Peter Weiss, Again

This morning Michael Orthofer posted a link to an article in the FAZ about the history of a self-portrait by Peter Weiss, and bemoaned the relative obscurity into which Weiss had fallen. These things are hard to quantify, but it is true, at least anecdotally, that one hears less about his theater than, say, twenty years ago; and translations of his prose into European languages seem never to have appeared in sufficient frequency or abundance to establish him as a novelist worthy of canonical status. Much of his work remains unavailable to those who don’t read German, the majority of what is translated is now out of print, and his current publishers are mostly small outfits specializing in leftist literature, theater, or (in the case of the French translation of Aesthetics of Resistance) sociology and cultural criticism.

This is unfortunate for many reasons, among them the degree to which Weiss anticipated, in his novels, many stylistic innovations that have now become common currency (the question of Weiss’s influence, particularly outside of German-speaking countries, is not one I am knowledgeable enough to address). To my mind, Weiss’s early narratives represent a sort of fictional equivalent of the phenomenological investigations of memory, embodiment, and selfhood carried out by those imminently humane and attentive thinkers, Merleau-Ponty and Paul Ricoeur. Weiss’s early fiction practices a sustained, deliberate observation of what Antonio Damasio has called “the feeling of what happens,” and produced a novel type of autobiographical writing as distant as possible from the grand European tradition that extends from Chateaubriand and Rousseau through Dichtung und Wahrheit to Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Words. The result produces a kind of dislocation similar to Robbe-Grillet’s better-known works; but the humane seriousness of Weiss’s writing prevents it from lapsing into the gimmickiness that exasperates me in Robbe-Grillet.

Did the twentieth century produce a more radical novel than the Aesthetics of Resistance? This kind of question is always absurd: who has read enough to answer? Especially when, as Tim Parks suggests in several recent essays, the presumptions on which the occidental canon was founded are irreparably damaged, and any intelligent person must admit that not all values are transmissible through translation and indeed, that an aptitude for translation may necessarily imply a degree of departure from what is essential in a book’s original culture (a favorite example of mine is Los ilusos by Rafael Azcona, a beautiful, moving little book that would hold no charm whatsoever for a reader unacquainted with Madrid, with the tribulations of the postwar years, with a kind of partly gallant, partly childish eroticism peculiar to a certain generation of Spanish men, or with a particularly Castilian brand of literary mediocrity). But if one thinks of the big names, of Hunger, Ulysses, The Waves, The Death of Virgil, and so on –– it seems to me that, for all their singularity, they remain concerned with the traditional problems of storytelling and Weiss’s novel is the first I know of to point toward a kind of novel in which the primacy of narrative is cast aside and the possibility of doing something completely different arises.

That Weiss chose to frame his novel around the preoccupations of left-wing politics undoubtedly prejudiced its reception. The argument for the exclusion of politics from literature has never been rigorous, but the sloganeering readers, critics, and teachers who propound it have also never been inclined to thinking deeply. Perhaps, as his political concerns come further toward the forefront, Weiss’s openly partisan, openly accusatory approach will be vindicated; but the fact that the most indisputable tenets of Marxism remain in ill odor even now, when technocracy is dismantling Europe’s social democracies and the American right and center are bent on rolling back the Great Society, gives little hope. It must be stressed though that Aesthetics of Resistance remains a work of art, and has little in common with the ham-handed morality tales of socialist realism in its vulgar permutations.