It was not only the Germanist’s frenetic spoken English that startled me, but also his prominent jaw, angular and more solid than in the photo he had sent me, so I would know who he was when I stepped off the train. In fact he had not met me on the platform, where I stood reading Ilse Aichinger’s Schlechte wörter and finishing a beer which, when I set it down for a moment on top of an alarm box to turn a page, an indigent young man tried to take, but rather at the bottom of the flight of iron steps. As soon as I met eyes with him, he made an incomprehensible joke within earshot of a tall bald man in an artistic outfit who smiled shyly; perhaps we had been mistaken for one another, though the man in the artistic clothing was far taller than I, and of a slighter build. It had not been made clear whether we were to eat or merely drink, and so I was relieved, because I do not like to dine with strangers, when the Germanist said he was not yet hungry and we should have a beer first. We walked down Schlesische Straße, I with a blue handbag of synthetic leather and he shouldering a green nylon messenger bag of a brand I was familiar with, though I could not recollect its name, and an apparently heavy black bicycle. We entered a nearly empty bar presided over by a vampiric person of forbidding sternness and decorated with two images in wooden frames: over the bathroom door, the motto FUCK YOGA, and several feet to the right, a painting of a young, shirtless Elvis Presley genuflecting before an apparition of the Virgin Mary. The barman seemed to have found our presence presumptuous and busied himself idly for several minutes before approaching us, and then, rather than inquiring as to our order, he stared imperially into the empty space before his eyes. The Germanist ordered a draft beer of a kind I hadn’t heard of and I said I would have the same. The barman topped the beers off repeatedly before passing them to us, to no end other than prolonging our wait, an act in which he took no visible joy. When the drinks were presented us, we walked outside and took a table. Two days before, the Germanist had sent me a chapter of the first book he was composing in English, with the unnecessary proposal that I edit it for style. He was dismayed by his written English, which I thought quite good but which seemed not to attain to the dignity of his writings in his mother tongue. We talked a long while about a communist playwright and an Austrian novelist about whom he had written a number of books; the former’s writing I had given some attention to when I placed greater faith in communism (a doctrine that, though I have no hope in it whatsoever, nevertheless begins every day to hold greater sway over my thoughts); about the latter I knew nothing at all. He also recommended that I read two other writers: one named Kampofsky and the other Ulrich Pelzer. I had wanted to meet with the Germanist to talk about Sebald, whom he had known personally, and about Marianne Fritz, whose work he had discussed intelligently in an essay and in an entry in a biographical dictionary, but it was difficult to broach these subjects because he, like nearly everyone I know who is employed in universities, institutions that have become antithetical to serenity, seemed unendingly preoccupied with the cynical jockeying for position that seems to be the lone alternative to redundancy, to use the economists’ term. Eventually I asked how he came to know Frtiz’s work; through Sebald, of course, he said, of course. Sebald had referred to Fritz’s interminable masterpiece Naturgemäß in one of his poems, as I said unnecessarily, but he viewed her work with suspicion, the Germanist asserted, considering it a Monumentenbesessenheit, he said, or perhaps the primary element was Zwangvortstellung or Fixierung, and he marked out with hisflattened hands a block-shaped apparition. Like Flaubert, how do you say it in English, L’éducation sentimentale, The Sentimental Education, I said, us, he said, the desire to encompass…I think you mean Balzac, I said as he continued to speak, L’éducation humaine, La comédie humaine, he corrected me, and continued: we see, as a corollary of the industrial revolution, the novel becomes a market commodity and artists enter int this productive fever, as though competing with the kinds of output potentiated by the machine age. I referred to Adorno’s analysis of superstition in The Stars Down to Earth, according to which elementary causal mechanisms systems of a proto-religious character substitute for the critical analysis of the concrete mechanisms of repression, the complexity of which is increasingly impossible to understand; these grandiose Zeitgeist-narratives, from Balzac to Vollman, represent a last-ditch attempt to tame the superabundance of the determinants of social life under a single operative scheme. Now this is giving way, I said, and we see the prostration of novelists like Tao Lin, the morally etiolated voices of a post-bourgeoisie which neither steers nor is acutely threatened by the grinding-onward of global capitalism, or a narrowing of focus, which is also a dimming of expectations and a despair as to the analytical robustness and transformative power of art, leading to meticulous but enervated reconstructions of the Hilary Mantel variety or the radical egoism of Karl Ove Knausgård. I did not say, even if I believe it so, because I am familiar with the contempt bestowed by many workers in the Humanities on the application of Darwinian or psychoanalytic precepts to the analysis of art, that I believed art-making in general to be reducible in numerous cases to a monomaniacal demonstration of dominance over a given field of symbolic values that substitute for the more proper ends of life, as defined from an animal or hedonistic perspective.
I talked to her on the phone once, the Germanist said with reference to Marianne Fritz. I had seen her reading her work in Vienna. The were two Marianne Fritzes in the Vienna phonebook, I tried them both, they said no, this happens all the time. I was given her number by a friend of mine. I thought with my background, because I had a legitimate interest in her work… No. It didn’t matter.
I had friends in Vienna who said awful things about her. That they used to see her in the supermarket. In Vienna they have this thing, if you find a product out of date, not only do they give it to you for free, they also give you twenty euros or something like that. And they said you could see her in the supermarket doing this, going through all the yogurt containers.
In general I lack compunction about my nosiness, and am always trying to wheedle the most salacious details of a story from my friends and even from people I barely know, and find nothing so tiresome as when others protest that they find gossip distasteful and lament the alleged want of discretion that is said to be a pronounced aspect of our time. But I did feel dispirited and guilty upon hearing this malicious story, though I assume I am glad to have done so (it is naturally not often possible to say whether we are or are not happy that we know something), because it may, although this too is impossible to know, in some way contribute to my thinking about this astonishing writer of whose work I have only read one book in its entirety but whose efforts I consider, however self-destructive, to have been a singular work of genius.