from the protagonist: “Wenn man zu schnell Zeuge wird, wie diese Mutter und dieser Sohn mit einander umgingen, stellen sich gleich die diensttuenden Vokabulare ein. Alfred und seine Mutter kriegen ihr Wörtchen um den Hals gehängt, und alles ist klar. Es muß versucht werden, die sich wissen-schaftlich aufführenden Vokabulare so lang wie möglich draußen zu halten. Lieber sei nicht alles klar. Oder auch gar nichts. Könnte man nicht auch etwas verstehen, was nicht klar ist?” (38) The narrator gives up his superior position and confronts the reader with Alfred's inner loss of direction.

  45. Walser, Selbstbewußtsein und Ironie 195: “Die andere, die Kierkegaardsche, die Robert Walsersche, die Kafkasche Ironie kann nicht herrschen; das würde ihr sozusagen nicht liegen. Sie läßt eben, wie Hegel das formuliert hat, sie läßt gelten, was gilt, als gelte es. Aber eben dadurch, daß sie so verzweifelt versucht, dieses Bestehende gutzuheißen, weist sie auf den Mangel im Bestehenden hin.”

  46. Martin Walser, Selbstbewußtsein und Ironie. Frankfurter Vorlesungen 69-70: “Der Sohn eines preußischen Hofbeamten [Müller] sucht zwischen Adel und Bürgertum, zwischen Protestantismus und Katholizismus (er konvertierte früh und hielt das zuerst geheim), zwischen Berlin und Wien, zwischen Hardenberg und Metternich Positionen, die es nicht gab. … Im Jahr 1809 wollte er die preußische Regierung dazu überreden, ihn gleichzeitig zwei Zeitungen gründen und herausgeben zu lassen; eine sollte offizielles Regierungsblatt sein, die andere ein populäres Oppositionsblatt. Das hielt er per Drüberschweben für möglich.”

  47. Walser, Selbstbewußtsein und Ironie. Frankfurter Vorlesungen 70.

  48. Walser, Selbstbewußtsein und Ironie. Frankfurter Vorlesungen 62.

  49. Müller's description elicits even more historical parallels to Dorn's biography. The Austro-Prussian dualism contributed to Müller's personal conflict just as the superpower dualism during the Post World War II era widened Alfred's internal division: “Auf der einen Seite «Ausschweifungen der Macht, auf der anderen »charakterlose, undeutliche Gefühle für Menschenwert, Menschenwohl, Menschenrechte und unzählige andre … Laster.»” Walser, Selbstbewußtsein und Ironie. Frankfurter Vorlesungen 69.

  50. Martin Walser, Wer ist ein Schriftsteller?: Aufsätze und Reden (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1979) 101. In a public speech held on August 30th, 1977 in Bergen-Enkheim, Walser used this metaphor to point out the unacceptability of Germany's division: “Wir dürften, sage ich vor Kühnheit zitternd, die BRD so wenig anerkennen wie die DDR. Wir müssen die Wunde Deutschland offen halten.”

  51. My assumption presupposes the identity of doctor and patient, as it has been pointed out by Walter Sokel in footnote 31. Sokel 7.

  52. Kafka 115.

Erich Wolfgang Skwara (review date spring 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 563

SOURCE: Skwara, Erich Wolfgang. Review of Ohne einander, by Martin Walser. World Literature Today 68, no. 2 (spring 1994): 364.

[In the following review, Skwara accounts for the popular appeal of Ohne einander, highlighting the novel's themes.]

In 1991 Martin Walser published his magnum opus, Die Verteidigung der Kindheit (see WLT 66:2, p. 334), a novel likely to be considered the most relevant book written about the tragic absurdity of the two former Germanies. Now Walser has returned to his lifelong topics of human frailty, the artificiality of marriage, and the absurdity of love and love's absence. Ohne einander (Without Each Other), the new novel's splendidly evocative title, sums it up: the closer we live together, as in marriage, as in the parent-child relationship, the greater may be our distance, the deeper it hurts to come upon our illusions. We can learn a lot about ourselves in this cruel book; however, we do not find a renewed or changed author following the threshold experience of his 1991 masterpiece. Walser's strength and relevance lie precisely in his life-long focus on the inability of hearts and minds to come to terms with love. Long gone is the time when Walser wrote merely major documents of West German Befindlichkeit; since the 1970s, his writing has struck at the core of our human condition, creating literature of universal appeal.

Of course, unlike most of his colleagues, Walser never forgets that books should be read and that one reads for entertainment. His popularity in Germany stems from this recognition. Gossip and rumors always find a ready audience. Supposedly, Ohne einander can be read as a Schlüsselroman or roman à clef, and several of the novel's figures are easily identified as major players on the German contemporary literary scene. It does not detract at all from the book's painful substance, however, if the reader cannot or does not wish to guess who is who in this charged text. I, for instance, as an author in my own right and well aware of these innuendos, prefer to make good use of my privilege of distance and to read the novel just as such.

Ellen, a leading journalist for DAS-Magazine (“Es so simpel sagen, wie es ist, dazu gehört Mut”), has problems writing her required number of lines under stress. Help from a co-worker naturally does not come without a requested payback in sexual favors. Acceptance and disgust are twins. Ellen does not know yet that her (former) lover Ernest Müller-Ernst already lives with another woman, who in turn does not know that he has already singled out for seduction young Sylvi, the confused daughter of Ellen and her husband Sylvio. Elsewhere, we have the famous and arrogant literary critic Willi André König (forget the connotation), one of several targets of the book's scathing cynicism against the literary-intellectual upper class. The novelist Sylvio, author of the “Feigling Trilogie” (Coward Trilogy), fittingly sits at home, a drinker betraying others even as he is betrayed. Ellen and Sylvio form a modern couple: each knows about the other's missteps, and they mistake their mess for some twisted tolerance or superiority, until events unfold so as to make them realize that their “family” and their “closeness” are nothing of the kind, that they live in utter tragedy. Martin Walser's novel is at times almost too direct, too outspoken, which may explain why it has become the season's major best seller.

Wulf Koepke (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Koepke, Wulf. “The Reestablishment of the German Class Society: Ehen in Philippsburg and Halbzeit.” In New Critical Perspectives on Martin Walser, edited by Frank Pilipp, pp. 1-15. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1994.

[In the following essay, Koepke examines the elements of German class relations that inform the thematic focus of both Ehen in Philippsburg and Halbzeit.]

There is no need to belabor two essential points in Walser's early novels: his social criticism (Gesellschaftskritik) and his possibly excessive love of details, defining his brand of “realism.” The German critics noted these points when the novels appeared, and the scholars have followed their lead and systematized their suggestions.1 What is still in need of some elucidation, however, is the question to which degree the reestablishment of a capitalistic class society was in need of public relations through the mass media, how and why Walser focuses primarily on this aspect, and what it means for his characters.

It should be remembered that the inflation after World War I led to a widespread impoverishment of the traditional bourgeoisie, the Bürgertum, and a concomitant fear of loss of social status. Also during that same period of the Weimar Republic, an enormous increase in the number and kinds of white-collar workers, the Angestellten, took place, requiring a comprehensive new social legislation and creating a group with a new social consciousness described by Siegfried Kracauer in his classical study of 1930. The white-collar workers were among the most defenseless victims of the great depression exemplified by the bestseller novel of Hans Fallada, Kleiner Mann—Was nun? (1932), a novel with such a universal appeal that its translation, Little Man—What Now? (1933), topped the bestseller lists in the United States. Both the traditional Bürgertum, relying in part on inherited wealth, and the new employee groups (such as office workers, salesmen, lower echelon government bureaucrats, advertising and leisure industry agents), living solely on their current income, were most vulnerable to economic crises and social change, and the unemployed Angestellten were among the first who listened to the promises of National Socialism. With the new full employment after 1933, an apparent stabilization of the economy, and new opportunities for the entrepreneurial groups, there seemed to be no fundamental reason to quarrel with the new regime, in spite of mutual reservations of the middle class and the party leadership. Contrary to its campaign rhetoric of egalitarianism, National Socialism protected the privileges of the moneyed classes, provided they offered their technical and administrative know-how for the stabilization of the regime. Since this silent pact excluded Jews, and the rearmament and war policies necessitated an encroachment of the state on private enterprise and business, the coalition was beset with conflicts on account of state-owned enterprises, regulations, and restrictions.

Nevertheless, when it all came to a catastrophic end and a crashing halt in 1945, it was undeniable that private industry and the professional classes had overwhelmingly collaborated with the regime, and that white-collar workers had been loyal followers. It seemed obvious that the people who had held leading positions before 1945 should not be the leaders in a transformation to a new democratic society. This could have touched the very foundations of the German social hierarchy, if the Western Allies had not decided to establish or reestablish a free-market economy and rely heavily on the established technical and administrative elite as well as on the industrial companies already in place, with largely token gestures toward punishing war criminals, for example the management of Krupp. For a short moment, however, everything seemed open and possible, even socialism, and since most Germans lived under the same conditions of scarcity, a new value system seemed to be at hand. This did not last long, and the mood of guilt and defeat changed quickly into one of resentment. People tended to forget what Germans had done to others and saw themselves as victims of the Allies, especially the Soviet Union. The introduction of the D-Mark in 1948 and the liberalization of the markets unleashed an enormous outburst of energy which, in social terms, reestablished the social hierarchies, fusing old established families and powers with the groups of new opportunists and new money.

The war and postwar years from 1939 to 1948 had taught the German population to recognize not only life's essentials and necessities but also that, in the face of pervasive death and destruction, inner values were crucial, and life after the war should be meaningful for the survivors and should contribute to a betterment of humankind. However, the new miraculous market economy could only succeed if people could be persuaded that the quality of life consisted in material goods far beyond the necessities of life. The public had to be convinced, step by step, that what was regarded as luxuries and mere status symbols was in reality necessary for a decent life-style. The Third Reich had developed an unprecedented propaganda machine for political purposes, and it had been singularly effective; the Federal Republic thrived on the wings of an advertising campaign for boundless consumption and for a decent middle-class appearance and behavior. People were enticed to feel good about buying furniture, clothes, cars, spending money on pleasures, and, most of all, keeping up with their peers.

It would be trivial and superfluous to describe such ubiquitous practices and mentalities, were it not for the fact that their onslaught in Germany after 1948 represented a sudden and radical change in lifestyle and mentality. At first sight, the new wealth and the abundance of goods seemed as unreal as the huge sums of inflationary money that the black marketeers had shuffled around before 1948. The unexpected successes of the new free-market system brought at first a giddy feeling together with nagging doubts about the moral degradation and corruption associated with this economic recovery and expansion, and the distinct conviction that this windfall could not last, that it would definitely end with another disastrous crash. The economic miracle, praised in official publications of the Federal Republic as the basis for a stabilization of society and a new democracy, seemed to perpetuate on a psychological level the existing existential insecurity of people who had grown accustomed to live and survive day by day. They were ready to enjoy whatever there was to be enjoyed, while the better or ideal society could wait for later.

During the war human relations had progressively adjusted to the day-by-day survival mentality. In the absence of many men during the war, with the constant reminders of imminent death, sexual morals were bound to change to those of instant gratification. Many of the quick marriages were dissolved after 1945 when divorce rates were high, but with the reaffirmation of the middle class after 1948, the bourgeois conventions of marriage reemerged as well, except that it may have been more facade than reality in many quarters. With a distinct disproportion of the number of men and women in certain years, like those born between 1915 and 1925, the sexual mores and extra-marital affairs may have been not too far from the picture Walser presents in his early novels. The view of post-1948 West German society that he shares with most other writers is that of a breakdown of values rather than a reestablishment of them. The conventional bourgeois view could hold that the stealing of food and heating material, prostitution for survival, and illegal black-market deals had all been immoral and were now a thing of the past. Law and order and respect for institutions, government and the churches in particular, had finally returned. The other side of the coin was that such elementary human values as decency, friendship, solidarity, mutual assistance, honesty, concern for the community, that had been considered essential, were now hardly in demand except for public relations. The transformation from the society of scarcity and black-market survival to the new law and order and prosperity had its victims: the Aussteiger, social drop-outs of sorts—often encountered in the novels of Heinrich Böll—whereas the majority of the population tried to forget the past and profit from the present as well as they could. While there were enough wholesale enthusiasts and opportunists for the new kind of life, many of the participants harbored their mental reservations while participating in the gold rush and hoped for a more decent society later. Just as Adenauer and Erhard profited from this prevailing mood of participation in the new prosperity and social advancement, Willy Brandt would be able to tap into the reservoir of frustrated hopes and ideals when he emerged in the sixties.

Walser offers classical portrayals of characters who might have been Aussteiger, but who allow themselves to be carried away by the dynamics of this new social restoration. His protagonists are in the position of dependent white-collar workers with the consciousness of intellectuals, intent at a certain point to make it to the top in order to decrease the indignities of their dependence. Walser uses in Ehen in Philippsburg (1957) the time-honored novelistic approach of the protagonist as the newcomer, the outsider who sees the establishment with fresh eyes, whereas in Halbzeit (1960) he allows his alter ego Anselm Kristlein the luxury of returning from a hospital stay and a trip to the United States to gain some distance from his environment. In order to maximize the impact of the new order of the Federal Republic on his characters (and readers), Walser stays as close as possible to the stream of consciousness of the respective protagonist, so that in Halbzeit it becomes almost impossible to distinguish the narrator's voice from that of Anselm.

These would-be intellectuals who are not real professionals are the ideal helpers to advertise the new system and its values. They are the agents of culture industry, of public relations, and of advertising. Walser focuses on the new mass media, especially the emerging television potential. Advertising and public relations create their own fictitious world in which the characters are arrested: a world of illusion and disillusionment, fraud, lies, breach of trust, and generally hypocritical behavior. There is no trust among these characters, only suspicion and the constant attempt to manipulate, to calculate, to observe. Everybody has something to hide, be it an unsavory political past, homosexuality (then illegal), cheating on a wife or husband, fraudulent business deals, even diseases that could render someone unfit for this fight for survival. Walser therefore constructs two parallel contrasts: the contrast between the appearance of prosperity, respectability, and order as opposed to the chaotic and dubious state of the economy and society; and the contrast between the public appearance and actual status of individual people and their intimate lives.

If appearances, public relations, creating one's own image of reality can be kept up long enough, appearances may actually change into reality. All of these characters are drifting, trying not to drown until they reach the point where they may have solid ground under their feet. Their notions of happiness beyond the daily and nightly enjoyments are not quite apparent, and the stories have no real beginnings or endings, not even in Ehen in Philippsburg where the episodes could be multiplied. The fundamental difference between Halbzeit, for example, and the epic narratives of Joyce and Proust with which it has been compared is that Walser does not create a new mythology; there is no quest, society does not appear as a whole, in spite of a multitude of events, details, and characters. In fact, Walser undermines the attempts of the official public relations for the Federal Republic to create legends and a self-legitimizing mythology of the new Germany that rose like a phoenix from the ashes. While this self-image of the Federal Republic insists on its economic, moral, and political solidity and reliability, it stresses its peacefulness and vows it will only fight against the evil enemy in the East. While it insists it has already shaken off an ugly past and is willing to assume new responsibilities, the lives of Walser's characters are presented as a chaotic mosaic of unconnected moments reflecting in a broken mirror fragments of the present and flashes of the past.

The “message” is thus cumulative; it consists of bits and pieces filtered through the ironic skepticism of the protagonists, demanding a constant watchfulness from the reader: a valid “message” of the narrator may come from the most untrustworthy messengers—in fact, some of the most acceptable statements in these constant monologues and dialogues come from characters the reader is invited to reject. The reader will have a difficult time formulating a final verdict; at least it will have to be revised several times in the course of the reading. The narrator, no less than the protagonists, is no real outsider, but a participant. The people he portrays are his people, and they appear in a much more negative light when analyzed than at first glance when, in fact, they seem rather amiable, even “fun to know” and by no means dwellers of a sinister underworld. Many episodes may sound satirical, even grotesque, but a comprehensive look at the complete picture, as it were, is not a condemnation of society out of righteous moral indignation. For all the fundamental doubts about this life-style and the direction society has taken, no real alternatives exist or are presented here. The protagonists have their moments when they feel like alienated outsiders and consider getting off this train, but they never do. With a good dose of cynicism they stay on board and try to enjoy whatever there is to be enjoyed. One of their saving graces is exactly their lack of illusions. They are honest with themselves, far from pretending to be the saviors of the Occident. Disillusioned, they see through any phony pathos and are ready to pour their sarcasm on everybody who “believes.” In order not to appear naive they keep to themselves whatever secret hopes and desires they may have. However, they only play the roles of “tough guys” in the business world where one fights without gloves. In reality, the men are a traumatized, defeated crowd, who try their best to hide their real feelings. Anselm Kristlein's illness which has to be hidden from his customers is symptomatic.

Both Ehen in Philippsburg and Halbzeit reflect a specific moment in the postwar development, the earlier and later fifties, respectively. In each case, the outsider and would-be social climber is from a rural and lower-class milieu, especially Hans Beumann, the illegitimate son of a waitress, whose background could present a very serious handicap for his career. They enter an already reestablished upper class that is still vulnerable and thus ready to coopt new forces, but is firmly in charge of the country's destiny. Hans Beumann's career is more conventional and sounds like a parody of a cheap novel: he meets and marries the rich Anne Volkmann, who sees to it that he finds the right job and is properly introduced into society. However, that is where the similarities end. While in his heart Beumann knows from the beginning that he does not want to marry Anne, he feels much more justified in his job, providing public relations for the corporation of Anne's father. Still, he will finally acquiesce. Anselm Kristlein, on the other hand, considers his wife's background—her father is a university professor—rather a drawback and a source of constant pressure on him to perform and become “respectable.” Out of opposition to this pressure he had dropped out of university and begun a “career” as a traveling salesman, gaining his knowledge of the real business world the hard way, and losing all inhibitions, moral and otherwise, on the way. It is only as an advertising writer and executive that Anselm can climb the social ladder, helped by a network of so-called friends. Both Beumann and Kristlein gain entrance to the higher society and the amenities of that lifestyle through enhancing the image of that society, the products it sells, and its leaders. The affirmation of the system is the price for upward mobility.

It might be asked why this is in any way unusual or even reprehensible. The answer is not quite as ready in the German context of the fifties as it is in the American context of today. Socialism, had it been of the humanistic, of the democratic variety, and not brutal and dictatorial, seemed to be a desirable system to many, and in a way morally superior to capitalism with its accompanying symptoms of corruption and exploitation. Even the German constitution of 1949, the Grundgesetz, sanctioned by the Western Allies, contained a section about expropriation of private property. The lingering doubts about this economic miracle are scattered all over these books and the rest of German literature of the fifties, until turning into more concrete efforts for reforms in the literature and real life of the subsequent decade, or, in some quarters, for a real revolution. Ehen in Philippsburg and Halbzeit still reflect a period of getting accustomed to a new way of life and some uneasiness over missed opportunities to move in other directions.

Shreds of this moral malaise are spliced as satirical vignettes into the fabric of the narration, specifically in Halbzeit. During the long and momentous session with Frantzke about the advertising campaign, Dieckow, the writer, voices his disgust with cheating the customers with mere repackaging. A corporation like this, he affirms with some moral pathos and correct political arguments, should improve products, not advertising. After all, business has considerable “responsibility toward society.” “Our” Western world is locked in a deadly struggle with a society that concentrates its resources on essentials, while “we” are solely concerned with the “superfluous,” and actually “abuse liberty” (H [Halbzeit] 424-25). Anselm Kristlein, one of the silent participants, thinks to himself that this fixation on the enemy in the East is anachronistic; it is more characteristic of the old generation (that of Adenauer, the eighty-year-old Chancellor). Lambert, designated to reply to Dieckow, can easily expose Dieckow's phony position. Dieckow's social criticism is part of legitimizing the system: a system that allows opposing views is really democratic. Dieckow himself lives off the rich, and his poetic warning about the nuclear holocaust is ludicrous. In other words, Dieckow is merely another pawn in the games of the culture industry.

That Dieckow is easily discredited does not necessarily invalidate his arguments, although they are off the agenda for the present purpose. Anselm's sarcastic account of the scene does not gloss over the unwelcome aspects of capitalism, it rather adds one more dimension to the picture. However, revolutionaries are absent from this text; Edmund's eventual move to the GDR is motivated by very personal considerations, and if there is any ideal that these characters carry in their innermost selves, it would have to be that of a “third path” between East and West. In political terms, therefore, Halbzeit may indeed be defined as a satire, since it hints at the desirable state of its society only ex negativo.

The murky and uneasy atmosphere of the present in the Federal Republic is most clearly seen in the recurring confrontations with the Nazi past. There is simply no coming to terms with the Nazi past, and even less with the war experience. Anselm has flashbacks to his traumatic years as a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union; Josef-Heinrich cannot come to grips with his victories and defeats as a much-decorated flyer-ace; a corporation, such as that of Frantzke, is full of people like Dr. Fuchs who have a despicable past in the higher ranks of the SD, the security service of the Nazis. Society has agreed to forgive and forget the Nazi past and wants to ignore war and postwar traumas. Now Dr. Fuchs sits at the same table with the son of a victim of 20 July 1944. The one real crisis that almost throws Anselm off this moving train not by accident involves the only Jewish character in Halbzeit: Susanne, a survivor without a home, drifting like the others, involved in image-making in a different way (a travel agent), used and rejected in Germany. Anselm's love relationship with her threatens to tear his supporting network apart, but he is rescued, thanks to his chronic ambivalence and his American sojourn and training. She leaves, and all he can do, as Edmund says, is to make more money.

America is the magic word. Halbzeit contains numerous references to American music, providing more than just a contemporary atmosphere for bar hoppers. It is punctuated by the rhythms of American jazz, both disturbing and soothing. America is the wonderland where Anselm receives his higher initiation into the secrets of advertising. America is a valid pretext for everything one wants to do. When Anselm finally succeeds with Susanne, he follows an American-type manual on selling; but at the same time it is programming the failure of their relationship in advance.

Ehen in Philippsburg, as the title suggests, focuses primarily on male-female relationships, distinctly from the male perspective, and questions both the institution of marriage and the societal constraints on individuals, as well as the indecisiveness and lack of courage of men. If this (and Halbzeit as well) is a “male” novel, it is also a serious indictment of men, and the only intact persons are women—not all of them, by any means. While women are seen as the “other,” and often enough as mere objects (mostly objects of desire), it is the gaze of the men that is criticized or at least questioned. When it comes to commitment, the men are compromising opportunists, never reliable, who shy away from any relationship if it interferes with their social status and comfort. Ehen in Philippsburg still dramatizes this point as something lamentable, steering the different episodes to catastrophic climaxes. The suicide of a wife or a car accident shatter the false feeling of security and throw the men back into a void. In Halbzeit, such potential crises and breakdowns are averted, life goes on, and everything is well. While presented in Halbzeit as more resigned and therefore ready for imperfect relationships rather than none at all, the female characters continue to be more demanding in their nature: they want commitments, and they can be absolute. They are described as unfulfilled, lonely, in search of an impossible ideal of a relationship. On an individual level, therefore, the women still preserve the pre-1949 ideals of “true” love and partnership, whereas the men are generally seen as incapable of transcending the mediocrity of their environment: they are broken and anxiously avoid dramatic conflicts, preferring little white lies and a pseudo-idyllic family setting.

The drama in Ehen in Philippsburg arises from the premise that true relationships and the lifestyle of the new society are irreconcilable. Sooner or later, one has to make a choice for one or the other. Again, Walser agrees on this point with writers like Heinrich Böll, Günter Grass, Ingeborg Bachmann, or Hans Erich Nossack. The major difference, however, between him and most others is that he adopts the point of view of the opportunists and not of the Aussteiger, albeit in a decidedly ironical manner. All male characters are ill at ease, and ultimately their opportunism is ambivalent. Despite a clear lack of compelling arguments against joining the establishment, they would still like to live in another, better world. Essentially the men in Walser's stories know that they are defeated, and their moneymaking and professional success are no compensation for a wasted life. While the women still seem to demand more than they can get, they tend to become embittered and disillusioned about the men in their own way.

All of this suggests that the institutions of marriage and the family—the latter being the most stable social institution in times of such crises as the Germans had experienced—become a mere facade needed for the self-image of the new society but do not correspond or cater to real needs of real people. The fundamental paradox of the new respectability of the Federal Republic, that the urgent need for a clean-looking facade goes hand in hand with a state of utter disorientation at the individual and psychological level, is brought out in these novels from a different point of view. Ehen in Philippsburg contrasts the surface appearance with the real truth in a straightforward manner and points directly to the parallelism between human hypocrisy and the divergence of product and advertising with regard to public relations. Instead of the honest truth of much confusion, unsolved problems, ugliness, and unhealed wounds, all the unpleasantness is repressed and covered up, and varnish is applied to the image of the whole society.

Ehen in Philippsburg offers examples of two men whose lives of respectability become derailed: the one, Klaff, a real Aussteiger and would-be writer, who is dismissed from his job for his “evil” gaze and subsequently abandoned by his wife; the other, Hans Beumann, who ends up accepting what is offered to him. His life is also beset by “accidents” such as the need for an abortion for Anne, but they are soon forgotten. A symptomatic scene is the engagement party which is, literally, almost destroyed by a violent storm reminiscent of the final scene in Heinrich Mann's Der Untertan (1918; Man of Straw, 1946). However, in contrast to Heinrich Mann, the tempest passes in Walser's novel, the villa is not seriously damaged, and the guests turn to gambling, where Hans Beumann wins while seeming to lose. Beumann's attitude and point of view are carried over into Halbzeit, where no melodramatic apparatus is needed any more, and where the crises pass, as mutual interest ensures that life shall go on as usual. In other words, in Ehen in Philippsburg Walser still dramatizes the human costs of this new social system, similar to Gerd Gaiser in Schlußball (1958; The Final Ball, 1960), the novels of Wolfgang Koeppen or Heinrich Böll, but in Halbzeit, as it were, they have been paid already, and the loss of integrity is a fait accompli. Anybody who nurses scruples except for his own pleasure is fighting windmills.

Ehen in Philippsburg focuses primarily on the need of the new society to polish its image and keep it shining. Halbzeit looks at the same society a few years later, but more from an inside perspective. Now the double standards appear transparent and are generally accepted, while everybody tries to profit from the system. There seems to be much less need to listen to moral scruples. Church and state have been solidly reestablished; no need to praise or even mention them, but they are good for snide remarks. There are no dark secrets any more, only open secrets. It is a matter of skill and the right manner of presentation to turn a disadvantage into an advantage. Thus, Dr. Fuchs, the prime example of failure and hubris, is banished from society not for what he did before 1945, but for the clumsiness with which he tried to hide it. He could have been denazified when the opportunity was conveniently available. The facts, like time, are in a continual flux, they are movable and depend on the spin one gives them. In this manner, the second level of reality, the interpretation given to facts, becomes reality.

The art of Walser in Halbzeit is that Kristlein's consciousness encompasses both levels, the unpleasant side and the means to make it look good, as well as the knowledge of what this process really entails. Many scenes, therefore, seem grotesque or repulsively funny, and we empathize with Anselm's constant need for overcoming his inner resistance and repulsion. He dreams about being left alone, not having to talk people into something they do not want, much less need. The narrator, as far as one is discernible, enhances the ironic contrasts, especially by pointing out some truths through the questionable medium of a negative character. Surely most characters know who they are and what they are doing, and they periodically burst out into some expression of what ought to be. Dieckow, who is an “official” agent of bad conscience, mixes disturbing clichés with real concerns. Hence he can state that the so-called high society is nothing but the crest of seafoam on the infinite surface of the water, and often enough not even foam but scum (Abschaum instead of Schaum).2 When, on the other hand, Anselm hears other people getting morally indignant about fraud and deceit (Betrug), all he can do after so many years as a traveling salesman and as an advertising writer is smile. Here the “message” would have to be deduced by the reader, by penetrating beyond the intrinsic irony of the narration.

The inevitable major metaphor of Halbzeit is that of the stage, although this may already be somewhat dated in terms of technological development. Just as in the famous story Bahnwärter Thiel (1888; Flagman Thiel, 1933) by Gerhart Hauptmann, where the sound of the approaching train is compared to that of galloping horses replaced by modern means of transportation, Walser keeps referring to the theater while talking about radio and television. The characters of Halbzeit, in any event, are seen and feel themselves as actors in a strange play. They (or at least Anselm) assume that there must be some director in charge. Although, or perhaps because, it is incomprehensible to the participants, Anselm and the narrator do not really expect logical, causal connections or meanings, and are certainly not surprised by the accidental and arbitrary nature of this narrative. If “absurd” designates an absence of meaning where meaning and causality are expected, this is not absurd, but one might call it a theater of disconnectedness. It is on one level an unending monologue in the manner of Proust and Joyce, and we may assume that all characters in Halbzeit are engaged in a similar monologue. There is a purpose to this chaotic game without beginning or end: everybody tries to sell something, including themselves. Theater as the making of a self-image turns into a mode of advertising that reveals just enough of the acting character to make the partner and the audience want to accept the character's proposition.

The inner monologue, the isolation of individuals, the world of mere appearances, the fundamental estrangement from life, from society, and from oneself, all of this is reminiscent in a more than casual way of the epic search of time lost in Marcel Proust.3 However, Walser applies Proustian features to a very different society and for very different purposes. There is no equivalent of a time regained in Halbzeit; it ends where it began. Anselm is back with his family, would like to stay in bed and float with his dreams, but is called back to “reality.”

Ehen in Philippsburg presents us with the parody of a “new” political party embracing most major ideological positions (except communism), where success will sweep away all inherent contradictions, as in the case of the conservative party, the CDU. Halbzeit reduces politics to snide remarks. Whereas in the first novel, the entrepreneurial class is still concerned about creating a government willing and able to support its expansion, Halbzeit takes this role of government for granted. Political persuasion is superfluous, for advertising concentrates on products. This is not a society that wants to change and be changed—it wants to consume and enjoy. With a general cynicism about politics and the political process, these characters support the political status quo. Far be it from them to disagree with the CDU's most successful slogan, “No Experiments.”

Walser presents his own version of what sociologists have called the “skeptical generation.” Anselm Kristlein typifies the returning POW who faces an emerging or already established new system. Being one of the latecomers, he cannot flatter himself that he can prevent the continuing restoration: the power structures and the leaders are already in place. Like countless others he now discards his humanitarian and humanistic baggage of dreams, plans, and hopes for a better life—in a moral sense—and exchanges his dream for what he can get: a decent and improving living standard. He simply forgets about war trauma, guilt feelings, and the idea of renewal. Lacking any particular respect for the new leaders in politics and industry, he nevertheless adjusts to the system that enables him to launch a career, maximize profit, and does not ask for any real commitment. For him, “skeptical” means holding back, rolling along, though without real conviction, always afraid of getting trapped in a real commitment. Josef-Heinrich's eleven or twelve engagements are not merely funny, but they describe precisely his human position. If he enters into a steadfast relationship at the end, without engagement, it will also mean a real departure.

The half-serious character of this wait-and-see skepticism is also exemplified in the question of national identity. This question finds its outlet in the argument between Edmund and Dieckow about World War II and what constitutes typisch deutsch.4 Anselm notices sarcastically that nowadays “typically German” is that style or trait which everybody dislikes in others; it is de rigueur to appear as “un-German” as possible, preferably American or French in certain aspects. The debate on the German responsibility for the last war and its meaning or absurdity, however, degenerates into a mere party game trying to knock out one's opponent, in the course of which the opponents defend positions that they would normally attack. As this is done in front of a “chorus” of partygoers, it is nothing but a show and a match, as it turns out, with no real winner and no message, as far as the reader is concerned. After reading Anselm's sarcastic account of this verbal boxing match, one arrives at the conviction that the two opponents might have debated any point in the same acrimonious manner; and that the aftermath of World War II and what it entailed, not least for Anselm, has been degraded to a mere party game. This is true on one level; yet, on another level, the choice of the topic was anything but arbitrary, for that is precisely what is constantly and painfully on their minds. They are indeed deeply hurt in their national as well as in their individual pride. But in order to shrug it off and go on living, they pretend that the idea of a German Nation is an obsolete concept. In their view, it is poor manners to have strong convictions and to fight over real moral and political issues; only in the form of a party game can Edmund and Dieckow give vent to their innermost convictions, and even then only in an ironical manner.

The community in Halbzeit is also quite different from a genuine democracy, where opponents respect different views and convictions and try to find common ground where practical needs dictate it. German postwar society is still ruled by very authoritarian old men who selfishly insist on their ways. If they and their aides tolerate others, they do not act out of democratic principles, but rather to keep up appearances of a tolerant and open society. Anselm's crowd, on the other hand, does not believe in convictions at all, or at least pretends not to believe in them. They tolerate everything and declare every conviction to be phony, especially when it serves social advancement. This general agreement in cynicism keeps society open and humors the arbitrary and authoritarian decrees of the old men in power (who will not last long anyway). As with the wounded pride, fighting for a cause cannot be admitted, for it would appear utterly naive and disqualify the individual from any serious “business.”

An analysis of the characters and events Walser portrays, especially in Halbzeit, must necessarily assume the appearance of a totally pessimistic and satirical picture; yet Walser is no Swift. While Ehen in Philippsburg still contains its measure of moral indignation, not least in the character of Klaff and in the account of the demise of Benrath and Alwin, Halbzeit moves along gaily, with much irony, sarcasm, and cynicism, but with no thundering judgment. While the story abounds with grotesqueness, there is a limit to its repulsive aspects: on the outside everything remains nice, friendly, and “normal.” While Anselm's secret fear and nightmare is that this may all be a mere soap bubble bound to burst, and that he will be thrown back into his former misery, be it in the Soviet Union or as a salesman on the road, this new reality which seems in constant flux gains its own kind of solidity and maintains its dominance, silencing all moralistic doomsayers.

While much of the earlier postwar literature in Germany resounds with moral indignation, Walser hits on the Wirtschaftswunderton, the tone of the economic miracle that Grass captured to a degree in his Blechtrommel (1959; The Tin Drum, 1962) and that Böll was able to express in such stories as Doktor Murkes gesammeltes Schweigen (1958; Dr. Murke's Collected Silence, 1963) and in several of his later novels. Walser is ahead of most others in his comprehensive view of the techniques of image-making and advertising by means of which the new postwar miracle became reality. Walser makes us aware how pervasive the role of this image-making was, and how the professional intelligentsia conformed to a power structure it in fact disliked. Halbzeit describes this process as a matter of course, and the concomitant phenomena of alienation and degradation are mentioned rather casually. Society operates entirely on expediency and on casuistic decision-making. As a routine, relationships are dominated in a matter-of-fact fashion by calculation, salesmanship, image-making, deceit, lies, and suspicion. While the women may occasionally break out of this consensus, the men generally do not posses the strength to do so. In a society operating on the basis of this tacit understanding of duplicity, any harsh decisions and principled actions can only be disturbing.

We are not concerned here with Anselm's future problems and conflicts in Das Einhorn (1966; The Unicorn, 1971) and his demise in Der Sturz (1973; The Fall). The second and third part of the trilogy move the action forward to later stages in the development of the economic giant, the Federal Republic, and Walser begins to affront the sixties. In Halbzeit, however, he captures a moment in German postwar history (1957) which could be called a climax in economic terms (before the first recession in the sixties) and a nadir in moral terms. This is achieved with uncommon authenticity, as the novel describes the malaise as well as the brilliant facade of the German miraculous economy. While Ehen in Philippsburg still communicates some of the shock over the nonchalant reinstatement of the old/new power structure, Halbzeit tells us how it affects the willing or unwilling participants who have no choice but to survive in this environment. Obviously Walser does not accept this new society, and although any revolutionary indignation and energy seems to be virtually absent from the portrayal of its institutions, the cumulative message for the reader is clearly not to lose time in fighting a seemingly immutable system. Readers on their part will be amused, and, ill-inclined to condone what Walser presents, will begin to question the picture he draws. The somewhat baffled reactions from the first reviewers to the novel's subversive potential, its subtle and ironic debunking of unreflecting social conformism shows that they were not used to this degree of sophistication and multiple layers of meaning. Even in later years, critics found it hard to cope with the novel's rich and often seemingly contradictory mosaic. As fiction and document, Halbzeit remains a singular success, providing insight into a very troubled and insecure society and its ambivalent attitude toward change.


  1. Some of the critics who have dealt with these problems: Klaus Pezold, Martin Walser: Seine schriftstellerische Entwicklung (Berlin: Rütten & Loening, 1971); Thomas Beckermann, Martin Walser oder die Zerstörung eines Musters: Literatur-soziologischer Versuch über “Halbzeit” (Bonn: Bouvier, 1972); Heike Doane, Gesellschaftspolitische Aspekte in Martin Walsers Kristlein-Trilogie (Bonn: Bouvier, 1978); Georges Hartmeier, Die Wunsch- und Erzählströme in Martin Walsers Kristlein-Trilogie: Nöte und Utopien des Mannes (Bern, Frankfurt, New York: Peter Lang, 1983); Ulrike Hick, Martin Walsers Prosa: Möglichkeiten des zeitgenössischen Romans unter Berücksichtigung des Realismusanspruchs (Stuttgart: Hans-Dieter Heinz, 1983). See the bibliographies of these books for further references.

  2. Halbzeit, p. 418; in association with Schaumkrone and Abschaum, the moral judgment is much less dominant than the idea of drifting and being determined by exterior forces, or the idea of a short-lived reality. Foam as a very short appearance has neither duration nor substance, yet repeats itself all the time.

  3. See also Martin Walser, “Leseerfahrungen mit Marcel Proust” (1958), Erfahrungen und Leseerfahrungen (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1963) 124-42; much more research and analysis of this connection would be needed.

  4. Halbzeit, pp. 605-09; the text also contains countless casual remarks pertaining to latent national pride and resentments. Walser is definitely a keen observer of underground currents in the collective German psyche, certainly in the social strata that he describes. There are, of course, no true representatives of the working class in Halbzeit.

Keith Bullivant (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5364

SOURCE: Bullivant, Keith. “Working Heroes in the Novels of Martin Walser.” In New Critical Perspectives on Martin Walser, edited by Frank Pilipp, pp. 16-28. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1994.

[In the following essay, Bullivant compares and contrasts the protagonists in several of Walser's novels in terms of the relationship between their occupations and Walser's thematic concern with individual failure in modern competitive society.]

The novels of Martin Walser are usually understood as breaking down into three, or even four groups: Marriage in Philippsburg (1957, trans. 1961) was a relatively conventional social novel set at a time of social mobility that had more in common with, e.g., John Braine's British novel Room at the Top (1957) than with the then contemporary West German novel. Halbzeit (1960; Half Time) and The Unicorn (1966; 1971), the first two parts of the Anselm Kristlein trilogy, were strikingly more modern in the somewhat rambling form, in the innovative use of language, and in the central thematic concern with identity and role-playing in modern society. As such they were seen as belonging to the same sort of category as Grass's Die Blechtrommel (1959; The Tin Drum, 1962) and Uwe Johnson's Mutmaßungen über Jakob (1959; Speculations about Jakob, 1963), with these novels in turn being understood to constitute a breakthrough of the West German novel into the company of international modernity. The final part of the trilogy, Der Sturz (1973; The Fall), was in many ways closer to the style of the earlier part than to Walser's writing of the early seventies and can justifiably be seen as the summation of Walser's novels of the sixties. However, as early as 1964 it was clear that Walser was becoming highly critical of the major tendencies of “bourgeois literature,” which for him had lost its initial emancipatory impetus and had by now become merely affirmative, its main characteristics being

the leeway granted, the precisely delimited fool's license, the boldly undertaken linguistic expeditions into elegant or attractively wicked dead ends … into the modern supernatural. Into nothing but language games.1

This disquiet, closely linked to Walser's growing political awareness in the turbulent sixties, reached its zenith towards the end of the decade when, taking a break from writing himself, he championed the publication of the life stories of people outside the middle class2 and became involved in the work of the cooperative of worker-writers, the Werkkreis Literatur der Arbeitswelt. To this phase also belonged Walser's Die Gallistl'sche Krankheit (1972; Gallistl's Disease), his attempt “to write a socialist novel from the point of view of a petty-bourgeois intellectual”;3 the experimental prose piece Fiction (1970); and the completion of the Kristlein trilogy. The next—and, it would appear, final—phase of Walser's fictional prose-writing was ushered in by the highly criticized novel Beyond All Love (1976; 1981) and in 1993 consists of eight novels and two novellas. The works are linked back to the trilogy, in that, like Der Sturz, they are all concerned with individual failure in modern competitive society. They are seen, however, as forming a discrete unit insofar as they are all far more conventional and readable and, above all, are marked by an extensive use of free indirect speech that produces an intensively subjective form of realist writing having much in common with the “New Subjectivity” of the seventies.4

There is much to this reading of the progress of Walser's career as a novelist; it certainly addresses the major stylistic changes in his craft over the last twenty-six years. Walser, however, has argued that while “the finer spirits really don't want to see occupations of any sort in today's novel,” every one of his own novels and novellas features a central character with a clearly defined job: Hans Beumann (Marriage in Philippsburg) is a journalist, Anselm Kristlein is a sales representative, a writer, and the administrator of a rest home; Josef Gallistl has various jobs and ends up as a writer; Franz Horn (Beyond All Love and Letter to Lord Liszt, 1982; 1985) is a sales executive; Helmut Halm (Runaway Horse, 1978; 1980 and Breakers, 1985; 1987) a schoolteacher; Klaus Buch, his alter ego in Runaway Horse, a journalist; Xaver Zürn (The Inner Man, 1979; 1984) a chauffeur; Gottlieb Zürn (The Swan Villa, 1980; 1982 and Jagd, 1988; On the Prowl) a realtor; Wolf Zieger (No Man's Land, 1987; 1988) is a local government official and GDR spy; and Alfred Dorn (Die Verteidigung der Kindheit, 1991; In Defense of Childhood) is a lawyer employed as a civil servant.5

Walser's career as a novelist began in the late fifties, at a time when a number of writers and critics, notably Alfred Andersch, Walter Jens, and Wolfgang Rothe, were complaining that, despite the urging of Julian Schmidt and Karl Gutzkow a hundred years earlier, the German novel continued to focus on the world of leisure rather than the workplace as the determinant of modern existence. While it can be argued that such a view ignored certain of Böll's shorter prose works of the time, Walser's first novel, Marriage in Philippsburg, was a truly isolated work in the context of the German novel of the fifties. In his case—although the possible influence of Andersch, a colleague at the Südwestfunk, cannot be excluded—the strong evidence is that Walser's concern with the pressures on the individual working within modern competitive society can be traced back to his doctoral work on Kafka and to his interest in the work of Robert Walser (no relation), especially his novel Der Gehülfe (1907; The Servant), which thematically anticipates The Inner Man. Only as a result of his politicization in the sixties does the sympathy for, and support of, working-class efforts for self-expression in writing emerge, a concern that continues into the eighties.

The apparent emphasis in Walser's first three novels was on the price paid by the individual for success (or merely survival) in modern society. Hans Beumann, much like Joe Lampton in Room at the Top, succeeds in his new social milieu by squashing the noble ideals of his student days. His finer feelings are suppressed in favor of a dog-eat-dog attitude that enables the quick-witted protagonist to succeed in the marketplace of Philippsburg. The price of success is, though, betrayal of people like himself (climaxing in the scene when he forcibly evicts a proletarian gate-crasher from the exclusive Sebastian Club), suppression of true feelings (he really prefers the humbler Marge to Anne Volkmann, marriage with whom is, though, his entrance card to the higher society of Philippsburg); and, ultimately, deformation of character.

Although marking a radical stylistic breakaway from the relatively traditional first novel to an aggressive avantgardism, Halbzeit continues the concern with modern pressures on the individual. Walser's protagonist this time is a sales representative, a figure of particular significance for Walser:

It has struck me how awful it is if someone constantly has to sell things when those around him don't really need anything. Or, at least, they can just as easily buy or order what they've bought or ordered from this sales representative from any of his competitors. There is, therefore, no other job that could so forcefully make a person aware of his or her own superfluity as that of the commercial traveler.6

We are confronted with the impact of such problems on the individual at the very beginning of the novel, when we learn that Anselm Kristlein has recently returned home from hospital, a stay brought on by job pressures. But, trapped in the system though he is, Anselm is clearly a survivor, able to achieve some degree of independence through his chameleon-like mastery of role-playing and, at the same time, indulging himself in his weakness for the opposite sex. In The Unicorn, the second part of the trilogy, Anselm has become a freelance writer, but the social game remains the same—indeed, he has now become even more expert as a player of social roles. This talent enables him not only to survive in the competitive world but also (unlike Hans Beumann) to maintain his identity:

His identity is never seriously endangered. He is chained to it as to nothing else. That is to say, he is in no sense a pathological case, he is absolutely not schizophrenic; his roles are simply his attempt—through masterly conformism towards those stronger than himself—to make himself appear a strong person.7

The final volume of the trilogy marked a decisive turning point in Walser's portrayal of Anselm Kristlein. By the time he came to write this novel, Walser had moved farther to the Left politically, strongly supporting efforts by groups within the DKP (the German Communist Party) and by the Werkkreis Literatur der Arbeitswelt to articulate in literature the price paid by those working in capitalist society. His Die Gallistl'sche Krankheit focuses—in a way that takes us back to Hans Beumann—on the deformation of character as an integral part of the work process; Gallistl works

in order to earn the money that I need to be Josef Georg Gallistl. But by having to work so much, I never get to being Josef Georg Gallistl. Up to now I have never been anything more than the person who works for the Josef Georg Gallistl who doesn't yet exist.

(GK [Die Gallistl'sche Krankheit] 22-23)

Gallistl is weary of the hard and lonely struggle, dreams of escape into the world of manual labor and considers joining “the Party” (Presumably the DKP) in order to end his isolation. The Anselm Kristlein we meet in Der Sturz is a not dissimilar figure. The (now) fifty-year-old is exhausted by the “pressure to earn money” (S [Der Sturz] 25), longs to experience life without that pressure, but—having known no other life—is afraid “that my life would at once cease to have any meaning at all if the pressure to earn money were removed. Up to now it has had no other meaning than earning money” (S 26). In a desperate attempt to make money he has risked and lost all of his wife's inheritance, 72,000 marks, walked and worked his way south from Munich in his quest to rejoin his family, and been arrested and tried on suspicion of murder (being freed only after the intervention and detective work of his wife, Alissa). Traumatized by these experiences, which culminate in his being attacked by persons unknown after his release, and as a result more or less incapable of communication with the members of his family, Kristlein now runs a rest home for the entrepreneur Blomich and finds himself surrounded by fellow victims: the worker Berthold Traub, unable to face the thought of returning to work in the Blomich works, commits suicide, as does the ex-gardener Michel Enziger, while Kristlein's wife has a nervous breakdown. The final disaster comes when Blomich sells out to the American competition and all of the employees are dismissed. Kristlein's sovereign “counter-type” has now made himself completely independent of the world of commercial competition, while the isolated Anselm, turning too late to Alissa for support and comfort and lacking the political support enjoyed by those who are politically organized, can envisage only further catastrophe. The final section of the novel, “With the sailing boat across the Alps,” Anselm's dream (narrated in the future tense) of what might now happen, is a bizarre act of individual rebellion, in that he fantasizes about running off with Blomich's treasured possession, an episode which ends, significantly enough, with boat and trailer causing an accident in the Alps and the line: “It's downhill all the way for us” (S 352).

The central thematic concerns of Der Sturz—the increasing inability of the middle-aged male to cope with the pressures of the rat race, with those problems exacerbated by the inability of Walser's protagonist to break out of neurotic individualism and take advantage of the support offered by a loving wife or political organization—are at the heart of most of Walser's subsequent prose fiction. These works differ stylistically from their predecessors in their intense focus on the inner life of the antihero, achieved by the extensive use of free indirect speech. The prototype of the protagonist in this sequence of works is Franz Horn, a sales executive with a firm of denture manufacturers. He has obviously enjoyed a good measure of success in former years but now finds himself increasingly incapable of coping with the intense competition coming from younger colleagues. He has been making a series of more or less unconscious protest gestures against the diminution of his standing within the firm, through heavy drinking, weight gain, and involvement in trade-union activities directed against the management. However, it is only during the course of a business trip to England that he becomes truly aware of the depth of his dissatisfaction when confronted with his alter ego Keith Heath. He crowns the failure of his business trip by taking a (nonfatal) overdose of sleeping pills, having found a sort of contentment in having exited the rat race by embracing failure: “All he wanted was to be left alone with his own worthlessness, which he no longer disputed” BAL [Beyond All Love] 66; JL [Jenseits der Liebe] 112).

This survival tactic is continued by Horn in the epistolary Letter to Lord Liszt and is adopted too by the failed realtor Gottlieb Zürn and Helmut Halm, during his visiting semester in the U.S.A. in Breakers, as a means of coping with the pressures brought out so forcefully (and economically) in Runaway Horse. In the figure of the seemingly Peter Pan-like Klaus Buch we appear to have the successful embodiment of the ethos of competitive society. He regards every sphere of his life—work, sex, sport—in an incredibly competitive light and appears to enjoy success in all these areas. Only when he is swept overboard while sailing with Helmut Halm on Lake Constance does his young wife reveal the implosive effect of his lifestyle on her and, too, the true misery of Klaus's life:

“He didn't have much of a life,” Hella said. “It was just one long grind. Every day ten, twelve hours at the typewriter. Even when he couldn't write, he still sat at the typewriter. ‘I must be at the ready,’ he would say then. Everything he did was a terrible effort. … He often used to cry out, at night. And more and more often he would break out into a sweat, in the middle of the night. …”

(RH [Runaway Horse] 98; FP [Ein fliehendes Pferd] 136-37)

While Klaus embodies the attempt to cope with societal pressures through total conformism to the norms of competitive society, Helmut Halm adopts a radically different strategy. In a form of controlled schizophrenia (living doppelt), he safeguards his true self by superficial conformism at school and withdrawal into an internalized existence in his private life.

This is the “inward path,” the “subordination of the external world to that of the soul,” as Walser calls it, that in his view has made an artistic virtue out of historical necessity within the history of the German novel of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.8 The irritant source of this “petty-bourgeois tendency” (Kleinbürgertendenz) is the “violation of human dignity brought about by dependency,” i.e., wage labor of all kinds,9 the means of coping with it in literature the depiction of the withdrawal into an inner life in which the true self can be just that. In Walser's work this is seen with particular force in the figure of Helmut Halm in Runaway Horse. While, however, this latter work would seem to fit beautifully into the scheme of Walser's ideas and be supported by, e.g., Der Sturz, a number of other works in the last phase of Walser's career raise problems. The figure of Gottlieb Zürn embodies all the features of the Walser antihero that characterize the novels since 1976. He dreams of finding peace by making his fortune—“Money would mean living without stop-watch and whip” (SV [The Swan Villa] 86; SH [Das Schwanenhaus] 87)—but, like Franz Horn, lacks the dynamism and courage of his competitors and comes to enjoy the various defeats that he suffers as realtor, husband, and father. His final defeat, the demolition of the Swan Villa for which he has failed to get the listing rights, induces a rapprochement with his wife, Anna, that gives him the strength to fall asleep (a recurrent motif of survival in these works). However, even though all the constituent parts are there, it is difficult to consider Zürn in any way as victim; indeed, the self-indulgence that characterizes his behavior throughout is based on the fact that, whatever financial insecurity he may claim to suffer from, he is exceedingly comfortably off. By the time we get to Jagd, the sequel to The Swan Villa, Zürn has been able to take early retirement, thanks to his competent wife's taking over the running of the business. As a result he can, he says, indulge himself in idling and writing (although the bulk of the novel is concerned with his efforts to achieve sexual fulfillment). The self-indulgence of the protagonist and the ultimate slightness of these works makes it difficult to read them as substantial workings out of Walser's theme, but rather they come over as—in the German marketplace—commercially successful novels for a middle-class readership that could recognize its own foibles and problems presented in ironic form.

The same playing with Walserian leitmotifs, by now lacking real provenance in the structure of modern capitalist society, marks Breakers, which sees Helmut Halm on sabbatical in California. While the central thrust of the novel is to push the theme of midlife crisis from Runaway Horse into the realms of the absurd, much of its bulk is made up of sometimes elegant, often funny sketches that have little or nothing to do with the theme Walser claims to be addressing. And Halm, the German schoolteacher with all the rights, privileges, and complete security afforded by the civil service status of such a position, can—despite the way in which he otherwise exemplifies the Walser protagonist since 1976—no more be considered a “petty bourgeois,” in any societally significant sense of the term, than Dr. Gottlieb Zürn, the failed but comfortably-off realtor.

Many of the experiences of Helmut Halm at the “University of Oakland” are, as is widely known, based on Walser's stay in the German Department of the University of California at Berkeley; perhaps less well known is how much of Beyond All Love, which seems to be set in the world of commerce, is based on Walser's experiences during his time as Writer in Residence at the University of Warwick.10 This knowledge, together with input from what others know or have learned from conversation with the ever candid Walser, suggests that there is a close link between the fiction and the life and times of Walser himself. And indeed, if we look back over the range of his novels, it is clear that there are close parallels between the author and his protagonists over and beyond those written since 1976—in the figures of the women, some of whom bear the names of members of the Walser family; in the sense of financial insecurity (Walser has often stressed that it was not until the success of Runaway Horse, published when he was fifty, that he attained financial security and was freed from the burden of an enormous mortgage); in the age of Helmut Halm as well as of other protagonists and the experience of midlife crisis. Above all, it is the social background of the protagonists, successful though they now are in real terms, that is strikingly similar: Hans Beumann and Franz Horn are the illegitimate sons of waitresses, while Helmut Halm is the son of a waiter; Anselm Kristlein and Gottlieb Zürn grew up in impoverished circumstances after the business failures and subsequent suicides of their fathers. Walser's father ran a small Gasthaus and a small coal business on the side, but was a poor businessman and, when he died of diabetes at the age of forty-nine, Walser's mother was left to bring up her family burdened with debt; the father like a number of Walser's antiheroes, sought solace in attempting to write.11 It could, thus, be argued that the Walser novels dealt with here constitute to some considerable extent a constant working over in fictional terms of problems and neuroses that are those of an author who claims to be, like his protagonists, “deformed by my petty-bourgeois background,” but who has, in real terms, long since left this behind him.12 Those main characters, like the author himself, are parvenus (Aufsteiger), typical products of a West German society marked, at least in its first few decades, by a remarkable social mobility that soon produced a “leveled-in middle-class society” (nivellierte Mittelstandsgesellschaft), in Helmut Schelsky's term, full of arrivistes like Walser and his antiheroes coping, with varying degrees of success, with the psychological baggage of their petty-bourgeois past. There is another, final way in which the likes of Kristlein, Franz Horn, Klaus Buch, and Gottlieb Zürn—all those, in fact, involved in selling in one form or another—embody to some extent Walser's own preoccupation with his position and activity as a writer in modern society (as influenced by his social origins): in an interview with Horst Bienek, quoted in part earlier, he stressed the impact on the consciousness of the sales representative Anselm Kristlein of his quintessential superfluity. This, Walser went on, “is what has made me sympathetic towards this profession: it reminds me of that of the writer.”13

There is one of the post-1973 works, however, which cannot be read as yet another variant on Walser's highly individualistic and to some extent autobiographical working out of the Kleinbürgertendenz. It admittedly contains a number of the key motifs of the other works; its protagonist is, moreover, a member of the Swabian clan that we know from them, and his grandfather had committed suicide in the face of bankruptcy; but Xaver Zürn (The Inner Man) is the only true petty bourgeois amongst them.

Whereas the other members of the extended family that we know have all gone through higher education and subsequently “made something of themselves,” as the phrase goes (whatever mixed blessings they may feel that process has brought), Xaver has been able only to move up from forklift-truck driver to the position of chauffeur. Unlike his relatives, he has been frustrated in his hopes of social advancement: the Mercedes he drives, normally a potent symbol of “having made it” in West German society, is for him the badge of his servitude. Even in the case of this remarkably precise analysis of the consequences of “functional specificity,”14 Peter Hamm claimed “of course this driver isn't really a driver” but, as with the other novels discussed here, “the author.”15 We would, however, argue that the personal problems inherent in the extreme form of master-servant relationship embodied in that between chauffeur and employer-as-passenger in no way correspond to the anxieties that characterize the rather privileged existence of both Walser as freelance writer and of his troop of antiheroes. What he is doing here is drawing on a long-term preoccupation with the implications of such a position through literature, on the one hand (that tradition embracing Robert Walser's Der Gehülfe and Brecht's Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti [1948; Puntila and Matti, His Hired Hand, 1972]),16 and through personal observation, on the other. Walser's second prose manuscript (of 1951, unpublished), entitled Memoirs of a Chauffeur, was based on his early experiences as a radio journalist traveling around for months with a sound engineer and a chauffeur.17 Chauffeurs also crop up in both Halbzeit and The Unicorn and are thus further testimony to the author's long pre-occupation with what he sees as the social significance of the figure.

The Inner Man has the same sort of dramatic structure as the post-1973 novels, beginning just before a major crisis in Xaver Zürn's life. A long drive undertaken in the first part of the novel (“May”), from Lake Constance to Düsseldorf, Cologne, Giessen, Heidelberg, and Munich, confronts us with the total exclusion zone between Xaver and his employer, Dr. Gleitze, and, through reflective flashbacks, informs the reader about those unsatisfactory aspects of Xaver's employment that have induced his present physical problem of acute and painful constipation. During his thirteen years of work as Gleitze's driver he has had to conform to his employer's—quite incorrect—image of him as the ideal chauffeur: a careful driver with the skill of a champion marksman (which Xaver never was), a composed nondrinker, whose only indulgence is ice cream (but who, in reality, prefers to indulge in a bottle or two of wine in his off-duty hours). He has constantly to endure the separation between front and rear in an automobile, rendered particularly intense by Gleitze's being constantly wrapped in his obsession with the world of opera on the back seat; the indignity of removal to cheap hotels with uncomfortable beds at night; the exclusion from the sybaritic pleasures of his thoughtless employer, who then, to make matters worse, rams home the false persona he has inflicted on his driver by insisting on Xaver's being treated to the sickly-sweet “treat” that he so hates, under the impression that he (Gleitze) is being generous. Their peripatetic pas de deux embodies with an intensity not found in Walser's other works the personal degradation inherent in the (at least European) class structure.

Xaver has in some way compensated for the fear of losing his somewhat privileged position with fantasies of aggression. This antagonism towards Gleitze is, in turn, further stimulated by the casual purchase of his “colleague” John Frey's memoirs of his life as a chauffeur to a German Nazi manufacturer, in which he recognizes his own experiences—above all, his real dependency on the whim of a man who, although to Xaver and all others seemingly decent in his treatment of his driver, has ultimate power over him: even Xaver's nominally free weekends are spent running errands for Gleitze and/or his wife, or for their friends. This power relationship, as with John Frey, in turn produces hatred for Gleitze, hatred which is, however, immediately suppressed, manifesting itself in Xaver's physical discomfort. His detailed physical examination in a Tübingen clinic turns out to be the climactic moment of the novel, exposing his apparent illness as ultimately psychosomatic and, at the same time, confronting him with the truth about his relationship to his employer. On learning that Gleitze has arranged for a close friend to examine him, Xaver at first feels that this is yet another example of the man's inherent kindness, but the series of painful tests convinces him that he has, in fact, been exposed to “those machines, because he [the boss] needs a man whose reliability has been scrutinized by every technological process.” Moreover, Gleitze “was entitled to be informed about every square centimeter of his insides” (IM [The Inner Man] 156; SA [Seelenarbeit] 170). Just how true this is is revealed somewhat later. After his week in the clinic Xaver returns to his job and, on the surface, nothing seems to have changed apart from the fact that Xaver's aggressive feelings towards his employer are more intense: when the latter gets out of the car to urinate on a night journey home Xaver fantasizes about stabbing him with one of the six knives he by now has stashed away in the glove compartment. The next day—there is no suggestion of a casual link, except perhaps that the knife in Xaver's hand aroused Gleitze's suspicions—he is summoned into the office to see the secretary, who informs him that he has been relieved of his chauffeur's duties and is to return to the warehouse. She hints, with some empathy, at advancing age and mentions an apparent suggestion by Gleitze that Xaver was having increasing difficulty in getting through the day without a beer (he has had but one in public!), but the crucial thing is the totally impersonal way in which he is demoted by the man to whom he has been physically close for some thirteen years and who is widely held to be a considerate person. The nature of his demotion brings out with an intensity found nowhere else in Walser the full nature of Xaver's dependency on Gleitze.

On the same day the Zürns learn that their daughter Julia has failed the examinations necessary for her to proceed towards the high-school diploma (Abitur), the prerequisite for social advancement in Germany. This convinces Xaver of the inevitability and correctness of Gleitze's judgment of him, a failure from a family of failures (IM 247; SA 264)—a judgment confirmed by further personal calamities. In the acceptance of the inherent justice behind his degradation, with only sexual intercourse with his wife Agnes offering any sort of solace, is captured the extremely low self-esteem so quintessentially typical of the lower orders in European class society. Whereas in the other post-1973 prose works examined here the social origins of this malaise are frequently only alluded to somewhat cryptically, The Inner Man confronts us in graphic form with the social origins and psychological consequences of the “petty-bourgeois deformation” that marks all of Walser's later anti-heroes and, in turn, enhances the understanding—particularly that of the non-European reader—of the other works.


  1. Walser, “Freiübungen,” Erfahrungen und Leseerfahrungen (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp) 97.

  2. Cf. here Erika Runge, Bottroper Protokolle (1968), Ursula Trauberg, Vorleben (1968), and Wolfgang Werner, Vom Waisenhaus ins Zuchthaus (1969).

  3. Anthony Waine, Martin Walser (Munich: Text + Kritik, 1980) 102.

  4. Cf. here Frank Pilipp, The Novels of Martin Walser: A Critical Introduction, Studies in German Literature, Linguistics, and Culture 64 (Columbia SC: Camden House, 1991) 32-35, and Keith Bullivant, Realism Today (Leamington Spa, Hamburg, New York: Berg, 1977) 213-20.

  5. Walser, “Brauchen Romanhelden Berufe?” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Literary Supplement) 11 Jan. 1992: 1-2. It should be stated here that, notwithstanding the point Walser makes, the emphases in No Man's Land and Die Verteidigung der Kindheit are different from those of the other later novels and will not be examined here.

  6. In an interview with Horst Bienek in the latter's Werkstattgespräche mit Schriftstellern (Munich: Hanser, 1962) 195.

  7. Walser in a letter of 27 July 1967 to Melvyn Dorman, a graduate student at the University of Birmingham (UK). Quoted in R. Hinton Thomas and W. van der Will, Der deutsche Roman und die Wohlstandsgesellschaft (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1969) 124 (my translation).

  8. Walser, “Goethe hat ein Programm, Jean Paul eine Existenz,” Literaturmagazin 2 (1974): 108-09.

  9. Walser, “Die Literatur der gewöhnlichen Verletzungen,” Die Würde am Werktag: Literatur der Arbeiter und Angestellten, ed. Martin Walser (Frankfurt/M.: Fischer, 1980) 7.

  10. Cf. Keith Bullivant (ed.), Englische Lektionen (Munich: iudicium, 1990) 80.

  11. On Walser's childhood cf. Waine, pp. 7-11.

  12. In an interview with Donna L. Hoffmeister, Vertrauter Alltag, gemischte Gefühle. Gespräche mit Schriftstellern über Arbeit in der Literatur (Bonn: Bouvier, 1989) 170.

  13. Cf. Bienek, p. 195.

  14. Cf. here Donna Hoffmeister's excellent analysis of this work, “Fantasies of Individualism: Work Reality in Seelenarbeit,Martin Walser: International Perspectives, eds. Jürgen E. Schlunk and Armand E. Singer, American University Studies: Series 1, Germanic Languages and Literature 64 (New York: Lang, 1987) 59-69.

  15. Hoffmeister, Vertrauter Alltag, gemischte Gefühle, p. 169.

  16. This aspect is examined in part by Siegfried Mews in the following essay.

  17. Hoffmeister, Vertrauter Alltag, gemischte Gefühle, p. 169.

Works Cited

Bienek, Horst. Werkstattgespräche mit Schriftstellern. Munich: Hanser, 1962.

Bullivant, Keith. Realism Today: Aspects of the Contemporary German Novel. Leamington Spa, Hamburg, New York: Berg, 1987.

———, (ed.). Englische Lektionen. Munich: iudicium, 1990.

Hoffmeister, Donna L. “Fantasies of Individualism: Work Reality in Seelenarbeit.Martin Walser: International Perspectives. Eds. Jürgen E. Schlunk, and Armand E. Singer. American University Studies: Series 1, Germanic Language and Literature 64. New York: Lang, 1987. 59-70.

———. Vertrauter Alltag, gemischte Gefühle. Gespräche mit Schriftstellern über Arbeit in der Literatur. Bonn: Bouvier, 1989.

Pilipp, Frank. The Novels of Martin Walser: A Critical Introduction. Studies in German Literature, Linguistics, and Culture. Columbia SC: Camden House, 1991.

Thomas, R. Hinton, and Wilfried van der Will. Der deutsche Roman und die Wohlstandsgesellschaft. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1969.

Waine, Anthony. Martin Walser. Munich: Text + Kritik, 1980.

Walser, Martin. “Brauchen Romanhelden Berufe?” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Literary Supplement) 11 Jan. 1992: 1-2.

———. “Freiübungen.” Erfahrungen und Leseerfahrungen. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1965. 94-110.

———. “Goethe hat ein Programm, Jean Paul eine Existenz.” Literaturmagazin 2 (1974): 108-09.

———. “Die Literatur der gewöhnlichen Verletzungen.” Die Würde am Werktag: Literatur der Arbeiter und Angestellten. Ed. Martin Walser. Frankfurt/M.: Fischer, 1980. 7-11.

Steve Dowden (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5098

SOURCE: Dowden, Steve. “A German Pragmatist: Martin Walser's Literary Essays.” In New Critical Perspectives on Martin Walser, edited by Frank Pilipp, pp. 120-33. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1994.

[In the following essay, Dowden compares the themes and techniques of Walser and John Updike's novels and literary criticism, classifying them both as pragmatists.]

Martin Walser's nearest American counterpart is probably John Updike. They belong to the same generation, the former having been born in 1927, the latter in 1932, and they both excel in the same prose forms: the novel and the literary essay. In addition, both writers are conspicuously interested in the riddles of postwar national life and identity in the contemporary middle classes. The neurotic perplexities of a Harry Angstrom or an Anselm Kristlein reflect the larger anxieties of the modern self—or at least the one that is white, male, and more or less affluent—as it floats freely on the unquiet seas of marriage and nation, religion and workplace, sex and the sundry bewilderments of just getting along in the conformist world of contemporary Germany and America.

Since a self always has to be born and raised somewhere, national identity inevitably emerges as a major theme for both novelists. Of course, neither of them advocates any kind of chauvinistic sense of nation or national destiny. Instead, each strives in his fiction to see his respective country with clarity and candor. In the interest of concrete specificity, they focus attention on the individual in society, rather than risk losing narrative momentum to abstraction and advocacy (moral ambiguity is always more interesting than moral certainty). In the psychosocial design of their novels, the public arena and private sphere are interlocked.1 Nowhere is this more striking than in the realm of love and sex.

Sexual misadventure and distress of varying degrees hold a special interest for both Updike and Walser. Of course, sex is, in and of itself, an arresting topic for most people, and it may be that it accrues no particular meaning other than itself. This is frequently enough true. Still, in this matched pair of writers, both plainly preoccupied with the Americanness and Germanness of their respective settings and characters, it is difficult not to assume that sex, too, has other, more self-transcendent meanings. Among them, it may be that the sexual self-doubts so troubling to Helmut Halm and Rabbit Angstrom tap some larger insecurity that is characteristic of the historical moment.

Larger insecurities are not hard to come by. In Updike's case the failure of American potency in Vietnam comes irrepressibly to mind. American military ventures in Grenada and the Persian Gulf, Somalia and Panama seem as linked to the restoration of national self-confidence as Rabbit Angstrom's endless search for self-affirmation in repeated erotic encounters with different women. Similarly, Helmut Halm's misgivings about his settled married life and his ebbing sexual prowess can be understood as a refracted image of German self-doubts about the firmness and fidelity of its commitment to liberal, Western values. A good wife, a good job, and a stable home leave Halm feeling unfulfilled. He yearns for something beyond the bourgeois average, something more dangerous, more Nietzschean. Exciting prospects beckon, especially in the hedonistic California of Breakers (1985). But ultimately Halm does not yield to his impulses—partly because he can never quite tell his impulses from the ones that his time and place have imposed upon him. Halm's self-doubt should be reassuring. In the current political climate of Germany and Central Europe, it is encouraging that Walser's would-be adventurers are inclined to return to their wives, the only stable characters in his world. In a Walser novel the reaffirmation of marriage seems oddly like a reaffirmation of Germany's postwar liberal order and the values that make it work: tolerance, self-acceptance, the commitment to living with and improving a fallible institution from within.

However, let us not get sidetracked into the interesting but complex issues of Walser's sexual themes. They are only one facet of the larger question of the literary correlation between individual and national self. Sex is merely an obvious example of how the public invades the private. The public saturates and governs the private when public standards of competition, performance, and domination become internalized in assumptions about sexual life. Helmut Halm is a typical example. He feels liberated in California, but in fact he surrenders his autonomy to a set of preestablished norms and expectations—a consumerist Leistungsethik—of exactly how the good life is to be led. The New Age myths that draw him to a narcissistic lifestyle, embodied in the allure of Fran Webb, liquidate his individuality as surely as the conformist myths that entrap Franz Horn in his German work life, or the ideological machinery that severs Alfred Dorn from the self of his past in Die Verteidigung der Kindheit (1991; In Defense of Childhood). What links ideology, work, politics, and sex here is the underlying issue of self-fulfillment, of true and authentic selfhood.

In novel after novel, authentic individuality (often expressed as the hunger for control over one's own life) emerges as Walser's guiding theme. It is not for nothing that Halm reads Kierkegaard and has written a book about Nietzsche, the two great masters of individualism. He clings to them like Huck Finn clings to his raft. Nor is it surprising that a novelist should take questions of individuality as his controlling theme. It has been with the novel at least since Robinson Crusoe (1719). In particular, there is something about the nature of the modernist novel—and both Walser and Updike have been shaped by modernism—that gives a special prominence to the actual and symbolic importance of the individual. According to Updike, fiction

offers to enlarge our sense of possibilities, of potential freedom; and freedom is dangerous. The bourgeois, capitalist world, compared with the medieval hierarchies it supplanted and with the Communist hierarchies that would supplant it, is a dangerous one, where failure can be absolute and success may be short-lived. The novel and the short story rose with the bourgeoisie, as exercises in democratic feeling and in individual adventure. Pamela, The Pilgrim's Progress, Robinson Crusoe—what do they tell us but that our entrepreneurism, on one level or another, may succeed? If fiction is in decline, it is because we have lost faith in the capacity of the individual to venture forth and suffer the consequences of his dreams.2

Even though Walser, well known as a sharp critic of capitalism and its human costs, would presumably bridle at Updike's enthusiasm for capitalist metaphors, there is a sense in which Updike has described Walser personally and exactly.

Walser's protagonists have difficulty in asserting themselves and sustaining a sense of their own individuality. They lack what Updike, for better or for worse, calls “entrepreneurism.” Updike goes on to point out that the entrepreneurial world is a dangerous one, that failure can be absolute, as it is for so many of Walser's protagonists who find themselves trapped in the web of capitalist competition and its social consequences. It is an insight that Kafka expressed best of all, and which has not been wasted on Walser.3 As surely as Josef K. is unable to break free of his trial, Franz Horn of Beyond All Love (1976) fails to overcome the mind-numbing job and way of life that oppress him. Such examples from Walser's fiction could be multiplied at length. Similarly, Updike's own protagonists are more likely to be defeated than not, even if the defeat is seldom absolute.

However, the entrepreneurism that Walser's characters lack is abundantly present in Walser himself. He labored in the ranks of broadcasting media during the 1950s before “venturing forth” on his own into that most uncertain and competitive of market-oriented livelihoods, freelance writing. And even he, so he has said, was unable to make a living at it before he was fifty-one years old.4 Still, Walser counts among the survivors. Where his protagonists mostly fail, i.e., in making their way independently, Walser has mostly succeeded. Moreover, he stands out in German literary and intellectual life as a plain-speaking individualist. His opponents are inclined to lump him together with the left, but the left has had hard words for him, too. For example, when Walser agreed to an interview to be published in the conservative daily Die Welt, left-wing observers claimed he had gone over to the other side. Walser's thinking is not ideologically bound to the agenda of one side or the other.

As a novelist he explores the failed lives of downtrodden and mystified middle- or lower-class men, combining sympathy and critique in fair measure. His allegiances as literary critic are similar, siding with the failures or, if not exactly failures, then at least the canonical outsiders of German literary history: Hölderlin and Kleist, Büchner, Kafka and Robert Walser. In this sphere, too, the ideal of autonomous individuality comes to the fore. It suggests that authentic selfhood may be the supreme virtue, or at least one of the chief virtues, in both the fiction and criticism that Walser writes.

Having begun as a critic in the late forties and early fifties with an academic dissertation on Kafka, which as a book subsequently became one of the more influential studies in academic Kafka criticism, Walser is no stranger to the claims of Wissenschaft on the study of literature in the academic setting. But the nonacademic Walser makes no pretense of impartiality or “scientific” standards of scholarship. As he sees it, the virtue of his criticism, and of literary criticism in general, is the spontaneity and personal intensity of what he calls a Lese-Erlebnis.5 Walser believes that criticism begins with our experience of the text.

Here we broach the task of his literary criticism, which is to understand the exploration of limitation and lack of freedom. In his best essays, which he has himself collected and published under the title Liebeserklärungen (1983; Declarations of Love), Walser examines the insecurities and deficiencies of great writers. He calls our attention to the ways in which a sense of inadequacy—Mangel is Walser's favorite word for it—can compel the writing of fiction and poetry. In Walser's literary essays the preoccupation with self and the fear of its entrapment are continuous with the same themes in his fictions. Walser sets his emphasis upon the poverty of the self, its precarious hold on life, and the need to escape into some wider realm.6 Seen from a more positive point of view, writing is one way of establishing oneself in the world, of escaping from the narrowness of self that Walser has carefully described in his fiction and criticism.

In this sense the principal theme of Walser's literary criticism is freedom. He argues that the self is a small and airless place from which we must escape, and that fiction is one way of achieving a partial escape, and he strongly implies that literary criticism is similarly a way of escaping the limitations of mere self. Now, if literary criticism is to be an experimental way of freeing the self, what are the limits of its freedom? It is at this point that Walser runs afoul of the professional scholars. Subjectivity suggests arbitrariness.

It is obvious that a part of Walser's overall intention in his literary critical forays, which could also be described as raids, has been to attack and reinterpret the canon, casting Thomas Mann into the outer darkness,7 and examining the received wisdom of German classicism with a skeptical eye, at least where Walser perceives that wisdom (especially its traditional place in German culture) to reaffirm the status quo of an oppressive social and political climate.

His detractors argue that his criticism is willfully slanted in the direction of his social and political prejudices and that this vested interest obliges him to misrepresent literary history. Walser's mode of critique is arguably antihistorical.8 The charge, if true, aligns Walser with the advocates of postmodernist fiction. There are probably not many commentators who perceive Walser as a postmodernist. Still, the accusation that he is antihistorical, arbitrary in his dealing with literature, and given to making fun of the German preoccupation with high culture and cultural heros—from the dotty Goethe of In Goethes Hand (1982; In Goethe's Hand) to the Thomas Mann of his Frankfurt Lectures—seems to point in the direction of postmodern culture. In Goethes Hand can be seen as liberating, or disrespectful, or simply self-indulgent, depending on the interpreter's standpoint in the culture wars. From any point of view, Walser obviously intends to bring the exalted figure of Goethe back to earth.9

The leveling of cultural values has emerged as one of postmodernism's central and most pernicious features.10 Walser is known as a champion of the marginal and traditionally uncanonical literary forms, from the dialect poetry, workers’ literature, the writings of convicts and mental patients, to the odd films of Herbert Achternbusch. When asked about what he learned from his advocacy of all these forms of writing, Walser responded that he learned that anyone can become an author by virtue of what is missing from his life.11 Anyone who writes out of some sense of lack or failure, as a reaction against it, is a writer as far as Walser is concerned. In an interview he clarified his view by way of a personal experience. During the late fifties he spent what for him was a liberating few weeks in the United States. When the visit was over he had no desire to return to West Germany, and when he did, the sense of entrapment that overcame him propelled a novel:

And then I sat down after about four weeks and wrote a novel. Out of pure rage, so to speak. I worked up everything, the whole decade of the fifties, for myself; I reacted to everything that had happened to me. The energy for it came out of the experience of entrapment: on a continent, in a country, in a language, in a family—this roped-off, bottled-up, packed-in feeling that goes with having a biography, that goes with the suspicion you are so-and-so who has to turn up with his passport at such and such an address. It seemed unbearable to me.12

His literary criticism, too, is driven by an inner need.13 On these grounds Walser's criticism could be attacked as both too personal and partisan, too much bound to private experience. The dominant theme of his criticism is, indeed, the experience of insecurity, uncertainty, and ‘unfreedom’ common to the writers whom he favors. According to Walser, the experience of unfreedom is at the bottom of all literature. And to explore this unfreedom means an opportunity to overcome it, in a limited sense—or if not truly to banish it then at least to look it in the eye and challenge it.

Walser's essays, intellectually aggressive, subjective, and fallible, have something that criticism in its professional, institutional, academic form often lacks. This something is an appeal to actual aesthetic experience. What Walser offers, warts and all, ought to feel more reassuring to us than academic conventions allow.

First of all, Walser does not claim to have cornered the market on truth. In fact, he goes to considerable lengths to emphasize the subjectivity of his response. It is true that he is opinionated, makes effective rhetorical use of his prestige, and speaks with a command of text and language that implicitly lays claim to authority. But his voice is individual, not institutional, ideological but not binding. It should be a consolation to us that insight into literature is not in the keeping of a priestly caste. Walser presents it as a more democratic undertaking.

Second, criticism, like fiction in Updike's formulation, “offers to enlarge our sense of possibilities, of potential freedom; and freedom is dangerous.” Subjectivity grades over into egotism all too easily. There is also a sense in which a one-sided critique of Walser's subjectivism undermines the liberating aspects of both reading literature and writing about it. When the professional critic—Wolfgang Wittkowski, for example14—reproves Walser for shortcomings as a critic (in particular for what he denounces as a left-wing ideological bias), he also implies that only the expert is qualified to understand these matters properly. His posture is symptomatic of a wider problem. The right to speak about literature has been arrogated by a class of professionals. Current academic writing about literature sends the message that a reading cannot be successfully carried out without the legitimation of a rigorously elaborated critical apparatus.

The dangers of misunderstanding must be weighed against the freedom of independent reading. It is beyond dispute that literary scholarship—the existence of experts who have the time and inclination to study fiction and poetry in great depth—is a good thing. However, it is not such a good thing that intelligent nonexperts—ordinary theatergoers or readers of novels, for example—should feel obliged to defer to the experts. This may be especially true in the United States.

Whatever beneficial effects the rise of theory may have had in American departments of literature, it has also had the unfortunate side effect of repressing large numbers of actual and potential readers. What well-educated undergraduate is likely to care about or even remember the meaning of Lacanian analysis for good reading habits? More likely, undergraduates finishing college today leave the university with a certain feeling of inferiority in literary matters. Similarly, it seems likely that the well-educated German readers of today may experience a like feeling of exclusion when they pick up the most recent issue of Merkur and try to read a literary essay.

Third, the “subjectivity” of Walser's response is not closed and private. The distinction between subjectivity and introversion ought to be plainer now than it was in the discussion around the so-called New Subjectivity of the 1970s and 1980s. Individual experience merely serves as the self-evident point of departure into the political, social, historical, and other meanings a work may offer. He defines it concretely and pragmatically as experience, the way a book makes the reader think and feel, the world it opens up: “Erfahrungen sind im Gegensatz zu Meinungen nicht wählbar” [In contrast to opinions, experiences are ineluctable].15

Subjective aesthetic experience, then, does not mark an abdication of intellectual responsibility.16 Instead, it offers itself as a sensible place to begin serious thinking. But what should be the aim of “serious” literary criticism as practiced by a nonprofessional? The example of Martin Walser suggests this answer: Literary criticism aims, or ought to aim, to make us independent, to enable us to experience the world of poetry, drama, and fiction from the vantage of autonomous reflection. In the particular case of literary criticism, autonomy would mean freedom from the popular taste-makers, the setters of intellectual fashion, and preestablished schools of criticism. But is such a thing possible?

Commentators have noted an affinity between Walser's critical orientation and the reader-response theories of the Constance School. For his part, Walser has shown no particular interest in the theoretical edifice of his learned neighbors. When an eager questioner once tried to pin him down on the topic, Walser only said he was glad to hear that other people shared his point of view. We may reasonably suppose his lack of curiosity on this point to be a matter of principle. It points toward reservations about the immobility that can come of system-building, the entrapment within concepts that puts an end to the vitality of personal and public aesthetic experience.

These two features of his criticism are decisive: the primacy of aesthetic experience and the resistance to an institutionalized framework. The critical result of his way of thinking about literature is the notion of irony that he elaborates in his Frankfurt Lectures—but not only in his Frankfurt Lectures. The concept of irony turns up in all of his literary writings. What is most important and instructive from the perspective of writing about literature is not so much the particular concept of irony that he advocates. Instead, the way he arrives at it should arrest our attention. In Walser's criticism the emphasis falls on process, not product.

Walser is an advocate of the honest reading experience, which suggests that the discovery of fixed and permanent meanings is not his main interest. Aesthetic experience is infinitely renewable, which is another way of saying that meanings are variable. While the proximity of reader-response criticism is clear enough, it appears that Walser's views actually bring him closer to the aesthetics of American pragmatism. From the philosophical foundations in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James, up through Dewey's Art as Experience (1934), to the recent literary criticism of Richard Poirier:17 art is foremost and first of all experience.

There is no reason to believe that Walser has derived his views from the American pragmatist tradition. That does not mean, however, that the points at which they converge will not illuminate Walser's attitudes and practice as a writer of literary essays. Indeed, the very absence of imitation makes that convergence all the more interesting. He shares with the American pragmatists an antagonism to the professionalization of thinking about literature. In “What Pragmatism Means” William James describes the pragmatist as someone who

turns his back resolutely once and for all upon a lot of inveterate habits dear to professional philosophers. He turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. …18

The literary pragmatist could be described as one who turns away from the similar habits of the professional literary critics. Walser's turn of mind has less to do with Ingarden and Gadamer, the founding grandfathers of Rezeptionstheorie, than with the concrete reading experience of actual people. Obviously, Walser can only speak for himself, which shifts the center of gravity away from what he says toward the intellectual mobility that underlies his saying of it. The crisp precision of his criticism has the effect not of defining the normative response to a given work or writer but of challenging the reader to measure up to the sheer quality of imagination with reading experiences of his own. Walser's example invites us to explore our own reading experiences more fully and with a keener eye.

The emphasis on experience implies a liberal, democratic perception of literary meaning as something intrinsically subject to change. In this he is close to the preoccupation of American pragmatism with experiment, openness to new experience and change. Above all, the pragmatists have emphasized temporality and a certain skepticism about the permanence of things, including literary meanings. Emerson and his pragmatic followers, writes Poirier, “want to prevent words from coming to rest and want to dissuade us from hoping that they ever might.”19 In a similar spirit, Walser warns against the critics who have failed to understand that a book or a play is “a contribution to a process that is in continual motion.”20 Authoritative literary evaluations, he says, threaten to “bring the current to a standstill.”21 Walser is, for example, an opponent not of Goethe—whom he openly admires—but of the Goethe industry that has stylized and petrified the writer into the glorified image of a national monument.22 The more liberating approach to Goethe, or any other tradition-encrusted national monument, is one of creative skepticism. Goethe ought to be challenged to renew himself over and over again.

The institutions of criticism resist this process of continual renewal. Theories of criticism, as Nietzsche repeatedly pointed out, always contain their own findings implicit within their system for producing them. The welter of competing critical discourses in current academic use is evidence enough. However, what is at issue here is not a clear-cut choice between “radical” theory and “traditional” reading that the contemporary cultural conservatives would like to force on us. The choice is a false one. After all, any utterance about literature is at some level always already informed by theory, or if not by a formal theory then at least by a set of more or less organized assumptions. There is nothing wrong with airing and exploring such assumptions. Instead of a choice between two mutually exclusive alternatives, we have only a question of proportion. Academic critics have a seldom-acknowledged vested interest in difficulty.

Difficulty is a value of literary modernism that has drifted into the critical establishment. In “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921) T. S. Eliot hailed difficulty as symptomatic of the age, and he went on to make it a literary virtue in his own poetry. The fiction of Joyce, Proust, Kafka, and Mann did their part, too, to establish difficulty as a component and virtue of modern prose. The challenge to readers may well have helped establish the academic critic as the master of complexity too arcane for the ordinary reader to fathom. It may also have helped establish complexity as a virtue of critical prose. The examples of Adorno and Benjamin are suggestive. Whatever historical assumptions may have shaped them, the technocratic idioms of literary criticism are now a part of the intellectual landscape. The literary instrumentalization of figures as diverse as Lacan and Derrida, Foucault and Heidegger, Kristeva and Irigaray establishes the critic as master of a sectarian discourse that is pitched at a considerable remove from the unindoctrinated, usually nonacademic reader. Cliques and clerisies take shape and then struggle for turf in universities and in professional journals. The consequent professionalization of literary criticism, a system strictly policed by the academic publishing imperative and the tenure system, leaves a large gap between college-educated lay readers and the professors who taught their literature courses.

Walser's literary criticism suggests an alternative to the assumption that difficulty is a virtue of literature and criticism. His understanding of Kafka stands as a good example. No modern writer is more difficult than Kafka, yet this difficulty has not forced Walser into a defensive recourse to theoretical systems. Walser takes Kafka seriously as a writer, by which I mean he plainly believes that Kafka's writing seriously probes human nature and culture. The conventions of contemporary criticism take a writer such as Kafka less seriously. To scrutinize Kafka through the lens of New Historicism, for example, entails reducing Kafka to a case, the product of forces beyond his control. It entails taking Freud and Foucault more seriously than Kafka. It may be that we need a Kafkan reading of Foucault more earnestly than we need a Foucaultian reading of Kafka. It may be that Walser has offered something like that in Breakers, in which a major American literature department figures prominently.23


  1. The once-New Subjectivity of the 1970s and 80s did not necessarily signal a withdrawal into the “merely” private. Public and private can seldom be separated; Jonathan P. Clark, “A Subjective Confrontation with the German Past in Martin Walser's Ein fliehendes Pferd,Martin Walser: International Perspectives, eds. Jürgen E. Schlunk and Armand E. Singer, American University Studies: Series 1, Germanic Languages and Literature 64 (New York: Lang, 1987) 47-58.

  2. John Updike, “The Importance of Fiction,” Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism (New York: Knopf, 1991) 87.

  3. Walser's protagonists are descendants of Kafka's K. and Josef K., concerning whom Walser has written with great insight; Beschreibung einer Form: Versuch über Franz Kafka (Munich: Hanser, 1961).

  4. Auskunft: 22 Gespräche aus 28 Jahren, ed. Klaus Siblewski (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1991) 140.

  5. For a detailed look at his views see Thomas Nolden, “Der Schriftsteller als Literaturkritiker: Ein Porträt Martin Walsers,” Martin Walser: International Perspectives, pp. 171-83; and Dirk Göttsche, “Liebeserklärungen und Verletzungen—Zur Literaturkritik von Martin Walser und Ingeborg Bachmann,” Literaturkritik: Anspruch und Wirklichkeit, DFG Symposium 1989, ed. Wilfrid Barner (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1990) 197-212.

  6. Here, too, we ought to think of Updike's Rabbit character in his various novels, who is literally on the run: “The title [Rabbit, Run] is a piece of advice,” writes Updike, “in the imperative mode …”; Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism (New York: Knopf, 1983) 851.

  7. “Ironie als höchstes Lebensmittel,” Die Zeit 13 June 1975: 33-34; Selbstbewußtsein und Ironie: Frankfurter Vorlesungen (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1981) 115-52.

  8. Wolfgang Wittkowski, “Der Schriftsteller und die Tradition: Walser, Goethe und die Klassik,” Martin Walser: International Perspectives, p. 167.

  9. Unlike his Thomas Mann, though, Walser returns his Goethe to the canon, arguing that Goethe's appeal lies in a personal vulnerability expressed as a literature in which evil and catastrophe are always overcome; “Goethes Anziehungskraft,” Liebeserklärungen (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1981) 237-59.

  10. See esp. Alain Finkielkraut, Die Niederlage des Denkens, trans. Nicola Volland (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1989) 115-40.

  11. Auskunft, p. 140.

  12. Auskunft, p. 99.

  13. “Über den Umgang mit Literatur,” Martin Walser: International Perspectives, pp. 202-03.

  14. Wittkowski rebukes Walser as historically ill-informed, ideologically prejudiced, and fashionably subjective, even hedonistically egocentric (161).

  15. “Was ist ein Klassiker?” Über Deutschland reden (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1988) 40.

  16. For a fuller account of contemporary views of subjectivism in a philosophical register see Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992). Taylor offers strong arguments for maintaining confidence in autonomous subjectivity as a moral resource.

  17. For example, The Renewal of Literature: Emersonian Reflections (New Haven: Yale UP, 1987). More than any other contemporary literary critic, Poirier is responsible for mining the vein of pragmatism for literary understanding.

  18. Cited in Richard Poirier, The Renewal of Literature, p. 17.

  19. Poirier, The Renewal of Literature, p. 16. The idea of that the passage of time means the continual renewal of literature is a piece of the pragmatist heritage that Poirier develops at length.

  20. Wer ist ein Schriftsteller?, p. 36.

  21. Auskunft, p. 102.

  22. Liebeserklärungen, pp. 237-59; Auskunft, pp. 113-14.

  23. Bernd Fischer deals with this question in his essay in reference to Breakers.

Works Cited

Finkielkraut, Alain. Die Niederlage des Denkens. Trans. Nicola Volland. Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1989.

Göttsche, Dirk. “Liebeserklärungen und Verletzungen—Zur Literaturkritik von Martin Walser und Ingeborg Bachmann.” Literaturkritik: Anspruch und Wirklichkeit. DFG Symposium 1989. Ed. Wilfrid Barner. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1990. 197-212.

Nolden, Thomas. “Der Schriftsteller als Literaturkritiker: Ein Porträt Martin Walsers.” Martin Walser: International Perspectives. Eds. Jürgen E. Schlunk, and Armand E. Singer. American University Studies: Series 1, Germanic Languages and Literature 64. New York: Peter Lang, 1987. 171-83.

Poirier, Richard. The Renewal of Literature: Emersonian Reflections. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987.

Taylor, Charles. The Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992.

Updike, John. Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism. New York: Knopf, 1983.

———. Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism. New York: Knopf, 1991.

Walser, Martin. Auskunft: 22 Gespräche aus 28 Jahren. Ed. Klaus Siblewski. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1991.

———. “Goethes Anziehungskraft.” Liebeserklärungen. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1981. 237-59.

———. “Ironie als höchstes Lebensmittel,” Die Zeit 13 June 1975. 33-34.

———. Selbstbewußtsein und Ironie. Frankfurter Vorlesungen. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1981.

———. “Über den Umgang mit Literatur.” Martin Walser: International Perspectives. 195-214.

———. Über Deutschland reden. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1988.

Wittkowski, Wolfgang. “Der Schriftsteller und die Tradition: Walser, Goethe und die Klassik.” Martin Walser: International Perspectives. 157-69.

Theodore Ziolkowski (review date winter 1995)

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SOURCE: Ziolkowski, Theodore. Review of Vormittag eines Schriftstellers, by Martin Walser. World Literature Today 69, no. 1 (winter 1995): 135-36.

[In the following review, Ziolkowski summarizes the themes of Vormittag eines Schriftstellers, elucidating the volume's thesis and critical perspective.]

The latest volume [Vormittag eines Schriftstellers] by the impressively productive Martin Walser contains an assortment of eleven occasional pieces on political, cultural, and literary topics—mostly published in various newspapers since the German unification. We find here a paean to Boris Becker, an insightful appreciation of Horst Janssen's erotic drawings, a rhapsody to Goya's Maja, and a surreal vision of the year 2000 inspired by Dali. One piece portrays the figures of an economic scandal as drama while another meditates on the meaning of nation and nationalism in the era of unification with its skinheads and post—Cold War ideologies. (Walser, in contrast to many German intellectuals, is a firm supporter of Helmut Kohl's unification policies.)

The five remaining essays deal with essentially literary topics. A consideration of the professions of fictional heroes leads from Wilhelm Meister and Josef K. to the chauffeur-hero of Walser's own novel, Seelenarbeit (1979). Another records Walser's boyhood reading, which vacillated indiscriminately between Karl May and Schiller, between the Catholic children's books of Christian Schmidt and Dostoevsky, followed by wartime encounters with the works of Stefan George and Adalbert Stifter. An essay on opening sentences provides an intimate look into the writer's workshop. The literary pieces appeal with liturgical regularity, and with frequent apercus, to Goethe, Jean Paul, Novalis, Kafka, Robert Walser—and to Walser's “household deity” Kierkegaard.

Particularly revealing are the two long framework pieces, both of which develop Walser's conviction that the modern intellectual's obsession with having opinions about everything interferes with any objective apprehension of reality. In the title essay Walser makes the point that he is most truly himself in the morning when he is alone and is not required by the presence of others to express any opinions. He even attributes the lack of authenticity in his writing to the unconscious desire to persuade the unseen reader of this opinion or that. The same theme reappears from the opposite standpoint in the final essay, “Des Lesers Selbsverständnis,” where Walser argues that the reader who approaches a text burdened with his own opinions, and feeling compelled constantly to pass judgments, cannot respond to the literary work on its own terms and is thus prevented from experiencing the originality of the work. (He illustrates the point brilliantly by sketching his own readings of Wilhelm Meister over many years.) Critics and scholars obsessed by their theories and ideologies might well take to heart the words of this scrupulously honest writer.

Erich Wolfgang Skwara (review date winter 1997)

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SOURCE: Skwara, Erich Wolfgang. Review of Finks Krieg, by Martin Walser. World Literature Today 71, no. 1 (winter 1997): 140-41.

[In the following review, Skwara discusses the themes of Finks Krieg, noting that the novel lacks erotic tension but labelling certain section as “vintage” Walser.]

Few German authors have developed a tone as uniquely their own as has Martin Walser: whatever the story, we recognize his voice right away (see e.g. WLT 70:3, p. 685). Finks Krieg, Walser's newest novel, of course remains loyal to a seismograph's function, which is to register earthquakes; and he has been the German Federal Republic's seismograph of social and inner Befindlichkeiten ever since the fifties, when his stupendous career began. His fiction, plays, and essays have demonstrated with greater clarity, honesty, and readability than most literature what has been going on in the German soul and mind. Relationships of all kinds, mainly between men and women and between underlings and their bosses, are most often at the core of his writing. Americans have John Updike; Germans have Martin Walser. He became, in this reviewer's mind, the master of description of impotence, not (just) the sexual affliction but rather the more tragic impotence of most people's social and private lives in general.

In 1991, with his magnum opus Die Verteidigung der Kindheit (see WLT 66:2, p. 334), Walser reached beyond the fictitiousness of fiction by documenting in narrative prose the doomed life of one unfortunate man who had truly lived and whose very fate reflected the deadly nearness yet distinct distance between the two Germanies until 1989. In Finks Krieg, his newest novel, according to rumors and widespread newspaper agitation, we are given once more the story of a “true event”—if such a term has any meaning in literature. Walser, it seems, likes to lend voice to otherwise muted individuals, and to render justice where it seemingly was denied in someone's life. For us the readers, however, all fiction—if written as convincingly as Walser's—has its sufficient reality. Let “insiders” enjoy the “reality aspect”; I assume that it suffices to absorb the book as the novel it is.

Finks Krieg is unique among Walser's novels insofar as women and the complications of the sexes play hardly any role here. This virtual absence of erotic tension may explain why the book reads differently and slower. Verteidigung der Kindheit offered a fascinating Entwicklungsroman reminiscent of the Parsifal theme; now instead we discover a medium-high-level state-government official from Wiesbaden (Hessen's capital) named Stefan Fink, a man in his late fifties at the novel's outset whose six-year legal battle against his own bosses in order to clear his name and find due justice is recounted in gruesome detail. For eighteen years Stephan Fink has performed loyal and excellent work in state-church relations. New elections lead to a shake-up in the political leadership, and Fink's new department head wishes to place him into some different office in order to reward a political friend with Fink's position. When Fink protests, his new boss must justify the proposed transfer: he resorts to a damaging lie, stating wrongly that some of the church authorities had voiced complaints about Fink's performance in office.

Now Fink, deeply hurt and outraged, feels compelled to fight for both his honor and his old position. Some 250 pages of the novel describe this fight with admirable accuracy, at the risk of tiring the reader with unending legal references. However, Fink's growing obsession with justice and his inability to see anything beyond “his case” create a tense and spellbinding tone. The party figure who damaged Fink's reputation is protected by laws and friends; the complainant virtually fights a shadow. The figure of Michael Kohlhaas (in Heinrich von Kleist's famous novella) not only comes to mind; it is clearly mentioned in the novel. Thus Walser gives this ancient topic a brilliant revival in his new novel. Hardly any other of Walser's books afforded him such an excellent chance to display fully his talent for concision, irony, bitterness—and for dealing with his country both realistically and ideally.

There is little need to enumerate the defeats, appeals, tortures of impatience, partial victories, and renewed disappointments that mark Fink's “war” path. Fink eventually will end up dividing the world into friends and enemies, only to discover soon that even his friends have long since tired of his crusade for justice and that the world considers him for what he rightfully is: a nuisance and a trouble-maker for all except himself. He won't give up, however, because “Jemand, der um sein Leben kämpft, kann nicht aufhören, um sein Leben zu kämpfen.” It is admirable to follow Walser's mastery in this “description of a struggle” which shows the so-called legal state to be an absurdity. It is painful and extremely timely to read this novel in our age of diminishing freedom—in the name of justice or equality. Reading becomes torture, Fink's torture. Thus the reader, at some point, no longer knows whether to wish Fink well or to denounce him for his mad claim for “justice.” The limits of our modern democracies and the weakness of the most determined individual thus become visible in Walser's great novel.

Finally, after some 250 pages of tough going, Fink's victory is in sight. Only now, be it from exhaustion or some newfound wisdom, he no longer seems to care. The fourth section of the novel, entitled “Höhengewinn,” shows indeed what this very word implies. Fink, on the eve of the final court decision, cannot bear his weakness any longer; he drives like a fugitive to Switzerland and finds refuge in some Benedictine abbey. There the ingenious stylistic plot used by Walser throughout the novel—namely, the splitting (as in schizophrenia) of Fink's personality into his narrative self and “Fink the official” (“der Beamte Fink”)—becomes truly magnificent. Fink, who learns from his wife that he has finally “won” his appeals and his case, no longer seems to care about his rehabilitation. The last fifty pages of Finks Krieg are vintage Walser and indeed of world literature. Fink realizes that “wer in diesem System etwas für sich tun will, muß es gegen einen anderen tun,” and this sad truth should be enough for him to remain henceforth an outsider of the “system.” Winning or losing suddenly means little to Fink, and in the beauty and greatness of the surrounding Alps he begins to nod, in approval, but no longer toward any authority or system.

Michael Butler (review date 10 January 1997)

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SOURCE: Butler, Michael. “Taking on the System.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4893 (10 January 1997): 22.

[In the following review, Butler examines the significance of the critical realism of Finks Krieg, summarizing the novel's themes, its critical reception, and its relationship to Walser's other works.]

The furore surrounding Martin Walser's latest novel, Finks Krieg, together with major work recently published by Günter Grass and Christa Wolf, has sent a signal to fractious literary pundits in Germany that the older generation of-writers has no intention of slipping quietly into a well-earned retirement. Though their reputations were established in the late 1950s and 60s, their work continues to provoke and attract readers frequently, bewildered by the attitudinizing and modish pretensions which all too often characterize literary debates in post-unification Germany.

The key to the lasting significance of such writers is their adherence to a form of critical realism which combines sharp social observation with narrative experimentation. This has always been the hallmark of Walser's fiction, and Finks Krieg is no exception. Indeed, the eponymous protagonist joins a long line of disillusioned anti-heroes whose attempts to conform to social pressures while struggling to maintain a sense of personal identity have offered an illuminating guide to the pressures and mendacities of middle-class life in the Federal Republic over the past thirty-five years.

Walser's commercial travellers, advertising men, estate agents, petit-bourgeois managers and defeated schoolteachers are joined in his latest novel by Stefan Fink, a deeply conscientious civil servant in the Hesse state government, who for eighteen years has worked with dull reliability as the political liaison officer to the state's churches and religious groups. A change of government in Wiesbaden, the state capital, leads to his demotion in favour of a political placeman of the former opposition. The novel is the story of Fink's battle with the authorities to regain both his post and his reputation. The “war” of the book's title is waged on paper, as Fink mounts a relentless bureaucratic campaign against his opponents’ dirty tricks.

The initial reception of the book was bedevilled by its serialization in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung before publication, and that paper's insistence that Walser had written a scandalous roman à clef. Despite the fact that one prominent politician publicly admitted to recognizing his portrait as Tronkenburg, Fink's antagonist, such parochial controversy missed the point of the text. For Stefan Fink's struggle has less to do with unmasking the unpleasant machinations of powerful elites, distasteful and depressing as they are, than with the psychological exploration of an inadequate personality hellbent on self-destruction.

Narrating his own story, Fink deliberately evokes an earlier obsessive seeker of justice, Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas. But whereas the latter was portrayed paradoxically as the most upright and terrible individual of his age, Fink comes across as the ironically impotent shadow of his fearsome predecessor. Indeed, for all Fink's self-identification with such violent fictions, he is closer in fact to the unintentionally comic dimensions of a second-hand Don Quixote or the pathological egocentricity of Kafka's Josef K. Indeed, the more he pursues his case, the more Fink becomes a victim, like Kafka's character, of the very processes of his own mind.

Like Walser's earlier “specialists in inferiority”—for example, Anselm Kristlein in the trilogy Halbzeit (1960), Das Einhorn (1966) and Der Sturz (1973), Helmut Halm in Ein fliehendes Pferd (1978) and Brandung (1985) or Alfred Dorn in Verteidigung der Kindheit (1991)—Fink becomes fatally entrapped in trivialities fed by his own personal inadequacies. Some of the best pages capture the pathos of the civil servant who dulls the pain of professional rejection by keeping a meticulous log of the official functions to which he is no longer invited. Walser is particularly good at delineating the speed with which a dedicated government official can be rendered a non-person if he once decides to assert his right to just and humane treatment.

However, whereas the rigidly subjective perspective is a narrative strength in charting the disintegration of personality, it becomes a weakness when the reader wants to see more clearly the power structures which crush Fink's war against his superiors. The manic energy Fink devotes to hours of photocopying, ordering documents, marshalling evidence (which ultimately runs to over eighty bulky files) is brilliantly conveyed, but the oppressors within the church and political apparatus remain sketchy and insubstantial.

Most of all, the restricted viewpoint is barely adequate to explain the novel's surprising dénouement. Walser renders Fink's loosening grip on reality by having him begin to refer to himself schizophrenically in the third person. This is a useful device to reveal an individual fractured by hostile pressures, but the apparent triumph of the rational alter ego against the monomaniacal Fink in the closing pages of the novel is unconvincing. Indeed, Fink's symbolic flight—despite his full rehabilitation—to a convent high in the mountains of central Switzerland has all the marks of literary contrivance. His better self appears to have recognized that the overriding goal of achieving justice has obliterated all sense of proportion in the means chosen to achieve it. Fink's moral stance has come to function as a mask to hide a ruthless desire for prestigious martyrdom. Perhaps this is Walser's ironic point in depicting defeat for his protagonist at the very moment of his victory: there is no magical mountain outside time and place where a bruised individual can find solace for the intractability of contemporary problems. Such a happy end would suggest a fundamentally rational world. Walser's parodic conclusion, on the contrary, indicates that where the system's windmills turn relentlessly, eccentric knights will always be vanquished.

Stuart Taberner (essay date October 1997)

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SOURCE: Taberner, Stuart. “Martin Walser's Halbzeit: Stylizing Private History for Public Consumption.” Modern Language Review 92, no. 4 (October 1997): 912-23.

[In the following essay, Taberner analyzes the implications of cultural models in the psychological development of Anselm Kristlein, the protagonist of Halbziet, discussing the thematic significance of Kristlein's mimetic tendencies and the “fictionalization” of his personal and paternal biographical failures.]

Martin Walser's Halbzeit is typically considered to capture the mood of the early history of the Federal Republic, namely the 1950s and the Wirtschaftswunder. Indeed, critics regard Anselm Kristlein, the novel's protagonist and narrator, as the embodiment of the materialist values of that era; Stuart Parkes, for instance, compactly refers to him as ‘the archetypal “economic miracle man”’.1 Correspondingly, Anselm seems to lack personality, and merely to ‘mimic’ the dominant mores of his environment as a means of gaining social and economic success. He appears to perfect the transformation staged by Hans Beumann in Ehen in Philippsburg (1957), who moves from the country to the city in order to effect his mercantile maturation from ‘boy’ into ‘man’.2 As with Beumann, one consequence of Anselm's desire for conformity is what Donald Nelson terms ‘the breakdown of social communication and the depersonalization of human behavior’.3

In my present analysis of this novel, I begin uncontroversially by sketching Anselm's predilection for role-playing. This burlesque confirms his internalization of what C. Wright Mills in 1951 designated the ‘personality market’ (an expression equally applicable to West Germany and America). Beginning as a salesman, Anselm embraces the ethic of this profession ‘to pretend interest in others in order to manipulate them’;4 later, he joins the growing class of incorporated intellectuals as an advertising executive. He exemplifies Mills's contention that ‘the intellectual is becoming a technician, an idea-man', even though he contradicts the sociologist's related claim that such figures fail to defend themselves ‘from death by adaptation’ (Mills, p. 157). Anselm is certainly adaptable: this capacity prevents his demise, even as the strain renders him ill in this and later novels. In general terms, Anselm's acquiescence might appear as a flight from domesticity: the novel opens with a depiction of his claustrophobic animosity towards his exigent wife and querulous children. Yet, and as I establish as the starting-point for my subsequent discussion, Anselm's yearning for affirmation is in fact more profoundly determined by deep-rooted biographical failure, both personal and paternal.

Anselm's compliance, then, might at first seem to intimate his repression of a painful past (foreshadowing the Mitscherlichs).5 The main argument of this article, none the less, is that Anselm actually fictionalizes this neurotic discomfort. He is himself an author: his use of literary device is skilled and practised. Irony, allusion, and metaphor, for instance, embellish his revelations. Paradoxically, then, Anselm achieves the success he so desires through his exploitation of the very traumas that provoked his need for acknowledgement in the first instance. Equally fascinating is the possibility that Anselm may have been seduced into this stylization of personal biography. The article closes with a brief consideration of the ‘official tolerance’ of artists by the FRG's political and economic élite. Writers were impelled towards what Ulrich Greiner has recently (and controversially) termed ‘Gesinnungsästhetik’.6 At the same time, however, Greiner's claim that intellectuals actively took on this role within a left-liberal discourse is complicated by Walser's emphasis on the interaction between the writer and the establishment. Writers, including Anselm, are initially determined to relate personal experiences of loss, but are gradually coopted. Collusion negates authors’ self-images as censors of the status quo, as does their exploitation of the rewards to be gained from publicity. A critical stance descends into ineffectual, even effete, games-playing as writers grasp that their stylized, and therefore depoliticized, invective is the only form of oppositional culture possible within capitalism. This notwithstanding, the novel's complex and self-reflexive engagement with such ‘incorporated’ moralizing short-circuits Greiner's additional allegation that West German literature has uniformly sacrificed aesthetic value to a pervasive ‘political correctness’ concerning public affairs.

To return for the moment to more conventional readings of the novel, however, Anselm clearly adopts tailor-made patterns of conduct. He fits easily into a social milieu which, as Thomas Beckermann cogently argues, is ‘reduziert auf bestimmte Reaktionsschemata’.7 Anselm describes on one occasion how he and several others stood around ‘wie Passanten um einen Verkehrsunfall. Passanten, die auf einen Arzt warten und auf die Polizei. Dann schickt uns Josef-Heinrich weg, wie man Kinder wegschickt’.8 In this instance, Walser's character projects his person into two painfully clichéd responses (‘wie Passanten um einen Verkehrsunfall', and as a child sent away by adults) and thereby reduces both himself and his companions to the status of mere puppets.

Furthermore, examples abound of Anselm's readiness to play roles in order to ingratiate himself, sell a product, or seduce a woman. When peddling an oil heating-system to the hairdresser Flintrop, for instance, he indulges the old man's lamentations over his daughter's elopement. Anselm exploits Flintrop's grief, being prepared with a supinely appropriate facial expression ‘für den Fall, daß er herschaute’ (p. 51). He later says of his ability to produce the ‘correct’ word that he is ‘geübt wie ein Bachpianist’ (p. 297). Anselm's playing of parts, then, is practised and professional rather than inspired and individual. There may indeed be no distinction between a person's ‘true’ self and its role-playing counterpart. Anselm cites a girlfriend's ostentatious indifference: ‘Überhaupt was für ein Unterschied, ob ihre Kühle gespielt war oder nicht […] ich würde nie erfahren, ob es mehr gewesen ist als eine Rolle. Aber war nicht jede Rolle mehr als eine Rolle?’ (p. 119). Thus, he anticipates a distinctly postmodern notion of the destabilization of identity: an individual's ‘genuine’ face collapses into the one publicly presented.

Anselm's posturing in general may suggest his flight from domesticity. Thomas Beckermann therefore speaks of the character's ‘Wendung gegen die Familie', which, combined with his ‘Anpassung an die Gesellschaft', generates the preconditions ‘für den Freiheitsbereich, den Anselm auf seiner Suche braucht’. This search is defined as a quest for ‘Selbstbestätigung’ in the public sphere (Beckermann, p. 77). Concretely, Anselm's subconscious feelings of personal inadequacy determine his domestic claustrophobia, and public hypersensitivity. Both are sublimated into his lament: ‘So schwer mir das Aufwachen fiel, so schwer fiel mir das Einschlafen […] Eigentlich hetzte mich die Sonne’ (p. 9). Here, vacillation between ‘aufwachen’ and ‘einschlafen’ is surely symbolic of equivocation between professional and private spheres. His paranoid fantasies, moreover, in all probability insinuate the public sacrifice of his person. This posits Anselm as a writer of sorts, fabricating biography for collective consumption. He may thus feel an onus, deriving from the Enlightenment and frequently connoted by the sun, to forego privacy for a role as moral arbiter. This analysis anticipates my closing contention that Anselm is perilously caught between a desire to explore private trauma through writing and public moralizing. Middlebrow audiences in the period, as well as the critical establishment, framed authors as the ‘conscience of the nation’. This body of intellectuals was even officially tolerated, despite politicians’ frequent campaigns against them.9 Such discomfort notwithstanding, and as Anselm reveals, the canny author could also exploit his predicament for commercial gain.

Hermann Kinder refines the standard prognosis of Anselm's position between domesticity and publicity, noting how he is trapped in the ‘Dualismus von Weltverlangen und Weltflucht, von öffentlicher und privater Rolle’.10 This assessment is certainly overstated. At best, Anselm experiences nostalgia for the ‘intuitive’ genuineness of familial interaction. Thus, he regrets the passing of the eccentric individualism of his deceased father, speculating that this figure must have been ‘ein besonders unfähiger und schwärmerischer Handelsmann’ who had ‘falsche schöne Ideen im Kopf', being ‘eine Art Wandervogel mit dem Musterkoffer’ (p. 78). Yet, such sentimentality notwithstanding, Anselm wishes (‘soweit es geschäftlichen Krimskrams anging’) to be ‘der Sohn meines Großvaters’ (p. 105). This paradox can be explained, of course, by the fact that Anselm's grandfather was a more adept businessman than his own son, Anselm's father.

In reality, therefore, Anselm's obsession with public prosperity does not derive only from a lack of acknowledgement in the domestic sphere, but is more deeply rooted in family biography. This reference to personal history, incidentally, qualifies Gertrud B. Pickar's assertion that Walser's characters are ‘products of the world around them and in fact only exist in terms of society and in relation to it. As a result they tend to lack an identity of their own and are understandable only in the social context in which they are presented’.11 Instead, there exists a conflict between a putatively authentic past and Pickar's dehumanized social framework. Anselm's pursuit of the ‘Freiheitsbereich’ invoked by Beckermann, and existing only within commercialism, in fact adumbrates his desire to escape the failures associated with private history. Such deficiencies originate both in his father's history and in his own inability to synthesize traumatic wartime experiences with the ebullient optimism of the fledgling Federal Republic. As with many of Anselm's generation, the inability to mourn loss (the unexpected destruction of the patriarchal authority, or the brutal distortion of youth ensuing from dictatorship) leads to the repression of biography. The private self is dissolved into superficial role-playing. Such an expunging of subjective history, moreover, leads Anselm to adopt manifold identities. None of these personae appears entirely convincing.

I have already alluded to Anselm's father fixation. More concretely, however, Anselm himself concedes ‘ein toter Vater wird leicht zu schön, eine legendäre Verführung’ (p. 83). The generalizing tone of this statement, significantly, suggests a broader, even allegorical aspect to Anselm's psychic relationship to his dead relative. The premature departure of a father figure, then, induces fantasies of father substitution. Indeed, Anselm recognizes ‘man verehrt sogar blindlings Männer, die ihm zu gleichen scheinen, und fällt herein’ (p. 83). This, in truth, may typify a generation deprived of biological fathers in distraught times, and more abstractly, following the Mitscherlichs, unable to mourn Hitler, the previous object of love and obedience.12

Here there arises a conflict between two types of absence. The individual's loss of a much-loved father may generate nostalgia for bonds of perceived intimacy. A community's rupture from a patriarchal authority figure, however, might anticipate its longing for autarchic structures demanding social conformity. In Anselm's case, the triumph of authority over familiarity is foreshadowed in his perception that his father's eccentricity (that is, his expressive subjectivity) caused his failure within the fraught social and economic circumstances of the 1930s. The senior Kristlein, as already noted, a ‘besonders unfähiger und schwärmerischer Handelsmann’ (p. 78), misread the dawn of the new age. Accordingly, he represents a redundant petit bourgeoisie. This class fled its fear of modernity into support for the reactionary ideology of the Nazi party. Soon, however, it was unable to adapt to the unforgiving consequences of National Socialist political economy, which paradoxically may have actually accelerated the modernizing trend. Hence, Anselm comments of his father: ‘Auch mein Vater war so ein verbitterter Gymnasiast geworden, der außer seiner Schule nie mehr etwas zu einem guten Ende gebracht hat, nicht einmal sein Leben, das er mit achtunddreißig sozusagen freiwillig beendete’ (p. 79). Anselm's laconic ‘sozusagen’ here betokens the pain caused him by this suicide. Simultaneously, however, his bitterly cruel condescension regarding his father's inability ‘etwas zu einem guten Ende [zu bringen], nicht einmal sein Leben’ adumbrates his determination not to repeat such ignominy.13

Anselm's rejection of subjectivity for depersonalized conformity is further conditioned by his own biographical experiences. Above all, these are centred on his ‘Melitta complex’. This figure, as Gertrud B. Pickar suggests, typifies ‘the complexity of the interdependence of […] fictional planes’.14 She is both a figment of Anselm's imagination and, as Flintrop's daughter, also a ‘real’ figure. More specifically, Anselm makes repeated reference to Melitta, investing her name with special significance for his personal history. He reports how upon his return from Soviet captivity he saw her from afar. Yet, he recounts, ‘Als ich fast schon bei ihr war, bog ich doch ein wenig ab. Warum, weiß ich nicht’ (p. 498). Anselm thus forfeits the opportunity that she might confirm his ‘Dasein’ (p. 505). In fact, this fatal hesitancy may have anticipated his foreboding that anonymity and integration were required in the new Germany. Once the war is over intimate recollections of this period are taboo: ‘Deshalb verzichteten wir auf Schriftliches, verbargen alles in der Dunkelheit unter unserer Schädeldecke, und jeder von uns sagte auf der Heimfahrt, als wir eigentlich nur Melitta und sowas vor uns hinsagen wollten, leise, immer wieder zwischen Melitta hinein, die Namen, Adressen von zehn Toten auf’ (p. 798). Melitta was to be his exclusive audience for his traumatic war memories. Her refusal to acknowledge him, therefore, may suggest postwar society's indifference to private history.15 Equally, the alacrity with which the other soldiers suppress their wartime lives perhaps indicates their understanding that individuality must be sacrificed.

Anselm's decision to curb intimate memories in favour of conformity notwithstanding, his stance towards 1950s West Germany is often clearly ironic. When fully integrated, he exhibits little or no awareness of the social repressiveness surrounding him. Yet, on occasion, authentic experience resurfaces within his conformity to create a moment of critical insight. For instance, he associates his father's grave with war, linking his father and war as the two major sources of his personal trauma. He remarks on a monument to the fallen of 1870, 1914-18, and 1939-45, noting the lower right-hand corner, which the caretakers had

in bewundernswertem Gleichmut geradezu einladend frei gelassen. Solange dieser Krieg nicht stattgefunden hat, ist die Symmetrie auf dem Ramsegger Kriegerdenkmal nicht hergestellt und das Auge jedes Besuchers bleibt unbefriedigt in der Leere des rechten unteren Viertels hängen.

(p. 109)

The irony of ‘bewundernswert’ and ‘einladend’ is unmistakable, especially when reinforced by the grotesque image of the visitor's eye as it remains fixed ‘unbefriedigt’ on the missing quarter. Indeed, these satirical comments upon the glorification of war foreshadow Anselm's ironic discourse upon the postwar prosperity of Herr Pawel, a Nazi war criminal: ‘Vielleicht hatte er in Ungarn einmal statt fünftausend Juden nur viertausendneunhundertzweiundzwanzig umgebracht, hatte die restlichen achtundsiebzig entwischen lassen, hatte denen mitteilen lassen, daß sie das ihm zu verdanken hätten, hatte sich die achtundsiebzig gutschreiben lassen für später’ (p. 573). Here, the word ‘gutschreiben’ captures both Herr Pawel's forward planning and his callous attitude towards his victims. It also indicts the bookkeeping mentality of the Wirtschaftswunder.

Equally, Anselm looks to other male relatives to substitute success for his father's inadequacy, yet also reflects upon this servility through his deliberately ‘subversive’ commentary. Not only does he wish to be the son of his hard-nosed grandfather (p. 55), he also associates the latter's self-serving callousness with an uncle's adaptability under Hitler: ‘Onkel Gallus, der gerne mehr als bloß Sturmführer geworden wäre […] fluchte oft über den Großvater, von dem er diese Nase geerbt hatte’ (p. 173). Gallus, then, embodies a parallel and, as Anselm's sarcasm laconically implies, more successful lineage within the Kristlein clan.16 This species is able to turn the untimely inconvenience of a ‘Jewish’ nose to its advantage: ‘Die Hakennase und der Vorname und Familienname kamen Onkel Gallus nach dem Krieg doch sehr zustatten. Er hatte sich tatsächlich benachteiligt gefühlt. Und von dem Gefühl, benachteiligt gewesen zu sein, war es […] nur ein Schrittchen zu dem Gefühl, ein Verfolgter des Naziregimes zu sein’ (p. 174). Here, Gallus's uncanny prosperity anticipates Anselm's social conformity: the nephew clearly adopts the uncle's tactics of the repression and distortion of history. At the same time, however, Anselm's use of the expression ‘zustatten kommen’ suggests his disapproval of Gallus's opportunism, just as words such as ‘tatsächlich’ and the diminutive ‘Schrittchen’ may condemn the uncle's confusion of his role with a ‘reality’ he comes to internalize.

Anselm's derision regarding his uncle's precipitate integration into the Federal Republic of the economic miracle is still more acute elsewhere, and implicitly also censures his own obsequiousness. On occasion, such attacks are further framed as a criticism of the reluctance of the CDU state to distance itself from its Nazi predecessor. Thus, Anselm reports:

So wurde Onkel Gallus bei der Grundsteinlegung der neuen Ordnung einer der Grundsteine. Nach kurzer beruflicher und politischer Erholungspause trat er in die christlichste aller zur Verfügung stehenden Parteien und wurde, kurz vor seiner Pensionierung, sogar noch kommissarischer Rektor der Oberschule, die jetzt wieder Xaverina-Oberschule hieß.

(pp. 174-75)

The satire here is unmistakable. The description of Anselm's uncle as a ‘Grundstein', playfully establishing a symmetry with the phrase ‘Grundsteinlegung', expresses the myth of the ‘Stunde Null’ as well as the role Gallus plays as a vital if unthinking and anonymous building block in this new order. His political reorientation, derisively if euphemistically characterized as an ‘Erholungspause', is typical of West Germany's foreshortened and perfunctory denazification: the cynical and deliberate ineffectuality of postwar ‘re-education', of course, is censured in much of Walser's work, and most famously in the figure of Potz in Eiche und Angora (1963). The reference to the CDU as the ‘christlichste aller zur Verfügung stehenden Parteien’ recalls the grotesque irony of his compensation claim on account of his previously unpropitious ‘Jewish’ nose. Indeed, his membership of this party, the adopted home of so many ex-Nazis, vindicates his campaign to confirm his Aryan credentials. This episode, incidentally, is one of several similar passages that negate Anthony Waine's assertion that ‘Anselms Auseinandersetzung mit der familiären Vergangenheit (die fast immer in Beziehung zur nationalen Geschichte gesetzt wird)’ is ‘in keinerlei Weise moralisch gefärbt’.17

Gallus, then, stylizes biography for the sake of social integration. He reshapes his private history, transforming himself from ‘Sturmführer’ (p. 173) into ‘Verfolgter’ (p. 174) in order to present himself more effectively within a restructured public sphere. Yet Anselm's manifestly ironic stance towards Gallus's remoulding of personal history may demand a more differentiated view of his broader attitude vis-à-vis the public presentation of the private self. It might be that Anselm's uncompromising if infrequent scorn liberates him from his own more characteristic sycophancy. Such a revaluation appears all the more pressing in the light of Anselm's extended reflections upon the fate of his father's past. Anselm comments that the life of Kristlein senior was:

nur noch eine Erzählung, die seine Frau unzählige Male wiederholt und dabei immer mehr abschleift, abnutzt, eine Abnutzung, die wie beim Kieselstein am Strand zu einer Stilisierung führte, die ich annehmen mußte, obwohl ich spürte, daß dieses Leben mehr enthalten haben muß als die traurig-schöne Fabel, die im Munde meiner Mutter immer mehr zu einer […] Melodie wurde, ohne Harmonien, spannungslos melancholisch wie ein Englisches Hornsolo.

(p. 70)

Here, Anselm displays an unusual sensitivity, handling language and metaphor with great skill and poignancy to highlight his fractured relationship to his father's story. More concretely, he invokes the image of the sea's gradual smoothing of a pebble as a succinct metaphor for the erasure of contradiction, texture, and individual accent from stories repeatedly told for public instruction. His father's past is reduced to a pathetic (more probably bathetic) parable. Such a rendition sacrifices tension and depth for melancholic resignation: it may be typical of the culture industry's appropriation of private lives. Whereas Uncle Gallus, therefore, actively controls the reshaping of his own experiences, the story of Anselm's father testifies to the socially useful transformation of failure into entertainment and edification. The manipulation of his life renders him exemplary. Certainly, his failure typifies the follies of excessive subjectivity.

The crucial point here is that within the general context of cultural reductionism the revelation of such exemplary lives may inevitably pander to a melancholic or salacious obsession with individual suffering. The popular fictionalization of authentic history perhaps also furthers the propagation of a sanitized version of social reality. Thus, it is no surprise that Anselm should contradict his occasional brooding upon the manipulation of his father's past: ‘Ich bin für hygienische Illusionen, unwahrhafte Stilisierungen, der Mensch soll ein höheres Wesen sein’ (p. 66). Here, the socially integrated, role-playing Anselm asserts himself once more, preferring the culture industry's illusion of individual dignity to the actuality of depersonalization.18

There is evidence, in fact, to suggest that Anselm's complaints regarding biographical authenticity are disingenuous throughout. His apparent nostalgia for his father's authentic past may itself be an example of literary games-playing designed to sway the emotions of a gullible audience. The suspicion that Anselm is perhaps no more than a talented stylist is encouraged by his description of his visits to a lover: ‘Wenn Sie ihren Wohnung vorbereitet hat, sperrt Sie ihren Vater in sein Zimmer (bei diesem Satz erwachte mein Interesse)’ (p. 121). Anselm's parenthetical interest here laconically implies his professional appreciation of a literary motif (‘fathers’) that he himself employs. Indeed, this ostensible indiscretion reinforces the impression of a literary reworking of private history generated by Anselm's tabularization of his father's life: ‘Es waren die Jahrzehnte selbst, die man roch und wenn ich 1914 höre, oder 1923, oder 1929 oder 32, dann habe ich sofort diesen Geruch in der Nase, den niemand kennt, der den Kopf nicht in diese zwei Schränke gesteckt hat’ (p. 106). These dates generalize the father's biography, forcing the relative formlessness of private life into the prefabricated scaffolding of decisive turning-points conventionally supporting the official narrative. This standardization, moreover, is controverted with bogus naivety as Anselm claims his posthumous encounter with his father as personal, even visceral (‘dann habe ich sofort diesen Geruch […]’). Walser's character is surely aware that his rendition is exemplary, even conventional. Thus, whereas Anthony Waine views such passages as an index of the novel's ‘factuality’ (‘Kristleins Biographie hingegen wirkt dadurch noch realistischer, daß Walser sie in eine weitverzweigte Familienchronik eingeflochten hat, so daß der Leser sich wie beim Geschichtsunterricht vorkommt,’ p. 66), I would argue that the very fact that we feel ourselves to be ‘beim Geschichtsunterricht’ demonstrates Anselm's ostentatious instrumentalization of biography as a literary device.

Anselm's recasting of paternal genealogy into the cadences of monumental history correlates to his channelling of his own biographical experience into the literary archetype of the Heimkehrer.19 Indeed, the entire Melitta episode is almost certainly a stylization, an exemplary account of a generation's experience of war and return. This insight frames Anselm as an author. Certainly, I take seriously Kurt Batt's contention: ‘Denn aus der Rückschau, nach dem Erscheinen von Fiction (1970) und Gallistl'sche Krankheit (1972), lassen sich die voraufgegangenen Romane schwerlich noch als satirische Inventuren des gehobenen mittelständischen Lebens der BRD lesen’. Batt's exaggeration notwithstanding, I take the East German critic's claim that Walser's true theme is in fact his ‘Selbstabrechnung mit dem eigenen Beruf und der eigenen Existenz’ to include Halbzeit.20 Even in this early novel, then, Anselm meditates self-reflexively upon the suppression of individual experience in favour of institutional morality.

Hence, Anselm returns repeatedly to the tension between critical thought and habitual conformity. This derives from the cleft between Anselm's ‘authentic’ person and his role-playing: ‘Pastoren, Parlamentarier und Professoren dürfen ungestraft so hartnäckig einem Gedanken nachhangeln. Aber doch nicht ein Geschäftsmann’ (p. 53). Thus, Anselm exists in a state of self-alienation: the writer's critical insight conflicts with the businessman's practicality. Anselm's anomie is infrequently acknowledged as his narration vacillates between first and third person. Such shifts in perspective imply the unstable nature of Anselm's sense of self; he alternates, then, between apparent self-identity and a debilitating distance from his own person. This arrangement becomes still more complex as the third-person narrator (the alienated Anselm) develops a first-person voice in order to inquire (with some irony) about the original ‘ich’ who is the protagonist of the story: ‘Versteh ich Anselm noch? Und er selbst, versteht er sich noch?’ (p. 718).21

Anselm's conscious exploitation of competing perspectives draws attention not only to the split between public and private selves but also to the artificiality of the literary procedure itself. His narrative contortions, then, are overextended in formulations such as: ‘In meinem taubenblauen Anzug stieg er aus meinem Auto, drückte die Tür, um keinen Krach zu machen, vorsichtig zu, ging auf dem Rasen zur Haustür’ (p. 345). The bewildering condensation of conflicting standpoints into this concise and putatively descriptive passage combines with the implausible neologism ‘taubenblau’ to express the narrator's pleasure in his own inventiveness. More significantly, such instances exhibit a mastery of literary device. The same might be said of his deliberately overzealous exploitation of the allusive name (Frau Übelhör (p. 360) hears only malicious gossip) especially when coupled with a comic, if facetious, appropriation of contemporary literary-theoretical debates. Thus, the adamantly modernist Professor Habeding censures Anselm's realist predilection for describing ‘Interieurs’ as ‘neunzehntes Jahrhundert’ (p. 700), despite the humorous object-fetishism implied in his name. Such specimens, however, surely detract from the sincerity of Anselm's complaints.

Certainly, Anselm frames his story in various stylized theatrical forms, including ‘Modernes Theater’ (p. 349) and ‘dialogue sublimě’ (p. 731). Yet the most substantive evidence that his personal crisis is mere stylization is provided by an instance of apparent self-interpretation:

Erzählen, soviel wie zugeben, dabei aber heiter machende Distanz vorschützen, eosfingrig22 Blümchen ins melierte Gestrige flechten, dem, der ich gestern war, auf die Schultern klopfen […] man glaubt mir ohnedies, daß ich mich geändert habe, sonst würde ich doch meinen aufgepolsterten Vorläufer nicht so bloßstellen. So tun, als könne man sich ändern.

(p. 639)

Confessional writing, then, is a literary strategy. The author tantalizes his audience, making them ‘heiter’ by instituting a division between an authentic past self and its more accomplished if self-alienated present incarnation. This literary technique enacts a calculated embellishment of an intuitively genuine self. It offers a humanistic vision of individual development that in fact conceals the reality of personal stagnation. The writer appeals, therefore, to the audience's prurient interest in self-disclosure as well as its requirement that such tales appear morally uplifting. Thus, Anselm invests the breach of the taboo against self-revelation with economic value. In this, he is contrasted with his pious wife Alissa, who internalizes this interdiction: ‘Ich werde endlich nicht mehr bloß an mich denken müssen. Wie widerlich wird man sich dadurch’ (p. 375). Alissa may even embody Walser's own residual religiosity, perhaps as an abhorrence of self-disclosure. Thus, Alissa also composes personal history, yet chooses the traditionally ‘female’ medium of the diary. This genre is conventionally regarded as more ‘authentic’.

Yet Anselm's exhibitionism also requires the sacrifice of personal history. Only by generalizing biography, in fact, can the writer sell ‘his story’. Anselm, then, consciously styles himself as a victim of this sacrifice:

Die Sonne schien bloß auf mich, mich hatte sie ausgesucht, auf meinen Schädel bündelte sie die Junivormittagshitze, eigentlich bestimmt für die ganze Stadt, aber jetzt von Schritt zu Schritt sich nur noch auf meinen Schädel sammelnd, um mir eine glühende Mitra aufzusetzen. Warum mir? Ich hatte keine Schlange getötet, keinem Sonnenpriester ein Auge ausgestoßen, ich kannte gar keinen.

(p. 25)

Here, the sun, as previously suggested, surely symbolizes Anselm's exposure. Indeed, his sense that he alone has been chosen for its attentions (‘bloß auf mich’; ‘mich hatte sie aufgesucht’; ‘nur noch auf meinen Schädel’) constructs a paranoid litany. His fantasy that the intensity of the sun, designed for the entire city, is becoming concentrated increasingly upon his person implies both his illustrative status (he suffers for all) and his delusions of grandeur. His complaints are ambiguous: his exemplary standing is both unpleasant and yet glorious. He pictures himself crowned with a glowing mitre, whilst expressing bewilderment at this distinction. Indeed, he claims he is no hero in the traditional, even literary, sense, but is in fact rather ordinary.

Anselm's suggestion that he is quite undistinguished is, of course, almost certainly an act of dissimulation. It mimics the contemporary rejection of the traditional literary hero, the uniquely courageous individual capable of slaying a ‘Schlange', or of striking out an eye from the ‘Sonnenpriester', and feigns adoption of the new democratic preference for the ‘everyday’ literary figure. None the less, this assertion of ordinariness is counterfeit. Anselm displays a proficiency for transforming self-sacrifice into self-advantage. This is facilitated by his adept exploitation of literary technique, as described above. Anselm, in fact, appears to be uniquely talented as an author. He is able to weave ‘eosfingrig Blümchen ins melierte Gestrige’ (p. 639), and thereby renders his complaints appetizing. In this way, Anselm might finally gain a ‘Sprechrolle’ at the gathering’ of incorporated artists assembled ‘im großen Salon der Frantzke-Villa’ (p. 584).

Anselm's abandonment of ‘authentic’ experience for literary stylizization locates him as an adept operator within a cultural sphere that rewards empty moral platitudes over socially critical incisiveness. Universalized narratives are preferred to historically specific accounts of personal suffering. Yet Anselm's collusion here is simultaneously a consequence of the pressure exerted upon him to play the part of ‘conscience of the nation’. To expand upon my initial commentary upon Anselm's opening lament, ‘So schwer mir das Aufwachen fiel, so schwer fiel mir das Einschlafen […] Eigentlich hetzte mich die Sonne’ (p. 9), the protagonist is caught perhaps not only between professional and private spheres but also between a sincere desire to write ‘authentic’ biography and the requirement to generate idealized narratives. Again, this might be condensed within Anselm's (typically stylized) complaint: ‘Die Sonne schien bloß auf mich, mich hatte sie ausgesucht […] um mir eine glühende Mitra aufzusetzen’ (p. 25). Here, Walser's character may be invoking paranoia regarding the enforced role of moral arbiter: the system, readers, and the critical establishment render intellectual dissent harmless by appropriating it as vacuous moralizing. Within the ‘großen Salon der Frantzke-Villa’ (p. 584), mentioned above, Anselm experiences the benign dictatorship of capitalist patronage: ‘Der böse Kapitalist dankt seinem Propheten für die Lehre, ach Kinder, trinkt mit mir, was wäre der ganze Schwindel, wenn es euch nicht gäbe! Prooost!’ (p. 620). This comment summarizes the capitalist state's exploitation of writers as a form of legitimation. Artists allay the need to provide a response to the conundrum: ‘was wäre der ganze Schwindel.’

This collusion between writers and the capitalist establishment they feign to assault undermines their claim to constitute what Rob Burns and Wilfried van der Will describe as ‘a secular clergy that has inherited something of the elevated aura which once attached to prophets, philosophers and poets’.23 Literary intellectuals are firmly embedded in the economic and political foundations of their society. Equally, the pressure to abandon ‘authentic’ biography for the ineffectual righteousness of the moral high ground appears to have forced writers into what Ulrich Greiner has recently polemically termed ‘Gesinnungsästhetik', an exemplary discourse lacking all literary merit (‘Die deutsche Gesinnungsästhetik', p. 214). Within the novel itself, such a position is assumed by Dieckow, the ‘Träger vieler Preise’. This incorporated individual, it is reported:

gehe beim Oberbürgermeister ein und aus, gehöre zum Curio-Stammtisch, sei gefürchtet, weil er im Funk sprechen könne, wann er wolle, vielleicht sogar, was er wolle, in der Zeitung stünde nicht nur die Feuilletonseite jederzeit offen, sondern auch die Leitartikelspalte, und wenn er noch nicht im PEN-Club sei, stehe seine Aufnahme unmittelbar vor.

(p. 413)

Access to the fruits of patronage presupposes, of course, a political reward. Dieckow moves to West Berlin and becomes a ‘Lerche der Freiheit, die das Lied der großen Ladenstraße singt’ (p. 824). His critical comments in the ‘Leitartikelspalte’ are tolerated as payment for services rendered to the system. In addition, Anselm's close friend Edmund may be less successful than Dieckow, but is none the less similarly desirous of the social prestige that accrues to those artists capable of combining low-level dissent with acquiescence. Edmund and Dieckow debate, in typical feuilleton fashion, national characteristics that might be considered ‘typisch deutsch’ (p. 605). Here, the italicized allusion to contemporary intellectual debates on German identity is comic. Similarly, they quarrel about various renditions of an industrial accident (pp. 613-20). Their inane concern with literary form erases the tragic consequences of the contemporary entrepreneurial obsession with construction and money-making. In both cases, the two writers exchange vain moralizing, and a fixation on style, for political discussion.

Walser's novel, therefore, may be read as an examination of the pressures upon the writer to abandon ‘authenticity’ for social and commercial success. Authors in the formative phase of the Federal Republic soon discovered that harrowing renditions of personal experience were unwelcome in the context of the expansive optimism of those years. Equally, their universalized narratives were incorporated as cultural production which served, paradoxically, to legitimize the status quo through moderate censure of its excesses. As I hope to have shown in my detailed analysis of the text's aesthetic strategies, however, it is by means of its elaborate engagement with these very themes that Halbzeit avoids the charge that all West German novels written under these circumstances lack aesthetic value. The work combines incisive irony vis-à-vis the role of the author in society with a cerebral manipulation of this very narrative technique. This complex interaction elevates social critique beyond the inflated (and subsidized) self-righteousness of Gesinnungsästhetik to a higher, more pleasing level of literary accomplishment and reflection.24


  1. ‘An All-German Dilemma: Some Notes on the Presentation of the Theme of the Individual and Society in Martin Walser's Halbzeit and Christa Wolf's Nachdenken über Christa T.’, German Life and Letters, 28 (1974/75), 58-64 (p. 59).

  2. Ehen in Philippsburg (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1957). Anthony Waine comments on Walser's choice of names in The Modern German Novel, ed. by Keith Bullivant (Leamington Spa: Berg, 1987), 259-75 (pp. 262-64).

  3. Donald Nelson, ‘The Depersonalized World of Martin Walser', German Quarterly, 42 (1969), 204-16 (p. 204).

  4. C. Wright Mills, White Collar (New York: Oxford University Press, 1951), p. 188.

  5. See A. Mitscherlich and M. Mitscherlich, Die Unfahigkeit zu trauern (Munich: Piper, 1967). Walser's presentation of the collective repression of traumatic events within the Wirtschaftswunder appears to predict their work, which was hugely influential in the period.

  6. ‘Die deutsche Gesinnungsästhetik', in Es geht nicht nur um Christa Wolf, ed. by Thomas Anz (Munich: Sprangenberg, 1991), 208-16 (p. 214).

  7. ‘Epilog auf eine Romanform. Martin Walsers Roman Halbzeit,’ in Martin Walser, ed. by Klaus Siblewski (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1981), 74-113 (p. 83).

  8. Martin Walser, Halbzeit (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1960), p. 35. All references are to this edition.

  9. Jost Hermand examines the notion: ‘“Kulturstaat Bundesrepublik” als ideologisches Leitkonzept', noting the manner in which all political parties looked to culture to legitimize the political status quo (Die Kultur der Bundesrepublik Deutschlands 1965-1985 (Munich: Nymphenburger Verlagshandlung, 1986), p. 53).

  10. ‘Anselm Kristlein: Eins bis Drei—Gemeinsamkeit und Unterschied', in Text + Kritik, 41/42 (1974), 38-36 (p. 38). Ulrike Hick speaks of a ‘Dualismus von Drinnen und Draußen’ (Martin Walsers Prosa: Müglichkeiten des zeitgenössischen Romans unter Berücksichtigung des Realismusanspruchs (Stuttgart: Heinz, 1983), p. 73).

  11. ‘Martin Walser: The Hero of Accommodation', Monatshefte, 62 (1970), 357-66 (p. 358).

  12. Anselm later associates fathers with war in an unrelated allusion to the ‘Krieg, der zweite in der nach Fortsetzungen durstigen Zahlenreihe, der Krieg, der ja unser aller Vater ist’ (p. 142). For many of his generation the loss of the father in war symbolically ‘fathered’ their postwar traumas. Anselm's invocation of Heraclitus (‘Der Krieg ist der Vater aller Dinge’) ironically indicts the misappropriation of the Greek philosopher's dictum as a justification for war as the motor of change.

  13. In Das Einhorn Anselm appears to have distanced himself still further, if not entirely, from his father's failure: ‘Den von Umzug zu Umzug kleiner und schwerer werdenden Leichnam meines Vaters trug ich selber hinunter’ (Das Einhorn (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp), 1966, p. 24). Yet the notion of ‘schwerer’ here indicates that even as biographical trauma grows more distant in time its ability to resurface with explosive effect grows more concentrated.

  14. ‘Narrative Perspective in the Novels of Martin Walser', German Quarterly, 44 (1971), 48-57 (p. 50).

  15. Anselm pictures Melitta ‘am Kastanienbaum’ (p. 858). This motif is echoed in Das Einhorn when Anselm's dog leads him to a block of flats previously inhabited by Melitta; the dog is ‘kastanienrot’ (p. 70). Likewise, mice disturb Anselm's efforts to sleep (to repress the past?): ‘Es rollt, kollert, klingt nach Kastanien’ (p. 28). More significantly, the reader who asks persistent questions about Anselm is berated: ‘Frag die Kastanien aus, die wissen bescheid über ihn’ (p. 436). These allusions imply that Anselm's repression of personal history for present conformity is not entirely successful even in this later novel. Yet Melitta also appears as Mylitta (p. 284) in an operatic presentation of the impotence of Alexander the Great, thus indicating how such traumas can be exploited for artistic ends.

  16. This is a form of self-serving complaint to which Walser's later and similarly named character Gallistl also subscribes: see my article, ‘Martin Walser's Die Gallistl'sche Krankheit: Self-Reflexivity as Illness', German Life and Letters, 49 (1996), 358-72. Both figures allude to their melancholic, even bitterly vindictive, dispositions in their names, both of which invoke the condition schwarze Galle. Gallus's success under Hitler also contrasts with the deficiencies of Anselm's other uncle who joins the typical (perhaps stereotypical) German exodus to America, fails there, returns to Germany, and is murdered during the Nazi programme of eliminating the mentally ill.

  17. Martin Walser (Munich: Beck, 1980), p. 67.

  18. Seemingly internalizing the dissolution of critical perspectives grounded in social or historical reality into the chimera of the culture industry, Anselm invokes extra-historical, metaphysical, even fantastical causes as the source of his self-alienation. He refers to the ‘graue Mieze’ as a vindictive and spiteful embodiment of ‘fate,’ periodically assaulting him with its ‘Pfoten’ (p. 406). This moggy is also framed as God (‘Lieber Gott vergib mir, wenn ich Dich graue Mieze genannt habe, aber Du wirkst eben oft wahnsinnig verspielt’ (p. 406)) and as a ‘Regisseur’ (p. 793), or as ‘der große Regisseur, der nie genannt sein will’ (p. 799). Given Anselm's narrative mastery in the text, however, it seems likely that there may be an element of games-playing in his bewildering multiplication of such phantoms.

  19. Anselm may be profiting from the often controversial fashionability in literary circles of Heimkehrer narratives such as Wolfgang Borchert's short stories and his play Draußen vor der Tür (1947), or Heinrich Böll's Wo warst du, Adam? (1951).

  20. Kurt Batt, ‘Die Exekution des Erzählers (11). Westdeutsche Romane um 1970’, Sinn und Form, 25 (1973), 397-431 (p. 425).

  21. This technique is employed in a similar if more exaggerated fashion in Das Einhorn: ‘Zum Glück gibt es persönliche Fürwörter […] Sogar das auftrumpfende Ich bringt es nicht über sich, mit sich selbst auch einmal im Ernstfall per Du zu sein. Ist man etwa kein Fürwörterparlament? Anselm, so heißt das Parlamentsgebäude, darin tagen die Erste Person, die Zweite Person, die Dritte Person. Welche Person in der Einzahl, welche in der Mehrzahl auftritt, ist von Mal zu Mal verschieden’ (p. 188).

  22. From Eos, Greek goddess of the sunrise, who lent her name to the red dye ‘Eosin', used in the manufacture of decorative products.

  23. Protests and Democracy in West Germany: Extra-Parliamentary Opposition and the Democratic Agenda (London: Macmillan, 1988), p. 17.

  24. I am grateful to Dr Beth Linklater for her careful editing of this article.

Ulf Zimmermann (review date winter 1999)

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SOURCE: Zimmermann, Ulf. Review of Ein springender Brunnen, by Martin Walser. World Literature Today 73, no. 1 (winter 1999): 140-41.

[In the following review, Zimmermann comments on the plotting of Ein springender Brunnen, drawing autobiographical parallels to the protagonist's literary experiences.]

In his “Nachtlied” Nietzsche's soul is “ein springender Brunnen”; that is what language became for Martin Walser. Language enables us to get a fix or what has happened though it is dubious that what we record is actually the same as what happened, as Walser observes in the beginning of this autobiographical novel [Ein springender Brunnen] of childhood and youth between 1932 and 1945; for “as long as something is going on, it is not what it will be when it will have been,” and “when something is over, one is no longer the one to whom it happened.”

Johann, as the novelist calls his fictive self, early on becomes enamored of language because he relishes spelling the long, exotic words taught to him by his father, a man who had received the Iron Cross in World War I and studied business in France but now chiefly indulges in hare-brained schemes (including raising rabbits for their fur). His mother, therefore, must struggle to make a go of their gasthaus by the Wasserburg railroad station. One of little Johann's chores is to count the guests at the village's other four establishments. In 1932 they are all doing poorly, of course; banks are failing, and his mother must forge her father's signature to secure a loan extension. From her he learns arithmetic and how to behave in such a way that no one in the village finds occasion to complain to her.

Soon one of the more prominent regulars of their restaurant's “round table” announces that there is going to be a meeting at another place and invites his neighbors to join his party, as “Hitler is going to pull us all out of this.” This Herr Brugger claims prescience in having named his son—Johann's best friend—Adolf in 1927. Johann's mother is quick to calculate that for them to survive in this climate she will need to join the party—and have the meetings at her place so she can corner that market. And, indeed, the same day that Brugger & Co. celebrate Hitler's becoming chancellor, Johann's father holds the first meeting of his new theosophical society.

In 1938 Johann turns eleven shortly after his father dies, doubtless luckily for him, since his feelings about Hitler were well known. Johann is distracted by the circus, which has set up in their lot, and by its child star, Anita, with whom he falls in love and who makes him start thinking about his future. First he wants to be a preacher because a visiting monk captivates him; then he wants to be a singer because he hears Karl Erb; later, when his father leaves him his Klopstock volumes, he wants to become a poet. Of these various interests, he devotes most of his energy to writing poetry.

The last part of the novel is the Ernte (harvest) of the Hitler years. The village is overrun by women and children escaping bombed-out cities all across Germany, exposing Johann to a wider world, further expanded when he also gets to see a bit of the war as a soldier in the spring of 1945. To Johann, whose older brother had already been killed on the front, and to his buddies it is clear whose the Endsieg will actually be, and they desert. He ends up in an American camp but gets to run the library; and six weeks later he is brought to his French-occupied home with a rucksack full of books from the library. Here we see that the reaping had been grim but occasionally good—Brugger had been found guilty of price-gouging the Volk and been killed in prison.

Johann spends the summer “discovering” fiction and other prose. Between his actual and his literary experience, he thus became a master of prose named Martin Walser, who is rightly skeptical about being able to capture the past “wie es eigentlich gewesen ist” and therefore gives us this remarkable fictionalized yet all the more real rendering of coming of age in and coming through—Nazi times.

Erich Wolfgang Skwara (review date spring 2002)

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SOURCE: Skwara, Erich Wolfgang. Review of Der Lebenslauf der Liebe, by Martin Walser. World Literature Today 75, no. 2 (spring 2002): 122-23.

[In the following review, Skwara contrasts the themes, style, and protagonist of Der Lebenslauf der Liebe with Walser's works since German reunification.]

Martin Walser, the major literary seismograph of German soul and Befindlichkeit over the past five decades, has taken on a new challenge in both the artistic and human sense. Whether this new dimension of his oeuvre represents a widening or a narrowing of the writer's scope, Walser is either way on a fascinating new path, and he takes us along. If sorrows or pains pertaining to German society at large motivated and inspired his earlier novels, novellas, and plays, his new and additional gain in territory became apparent one decade ago, when in his novel Die Verteidigung der Kindheit (1991, see WLT 66:2, p. 334) he no longer told the story of a fictitious character, but recounted the tragically blocked life of a “true” hero, a man who literally was torn apart by a divided Germany. That novel, neither pure fiction nor pure biography, established its author as a supreme master of empathy and opened the path to the autobiographical prose Ein springender Brunnen (1998; see WLT 73:1, p. 140). Freedom of age and ultimate maturity was thus transformed into a new artistic triumph, an insight into the human condition both telescopic and microscopic. Books of such caliber must perturb as much as they please, and indeed there are few living authors in Europe whose new works evoke so much stir inside and outside the literary scene.

With his newest novel, Walser has reached yet another height in disturbing German self-complacency. Of course, Der Lebenslauf der Liebe is once again a best-selling book, even though its author has done precious little to give the public easy fare. Walser's books, without pretending to reach for lofty intellectual heights, demand careful consumption, refuse the ease of careless reading. In more than five hundred pages we are not just told the story of a woman who is in love with love; we are coerced into comprehending and eventually siding with this woman, as absurd and impossible as this may seem for long stretches of the novel. We meet and accompany Susi Gern (how reminiscent of Thomas Mann's delight in capturing a personality in a name), resident of Düsseldorf, mother of a mentally challenged daughter, and wife of a self-made millionaire husband who cannot exist within the boundaries of marital fidelity. Susi suffers in her marriage, believes in the exclusivity of love between a man and a woman, is sensuous and sexually starved, and will eventually look herself for “real love” outside her marriage. Alas, her husband Edmund encourages her to take on lovers and does not hide his own affairs; yet the miserable couple must stay together, for neither he nor she can find the courage to divorce or separate. Two divergent lives lived under the same roof, except for Edmund's perfect contentment in his shallow pleasures and Susi's utter loneliness, which is merely accentuated through her never-happy affairs, mainly entered through newspaper ads.

The novel's reader will at first be less lenient and patient with the seemingly pathetic protagonist than is its author, but initial antipathy will change as the story unfolds. Susi—once again not an entirely fictitious character—is not a frustrated, vengeful, pleasure-seeking woman with lots of money at first; Walser paints her rather as a saintly figure full of utter longing for love. The craft, the epic breath infused into every page and scene, clearly makes this book a masterpiece not just of writing, but of empathy and deep humaneness. We remember Flaubert as wed to his Emma Bovary, Tolstoy to Anna Karenina, Fontane to Effi Briest, and it may well be that Martin Walser's name, in some distant future, will be linked with his Susi Gern. A rare feat: the convincing depiction of a woman's innermost feelings, thoughts, and needs, written by a man.

Wealth and the resulting carelessness with money mark the earlier parts of Susi Gern's life. Her husband's failing health, described in gross yet magnificent detail, will be followed by financial ruin. Susi will not survive her husband as a wealthy widow but as a chased and haunted woman in her sixties who lives from public assistance. No adversity, however, can break her belief in the existence of true love, and her feeble-minded daughter will always live a carefree, happy life in her mother's loving company. Toward the end Susi will simply create—if not find—the happiness in love and loyalty she had always dreamed about. She will marry Khalil, a Muslim student from Morocco, some forty years her junior. Disaster seems in the making, for how could such a relationship possibly work? Susi will insist it does.

We leave the novel on New Year's night 2000, when indeed, for better or worse, Susi and Khalil are still somewhat together. No happy ending, though; no tragic outcome either, except for the daily pains and hopes through which many a reader will realize that this story is much less absurd than the initial chapters might suggest. A daring book, not afraid of trivial, almost perverted scenes, and a redeeming work above all. Martin Walser has given convincing proof that to write about love is not the domain of the young, that to know about passion requires maturity. He has written a masterpiece.

Michael Butler (review date 19 July 2002)

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SOURCE: Butler, Michael. “A Portrait of Vanity.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5180 (19 July 2002): 23.

[In the following review, Butler chronicles the controversial Jewish reception of Tod eines Kritikers, outlining the plot and themes in the context of Walser's literary practices.]

For a people who have long perceived self-effacing dullness as a desirable quality of civil society, contemporary Germans appear to love nothing more than a good row. These have come at regular intervals since Unification in 1990. Furious debates have been unleashed, for example, on the quality and significance of East German literature, on the centrality of German culture in the context of multiculturalism, and on memory and national identity. In a way that is hard to imagine in Britain, these issues have been debated vigorously throughout the media, above all in the feuilletons and political sections of the leading newspapers. Moreover, writers, intellectuals and leading politicians often confront each other in public discussions.

Against the backdrop of the general election this September and the depressing growth of right-wing extremism in Europe, the latest brouhaha has been caused by what appears to be a revival of anti-Semitism. Unfortunately phrased statements by leading Free Democrats with a possible eye on the extreme right-wing vote have touched raw nerves in a country that cannot escape the long shadow of Auschwitz. Anti-Semitism is simply more shocking in Germany than anywhere else.

Such shabby political manoeuvrings have been quite overtaken by the spectacular controversy unleashed by Martin Walser's new novel, Tod eines Kritikers (Death of a Critic). A furore exploded before the book was even published. Offered the manuscript in the normal way for pre-publication serialization, the publisher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Frank Schirrmacher, chose to reject and denounce the book in an open letter to the author. The principal charges were that Walser had employed a “repertoire of anti-Semitic clichés” and that the book was a “document of hate”. The fact that the text was unavailable to more than a handful of journalists did not prevent a storm of protest against Walser and his work.

To any reader acquainted with Martin Walser's oeuvre—he has written more impressive essays on Auschwitz than almost any contemporary author—the charge of anti-Semitism is absurd. On the other hand, his now infamous speech in the Frankfurt Paulskirche in 1998 contained provocatively phrased criticism of the way Auschwitz has been used as a “moral cudgel” against an exemplary German democracy, and it provoked bitter dispute, above all with the late Ignatz Bubis, the leader of Germany's Jewish community. Provocation is a weapon that Walser has increasingly employed both to unsettle his fellow countrymen and to test the limits of tolerance in German society. Inevitably, such a method with its complex use of irony is readily misunderstood, and at times has brought him applause from dubious political quarters.

Tod eines Kritikers may prove a case in point. At the centre of his novel, Walser places a leading literary critic, André Ehrl-König, a thin disguise for the real-life Marcel Reich-Ranicki, who has for many years been Germany's most influential and controversial commentator on German literature. Reich-Ranicki also happens to be a Polish Jew, the only member of his family to survive the Warsaw Ghetto. The plot concerns the apparent murder of Ehrl-König by a disgruntled writer, Hans Lach, whose novel has been contemptuously dismissed in Ehrl-König's television programme, The Glass Circus. The reference is clearly to Reich-Ranicki's popular Literarisches Quartett, which ran for almost two decades before closing last year. This turns Walser's book into an intriguing roman à clef. It is also a harsh satire on the media industry in the age of television. What the book is not is anti-Semitic. Indeed, it is unclear whether Walser's fictive critic is in fact Jewish, though Walser introduces the possibility, perhaps out of a desire to provoke.

The story is narrated by Lach's friend, Michael Landolf, who is determined to prove Lach's innocence. He sets out to interview all the witnesses to the fracas between Lach and Ehrl-König which occurred at the publisher's party following the television programme. Lach is reported to have shouted: “Ab heute nacht Null Uhr wird zurückgeschlagen”, an echo of Hitler's declaration of war against Poland. It is this phrase that has disturbed some commentators. In a final twist, Ehrl-König reappears on the scene. Far from being the victim of Lach's revenge, he has spent the past few days in the arms of a young female admirer. Equally melodramatically, Landolf turns out to be no other than Lach himself. In a comic valediction, the great critic—who apparently has dual nationality—is knighted by the Queen for services to literature, in particular the detective story.

English and American readers whose notion of satire is derived from Swift, or even from Evelyn Waugh, will find Walser's handling of the genre thin gruel. For the weakness of the book lies in its uncertain form: part satirical realism, part detective story, and part comedy of manners. There are some well-observed moments, especially the description of Ehrl-König's self-promoting television show, and the portrait of the critic is at times savage. The critique of a man who turns his aesthetic yardstick of personal entertainment into a moral position certainly strikes home. But far from being tasteless—a charge commonly levelled at Walser's text—this area of the novel is not tasteless enough. A tasteful satire is a contradiction in terms. One of the misreadings by Frank Schirrmacher relates to Walser's having his protagonist imitate Ehrl-König's idiosyncratic speech patterns. However, what Schirrmacher sees as a form of stylized Yiddish—and thus, in his view, clear proof of Walser's anti-Semitism—are the characteristic features of a Polish accent. Since the Ehrl-König family originally came from Lorraine, the criticism would be better aimed at such inconsistencies.

It is important to recognize the fictive nature of Walser's text. Although an attack on Reich-Ranicki is certainly intended and, many writers who have suffered his often intemperate criticism might argue, well-deserved, Walser's monster is not translated directly to the page, but is refracted through the persona of Lach/Landolf. The portrait—for all its occasionally disgusting features—contains no sense of menace. Rather Ehrl-König is presented as a pompous, vain man, a figure who commands a mixture of loathing and reluctant admiration. In contrast, the writers who suffer his vicious castigations do not appear as heroic victims; they are resentful wimps whose impotent anger is expressed through a haze of alcohol.

The extraordinary controversy surrounding Tod eines Kritikers demonstrates a considerable parochialism in the German literary scene. Too many of its denizens appear to be obsessed with what they see as the scandalous demonstration of anti-Semitism to read the text without prejudice. If they did so, they would recognize that the novel's weaknesses do not lie in the savaging of identifiable personalities or the author's private animosities. For the book does not have the narrative drive to go beyond the immediate attack on media practices. The unconvincing device of an alter ego first-person narrator narrows the viewpoint and leads the novelist into descriptive longueurs in reported speech. What might have been a work of refreshing mockery remains a misjudged narrative that can only excite the emotions of those who take themselves too seriously.

Rita Terras (review date April-June 2003)

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SOURCE: Terras, Rita. Review of Tod eines Kritikers, by Martin Walser. World Literature Today 77, no. 1 (April-June 2003): 132.

[In the following review, Terras criticizes Walser's attempt to construct a coherent mystery in Tod eines Kritikers, calling the novel “a bad book by what used to be a good writer.”]

The relation between writers and literary critics was hardly ever simple and cordial. But never has literary criticism been so much the stronger party and virtually in control of the writer and his work as in recent years. In the Soviet Union, literary critics were in control of the very process of writing, and their power extended even to published works, whose texts were adapted according to the official demands of the day. In free societies, the law of the market plays a similar role. Television advertising and criticism make or break authors and works, steering literature in a direction that has little to do with an author's honest intent. In Martin Walser's novel Tod eines Kritikers, the critic Andre Ehrl-König has developed a virtual stranglehold on German literature. In his highly popular television show called Sprechstunde (“Office hour” [literally “talking hour”]), Ehrl-König arbitrarily destroys some worthy German writers for the sake of getting applause or laughter from his audience. He is far more generous when bringing up an American writer such as Philip Roth. Ample demonstrations of Ehrl-König's performances are the best part of Walser's attempt at satire. They are part imitation and part travesty of Marcel Reich-Ranicki, a leading German critic, in action. Walser works very hard at insisting on the identity of his critic and Reich-Ranicki. They have similar speech habits, and resemble each other in build, facial features, and gesturing. Also, König and Reich form a compound, Königreich, “kingdom.” Ehrl-König is readily recognized as “Erlkönig,” Goethe's famous ballad, suggesting that the Jewish critic (Ehrl-König is Jewish, like Reich-Ranicki) is trying to pretend to be a natural part of German literature.

All the rest about the novel is well worth the judgment that Ehrl-König has for his alleged murderer: a bad book by what used to be a good writer. It fails as a detective novel. A lengthy section entitled “Involvement” gives us no clue as to what has happened. The second section, “Admission,” has several unlikely characters admit to having murdered the critic, until he finally appears unscathed, his lengthy absence poorly motivated. Thus, we have a travesty of a detective novel. This hardly fits in with the bookish philosophical manner of the narrator, presented as a historian specializing in mysticism, the Cabala, alchemy, and Rosicrucianism.

Theodore Ziolkowski (review date April-June 2003)

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SOURCE: Ziolkowski, Theodore. Review of Aus dem Wortschatz unserer Kämpfe: Prosa, Aufsätze, Gedichte, by Martin Walser. World Literature Today 77, no. 1 (April-June 2003): 134.

[In the following review, Ziolkowski compliments the variety of the prose pieces collected in Aus dem Wortschatz unserer Kämpfe: Prosa, Aufsätze, Gedichte.]

In a career spanning almost fifty years, Martin Walser has never been less than provocative and controversial, whether he was questioning the social values of the early Wirtschaftswunder or challenging the recent “ritualization” of Auschwitz and its use as a “moral cudgel.” In honor of his seventy-fifth birthday his publisher has issued a representative collection of his writings [Aus dem Wortschatz unserer Kämpfe: Prosa, Aufsätze, Gedichte] covering the entire oeuvre (apart from the major novels) of this literary gadfly.

The volume consists of five clusters of prose separated by small groups of verse. Following three autobiographical poems, the book opens with eight pieces of mostly early fiction, beginning with the Kafkaesque title story of Walser's first publication, Ein Flugzeug über dem Haus. After more poems, the prose continues with seven scenes “Aus dem Wortschatz unserer Kämpfe,” a virtuoso linguistic showpiece of monologic responses to such topics as “Struggle with a superior who doesn't listen,” “Witness for the prosecution,” “Questions,” and “Answers.”

Another section of very brief verses introduces eight essays on literary topics: on Walser's early encounter with Hölderlin, whose poems (notably “Heimkunft”) provided the teenager with a “Baedeker” to explore his native countryside around Lake Constance; and with that other Swabian, Schiller, who belongs to the “timeplace-mix that is called home”; on Heine's Jewish identity and human qualities; on responses to Brecht before and after the building of the Wall (in verse); on Büchner's Lenz and Goethe's Wilhelm Meister (both parts); on Goethe as a national “accessory” whose quotations for every occasion attest to his own freedom; and on “classics,” which Walser defines simply and practically as “books that the most people need for the longest time.”

More verse precedes four political essays, including the controversial speech that Walser delivered in 1998 when he received the Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels. Walser's remarks on Auschwitz or on Germany as a “nation” predictably aroused the ire of critics on the left as well as the right. Following a few “Kalenderverse,” the anthology concludes with five essays that amount to personal confessions of belief (on shyness, on religion, on writing as monologue) and of his ultimate faith in language, which provides meaning in an otherwise meaningless world. The last and longest piece is a remarkable recent (2001) appreciation of the correspondence between Rudolf Borcherdt and Rudolf Alexander Schroder, which Walser characterizes as an exciting novel between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza and from which Borcherdt clearly emerges as the hero, whose “linguistic energy,” “intellectual brilliance,” and “existential intensity” are well-nigh unfathomable.

Aus dem Wortschatz unserer Kämpfe constitutes a precise portrait in miniature of a writer whom we have come to know through his novels as one of great moral independence whose sole engagement is to his own principles—which are shaped by the literary tradition in which he has lived (and notably from his “favorite decade,” 1790-1800)—and to language. Indeed, it is through the struggle with language that Martin Walser becomes aware of the truths he seeks.

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Walser, Martin (Vol. 27)