Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

All Martin Walser’s works are centered on his native region (approximately the triangle between Stuttgart, Zurich, and Munich). Several prose cycles are especially noteworthy: for example, the trilogy featuring Anselm Kristlein as the main character or the two works depicting Helmut Halm. Yet another cycle traces several male members of an extended family as they embark on their respective mid-life crises: Gottlieb Zürn in The Swan Villa, Xavier Zürn in Seelenarbeit (1979; The Inner Man, 1984), and Franz Horn in Jenseits der Liebe (1976; Beyond All Love, 1982) and Brief an Lord Liszt (1982; Letter to Lord Liszt, 1985). In this cycle, Walser portrays the saga of three men: by outward appearances, the male representatives of a successful, extended family in a modern, industrial nation.

All the main characters listed above must be considered passive “heroes”; they are too insecure to be men of action. Often, an external stimulus creates a seemingly insurmountable obstacle for the main character, or an unexpected opportunity encourages him to fulfill a lifelong dream. Regardless of the situation, a typical reaction is one of faltering indecision or even paralysis, rather than a confident, aggressive approach to resolve a problem or to attain a goal.

Walser’s fiction has grown increasingly popular and has gained critical acclaim as well. Together with Gunter Grass, he is perhaps one of the two most widely known contemporary German writers, especially for his accurate depictions of modern life and its attendant problems. His subtle craftsmanship and seemingly informal narrative style have created an enviable reputation since the mid-1970’s.