Martin Walser Walser, Martin (Vol. 27) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Martin Walser 1927–

West German novelist, dramatist, essayist, and short story writer.

Although Walser has not achieved significant international recognition, in Germany his literary stature is considerable. In 1981 he received the Georg-Büchner prize—a prize awarded to authors who have made meaningful contributions to the contemporary culture of Germany.

Walser's early plays, notably Eiche und Angora (1962; The Rabbit Race), and novels show his concern with the post-World War II German society. He is highly critical of the German tendency to forget the past, and of the effect the postwar "economic miracle" is having on contemporary life.

His more recent works, including Ein fliehendes pferd (1978; Runaway Horse) and Das Schwanenhaus (1980; The Swan Villa), while still retaining critical commentary on German society, have expanded in thematic content to include Walser's growing preoccupation with the difficulty of differentiating between truth and fiction, memory and reality, and language and experience.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 57-60 and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 8.)

T. C. Worsley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

German writer Martin Walser, takes a sharply satirical view of the mentality of his people [in his play "The Rabbit Race"].

The first half is a pretty broad swipe at the home-front Nazis as the war ends in 1945. Their chief anxiety is to find a formula by which they can save both their own town and their own skins from the advance of the Allies.

However, in the second half the town's simpleton emerges as the chief figure of the play. His Communism had earned him a spell in a concentration camp under the Nazis and there he had been both indoctrinated with the party philosophy, and unmanned in a medical experiment, for which he had volunteered.

Now that peace reigns in 1950 and the Nazis have returned to civilian life, this simpleton had become the town's pet….

But the town pet suddenly becomes the town pest when, at a local ceremony celebrating the peaceful spirit of the new Germany, he makes the unpardonable gaffe of spouting Nazi philosophies and praising the Führer. He is hustled off hastily to the asylum.

It takes the psychiatrists 10 years to undoctrinate him. By the time he comes out it is 1960 and the wretched creature fails to fit in once again, for now it is he who is talking pacifism while the rest of his country is busy rearming. And it's the asylum again for him.

T. C. Worsley, "Satire on Germans Given at Edinburgh," in The New York Times (© 1963 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 23, 1963, p. 39.

Clifford Hanley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In The Rabbit Race Martin Walser has constructed a pageant of German hypocrisy during and after the Nazi era. (p. 231)

Mr. Walser … has something strong and genuine to say; he … might say it with more force in fewer words. It does occur to me that the heavy hammer-blows in which the Message is battered home may be a matter of national rhythm, and that this play, designed to rend the complacency of German audiences, might well have needed its grim ponderous pace in that context. But to a British audience—or any non-German audience—which takes so much of that particular Message for granted (we too are complacent in this) the lesson hardly needs so many verses. (p. 232)

Clifford Hanley, "Big Deals," in The Spectator (© 1963 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 211, No. 7052, August 23, 1963, pp. 231-32.∗

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In his earlier novels, short stories and plays Herr Martin Walser was preoccupied with social criticism, though the vehemence of that criticism sometimes suggested that his real quarrel was not so much with the west Germany of the Wirtschaftswunder, or indeed with any specific social and economic set-up, as with the depravity and conformism of anybody, anywhere, who was prepared to play the power game. His novels Ehen in Philippsburg [Marriage in Philippsburg] (1957) and Halbzeit [Half Time] (1960) were powerful and brilliant in parts, but they were less satisfactory as works of art than some of the short stories in his first book, Ein Flugzeug über dem Haus [1955].

In many respects Herr Walser's new novel [Das Einhorn (The Unicorn)] is even more ambitious than its two predecessors. The hero and narrator, Anselm Kristlein, has been taken over from Halbzeit, just as Beumann has been taken over from Ehen in Philippsburg; but the main emphasis has been shifted from social satire to a number of themes that are closer to Herr Walser's dominant concerns….

The analysis of love, of different varieties of love, is only one of the themes that hold this book together. The unicorn of the title is symbolic not only of the erotically questing male, but also of the outsider—among other things. Kristlein's exploration of love is organically related to his social status and his...

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Rudolf Walter Leonhardt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

After the tightly constructed Ehen in Philippsburg and the amorphous, arbitrary Halbzeit, Das Einhorn comes as a happy combination of freedom and self-control. (p. 54)

Walser's "Unicorn" can be seen as a challenge to the Proustian attempt to regain the past through recollection: a dismal way to have again what was lost, Anselm Kristlein, the hero, muses in mockery of himself. Memory is the electricity of the brain, it is accidental, it is—nothing.

Anselm Kristlein, whom some readers will remember as the traveling salesman of "Half-Time," is lying in bed and remembering. This is what the book is about. What happens then—and a great deal does happen—must always be referred back to Anselm Kristlein in bed: a bedtime story, if you like….

The story originates from the commission by a Swiss lady publisher to aspiring-writer Kristlein to delineate precisely the act of love, and so rescue love from the clutches of the sexologists. His assignment is to depict love as it really is, without, however, losing its special quality. The lady believes in this special quality; Kristlein does not.

So Anselm begins—with his memories…. And although we learn a great deal about life in high society, about panel shows, about new impediments to writing the truth—love has not appeared…. (pp. 54-5)

Then an event occurs which shatters the comfortable, ironic pose of the intellectual, and so destroys...

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Donald F. Nelson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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…. 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, and his failure to present anything like a constructive alternative to the hypercritical and devastating picture he paints of postwar German society. 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….

[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 observations are restricted to two prose works: Die Ehen in Philippsburg and Halbzeit. 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. (p. 204)

The breakdown of genuine communication in society involves a crisis of language. In his attitude toward language Walser is an adamant realist…. All of his attacks on contemporary language stem from the conviction that language has degenerated into a vast repertoire of formulas…. In short, language no longer corresponds to reality or to truth. This iconoclastic attitude toward conventional language occasionally finds expression bordering on nihilism. (p. 205)

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…. [The novel] 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. (pp. 205-06)

It is not...

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Gertrud Bauer Pickar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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. 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. This work contains tentative...

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Diether H. Haenicke

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Martin Walser's … novels mirror German society of the fifties and early sixties. Marriage in Philippsburg (1957) is a conventionally narrated novel depicting the social climb of a young man into the "high society" of a small German city. Half Time (1960) and The Unicorn (1966) are more cutting in their critique of the conditions in prosperous postwar Germany. In style essentially more complicated, they show Walser's obvious effort to pattern his hero, at least to some extent, after himself. Both novels have the same protagonist, Anselm Kristlein, who in Half Time, thanks to his gift of articulation, reaches the position of public relations manager for a large concern and obtains entry into the upper echelon of society. Here Walser especially attacks verbal clichés, as well as the hollowness of the roles most people play. In Unicorn Kristlein has become a writer commissioned by a woman publisher to write a work of non-fiction on love. Walser's critique of social conditions continues in this novel and focuses, in the form of a parody, on the bureaucratic aspects of literary life. He describes the futile attempt to write a factual book about love. Walser's novels tend to be structurally somewhat weak; his great literary talent is to be found in the realm of detailed description. (p. 393)

Diether H. Haenicke, "Literature Since 1933," in The Challenge of German Literature, edited by Horst S. Daemmrich and Diether H. Haenicke (reprinted by permission of the Wayne State University Press; © 1971 by Wayne State University Press), Wayne State University Press, 1971, pp. 350-404.∗

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Josef Georg Gallistl [the protagonist of Die Gallistl'sche Krankheit] will doubtless attain a certain fame as the literary representation of the runner doomed to bring up the tail in the West German rat-race. His account of his "disease" is a triumph for Martin Walser's gifts as a humorist: a very amusing, rather sad book about the competitiveness that has run wild in West German society since 1945, and the opposing urge to transcend it and get together, which has had all too little opportunity of expressing itself in the conditions of the Federal Republic.

G. is the seventh and least member of a group of friends living in Wiesbaden. His professional character remains uncertain to the last;...

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The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Der Sturz is the third novel in a trilogy centred on the figure of Anselm Kristlein. It is full of allusions to the earlier Halbzeit and to a lesser extent, Das Einhorn; and both characters and events are very like those of the previous novels. The big difference is that Der Sturz is pervaded by a strong odour of decay and putrefaction….

In many respects, this novel is complementary to Halbzeit. There, Kristlein was a climber struggling to reach the pinnacle of fashionable society, here he is seen slithering down the same social slope he had previously ascended. The important thing is to know whether, as Walser claims, Kristlein's fate can be blamed on the social...

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G. B. Pickar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The dramas and radio plays of Martin Walser range in nature from the epic Eiche und Angora to the conversational Zimmerschlacht…. Though they differ in the degree of political commitment and social criticism they embody and display striking diversity in subject, format and mood, they frequently share a common feature: the use of symbols as a structural element. In each case, the symbols are thoroughly integrated into the thematic framework of the drama and provide a supporting structure for its presentation.

Key images are frequently indicated by the title, as Walser's drama Eiche und Angora illustrates. In this drama, the words 'Eiche' and 'Angora' refer to concrete elements...

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Stuart Parkes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The dramatist who has possibly been most aware of the legacy of Brecht is Martin Walser—at least in his early plays. Parallel with these plays, he evolved a theory of the theatre, which was a clear response to Brecht. Whilst respecting Brecht's achievement, he no longer considered Brecht's methods as suitable for portraying the changed social and political situation, pointing out, for instance, that Mother Courage would probably not offend most armaments manufacturers. Walser formulated what he called 'Realismus X', a realism that would avoid Brechtian parables without just being a reproduction of external reality. A mixture of symbolism and realism would reveal what lay hidden beneath the surface of reality....

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Ulf Zimmermann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The case of Franz Horn and the chronically clenched teeth that are its symptom result, as Walser demonstrates in this bestselling novel [Jenseits der Liebe], from a compounding of pressures: the pressure to succeed in the economic-miracle society (familiar from his Kristlein trilogy) and the psychological pressures—the sense of self-doubt, inferiority and guilt—of failing within that society.

Horn, an average man of forty-four, has spent seventeen years working, suppressing everything else for the success of a denture company. But recently his usefulness to the firm has begun to decline…. Yet even as he now willfully neglects his business obligations, he acquiesces—with almost...

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Gerald A. Fetz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Martin Walser, like many in his generation of German writers, concerned himself in his early works primarily with the problem of confronting and attempting to come to terms with the immediate German past. By confronting his readers with that unpleasant and unfortunate past, he attempted to cure the sudden case of amnesia which was an all too common reaction among Germans to that past. In all of his subsequent works as well one finds Walser to be a writer with a keen sense for society's—particularly West Germany's—illusions, problems, weaknesses and injustices. His main characters are rarely granted a great deal of sympathy, and he is especially critical of those who abuse power and of those who are either so blind...

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K. S. Parkes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Martin Walser has often been accused by his detractors of writing novels without form and plays without plot. It is therefore surprising that he should now for the first time write a novella [Ein fliehendes Pferd], the genre which, as all students of German literature know, demands a single narrative marked by an extraordinary incident. The extraordinary incident is that the staid middle-aged schoolmaster Helmut Halm causes his old school and university friend Klaus Buch to fall from his yacht and apparently drown during a sailing trip on Lake Constance….

The story … contrasts two attitudes to middle age. Yet both men, like the horse of the title, are seeking to escape. Helmut is clearly...

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Ulf Zimmermann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The fleeing horse, the Boccaccian falcon of Walser's Novelle, is the expressive image for the frantic blind rush of escape in which the … two main characters [of Ein fliehendes Pferd] are caught up. Middle-aged when they meet again, the school acquaintances Helmut Halm and Klaus Buch have spent the years seeking to elude the constricting forces of contemporary society, though in entirely opposite ways. Halm has withdrawn into himself, building a fortress of fat, as he sees it, from within which he can anticipate the perfect inertia of death. Buch meanwhile has entered a high-speed race for life in his hyperactive pursuit of health and youth.

More or less enviously, each man admires...

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Noel L. Thomas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Perhaps all writers of German fiction should be compelled to write Novellen. Or perhaps only after a period of apprenticeship in the Novelle should German authors be allowed a sortie into the realm of the novel. Martin Walser seems to have got the procedure the wrong way round. After almost twenty years in the wilderness of the novel Martin Walser has at long last produced a Novelle of almost classical dimensions [Ein fliehendes Pferd]….

In the novel Das Einhorn … the unicorn runs away with the author, though in accordance with tradition it does find refuge in a number of ladies; in Ein fliehendes Pferd the author (or at least one of the characters)...

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C. D. Innes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like Dürrenmatt, Walser took Brecht's parables as his starting point, but instead of analysing social structures in general terms to convince an audience of the need for political action (Brecht) or to challenge them to imagine a more rational world (Dürrenmatt), his aim is to create a state of self-awareness through recognition. Reality is defined by perception, not by objective fact, and in his novels details of everyday life are presented through the protagonists' vision, existing only as components of a stream of consciousness. This worm's eye or key-hole perspective, accumulating minutae to portray the mentality of a representative figure—ironically named Kristlein, petty Christ, in Half Time...

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Ulf Zimmermann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Seelenarbeit" is the self-help the doctor prescribes for Xaver Zürn's stomach pains, which for lack of physical causes he must diagnose as psychosomatic. For Zürn's symptoms, much like Franz Horn's "lockjaw" in Jenseits der Liebe …, result from the pressures of conforming his self to the role precast for him by those Fates of the modern world, socioeconomic forces….

Though he has retained only the buildings of the old family farm, leaving his brother the land, Zürn is at bottom still a farmer, unhappy with any ties but those to the land. Yet now he finds himself perennially moving about, chauffeuring a rich industrialist and Mozart fanatic around the European economic community. (p....

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G. P. Butler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Runaway Horse ends as it began: in answer to Sabina's question "What really happened …?", Helmut starts to tell the tale we have just read. It is told very cleverly, a far richer, subtler, wittier story than any brief synopsis can hope to show. Its appeal derives not only from Walser's singular ability to state and suggest what people think and feel, not only from the memorably elusive character of "HH" and his particular predicament suddenly one summer, but also from the sadness it engenders. To be afforded "no enlightenment" makes a nice change; to be left to reflect on why the Halms and the Buchs have become who they are, and on what lies ahead of them, makes for melancholy—unless you can disown them...

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John Neves

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gone are the days when Martin Walser had fundamental doubts about West German society, and gingerly explored the claims of communism to offer a better life for the common man. So much is clear from his latest novel [Das Schwanenhaus], a humorous account of the professional and family tribulations of a reasonably well-to-do estate agent. In spite of the fact that his tribulations include the pregnancy of one of his unmarried daughters and an unnerving capacity for running up large debts, the sense of social stability and bourgeois good-living is such that the atmosphere of the book is a kind of late twentieth-century Biedermeier.

It is once again the story of a man barely able to cope with the...

(The entire section is 564 words.)

Inge Judd

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For several decades, German novelist Walser has formed his dark notions of contemporary German society into novels of quiet sarcasm…. [The Swan Villa] satirizes a group of real estate brokers in Southern Germany. The beautiful natural surroundings, the wealth, the worldly opportunities of all protagonists stand in contrast to a progressive deterioration of environment and soul…. In spite of a colorful story line and much emoting, none of the characters ever amounts to more than an array of desperate attitudes and uncoordinated hunches. The reader becomes informed and remains untouched.

Inge Judd, in a review of "The Swan Villa," in Library Journal (reprinted...

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Ernst Pawel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gottlieb Zürn, the hero of this brief but brilliant novel ["The Swan Villa"], is a product of the German economic miracle, a lawyer who switched to real estate and rode the postwar boom to moderate affluence. Having done his bit to help develop the once grassy slopes of Lake Constance into high-rise condominiums, now in midlife he feels depressingly underdeveloped himself, obsolete and disposable, a banal character trapped in a banal dilemma. All Martin Walser does, in limpid prose and with the sure touch of a compassionate surgeon, is to bare the man's heart and trace the pathways of his pain. But in the process he evokes a life in our time, distinct from any other and yet subject to the same laws of supply and...

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Marion Glastonbury

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Martin Walser's protagonist [in The Swan Villa] is an estate agent, and the eponymous Swan Villa an exquisite property on the shores of Lake Constance, admired in childhood and now up for sale. Which of the rival dealers will be favoured with an exclusive listing? Gottlieb is haunted by the beauty of the frescoes and stained glass, by the prospect of the commission, by the memory of his bankrupt parents, by the urge to impress clients, patrons and competitors, and by the wish to see his four wayward daughters safely provided for….

Harassed by conflicting impulses, he envies his wife's calm consistency of purpose and resents her with an intensity that is the obverse of gratitude, a measure of...

(The entire section is 191 words.)