First published in West Germany in 1955 as Spätestens im November, Hans Erich Nossack’s Wait for November has recently been translated for the English-speaking world by Ruth Hein. A compelling, thought-provoking novel, Wait for November at first appears to be simply a dark love story, a tale of adulterous passion. A closer look, however, reveals a dreamy, almost surrealistic look at another world. In short, the protagonist experiences two worlds, one known and one unknown, and the latter permanently alters her perception of the former.
Nossack develops the simplest of plots in this story, thereby directing attention toward the characters’ thoughts and the central theme. Covering about six month’s time, the novel is divided into three parts, each developing a different stage in the relationship between Berthold Möncken and Marianne Helldegen.
The style of Wait for November is most striking. Its vague but hauntingly perceptive manner is amplified by the use of stream-of-consciousness narration: the reader views the entire story through the eyes and mind of Marianne Helldegen, who—one learns at the end of the story—is dead. In telling the story, she erratically shifts from the present, when she is dead, to the past, even relating episodes from her life before Berthold entered it; yet it is never difficult to follow her narrative or understand her perceptions. Compatible with this narrative technique is Nossack’s surrealistic style. When Marianne and Berthold meet for the first time at the reception given in his honor and later, on the night of his play’s premiere, the images are disorderly, indefinite, and out of sequence, like those in a dream. The lovers lose awareness of everything around them—people, objects, noises, time—and can see only each other’s faces, yet they do not speak or touch. At the reception, as Berthold walks slowly toward Marianne, everything grows dark around him: “the only light was a pale glow along the line where he moved closer.” As she is drawn toward him, everything behind her submerges: “just as the table sank behind me when I left it, everything else around us now wavered and floated like tatters of fog, barely brushing us; only where we stood was there firm ground.” This technique is also obvious in Marianne’s description of the hours before Berthold returns to reclaim her after the premiere. As she is waiting and going through the motions of dressing, eating, and reading a playbill from the theater, absorbed in thoughts of Berthold, she loses all track of time and people around her until the clock strikes or the telephone rings. The automobile accident at the end of the novel is also dreamlike. Marianne describes it as a floating, painless sensation: “Then the car began to fly. . . . We were floating. How light we were! Light as feathers. We were wafted over to the pillar of the railroad bridge. . . . I clung to Berthold’s hand. . . . We did not want to be separated again. . . . Then we were blown to quite another place. It did not hurt.”
Nossack’s characterizations are as intriguing as his style, primarily because they reveal such striking contrasts. Max Helldegen, president of a large West German manufacturing firm, Helldegen and Co., represents the world of business, wealth, ambition, and practicality. He is punctual and organized and demands that his house be in order, for he cannot be bothered with petty disturbances at home. He is also highly predictable, always asking the same questions and going through the same motions when he enters and exits his front door. Unscrupulous and pretentious, Max forced his father to sign over controlling power of the company to him but insists on the pretense of treating his father as head of the firm in order to save the reputation of the company. Successful in all of his business ventures, he thus has money to obtain any material possession he desires. He is always concerned about his reputation and insists that Marianne must learn to pay more attention to others because they may be of use to Max some day. He likes to hear himself talk because he impresses people by saying what they want to hear. Above all, Max is an unfeeling, always rational person who refuses to let his emotions distract him from his work. He refers to the initial separation from his wife as an “annoying matter,” and when he learns of Marianne’s death, he immediately issues a cold, factual press release, never mentioning Berthold’s concurrent death and never showing a sign of sadness.
In contrast to Max, Berthold represents the less-materialistic world of creativity, sincerity, and passion. When he and Marianne are in Ludwigshof away from his writing and the real world, he is young, friendly, impulsive, and loving. When, however, he returns to his writing, he is sullen, taciturn, and evasive. He calls himself an “outsider”—one who does...
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